Guest Interview: Weird West Writer Gemma Files

Gemma Files is the weird west author of A Book of Tongues, one of the novels included in the

gemma-files

Gemma Files

weird west StoryBundle which a reader can purchase at a very low price. I had the opportunity to interview Gemma recently and she was kind enough to allow me to post it on my blog. I hope you like it, and I hope her interview inspires you to check out the weird west collection from StoryBundle.com as well. Thanks!  –Mark

Mark: Hi, Gemma, thank you for the opportunity to interview you about your work. I’ve looked forward to this opportunity for a long time, so let’s get to it. As a writer how do you define the weird west genre? Why did you decide to set A Book of Tongues in this time frame?

Gemma: Hey, Mark, right back at you–I’ve been impressed by your work since I first ran across the initial short stories that would eventually give rise to Haxan online. Like most people my age (I think), I was first introduced to the weird west genre through Joe R. Lansdale and Jonah Hex, both on their own and in concert, though thinking back, I actually believe my first brush with it came through William S. Burroughs’ The Place of Dead Roads and Michael Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid. So for me, it’s definitely always been best defined as “Western with something extra,” whether that something is psionics, black magic, Mexica goddesses, zombies, alien technology, time travel or just a general sort of…spiritual weirdness, an Acid-soaked 1960s hangover, a Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole Of The Law deconstructive Southern Gothic ethos that translates from The Outlaw Josey WalesMcCabe & Mrs Miller and Heaven’s Gate on down to The Long Riders and Unforgiven, Deadwood and Carnivale. There’s also a whole lot of fire and brimstone folk-country/spookabilly rock ‘n’ roll in there, too: 16 Horsepower, Murder by Death, Leonard Cohen, Emmylou Harris, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. That’s the soundtrack that was hovering in the back of my mind as I was writing A Book of Tongues.
As for why I decided to set the book in that time-frame, well…my previous obsession had been Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, so I’d already done a fair bit of research about the 1860s. But at the moment I began writing, I’d just spent basically a year not writing much except fanfic for James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma. So that was the seed everything grew from: a Bible-quoting bad guy in black and the trigger-happy right hand man who was obviously in love with him, with liberal application of other stuff I liked: blood magic, evil dead gods, Pinkerton agents, towns cursed to salt, absinthe, incautious sex, train robbery, wholesale murder. All that.

ABookofTonguesM: A Book of Tongues has many cultural and historical references, some quite obscure or not well known. You kept the western and supernatural elements distinct when needed, or used both to great effect. How did you research this novel, and how did you decide what elements to keep, and what to leave aside?

G: I love history, and I love to know stuff other people don’t. One of my biggest influences was probably either a book called Poe Must Die by Marc Olden, which I got at a rummage sale when I was in my teens and is mainly set in Five Points, New York’s most notorious slum, or Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery, large sections of which are set in the area of London called Seven Dials, which makes an appearance in Hexslinger Series Book Three. Poe Must Die juxtaposes hierarchical black magic and necromancy with “normal” period-specific criminal violence and enterprise, while The Great Train Robbery is about how people’s emotional impulses–venal and otherwise, pre-planned or otherwise–can drive and derail even the most complicated plans. Both were really useful in terms of outlining A Book of Tongues. The other thing that helped was thinking about religion as another form of magic, both in terms of Reverend Rook’s Christianity and the Mayan-Mexica goddess Ixchel’s plans for humanity, especially since both are bridged by various characters’ talent for natural magic–“hexation.” But generally, I just kept the stuff I liked most and threw away the rest, the way I do with almost everything else.

M: A Book of Tongues is the first novel of a trilogy. When you were writing did you know this ahead of time and did it present any problems in structure?

G: I did not know this would be a trilogy, no.;) What happened was that I kept working from exactly the same outline I started with, then getting to 80,000 words out of a potential 100,000 (ChiZine Publications’ official cut-off point) and going: “Oh shit, time to tie it off and write another book.” I like to say it comes from having written screenplays; the three books are like three acts in a classic Syd Field-style Hollywood three-act structure, each sub-divided into three acts of their own.

M: I was wondering what is it about the weird west genre you like? Is there anything you don’t like, or would like to see improved?

G: Like I said above, I think the weird west has an amazing potential for deconstruction, particularly as it applies to some of those old established storytelling tropes which really deserve to be challenged. In a lot of ways, Westerns are a genre of stories America tells about itself to excuse its own actions–the destructive lies behind the idea of Manifest Destiny, for example, of the West as an “empty” frontier, which allow settlers to try to pretend that that emptiness wasn’t achieved by removing indigenous people from their tribal lands, herding them like buffalo, trying to exterminate them. Add in slavery on top of that, and sexual violence, and all the different types of awfulness people perpetrate against each other, and you see that this is a genre ripe for reinterpretation, for being busted down to its component parts and messed around with so different voices–voices other than those of the accepted default–can get a chance to tell stories which imagine themselves as heroes rather than background, or villains. Is it easier to do that when you splice Western DNA with something else, something that cracks the mold a bit? I don’t know. I do know that even in A Book of Tongues, though, I was trying to push those boundaries. I’ve been rightfully called out for not doing it as hard as I might have (the novel’s a pretty shameless bag of dicks, for one thing), but I do think I got a lot better at it by the time A Tree of Bones rolled around.

M: What are you working on now? Can we expect more stories or novels set in the weird west?

G: What I’m working on right now are two contemporary, stand-alone horror tales in the basic mode of Experimental Film, for which I recently won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel. However, who knows? When CZP asked me to write some supplemental novellas for their Hexslinger Omnibus ebook, which collects all three parts of the series, I had the opportunity to revisit this world and those characters in a way that was very satisfying–I wish more people had gotten to read those tales, because they really do form a nice little epilogue of sorts to the whole saga. Since then, however, I haven’t really done much more in the genre, aside from three fairly obscure short stories (“Some Kind of Light Shines From Your Face,” which I did for an anthology called Gutshot, “Black Bush,” which was in Arcane, and “Satan’s Jewel Crown,” for Dark Discoveries #26). I’d eventually like to do another series set in 1880, mainly focused around New York–characters from the Hexslinger series would turn up in those, definitely. I’m pretty sure I’m not done.
M: Finally, the most important question of the interview. What would you like to hear Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke say if you were suddenly transported to the Old West?
G: Okay, what would I like to hear Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke say if I were suddenly transported to the Old West…well, sad thing to admit, but I’ve never actually seen Gunsmoke. My personal vision of ridiculously cleaned-up Old West media acceptance of choice would probably be the so-called “Brat Pack” Western Young Guns (1988, dir. Christopher Cain), in which characters at least got to say a weird-ass version of “fuck” (“farg,” if I remember correctly). I’d like to be welcomed there by a thin, smirking Emilio Estevez and a vaguely poetic-looking Kiefer Sutherland.
M: Thank you, Gemma!
All Covers Large

Weird West Story Bundle

 

 

 

 

My Novel HAXAN Now Part of StoryBundle!

My weird west novel HAXAN has been included as part of a StoryBundle where wide frontiers, flintlocks, whiskey and revenge meet swords, airships, terraforming, magic, myths, and dragons. There are lots of great writers here working in all kinds of worlds filled with wonder, horror, magic, and the bloody violence of the Old West.

It’s $5 for the minimum, and $14 to get all the books! That includes Judith Tarr’s Dragons in the Earth and A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files, along with lots more incredible fiction depicting the weird (and weirder) west, including my groundbreaking novel, HAXAN. Plus, everyone who subscribes to the newsletter can get a free copy of NEW WORLD. Yay!

Please CLICK THIS LINK and you’ll be taken straight to StoryBundle’s main page where you can buy any book you want from the bundle, or all of them. Thanks for checking it out, and thank you for supporting me and the other writers of StoryBundle!

All Covers Large

The Weird Western Books of StoryBundle!

“Showdown at the Cliche Corral” Live at Sunnyhuckle Magazine

“Fiction writer Kenneth Mark Hoover discusses his love for the true Old American West in literature, not the one born of Hollywood clichés, but the historically rich and fascinating one that is so often forgotten.”  –Sunnyhuckle

Mark here. My latest article “Showdown at the Cliché Corral” is featured on Sunnyhuckle Magazine. Once again I take Hollywood, cliches, myths, and western writers who should know better to the woodshed.

As you might expect I take no prisoners. Click below and enjoy the smell of burning gunpowder in the morning!

“SHOWDOWN at the CLICHE CORRAL”

Changing the Western (for the better)

While I was attending SoonerCon a week or so ago a writer friend relayed a conversation she had with a family member.Hoover-8

She said the uncle stated he liked to watch westerns because “they were real.”

She proceeded to tell him, No, they were not real, but only Hollywood’s version of the Old West.  What he saw on television and movies was not in any sense “history” or “reality” of what the Old West was truly like.  He was being sold a bill of goods. Period.

I work in the western genre. Not exclusively, but I toil there quite a bit as readers of this blog know. I’ve seen this before. I know mythology and cliche has been elevated to historical status in some areas. Frankly, I find this depressing, because if this is all we have, if things don’t change, then this genre will never change.

And it needs to change.

The idea of the iconic western is an extremely powerful story telling tool. I use it all the time. It’s also the whole frontier mentality that makes much of science fiction accessible to readers and fans alike. But westerns are earth-bound. We can readily identify with that. Hell, even Star Wars was a western, and Star Trek often used western elements.

They are used because they are powerful.

Here’s what I would like to see. I’d like to see a western novel where there were no guns. Historically, most people never owned, carried, or used one. That’s historical fact. I’d like to see stories about that.

I’d also like to see more stories from, and about, women and POC. Because, you know, they actually existed back then.

It’s easy to slipstream behind Hollywood tropes. Cliches are the easy way out. Example: the iconic gun fight a la High Noon.

I agree this all makes for great television. But that’s not how they fought. Gunfighters did not meet each other on the street. They shot each other in the back and through windows. It was gang warfare. No one in their right mind would stand with a gun 15-feet away from another man with a gun in an open street. These weren’t dueling Knights of Old, which is where this myth was appropriated.

I remember visiting the Flats near Fort Griffin while doing research for Quaternity. I came across a first person account of a town sheriff or marshal who jailed a man and then shot him through the bars and killed him because “he was too mean.”

Now I want you to stop and think about that a bit and then get back to me.

To be sure, not every man and woman behaved like this, and it would be ridiculous to assume otherwise. But they weren’t Knights from the Round Table, either. They just were not.

There are three gunfights in my novel Haxan. None of them go according to Hoyle because it NEVER happened the way Hollywood sold it.

I’m also getting a little worn out with the romantic notions that permeate too much of what I see. Men and women of all races, all religions, all creeds, struggled every day to survive in the Old West. Just like they do today.

There’s nothing romantic about that.

Mythology is not history. Cliches are not a foundation to build on. Well, I mean, you can, if you want. If we write the same stories over and over, and don’t push the envelope, this genre will not evolve. It won’t die. As I said up at the top the idea of the western is too atavistic for that to happen.

The western will never die. That’s a good thing, in my opinion because it’s an interesting setting in which to tell stories about people.

But maybe it’s time to step away from the romantic ideals of an age that never existed, either, and write something different. There are many western writers right now doing exactly that. Their voices are few.

I’d like to see more.

I’m attending the Texas Library Association for CZP Haxan promos!

Wow, this was unexpected but great news. I will be attending the Texas Library Association conference in San Antonio on April 8 and doing Haxan promos for CZP. I will be at the Diamond Book Distributors booth, probably handing out Haxan postcards or something and talking to people.

CZP is also thinking if they download Haxan from NetGalley to read and review it, we can also send them the 1st three chapters of a future novel. Something like that to give them an incentive, maybe. Details are still being worked out but count me on board for this project.

The TLA is a pretty big deal. It influences what other state libraries buy. We are also hoping since I am a local author the librarians will order lots of copies of this violent, dark fantasy western.

I’m looking forward to this trip. I’m excited about the prospect of representing CZP at this conference and I want to do a good job for them.

Just as a quick aside, there is an existing link for the Haxan Kindle edition. The Haxan paperback can be ordered here.

The novel is coming out in May, 2014.

Here are some longhorns to get you in the mood:

Longhorn cattle drive, Stockyards, Fort Worth, TX

Longhorn cattle drive, Stockyards, Fort Worth, TX

My Elevator Pitch for the New Haxan Novel “Quaternity” and Other Philosophical Arguments on Recursive Genre

*Press elevator stop button. Cage jerks to a halt.*

“I can sum the novel up pretty fast. Jorge Luis Borges said man will one day resign himself to new abominations, and that soon only bandits and soldiers will be left. Which is why I’m going to beat the living shit out of you right now.”

*   *   *

Thus, Quaternity.

But this crazy scenario does represent in a stark and frightening way what the novel is all about: the ever-present actuality of man’s violent nature and its necessary place in history. A nature, the book argues, which will never be ameliorated by man himself because it is not in man’s interest to do so, nor is it his fundamental nature to be able to do so, outliers like Gandhi, MLK, and the Prophet Jesus laid aside.

As I remarked before in this blog, Quaternity is unlike anything I have ever written before. I set the bar very high for this novel not only on a literary level but thematically. Of course I don’t go into these arguments within the novel’s context or as story. It would make the damn thing nigh unreadable and pretentious beyond human reason. And, quite frankly, we have enough epidemically overrated books in our midst to last us through the remainder of the decade, and quite possibly the century.

But if I were to say these elements were not present in the story I would also be lying, and I’m not going to do that. They are there if you want to find them. If not, they won’t impact the rest of the novel one bit.

Whether I reached the mark I aimed for remains for readers to decide. If it ever gets published, and if there ever are readers.

I don’t pull any punches in this novel. I am loyal to the historical record. This is who these ruthless people were, and not the sanitized and whitewashed (in all respects of that word) romantic history we have been spoon fed by John Ford and Owen Wister and others.*

I have said before I wanted this novel to stand as an anti-western. But now that I have distance from the story I think I can more specifically say,

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

and with justification, it’s an anti-mythology western.

Not that I am dinging on westerns in particular. Like all other recursive literary genres westerns incorporate semiotic elements which make them immediately recognizable to the reading public. Science fiction has a long and storied history in this regard. This isn’t debilitative to a genre if it’s handled correctly, and if a writer has a natural respect for a genre’s history and its canonical themes and the foundations that were laid down  by other writers. Even science fiction, which by all accounts is at heart a subversive genre, adheres to some of these principles today, at least from time to time. Although, I guess we have to accept that many of them were lost during the New Wave Movement in SF. A movement that was necessary because SF themes had become so incestuous and moribund there had to be a spurt of literary growth or the entire genre would collapse into smoking slag.

But the old themes and cliches were never really lost to us, even though they had been put aside by writers with dangerous visions like Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Joanna Russ, and John Brunner. Later, they were rediscovered, revived, and thrust again into public consciousness via the Star Wars trilogies.

Again, it doesn’t dilute the field if handled with respect. Which, to be fair, most writers do. I may not hold George Lucas’s writing talent in the highest regard, but I do recognize the fact he had a deep love and respect for science fiction’s past, hoary cliches and all.

I simply maintain there are other writers too lazy or too inept to see the difference which half an hour of homework and research would correct. Google exists today for a reason. But so did Encyclopedia Britannica twenty years ago. I know because I bought a set and I still have it.

Writers who reinvent the wheel and then put their work up as if it’s new and different, when really it’s nothing more than recursive cliches posing as plot devices, hurt growth. Genres, like people, are organic. They must grow and evolve, or wither and die. Writing the same thing over and over doesn’t do any good. Let’s make them grow.

So, all else aside, I obviously cannot use the elevator pitch I started this blog with. So what is the story about? Simply put, it’s about a ten thousand year old demon man who is trying to find himself in a world he cannot understand.

Sometimes, Occam’s razor is the best starting place after all. 🙂

 

*It is to their everlasting credit creative directors like Bud Boetticher, Clint Eastwood, and Sam Peckinpah, along with robust writers like Edward Gorman and Loren D. Estleman have worked to correct this fault.

My Story in The Best of Frontier Tales!

The Best of Frontier Tales, edited by Duke Pennell, has been out a while and I wanted to let you guys know about it. Every story was chosen by  readers as the best of that month. I have a Haxan story in there, but I really wanted you to check out the rest of the fiction as well.

Frontier Tales Magazine is a pretty good site that publishes not only Spur Award winners but lots of other cutting edge fiction in the western genre. The editor isn’t afraid to take on new voices and new ideas for his magazine, and this is what attracts me most, I think. Nor do I mean to imply it is the only western magazine out there doing this, because it is not. But this post is about Frontier Tales Magazine and I want to keep it concentrated on that for today.

So if you want a good collection of western fiction that isn’t wholly dependent on Saturday morning John Wayne cliches, check out The Best of Frontier Tales. And when you do, be sure to give ’em a review!

The Best of Frontier Tales

Yay! My Schedule for ArmadilloCon!

My schedule for ArmadilloCon has arrived. These are the panels I will be attending as a guest. If I am not mistake there will also be a reading and probably signing scheduled as well, but I don’t have the times for that yet. When I get them I will list them as well.

 

Fr1800SB Writing Multiple Genres
Fri 6:00 PM-7:00 PM Sabine
B. Crider, K. Hoover, A. Latner*, C. Mills, F. Summers
Fantasy? Science Fiction? Mystery? Historical Fiction? Why do “our” writers tend to cross or blur the lines?

Su1000SA The Hard Stuff
Sun 10:00 AM-11:00 AM San Antonio
B. Mahoney*, B. Frank, K. Hoover
The challenges and rewards of writing — and reading — hard SF. What recent discoveries will be the next smash novel? (A Higgs bosun walks into a Catholic church…)

Su1200SB Attracting and Building an Audience for your Work
Sun Noon-1:00 PM Sabine
L. Antonelli*, E. Burton, K. Hoover, P. Jones, E. Moon, C. Neill
Marketing for the writer. What you can do to get your work noticed by readers.

 

Hope to see you guys there! 🙂

 

 

In Search of Bold Story Ideas…and settling on the warm safety of cliche.

I guess one of the things that surprises me most is how easy it is to come up with ideas for stories.

I wrote about this before. I used to be worried I would never have enough story ideas when I began to write. Now I have too many. I suppose that’s growth of a sort. Or being wised up to reality. Or something.

But what I want to talk about today isn’t how easy it is to come up with story ideas. It’s how hard it is to determine which stories deserve to be written and which stories don’t. That’s not always easy for me to do. But over the years, and with I admit some confidence, I have reached a point where I think I can look at a story idea and say, “No, I’ll let someone else write that one.”

I think this decision making process operates simultaneously on many different levels. Not surprising since writing itself is an organic process. Part of it is genre related. No, I don’t want to write a SF story today. Or, no, I don’t currently see I have anything new to say with that story idea; it’s been done to death already. Or, again, no, I’ll pass on this story idea because…let’s face facts…I’ve moved beyond that point and am now engaged in saying different things than what that story calls for.

Because, you see, the story comes first. You can’t make it into something it’s not. That never works no matter how hard you try.

I suppose it’s a cold-hearted culling process that goes on here, and a learned one. I am not saying these story ideas have no worth. I am saying I have so many other story ideas to explore I’d rather see them developed first. Okay, I guess when you get down to it I am saying certain story ideas have no worth to me. There is some definite snobbery at work here. That doesn’t mean another writer can’t, or shouldn’t, develop them into something stellar. They can, and they probably should, do so.

They just aren’t for me.

I suspect you know where this is going. I am currently working in the western genre. No secret there. It’s also no secret I have railed, and will continue to rail, about the cliches and stilted story lines I continue to see in this field from writers who should know better. But, you know what? Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they don’t know any better. Maybe they never will. But I am not complaining. Because they stick to their field and what obviously works for them, it leaves me with a lot of running room. And, to be fair, the stories they write are popular and people do like them and do buy them. So they must be doing something right.

But they are not for me and they never will be because while science fiction is twelve (and by extension all other genres) I am no longer twelve.

I mean, seriously. Do we have to see another story about the Noble Savage? The Virgin Schoolmarm? The Laconic Cowboy? I am on record I want to see other voices, new interpretations, different perspectives.

Is that asking too much? Sometimes I wonder.

I will give you a personal example. Maybe it will help you understand what I am trying to say here. Several years back when I was running a western community on Live Journal someone actually confronted me and argued homosexuals had nothing to do with settling the West.  Absolutely nothing. Now I want you to think about that a moment. This individual might well have said women had nothing to do with settling the Old West, or Native Americans, or African Americans, or Latinos, or…well, you get the idea.

In this person’s worldview the stereotypes we have been fed for decades was the only truth.

Long story short, I want to change that. I don’t mean I want to change that person’s mind. Nothing is ever going to accomplish that. I want to change the underlying idea of what makes a western a western because I want the genre to thrive and grow. I want it to thrive and grow because I am working in this genre and it does me no good to be in a genre that’s spinning its wheels and calling that progress.

Fortunately, all this is changing. Although, I admit, not fast enough to suit me. There are a lot of new, good writers out there who are challenging the Old Guard. I call them Cactus Turks because they tend to be young, prickly, obstinate, and they openly challenge authority. Thank goodness for that!

Because otherwise we’d be stuck with the same old story about a handsome sun-tanned cowboy on a palomino who safeguards a widow and her blond-haired son from the evil robber baron who owns the deed to her ranch. Hoo boy. Like  we haven’t seen that one before, right?

Let someone else write that story. It’s not for me. And it’s not for the new guard of writers in this genre who are doing better work than I am and pushing the boundaries far wider than I could ever hope to imagine.

So. My advice? Be bold. Take chances. Run risks. Piss people off with your fiction. I see a lot of safe fiction out there in many different genres. They’re all guilty of it, not only westerns. Let’s get out of that rut. Get off the well-lighted roads and strike off into the dark woods and see what you can find. You’re a writer. Be bold.

Trust yourself.

So that’s my point about why I am so careful about choosing story ideas. There are a lot of story ideas out there. As a writer you always have to make a decision for yourself, your reader, and, yes, the health of the genre, whether or not you are going to pursue it. You may not always get it right. In fact, since this is writing we are talking about, you will probably get it wrong more often than not. I know I do. But I keep trying. I don’t give up. I have seen it in my own fiction. The stories I first started to write in this genre are very different from what I see now. I take more risks now, challenge more beliefs.

Once again I am only speaking for myself, but I feel if I am not doing that then I am nothing more than a stenographer. A stenographer  looks at the surface features. I am a writer. I try to dive deeper.

But, come what may, these are the headwinds we are faced with today and they are fierce and unrelenting. Believe it or not there were millions of people other than the traditional White Christian Male who worked and lived and died in the west. No, really. It’s true. Just open a history book.

Better yet, open your mind and write.

In Which I Opine (whine) about Joining Professional Writer Organizations

I have learned I am now eligible for membership in Western Writers of America. I already belong to the Science Fiction Writers of America and Horror Writers of America. Therein lies the problem.

Do I need to become a member of  another professional writing organization? I am also eligible for the Mystery Writers of America. I mean, a line has to be drawn somewhere. These organizations have yearly dues and they’re not cheap.

Here is the crux of the problem. I am no longer convinced these organizations bring anything to the table in this new day and age of Have professional writing organizations become antiquated?publishing. Back in the day having the letters SFWA or HWA after your name, while it didn’t guarantee a sale, let the editor know he had a story from a writer with a professional track record.

I am certain these things are still important to some degree. I don’t mean to diminish their relevance while, you know, diminishing their relevance. But I can’t escape the fact the publishing world has changed drastically in the last three years (and will continue to do so) that organizations like this simply do not carry the weight they once did.

I am probably wrong about this. One thing I know is the cost of yearly dues is not cheap. At least it’s not cheap to me. I don’t want to become a member of WWA for no other reason than my own gratification, either.

On the other hand, I admit these organizations bring good networking opportunities. That is one thing that hasn’t changed in this new day and age of publishing. I also like my friends I have made in SFWA and HWA. Not that they would stop being my friends if I left, but you get the idea.

I suppose I would be missing out on more than I can list if I did not become a member of WWA. I hope no one looks at these organizations I belong to and thinks I am trying to prove something. Being a writer I am mostly always lost and confused anyway. It’s my constant state of mind.

Okay. I guess I will submit an application to WWA (when I get around to it) and continue my membership in the others even though it will put a pinch in my budget.

I guess when you get down to it these organizations still bring more benefit than not. Although, that, too, may change over time.

Thanks for hearing me out. I’m glad we had this little chat.

My Haxan Story “Redemption Bound” Will Appear in a “Best Of” Frontier Tales Anthology!

One of my Haxan stories published by Frontier Tales last year will be included in a Best Of” anthology TBA. This is great news for me and one I am happy to share.

I’ll let you know the date of publication and so forth when I get the word. I’m excited about this.  🙂

Little Big Man: A Classic Novel of Lies and Counter-Lies in the Old West

My review of the novel Little Big Man by Thomas Berger has been published by The Western Online. Here’s the link, and I hope you enjoy reading what I have to say about this classic work. I tried to approach the review from the orientation of both an armchair historian and a writer working in the western genre. Thanks, guys! 🙂

 

Little Big Man: A Classic Novel of Lies
and Counter-Lies in the Old West

Fort Griffin Photographs

More photographs from my research trip. Everything I saw was beneficial. I doubt I will use all this information in the novel, but it’s always better to have it and not need it, right?

(the bodies were moved when the fort closed down, but this is the original site)

Doorway to the Past: The Bush Knob Massacre and the Larn Wall

While I was visiting Fort Griffin I heard a story about a man called John Larn. He worked for Bill Hayes. In 1872 Hayes went to New Mexico with a herd of cattle expecting Larn to watch his stock at Fort Griffin.

Larn rebranded the cattle as his own. When Hayes got back he discovered Larn had stolen his cows so he hired men to steal them back. Larn in turn hired his own men to steal the cows back again and then tracked down Hayes and nine other men and killed them all.

Later, Larn built a home for his wife, Mary Matthews, south of Camp Cooper. By this time Larn was the sheriff of the town of Fort Griffin. Larn hired Irish brothers, stone masons, to build a fence. When it was finished, rather than pay the brothers, Larn killed them with his deputy and dumped the bodies into the Clear Fork of the Brazos.

In 1878 the same vigilantes Larn had led against Hayes rose up, hunted him down, arrested him as a cattle thief, and killed him.

This is what the Old West was like. This is why I don’t like the hoary cliches and maudlin romanticization of the west that have taken root in our culture.

We know what the west was like. We know exactly what the west was like. That’s what I want to write about. Other people can write about other things they think the west is about and that’s fine.

But this is the red plain upon which I work, and this is why I like working in the genre. It hasn’t even begun to be tapped for story potential.

I really believe this. Westerns have been around as long as the Old West itself, since Ned Buntline. And I am telling you we have just begun to scratch the surface as far as story potential goes.

We haven’t even begun.

Fort Richardson: First stop on the research trip

I didn’t expect to stop at Fort Richardson. I meant to visit later in the year or early next year, but imagine my surprise when we were driving and I came upon it. So I thought, why not stop? While nothing in the new novel happens at Fort Richardson I knew it would be helpful for me to see this place again and use that experience to integrate what I need for the story. So it all worked out well.

Serendipity for the win!

Gunsmoke: “I will not tolerate a disturbance. You know me.”

Forget everything you know, or think you know, about Matt Dillon and Kitty and Doc.  This radio series which ran for nine years was meant to be an adult-oriented western that broke the mold and challenged the archetypal Western hero.  The creators, Norman MacDonnell and John Meston wanted to shatter all Western stereotypes.  They were successful.

The result was Gunsmoke.

The first audition was a hardboiled detective story set in the West. The main character was “Mark Dillon.”  The second audition was more Western-oriented but then the project sat on the shelf and gathered dust for two years.  Eventually, a radio actor named William Conrad read for the part and was immediately hired as the show moved into production.

Everybody has an idea of the type of man Matt Dillon is. Whether it be from the television show or national iconic status, everybody knows what kind of man he is and what he believes in and how he deals with people.  Forget all that. In the radio program, Matt Dillon is damn near a psychopath.  He’s as hard and brutal as the violent men who pass through Dodge City from the cow trails.  He’s acerbic and bitter and when his gun hand moves, it moves in a blur.

The writing portrays this all the time. In one episode a man comes up to Dillon out of the dark.  “Some night I’ll get drunk enough to pull on you you, Dillon.”

Long pause, and delivered with conviction:  “Then that’s the night you’re gonna die.”

Or:

“If you’re figuring to draw on me, don’t.”

“Why not, Matt?”

“I’ve seen you in action. You’re not fast enough.”

And Dillon is always shouting at the rubbernecking crowds, telling them to shut up or he’ll club them to death, or threatening them he will NOT tolerate a disturbance, or asking with clenched teeth when they don’t disperse fast enough, “Who wants to die first?”

Yeah, he’s a psychopath barely holding himself together, nerves made of barbed wire and a soul of scarred leather.  The radio series establishes this at the beginning.  Dillon is a violent man who has moved West with violence.  He is hard and brutal; life, and his job, made him that way.  He is completely different from anything you have seen on the television program.

And Kitty Russell?  It was never implied on the television series she was a prostitute.  But if you knew anything about the Old West you knew what she did for a living.  The radio show is very different from TV.  Kitty’s not a prostitute on the Old Time Radio series.  She’s a whore. I find this incredible.  You’re talking about 1952 and it’s cut and dried: Kitty sells herself to other men and Dillon is in love with her. And if you say something bad about her, well, you’d better start digging your grave.  Fascinating with what they got away with on radio, but couldn’t even touch, or allude to, on television.

Doc Adams?  He’s a gibbering ghoul who rubs his hands over a corpse because he’s going to be paid an autopsy fee. He was played by Howard McNear, the same actor who played Floyd the Barber on The Andy Griffith Show.  His soft spoken voice and gleeful nature as he pokes and prods at a cadaver is very disturbing.

Sound effects, as you might guess, are essential in radio.  Gunsmoke was famous for layering sound to create the emptiness of the prairie, the dust-filled streets of Dodge, the cold wind blowing through the stunted trees, the sound of the night train coming into Dodge.  When you hear a gunshot on the radio program that’s an authentic weapon: carbine, six gun, scatter gun, being fired.  It’s all authentic, even the animal life was meticulously researched.

As the show progresses it begins to concentrate on the human relationships between the principal characters with violence and adult sex as an undercurrent theme.  But as good as it is, the acting, the emotive voices, the incredible sound effects, the stark characterization…nothing beats the writing itself.

John Meston wrote about 25% of the episodes. He accurately portrays the harsh brutality of what life was like in an unforgettably harsh and graphic manner.  Dillon doesn’t always win in the end. In one episode he amputates the leg of a man to save him from blood poisoning.  The man dies anyway. In another, a girl is raped for weeks by four men.  Dillon rescues her, but she becomes a prostitute.  Sometimes the bad guy gets away completely.  In one story, an entire family is slaughtered and the wife kicked to death.  Dillon finds her daughter in a copse of dark trees, raped and killed and scalped. Chester stands over the body and weeps.

These aren’t feel good stories. They’re stories.  Therein lie their power.

As a writer I like to think I know something about writing. But I’ve learned more by listening to these programs than in all the years I’ve been writing professionally.  Maybe that says something about me, but I think it speaks more to the power of these stories and what they ultimately reveal about human nature and all its brutality.

If you want to learn how to write, if you are a writer and want to learn more about theory and characterization and stark dialog, I strongly urge you to give some of these episodes a listen.  You won’t be disappointed.

One final note. Those who know about the creative process of my own western series, Haxan, know how much of an influence Gunsmoke had on me. I can’t think of a better inspiration throughout the entire genre than John Meston’s creation.

Fort Griffin: Research Trip for New Haxan Novel

Here are some preliminary pictures from the trip to Fort Griffin and Fort Richardson. It was exactly what I was looking for as far as the novel goes. I will post a lot more pictures throughout the week.

The Long Red Light of the West

One of the things you learn when you research the Old West is how utterly violent it was. It is this long red light, the murderous plain of humanity if you will, that I want to talk about today.

From genocide to rape to murder to shotgun blasts from an alleyway into someone’s back to carving a drunk with a bowie knife until his guts spilled out over your hand in a hot steaming mass — the Old West was one big killing ground. And it never stopped. It was a violent arena of grinding bone, quick death and irrevocable loss. Torture and greed were the raw sinews holding it together.

Of course, you don’t see that often in movies and books or on television. Oh, you see violence. Hollywood is great for splashing buckets of violence across the silver screen. But all too often the violence in novels or film have an underlying meaning or symbolic reference behind it. But the reality of the Old West is the violence didn’t have a poetic framework. It wasn’t a vehicle to portray the warring forces in a man out to wreak vengeance nor was it an exercise in splatterpunk devoid of emotion. History proves this out.  Violence in the Old West existed because Man himself existed. Nor do I mean to rag on the Old West and single it out as a special case.

This is but the history of our species.

We do one thing really well. We kill stuff. Amidst the architecture and mathematics, violence exists because Man exists. The Old West was but one more boiling crucible in the history of our species that showcased dark desires and bright greed.

I don’t mean to say there were not people who wanted to bring law and order to the west. There were voices who wanted equality and fairness for everyone. But how could they be heard above the winds of genocide and destruction?

The longer I work in the western genre the more convinced I am the only way this genre is going to grow and evolve is if we treat its fundamental truths with more respect. Personally, I want to see more voices in this genre. I want to see  voices from people who didn’t historically have their stories told. The west was more than one thing. It was made up of millions of people from different backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures. That’s what I want to read, don’t you? We have seen the sanitized picture reflected through American culture in a thousand shards, and they are all the same. I want to look beyond the glittering icons and down into the abyss. I want what some might consider dangerous stories to be elevated into the American consciousness. If that is possible.

I work in this genre. I want to see other voices in this genre. I want to hear their stories. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are many good writers who are doing better work than I could ever hope to do in this area. I am starting to see elements of this in more and more stories. But no matter how good they are their voices are nearly drowned out by American myth perpetuated.The west was many things. I would like to see those differing stories from new voices.

I don’t know. Maybe someday it will happen and we will be able to see the west as something other than simplified romance. There is such great potential in this genre. It lends itself to so  many interpretations. The ground is rich for writers. But the headwinds are great, hurricane strength. And while humans are good at killing they are also good at self-delusion.

It’s safer, and far simpler, to believe in romantic fairy tales than to face the long red light of murder that was the Old West. I’m just saying that needs to be changed. The Old West needs to become dangerous. That’s where the best stories are, I think.

Gunfight at the OK Corral – A Retrospective in Three Movies

On this date in 1881, around 3.00 pm, a gunfight occurred which lasted less than thirty seconds. Oh, and for the record, it never happened in the OK Corral but on Fremont Street. Well, that’s history for you, always getting in the way with facts and verifiable evidence.

I mean, who wants to read about a gunfight on Fremont Street? So we will bow to pressure and call it the OK CMy Darling Clementine by John Fordorral.

Anyway, this gunfight has become the subject of books, movies, and innumerable stories. But it’s the treatment by Hollywood I want to concentrate on today, and three movies in particular. I want to look at how they helped shape our consciousness, our perspective, and our ideas of what happened and why, regarding this infamous gunfight.

The first movie I want to discuss is My Darling Clementine by John Ford. Ford was a master at romanticizing the Old West, and this movie is no exception. There are many good points about the movie. It looks good for one, but we are talking about John Ford so I expect it to look good from a visual perspective. In fact, I admit it’s downright beautiful. Unfortunately, the dialog and the storyline is little more than corn. The gunfight is okay, but has no relation to any historical event with which we are familiar, and for which we have  ample evidence and eye-witness account.

However, the best partVictor Mature as Doc Holliday about My Darling Clementine is Victor Mature’s masterful portrayal of Doc Holliday. Now in case y0u are not familiar with Victor Mature, he is a big, brawny, beefy man who exudes power and confidence on screen. You might think such a man would be a poor choice to play Doc Holliday, who was in actuality was a thin, skeletal man dying of tuberculosis. Yet, Mature brings deep pathos and vulnerability to the character, even when he has to deliver some very embarrassing lines. Outwardly, he looks nothing like Doc Holliday. He doesn’t even sport a mustache. But the inner turmoil of  a man facing a death sentence, and how it affects his relationships with the people around him, is very powerful indeed. It’s a nice job.

This is not my favorite OK Corral film, but if you haven’t seen it I think you will like it. Pay attention to Mature when he is on screen. He really is amazing and along with the visuals, he’s the best thing about this film.

The second film is Tombstone and it’s popular and beloved by western fans and movie fans alike. Personally, I can’t stand this film. I hate everything about it from the opening scene where Wyatt Earp (played by a mugging Kurt Russell) stoIconic (albeit incorrect) image from Tombstone ps a man who is whipping his horse (because the script must establish Russell as the good guy)  down to the horrific final shot where Earp and Josephine Marcus  are dancing in falling snow under lamplight after she reveals to Wyatt there is no need to worry about money because her family is rich.

It’s vomit inducing. Not to mention historically incorrect. It is a movie that reveals everything that’s ever been wrong with Hollywood and how it has portrayed the Old West as a cartoon. I will give it a pass on one point, however. The shot of the four lawmen walking down the street dressed in long black coats is iconic — though again inaccurate. Actually, the lawmen wore mackinaws that day. But those long black coats have become so indelibly fixed in the American consciousness I suppose it would be movie sacrilege to remove them. So I tend to give it a pass on that detail alone, as I do other films about the gunfight.

As you may have guessed by now I truly hate this film with a deep passion. I should do a separate post on why it fails so miserably on so many levels, and has actually harmed the western genre because it slams so many cliches down our throats. I know I am in the minority here. It wouldn’t be the first time. I know a lot of people absolutely love this film. But it’s pure, unadulterated Hollywood candy. Hell, even Ford did better than this, and I’m not a fan of his work to romanticize the west, either.

But, as wretched as Tombstone is, it’s not all bad. The gunfight is pretty good, I’ll give you that. Powers Booth is, well, Powers Booth, Sam Elliot is believable as Virgil Earp though he probably brings too much sexuality and moralizing to the film. But more importantly Val Kilmer delivers a superb, and memorable, performance as Doc Holliday.

Much like My Darling Clementine I don’t view Tombstone as anything more than Hollywood corn dressed up in cliche and trope. But Kilmer saves the film for me. If it were not for his amazing performance I would never watch this film again upon pain of death. But it’s worth it to watch Kilmer on screen as long as you ignore the rest of the sugarcorn this movie brings to the table.

The final film, and my personal favorite, is Wyatt Earp. Kevin Costner delivers a believable performance as a cold, uncaring, self-absorbed and determined Wyatt Earp. This is much in line with the historical figure. Other elements of the story also ring true. The gunfight is representative of historical fact, and the dialog and behavior of the surrounding characters lend extra support. When we watch the events unfolding in Wyatt Earp we can suspend belief and imagine it might have actually happened this way. In the other two movies I have described, we are never able to forget we are only watching something that has been packaged and sanitized for consumption.

I know Wyatt Earp isn’t as popular as Tombstone, and I know why. Tombstone is more fun, more joyous, more in line with what we ordinarily see coming from HoCostner's Wyatt Earp -- probably the most historically accurate portrayal of the gunfight and culture of that time.llywood. Therefore it is in a comfort zone that reinforces myth and stereotype which has taken root in American culture.

Wyatt Earp, on the other hand, is a little more gritty, and has a documentary feel. That’s probably why I prefer it, even though I am no fan of Costner. But, like the other two films, Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday is the one to watch and study here. He brings a dark, brooding violence to Holliday that seems to be missing, or at least not fully interpreted, by the other two films. His performance rounds out a strong and believable cast. When I watch this film I am more inclined to believe I am watching history. The other films are entertaining on a popcorn level, but that’s all they are.

From looking at these three films I am sure you have noticed a common thread. It’s Doc Holliday. In all three films the actors portraying this broken and violent man did a tremendous job. I think that’s important, because a film about the OK Corral almost has to have a believable Doc Holliday or it would totally collapse.

This is not unusual with film, and stories on film. In a completely unrelated genre the film Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein would collapse if the creation scenes of the monsters were not believable. Sometimes, a single scene is like a linchpin for an entire movie.

In movies about the gunfight at the OK Corral that linchpin is, and always will be, Doc Holliday. He is larger than life, he is tragic, he is a character we can understand and sympathize with, even if we don’t get on board with his reckless violence and focused pursuit of death.

All three movies are flawed. Neither one is perfect. Each has their own strengths. But all three have one thing in common: excellent portrayals of Doc Holliday and the inner demons that made him tick, and kill.

For a western writer working in the genre, that right there is worth the price of admission.

Pride and Prejudice: If People Were Ants We Wouldn’t Need Stories

About three years ago I read the first 100 pages of Pride and Prejudice and then I bailed.

I was taking some very heavy damage from several hardened missile silos down below me. I had lost all aileron control and the self-sealing fuel tanks, well, were no longer self-sealing. I had to eject fast or I would auger in from 10,000 feet. I fought my way out of the pilot seat against the compiling G-forces and scrambled with a sob in my throat through the open hatchway.

Tumbling in free fall. Feeling of helplessness. Cold air rushing past my ears. I pulled the rip cord and felt the hard snap I once tried to read Pride and Prejudice. I almost didn't make it out alive.as my parachute opened and the last I ever saw of Pride and Prejudice was the book dwindling against the bright stars overhead, lost to me forever.

I’m telling you I barely made it out of that book alive.

Lots of readers have experiences like this one. We have comfort zones of genres we like and understand and want to wallow in. This is normal, and I would argue healthy. But as for writers, what do we say when we come across readers who say, “Oh, I don’t read that crap” when you tell them what genre you work in?

As a western writer I totally understand and have experienced this genre myopia myself. Sometimes I might explain how some of the Haxan stories actually have dark fantasy elements or romance or mystery or what have you. It never works. The missile silos are too hardened. All they hear is “western” and their immediate reaction is “Oh, I don’t read that crap.”

So what do I do? I have the stories inside me and I have to write them. That’s out of my control. I can’t stop writing even if I tried, and trust me I have tried. Scientists have yet to develop a super-methadone that will allow me to get that monkey off my back.

Do I abandon everything I’ve learned during my years as a professional and start writing for what’s popular on the markets right now? I can’t do that, either. My personal philosophy about writing won’t allow me to jump on bandwagons with their colorful balloons and bright ribbons. Or maybe I can try and fool myself into believing the western genre, even blended western genres, aren’t that bad right now, that they are more popular than I think. But the evidence shows the genre is, at best, on life support and someone is standing next to the sick bed with a loaded gun against the patient’s temple.

Westerns are not in a healthy and popular place right now. They might be again someday, but that day has not yet arrived.

Here’s the rub. You arPeople and writers are not ants. We have different genres for a reason.e never going to be able to write something that satisfies everyone. Everyone is different. We all bring different experiences and backgrounds and expectations and loves to the table when we open a new book. I may not like one genre but that doesn’t mean it has no worth for a majority of other people. I know this from experience because a majority of people sure as hell don’t read westerns.

But I keep writing them anyway because there are some who do and I have what I hope are good stories to tell them.

Read what makes you happy. Forget what anyone else says. But most of all, write what makes you happy. Your readers, and your inner peace, will thank you for it.

%d bloggers like this: