Around 8 years ago, on my old and defunct blog, I put myself through a daily writing exercise to learn some consistency and discipline.
The rules were simple:
It was a good exercise, and it definitely served its purpose. But it only ever produced a handful of things I liked. I found that old folder of stories again today, and I'm far less happy with most of them than I remember being at the time.
That said, there was one exception. The prompt was "Create a character that sees a phone number on a restroom wall. Describe what happens when he or she dials it."
Rereading the result, I was pleasantly surprised. It has heart, even if it is kind of melancholy. It almost f reminds me of Brian Niemeir's "A Gen Y Tale" (narrated here by David V. Sewart), touching on the same Generational feeling of being lost and unmoored in today's world. That said, it is a much angrier piece than Niemeir's.
In retrospect, I think I was grasping towards more heroic and inspiring subject matter, even if I didn't know quite how to do it yet. Maybe because I had some other influences going on at the time, like Robert E. Howard's Conan tales and Hawkwind's Chronicle of the Black Sword album. Sharp-eyed readers will even spot a line lifted directly from the latter.
Needless to say, it's not my best work. Especially now. But I'm still proud of it, warts and all. I might even try to revisit it someday, and write a better story using the same characters and set-up.
The piece never had a title at the time. It was just "Exercise no. 1" in my folder.
I almost called it "A Gen Y Isekai" for this post, partly as a nod to Niemeir's work. But I think "Wasteland Dreams" does the job better. Especially considering the discussions and commentary happening in my online circles today.
It's presented here the same way it was on my old blog: rough, frantically written, and and edited only once.
I hope you all enjoy it.
A Gen Y Isekai
There it was, buried beneath promises of blowjobs, handjobs, and at least one offer for a “titty twister.” Though it was probably in the wrong bathroom for that last one, Gary thought.
Near the bottom of the toilet stall, written in black sharpie, there was a simple two-line message. “Adventure and Glory!” it said. “Call today!” A toll-free phone number followed it.
It was weird. Maybe it was some kind of viral marketing thing? He fished his phone out of his pocket and snapped a quick picture. Maybe he’d Google it later, when he got home.
He forgot about the number for weeks. He only came across it again when he was deleting pictures off of his phone. Pictures of Jess, the cheating bitch. How could she smile in so many of these?
Because she was fucking Brad behind your back, Gary. It’s easy to smile when you’re getting laid every afternoon on your lunch break.
He almost deleted it, too. But he scrolled over to the next one. It was Jess, eating an ice cream cone at the beach. The mental image was too much, and he threw the phone.
He was on his third straight day of playing video games in the dark. He hadn’t answered his phone in weeks. He’d only even left the apartment once, when Brad and Jessica came by to pick up her stuff.
The boss killed him again, blowing his space marine off the platform and into the black void. He gave up, more bored than frustrated. He turned the game off and started scrolling through Netflix. He was halfway through a list of “Thrilling Comedy Murder Mysteries” when he remembered the phone number.
He scrolled through the pictures on his phone until he found it. He ran a quick web search for the number. It was probably advertising for an upcoming game. Smaller studios couldn’t afford big ads. He knew they sometimes pulled stunts like this.
A web search turned up nothing. The number wasn’t registered to anybody.
Huh. How weird is that?
An hour later, with nothing better to do, he called it. It rang three times. The line picked up, and there was a brief delay followed by a very recognizable background hiss.
Recording. Then again, what did he expect?
There was a swell of trumpet music. A call to arms. Soon a small orchestra joined in. Strings, then percussion, followed by all the rest. And they began playing a half-assed rip-off of the theme from Conan the Destroyer.
“Are you a man of action? Do you long for the days of High Adventure? Press 1 for ‘yes.’ Press 2 for ‘no.’” The quality of the recording was poor. The voice sounded so far away. This had to be a shoestring budget thing.
Gary pressed 1. And he waited. And he waited.
“Are you a sorcerer? Are you a warrior chief? Press 1 for sorcerer. Press 2 for warrior.”
Maybe it was the Conan music. Gary pressed 2. He waited. The music abruptly stopped in mid movement. The recording immediately looped back to the beginning, to the swell of the trumpets.
Then there was a click and a dial tone. “Piece of shit,” Gary muttered. He went back to playing video games.
That night, Gary sailed the skies on a Drakken bird. His sword rested in a scabbard built into the saddle, a saddle hand-worked by his father. He felt the crisp, cool wind against his bare skin. In the distance, nestled between two of the Argan Mountains, was the Needle. It rose nearly as high as the peaks behind it. It was perfectly straight and impossibly thin.
No normal stone structure could stand like that. Any tower raised that high by mortal hands would crumble beneath its own weight, or be sheared in half with a gust of wind. But the Masters of the Needle were not mortal.
Gary could die there. He knew it. He felt it. But he knew there was no other place he’d rather be. He felt the exhilaration of the hunt. The anticipation of the battle. He was alive in these moments. Truly alive.
Gary inhaled deeply. The air was sweet. The wind was in his hair. He lightly kicked the flanks of the Drakken bird.
The Drakken bird cawed. And with a stroke of her wings, she accelerated.
Gary woke up covered in pizza crumbs. The TV was tuned to the cartoon channel. Even before he opened his eyes, the smell hit him. The air in his apartment felt so stale. So thick. How the hell did he never notice it before?
He stood up and stumbled to the window. He kicked oold Chinese food boxes out of the way. He opened the window, but the air outside wasn’t any better. All he could smell was exhaust and filth. The city stank. Christ, he could almost taste it. He went over to the sink for a glass of water. But as soon as he turned on the faucet he smelled the burning, chemical scent of chlorine.
There was no way he was drinking that. The only thing in his apartment that didn’t smell like chemicals was an old bottle of whiskey. He poured himself four fingers. As he swallowed, he wished he could just have a drink from the cold stream that ran behind his house. But...
But there was no stream behind your house. You grew up in Quincy. You lived three blocks from a T Station.
It was the dream. He’d never had one so real, so vivid before. It was like he was really there. The smells, the tastes. Hell, he even remembered the childhood of the guy he dreamt about.
He looked at the clock. It was seven AM. He’d have to go back to work today. He already burned through all his sick leave. One more call out and he’d be fired.
Then again, maybe that was a good thing. All this isolation was starting to affect his head.
He spent the whole day in sluggish funk. His clothes felt stiff and rough against his skin. He wished he could just rip them off. The air in the mall was even than the air in his house. Here he could smell the perfumes and the colognes. It was disgusting. It was so...
That was it. Everything around him felt so fake and thin. Yet in that wonderful dream, he’d been free. He’d been soaring above the clouds. He’d been alive. He folded another pair of pants and arranged them neatly on the display table, wishing he could go home and dream again.
That night, he dreamt his usual dreams. He dreamt of Jess. Only in his dream, she didn’t move out of the apartment. She moved Brad in. He dreamt of the three of them living together. Of Jess and Brad laughing and holding one another on the couch while the three of them watched TV.
He woke up with a panic attack.
The TV was on, playing the same show as in the dream. He threw an ashtray at the screen. He couldn’t get back to sleep after that. Hours later, he was still staring at the ceiling as the sun slowly crept through the blinds.
He decided to call that phone number again tonight, after work. It couldn’t hurt anything.
The line rang three times. The cheesy music started up again. Then he heard that crackling, far away voice.
“You are a man of action!” the recording told him. “You long for the days of High Adventure!”
Huh. The recording was slightly different this time.
“Are you a sorcerer? Or are you still a warrior chief? Press 1 for sorcerer. Press 2 fro warrior.”
Well, what the hell? Gary pressed 1.
Again, the music cut off in mid-movement. And again, it looped back to the beginning. Then, just like before, the line went dead.
You’re being stupid, Gary. It was just a dream. That’s all. This isn’t going to help you sleep any better.
There were still some of Jess’ old Ambien tabs under the sink, from when she was going through that thing with her mother. Gary checked the date. They were two years old. They’d probably los some potency. Plus he outweighed Jess by about sixty pounds. He took the recommended dose, plus one extra tab. Then he went to bed.
Gary’s hands were bound in with rough, rawhide cords. The savages had him. All of his power, all of his studying, all of his training. And it wasn’t good enough. The savages still took him. And now he was going to die.
They threw him to the ground in front of the chief. Behind him, an enormous bonfire roared. Among the burning timbers, he could still make out the charred form of Tak. Poor, loyal Tak. Gary could hear the sizzling of the fat beneath his skin.
The chief glared at him from behind a horse-skull mask. “Tell us what your masters have done with my daughter, Conjure Man!”
Gary felt the heat of the flames against his skin. He sat up. He tried to say something, but his mouth was too dry. All that came out was a hoarse croak. He worked his tongue back and forth, to moisten his lips.
An instant later pain exploded against his head. He back fell to the ground. A warrior stood above him, holding a short, sharp stone pick. The tip was red and wet.
“No spells, sorcerer. Keep your spirits on your tongue. Or I will cut it out.”
Gary reached up and touched the fresh gash on his forehead. It was an old superstition among the savage tribes. They believed that Witch Men and sorcerers couldn’t use their powers if they suffered a wound to the Third Eye. And like many superstitions, this one was true.
Only the young imbicile had missed his mark by about an inch. Gary hid a smile. He could beat these fools yet. He just needed to buy time.
He began to tremble. He let out a long, low whine. “Please! Spare me, oh great Lord of the Wastes! I’ll tell you everything I know!”
The chief smiled, showing a row of rotten, blackened teeth beneath the horse’s mandible. He pointed at Gary, and he raised a fist in the air. The gathered tribe let out a cheer. Then the chief began to chant his own name.
“Savrik! Savrik! Savrik!” The tribe took up behind him.
That’s right. Eat it up, you horse-headed halfwit.
Gary continued to cry and beg at the chief’s feet. At the same time, he focused his Third Eye. The savages and their camp disappeared, giving way to a cloudy gray plain. In the murk, he could see dark shapes. They were indistinct, like shadows against shadows. They moved like insects, crawling and skittering. Some were no larger than his hand. Others were bigger than a Goliath Bear.
In his Astral Voice, he called to one of the big ones.
Around him, the chanting of the warriors died down. The chief was standing over him. “You cry like a woman, sorcerer. And I grow tired of hearing it. Now tell me! Where have your masters taken my daughter?”
“Why, back to the Needle, of course.”
Gary’s answer stopped the chief in his bluster. “What?”
“You heard me, Savrik. The Masters of the Needle have her. And if you and your people hadn’t been so stupid, I might have even helped you find her.” In the fire, the logs began to move.
“You’ll speak to me with respect, sorcerer. Or you’ll be joining your friend in the fire soon.”
Now Gary smiled openly. “No, I won’t. In fact, I believe he’ll be joining us.”
There was a loud crash, almost like a thunderclap. Flaming logs scattered across the camp. Warriors cried out in fear. The thing that stumbled out of the fire was wearing Tak’s body. But it was roaring for blood with an Astral Voice.
Gary woke up at noon. He sat up groggily. Again, artificial smells and stale, stagnant air assaulted his nose. He opened the window, and he poured himself another four fingers of whiskey.
His head hurt. He reached up, and he felt a tackiness there. And pain. He made his way to the bathroom mirror. There was a gash on his forehead. Just off center, to the left of where his Third Eye was.
In the dream, he corrected himself. Where the Third Eye was in the dream.
There were three messages on his phone. He already had a pretty good idea what they were going to be. The first two were from the floor supervisor, asking him where he was. The last one was from the daytime manager, informing him that he would be receiving a final paycheck in the mail.
“You took two weeks of sick time without a doctor’s note, Gary. You showed up smelling like alcohol yesterday. And now, you’re a no call, no show. You aren’t leaving me any choice. I’ve already talked to Human Resources. We’re going to have to replace you with someone more reliable.”
Well, at least that meant he didn’t have to go out today.
At about four o’clock, he got another message on his voicemail. This one was from Jess. She’d heard that he’d been acting funny lately. Missing work. Not talking to friends. She just wanted to know if he was all right.
“I’m sorry I hurt you. I never meant it to be this way. Please, just call me back and tell me how you’re doing. Okay?”
By nightfall, she’d called two more times. He didn’t answer either one. He looked around the room. It was such a small place, his apartment. He felt so closed in. So trapped. But he knew that going outside wouldn’t be any better. He’d still have to deal with the dirty air, the artificial light, and the stink and the feel of people all around him. Their perfumes. Their soaps. And their endless chatter.
In the Wastelands, they wouldn’t last. Their noise and their smell would attract Goliath Bears. Or worse.
He thought of the dream again. The clean air. The smells. The life and the freedom. Even the last dream, with its sense of danger and terror, was so much more vivid and so much livelier than this dull, shitty life.
I don’t even work at a fucking department store anymore. I’ve got nothing. Nothing to look forward to, except those dreams.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He did have half a bottle of Ambien left. And he still had his cell phone.
He washed the pills down with the rest of the whiskey, and he dialed the number one last time. The line rang. The cheesy Conan-like music came on. And the distant, far off recording of the voice followed it.
“You are a man of action, Gary. You long for the days of High Adventure. Even if it means your life.”
Gary laughed. The recording knew his name. He could feel the pills working already. He felt drowsy.
“Are you a sorcerer? Or are you a warrior chief? Press 1 for sorcerer. Press 2 for warrior.”
By the time the line went dead, Gary didn’t even remember what number he’d pressed.
*The book of prompts was The Writer's Block by Jason Rekulak, a gift my wife bought me to encourage my writing some years back. It's still available.
Sadly, when I wrote that joke, I didn't even notice the double-meaning behind the phrase "left them all behind."
Dark times, friends.
The state of the Afghanistan pullout and the incompetence of our leaders has me enraged. Though I suppose that just proves there's nothing new under the sun.
Anyway, I've always used humor to vent my frustration, as the above image shows. But behind that humor, I want everyone reading this to realize something:
Future history books will deny this happened.
The pullout is going to be remembered as an unqualified success.
People our government abandoned overseas will be dismissed as reckless fools who should have left sooner.
The Retired Special Ops guys working outside regular government channels to bring them home will be slandered as opportunistic liars.
If you think I’m being dramatic here, understand this: Lt. Colonel Stuart Scheller, the only active-duty officer with the courage and integrity to stand up and demand accountability for this failure, is already being painted as a mentally unstable risk to his family.
They will lie. They will tell the version of events they want you to remember, and they will call you a liar or a dupe for remembering the truth.
Don't let them.
Check on your Brothers. If you're my Brother, I'm always here.
Apropos of nothing, I found myself thinking about The Iliad today. I've mentioned the work and what it means to me before, but for some reason, one of Homer's central themes just feels a little timely these days.
It's probably nothing.
At any rate, thinking about Achilles, heroes, and epics reminded me of a little thing I wrote some years back. I was taking a few classes on the G.I. Bill at the time, including a Creative Writing elective. It was a good class, but when we got around to the poetry unit, I found it dense and impenetrable.
That's absolutely no fault of the professor. Fact is, I only understand two kinds of poetry: heroic sagas or epics, and bawdy limericks. That did nothing to dissuade my professor from requiring an original poem from me to earn a "complete," of course. So I decided to just blend the two.
Digging it up again, it wasn't as bad as I thought.
So here it is, my first—and likely only—experiment in poetry. If you're familiar with the Pub song 'Ay-yi-yi-yi," you'll probably recognize the meter I used for the refrains.
Either way, hope it brings a chuckle.
The Hero From Limerick: The Ballad of Connor McCann
There once was a tale that was told,
Of a man both courageous and bold!
So sit back and hear,
Of a far away year,
And adventures and dangers of old.
A great serpent, scaly and brown,
Slither’d to Limerick Town.
It had a barbed tail,
As sharp as a nail,
And it screeched with a terrible sound.
By the High Road, it staked out a lair,
And snatched out as quick as a hare
At unlucky trav’lers,
And—especially—maidens, most fair!
But a young man from Limerick
Came up with a gimmick
To save all those lovely young damsels!
His name was Connor McCann.
He had no titles or land.
But strong as a fox,
And smart as an ox,
He was the pride of his clan.
Of his woman, he had grown fatigued.
Her name was Maggie McTeague.
Though club-foot and blind,
And out of her mind,
She was still out of poor Connor’s league.
But if Connor could just slay the beast,
In his honor, there would be a feast!
The grateful young girls,
Would let down their curls,
And give him some options, at least.
Yes, the man with the gimmick,
He set out from Limerick,
To save all the lovely young damsels!
First he took up his great spear.
Of its like, you never did hear!
Sharp was the brass end,
But carved in the ass-end
Was a secret compartment for beer.
And his shield was fashioned so well!
Of its like, you've never heard tell!
On its face was enameled
A scene of great scandal
‘Tween a man and a mademoiselle.
And he dressed in the finest of mail!
Of its like, you've never heard tales!
It included an odd piece:
A hammered steel codpiece
That showed off his manhood to scale.
Yes, the hero from Limerick,
Deck’d out for his gimmick
Would save all the lovely young damsels!
As Connor approached the great brute
His resolve wasn’t quite absolute.
The monster’s foul screeches
Made him wet his breeches
So much that he filled up his boots.
But Connor, he did persevere!
He sloshed forth and brandished his spear!
But the serpent's barbed tail,
It struck without fail.
And Connor was done for, I fear!
Well Connor, he wasn’t quite dead,
But he sighed and hung down his head.
It was time now, he thunk,
To go and get drunk,
And call on Saint Patrick instead.
Yes, the young man from Limerick
Had failed in his gimmick.
To hell with the lovely young damsels.
With Saint Patrick, you know how it goes.
The snakes he forced out in their droves.
And to this very day,
In Erin they say,
You’d sooner find scales on a rose.
So that just leaves Connor McCann.
Whatever became of the man?
Did he settle down
In Limerick Town
And father good sons for his clan?
Well his sweet Maggie, Connor did wed,
But his bloodline was never to spread,
Because his sweet Maggie
Made him wear a baggie
Each night in their marital bed.
The other day, my wife asked me a dead-simple question: "What's your favorite book or story of all time?"
Of course, I couldn't pick just one. But after thinking a while, I did manage to narrow the list down to only three. My favorite story of all time is Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." If I'm forced to pick something novel length, then it's a toss-up between David Morrell's First Blood and Glendon Swarthout's The Shootist.
What's telling, especially for a guy with "SF/Fantasy Writer" in his bio, is that none of my answers is even tangentially SF or Fantasy.
That's because—as I realized somewhat recently—I don't actually like SF or Fantasy all that much. What I really like is Action/Adventure. I just don't mind if my Action/Adventure has magic or ray guns in it.
That said, I don't want to hammer on my growing disillusionment with SF and Fantasy (even the supposedly "pulpy" classics). What I want to talk about today is something else I realized about my answer, particularly the two novels.
Of my three favorite stories of all time, two are directly related to a pop culture transition that happened in America in the 1980s, one more obvious in retrospect than it was in real-time.
I'm talking about the complete shift from Cowboys to Commandos as our "default" pop cultural heroes.
Backyard Bradleys and Saturday Morning SEALs
Maybe it's tough to remember with the rise of superhero media and the resurgence of Star Wars. But once upon a time, kids in America were obsessed with all things G.I. Joe. Toy shelves were absolutely crammed with Hasbro's pint-sized, plastic commandos and their intricately designed vehicles. The cartoon played on a practically endless loop in syndication, spawning an animated movie. Real life celebrities like Sgt. Slaughter and Joe "the Refrigerator" Perry joined the franchise with figures modeled on their likenesses. Slaughter even voiced himself in the cartoon.
And of course, let's not forget the comics. Marvel's G.I.Joe actually ran longer than the toy line did, owing mostly to writer and Vietnam vet Larry Hama's rather sophisticated treatment of the subject. To this day, it's rightly regarded as one of the best tie-in comics ever produced.
G.I. Joe mania was a surprisingly long-lasting and robust trend, driving other toy companies to cash in with their own military-themed figures. Mattel put out GUTS, beefed up, cooler versions of the traditional plastic army men. Galoob made figures based on The A-Team, both in 3.75 and 6-inch scales. Coleco put out toys for Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a kids' cartoon (lol) spun off from one of the most successful R-Rated action franchises in history.
What, you didn't know there was a Rambo cartoon?
Ruby-Spears' Rambo was clearly an attempt to cash in on the success of G.I. Joe. Aimed at the same audience (and with the same goal of selling toys), it featured a similar set-up and premise: an elite, secret counter-terror organization, called on to fight a group of evil militants with a catchy name (S.A.V.A.G.E. instead of Cobra).
Needless to say, this pop-cultural saturation colored the actual-cultural landscape.
There was barely a TV in my old neighborhood that wasn't tuned in to the Joes or Rambo on any given afternoon. Our connected back yards were turned into one massive, constantly-evolving plastic battlefield. Whenever we played in the woods or at the local playground, we invariably fell into some variation of "war" with sticks as guns, pretending to be G.I. Joe characters, A-Team members, or characters from the various action movies we'd caught on cable.
And yes, folks, we saw a LOT of those.
Bottom line, if you were a typical kid in the 80's, there's a good chance the relatively new (but so very old) archetype of the Invincible Super-Commando ruled your imagination.
It was different for my father's generation.
My dad, my uncles, and everyone in their generation grew up with John Wayne, the Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy. The western gunfighter was the hero of the day, and though "war" was an ever-present game, kids were just as likely to play variations of Cowboys and Indians. There was a pop-cultural mythology to draw from with the Gunfighter, and with public boogeymen like Geronimo and the Dalton Gang.
By contrast, there were few, if any, named soldier-heroes in their fiction. Certainly not characters as towering as the ones found in Westerns. That might be because WWII was still fresh in the public consciousness. Sure, John Wayne played in war movies, notably The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Longest Day. But while his characters were always square-jawed and tough, none were as invincible as his cowboy heroes.
If you think about it, that's only natural. My dad's generation knew men who'd fought at Iwo and Normandy. And while they certainly looked up to and respected these men, seeing them up close—and so soon after the action—reduced them to human scale in the popular imagination. The mythology of the war hadn't had a chance to grow up around them, and it wouldn't for another decade or so. They weren't Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" yet. They were just immediate family, friends, and neighbors.
This extended even to the bonafide heroes of the war.
Never mind that Audie Murphy did more in real life than most fictional commandos ever will. The fact he was still a living, flesh and blood man made him appear less mythical than other folk heroes like Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp.
Ironic, because First Blood author David Morrell has stated in interviews that he partly based his original conception of Rambo on Murphy. The idea of a troubled war veteran at home was one of the pieces that took hold of his imagination, and inspired him write one of the greatest thriller novels of all time.
From Printed Page to Silver Screen
Note: this section contains mild spoilers for the books and films discussed.
First Blood was published in 1972, and introduced the world to Rambo. If you're familiar with the 1982 film of the same name, then you're familiar with the plot. Drifting Vietnam vet and Green Beret Rambo is hassled and hustled out of town by a local sheriff. He bristles at this treatment, and begins pushing back, until it escalates into an explosive moment of violence at the jailhouse. Escaping into the woods, Rambo must evade the largest manhunt in state history, led by the same sheriff.
Much like Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, if you're only familiar with the Hollywood treatment of the character, then you don't really know him. The novel's Rambo is much more of a sympathetic villain than a hero, and the movie's villain, Sheriff Teasle, is far more heroic and admirable in Morrell's book.
Naturally, the Stallone film made significant changes. The script turned a morally complex struggle into a more straightforward story of an underdog being harassed by the authorities. The movie's body count is much lower (just one, and it's an accident; a fact most people forget in the wake of the uber-violent sequels).
The biggest change, of course, is that Rambo survives the movie's climax, whereas Morrell's book gives him a tragically fitting end.
Along with Kurt Russell's performance as Snake Plissken in 1981's Escape from New York, Stallone's version of Rambo helped usher in the 80's era of Action Movies. While both Escape and First Blood are somewhat sedate, cerebral films, the decade's box office would come to be dominated by an archetype that blended Russell's rough, cool, demeanor and Stallone's raw physicality.
The Action Movie tough guy, typified by Stallone's performance in the First Blood sequels, Schwarzenegger's Commando, and anything starring Chuck Norris, was usually a military or ex-military badass.
Whereas traditional, John Wayne-type war movies emphasized the camaraderie of the platoon, the Action Movie commando was usually alone, fighting hordes of disposable enemies with nothing but his rippling muscles, a machine gun, and maybe a little karate. If he was lucky, he had a team, but they usually didn't survive through the third act, necessitating the Action Hero squaring off against the villain mano-a-mano (or tank to helicopter, in the case of Rambo III).
The Shootist was published in 1975, and it deals with the death of the last great gunfighter of the American West, J. B. Brooks.
In the novel's opening, we learn that Brooks, a larger-than-life figure in his youth, and a man who always lived life on his own terms, is dying of prostate cancer. He decides he doesn't want to go out in bed, wracked with pain and too feeble to stand. So he looks for an opportunity to die the way he lived: on his feet, facing life head-on, with his guns in hand. In the process, he befriends a middle-aged boarding house proprietor named Bond Rogers, and her young son Gillom.
It's a deeply moving story, one dealing with themes of modernization, violence, and facing death with dignity. It's as much about the death of the West itself as it is about the death of Brooks.
The Shootist was made into a movie in 1976, the last to star legendary actor John Wayne. Criminally underrated, and sticking close to the source material, the film was a fitting swan song to Wayne's career, one he spent playing the type of characters J. B. Brooks used to be before sickness and old age caught up to him.
In addition an aging Wayne, the film features performances by classic Western film stalwarts like Jimmy Stewart, John Carradine, and Harry Morgan. The movie also opens with a montage of scenes from Wayne's earlier Westerns, under Gillom Rogers' narration describing J.B. Brooks' life and career.
Simply put, this film—arguably even more than the novel—unfolds as if it knows it's saying goodbye to an era of mythic storytelling, one that dominated the American psyche since the age of the dime novel. Like Brooks himself, it's trying to be the last of the "heroic" Westerns, going out on its feet, on its own terms, with guns in hand.
From Six Shooters to Uzis
Looking back, you can't readily blame the influence of blockbuster action films for trickling down to inspire G.I. Joe. The "classic" G.I. Joe toy line debuted in 1982, the same year as First Blood's cinematic adaptation, and the 80's Action Movie as a defined genre wouldn't really get going for another couple of years. Direct inspiration simply wouldn't have been possible.
Rather, there was just something in the social zeitgeist of the time. The Miracle on Ice gave everyone a proxy for victory in the Cold War. Reagan was in the process of re-building our military, creating a budgetary arms race that eventually spent the Russians into submission. The economy was good. Americans felt good about being Americans again.
It was this overall zeitgeist that fueled the creation of both the 80's G.I. Joe line, and the 80's Action Hero.
It's hardly surprising. If the "Tough Cop who Doesn't Play by the Rules" is the hero we can associate most with the 70's (via Dirty Harry), then it's easy to see why America was eager for a change. There's a gritty, grimy realism to those old 70's cop thrillers. And while the "Rogue Cop" archetype may be good for audience catharsis, he also serves as a stark reminder of an overall corrupt and lethargic system. After all, Dirty Harry was at least partly a response to public anxiety about the police being unable to catch the Zodiac Killer.
The 80's Action hero, with all the flash and boom of special effects behind him, is another animal entirely. Even when he's nominally a cop (or, as in the case of Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs, a commando turned cop), the Action Movie hero took on the bad guys with guns, explosions, and a macho swagger his nihilistic 70's counterparts couldn't match.
These weren't stories of lone men doing the right thing against an uncaring system. They were stories of men at war against the Bad Guys.
And they were winning.
That said, the mano-a-mano fight at the end of a typical 80's Action Movie has far more in common with the classic Western's high noon showdown than it does anything in a traditional war movie.
Whereas classic war movies give us stories of valor in the face of uncertainty, the 80's Action Movie gives us stories of strength and courage against easily identifiable villains. Faceless Japanese soldiers aren't enough here. The evil Russian officers in Rambo III and the corrupt ex-soldiers in Commando are Black Hats, just as surely as the outlaw Liberty Valence was. The audience jeers at them the same way a wrestling crowd jeers at a heel, and they're paying good money to see them shot down in the climax.
The 80's Action Hero is, in effect, an updated gunslinger, transported from the dusty streets of Dodge City to the jungles of the South America, the deserts of the Middle East, or the high-rises of Los Angeles.
In a way, Regan was the most fitting President we could have had at the time. In a decade where an updated gunslinger dominated our pop culture, who better to serve as leader of the free world than a former Western movie star?
Riding off into that Saigon Sunset: Commandos to Capes
The disillusionment of Vietnam is arguably what killed the "heroic" Western. The movie most often given credit for ending the genre is Pekinpah's The Wild Bunch, with its gritty, graphic violence. Pekinpah himself wanted the climactic massacre to feel more like a firefight on a hot LZ than a showdown, and few would argue that he missed the mark.
Westerns after The Wild Bunch just weren't the same. Any filmmaker trying make a Western had to rely on grit, deconstruction, and revisionism to be taken seriously. From 1969 on, the bright, hopeful Western was largely a thing of the past.
Similarly, the Post 9/11 era killed the Cinematic Super Commando. While "straight" Action Movies had already declined somewhat in popularity by the late 1990's, the fall of the Twin Towers and the wars in the Middle East made it impossible to take a John Rambo or a John Matrix seriously anymore.
After all, it's hard to buy into Invincible Super-Soldiers mowing down waves of terrorists when simple, roadside bombs are sending planeloads of real soldiers home in flag-draped coffins. The IED and the insurgent have reduced the larger-than-life, cinematic Super-Soldier to human scale. With the war in Afghanistan entering its 20th year this fall, it's doubtful the old archetype will return to popular consciousness any time soon.
If the Cowboy Gunslinger was my dad's generational hero, and the Invincible Super-Commando was mine, then the current one is undoubtedly the Comic Book Superhero. He provides the same kind of escapism that Westerns and Action Movies used to, complete with the easily identifiable Black Hats and the mano-a-mano showdown.
Time has marched on, and our default heroes have traded in their Uzis and camo for superpowers and spandex, just as surely as they traded in their six-shooters.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, back to that question my wife asked me a few days ago, and my answer.
I find it fascinating that two of my all-time favorite books are a Western about the death of the last Gunslinger, and a thriller about the first modern Super-Commando (even if he is arguably the bad guy). I didn't read either of them until later in life, well after I'd already been immersed in the existing archetypes of both genres.
When I first read Morrell's book as a teen, I was shocked by its departure from what I—and everyone else in my generation—thought the Rambo character was. The Shootist I only read last year. Like Morrell's book, it's grittier than the film it spawned, refusing to flinch from the ugliness and the regrets carried by a man who has outlived the bad times. It takes the mythical Gunslinger typified by Jack Schaefer's Shane, and reduces him to human scale.
Two books. One that explores the passing of the archetypal hero from my dad's generation. The other, inadvertently, giving birth to the archetypal hero for mine.
I suppose it just means I'm a product of my generation, in one way or another. And that while each generation will have its larger-than-life heroes, sometimes the most memorable stories are the ones that take those titans, and simply examine them as men.
I ended up talking about Westerns with some buddies of mine the other day. More specifically, we spent a great deal of time talking about Jack Schaefer's classic novel Shane, and the 1953 film of the same name.
If you've never read it or seen it, I highly encourage you to do so. It's a story that deals with themes of courage, manhood, the morality of killing, and the struggle against an untamed wilderness.
It's not just a classic tale of the American West. It's arguably the classic tale of the American West.
In fact, scholar and critic Will Wright made that same point in his landmark survey of the Western film, Six Guns and Society. Wright argued there were four basic plots to the Western: the Classical Plot, the Revenge Plot, the Transitional Plot, and the Professional Plot, each one differentiated by how "society" (usually represented by the frontier town) deals with the presence of the gunfighter.
And while he admits that Shane isn't the first story to use the Classical Plot, he convincingly argues that it's the definitive example of one. Simply put, Shane is nearly the Platonic ideal of everything the Classical Western should be.
Which is why it should definitely go on your viewing/reading list if you're planning a Dungeons and Dragons game.
Yes, I'm serious. Fact is, Westerns make up a big part of the missing DNA of D&D, at least the way most people play it today.
And sure, plenty of folks fancy themselves "Old School" players. Maybe they've even read a good chunk of Gary Gygax's Appendix N for inspiration. They can quote Vance's The Dying Earth chapter and verse. They've ripped off Leiber's Nehwon as a ready-made campaign world. They've even turned the people and places from Leigh Brackett's Mars stories into weird, exotic locales.
That's fine. But they should be probably be turning to Leigh Brackett's Rio Bravo, instead.
The missing bit of DNA I'm talking about is the Domain Game, the higher-level game where player characters clear a chunk of wilderness, build a fortress or tower, and set about running a a safe-haven against the forces of Chaos running rampant in the world.
Rules for that state of play were clearly baked into the oldest editions of D&D, with the ability to build castles and attract followers being treated as a level perk for 9th level and above in AD&D. OD&D didn't even have a rule stating the characters needed to be a certain level to begin. All they needed was a pile of gold, a plan, and ambition.
Of course, this state of play heavily implies a world with vast sections of untamed wilderness in need of settling, with all the attendant problems that creates: steady supplies, a struggle against nature, and keeping law & order against the violent hooligans.
In other words, it's implying a setting with the exact same problems, factions, and conflicts you'd find in any story set in the American West.
This is no accident.
Even a casual glance at Appendix N—or at the recommended reading lists in B/X and OD&D—reveals a heavy presence of Golden Age writers inspired by the Great Westward Expansion. That whole setting and era was very much a part of our American Myth at the time, and it was only natural to see parts of that Myth play out on the sands of Barsoom or the primeval forests of the Hyborean Age.
Of course, most modern players don't take their inspiration from American pulp writers like Burroughs and Howard. They follow the school of fantasy descended from Tolkien: extensive world-building, in minute detail, with plenty of lore about the cultures, races, and regions found on the map.
What they're missing is that in its earliest incarnations, D&D was a game about filling in that map. It was about adventurers exploring a hostile land, looking for gold, and eventually carving out a tiny slice of civilization there.
That's a Western, folks. No matter how many Tharks, Picts, or Orcs you try to cover it with.
If you want to create a truly unforgettable game for your players, don't bother trying to create a vibrant, overstuffed campaign world for them to explore. Give them an empty map on the edge of the world, a hostile wilderness full of ancient ruins and unimaginable treasures... but only for the daring.
Give them the opportunity to expand it.
And if you have no idea how you'd even run a game like that, I suggest you put down the SFF reading for a couple of weeks. Sit in for a movie-marathon of classic Westerns. Grab a stack of pulp Western paperbacks while you're at it.
Either way, I'd suggest starting with Shane.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.