New voices in Cosmic Horror are a dime a dozen. Unfortunately, good new voices in Cosmic Horror are just a bit harder to come by. All too often, the writer takes the tract of "just add tentacles" with no real understanding of what makes a Cosmic Horror story actually work, let alone any inkling of how early writers of the form like Lovecraft and Smith used baroque language and Gothic imagery to build atmosphere.
Which is why I was so happy to finally get my hands on an early review copy of Matthew Pungitore's new collection, The Report of Mr. Charles Aalmers. This slim little collection offers up tales of madness, horror, and existential dread alongside the occasional moment of haunting, gothic beauty. And it's all told in a florid style, one newer writers mostly seem to have forgotten how to use effectively.
Readers, I'm here to tell you that Pungitore hasn't. If you've been looking for a writer whose prose style falls somewhere between that of Poe, Lovecraft, and Smith, Pungitore might just be the man to scratch that itch.
But what about the subject matter?
Well, if you want some idea whether or not this book is for you, there's a line in the title story that that offers a perfect litmus test. How you feel about the following sentence is more or less how you're going to feel about the book:
"Humans were never meant to plumb reality without nepenthean delusion afore their minds."
That line, both similar in subject to, yet stylistically different from Lovecraft's more famous "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents," pretty much perfectly encapsulates everything Pungitore is trying to do here. He's dealing with the same themes of Cosmic Horror, but he's doing it in his own unique voice, one much more influenced by older Gothic writers.
That said, this book is no simple Lovecraft pastiche. You won't find any of the Gent From Providence's Old Ones or Elder Gods, nor any mention of the Necronomicon. Pungitore, instead, has done the much harder work of creating his own interlocking mythos in these tales, subtle call backs and references to Abbeys, characters, and events that may or may not have happened in the characters' consensus reality.
That's an achievement in itself, and one that far too many "new weird" writers would shy away from even trying at this stage in their careers. Especially when low-hanging fruit like shoggoths, Cthulhu, and Nyarlathotep are all right there.
So why am I putting this under "Conservative Culture Review," instead of just doing a simple review column? The answer is in the way Pungitore handles religion, which is something I honestly believe sets him apart from just about anyone else writing this sub-genre right now.
The characters in many of these tales are God-fearing, often Catholic folks. As such, when they're confronted with the idea their belief system didn't account for the cosmic horrors and alien gods they encounter in the forgotten corners of the Earth, they don't react as "men of science" clinically describing the breaking of their own minds.
They react like men of faith, literally "losing their religion" in the face of a greater devil than the one they were taught to guard against by the church fathers. In other words, Pungitore took Cosmic Horror, re-examined it through the eyes of the devout, and used that lens to make it feel scary again.
After decades of snarking, cynical takes on the subject, Pungitore's refreshingly straight example of what Cosmic Horror can actually be is just the shot in the arm the genre desperately needed.
If you're a reader of Cosmic Horror, buy this book. Experiencing these stories through the eyes of Pungitore's characters will give you the same kind of thrill you had the first time you discovered the genre.
If you're a writer of Cosmic Horror, buy it, read it, but more importantly, pay attention. Pungitore has found one of the keys to making the genre work again, and he's applying it in a way that feels damn near effortless here.
With all this crowing about how impressed I am with Pungitore's ability to create atmosphere, build his own mythos, and make a tired genre feel scary again, I should probably say something about the stories. All 11 of the tales on hand were solid, entertaining reads, but the following ones left the strongest impressions.
The title story is the clear standout of the collection. It's a multi-layered tale about a Medievalist, his unrequited love for a working partner, and their discovery of a previously unknown chapter of Arthurian Myth with sinister implications. The middle section of this tale, in which the narrator recounts the lost myth, has an entirely different feel to the rest, one that strongly recalls Lord Dunsany's lyrical fantasies. The story's smooth tonal shift from Lovecraftian search for lost knowledge, to whimsical fantasy, back to Lovecraftian-style search, demonstrates an awesome level of skill on Pungitore's part. In lesser hands, this "story within a story" device would be jarring. Here, it just accomplishes the intended purpose of making the world feel older, richer, and far stranger than the narrator previously believed.
"Black Torque Demon" is a tale of knightly valor, honor, and love, centering around a quest to lift an ancient curse. The order of the Black Torque Knights gives aid to lepers, pilgrims, and wounded vagrants. Sir Goswin vows to accompany his betrothed, the Lady Adelaide, to pray with them and work alongside them, a holy act which will lift the decades-old curse on her family. But curses don't go away so easily. Another great stand-out tale in the book.
"Idyll for an Allhallowtide Masque and Romance" is another almost Dunsanian tale, the story of a midnight dance with a mysterious masked stranger in the Massachusetts woods that leads to the classical Other-world of myths and legends.
"O Tumult Unearthly" is one of the two overtly Science Fictional pieces in this collection, taking place in the year 2642. The narrator is the sole survivor of a starship wreck, one rescued by a crew of mercenaries. He relates the nightmarish things he experienced, both before and after the crash. The visions of the future Pungitore presents here are downright hellish. Fans of the film Event Horizon will find a lot to like here.
"Jade Gorget Hex" is a story where Pungitore flexes a slightly more hard-boiled pulp influence. That said, it's still recognizably a part of this collection. The gothic atmosphere and baroque language are still front and center in this tale of a mercenary hired to recover an ancient artifact in some unspecified, cyberpunk-ish near future. Delightfully weird.
All in all, I recommend this collection to fans of Cosmic Horror, classic weird tales, and Gothic-infused fiction. Pungitore is a stylist who "gets it" when it comes to creating an effective mood on the page. Furthermore, he actually has the confidence to play the tropes of the genre dead straight. No winking at the audience, no subversions, no "too-clever-by half" takes. Just good, old fashioned horror tales, like the kind Grandpa H. P. & Great Uncle Clark Ashton used to make.
If that's not deserving of your attention at the beginning of 2021, I don't know what is.
The Report of Mr. Charles Aalmers will be released in paperback and ebook on March 21. You can preorder it here.
Last week, I took some random Twitter dumbass to task for mocking the idea conservatives have a culture. That post wasn't just meant as a "point and laugh" moment, however. I also wanted to highlight and call attention to some conservative works in my own little neck of the arts, SF and Fantasy. To that end, I included a list of writers and publishers who adhere to a couple of basic principles, ones that conservative readers I've talked to tend to value highly:
Admittedly, that last one is likely due to a heavy dose of selection bias, as I tend to run in Pulp circles these days. On the other hand, what else are all these "subversive" takes in mainstream entertainment attacking, if not those first two points?
Anyway, I don't plan to rehash that post here. I'm putting my money where my mouth is in regards to highlighting conservative works in the genre, so this is the first in a series of reviews. First up is Singaporean author and Hugo and Dragon-Award nominee, Kit Sun Cheah, with the first volume of his Dungeon Samurai trilogy, Kamikaze.
Kamikaze begins in a dojo in modern-day Japan, where 19 year old Yamada, his best friend Hiroshi, and their fellow students are studying traditional sword arts. Cheah doesn't wait to kick the story off, as by the end of the chapter, a demonic entity has whisked the entire class off to another world, a place resembling a small island.
The demon, Yamada learns, has summoned people from various times and places in history for its own entertainment, and it's been doing so for some time. The demon's terms are simple: it is waiting at the bottom level of a dungeon. As soon as the people get there and kill him, they are free to go.
Unfortunately, it hasn't been an easy task. At the humans' Roman Army-like encampment, Yamada learns the operation to clear and take territory in the dungeon has been a years' long process, and they aren't even close to the bottom yet. Hundreds have died, and each time the numbers dwindled, the demon has gleefully offered to summon more "replacements" from Earth, the latest batch of which includes Yamada and Hiroshi.
After being appraised of the situation, Yamada and the rest of the new arrivals are also hit with the harsh truth: food supplies on the island are limited, and no one in the camp eats unless they pitch in and help with their assigned tasks, be it support, medicine, or fighting. In other words, they're all being drafted into the war against the demon. As the title suggests, Yamada and Hiroshi are selected for service as dungeon delvers, their martial arts experience being the single most valuable thing either brings to the community.
All this is really just the first few chapters' worth of set up, which Cheah gets out of the way skillfully and efficiently, so the reader can enjoy the main show. The bulk of the book is a richly-detailed military fantasy, albeit one that takes place in an RPG-inspired world. It's a blend that works wonderfully. Instead of the usual gaming tropes of adventurer's guilds and grinding for XP, we get a host of tropes swiped from MilSF, like a realistic boot camp sequence, war as boredom-punctuated-by-terror, and the importance of espirit de corps and morale in a combat zone.
Cheah has called Dungeon Samurai the "Anti-LitRPG," and it's easy to see why. Contrary to most of the genre, his heroes don't begin with super powers, and never get overpowered at all. This is dungeon-delving from the grunt's eye view, not from the video game super hero's.
In that sense, it reflects a traditional, old-school value set the rest of the LitRPG subgenre seems to lack. Yamada and his classmates aren't video game addicted shut-ins, suddenly given a chance to play out some power fantasy. They're hard-working athletes, boys who know the value of sweat-equity, discipline and teamwork. Moreover, the situation they're caught in reinforces the need for these values as a survival trait. Their new community is depending on these boys to quickly become strong men, and Yamada and Hiroshi are eager to prove themselves up to the task.
Religion is also an important part of Dungeon Samurai, and not just in the standard "Cleric-class as healers" trope found in most game-inspired fiction. Cheah's characters are men and women ripped from their daily lives, and dropped into unimaginable hardship. Add to that the very real and tangible evil of the demon--something the modern characters like Yamada thought of as imaginary before the story opened--and their faith is all they really have to keep them going.
What I want to call special attention to is the realistic and subtle way Cheah handles it. The struggle to take the dungeon is a slog, like any long military campaign, and Cheah uses the quiet moments in between operations to explore how each of his characters acclimates to his new situation. Primarily, we experience the island through our viewpoint protagonist Yamada and his Shinto faith. But we also get hints about Christian Hiroshi, whose faith makes him sort of an odd-man-out during downtime sequences. He spends religious services with the Westerners in camp, and Hiroshi sees less and less of him when they're not on missions. That said, neither man ever treats the other as anything less than a blood brother. It's a realistic depiction of how clashing faiths, but close relationships, play out in a combat zone.
The other important relationship in Yamada's life is his blossoming friendship--and possibly romance--with young shrine maiden, Katsura. She represents something of a break from the regimented, militaristic life Yamada has found himself in, a small breath of normality in a truly abnormal world. Their relationship is sweet, chaste, and courtly--genuinely not the kind of thing you see much of in mainstream fiction these days.
The battle scenes are well-drawn and exciting, and Cheah's vision of what military life would be like in a game-inspired universe is worth the price of admission alone. It's LitRPG with a layer of trail mud, blisters, and the sore and aching soldiers only an infantryman could appreciate. He's also made it much tougher for me to take the rest of the genre seriously, even as light entertainment. I keep imagining how the average isekai or LitRPG protagonist would fare dropped into the FOB of Cheah's dungeon, with a squad running patrol Ops in the harsh, unforgiving dark. The answer isn't usually good.
Bottom line, Cheah has written a book that's sure to appeal to gamers of all stripes, be it Old School D&D players, console-era players, or modern MMORPG fans. What's more, he's brought back a sense of tactical and strategic thinking to dungeon delving, and married it to his knowledge of real-life martial arts and combat. The result is the single most refreshingly original isekai or LitRPG published in the genre in years, and I'm mad I slept on it for over a year before reading it.
Kamikaze is available in e-book and paperback from Amazon. It has two sequels, Kama no Kishi and Seisen. If you're last-minute shopping for the gamer in your life, there's still time to get the entire trilogy in hardcopy before Christmas.
Take my word for it. They'll be happy you did.
This Tweet came across my feed earlier today.
Leaving aside both the bad-faith argument and the level of sheer bufoonery on display, I thought it deserved an honest response. Not so much for Mr. Black's benefit, since people who pose such questions are never looking for understanding.
Rather, this post is meant as a rally point. Something those on the right can point to next time some dumbass makes a comment like Mr. Black's.
If culture begins with storytelling, then conservative culture begins with the idea that things like Patriotism and Christianity aren't automatic punchlines or villains. For decades, "subversive" takes on these subjects have been the dominant storytelling mode in Hollywood and Big 5
(now Big 4) publishing.
And it's tiresome.
There are only so many times an audience is willing to pay good money to see itself and its values mocked. Sooner or later, they want entertainment choices that don't paint them as ignorant, evil, or both. If major media companies can't provide it, they start looking elsewhere.
The most comprehensive take on this subject is, of course, Brian Niemeier's book, Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You. I highly recommend it. You might not agree with everything he says, but that doesn't change the fact that he's right.
If anything, comments like Mr. Black's only serve to reinforce Brian's message. Black can't conceive of a "conservative culture" that isn't a repressive caricature of Christian values. The conservative worldview is so foreign to him, he literally had to use villains from an 80's movie to make his point.
The comments beneath his aren't much better. Several are worse. None of them line up with reality.
That said, there is a definite conservative culture, especially in SFF. Most conservatives I know gravitate to fast-paced adventure fiction over deconstruction and subversion. They want to read about people solving problems instead of navel-gazing, and they want strong heroes that reflect their personal values.
Here's a partial list of writers who deliver just that:
Jon Del Arroz
Bradford C. Walker
Kit Sun Cheah
Adam Lane Smith
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention two excellent publishers: DMR Books and Cirsova Magazine. If any publication can truly be said to have inherited the spirit of Weird Tales and Argosy, it's Cirsova. They specialize in the same kind of fast-paced adventure fiction many of the above writers do. DMR books specializes in classic-style Sword & Sorcery and Sword & Planet. They've released high-quality reprints of Golden Age classics alongside original fiction from modern masters of the craft.
Which segues into my next point.
Another great pillar of conservative culture--especially in SF and fantasy--is old stories, particularly the pulps. Classic writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft are well known enough to casual genre fans. Their most famous creations are household names even to non-readers. But there are plenty of other, equally important pulp-era writers that have been largely forgotten, writers like Abraham Merritt and Manly Wade Wellman.
Conservative culture is also about reading and rediscovering these stories, and keeping them alive for new generations of readers.
If you need a roadmap, the two best resources for getting into old stories are The Pulp Archivist, and Jeffro Johnson's Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. The Pulp Archivist regularly posts on classic fiction from the Golden Age. Jeffro's book is an excellent primer and overview on the SFF scene as it existed before 1980. As a bonus, you'll also get lots of great insights as to how old pulps and the 1960s-70s SFF scene shaped early Dungeons & Dragons.
You want to see what real conservative culture looks like? Follow some of those guys. Better yet, read their books. Read the old ones, too, to see the style of storytelling they want to preserve, and what some of them are writing in conscious tribute to.
As for closing the rift in popular culture? That's a much taller order. Honestly, it might not be possible anymore. But if you're serious about it, then step one is to stop treating half the culture like the punchline.
Say one thing for Alexandru Constantin: you can't accuse him of being a man who complains without taking action.
Case in point: when he felt there weren't enough conservative voices in the critical sphere--an opinion he is far from alone in sharing, by the way—he decided to organize the Short Story Book Club. His stated goal is two-fold: create a body of conservative, countercultural criticism, and draw more attention to indie writers overlooked by mainstream media outlets.
I believe both of these ideals are 100% worthwhile, so I'm throwing my hat into the ring to help out.
The fact that the first story Constantin selected for this project is Schuyler Hernstrom's awesome novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City?"
Man, that's just gravy.
I first reviewed Hernstrom's story two years ago, when he released it as a standalone e-book on Amazon. You can find that spoiler-filled review here, and it still sums up my overall feelings on this story: It's a balls-to-the-wall awesome piece of science fantasy, the likes of which no one outside the #PulpRev community is writing anymore. It's also a brutally sincere and final rebuttal of Ursula K. Le Guin's Hugo-award winning parable, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
I'm not going to rehash my old review here. Rather, I'm going to expand on it with a couple of details I noticed during last night's reread of both Le Guin's "Omelas," and of Hernstrom's vastly superior "Mortu and Kyrus." It's also probably going to be just as spoiler-filled as my first review, so be forewarned.
That said, a brief aside before continuing with the analysis:
In terms of pure entertainment, I can't recommend Hernstrom's story enough. And if all you're craving is a dose of pure, adrenaline-filled awesomeness with alien ruins, axe-wielding barbarians, motorcycles, and talking monkeys, then stop reading this review NOW. Buy Hernstrom's new collection, The Eye of Sounnu from DMR Books, which is where you can read this slice of pure heavy-metal havoc.
I promise, you won't be disappointed.
Reader, time has not been kind to my opinion of Le Guin's piece. I've never been much of a fan, mostly because the moral premise it presents is shoddy at best, but certain passages that I overlooked on previous readings jumped out at me last night.
In a nutshell, Le Guin's parable envisions a "perfect society," a perfectly happy city called Omelas, where that happiness is somehow maintained solely via the horrible abuse and neglect of a single child locked in a basement. The parable then talks about the "ones who walk away" upon learning of this suffering. They leave the city, never to return, and this is presented as "remarkable."
In previous readings, I guess I focused mostly on the "stinger" of the horribly abused kid sitting in his or her own filth, because I didn't really remember much of Le Guin's description of her vision of what Omelas' "perfect" society must look like—she repeatedly reminds the reader that they can picture Omelas however they like, as the details don't matter, just as long as the reader believes what he or she pictures.
Anyway, this short excerpt is rather telling, but the emphasis at the end is mine:
But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, and horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas—at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be? I thought at first there were not drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial.
Apparently, utopia is a place of guilt-free orgies in the streets, cheap drugs, and no soldiers. Not to mention no organized religion or temples. In other words, the perfect society—or at least the outward veneer of one—is a hippie Utopia.
Color me shocked.
At any rate, what's especially fascinating to me is that last part in Le Guin's excerpt, the part about no soldiers.
To casually dismiss "the sense of victory and the celebration of courage" felt by soldiers as "the joy built upon successful slaughter" is—at best—a remarkably narrow-minded view of what fighting men actually do, and why they do it. Soldiers fight for many reasons, not least of which is to preserve life from hideous vultures like the ones in Omelas.
Incidentally, the word she's looking for to describe that odd, swelling-in-the-chest feeling about victory and courage? It's "honor."
And no, I won't presume the unnamed narrator of Le Guin's piece is acting as a mouthpiece for her personal beliefs. However, I will say that it's no wonder her narrator—who only sees a soldier's honor as a celebration of killing for killing's sake—can't imagine of any response to evil other than meek compliance or running away.
A coward's worldview can only conceive of coward's solutions, after all, and Le Guin wrote a damnably convincing one.
Compare this to Schuyler Hernstrom's characters, when they encounter a more fleshed out version of Omelas in his White City.
When they learn this near-perfect utopia is maintained through stealing the life-force of orphaned children, Christian monk Kyrus wants to go get reinforcements from the nearby city of Zantyum. He wants to raise an expedition to bring the evil denizens of the White City to justice. Barbarian Mortu, however, refuses to wait that long. His response is destined to become one of the classic lines in Sword & Sorcery fiction:
"You may talk of cities and justice all you wish. Tonight, the pagan wins. My anger will be sated and these wicked people brought to ruin."
He then stalks out into the night to deliver bloody justice on the end of a blade.
Fortunately for lovers of action and adventure, Hernstrom's White City isn't quite as peaceful or devoid of soldiers as Le Guin's vision of Omelas. There's enough violence on display at the climax to be satisfying without being the least bit gratuitous, especially Mortu's final duel with rival Tomas.
Their exchange during the climactic fight is another one that escaped me last reading, among all the other great lines Hernstrom delivers in this tale. Again, the emphasis is mine:
...Mortu smiled down at him and spoke. "The souls of the children cry out for vengeance."
That exchange might as well be a thesis statement for this tale, and for why I love these two characters so much. In Mortu and Kyrus, Hernstrom gave us a pair of heroes who couldn't just walk away from Omelas. He gave us heroes who not only had to do something, but who had both the courage and strength to tear the whole rotten thing down to its foundation.
Of course, that's a solution requiring a less cowardly worldview than the one presented in Le Guin's story. For one thing, it requires such "fearful" and "trivial" things as honor, a subject about which her narrator apparently knows nothing.
Fortunately, the same can't be said for Mortu and Kyrus. Nor could it be said, one would suppose, for Schuyler Hernstrom.
This Tweet from writer Alexandru Constantin crossed my feed a little over a month ago, and like all good truth bombs, it's been stewing in the back of my mind ever since:
I'll have a great deal more to say on this subject in the coming weeks, because it touches on more than I can really drop into one single blog post without rambling.
Suffice to say, plenty of folks in my Twitter timeline have been talking about Westerns this past month or so.
I suspect there's a good reason for that.
With much of the country living under lockdown orders, restricted to "essential" travel only, and having to abide a government-mandated list of new social protocols when out in public, it's not hard to see the appeal of stories about rugged loners living by their own rules. Nor is it difficult to see the appeal of books and movies that dwell on the majestic beauty of wide open spaces.
Above all, Westerns are stories about personal freedom. After so many weeks being told where we can and can't go, how close we can and can't get to people, and what businesses we are and aren't allowed to patronize anymore, who can blame viewers for looking to John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Yul Brenner for a little cathartic release? Sure, the sound of a booming sixgun and the sight of a dying cattle baron or two might not get us out of lockdown any quicker.
But damn, will it feel good.
That said, here are a few suggestions as to where to start looking at the quintessential American Fantasy.
I first read this novel by Jack Schaefer back in middle school, and have probably watched the classic 1953 film version over a dozen times. It's one of my father's all time favorite movies, and every time we watch it together, he repeats Shane's taunt to the villainous Wilson (Jack Palance) out loud during the climax: "I've heard that you're a low-down Yankee liar!"
The story of a wandering gunfighter who temporarily finds peace after hiring on for a season with the Starrett family, Shane is pretty close to being the most archetypal of all Westerns. Both the film and the novel are awfully close to perfect in terms of execution. Themes of manhood, life on the frontier, family, and coming-of-age all come together in this tale. Book or movie? Take your pick. I heavily recommend both.
If you only ever see—or read—one Western, make it this one. You'll be richer for the experience.
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance
I watched this movie a few weeks back at Alexandru Constantin's recommendation, and it immediately become one of my top Western films. Directed by genre titan John Ford and starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance is about a young tenderfoot lawyer named Ransom Stoddard (Stewart), and his arrival in the town of Shinbone. After being brutally victimized by the titular Valance (Marvin), Stoddard attempts to get the locals to organize a legal response through the marshal. But local tough hand Tom Doniphon (Wayne) scoffs. He knows the only law out west comes from the barrel of a gun. And as far as he's concerned, it's in Stoddard's best interest to learn how to use one before Valance comes back.
The rest of the film is a well-told drama about clashing world views: Stoddard and his steadfast belief in law and order, and Doniphan and his conviction that bullies like Valance only understand one thing.
While most Westerns play with themes of civilization versus lawlessness to some degree, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance arguably handled the idea better than any of them. In fact, it just might be the genre's final word on the subject.
After Shane, I consider this film an absolute must-see.
Elmore Leonard is mostly known for his crime fiction, but he got his start writing pulp Western novels. Hombre is routinely mentioned among fans as one of his best. Published in 1961, it's the story of John Russell, raised among the Apache, but traveling among the white men. When the stagecoach passengers he's riding with realize that Russell's odd ways and mannerisms come from his "savage" Apache upbringing, they refuse to ride with him. They demand he ride up in the boot, next to the driver.
Their fortunes turn quickly, however, when the stage is overtaken by outlaws. Stranded in the desert with no horses, one canteen, and only two guns, the passengers—none of whom regarded him as good enough to share a space with white folks before—are forced to follow him if they want to survive.
More than just a tale of desert survival, Hombre is a story about pride, honor, and doing the right thing, as well as being a tightly-paced chase story. John Russell denies the bandits their money early on, which gives them cause to pursue the stagecoach survivors to the bitter end.
Honestly, Leonard's slim little book is probably one of the best jumping-on points if you want to sample the genre's written works. Faster-moving than Shane and containing none of that book's family drama or coming of age themes, fans of thrillers and mysteries will find a relatively easy transition here.
The 1976 film version starring John Wayne was the last movie the Duke released before passing away. It also reunited Wayne with his costar from The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, The Shootist tells the story of an aging gunfighter dying of terminal prostate cancer.
This simple set-up, however, allows for an incredibly rich and powerful tale.
Set in January of 1901, just after Queen Victoria has died, The Shootist is a story about a modernizing West that no longer has a place for men like gunfighter J. B. Books (Wayne). Automobiles, electricity, and streetcars have come to Carson City, Nevada, alongside the carriages and horses.
And it's to Carson City that Books has come to die. With his diagnosis finalized by his old friend Dr. Hostetler (Stewart), and his days numbered, Books takes up at a local rooming house run by the widowed Mrs Rogers (Lauren Bacall). There, he sets about getting his final affairs in order. He also decides he doesn't want to go out in a stranger's bed, wracked with pain.
If the right people knew he was in town—and on his last legs—maybe the great shootist would have the opportunity to go out on his own terms: standing on his feet, with his gun in his hand, facing down the bad men one last time.
The Shootist is also the story of Books' relationship with the people of Carson City, especially Mrs Rogers and her son Gillom (Ron Howard). More than anything, it's the story of the siren song violence has over the young and the untested. The book goes into this theme in far more detail than the film does, and with much more satisfying results.
I'll have more to say on the subject in a future post, when I compare The Shootist to Eastwood's Unforgiven. For now, let's just say that if you want a less revisionist take on the same themes, The Shootist is the story you're looking for.
The film and the book also contain some sharp observations on the nature of violence and gunfighting, including one of my favorite lines ever given to a Western character when discussing his trade: "It isn't being fast. It is whether or not you're willing. The difference is, when it comes down to it, most men are not willing. I found that out early. They will blink an eye or take a breath before they pull the trigger. I won't."
My personal favorites of all Westerns are the Fargo books written by Ben Haas under the pseudonym John Benteen. The reason being that they're just so damned fun. Haas conceived soldier-of-fortune Neal Fargo after watching Lee Marvin's performance in The Professionals, and reading Fargo's physical description makes it obvious: Campaign cover concealing prematurely white hair, cropped short. Weathered face. Long Jaw. Craggy nose. Solid chin.
Fargo is as much a man's man character as you can get in fiction. He's only interested in fighting, women, and money, and when he has too much of one, he gets restless for the others. Best described as "Conan with a shotgun," the books take place across a 10-15 year spread in the early 20th century, following Fargo as he takes contracts in places as near as Texas, and as far away as the Philippines.
There were 22 Fargo books, of which Haas wrote 17. The one I read most recently was Phantom Gunman, in which Fargo is contracted by a mysterious oil baron to find—and kill—Billy the Kid. Of course, everyone knows Billy the Kid has been dead for over 30 years. Fargo thinks it's a put-on. But the $15,000 payday isn't a put-on. Neither is the deadly-serious gunman who just happens to show up in Lincoln county on the same trail as Fargo. Could there be some truth to the rumor after all?
Like any good pulp series, you can read the Fargo books in any order. While I haven't read the entire series, I've read several, and I haven't encountered a bad one yet. It is worth noting that Haas didn't write Sierra Silver, Gringo Guns, or Dynamite Fever. Many fans who have read the entire run say the writing quality on these three volumes is noticeably different.
So, why Westerns? Or more accurately, why Westerns now?
Like Alexandru says, they are the quintessential American fantasy. There's always been something powerful about the tough loner with a personal code, about a man who ranges the wide open spaces when and where he pleases. That's always been a part of the American fantasy, and I think that's a part of the fantasy we need more than ever right now.
But more than anything else, Westerns are fun. With all that talk of deep themes and stuff up there, what sort of gets lost is how much fun you can have—and how much comfort you can get—from a simple story with real good guys and real bad guys drawn in larger than life terms. A good, old fashioned shoot-em-up, coupled with a little romance and melodrama. Where the bad guys wear the black hats, and the good guys where the white hats.
Maybe that's part of it, too.
The Western gives us heroes, and it gives them to us unapologetically. The genre doesn't have to hide them in layers of irony, self awareness, or self deprecation.
Some might say that's unsophisticated or one-dimensional writing.
I say horse shit. While the daily news cycle is a never ending trash fire, you can keep your chronically depressed, fatally flawed "heroes." I sure as hell don't want to read about someone working through their personal issues right now.
Give me a larger-than life Tom Doniphon, a Shane, or a Neal Fargo. Give me a rat-bastard of a villain, a tense standoff, and a cacophony of roaring guns. Give me something to escape to, damn it. Give me some action, some adventure, and some heroes.
If that's too tall an order for other genres, then pardner, maybe it's time to saddle up and head back to the Mythic West.
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.