I've been listening to a lot of latter-day Johnny Cash lately. And while the sentiment might get me strung up in some purist circles, I believe the American Recordings sessions represent the absolute apex of Cash's considerable career.
That's not meant as a slight against anything Cash recorded in his earlier days. Especially not At Folsom Prison.
Cash was just an artist who kept aging into his voice well into his late sixties, a man who sounded better the more his voice took on that gravelly timbre. His musical style also benefitted from the raw, stripped-down style of the American Recordings. Some of the best tracks on the American releases were just Cash and his acoustic guitar.
Personally, I'm glad they were the final releases of his career. They're the most fitting swan song I can think of for the Man in Black.
And while Cash's cover of "Hurt" gets most of the attention, with songwriter Trent Reznor famously quoted as saying "that song isn't mine anymore," the fact is Cash made a habit of doing flat-out amazing covers during this stage in his career. And for my money, most of them blow the originals out of the water. His versions of U2's "One," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" are just a handful of examples.
But my favorite of all the American Recordings—original or cover—is Cash's rendition of Marty Robbins' classic country ballad, "Big Iron." If you've never had the pleasure, I strongly urge you to take a few minutes to give a listen.
Anyway, this recent Johnny Cash kick probably had something to do with me grabbing John Benteen's Alaska Steel off the TBR pile on my way to the VA clinic a couple of weeks ago. I had a long day ahead, with several hours to kill between appointments, so I wanted some good, old-fashioned escapism.
It was a good choice.
In case you've never heard of Benteen, a brief primer: Benteen was an early pseudonym for novelist Ben Haas. And while he'd later go on to great literary acclaim with books like The Chandler Heritage, The House of Christina, and Daisy Canfield, much of his early work was in the pulp western genre.
The Benteen name was the one Haas used when writing the Fargo series, about professional soldier of fortune Neal Fargo. Taking place in the early 1900s, the Fargo series sees its hero traveling around the world, taking dangerous jobs for money. A rough wanderer with a talent for fighting, Fargo has been described by fans of the series as "Conan with a shotgun." And that's pretty damn accurate.
Alaska Steel is #3 in the series, but like all good pulp or adventure fiction, you can read them in any order. Here's the tagline:
"Fargo went north to find a beautiful woman's husband—and to make sure he was dead!"
Folks, that is how you grab a potential reader's attention!
The book opens in 1914, with Fargo between jobs. He's got a temp gig as an actor in Hollywood, mean-mugging the camera and falling over after fake gun battles. But as good as the money is, it's got him feeling hollow. He's itching to get on the move and into the wider world again. He craves the action of a real life-or-death fight. He's contemplating heading south, where the Mexican Revolution is heating up, when a job lands in his lap courtesy of movie star Jane Deering.
Deering tells Fargo that she recently heard from a lawyer representing her estranged in-laws. Apparently, her husband's dirt-poor parents struck oil on their land, shortly before dying in a car accident, and her husband now stands to inherit a fortune. The problem, Deering says, is that she hasn't seen her husband in more than five years, not since he ran out on her to seek his own fortune in the Yukon.
Her proposition is simple: she wants Fargo go to Circle, Alaska, where he was last heard from. It's worth a lot of money if Fargo can find proof that he's still alive. But Deering promises him an even bigger cut if he can prove her husband is dead.
The rest of the book follows Fargo and Deering as they trek up to Circle, seeking answers to the whereabouts of her husband. The man's name triggers a murderous rage in some quarters, and Fargo has to fight for his life more than once. Whatever happened in Circle, no one is willing to talk about it. It soon becomes clear there was more to Deering's missing husband than Fargo suspected.
The climax is the kind of explosive action Haas excels at writing. No high noon shootouts here. We get an all-out war in the streets of Circle, an over-the-top, balls-to-the-wall finale of gunfire and grade-A violence. There is a final, mano-a-mano moment between Fargo and the villain. But saying much more would spoil the ending.
And I highly encourage any fans of action, adventure, and good old fashioned shoot-em-ups to track it down and experience it for themselves.
Getting to the end of Alaska Steel, I realized how refreshing it was to read an unashamedly masculine story that didn't wink and nod at the audience for a change. Fargo is a man's man. He's only interested in fighting, drinking, and women, and he gets down to business with all three. He's as tough, as cool, and as professional as they come.
He's the kind of hero facing the kind of problems that are played for laughs in most quarters these days. Honestly, the tagline for Alaska Steel sounds almost like something that the Man Plots Twitter bot could have come up with.
With its shirtless Ernest Hemingway avatar and its cheeky offer of availability for script rewrites, Man Plots randomly drops pulp fiction buzzwords into an "elevator pitch" sentence, generating 3—4 action story ideas per day.
Folks, this Twitter account is a gold mine.
And while the whole thing is meant to as a joke, the sad fact is that at least half the ideas it spits out sound better than the neutered, anemic shit Hollywood is passing off as action these days. I'd take any of those plots—and their stoic, hard-bitten heroes—over the mainstream's idea of a "masculine" protagonist any day of the week.
There's an interesting exchange in the first chapter of Alaska Steel. One of Haas' side characters, movie star Roy Hughes, is talking to the movie's director. The director has just expressed incredulous rage over Fargo turning down the promise of a big studio contract to go join the Mexican Revolution:
"Don't you see?" Hughes tipped back the big sombrero. "He's not like the rest of us. We're phonies. And phony things don't satisfy him." There was envy in his expressive eyes. "If I was man enough, I'd trade places with him in a minute."
Neal Fargo inhabits a changing world. The wild places are becoming civilized, and the real struggles for survival are being replaced with phony copies, meant to entertain softer men than him. But Fargo himself is still a man of action. And he actively seeks out the places where his action will have meaning.
To a modern reader in an increasingly sedentary and regulated world, there's something powerful about that idea.
Understanding that idea isn't—and never has been—a joke is what separated the great pulp and men's adventure writers from the winking and sneering postmodern takes we get now. It's what gives their work the same timeless quality as Johnny Cash's soulful rendition of "Big Iron."
In a letter to his son Joel, Ben Haas said the following about writing a pulp western: "All Westerns are fairy stories and outlets for impotent people. The villain must be larger than life; the hero larger than the villain. These are dream-fulfillment books."
Haas knew the reader was reaching for a temporary escape. He created characters like Fargo to give it to them without any hint of holier-than-thou irony, smirking, or subversion.
Haas believed in the Man Plot, back when the Man Plot wasn't a punchline.
Some of us—myself included—still do.
Unsurprisingly, the debate concerning gender roles in Sword and Sorcery rages on...
Morgan Holmes' latest article on the subject offers a compelling look at the raw numbers, in addition to some more anecdotes and observations about the shifts that occurred in the publishing industry. If you've been following the argument with any interest, I highly recommend it.
Anyway, in a comment below the article on social media, Jason Ray Carney made the following statement:
"It seems you’re making incompatible claims in order to strategically adapt to changing rhetorical needs (the hallmark of tendentiousness). In the past you claimed that epic poetry endures and appeals widely because it manifests something like universal, anthroprological insights and lessons about being a human male; now, when that same appeal to universality is deployed against you, the spirit moves you and you become cultural relativists. Where was this enlightened, relativistic view of culture when you were discussing masculinity and epic poetry? Can’t you see what you’re doing?"
To clarify, Carney is referring to a comment I made some weeks back under a separate thread, where I drew comparisons between the Men's Adventure genre, Sword and Sorcery, and the heroic tradition exemplified by epic poems like Beowulf and The Iliad.
I responded (briefly) in the thread, but I wanted to organize and expand my thoughts on that comparison here. What follows is likely my last word on the subject for now, a sort of "closing argument" from Brain Leakage.
The fact is, I've only encountered other people reading The Iliad in two places.
The first one was in the classroom, where it was assigned reading. The guided discussion there hewed fairly close to what Jason Ray Carney talks about when he mentions our "gender-neutral, all-too-human struggle against (and inevitable defeat by) time." A major topic of the discussion was mortality, and the finite nature of life.
The second place was in the Marine Corps, where several of my buddies passed a copy around the barracks. We ended up discussing it late nights over beers, while cleaning weapons at the armory, and while hanging out around the smoke pit.
The subject of those talks?
The courage of Hector, standing alone before the walls of Troy. How that courage momentarily broke when he was faced with the wrath of Achilles. How he found it again, to stand and face his own death. Achilles' desecration of Hector. His eventual remorse and mercy towards the grieving Priam.
In short, we were discussing what warrior virtues were and weren't modeled by the characters. Granted, we used more f-bombs and euphemisms for female anatomy than most scholarly works on the subject do.
But those raw, profane, and—above all--sincere discussions by a bunch of young men in the barracks had something those classroom sessions lacked.
We were engaging with the story in its natural habitat.
You see, tales like The Iliad and Beowulf weren't born in the classroom or the lecture hall. They weren't even born in the grand auditoriums of the classical world.
They were born by the fireside.
Long before these stories were ever written down, they were oral tales told to young warriors and would-be warriors, modeling idealized warrior behavior. Songs of great men to inspire and instruct the neophytes, as they sharpened their spears for the coming battle.
Glory and immortality went to those who displayed strength and bravery. Dying a glorious death was better than running away. Honor meant loyalty to your king, loyalty to your home, and loyalty to your brothers.
Simple lessons, but timeless ones. And still applicable to modern warriors.
Which, of course, raises the question: what about warrior behavior is distinctly masculine? Aren't idealized warrior traits as "gender neutral" as Jason Ray Carney's "all-too-human struggle against (...) time?"
No, they're not.
Historically, men have been expected to serve and perform as warriors in a way (and on a scale) that women simply haven't. Yes, there have been examples of women warriors throughout history. Nancy Wake and Leigh Ann Hester spring immediately to mind.
But no matter how many Nancy Wakes or Leigh Ann Hesters a society produces, its women as a whole will never be judged by their ability or failure to perform as warriors.
But its men will be.
Strength, fighting prowess, and physical courage aren't considered masculine traits because only men can display them. They're considered masculine traits because only men are ever judged deficient for lacking them.
And sure, you can say that's an outdated definition of masculinity. You can call it backwards, sexist, regressive, or whatever other word you want to throw at it. You can even call it "toxic," if you want to use the fashionable term.
Hell, you might even be right.
But those young men huddled around that Bronze Age fire? The ones listening to tales of Achilles to bolster their courage? I don't think they'd agree. Neither would those foul-mouthed young Marines, discussing the same stories almost 3000 years later.
I'm going to close with a quote from an article I wrote for DMR Books back in January:
"Critic Damon Knight once made the half-assed assertion that 'the human race has never produced and never could produce such a man' as Howard's Conan. I say anybody who believes that has obviously never heard of Arminius, Miyamoto Musashi, or Audie Murphy.
The fact is, there's a damn good reason so much of storytelling throughout human history has focused on men like Achilles, Hector, and Brian Boru. A society with a heroic tradition is a society that produces men capable of heroic acts. There's a primal, almost intrinsic need for these stories.
It's a need that few writers understood as well as Robert E. Howard."
So my most recent post created a little bit of a stir.
In case you missed it, I joined in on a debate between masculine culture writer Jared Trueheart, pulp sword and sorcery expert Morgan Holmes, and scholar Jason Ray Carney. I agreed with Jared and Morgan that sword and sorcery is a subset of the venerable Men's Adventure genre, and that it serves much the same purpose: delivering thills and chills to its primarily male audience.
To reiterate and clarify my position a little, I think that--like the post apocalyptic genre—S&S can do more, and can speak to universal human truths. But it absolutely must function as an exciting, thrilling S&S story first. Otherwise, its just an essay masquerading as a S&S tale.
Carney disagrees. He feels the primary purpose of the genre is to do more, and speak to those universal human truths.
One person who agrees with him was respected S&S writer David C. Smith.
On the incredibly off chance you're following this debate but are unfamiliar with him, Smith authored and co-authored several Robert E. Howard pastiches, including the six-volume Red Sonja series. He also created the well-regarded Oron series.
In a lengthy comment on my post, Smith offered insight into the publishing industry of the 1980's, shifting markets, and the work of writers intentionally pushing the genre's boundaries.
Despite Smith coming down against my position, I don't see that many of his observations actually refute it. In fact, Smith's point about "masculine-oriented S&S" gradually giving way to epic fantasy and YA fiction just reinforces the idea of the genre being primarily written for and marketed to men.
But his main argument—one contradicting the point referenced above—is that nobody is trying to get rid of the old-school masculine fiction. In his own words:
"And why be so threatened by an intellectual such as Jason Carney who wishes to discuss the gender boundaries of a genre when such new fiction is included with, but does not replace, the old-school masculine fiction?"
"No one wants to take away the 'visceral' fiction, as Daniel Davis calls it."
"Why are you so hung up on this one specific image of masculinity? Would you prefer to keep all of the bookstore racks as they were in 1981? Can't you just relax and enjoy the wealth of masculine fiction that continues to be available? It's a fair question."
Leaving aside his attempt to frame me as somehow "threatened" by an opinion I simply voiced a disagreement with, Smith's right.
It is a fair question.
I just wonder if before he asked it, he'd heard the news that scriptwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge is shaking up the iconic—and inarguably masculine—James Bond franchise by replacing 007 with a new female agent.
Quoting the article:
"Bond, of course, is sexually attracted to the new female 007 and tries his usual seduction tricks, but is baffled when they don't work on a brilliant, young black woman who basically rolls her eyes at him and has no interest in jumping into his bed. Well, certainly not at the beginning."
"This is a Bond for the modern era who will appeal to a younger generation while sticking true to what we all expect in a Bond film,' the source added. 'There are spectacular chase sequences and fights, and Bond is still Bond but he's having to learn to deal with the world of #MeToo."
"Waller-Bridge, who wrote the BBC comedy Fleabag and the female-led thriller Killing Eve, was recruited to ensure the 57-year-old franchise moved with the times. She said: 'There's been a lot of talk about whether or not Bond is relevant now because of who he is and the way he treats women. I think that's b******s. I think he's absolutely relevant now. [The franchise] has just got to grow. It has just got to evolve, and the important thing is that the film treats the women properly. He doesn't have to. He needs to be true to his character.'"
Reducing the cool, suave, and hyper-competent Bond to a man "baffled" by rejection? Replacing him with a brilliant young woman who simply rolls her eyes at him and displays no interest in jumping into his bed? Forcing him to confront his history of sexual harassment?
With apologies to Mr. Smith, that sounds an awful lot like "replacing the old-school masculine fiction" to me.
Ms. Waller-Bridge's comment is the one I find the most illuminating. In other words, she's saying Bond can be "true to his character," provided the movie takes pains to portray him as backwards and wrong.
Which brings me back to a point I made near the beginning of last week's post. Genre fiction doesn't have to apologize for what it is, or what audience it's trying to court. That's true whether we're talking about a suave secret agent, a savage barbarian, or a certain red haired she devil in a chainmail bikini.
Turning Bond into an apologetic, baffled parody of himself in hopes of pulling in a broader audience isn't going to work.
For starters, we've seen it already. And with respect to Ms. Waller-Bridge, it was funnier when Mike Meyers did it.
Here's a quick question for all you younger readers out there. And by "younger," I mean anyone under 40.
Do you remember the Men's Adventure genre?
You know. Stories about tough guys doing tough guy things. Mack Bolan. The Executioner. Phoenix Force. William W. Johnstone's post apocalyptic Ashes series. Or his amazing standalone adventure, The Last of the Dog Team.
They always featured their alpha male heroes in exotic locations, getting into fist fights, knife fights, and gun fights. The women were always fast and dangerous. The bad guys were always powerful and ruthless. The covers usually depicted some hard case with a gun, striking a tough guy pose with a scantily clad woman nearby. Maybe she had a gun of her own, watching his six. Maybe she was just clutched onto the hero, begging his protection.
Politically incorrect? Maybe. But so what?
As anyone who's been following my recent post apocalyptic reviews can attest, I'm a believer that escapist entertainment doesn't have to make any apologies for what it is, or for what audience its trying to court.
One critic who shares that opinion is pulp sword and sorcery expert Morgan Holmes. In this interview with Legends of Men, he rightly points out that the sword and sorcery genre is a subset of Men's Adventure fiction, and that it's aimed primarily at an audience of young men.
Unsurprisingly, Morgan's opinion ruffled some feathers.
This lengthy response to Morgan's interview by scholar Jason Ray Carney makes the case that sword and sorcery is primarily a gender neutral genre, less concerned with action, adventure, and alpha-male archetypes than with depicting human frailty in the face of natural forces. It also contains this doozy of a quote:
"Gender aside, sword and sorcery dramatizes our gender-neutral, all-too-human fight against (and inevitable defeat by) time."
With all due respect to Mr. Carney, I couldn't come up with a less-exciting description for the sword and sorcery genre if you held a fucking gun to my head.
To give him some credit, Carney isn't entirely wrong. Sword and sorcery has always had a strong element of cosmic horror to it, and man's futile struggle against the universe—and time—is a big part of that.
But let's be real, folks.
Nobody is reading a story like Robert E. Howard's "The Queen of the Black Coast" because it "dramatizes our gender neutral, all-too-human fight against... time." We're reading it to see Conan get hot and heavy with Belit, raid and plunder the Black Coast as her pirate king, and finally take bloody vengeance on the unholy creatures that killed her.
We're reading it for the fantastic settings and the visceral action. We're reading it to vicariously experience thrills we can't in our day-to-day lives.
What's more, the people writing and marketing these stories understood that. Howard deliberately wrote scenes of scantily clad women in peril, knowing it would ensure a lurid cover illustrated by Weird Tales great, Margaret Brundage.
Sex and action are big sells, folks. They always have been. They always will be. And their expression is almost never "gender neutral."
Don't believe me? Check your grandmother's garage. You'll probably find a giant box of paperbacks in there, several of them featuring a shirtless Fabio on the cover as he passionately embraces the heroine.
I suppose if I tried, I could write an essay arguing that those books really aren't aimed at women at all, and in fact dramatize our gender-neutral, all-too-human struggle against loneliness. But nobody would buy that argument. Least of all not a bunch of lifelong romance novel fans.
I don't read sword and sorcery for what it has to say about my own crushing and inevitable defeat by the marches of time. I read it to experience the hot-blooded action of Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast," the weird and tantalizing thrills of Fritz Leiber's "While the Sea King's Away," or the lust-and-honor driven vengeance of Michael Moorcock's "The Dreaming City."
In other words, I read it to get the same thrills I get from the Men's Adventure genre, with the added layer of supernatural or cosmic horror on top. And I'd bet good money I'm not alone.
But then, according to Carney, I'm probably missing the point.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
As I mentioned last week, I have a certain set of criteria that I judge post apocalyptic stories by. Yeah, musing on complex themes is great. Having something to say about human nature is good, too.
But let's be real. Nobody watches a movie like Hell Comes to Frogtown for its insights into the human condition. We watch it to see "Rowdy" Roddy Piper kick amphibian ass from one end of the wasteland to the other.
That same principle holds true for undisputed genre greats like Mad Max: Fury Road and Planet of the Apes. Sure, we might walk away pondering the deeper questions, but that's incidental. We walked in the door looking for car chases and monkey society gone amuck.
In short, the post apocalyptic genre is its own thing. And even the bona fide classics have to be good apocalyptic stories before they can be anything else.
With that in mind, here's my list of vital genre elements, followed by my numerical "Rad Scale."
Violence - Being serious for a moment, violence is where the post apocalyptic genre gains most of its thematic power. After all, nothing says "woe to the the hubris of man" like two guys finding a reason to kill each other in the aftermath of an atomic war.
But even if the cause of the apocalypse is something else, like an alien invasion or a cosmic event, violence is an essential part of the genre. It harkens back to our early days as a species, when fighting and killing for limited resources was a part of everyday life.
Bottom line, even the talkiest, most drawn out bomb-shelter soap opera needs violence—or at least the implied threat of it—to have any kind of tension.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins - Haunting, lyrical descriptions of the world gone by. Beautiful, panoramic vistas of silent cities. Gratuitous destruction porn.
This is at least half of what brings the audience to the table. In movies, it's everything from scenes of wholesale nuclear annihilation to old junk cars on the side of the road. In books, it can be in the physical setting descriptions, a blocky info dump, or even just implied in the dialogue.
However it appears, it needs to adequately convey the fall of the old world. And it needs to be good.
Dystopian Survivor Society - Some groups survive the end times by tenaciously clinging to the last shreds of civilization and decency. This is the other kind of group, the one that becomes a savage mini-dictatorship or a totalitarian hell hole. If human rights exist, they're probably on the menu right alongside the human lefts and the charred horse flanks. Pretty much always the bad guys.
Futuristic Bloodsports - Maybe they're a stand-in for war. Maybe they're bread and circuses for the post apocalyptic masses. Maybe they're even a commentary on our contemporary addiction to violent entertainment.
Let's just call this one what it is: a thinly-veiled pretext for our hero to take part in a deadly game of skill and ruthlessness. Don't overthink it. Story elements this awesome don't need any justification.
Barbarian Hordes - Sometimes they're biker gangs. Sometimes they're feral subway dwellers. Other times they're horseback riding neo-Mongols, armed with compound bows and assault rifles. Whatever form they take, these are the people who dealt with the collapse by rejecting civilization and embracing their inner pack hunter. Often—but not always—the bad guys.
Badass Warrior Women - Imperator Furiosa. Kushanna from Hayayo Miyazaki's Nausicaä. Nurse Spangle from Hell Comes to Frogtown. A good apocalypse is an equal opportunity hell hole. Nothing conveys this faster than some women kicking cannibal ass alongside the men.
Watch Thou For the Mutant - Human beings survived the end. But that doesn't mean they survived alone. Or unchanged. Anything from monstrously mutated plants and animals to humans with extra limbs and psychic powers.
The Rad Scale:
One Rad - Those Lost During the Fall. These are the apocalyptic stories that commit the genre's cardinal sin: they actually bore reader or viewer. Many of them contain no action or plot. Expect most of the genre's "deconstructions" and "fresh meditations" to fall right here.
Two Rads - The Chattel of the Aftermath. Usually plagued by muddy execution, dragging plots, and too much filler. That said, these stories will sometimes contain moments or concepts that bring them just shy of cult classic status. Mediocre to solidly entertaining. Most of the genre's missed opportunities fall here.
Three Rads - The Wasteland Wanderers. These stories form the backbone of the genre. Most will have moments of genuine brilliance, but fall just short of greatness. Cult classics and genre stalwarts usually land here.
Four Rads - Warlords of the End Times. Most of these films and books are genre-defining classics. Any others are forgotten masterpieces that deserve to be classics. The best of the best.
Five Rads - A Legend of the Wastes. These stories represent post apocalyptic perfection. Practically flawless. Also as rare as unmutated livestock.
So there you have it, Wastelanders. My personal criteria for judging apocalyptic books and films. My next post will jump right into it.
COMING UP NEXT:
George Miller's original 1979 classic, Mad Max.
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.