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.
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.
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 going to blame today's post on Alexandru Constantin, who motivated the hell out of me with his resolutions and goals post the other day over on Barbarian Book Club.
Constantin, Jon Mollison, and other writers in the PulpRev movement have been talking about a re-commitment to blogs over social media spaces in 2020. So consider this post my first step in solidarity with them.
Not that I plan to abandon the Beast that Tweets, mind you. It's been a remarkably good thing for me this past year. Among other things, it's introduced me to guys like Constantin and Mollison. And it was Mollison who helped inspire one of the biggest things I've got on the table for 2020.
But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, here.
Before I get into the things I have on the burner for 2020, I want to take a brief look back at what I learned from the wreckage of 2019's writing year.
Longtime readers of the blog will remember that I wrote a similar "looking forward" post a year ago. I took myself to task for my failure to accomplish the previous year's writing goals, and I laid out my goals for the upcoming year.
Of the four upcoming projects listed there, only one of them came to pass: more blogging, including the guest post over at DMR Books' blog.
Blogging is about the only thing I'm going to put down as a win for 2019. I got barely any fiction written in 2019, and none published. But I did keep a fairly consistent blogging schedule. And that turned out to be a much bigger deal than I expected.
Doing that forced me to create some regular columns, like my 'Pocky-clypse Now reviews and my Kitbashing D&D series. Both of those proved to be popular, and have managed to get me some regular readers.
Several posts of mine got shared in regular PulpRev and OSR gaming blog roundups, like Castalia House Sensor Sweep, The DMRtian Chronicles, and Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog. Each time that happened, I've reached a wider audience and gained new readers.
One of those posts--in which I discuss D&D's baked-in, apocalyptic assumptions—flat-out exploded in popularity, generating 10,000 unique page views, a 300+ comment debate on Facebook, and a comment on my site from Luke Gygax.
All of which is small potatoes in Internet terms, I know. But considering that I'm a Twitter nobody with less than 200 followers, it's pretty damn impressive.
Bottom line, I'm thankful to all the PulpRev and OSR writers I've linked up with through my blogging in 2019. The most important lesson learned this year is to keep it up, and to keep it consistent. To that end, I'm going to have more of what worked in 2019: More 'Pocky-clypse Now reviews, and more D&D and gaming related posts.
As to the rest of the projects I mentioned in that "2019 and Looking Forward" post:
The project I didn't want to talk about never got the official traction, meaning it's more than likely dead in the water. That could change, but I'm not optimistic. In all likelihood, the IP holder has lost interest and moved on.
On the plus side, the other creators I was working with behind the scenes are all talented people, and we've stayed in touch. If nothing else, it will eventually lead to a pooling of resources on other projects.
The lesson here—if there is one—is to always be open to possibility, but never be reliant on outcomes. If the IP holder emails me tomorrow, I'm still more than happy to drop everything and get to work for them.
But until then, I'm afraid it's just going to remain stuck in creative limbo. C'est la vie.
The ambitious self-publishing project I mentioned was an attempt to try writing a Japanese Isekai-style light novel series. I was attracted to the idea of slightly-longer-than novella length stories, cranked out at high volume. And I've always like the idea of second-world fantasy.
But the damned thing kept falling apart on me. I hated my protagonist. I couldn't make myself root for him, which meant I couldn't make myself write him. The story became a slog.
I eventually set the thing aside in frustration, deciding that it was just a genre I wasn't equipped to write. It was months later, when I ran across this little bit of writing advice from Misha Burnett, that the reason I hated my protagonist clicked.
Bottom line, I was breaking Burnett's rule #1.
In following the Isekai "earth loser gets reincarnated to a world of adventure," I realized I was opening an action adventure story like a frat-bro comedy. I was introducing the earthbound "hero" in a way that showcased him as a self-centered loser, and then trying to build him up through gradual change to a selfless, mature adult.
That change works great in a Seth Rogen comedy, where the goal is to get the audience to laugh.
But it works like absolute dogshit in an action adventure.
The lesson here? Embrace the mantra of the PulpRev. Regress harder. Traditional storytelling tropes work, traditional heroes work, and Man Plots are not ironic. And while I'm probably not going to circle back to that Isekai project anytime soon, I definitely won't be afraid to give my main characters some balls in 2020.
The second self publishing project I had planned for 2019 was dependent on the other two succeeding, so I can't really say much about it without spilling the beans on that first one. What I can say is that it was supposed to be a tabletop RPG.
Which is a nice segue into what's on the burner for 2020.
A couple of months back, one of Jon Mollison's offhanded comments about "Fantasy Effing Vietnam" got my mental wheels spinning. It was an older term I hadn't heard before, but that's mainly because I spent next to zero time online when the term apparently popped up in the mid-2000's. That first blog led to a few more, where I imagined what house rules and tweaks I'd use to mimic a hypothetical "Fantasy 'Nam"-type setting, in which the adventurers were unwilling, under-prepared draftees, and the goblins were a ruthless, brutally-competent guerrilla force.
Anyway, at the request of some readers, what started as a series of time-killing blog posts has now morphed into a full-blown, OSR-compatible RPG supplement.
My plan is to have it play-tested, formatted, and edited for release in the early part of 2020. More blog posts will be coming in the next few weeks, detailing some more of the features, rules, and the thoughts behind them.
I also plan to have another go at self-publishing novels this year. Adam Lane Smith's Write Like a Beast--reviewed in depth here—has made me seriously re-think my own outlining and drafting process. I plan to give his method a try, to see if it works for me. At the very least, a new avenue of approach should bust some of the rust off of my own methods, even if I do eventually go back to them.
I'm also armed with some new knowledge of the things I was doing wrong, courtesy of writers like Smith and Burnett.
Lastly, I have another guest blog at DMR Books coming up this month. Once again, Deuce Richardson and Dave Ritzlin are doing me the honor of inviting me to participate in DMR Books' New Year's Guest Bloggerama. Just six days in, and they've already had some fantastic writers covering some amazing subjects. I was humbled to be a part of it last year, and I'm equally humbled to be part of it again this year.
Bottom line, 2020 is going to be a full and interesting year. And I plan on grabbing it by the Man Plots.
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.
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.