I was brought up on Western movies. Growing up in post-war Arizona, I don't think any young kid could avoid them.We were all glued to the TV in the 50's and 60's. All the best stuff happened on TV (and in the comic books). Vietnam war, man on the moon, civil rights, peace demonstrations, late night talk shows (Alan Berg blew me away) and a million westerns played endlessly on that flickering box. And because my family could have cared less about me, I put most of my time learning about the world through the magic box (the Glass Teat, as Harlan Ellison called it).
My grandfather, Harry Fanter, spent the winter with us. He was from Nebraska, so Arizona winters were like summertime to him. With my fathers help, Harry built a little one-room cabin out of a big parking garage we had on our one and half acre lot. It was nice and cozy with a bed, a propane tank, a table and a nice porch looking over our big backyard. He had Black Jack Pershings picture over his bed and when things got too much for me (as they did practically every day), I'd go and sleep on an army cot next to his bed. And, of course, he had a little black n' white TV which we watched all the time. And Harry was a big western fan.
Gunsmoke, Palladin, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rebel, Bonanza, Wagon Train; you name it and we watched it, many times. And I loved the simple stories of courage, bravery and betrayal. You always knew where you stood in a TV western. They made them to the simpilist common denominator. Grandpa and I spent many hours enjoying westerns together. In fact, I can watch a western now and memories of him come flooding back. He died many years ago, but is alive in my mind especially when an old fashioned western is on.
Funny thing is, I never enjoyed reading westerns. Even though comics and then the cheap paperbacks obsessed me from the moment I could read English. Probably due to the fact that my Dad (oh, yes, that wonderful role model) always seemed to have a copy of either Louis Lamour or Mickey Spillane in his back pocket. And I wanted no part of anything he was interested in. So, no westerns in paperback for me.
Imagine my surprise then when I picked up a copy of William Heuman's "Heller From Texas" on a boring weeknight and found myself pulled in to a sharply written, intelligent western that impressed me so much I went out and bought half a dozen more of his books (not to mention all of the ones we had at the Iliad Bookshop where I work).
I've always admired Gold Medal paperbacks and found the publisher's stable of authors to be very high. But I remember them making their mark mostly with hard-boiled detective and mystery stories. After finishing several of Heuman's books (they take about 2 days to read if you stay in the saddle for long periods), I had the thought that maybe these Gold Medal westerns are written to the same hard-boiled formula as the mysteries were. And after some research, I am convinced that this is the case. Quick action, clearly defined characters in a dramatic environment; liquor, the sheriff (law) and a big, bad heavy surrounded by tough guys that the hero (usually an outsider) has to fight through to get to the secret of the town. Not the perfect hard-boiled format, but close enough. Love to actually research this fully and find out if any of the editors (are they still alive) at Gold Medal shaped the westerns this way intentionally.
Then Heuman led to Lewis B. Patten which led to A.B. Guthrie, Jr and then on to Gordon D. Shirreffs, Richard Meade and Elmer Kelton. In the last month, I seem to have made up for missing all of these great western writers in my youth. Kelton, in particular, is an author that stands above the rest. While most of the writers I've mentioned tend to use western tropes and cliches in a variety of ways, Elmer Kelton does not. He is truly and original; thoughtful, unique characters in a plot that is drawn from their weakness and strengths as people. Insightful writing about the historical period and a wonderfully drawn background. Elmer Kelton is the first western writer I've read who also brought politics and ideas into the world of his novels. It's not for nothing that the Western Writer's of America named Kelton the greatest western writer ever.
The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., surprised me, too. Of course, I had seen the movie many times and was expecting something much less violent and dark. The story of Boone Caudill just gets darker and darker until it seems to surface in the world of Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" (another genius western). I was continually amazed at how bleak and cynical the book was. And yet, there is a philosophical argument about just that attitude in the book. As if the author is using characters to argue points he is debating himself. Scene after scene pulls you in and grips you. I read the new Houghton Mifflin/Marriner books version in trade paperback and recommend it highly. The intro by Wallace Stegner is a marvel.
And I've got a pile of books to go through still. Clifton Adams, more Lewis B. Patten, Ernest Haycox, William Hopson, Luke Short, Norman Zollinger. And even though I have zero space on my bookshelf, I've managed to get an separate shelf just for my paperback westerns. The covers are tremendous. I could write about them for pages and pages. Check the covers page and you'll see what I mean.
And finally, women. Yes, the women are mostly types in these novels. But there seems to be a little bit of stretching going on at least in the books I've read so far. Lewis B. Patten's "Track of the Hunter" has a wonderful but grim plot of a late middle-aged woman and her adopted half Apache sons coping with the murder of their husband/father. They want to find out what happened and will stop at nothing. Only one example of a strong, individually minded female character slipping in to a usually all-male world.
Oh, and the role of the stranger is an interesting one. Over and over a stranger comes into town and uncovers a secret that changes everything. Dostoevsky's "The Possessed" and Knut Hamsun's "Mysteries" deal with this kind of theme, too. It's fascinating to see it in good popular fiction. Would love to dig into this theme some more.
I've provided scans of the book covers for y'all and as an added bonus, I decide to read aloud short sections of three of the books I enjoyed the most. Hope you find it interesting.
Too bad my Dad didn't look at some of the other authors sharing the shelves with L'amour and Spillane. Perhaps he could have learned a little empathy and courage from reading Elmer Kelton and Lewis B. Patten.
PS lot of good info on reading westerns on the net. Western Writer's of America is an excellent site with bios, award lists and recommendations that are good ones. Believe it or not there is still a publisher (in the UK) putting out western hardbacks. Black Horse Westerns started in 1986 and are published mostly for the British lending library market by Robert Hale, Ltd. They manage to get a new book out just about every month. Mostly modern authors re-interpreting the classic westerns, but they get a reprint in now and then. Their blog is pretty good, too.
One of their authors is David Whitehead who has done a great service to western readers like myself by creating a superb website devoted not only to his own work, but to the western novel in general. His "Brief Overview of Western Fiction" is my bible when I go shopping for westerns.So far, there hasn't been a book he's recommended that hasn't been great. I'm particularly interested in some of the really sleazy westerns from the 70's that he mentions. And I'll certainly be including some of his own books on my reading list.
I've always enjoyed good book design. Covers, in particular, have interested me every since I bought a stack of Ace scifi paperbacks because I was thrilled with the cover imagery back when I was working at my first bookstore job in the late 1960's.
As I grew older and understood more of what went into designing and publishing a book, I began to understand that sometimes the designers were only creating a cover image that they thought would sell the book regardless of whether the image had anything to do with the story.
The covers for Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy of books (Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance) have caught my attention because they really do reflect the story that the author has written. Published by a literary publisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) who rarely venture into genre publishing, the designs for the American covers are vibrant and strange using a single thematic image for each book. Created by noted artist Eric Nyquist, they get several things right: the size of the story/theme, the color palette for all three books is spot on with the mood and the single image represents a telling moment in each individual novel
Mr. Vandermeer has put together a Flickr gallery of cover's from different countries (U.S., UK, Spain, etc). I am particularly fond of the UK covers as I think they capture some of the idea of structure in each of the books. Couldn't find the name of the designer, but if anyone who is reading this knows, please email me so I can update this post.
The Japanese covers are fabulous with just the right mix of lurid/strange and formal design. They are my favorites of all of the cover designs.
front cover of the New Annotated HP Lovecraft
Happened to catch the modern novelist, Charles Baxter's, screed on Lovecraft disguised as a "review" in the very intellectual New York Review of Books (12/4/2014).
Among other predictable complaints about Lovecraft (terrible writer with no sense of style, appeals only to adolescents, a racist, shut in, et al) Baxter tries to understand why Lovecraft is still so popular and comes up with the partronizing notion that Lovecraft only appeals to like-minded people (morbid, paranoid, suspicious).
Here are few "gems" from this so-called review (little mention of Les Klinger's annotations; no mention of Alan Moore's introduction).
"His narrators cannot calm down; the fever never breaks. Accordingly, simple human decency, kindness, and generosity have no place anywhere in the stories. Their emotional range is limited to dread on one end of the spectrum and hysteria on the other".
"In my judgment, Lovecraft’s true staying power as a writer can be attributed to his chilling depictions of death-in-life, the one subject in which he could claim genuine expertise".
"After both world wars and the atrocities of recent history, Lovecraft’s horrors seem like quaint, construction-paper toys created by someone who did not get outside much—he never went to Europe—and who built his puppet theaters out of whatever was lying around."
Thankfully, we have S.T. Joshi's brilliant reply to Charles Baxter's review. Joshi is a Lovecraft authority and has written extensively on the "Weird Tale" tradition that Lovecraft drew on as a writer. He's also written the definitive biography of Lovecraft (I Am Providence).
front page of STJoshi.org
Here are some lovely quotes from this well-written riposte to Baxter's awful review. I chose comments that focused on racism, the adolescent claim and his (Lovecraft's) connection to the Weird Tale tradition in American Literature:
"Charles Baxter appears determined to pigeonhole Lovecraft as a writer of interest only to “adolescents.” While it is true that a substantial number of Lovecraft devotees initially read him as adolescents, a fair number of these fans grow up to be reasonably mature writers in their own right who continue to draw upon Lovecraft’s writings for aesthetic inspiration"
"Baxter goes on to assume—based on a stray comment made early in his career (“Adulthood is hell”)—that Lovecraft himself remained an arrested adolescent. In fact, he was largely successful in overcoming the severe psychological damage resulting from his early upbringing (he was raised by two parents who were borderline psychotics) and became a surprisingly well-adjusted and outgoing individual, and one who exhibited a keen interest in the world around him."
"There is also the question of exactly how much racism enters into Lovecraft’s fiction. Baxter maintains that it is central. Another reviewer of the Klinger book—John Gray, writing in the New Republic—offers a different opinion: “Fortunately, the core of his work has nothing to do with his social and racial resentments.” I am inclined to agree with Gray. Such things as atheism, devotion to science, and love of the past are all far more central to both his philosophy and to his fiction than racism."
"The upshot of all this is that Lovecraft developed, in the course of a relatively short career spanning less than twenty years, a highly coherent aesthetic of the weird and developed a prose style that he believed was appropriate to its expression. Whatever one may think of Lovecraft’s prose, I would suggest to Mr. Baxter that he be a little less intolerant when assessing work that doesn’t accord with his own presuppositions."
I've just picked up a gorgeous edition of Russian author Nikolai Gogol's The Collected Stories, published by the Folio Society and illustrated by Peter Stuart. I'm always impressed with Folio Society publications, but with this one they seem to have out done themselves.
My only complaint is that they use the old Constance Garnet translation. A good article on her various flaws as a translater can be found at the New Yorker. It would have been marvelous if the Folio Society had comissioned a new translation from that genius team: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who have completed changed our notion of Russian writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevesky and Bulgakov.
In any event, the Garnet translation is certainly readable, so it's not a deal breaker. Where the Folio Society have scored is in choosing Peter Stuart to illustrate the volume. Amazing work by a remarkable artist. Here are some examples of his illustrations from Gogol's The Collected Stories:
Peter has also illustrated several other books for the Folio Society, most notably Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Robertson Davie's The Deptford Trilogy. For more of this brilliant animator's work, try is website peterstuart.com.
I recently acquired four new Ross MacDonald vintage paperbacks and wanted to share them. Ross MacDonald is one of my favorite American mystery writers. He was the first mystery author to receive a front page review in the New York Times Book Review (Underground Man, reviewed by Eudora Welty) and he was instrumental in taking the mystery genre out of the pulps and into literature. I still think he tops Chandler and Hammett in his writing skills. You will be richly rewarded if you venture into your local used bookstore and pick up one of his Lew Archer novels.
You can find more about Ross MacDonald here
I can't seem to stop reading the remarkable trilogy of novels by Jeff Vandemeer collectively titled The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance). The one volume hardback edition came out last week and I've dived into it with no lack of enthusiasm considering it's my third reading.
“That's how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.”
― Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation
What makes these books so fascinating? They are beautifully written for one thing and a pleasure to read. The depictions of nature (the southern Florida landscape/seashore) are remarkable and crystal clear. Plus, the story is so involving/moving that the characters and situations are becoming part of my own life memory.
There are scenes in these three novels that will shock you, creep you out, amuse you, move you and anger you (among only a few reactions to the characters/story). And the characters are like Lovecraft channeling Henry James: they are characters with many levels and a complex inner life.
The books are about death, obsession, how our modern culture is despoiling nature, first encounter with aliens, obsession and abuse by government. And the monsters...ah, well, you have never encountered anything like it.
These are novels whose stories make the hair stand up on your neck. I urge you to pick up the one-volume hardback, or the first volume in the trilogy: Annihilation. You will not regret it. The journey in these novels is unlike anything you have ever read.