Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ups and Downs Along The Way

The Way of the West
Leisure Books
October 2008
Long Ride, Hard Ride
by Elmer Kelton

The Way of the West appears to be an experiment by Dorchester Publishing’s Leisure Books, one that has not been repeated. It is a trade paperback, a larger size (8¼ by 5¼) than the smaller mass market paperback, and sells for $12.95. The reason for the experiment is not entirely clear. There are only three short novels included in the volume, one original by Cotton Smith, one from the late pulp era by Elmer Kelton, and one by Max Brand that is often reprinted. Leisure may be marketing this package for the library market where larger books may get more attention. Your average reader of Westerns, though, is probably not going to plunk down twice what it usually costs for a standard paperback that contains only marginally less fiction. Too, there really isn’t a consistency in the type of stories told, or the way they are told. West is more of a sampler, which highlights Kelton (the best of those included), who is not part of the Leisure stable of writers.

On to the stories …

Kelton’s entry is Long Ride, Hard Ride and was originally published in the late pulp Western Novels and Short Stories, their April 1953 number. It covers familiar ground that includes the late Civil War era, the Southwest – namely New Mexico – and warbound Comanches. Despite how familiar its themes and scenes are with the reader, as well as with the writer, the novella is fresh and entertaining while at the same time reminiscent of some great movies of the era.

Lieutenant Miles Overstreet is in charge of a motley band of soldiers who are more at home in a stockade than sitting on Confederate Army mounts. Overstreet came afoul of a jealous superior and was cast into New Mexico where Southern interests were being overrun by Federal forces. Most of his men hate him, and the feeling is mutual.

By chance Overstreet stumbles upon information that leads them to a hacienda where a cache of arms, ammunition, and gunpowder await a Union train of heavy wagons. Overstreet’s dreams of glory suddenly come alive again as he plans to capture the train and take the much needed weapons to Confederate forces in hopes of fighting back the Union horde.

Comanches are an ever-present danger, like a bogie-man floating in the shadows of the night. But glory for the Confederacy, and redemption for himself spurs Overstreet onward despite the danger and the malevolence of his rebellious men.

With little effort the gray capture the Union troop and their wagons. All of the soldiers head out for a known Confederate location, the blue disarmed captives. To ensure a passing Union patrol does not fire on the vulnerable wagon train, Overstreet takes a fiery woman named Linda Shafter hostage and seats her prominently atop one of the wagons. She is the daughter of the hacienda’s Union-supporting master. It is Overstreet’s thought that a Union patrol would not hesitate to kill other soldiers, even their own, to keep the munitions from falling into the wrong hands, but they would not kill a woman.

Linda Shafter is the love interest in the piece. Overstreet is stricken with her on first look; she requires a little more time to warm up to him. It takes a Comanche raid and near death for all of them before she does. Although it is an ill-fated love as Overstreet must ride off into the sunset by story’s end.

If Long Ride, Hard Ride wasn’t filmed in the 1950s or early 1960s, it should have been. Everything about it screams motion picture. The proud lieutenant, the rough, spiteful enlisted men, a tough sergeant, a willful yet ultimately pliable girl, an improbable love story, enigmatic Indians, a slimy trader-cum-villain, and a stalwart, almost paternal enemy captain. There are more classic character types, too. Characters that you have seen before in any number of Western movies from the past 60 years. In fact, reading the story you feel as if you are watching a movie. Maybe one of he better Audey Murphy entries, or possibly a Glenn Ford picture.

Regardless of familiarity, Kelton’s story is compelling, suspenseful, and full of passion. Y may know that the hero will prevail, but you are tense through to the end uncertain just how he’ll do it.

This is an excellent, classic novella. Well worth your time.

Morning War
by Cotton Smith

Now, hang on. This actually ties up ….

Ralph Compton was just starting out in the 1990s when he got a phone call from a guy who wanted nothing more than to join with fellow Western writers and discuss choices. New to the WWA and publishing success, Mr. Compton was eager to talk and friendly about it. The wanna-be had noticed that Mr. Compton had explored fully a number of scenes in his first Trail epic, The Goodnight Trail, (one or two of these the wanna-be thought could have been left sketchy) while not developing others. He asked Mr. Compton in a respectful way to explain why he had made those choices.

Writers make a lot of choices. In fact, it may be that they make more artistic choices than even actors. Nearly every word is a choice. Nearly every action can make a change in the story, whether in direction or pacing or ultimate meaning. Dialogue, too, can alter reader understanding or offer more or less character insight. Piled up, these choices can draw a reader deeper into a story or, done badly, can break the unwritten contract with the author and tear a reader right out of the story.

Mr. Compton was only too happy to talk about this question from the wanna-be. He said that his editor had asked him to build up certain scenes, while leaving others a little more threadbare. It hadn’t been Mr. Compton’s choice. It had been his editor’s.

Likewise, Cotton Smith has made a lot of choices in the second entry in The Way of The West. His novella, Morning War, reveals through these choices – knowingly or not – an inner desire of the author to be a teacher. Now, the wanna-be from above knows Mr. Smith, in passing, and his profession is not teaching. However, as a moss back in the field of marketing and advertising, he undoubtedly takes on that role from time to time with the up-and-comers in his field.

Unfortunately it is primarily the teacher that is speaking in Morning War, not the storyteller. You can see this in the way he describes in minutia everyday living in the late 1800s. Things that take you away from the plot and action. You can see it in the lists of things that have no bearing on the story. At one point a couple of evil cowboys are threatening the hero’s girlfriend who runs the general store while at the same time they are trying to buy feminine products from her. It is an odd mix of events, but the latter never comes into play. We don’t know who the products are for, and it never bears on the story. It’s a meaningless choice, and it only serves to confuse rather than illuminate.

Most of this seems to be done to express the author’s knowledge of the era, something that would be showing off from another writer. Instead, it is Mr. Smith’s inner teacher instructing us about the era. Telling us what products were available back then for common ailments, or the things people needed to survive. None of this plays out in the story. It is simply a history lesson.

As for the story and characters, they stand in an unplanned, stark contrast to the previous story in the book, Long Ride, Hard Ride. While both are familiar in the history and language of Western stories, one is yet fresh and inviting while the other is a painful exercise in everything that should not be done by a writer. At least, that’s the way it appears to this reviewer.

Bear in mind that the focus in this blog is to review traditional, even pulpy Westerns on their own terms. There is, to this reviewer’s mind, far too much fluff, modern language, and politically correct attitude in many of the Westerns written today. Add to that the fact that so much of the current Western crop is overwritten and florid … well, there just seems to be comfort and enjoyment in the quick, well-told tale of yesteryear.

This is not to say that Mr. Smith’s story was PC and florid, it was not. It is simply that so many of his choices were made badly.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Rio Kid Rides Again!!

Frontier Guns
by Tom Curry
The Rio Kid Western
December 19, 1939 issue
Better Publications (original)
Adventure House (reprint)

The Rio Kid, Rider for the right, blazes into battle when passion for plunder and greed for power rowel the border country! Follow Captain Pryor of Custer's Brigade as he plunges into mortal combat against the "Eagle!"

The lead “novel” in this classic pulp series is actually the very first in the adventures of the Rio Kid. With this adventure Bob Pryor, the Kid, begins a 76-issue run that ended in May 1950.

For those who do not know, Adventure House is a small press publisher specializing in pulp reprints. They have been around for about 20 years. They started with magazines that discussed the pulps in all their variety, reprinting key pulp stories in each issue. The fiction section became more popular with readers so Adventure House publisher John Gunnison readjusted his focus and in the process nearly single-handedly invented the modern pulp reprint business model and format.

Gunnison created Pulp Review, a magazine with all reprints from the pulp era. The publication is up to its 106th number and marks as one of its great accomplishments the entire Purple Invasion run from Operator 5. Alongside the renamed High Adventure, Adventure House publishes four full magazine reprints each month. Today he is nearly one-third the way through reprinting the G-8 and his Battle Aces series and he has taken a large bite out of the Phantom Detective and Secret Agent X series. The Rio Kid is his first western. Hopefully there will be more from this series, and perhaps from the rare Pete Rice series, too (editorial wish list).

There’s good reason for reprinting the Rio Kid: he's a true “hero” pulp, something Adventure House focuses on. Bob Pryor is fully grounded in the West, but his accomplishments are a bit on the wild side. His enemies, at least in this first issue, are hidden masters of crime who go by mysterious names. The Kid fights The Eagle this time, a fellow not yet ready to give up on his plundering ways now that the Civil War is done.

In contrast to the pulpy aspects of a masked villain, Bob Pryor involves himself with numerous historical figures, including a young General Custer, Benito Juarez – liberator of Mexico and deadly enemy of dictator Santa Ana – and Big Foot Wallace, famed mountain man.

There are many twists and turns as the Rio Kid tries to stop a land grab in which the Eagle has killed Pryor’s parents and many neighbors in order to steal all of the choice ranches. Despite the deep personal tragedy, the Kid plays it cool in order to maintain his anonymity. But the gang recognizes him and he is forced to flee for his life with guns blazing.

While on the run, Pryor makes friends with Juarez, reunites with Custer (his old commander), and finds the ranch families who were attacked by the Eagle’s men and fled into hiding in the deep timber. His adventures stretch up and down the Rio Grande and to both sides of the border. The Eagle and his minions, with treachery and murder, chase the Kid all over Texas, and vie for the red gold of Leguna – the lost mine.

Within these frenetic pages are so many comfortably familiar character and plot points which writer Curry takes and weaves confidently into real events of the time that played out in the region.

Make no mistake. This is no history lesson. This is pure pulp at its clich├ęd best. It reads quick and easy, each page is full of fun and action. While a steady diet of this much fluff can rot your teeth, The Rio Kid Western Frontier Guns is a welcome addition to the library. And like with almost all of the Adventure House offerings, we’re grateful to John Gunnison for making these classics available again.