Monday, January 31, 2011

Why I Read the Pulps: Two Classics

Imagine a world without the Internet. Missing is the computer’s constant electric hum, spam e-mail, pontificating know-it-all bloggers, and all of that home-grown cynicism that drips from the sentences of so many hate-filled commentators. Imagine a world where writers had to earn their living by entertaining readers rather than insulting them.

The pulp era was like that, and during its heyday from about 1910 to 1950 writers of varying degrees of talent set out to make a name for themselves writing genre fiction. Genre is defined as a literary composition characterized by form, style and category. And so was born the air adventure story, westerns, fantasy, science fiction, sea tales, mystery and romance stories. And what a grand era for readers and writers alike. I regularly read pulp stories and with several companies specializing in reprints this is a good time to introduce yourself to some fantastic writers from the glorious Golden Age.

I read The Spotted Panther by James Francis Dwyer last year. I took notes. Originally published in The Cavalier magazine in 1913 The Spotted Panther is a masculine adventure about three men journeying into the heart of Borneo in search of the great parong of Buddha. It is anything but a traditional jungle adventure. The pacing is breathless, as one would expect, but what I found fascinating were the historical, geographical and mythical references scattered throughout the tale. These references are sprinkled into the dialogue and narrative alike. I was intrigued, and initially I thought Dwyer had an active imagination, but eventually it dawned on me that these allusions were factual. Consult a good encyclopedia and you’ll discover that places like “The whirlpool of San Larn (p.34),” “The fruit groves along the Tagus (p.40),” and the “slopes of Hymettus (p.71)” are actual locations. Dywer knows both his geography and history, too. Ajax, Jason, the bones of Tamerlane, the robe of Siva, Methuselah, Hercules and even Stonewall Jackson are all mentioned. The story itself is a walloping good yarn, told in the first person, and heavy on action. The Spotted Panther is a superb entry in Black Dog Book’s catalog and among my favorites from last year.

The incomparable L. Ron Hubbard’s pulp fiction is being reprinted by Galaxy Press with a new release each month through 2014. Hubbard’s talent is evident on every page of On Blazing Wings, an air adventure story originally published in the May, 1940 issue of Five-Novels Monthly. On Blazing Wings struck a chord with me, perhaps because it’s a combination of fantasy and air adventure. Airman David Duane’s story is not one you’ll likely forget. On Blazing Wings is far more somber than any of the other air adventure stories Hubbard wrote, and its fair to say it’s a love story thinly disguised as an adventure tale. But the romantic element isn’t pronounced because LRH is more concerned with how David Duane arrives at a fateful decision in his life. The conclusion, which I won’t reveal, is evident from the preface, but the tale is so well told that it was impossible for me to put the book down even though I had a fair idea what would happen. Of course, the ending still has some surprises and throughout the story you’ll be treated to some hardboiled descriptions: “The long rows of tanks looked like otherworld beetles, and the shadowy planes, in their white covers, were like hooded vultures (p. 51).” On Blazing Wings exemplifies LRH’s mastery of genre writing and discovering books like this is why I read the pulps.

You can visit Galaxy Press HERE
You can visit Black Dog Books HERE

Monday, January 17, 2011

Showdown at Snakebite Creek

Showdown at Snakebite Creek will be published by Robert Hale Publishers in July. Here's the blurb:

After a seven year absence Cole Tibbs returned to Raven Flats looking to settle an old grudge. But settling a grudge and surviving are two different things. Cole’s only friend, Pap Wingfoot, offers sage advice: “Get out of town before they kill you.” Seven Years ago his father had been murdered alongside Snakebite Creek and Cole wanted justice. Soon he finds himself opposing a greedy landowner named Carleton Usher, his ruthless sons, and a merciless group of killers. The arrival of enigmatic U.S. Marshal Maxfield Knight raises the stakes in a deadly game of survival.  As the bodies begin stacking up like firewood Cole realizes he has only two things in his favor – his ruthless determination to set things right and his ability with a gun. 

NOTE: U.S. Marshal Maxfield Knight also appears in the bonus story included in Death Rides a Palomino. I have written several other Maxfield Knight short stories and two additional stories are underway for Robert Hale Ltd. Showdown at Snakebite Creek is as fast-paced as a pulp novel from the 1940s. The book is available for pre-order on You can find it HERE.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ruminations on Jack Schaefer’s Shane: Book, Film and Legend by Hisownself Thomas McNulty

“If we are to believe that something akin to human dignity is still possible we must acknowledge the mountains and allow ourselves to dream.”

The sagebrush is thick and stretches for miles along the Antelope Flats valley. On a clear day its gray color can appear almost blue among the short tufts of grass and scrub. Buffalo roam freely here; ponderous yet calculating, the herds move with rhythmic purpose as the mountains rise majestically in the distance. There are no sounds of gunfire, no angry words about sodbusters, no threats to rid the valley of homesteaders. Instead a soft wind rustles the scrub and a birdsong filters up from the tree line.

The last remaining set from the film version of Shane is located in the southern part of the Grand Teton National Park in the Antelope Flats valley. Take 191 north at Moose Junction and turn right (east) on Antelope Flats Road. This area is home now to roaming Buffalo who have made the grasslands their habitat. Travel along Antelope Flats Road until it ends – there is an ongoing dirt road but ignore it. This is a former forest service road – Turn right (south) when the asphalt ends. This road is unmarked but is generally referred to as “Kelly Road.” Turn left (east) onto Gros Ventre Road (pronounced “Gro-Vant”) and about a mile on the left you will see the main cabin and two small barns.

This was the site of the Ernie Wright cabin (played by actor Leonard Strong). It also doubled as the Starrett homestead (Van Heflin, Jean Arthur) in a few shots. Proceed with caution as the area is heavily populated by buffalo and elk. The Antelope Flats valley is also where they built the town and the Starrett cabin which were torn down immediately after the film was completed. The Ernie Wright cabin was nearly identical to the Starrett cabin. Driving through the Antelope Flats valley will immediately evoke images from Shane. The Grand Teton mountains rise majestically in the west. The mountains created a rugged yet beautiful backdrop to director George Stevens’ version of the Jack Schaefer novel.

I remember finding the Bantam paperback edition of Shane in the mid-1960s and I read it in one afternoon. It could not have been much after that when I saw the film on television for the first time. The novel is really a novella, short and to the point, and it’s a masterpiece of first-person narration. I own three copies of Shane, including two editions of that Bantam paperback along with the University of Nebraska Press edition. Monte Walsh is a better book. Monte Walsh is really Jack Schaefer’s masterpiece. But Shane has touched my life in a positive way many times. The day my daughter was born my wife and I watched Shane on television. Connections like that stay with a person. My three copies of Shane are on a bookcase with a signed first edition of  The Collected Stories of Jack Schaefer.

So I stood at the place where they filmed Shane over fifty years ago and studied the mountains. I recalled Victor Young’s famous score “The Call of the Far-Away Hills.” I think it is impossible for those of us that first saw this film as children to look at any photograph of the Teton range and not be reminded of Shane. Perhaps our psyche has been watermarked by these images. We cannot erase them, nor should we try. As adults we look back at these films with nostalgia, in part, because they represent that purest and wholesome part of our formative years when the world appeared to be in perfect order. Watching the film today is like looking into our collective past. I can smell the carpet that scuffed my knees as I scooted closer to the television and I can smell the powder from the cap-gun that banged loudly at the first sight of imaginary villains. Each of us brings our memories into play as we recall the moment Alan Ladd rode down from the hills and onto Antelope Flats where Brandon De Wilde waited with his toy rifle. I had my first view of the Grand Tetons in 1967. The impression remains clear in my mind. Shane had introduced me to the Tetons. I recognized the mountains from the film as my father steered his Pontiac into the campground.

The mountains cannot be conquered. This is something the climbers deny. We can hike the trails and scale the tallest peaks but in the end the mountains will outlast us. If we are to believe that something akin to human dignity is still possible we must acknowledge the mountains and allow ourselves to dream. The capacity for dreaming is intrinsically human and the mountains offer us unlimited inspiration. As a writer I have considered films as a form of reflection as well as an entertainment. Films, like literature, offer us a way to appreciate our plight; to refresh us with moving images and strike an emotional chord with its distinctive soundtrack; to challenge us to greater achievements through the storytelling process; to remind us that our individual essays are as vital as the landscape we inhabit. Films remind us of our recent past and here the Western is America’s own treasure. It is the single genre that is wholly American, a pure-bred exemplar of Yankee machismo, idealism and courage. The Western yarn is rich with violence, love and vengeance. But these are also tales of unbridled courage. The rugged individual stands in opposition to evil, possessed his “own self” of a valor that simmers beneath the surface of his necessary aggression.

There are ghosts here. The faraway echo of voices murmur on the wind. If you peer too long into the scrubland you can see past the buffalo and into our not so distant past. The sunlight makes an ever-changing scene of the high peaks, deep canyons, and tall forest. It is a mesmerizing sight. My camera does not do the mountains justice. In the span of a few seconds I had gone back in my mind’s eye and recalled again a less complicated time. Experience has taught us that nostalgia is never an accurate reflection of Time, but the literal definition is apropos, i.e., homesickness; to return home. So I studied the mountains and enjoyed the way the sunlight altered the landscape every few moments. And before I realized it I whispered the words that we all know so well – come back, Shane.

* PHOTOS: The remnants of a cabin used in the film Shane, Antelope Flats, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, May, 2008.

* This post is dedicated to Jack Marino who knows a good film when he sees it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Recommended Reading: A Kingdom Far and Clear by Mark Helprin

Here's a recommendation I couldn't resist. Mark Helprin is one of our truly great novelists and his "Swan Lake" trilogy is a masterpiece. The gorgeous illustrations are by Chris Van Allsburg.

Here's the Official blurb:

In a rare collaboration, bestselling authors Helprin and Van Allsburg worked for nearly a decade on this ambitious, multi-generational trilogy that pits the power of love and devotion against dark forces of greed and suppression. For the first time, this hardcover volume collects all three of Helprin's contemporary fantasies — Swan Lake, The Veil of Snows, and A City in Winter — along with Van Allsburg's sensitively wrought illustrations from the original editions. 42 full-color plates.

You can order the book HERE.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

True Grit: being a reader’s true-life history

At the onset I am forced to confess I was horrified when I learned that the famous Coen brothers were doing a remake of True Grit based upon the novel by Charles Portis. I am a fan of the Coen brothers but I am not a fan of Hollywood’s habit for remakes. I am, in fact, on record as stating that “remakes are for sissies.” This has not endeared me to certain Hollywood producers.

Let’s begin in 1968 when I first read the novel by Charles Portis. The newspapers and magazines back then were heavily promoting the film and there was talk of an Oscar nomination for Duke Wayne even before the film was released. I was a John Wayne fan, as were my father and uncles. I was fascinated by the fact that Duke was a star when my father was a child. Duke Wayne was larger-than-life and touched multiple generations. True Grit was released in paperback by Signet shortly before the film’s release. It included photographs on the inside front and back cover of John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. At the time, Glen Campbell was a huge music star and his song “Galveston” was a personal favorite. A film featuring two of my heroes filled me with excitement.

I read the book immediately and liked it although the melancholy tone (and particularly the ending) left me dry. Naturally I loved the film. I even enjoyed Glen Campbell’s schmaltzy title song. The role of Rooster Cogburn was John Wayne’s signature performance, and it still is. All the same, the Coen brothers have made an excellent film that in many ways is better than the original. Jeff Bridges is superb, as was John Wayne and, yes, as was Warren Oates in the seldom seen television film. Rooster Cogburn is a role that any capable actor should be able to play well. Cogburn is an eternally endearing character. But I believe that Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross is the real treasure here. She shines in this movie, just as Kim Darby shined in the original. The current film’s only flaw – and this is nitpicking – is the exclusion of the novel’s final sentence from the voice narration. I won’t repeat that line here. Read the book.

The Charles Portis novel has been republished by the Overlook Press and is once again being hailed as a classic. This is fascinating given that True Grit only became a bestseller after news leaked that John Wayne would star in the film version. Yes, the book was critically acclaimed upon its release in hardcover (it was originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post), but if not for John Wayne it would probably have languished in obscurity. Hal Wallis bought the film rights before the book was published and Paramount Studios were so intent on advance publicity they had staff purchase bulk orders around the country which helped make the book a bestseller in hardcover. These facts were recently recalled by Paramount producer Bob Rehme in a New York Times interview. None of this should detract from the fact that Charles Portis wrote a damn good book.

Today, it is a fact that various members of this-or-that western club or society have listed the book as a classic, but the truth is quite often anything that makes money and becomes popular is hailed by a certain group of good ole boys as a “classic.” God bless them. If this helps promote an interest in literacy then I am all for it.

I agree that True Grit is a great novel, and it certainly deserves its place among books labeled “westerns” as a pre-eminent book, but its not Portis’ best novel. That would be either Norwood or Gringos with my taste running toward Gringos. Neither are a western. Others will emphatically tell you that his best book is The Dog of the South or Masters of Atlantis. Maybe they’re right. Rooster Cogburn may become one of those characters like Robin Hood who gets a film treatment every few decades. Of course, I prefer Errol Flynn in the 1938 version, but the truth is Russell Crowe was pretty good, too. Meanwhile, I hope the film sparks an interest in the other wonderful books that Charles Portis has written. Each and every one of them is a real gem.

1: Front and back cover and interiors from the 1968 Signet paperback.
2: Current edition of True Grit from Overlook Press and Gringos, my favorite Charles Portis novel
3: Charles Portis and John Wayne during the filming of True Grit.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

L.A. Talk Radio Tom McNulty Interviewed by Jack Marino!

Last night I was a guest on Filmmaker Jack Marino's acclaimed Internet radio show. We talked about old Hollywood westerns, western novels, classic actors and the famous Mulholland Drive Boys of which I am proud to be a member.

Listen to the show HERE
Visit L. A. Talk Radio HERE.
Thanks Jack! I'll see you in Los Angeles!