Saturday, July 30, 2011

Pulp Classics: The Green Spider by Sax Rohmer

Tom Roberts and his crew at Black Dog Books continue their outstanding line of quality reprints at a breakneck pace and I’m still playing catch-up trying to get everything they’ve published. Not to be missed is the collection of tales by Arthur Sarsfield Ward, better known as Sax Rohmer, creator of the nefarious Fu Manchu. This collection of rarities by Rohmer includes “The Zayat Kiss,” the very first Fu Manchu story. Gene Christie’s literate and informative introduction offers insight into Rohmer’s early career and the creative process that led him to becoming the best-selling author of the famous Dr. Fu Manchu thrillers. The thirteen stories are all outstanding with my favorites being the “The Green Spider” followed by “The Mystery of the Marsh Hole,” “The Mysterious Mummy,” and the classic “The Haunting of Low Fennel.” These stories span the years 1904 -1922. The Green Spider and Other Forgotten Tales of Mystery and Suspense is the first of several Sax Rohmer volumes planned by Black Dog Books. All of the volumes from Black Dog Books are beautifully designed, high quality paperbacks, economically priced, and would make a great addition to your home pulp library. To top it off The Green Spider features an original cover by Tom Roberts.
Sax Rohmer

Pulp Classics: A Transaction in Diamonds by Talbot Mundy

A Transaction in Diamonds is the first volume of the Talbot Mundy library published by Black Dog Books. All of these stories were published in 1911, Mundy’s first year as a professional writer. For those of you who haven’t yet enjoyed one of Mundy’s adventures tales this is the place to begin. Featuring an outstanding introduction by Library of Congress archivist and Mundy biographer Brian Taves, these fourteen stories will keep you on the edge of your seat. Mundy’s style is typical for the period but his intelligence and insight into human nature elevate him to a higher rank than some of the writers from the same year. Keeping in mind that these are pre-First World War stories that reflect something of the Colonialism and lingering Victorian morality that were endemic to the era. Here it is one hundred years later and the demand for Talbot Mundy stories is being met by Black Dog Books. Some of the wonderful stories included here are “The Phantom Battery,” “Sentence of Death,” and “Kitty and Cupid” one of several stories featuring actress Kitty Crothers. My favorites in this collection were “The Fire-Cop” and “The Phantom Battery.” The excellent cover is by Tom Roberts.
Talbot Mundy

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Big Book of Adventure Stories

Otto Penzler may be the greatest living anthologist. I’ve lost track of how many anthologies he’s had a hand in, but it’s a lot. For those that picked up The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps and The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories you already know his choices are exemplary. He has the knack of combining well known classics with lesser known gems punctuated by the unknown jewel. His choices for The Big Book of Adventure Stories are no exception. The 47 stories represented here encompass the best pulp writers of the last century and include such proven classics as the complete Tarzan the Terrible by Edgar Rice Burroughs – considered by many including myself as the greatest Tarzan novel – along with the first Cisco Kid story by O. Henry, a Zorro story by Johnston McCulley, the first Spider adventure by Grant Stockbridge (AKA Norvell Page), and a Hopalong Cassidy story by Clarence E. Mulford. Those are the better known highlights. Some lesser known gems include The Python Pit by George F. Worts, The Soul of a Turk by Achmed Abdullah, The Green Wildebeest by John Buchan and Black Cargo by Cornell Woolrich.

As I’ve stated in various public forums, no examination of that which we call Literature is complete without due credit given the pulp writers of the golden age. This anthology will go far in bringing attention to the great adventure writers of yesteryear.

The Big Book of Adventure Stories only fault lies in the author profiles that preface each story. These biographical prefaces are poorly written and contain numerous historical inaccuracies. They read like something a High School student mashed together after clipping facts from Wikipedia (AKA Wikicrapia, an overrated on-line encyclopedia). Many of these profiles are travesties masquerading as essays. I was horrified to read that Johnston McCulley’s first Zorro story “caught the attention of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Mary Pickford who made it into The Mark of Zorro (1920).” Obviously that would be Douglas Fairbanks SENIOR, and Mary Pickford’s involvement was nominal – her only connection being a founding member of United Artists Studios which released the film, and in being married to the elder Fairbanks. There’s no sense nitpicking the other mixed up facts because overall this is a fantastic collection of adventure stories well worth your time. Just ignore the lame author profiles and enjoy some great adventure stories.

NOTE: the superb cover is by Rafael DeSoto

Pulp Classics: The Phantom Patrol by L. Ron Hubbard

L. Ron Hubbard’s The Phantom Patrol thrilled me with its non-stop action. Hubbard always had a talent for brisk pacing, but The Phantom Patrol is a whirlwind adventure. Originally published in the January 1935 issue of Five Novels Monthly, The Phantom Patrol tells the story of Coast Guard CPO Johnny Trescott who sets out to save the lives of the passengers on a crashed transport plane. Meanwhile, a dope smuggling pirate that Johnny has been tailing decides to intervene with some spontaneous vengeance. Naturally there’s a damsel in distress involved.

Hubbard’s strength as a writer was his ability to create endearing and believable characters, his fast pacing, attention to detail, and sheer enthusiasm. He was one of those rare talents who truly enjoyed the adventures he was creating, and it shows in the exuberance of his style. With stories like The Phantom Patrol it’s easy to see why he was so popular with pulp readers. The Phantom Patrol is now one of my favorites in the long line of reprints offered by Galaxy Press.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Flashback Writer Profile – Glendon Swarthout

The late Glendon Swarthout was a Michigan boy, graduated from the University of Michigan and worked at Michigan State. A writer of diverse talents, he published novels, criticism and dramas. His paperback editions were once commonplace and highly regarded. Today he is best known as the author of The Shootist which his son Miles Swarthout adapted as a screenplay which became John Wayne’s final film.  Swarthout’s famous bit of dialogue from The Shootist  – “I will not be laid a hand on. I will not be wronged. I will not stand for an insult. I don’t do these things to others. I require the same from them.” (chapter three) – is now attributed to John Wayne and has become synonymous with the great actor’s image and political beliefs.
They Came to Cordura was made into a film starring Gary Cooper, with a changed ending to please the 1950s audiences who couldn’t tolerate seeing their heroes die. As you might expect Swarthout’s novel is much better than the film. Bless the Beasts and Children is a classic coming of age story, and Where the Boys Are is cheesy 1960s camp. His many other novels include The Cadillac Cowboys, The Old Colts, The Tin Lizzie Troop, A Christmas Gift, Skeletons and The Homesman. You can visit the official website HERE!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Interlude at the Ohio Street Beach

Interlude at the Ohio Street Beach
A Visual Interlude With an Excursion to the Land Shark Beer Garden at Navy Pier

Waters restlessly, with every motion, slipping out of used colors for new. So that each fresh wind off the lake washed the prairie grasses with used sea-colors: the prairie moved in the light like a secondhand sea.

- Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make, page 10

Always Chicago seems ready to topple into the water. On this heat-drenched Friday afternoon the office clerks, businessmen and Captains of Industry move through a blistering canyon of concrete, chrome, brick and steel. The skyscrapers throw the heat back at the sky. Walk barefoot in the sand and for a moment this is some primordial shore, ancient and abandoned to the vestiges of Time. Light and water are mesmerizing. The sound of a 200 horsepower Evinrude interrupts the sunbathers and irks the gulls that swoop in for the picnicker’s crumbs. Walking through the park the sun lances the water and spills shattered reflections across the waves. There are silent places here, gentle and solitary, a small oasis from the turmoil of concrete and steel. Whatever we think of as civilization is no more. Of course it’s an illusion, but the city seems empty. You are alone here, the last survivor; and the sun slowly drops through a molten sky.
An hour later I’m drinking from a plastic cup in the Land Shark Beer Garden as the band Maggie Speaks lays down some hot music on hot day and everybody is dancing. The crowd is sweaty, happy, dancing and giddy with sun, water and beer. The music is great and the band has everyone clapping. Now, at last, it’s not unusual to see people smile. Music does that, and maybe a little bit of the Land Shark. And for a moment I remembered a day thirty years ago when I watched Muddy Waters play here; and a few years after that when the pier was still a dilapidated tarmac and Sullivan and I had stumbled drunk from a ship dry-docked in Time and laughing loudly. Now I alone am left to tell the tale, and the people dancing about me are the adult children of the crowd we once ran with. It’s good to see these friends, strangers all, smiling and dancing.
On days like this the poems write themselves.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ruminations From McHenry County # 3

Down but Not Out in Crystal Lake, Illinois

July 2010

The heat-wave hit the town like a case of raging hormones. Scratch that. The heat-wave settled over the carefree, manicured lawns and everybody slowed down. Even the crickets stopped chirping. Just heat, heavy and suffocating, I am sitting in my den with a fan blowing and the air-conditioner humming in the other room. The bottle of Land Shark lager is wet with perspiration after being plucked from the refrigerator. The full moon has finally waned and the lycanthropes have settled down, too. But its still weird out there. I call it the Year of the Weird. Bad is popular. People have given up, caved in, fallen apart. The old-timers sit on their porches at twilight drinking cold beer under the shadowed eaves of homes built in the 1930s...

Crystal Lake, Illinois, Population 42,142, is a big town pretending to be a small town. The unemployment office is unusually busy, as one would expect. Although the recession has yet to recede the restaurant industry has picked up in the past year. But there are a growing number of empty storefronts. These little strip-mall clip joints advertising CASH FOR GOLD are where the desperate come to sell heirlooms and memories for a pocketful of change as their lives swirl down the toilet are as lucrative establishments as one can find perched here on the precipice of the Fox River Valley.

Maps are places where we trace our journeys with lines and dream of our destinations. These red lines and thin blue lines converge at the black dot and give us the names of Illinois towns: Leaf River, Johnsburg, Troy Grove, Island Lake, Libertyville, Crystal Lake. I landed in Crystal Lake over sixteen years ago. It’s a good town as far as towns go. Taxes are going up as property values go down and the imbecilic politicians smile for the cameras. But outside of that there are some nice people here and some neighborhoods forever as gentle as summer.

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did

- E. E. Cummings, 50 Poems (1940)

But it’s the Year of the Weird. I seem to encounter oddballs at every corner. The disenfranchised newly unemployed, rank and file regiments of anti-social dingbats marching to the beat of a drummer with no rhythm. In the Wal-Mart a middle-aged man tells me (this, in the liquor aisle) “Goddamn liberals destroyed this country!” I don’t argue with him. He looks frayed, on the edge. He’s wearing a polyester suit-coat on a day when the heat index soars to 104 degrees. His shoes are polished. “The Lord will punish them all!” he says. Another convert to the Vengeful God franchise. “It’s all gonna come down soon.” He tells me. “This can’t last, no sir! People can’t take it. There’s gonna be pain and suffering, you mark my words!” I’m trying to get away so I ask him, “Hey, pal, what aisle are the bagels in?” He blinks three times and points a tobacco stained finger and I make a hasty exit.
The weirdness is everywhere. It certainly permeates the Internet. I get strange notes and hate-filled paragraphs sent via my website. Errol Flynn fans, special interest groups, goofballs and other degenerates. The Internet provides the masses an opportunity to reach a wide audience instantly, and its gone to their heads. Every geek with a computer is busy hacking out his opinion. Where once film reviews offered legitimate critiques and intelligent assessments on the art of filmmaking, today the critiques have been replaced by hate-filled rants which today’s semi-literate baby-booming dumb-shit mistakenly believes makes them look cute. This trend is at epidemic level. What we call “western culture” has degenerated into a miasma of hatred. For example, if I mention the Dalai Lama I get nasty-grams from the anti-Dalai Lama groups; if I mention my fondness for L. Ron Hubbard’s pulp stories I get lambasted by the anti-Scientology groups; if I mention Thomas Merton I get crucified by the anti-Christian groups; if I mention Alan Watts I get snubbed by the anti-know yourself groups or whatever the fuck they call themselves. If I tell people how much I enjoy the R. B. Blakney translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Té Ching I hear from dozens of people citing what they believe is a better translation and who enjoy telling me what a low-class blue collar fool I am to read such “so out-of-fashion” literature. If I tell people I enjoy writing and reading poetry they think I’m gay because to them the word “poetry” epitomizes something feminine. The monkeys never read Charles Bukowski.

We would rather buy a bad toothpaste that is well advertised than a good one that is not advertised at all. Most Americans wouldn’t be seen dead in a car their neighbors had never heard of.
                        - Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island,   page 193.
The Year of the Weird...Watching celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Tiger Woods self-destruct in public is a national past-time. We have no right to criticize the Romans for feeding the Christians to the lions or for training gladiators to bash each others brains out with spiked clubs. It’s goddamn refreshing to watch the blood flow. Discontentment simmers just below the surface of this idyllic setting. The politicians in Washington (on both sides) continue their efforts to destroy the last vestiges of intelligent governing, and Americans continue to tolerate them if not praise them. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, McHenry County bakes in the heat of the noonday sun.
I take a bike ride across town because Crystal Lake has an outstanding Park District and I enjoy riding. The Three Oaks Recreational Area with its blue lake is another option for sunbathers, swimmers, boaters and anglers. It’s one of my favorite places in town along with the Barnes & Noble Bookstore, Twice Told Tales, and the Williams Street Public House, which, incidentally, has the best burgers in McHenry County.

If you’ve read this far down the blog’s page (which, according to latest research, is unlikely. Nine out of ten blog followers rarely use the scroll bar) you might think I’m depressed. But I’m not. These harsh observations are part and parcel to the act of Creativity.
From my perspective I thought things were going well. Could be they are. People sure have good reasons to be unhappy, but what about all of the reasons we have to grateful? We'll talk about those in a future post.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

When Superman Was Fun

The much ballyhooed changes at DC Comics recently have fans in a tizzy. I'm not a fan of the current crop of stories being produced at either DC or Marvel Comics these days but I don't believe the changes much matter. Such announcements are common-place in the comics industry and are specifically designed to generate interest, i.e., sales. Sometimes the changes work and sometimes they don't, but change is part of life. Rather than dwell on it I'm offering up a small cornucopia of classic comic book covers featuring the world's greatest hero - all from the days when Superman was fun to read. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Weird Westerns – A Fistful of Frightful Freak Shows and Creepy Critters

We call them “weird westerns.” Two words that conjure a wealth of images – blazing six-shooters and strange other-worldly creatures. Hollywood discovered the weird western long ago with films like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, a 1966 double-feature that made more money than you would expect. The fusion of genres is nothing new, but it is rarely handled well. Most of the films and literature that combine westerns with horror are simply not very interesting. But of course there are exceptions, and those exceptions are what interests me. I am naturally selective in my choice of weird western reading material. Over the years I have discovered some real gems and here is a partial listing of a few favorites.
By far my all-time favorite weird western collection is Dead Man’s Hand by Nancy A. Collins, the 2004 edition from Two Wolf Press. Dead Man’s Hand is a collection of five stories with an introduction by Joe Lansdale (more about Joe in a moment). The stories included in this collection are “Hell Come Sundown,” “Lynch,” “Walking Wolf,” “The Tortuga Hill Gang’s Last Ride,” and “Calaverada.” Collins has never been better and these stories are so damn good I re-read them at least once a year. Well known for her Sonja Blue vampire series, Nancy Collins has a strong fan base and is currently writing a supernatural series set in “Golgotham.” The first volume is titled Right Hand Magic. You should check that out, too.
Of course you’ve heard of Joe R. Lansdale. The master mojo storyteller lives in Texas and kicks ass. A long-time favorite of mine, Joe has done several notable weird westerns. Dead in the West was originally published in 1986 and has been reprinted several times. I understand that Joe has written a sequel. You can bet I’ll pick it up at some point. Featuring a character he calls The Reverend, Dead in the West is one of the best western-horror novels I’ve ever read. Equally appealing is The Magic Wagon with its now famous opening line: “Wild Bill Hickok, some years after he was dead, came to Mud Creek for a shoot-out of sorts.” Lansdale is outrageous, compelling and ultimately brilliant.
Tim Curran scares the hell out of me. The first book of his I read was Hive, a sequel to H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. His weird westerns include Skull Moon and Grim Riders but Skin Medicine is his masterpiece – so far. He tops himself with every book he publishes. Skin Medicine is a unique and creative fusion of horror and the western. There’s nothing like it on the market and that’s what makes Curran so good. Boy, this guy knocks ‘em dead every time, no pun intended. Curran is the type of writer that rookie writers should read to see how it’s done. He really is that good. Watch this blog for an overview of Curran’s novels coming soon.
Howard Hopkins writes outstanding traditional westerns for Robert Hale Publishers famed Black Horse Western imprint under the name Lance Howard. Pistolero is a non-traditional western and can only be described as a page-turner. Howard is a genius at creating memorable characters and unique plot lines. Pistolero is no exception. In this one Johnny Hickok sets out after a Jack-the Ripper style killer in the old west, and that’s when the fun begins. Howard’s other western-horror novels include The Dark Riders and Grimm. If you haven’t read anything by Howard Hopkins then Pistolero is the perfect place to begin.
The Blood Rider by Mark Tarrant is the first book in his “Blood and Spurs” series. This is a masculine knock ‘em down and stomp ‘em brawny supernatural pulp western. I loved it. I think Tarrant needs to write more and I’m eager to see his next book.

So there you have it – Nancy A. Collins, Joe R. Lansdale, Tim Curran, Howard Hopkins and Mark Tarrant. With inspiration like this its only natural that I would try my hand at a weird western. I’m 46,000 words into one and when it’s finished I’ll post the details on this blog. Meanwhile, I’ll see you along the bloody trail.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Retro Paperback: The Shadow of Robber’s Roost by Helen Rushmore

Here’s one from my bookshelf that dates back to 1967. Published by Scholastic Book Services, this was one of several books I read on a cross-country trip in my father’s sparkling new 1967 Pontiac hauling a Coachman trailer during the Summer of Love. Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors all on the radio. A western for young readers and loosely based on the legend of Buddy Emery and the outlaw William Coe. The dialogue is remarkably adult and the story is lean and tense. This must have been one of the first westerns that I read, with the exception of comic books. Mild by today’s standards, I still like the directness and pragmatic approach. It offers an underlying theme of morality without preaching. All that for fifty cents.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Shooting Bad Books

(Shooting David Bret's biography of Flynn, August 13, 2005)

“I never have insulted man or woman in my life but if you knew what a wholesome regard I have for damn liars and rascals they would be liable to keep out of my way.”

            - J.B. Hickok, from a letter to the Missouri Democrat, March 26, 1873

It was a hot, languid summer’s day at the lake when I said to my wife, “We’re about to shatter the day’s tranquility with the sound of gunfire and the acrid smell of gunsmoke.” She tossed me a smile. The screen door slammed behind her as she went to retrieve her gun. I followed her into the cabin and we emerged armed with our rifles and revolvers. We set our targets up between two small hills along a stretch cleared for power lines. This path borders a hundred yards of marsh, followed by a ring of hills thick with trees. The date was August 13, 2005. That was the day I shot David Bret’s book, Errol Flynn: Satan’s Angel, a piece of hackwork. I blasted six holes through the book which littered the forest with thousands of snippets of Bret’s Hollywood fantasy.

Over the years many people have asked me about David Bret’s book about Errol Flynn. This is natural since I am one of Flynn’s biographers. Bret’s many celebrity biographies have been universally reviled as trash and he is the constant focus of both angry fans and scholars alike. I have read two of Bret’s books – the Flynn book and his biography of Clark Gable. Both books were poorly written, historically inaccurate and rife with gossip and innuendo. The late scholar Lincoln Hurst held Bret accountable for what Dr. Hurst believed was one of the worst biographies yet published in the English language. As bad as the Flynn book was, Bret’s biography on Gable was worse. The Gable biography was a tortured, hateful affair.

David Bret is publicly antagonistic against anyone that criticizes him. Since a great many people have criticized him you can well imagine how busy he is ranting and raving. To this effect he has created multiple blogs where his venomous diatribes are on display for all the world to see. I won’t bother linking them here. Just google him and you’ll be knee-deep in this madman’s virulent world soon enough. He can publish what he wishes, and some people will believe his lies and innuendo. That’s their privilege, too. But recently I realized I shouldn’t remain silent about Bret. I think most reviewers see through his lies and this is the reason why most of his books are so poorly received. He is not well respected, and more than a few people regard him with contempt. I harbor no personal ill-will toward him, but I also have no sympathy for him. He has earned his reputation as a writer of garbage. David Bret appears to enjoy rolling in sewage the way farmyard animals root about in their own muck.
(Errol Flynn: Satan’s Angel DOA)
In a recent discussion with some friends via another blog Bret was mentioned again, and the bottom line is people seem to be horrified by him. He does cause a ruckus when he’s pissed off, which is often. But I have changed my mind about being silent because history does indeed matter, and David Bret is not an historian. Nor is he much of a writer. He’s pretty good at typing. Of course, having read only two of his books I’m guessing that his other books stink, too. It’s not a stretch to fathom that I’m right. If he ever publishes a book that garners widespread critical acclaim I will be happy to congratulate him. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. So for those who have brought up the subject with me this essay answers the question – what do you think about David Bret’s books?
 (A clean kill)
As a writer my impression of David Bret is that he doesn’t work very hard. I am reminded that scientists once taught a chimpanzee to type. The chimp typed all day. They fed him bananas. And Bret is fixated on sexual matters. He can’t type a paragraph without mentioning sex. He wallows in homosexual innuendo. But finally, the reason I find him contemptible is his blatant lack of honesty. His books are filled with lies, gossip and hearsay. No effort has been made to adhere to the rules of objective journalism. The two books I read were an insult to intelligent, educated readers who deserve a writer’s best effort. And a good effort that fails is preferable to no effort at all. Bret is contemptible because he takes his readers for granted and revels in his role as a purveyor of trash. Deep down inside I suspect he knows he can’t go the distance, but he struck a goldmine by catering to the baser instincts of willing participants who most assuredly tell him how wonderful he is.

Writing is a privilege. I write honestly and passionately and do my best to get it right. I’ve made my share of errors, too. I spent a decade on the material that I published about Errol Flynn. The book is over-priced by the publisher and far from perfect. But it’s still damn good. Some time ago Bret re-published his Flynn book with a new title. It’s re-packaged garbage. I can’t remain silent and allow David Bret to get away with biographical homicide. And I’m not alone in my feelings. Bret has made many enemies and I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. More than a few of the people and families of those he’s smeared are not going to let it go.

So I shot David Bret’s book. That’s my version of a review. As Humphrey Bogart once said in The Maltese Falcon: “When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.”

Bret’s book was the first one I shot. The second shooting occurred on August 8, 2007. This time I was aiming at Charles Higham’s infamous Errol Flynn: The Untold Story. This is one of the books that began the continuous string of tell-all celebrity biographies written with an eye on a quick profit but whose contents are lacking in historical accuracy. Higham’s book is pure rubbish. I suspect that David Bret admires Charles Higham.
(I used a Henry rifle to finish off Charles Higham's book)

Writing a legitimate biography requires more than the ability to type. It requires an understanding of primary and secondary sources, and a strict adherence to bibliographic research and documentation. It helps to have a passion for your subject and a passion for writing. Talent helps, too. It has become fashionable for writers to embrace extraordinary lies in order to sell books. The standard ingredients of today’s “tell-all” potboilers are homosexual activity, Nazi spies or some other shadowy government activity, all with an eye on that lucrative market known as “the gullible public.” Writers such as Charles Higham and Kitty Kelley have done well with their trash, and so has Andrew Morton. I have read enough of their work to recognize it as garbage, and many professional critics agree. As for David Bret, I’ll bet he wishes he had the paychecks Kitty Kelley has received. But David Bret’s not even in that smarmy league; he’s so far down on the totem pole he might as well be underground.
(There wasn't much left)

So I shot David Bret’s book and I shot Charles Higham’s book, and I felt just fine pulling the trigger.

Naturally I am aware of the fact that since I’m stating this publicly my critics will use this opportunity to promote the idea of shooting my books. Maybe they’re fans of David Bret. Fair enough. I can dish it out and take it as well. So fire away, and please be careful not hurt yourselves. Of course this also makes me guilty of a self-serving approach to criticism, but I can live with that. I don’t know if I’ll shoot any more books, and I’m guessing that I won’t. I’ve made my point. Meanwhile, David Bret will continue typing, as is his right, and I will resist the urge to load my Baretta with 9 mm cartridges and go out target shooting.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Retro Western Romance Paperback

Here’s a nifty little paperback from 1974 that I found at the Twice Told Tales bookstore here in Crystal Lake. Twelve western short stories that, according to Peggy Simpson Curry in her introduction, “give us a dozen different ways of looking at love in the American west.”

Western Romances, Fawcett Gold Medal, 1973
The contents and their original publication dates:

 The Bride Wore Spurs by Peggy Simpson Curry, 1953
The Wonderful Race at Rimrock by D. D. Beauchamp, 1945
Prisoners of the Snow by S. Omar Barker, 1962
The Cache and the Convict by T. V. Olsen, 1956
Catalog Woman by Barlow Meyers, 1946
Winchester Wedding by Wayne D. Overholster, 1953
Woman Trader by Hal G. Evarts, 1951
Run Out of Town by Todhunter Ballard, 1950
Wilderness Gamble by Kenneth Fowler, 1947
Cage the Bird by William R. Cox, 1973
Too Young, Too Far Away by Eric Allen, 1953
Flower of the Mescalero by Eric Allen, 1954

A fairly light-hearted collection, the stand-out stories were “The Bride Wore Spurs,”  Winchester Wedding,” and “Flower of the Mescalero.”

Friday, July 8, 2011

Ernest Hemingway – Posthumously Yours

In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.

- Under Kilimanjaro, page 239, edited by Robert W. Lewis and Robert E. Fleming
- True at First Light, page 189, edited by Patrick Hemingway

July 2nd marked the fiftieth anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death. Where other writers have faded with time Hemingway’s books remain in print and consistently strike a chord with a each new generation of readers. He’s had his critics, particularly the feminist critics who labeled him chauvinistic and simple, but I never cared much for the pantywaist approach to literary revisionism. Hemingway endures because he was a damn good storyteller.
Hemingway is the ALPHA MALE among writers – all capital letters, all machismo, all man. His talent is on display in his first three short story collections: In Our Time (1925), Men Without Women (1927) and Winner Take Nothing (1933). Of his novels published during his lifetime the best are The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), The Green Hills of Africa (1935), To Have and Have Not (1937) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). An expanded short story collection, The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine stories (1938) would include his classic “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” His 1932 non-fiction account of bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, is still better than what most journalists can write today. His later novel, Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), is pedestrian but not without interest. His novella, The Old Man and the Sea (1952) remains his crowning achievement according to most scholars.

This is the Hemingway the world knew during his lifetime: a bullfighter, a boxer, a sailor, the great white hunter, a world traveler, the war correspondent, and the lover of women. And he loved booze and food and wrote about what he loved best. Fishing, hunting, writing. He was an outdoorsman with a literary talent. Only the great Zane Grey could compare to such a testosterone fueled reputation, but Grey was dead suddenly in 1939 and Hemingway had the field to himself.
Those books alone are enough to ensure Hemingway’s reputation would endure fifty years after his death, but there was more. A lot more. Hemingway was prolific. He wrote constantly, and apparently under diverse conditions and while suffering through various traumas. By all accounts he never gave up – not until July 2, 1961 when he loaded his W. & C. Scott & Son long-barreled and straight stocked 12-gauge shotgun, put the barrels to his head and triggered it with his toe.
Four years later we were treated to the first of his unpublished manuscripts, and the only one that he had been actively preparing before his death. A Moveable Feast (1964), a slightly fictionalized memoir of his bohemian youth in Paris, was an international best-seller. And damn, it was good. His fourth wife, Mary, re-organized the manuscript and oversaw the book’s publication with the editors at Scribners. And this is where many take issue with the publication of Hemingway’s posthumous work. Readers and scholars alike have criticized that these manuscripts were incomplete at the time of Hemingway’s death, and that sometimes major cuts were made. Many, including the journalist Joan Didion, have stated the books should never have been published. Many feel that such work demeans Hemingway’s canon and that these works are the product of a faltering, seriously ill man who had long passed his heyday as a creative writer. Of course, they’re wrong – most of the time.
The publication of Hemingway’s posthumous work lasted the better part of forty years. Islands in the Steam (1970) was a major literary event, and once again edited and approved by Mary Hemingway. This is a rich, vibrant novel, and unlike anything Hemingway had done previously. It is the work of a man willing to attempt new things, but who also understood what made him so good to begin with.
The Dangerous Summer (1985) was edited from 120,000 words to 45,000 words originally for Life magazine. With an introduction by James Michener, The Dangerous Summer is a non-fiction account of Hemingway’s 1959 return to Spain. For last time he wrote about bullfighting, but the book is disjointed. The many brilliant passages and descriptions simply cannot equal the far superior Death in the Afternoon. Still, there is enough of that magical Hemingway touch to earn this book a place in your personal library. But read Death in the Afternoon first.
The Garden of Eden (1986), a personal favorite of mine, was edited by Mary Hemingway from 200,000 words into the 70,000 word novel we have today. The extent of these cuts were not known until many years after the book’s publication. I was enthralled by the book and consider it another favorite. To Mary Hemingway’s credit, the editing appears flawless. There is no hint whatsoever that a longer novel had been written. I would love to read the complete manuscript, but as it stands The Garden of Eden is fine warm-hearted novel about his early years in Paris.

True at First Light (1999) was edited by Hemingway’s son, Patrick, and its publication coincided with Hemingway’s centenary. Although I was enamored of the fine writing, my first reading of True at First Light upon its publication left me perplexed. It was obvious that much was missing, and the book’s rhythm was off. I was pleased with what I read, but there was always this nagging thought that something went wrong. And there were immediate criticisms that the book was rushed into print simply as a means to make money for Hemingway’s estate during the hoopla regarding his centenary.
Under Kilimanjaro, published in 2005 by the University of Kentucky Press, was the unexpurgated, complete manuscript of Hemingway’s “African Story” that Patrick Hemingway had published as True at First Light. The publication of Under Kilimanjaro makes clear several things: First, the complete manuscript, professionally edited by Robert W. Lewis and Robert E. Fleming, is a wonder to behold. It is the work of a literary master, and the writing is as clear as those Michigan streams where Hemingway learned how to fish. Secondly, Under Kilimanjaro makes it obvious that the editing by Patrick Hemingway on True at First Light was an injustice. Whatever good intentions he had are now overshadowed by the haphazard and often illogical editing. Under Kilimanjaro restores the playful dialogue, the extraordinary cast in all of their scenes, and proves that at the end Ernest Hemingway had retained that creative spark. Perhaps in some ways Under Kilimanjaro is the perfect companion to The Green Hills of Africa. It’s a strong book whereas True at First Light is a weak book. Under Kilimanjaro’s editing by Robert W. Lewis and Robert E. Fleming followed standard academic protocol, i.e., they corrected misspellings and the occasional grammatical lapse, and they provided a section of textual notes. Their approach was justified and retained the integrity of Hemingway’s manuscript. By comparison, Patrick Hemingway butchered his father’s work.
This leads us to the inevitable question – Does the material Mary Hemingway cut from Islands in the Stream and The Garden of Eden deserve a restoration? That’s not as easy to answer as one might think. Those books are already of high quality. Should they leave well enough alone? It’s rare that the unexpurgated, unedited manuscript would be of literary value, but it has happened, and recently. Several of Zane Grey’s original manuscripts have been published, notably Riders of the Purple Sage by Leisure Books in 2006, and Last of the Duanes in 2008. Last of the Duanes is the unedited manuscript that was published as The Lone Star Ranger in 1915. The original versions of Riders of the Purple Sage and Last of the Duanes are superior to the first published editions.
One thing is certain. Hemingway can’t be dismissed by today’s un-wholesome brand of white anglo-saxon protestant revisionist feminist cranks. They’ll try, but his is a ghost that cannot be vanquished. There is too much depth and insight in those first forty-nine stories, and novels like A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls will endure forever. And that will lead the literati to The Green Hills of Africa, To Have and Have Not and more. Hemingway is the seminal American writer; ballsy, independent, dedicated to his craft, a keen observer, and a fearless warrior. In the end he was writing about Africa again, and then Paris, and one can easily imagine how good it was most of the time in the sunlit far country of Idaho just after the spring thaw when the streams were beginning to warm.
PHOTO AT TOP: Hemingway in Africa with Kilimanjaro rising in the mist far behind him. The shotgun he’s holding is the Scott & Son shotgun that he used to finish his last chapter.

Visit the Oak Park, Illinois home of Hemingway HERE.