Sunday, July 5, 2015

A New Montana Novel

I see that Craig Lancaster has a new novel, This Is What I Want, coming out at the end of July. It occurs in Eastern Montana in a small town affected by the Bakken oil boom, and involves the stress of that cataclysmic event on the quiet life there, especially as it impacts one family.

It is bound to be good. This is the fifth of his contemporary novels. They have won acclaim and a following for a courageous young author who wouldn't say no when he was thwarted by traditional publishing houses. He reminds me of my late, treasured friend Stanley Gordon West, who wrote a fine novel called Amos, which became an Emmy-nominated TV drama starring Kirk Douglas and Elisabeth Montgomery. But Stan found himself unable to sell another story. So he courageously began publishing his own, employing modern digital means plus his own vast professionalism, and ended up a celebrated and successful novelist. He often stayed with me when he came here, tried out story ideas on me, but mostly talked about the ways he patiently persuaded an uncaring world to take a close look at his work. If you pull up Stan's novels at Amazon, you will discover an amazing array of fine reader reviews as well as media reviews. 

Stan began life as a Lutheran pastor, with a church here in Livingston, but writing absorbed him, and his friendship with the literary crowd here drew him into a new calling. His novels of teen-age life in the 1940s in St. Paul resonate with me, and many others.

I'm drifting away from my purpose here, which is to wish Craig Lancaster great success with his new novel. He approaches his literary profession seriously, no matter whether it's editing, copyediting, design, or writing, and the result is always first rate. His professional life is an ongoing quest to tell each story more powerfully. The abundant reader-reviews of his novels on Amazon document his achievements far better than I can. He is winning acclaim in Montana, and I believe that acclaim will soon be national.

Friday, July 3, 2015


On June 26 at the convention of Western Writers of America, in Lubbock, Texas, several others and I were inducted into the Western Writers Hall of Fame. The entire list of honorees, accumulated over the years, is eclectic, and includes historians, literary and popular novelists, and even a couple of film people, such as John Ford and Clint Eastwood. Willa Cather and John Steinbeck are included, and so are Montana's A. B. Guthrie, Jr., and Dorothy Marie Johnson. The Hall of Fame is housed at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, in Cody, Wyoming. I am grateful to be honored.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Long Ago and Far Away

When I began writing western fiction, decades ago, I gradually discovered that the genre was deeply imbued by southern traditions and beliefs. Most of the writers were southern. Most wrote stories in which the protagonists were from the South, and were ex-Confederate soldiers, and angry at everything that lay behind them in the East. The genre was European-only. The conflict was personal, and not informed by ideals, and settled only one issue: Who would be the Top Dog?

There was little overt racism, but plenty of covert hostility toward Indians, and non-Europeans, who were all in the pathway of expanding white civilization. The idea of a literature promoting or favoring the historic occupiers of the western lands was so beyond the thinking of western novelists that Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee came as a shock. How could there even be another side, opposing the racially preordained expansion of English-speaking civilization? (Stories about non-English-speaking Europeans were just as rare. Ever see a Western novel about, say, Norwegian or Czech immigrants?)

But these were lesser peculiarities compared to the deep infusion of Confederate values into the western story. I have discussed this elsewhere, and won't rehash it here. I continued to write what I considered more traditional western stories, usually involving the building of a new civilization. The recent re-examination of the Confederacy, wrought by the alleged brutal murder of South Carolina blacks by a young racist, has brought to light just how deeply this racism still slumbers across the South, and for me, how deeply it infuses the mass-market paperbacks that are alleged to be Westerns. Most of these employ house or franchise author names, and I have never been told the names of their authors, but it is easy to see they are southern, or southern sympathizers, and that the Westerns they write are intended for southern, racist, white males.

I have moved steadily away from gunman fiction, preferring historical novels set in the West, or mining stories with a minimum of violence, stories that include the whole broad ethnicity of the frontier West.

What I am hoping is that the recent exposure of barely concealed racism in the South, that affects so much Western fiction, will begin a process of change that will root out the Southern "hero" once and for all. Western heroes, like mystery heroes, should courageously wrestle against disorder and lawlessness that threaten settlers, and not be a part of the problem in their own right. In mystery fiction, the detective's object is to restore safety and security and  bring the criminal to justice. I am hoping that the Western hero will start to do the same, instead of using his anger and rebellious feelings to turn the West into a wasteland.  A large branch of western fiction has been corrupted by the unreconciled South. But some good change is on the horizon.

Monday, June 29, 2015

An Open Door at Crossroad Press

Long ago, I wrote a couple of mysteries featuring a Milwaukee police detective, Joe Sonntag. They were set in the 1940s and 1950s when I was a boy living in Milwaukee. I employed a pseudonym, Axel Brand, to get away from my historical and western fiction.  Eventually they were packaged by Tekno Press, and published by Five Star, thanks to the help of the legendary Green Bay anthologist Martin Greenberg and the fine novelist and publisher Ed Gorman. Maybe a series set in the upper Midwest appealed to them.

The first two, The Hotel Dick, and The Dead Genius, did well and got good reviews, but then the tragic death of Mr. Greenberg from cancer, and upheavals at the publishing house, ended the series. I wrote a few more and self-published them as electronic books, but they did not do well. Still, I liked the series. I was catching the attitudes and ways of life in hard-working, ethnic Milwaukee, and the stories were far removed from most contemporary mysteries.

Recently, in an exchange with the gifted editor of Crossroad Press, David Niall Wilson, and then with his colleague, David Dodd, I worked out an arrangement with the company to produce all five of the detective novels, employing atmospheric retrospective covers. These fine gents don't waste time, and soon the novels were repackaged and put on the market. Four of the five are now in print in their new attire, and the final one will come along soon. They make things happen! I am absolutely delighted with my good fortune, and the imaginative packaging that has gone into this arrangement.

I've maintained a blog devoted to the Sonntag stories for years, but it had fallen into disuse and was all but defunct. Now I've revived it and put the new covers on display. The result is just amazing and I am pleased to direct you to the books, and hope you will buy one or all from Crossroad Press.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

How to Spot a Bad Western

High-body-count westerns involve a lot of slaughter but also shield the reader from the consequences of all that bloodshed. Here are some of the attributes:

Cannon Fodder: The thirty or forty people slated to croak in one of these novels are not depicted as real human beings. That is to keep readers from sympathizing with the doomed, or being revolted by the amount of murder on the pages. So these characters barely have names. They are Charlie or Buzz or Red, but are not described. They have no spouses or children or parents or history or dreams or tender feelings. They are not in love. No loving spouse weeps at the side of these fallen men. We wouldn't know one from another. When a bullet fells them, a reader scarcely notices.

Wounds: In violent westerns, people are rarely wounded. The reader is never exposed to the suffering and cruelty of bad wounds. So we never see a character die in agony, slowly, weeping, desperate, in excruciating pain, sobbing for help. They are simply shot and vanish from the story and the reader never is exposed to the effects of the bullets. Miraculously, no bullet ever strikes a man's private parts, or renders him incompetent, or steals his speech from him or permanently blinds him. The authors of these stories steer the readers' eyes elsewhere.

Lingering Death: Likewise, readers who devour all this violence are carefully shielded from lingering death. In violent westerns, almost all dying in immediate. No one lies in his blankets for hours or days or weeks or more, while life drains away from him and hope flees. Readers are shielded from the reality of long, bitter, brutal, painful dying. That is to protect readers from understanding the true nature of the genre fiction they are devouring.

Absurdity: A favorite example, which I read a few years ago, opens this way. Two Wyoming ranchers, looking for "action" (gunfights) in Texas happen upon a large bunch of horsemen chasing a wagon filled with women. The two ranchers whip out their carbines and attack the dozen or so armed horsemen, eventually killing them all. They wander among the dead. Wonder of wonders, they know all these Texans, and name all the badmen. Then they abandon the bodies and their saddled horses, and go chase the wagon and woo the women. The novel goes downhill from there, reaching depths of absurdity I've never seen in print before or since. As always, the protagonists survive virtually unscathed, so they can be stuffed into another series novel. The ludicrous scene swiftly vanishes into the next absurdity.

Moral Equivalence: In violent westerns, there is no moral or ethical difference between the heroes and their adversaries. They think and act alike. No one is more ethical or higher-minded than the others. No one dreams of a settled, civilized world. That prevents the reader from taking sides, and allows a reader to absorb the bloodbath without any allegiance to anyone in the novel. Once again, the author's real purpose is to shield the reader from the consequences of the violence portrayed in the novel.

Lack of Plot: There is only one underlying plot to these gunman westerns: Who will be standing at the end? Or what killer bunch will outlast the other killer bunch? The whole drama lies in the fighting, and there is no nuance that might lead a reader away from the riveting slaughter. 

Next time you see a violent western in the mass-market racks, look for these attributes. They are all part of the formula.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Does Fiction Teach?

Whenever dark days afflict our republic, and these come along frequently now, I find myself wondering whether the western story is somehow culpable. I suspect it is, but don't really know.

Mysteries are violent, but the violence is directed at curbing violence, catching killers, and restoring good order. So there is a rationale, a moral or ethical underpinning, that steers crime fiction and mysteries away from celebrating violence.

But that is not true of modern western fiction, some of which clearly celebrates violence for its own sake, and makes a hero of the Top Dog. The violence of western gunmen, these days, is rarely directed toward ending injustice, rescuing the weak, restoring peace, or bringing comfort to the disadvantaged. The underlying purpose of some westerns is to glamorize the violent hero.

The question remains, does this violence embedded in certain mass-market stories, have an effect on some readers, inciting them to violence, or at least allowing them to justify whatever violence they are contemplating in their private lives? I don't know the answer. No one knows. I suspect that some unstable readers discover in violent westerns a legitimizing fantasy that nurtures their own violent conduct and sometimes triggers it.

In previous incarnations of the Western, the hero resorted to violence reluctantly, as a last resort. Put bluntly, Shane hated his own profession.

I have long since ceased to write novels of that sort, high-body-count stories, and if violence crops up in my novels, it is minimal and there because I am pursuing historical realities. I particularly avoid glamorizing violence, writing anything that an impressionable young person might employ as a rationale for murder. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Scumbag Westerns

This is an appropriate moment to return to one of the things that troubles me most about modern western fiction. What I call the gunman western isn't about the frontier, or settling the West at all. The plots of these stories boil down to one question: who will be the last man standing? Or the last gang standing? They are called westerns by their publishers, whose cover designers slap a western hat on an armed man, and sell the novels to distributors and the public as western fiction.

These stories are properly called Southerns. Their protagonists are usually ex-Confederate soldiers, and the stories are set in Texas and the southwest, occasionally in a border state. They are not set in the North or northwest, such as the Dakotas, Montana or Idaho. And their protagonists are not former Union soldiers, who entered the war to hold the Union together and set the slaves free. By contrast, the ex-Confederate protagonists entered the war to defend the buying and selling of other human beings, and to legitimize the practice in the Confederacy. They may have fought valiantly,  but for an evil cause that remains a sinister underground current of thought even now.

These Southerns are not about settlement or establishing civilization or social norms in a new land. Southerns are marked by nihilism; there is no moral or ethical difference between the protagonists and their adversaries. They are equally rotten. They are equally angry and equally defeated and frustrated. These losers play their own game. Whoever survives to the end of the novel is the winner.

These Southerns sell enormously well in the South, but elsewhere in the country they are rarely seen  on the mass-market racks.  They are highly profitable, which is why they are published, even though they are often repugnant to everything this nation stands for. I strongly defend the constitutional right of publishers to publish whatever they wish, but I find myself wishing that these publishers and the authors who write scumbag western fiction would find something better to do with their talents.