Amanda Gowin, author of the story collection RADIUM GIRLS, asks me some weird questions over at Curiouser and Curiouser today.
Not long ago, I shared my thoughts here on four Western novels from Elmore Leonard, and promised to do the same with the remaining four once I finished up with them. Well, here they are, then:
LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER
Paul Cable, having fought on the Confederate side during the war, has returned with his family to his homestead on the Saber River, only to find that his land has been taken by the Kidstons', two wealthy brothers loyal to the Union. Cable thought he'd left the fighting behind him, but it seems he's now in the for fight of his life, not just for his home, but for the lives of his family as well. He has a possible ally in Southern sympathizer and gun-runner Janroe, but Janroe, who would like to see the Kidston's dead, may turn out to be Cable's worst enemy in disguise.
This one is very strongly about the concept of honor and family; Cable is reluctant to kill, even though Janroe makes an argument that it's STILL a war that's being waged, only without uniforms. LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER has a somewhat relaxed pace for the first 3/4s, even though there are some startling moments of action and violence. It really gets moving, though, in the last fourth, when revelations come to light and loyalties shift.
There are three female characters-- Cable's wife Martha, Luz, the girl who works at the store Janroe has taken over, and Duane Kidston's bored daughter Lorraine-- but all of them are remarkably well-drawn and believable for a Western written in the 1950's. Especially Martha. That was pretty refreshing. Yes, a rescue of Martha and the children takes place at the climax, but Martha has a hand in rescuing herself as significant as her husband.
Not my favorite Leonard Western, but very solid nonetheless.
THE BOUNTY HUNTERS
Seasoned scout Dave Flynn is partnered with the young, inexperienced Lt. Bowers on a covert mission across the border to hunt down Apache bandit Soldado. But once in Mexico, the pair find themselves in the middle of an unfolding crisis-- corrupt rurales, under the command of Duro, have subjagated a small village where Flynn has old friends, and Duro is making money off so-called Apache scalps brought in by a blood-thirsty band of bounty hunters. But the scalps don't necessarily belong to Apaches; in fact, some of the the villagers themselves have fallen prey to the nasty scalp hunters. Flynn and Bowers must set things right before they can carry out their own mission.
This is Elmore Leonard's first novel, but it's not the work of an amateur by any means. Leonard had already honed his chops writing short Western stories, and the careful structure of THE BOUNTY HUNTERS gives testament to that. It's a fine piece of work, although not really replete with a lot of the things we would come to think of later as Leonard hallmarks. The dialogue doesn't snap the way his later work does, but instead performs a function at all times. The influence of Hemingway is very obvious.
Like many of his other early Westerns, the last chapter is really thrilling and action-packed, with our heroes seemingly against the wall and in dire trouble, and the whole thing ends on a very satisfying note.
ESCAPE FROM FIVE SHADOWS
Framed and sentenced to hard labor at the prison at Five Shadows, Corey Bowen isn't about to serve out his time quietly, even though every escape attempt ends in disaster. Until two different women take an interest in freeing him-- one, a woman longing for escape herself, and willing to go to any lengths to achieve it; she offers Bowen a way out if he will kill her spineless alcoholic husband in the process. And two, a lovely young girl who believes in Corey's innocence and may have the legal connections to get him out... if he's patient. But Corey is NOT patient, and when an opportunity to bust out presents itself, he sees no other option but to take it.
The characters in this one are finely-drawn and compelling, although not quite as meticulous as his later work. Despite that, ESCAPE FROM FIVE SHADOWS is a thrilling, tightly-plotted western with lots of action and unexpected twists. The ending is maybe a bit too convenient, with everything lining up nicely for Bowen in the last couple of chapters, but you know, that's just the kind of novel this is. Not on the same level as say, FORTY LASHES LESS ONE or GUNSIGHTS, but still a very enjoyable read.
HOMBRE was a huge leap forward for Elmore Leonard, in my opinion. His first four novels were all solid, well-written Westerns, but with very little that made them stand out from the hundreds of other Westerns at the time. I'm a fan of those early ones for their remarkable compactness and directness of style, but HOMBRE is the first one that feels really different, not just in its themes but in the way Leonard approaches the characters.
It's unique also in that it's the first (and only) one written in first person. Later, Leonard would vow never to write in first person again, but it works really well in this one. It's narrated by a former stage coach company clerk, riding along on an emergency journey with a disparate group of people-- his former boss Mendez, a fiery tempered young woman who has just been rescued from captivity by Apaches, a shady Indian Affairs agent named Favor and Favor's wife, an even shadier gunman with dubious intentions named Braden, and the "Hombre" of the title: the taciturn John Russell.
Russell is a source of anxiety for the passengers, being a white man who was raised Apache but is now about to give a shot at living in the white man's world. He is barely tolerated by the bigoted Mr. and Mrs. Favor, until the gunman Braden reveals his true intentions; he is part of a gang lying in wait to steal the money Favor had embezzled from his post as an Indian Affairs agent. With their lives on the line, Russell must lead the group to safety across the hostile landscape of Arizona, with the outlaws in close pursuit.
There's some very good action in HOMBRE, but more than anything else this novel is a character study. Of all the central characters, but most especially of John Russell. He is an enigma to the others, a silent and stoic presence who refuses to submit to the opinions of the others or to placate them with false pretensions. They hate him, they fear him, but they NEED him. And by the end of HOMBRE, they finally learn what kind of man he actually is. And it's something none of them could ever even aspire to.
Mark this as one of my favorites of Elmore Leonard's Westerns. Looking at his bibliography, it seems he took a break from writing fiction for several years after this, some eight years, and when he did return to fiction he concentrated mostly on modern day crime thrillers. But between 1970 and '79, he wrote three more Westerns, all far superior to his earlier work in the genre. That great streak started with HOMBRE.
When it comes to promotion and all the ins-and-outs of publishing, I have a confession to make. I have no idea what I'm doing.
Every once in a while, I'll make an effort to get myself acclimated to the bigger picture, I'll try to pay attention to the latest news in the world of publishing-- i.e. that Amazon-Hatchett thing that was all over social media a few months ago-- but within minutes I'm monstrously bored. Even worse, I still haven't formed an opinion. I'm supposed to have an opinion, right? Damn me, I can't seem to care enough to get one together.
But, more relevant to what I want to talk about, my skills at promotion are minimal.
Okay, that's not the whole truth. The whole truth is, I'm not terribly interested in promotion anymore.
I think there's a mid-line involved in being a writer who is effective at promotion, a sort of point where the needle starts clicking over to the far end and people notice. Anything below that point, you can be rumbling and making your low-level noise, but unless you top it into the red and start beeping obnoxiously, you're just background ambiance.
I don't want to start beeping. I don't like it much when other writers do that (hello, Twitter, you fucking obnoxious whore!). I'd really rather just write, okay?
Here's what I've noticed: when I have a new work I want to make people aware of, I DO announce it, here at the blog and on social media, mostly Facebook, and initial sales will be fairly decent, usually. Not staggering or anything, but enough to make me happy. But if I decide to promote something that's been around for a while and has begun to flat-line a little, the result is usually... well, not much.
And yet... on a regular basis, older works will suddenly and inexplicably spike a little, without any reason that I'm aware of. It has nothing to do with me. I put it down to readers maybe spreading the word a bit, or someone just sorta stumbling across me on Amazon, or someone who maybe read one thing of mine and liked it enough to invest in some of my other stuff.
I'm just guessing. I don't really know. And that's my point. When you work exclusively in the small presses, there often doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to sales patterns. They go up, they go down, they go up again.
I suspect, too, that this ties in a bit to my newly-discovered lack of interest in bad reviews. We've all seen the news lately about a rash of "writers behaving badly", obsessing over bloggers and reviewers who have rightly or wrongly trashed their work, engaging in on-line flame wars, and one even going so far as to stalk his (her?) reviewer. I can't even get my head around that. When my very first bad reviews started coming in (for THE BASTARD HAND; there was a free promotion at one point that put the novel into the hands of thousands of people, some of whom had no business reading a book like that), I was bummed. But I guess you could say I had an epiphany about it not long ago, and that epiphany was that not everyone is going to like what I do, and what's more, it would SUCK if everyone loved me. That would mean I'm doing something really wrong and I'm not pushing myself into unexplored territory the way I want to.
So when I say I don't care about bad reviews or readers who hate what I do, I hope you understand that I'm completely serious. I honestly don't give a fuck.
I DO like your good reviews, though. You have good taste.
I got some great advice a long time ago from a writer I admire greatly, Vincent Zandri. Bear in mind, Vin and I have completely different situations-- he has some pretty strong promotional resources behind him, having a nice deal with Amazon-- but what he told me is still true: Keep putting quality work out there. Develop a catalog of solid books and stories, be dependably good. An audience will find you, eventually.
James Reasoner told me the same thing (I'm a name-dropping sonofabitch today, aren't I?) and he should know. James has written over 300 books. He writes for a living. And you almost NEVER see him promoting his work on social media. He's too busy doing the work.
It took me a little while to really understand what Vin and James were telling me. But I get it now. They are absolutely right.
You're not going to see me going all out on some promotional blitz, unless I have something brand new I want to bring to your attention, or some freebie or something like that. Anything beyond an initial heads-up, I've found, is an enormous waste of time. And non-stop self-promotion, the kind you find on Twitter, is just obnoxious as hell. I'm not saying it doesn't work, maybe it does, I don't know, but it seems like too big a price to pay.
I think I'll just keep writing.
P.S.- That cat picture up there? It seemed relevant at the time. It isn't, really. But people like funny pictures of cats. Sorry 'bout that.
Tonight, network television is premiering a new show called Constantine. It's based on the long-running (but now defunct) comic series from DC/Vertigo called Hellblazer; or, more accurately, I guess, it's based on the safer version that can be found in the newer DC re-boot of the character, simply called Constantine.
I won't be watching. No, I'm not boycotting it or anything. I'm at work tonight. But honestly, even if I was home, I'm not sure how excited I would be about it. The DC re-boot is pretty much a toothless version of a character I love dearly.
Hellblazer was the only comic I read consistently for well over twenty years, and that version of John Constantine is as close to a fully fleshed out and complex personality as you're ever likely to see in the pages of a comic book. He grew and changed over the course of the series in a very realistic way. He aged in "real time". He was a hero and a bastard and a con-man and a savior at various points; like real people, he was never just ONE thing.
That's why so many different writers were able to do such great work with him over the years. Making Constantine "consistent" was silly, because real people are not consistent.
If you don't know, here's the deal about John Constantine: he appeared initially in the much-lauded Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing, back in 1985, as a mysterious supporting character, guiding Swamp Thing (or manipulating him, if you prefer) on a series of grisly adventures that tested the swamp elemental's powers as he was rediscovering himself. Constantine was a stylish but somewhat seedy Brit, conceived as a "working class magician", a bit snarky, a bit cynical, always with a hidden agenda and a last-minute plan. He always seemed to know something that everyone else didn't, that was his thing. He was a master manipulator who was willing to do some very bad things for the greater good.
The character was a huge hit with readers, and in 1988, after a few more important appearances in Swamp Thing, he was spun off into his own series-- at first meant to be called Hellraiser, but Clive Barker had just beaten them to the punch with that title, so the last minute change up was called Hellblazer.
Written by Jamie Delano and drawn mostly by John Ridgeway, Hellblazer took the bare bones concepts of Alan Moore and expanded on them beautifully. Even though Moore created the character, Delano was really the one who made Constantine great. Over the course of his initial 40-issue run, he filled in Constantine's background, he gave him the internal struggles, he pulled back the curtain to show what was really going on in Constantine's brain. He made him human, and he set up the themes that would be consistent throughout the history of the title-- namely, the toll Constantine would always pay for his work. The working-class mage/con-man was often forced to make horrible sacrifices for the greater good, losing friends along the way, and pieces of his own soul (literally and figuratively). Delano also used Hellblazer to comment on the social and political climate of Britain in those dark days of Margaret Thatcher, and gave us bits like Constantine's stay in a mental asylum after inadvertently causing a young girl to die and be sucked into Hell, being partly responsible for the death of his father at the hands of a serial killer called The Family Man, and strangling his "good" twin brother in the womb. All of these things would be referenced many times over the years. Delano's run remains the hallmark, in my opinion.
With issue 41, Garth Ennis took over the title, and began what is still the most popular run ever of Hellblazer. With artist William Simpson at first, and then Steve Dillon, Ennis' approach to Constantine was a little less refined and less political, instead choosing to go a more personal route. He showed us a Constantine with friends, a Constantine in love, and ultimately a Constantine who would once again lose it all in the end. It was an angry run of comics that confronted racism, corporate greed, homelessness, and religion, but it also had great moments of black humor. Ennis gave us probably the most famous Hellblazer story, in which Constantine gets lung cancer and manages to save himself by utilizing a ballsy con against the Devil himself (the First of the Fallen) and two other lords of Hell.
Ennis wrapped up his run with issue 83, and, after a one shot by returning writer Delano and a three-parter by Eddie Campbell, the reins were picked up by Paul Jenkins, with the great Sean Phillips on most of the art.
Jenkins run is highly under-rated, and at this time is the only run on Hellblazer that hasn't been collected in trade paperback. I think that's a damn shame. Jenkins opted to go in a different direction than the one pointed out by Ennis, instead focusing his run on British folklore and mythology. It was less bombastic than Ennis, less colorful and profane, and showed a Constantine trying once again to have some kind of normal life with his eccentric circle of friends. But the one constant of his life, the inevitable crash and burn, happens at the end and once again he's left alone and devastated.
Garth Ennis came back briefly after the Jenkins run, for a gruesome 6-part dark comedy called Son of Man, about the consequences Constantine has to deal with after bringing back the life the dead son of a London gangster, using a demon with a... well, a devastatingly huge dong.
The great Warren Ellis was next, with a terrific but way too short run that focused on Constantine the bastard-- a six part arc first, in which John finds out a former lover has been murdered by an upstart young mage, and the brutal retribution John brings down on him. This was followed by a handful of excellent one shot stories with a variety of artists. But Ellis' run was cut short by a disagreement with DC/Vertigo over a story involving school shootings, this in the wake of the Columbine tragedy.
Ellis left, and after a two part fill-in by writer Darko Macan, Brian Azzarello took over. Azzarello was the first and only American to write Hellblazer, and so his run takes place entirely in the States. It opens with Constantine in an American prison, then backtracks over the course of the run to explain the circumstances of his incarceration. Azzarello used the title to take Constantine into some of the darkest places in America, backwoods redneck territory as well as the hidden pleasure palaces of the filthy, morally bankrupt rich. It's a controversial run, but elevated sales on Hellblazer higher than they'd been since the Ennis days. Constantine comes off as particularly wicked in these issues, but mostly because we're seeing him through other people's eyes, which works. It served as a sort of reminder of Constantine when we first met him in Swamp Thing, a mysterious and slightly sinister figure.
Mike Carey followed Azzarello, taking John back to England to confront the consequences of his long absence. This run on Hellblazer is my favorite, one, because Carey is terrific at set-up and pace, and two, because he draws on lore established by previous writers and takes them to new and unexpected places. Some horrible things happen in Carey's run, deaths of characters who had been in the title since the very beginning, and Constantine's friendship with Chas (a constant throughout the series, the long-suffering Chas) reaches a breaking point. John pretty much loses it during Carey's run, suffering beyond anything the previous writers had ever put him through. Carey also made John's niece Gemma an important ongoing character, as the young woman follows in the dark footsteps of her uncle. Also, the second half of Carey's run features art by Leonardo Manco, whom I adore.
When Carey wrapped up, crime fiction author Denise Mina took over. I have mixed feelings about Mina's run; she was the first woman to write the character, and she really manages to nail John Constantine's personality perfectly. Also, she utilizes Gemma expertly. Sadly, the story itself dragged a bit, and didn't offer Constantine any real noteworthy challenge. Still, though, it should be said, Mina was absolutely terrific at character stuff.
Andy Diggle was next, with a very short but clever run that saw Constantine trying to get his act together yet again, and finally confronting the Golden Child-- that is, the supposedly "good" twin he murdered in the womb.
And finally, Peter Milligan, with the final (and longest) run on Hellblazer. While previous writers worked to strike a balance between the dark magical world of John Constantine and a more-or-less "real world", Milligan's run is noteworthy for it's dismissal of any sort of reflection of reality. It's a bright, comic-bookish world in Milligan's Hellblazer, even when the stories themselves get dark (and they do get very dark indeed at points). Constantine actually gets married about midway through Milligan's time on Hellblazer, but during the wedding his niece Gemma is sexually assaulted by "Demon Constantine", a vessel previously locked away in Hell, whom John had at one point during Jenkins' run poured all his own darkest impulses into. Even though it wasn't John that committed the deed, the incident creates a wedge between him and Gemma that ultimately costs John everything at the end. Issue 300 wraps up Hellblazer on a downbeat note, a fate you could argue as being worse than death for someone like Constantine, and a feeling of melancholy that John Constantine's long journey is at last over.
Reading the very last issue of Hellblazer marked what I knew was the end of my time as a serious reader of comics. I still pick up trade paperbacks from time to time, but it was Hellblazer that kept me showing up at the comic shop on Wednesdays. I have a very strong attachment to Our John, as I've read his ongoing story and watched as he struggled and failed and even occasionally won. I've stayed with him as he's saved the world, lost his soul, betrayed his friends and himself, aged and changed and survived crisis after crisis.
As goofy as it sounds, John Constantine is almost like an old friend (who I wouldn't trust alone!) I met when I was in my early 20's and knew peripherally ever since. I actually kinda mourned the end of Hellblazer.
DC, of course, re-booted him as a part of their mainstream DC universe, but this Constantine is clearly not the same guy. He's younger, for one thing. All that life history in Hellblazer doesn't exist for him. He doesn't operate in the "real world"; instead, he hangs out with superheroes and saves the world from alien threats and even turns into goddamn Shazam at one point. Sigh.
Anyway, the show premiering tonight. Depending on reviews, I may watch when it comes out on DVD or Netflix. Maybe. But it will always just be an actor, an imitation, of one of the most important fictional characters in my life, John Constantine. Cheers.
Christian Klaver has been a close friend of mine for many years, and he's one of those guys it's impossible not to like. He's friendly and gregarious and always has something interesting to say. He's also a terrific writer (you can find some of his work here) and a formidable martial artist.
I sent him a message asking about katanas and samurai swords: "Hey, you know how in Walking Dead, Michonne is always chopping zombie's heads off with one swipe of her katana? Is that actually possible in real life? It seems like cutting someone's head clean off would be harder than that. I need answers!!"
His answer was so fantastic I had to share it here on the blog. Hope you get as much out of it as I did. Thanks, Christian!
"I can help. Mostly, yes. I totally think it would work, but not quite they portray it. And not indefinitely. A sword would certainly do damage to a person’s neck, though a decap would be unlikely. The proper stroke for a katana includes a pulling motion so the sword slides to cut. Think about the slide you have to do cutting food. (They always show it like she’s hitting with a bat, just straight through, which wouldn’t work on a person. On a super sharp sword, maybe once, maybe, before you dulled the crap out of your sword. Also probably not right through the skull like they often show. It would, sooner rather than later, just chunk into the flesh and bone like an axe into wood, and stick. (Especially if you don’t slide!) You almost never see that in the show. That goes double when you see her whipping it around with one hand. It’s meant to be used with two, hands spaced as far apart as you can for leverage. Now if zombies are decayed and gooier than people, that might allow a lot more latitude.
I was part way through this post and did a little research. You can find a ton of sites with people putting swords through bottles of water and occasionally a hunk of beef. It would do lethal damage to a person no problem. So certainly a zombie. Hell, even a non-sharp sword would do the trick if you had all the time in the world and weren’t worried about getting stuck. It’s when you want to do it repeatedly, with no hang-ups, then it gets unbelievable. Also, most of the time, these are made out of not great metal. So after a few dozen zombies, I’d think you'd break it sooner or later. (We just found out the Michonne found hers, which makes this even more likely.)
There’s a site with a real Samurai Master declaring “there are only a handful of people on the planet who could effectively use a katana in battle. For the rest of us it would be nothing more than a recipe for certain death.” I get where he’s coming from, but I think he’s overstating the case. He’s thinking of combat against an armed opponent that knows what he’s doing, where you’d be hitting metal (sword on sword, armor, etc). Zombie fighting is kind of the cake walk of combat, it’s only in attrition that they’re dangerous, right? Any length of metal will do the trick, Kouno, I’m pretty sure a katana could dispatch a zombie ok, buddy.
If I had to pick for me, tomorrow, for under $100, my top choice would be the Kukri. (I like this one with the lanyard so you can lose it as easily.) Small enough you could get a good metal one. Or a good old machete.
If I had to pick out of my basement, I would certainly use my katana (with backup machete). And, you know, a fucking rifle and pistol. Sure, the katana won’t last forever, but it’ll last until I find something better.
Honorable mention to this tactical tomahawk, which wouldn’t ever break, I think, unlike the less-than stellar metal of the $30 Chinese Broadsword above
Practical, but not anywhere near as sexy as a sword.
That being said, I’ve never actually had a problem with Michonne’s swordwork in walking dead while I’m watching her. It’s a little bit of a stretch because she does it one-handed and she’s kind of skinny, but so cool that I’m willing to go with it."
My friends are awesome, right?
Once in a while, I'll find myself focusing on my most obvious flaws and think I should maybe work toward fixing them. You ever do that? I mean, consciously work toward making yourself a better person? Most of the time, I imagine, we do it instinctively, but on some occasions it becomes a more conscious thing.
Anger, that's my big one. I have a lot of rage boiling in my gut-- rage over horrible tragedies in the world, rage over stupid people making stupid decisions for the rest of us, rage over circumstances I have no control over. It simmers inside me for long periods of time, and then, without warning, erupts over and out of me and I find myself ranting and raging at a world that's not really listening.
Folks who know me would probably tell you that I'm a pretty calm, easy-going guy and that it takes an awful lot to stress me out or get me worked up. That's because I tend to internalize my strongest emotions. Truth is, I'm a bit like Bruce Banner in The Avengers movie-- I'm ALWAYS angry. But the only time I really cut loose, emotionally, is on the page. More about that in a minute.
It doesn't help anything when I rage off the page and in the real world. In fact, the only discernible effect I've noticed is that it takes everything out of me and makes me feel awful. My anger seems to effect nothing and nobody except me-- and in a very negative way.
So. Time to reign that rage in and learn to calm the fuck down, right? Maybe.
One thing I've found that really helps when you're trying to be a better human being: thoroughly examine the ideals you love, pick them apart, throw away the ones that prove meaningless and focus hard on the few that remain. Write them down. Know them, live them.
I care about reason, compassion, kindness, and truth. Those are the four greatest things a human can aspire to, in my opinion. Not finding "happiness" (a selfish goal if ever there was one), but easing the universal burden somewhat.
I have my own ideas about what each of those four things mean, but I won't bore you with that. You probably have your own definitions, and I'm sure they're fine the way they are.
Now, having said that--- none of this applies to my work as a writer. Reason flies right out the goddamn window. Compassion is nowhere to be seen. Kindness? Pffh. And truth, well... truth rarely exists.
You know what there's a lot of, though? Anger. Wild, raging, uncontrollable anger. I'd like to say it's therapeutic, but that might be bullshit.
Regardless, I'm not sure if I could even write at all without the anger.
THE WALKING DEAD is a show that really benefits from binge viewing, a quick two or three day blast dedicated to just barreling through to the end. That's the way I've watched each season, and I'm pretty sure I would never have maintained interest in it if I'd watched an episode a week. Luckily for me, I don't have/want/need cable, so it's an entirely Netflix streaming experience for me.
I'm one of those infuriating WALKING DEAD viewers who bitches and moans about the show and yet anxiously awaits each new season. Sorry. I know I'm wrong to do that.
But the thing is, the show is so... frustrating sometimes. Uneven. The first season was amazing and fresh, but the beginning of the second just dragged on and on, even watching it over a couple of days. And the second half of the third season, same deal. The show has always seemed to have trouble finding its pace, figuring out where it wanted to go and how it wanted to get there. It's difficult to balance great character moments with scary action, and even the most die-hard WD fan will probably admit the show hasn't always been successful in that regard.
When the show is good, though, it is very good indeed. There are some characters who I've grown very emotionally invested in, whether I like it or not. And the moments of action usually pay off very well, even if they come sporadically.
I'm happy to say, though, that I was really pleased with season four. They seem to have finally found that balance between character and action they've been striving for. It was the most enjoyable season since the first.
I'm not going to worry about spoilers here, since I assume that most WD fans are already caught up. So if you're concerned about reveals, maybe you should stop reading. I don't know, it's up to you.
Season four succeeded for many noteworthy reasons-- one, as I said, the pacing was as close to perfect as they've been so far. In 16 episodes, a LOT happened. The survivors lost their sanctuary in the prison when the Governor returned. We got an excellent pay-off to wrap up the Gov's story (and those three flashback episodes dealing with his adventures post-Woodbury were terrific). As walkers descended on the prison, the survivors were forced to flee, and the tight-knit group were scattered, none knowing the fate of the others.
It was an inspired idea, separating the group. It gave the writers amble opportunity to focus on each of them and tell stories that highlighted each of their strengths and flaws. It also gave us a chance to get to know some of the newer characters.
One aspect that really works this season is the new diversity of our heroes-- for the first time, WD has several significant black characters: not just Michonne, but Tyreese, Sasha, and new addition Bob. Each of them has their own deal and their own focus, which is worth mentioning because, previously, we had only T-Dog... remember him? Maybe not, because in the first two and a half seasons T-Dog just sort of hung around and never did anything worth mentioning. He never got a back-story, was never the focus of anything. When he died, it didn't even feel like an important moment, did it?
Also: the female characters REALLY shined in season four. I mean, they were all terrific and the writers did an excellent job with them. Carole really came into her own as a strong but flawed human being, making insanely difficult decisions and living with the consequences. Maggie kicked ass. Michonne, of course, got fleshed out a bit more and opened up. Finally, Beth got serious screen-time and proved that she deserves to be listed in the opening credits. And new addition Tara, the sole survivor of the Governor's group, had value right away (also worth noting, Tara is, as far as I can remember, WD's first gay character, another stride forward in diversity). Remember when the show had, basically, two female leads and both of them were irritating as hell and seriously under-developed? Lori and Andrea never worked for me, because they both seemed like an immature boy's idea of what women would act like during the zombie plague.
Speaking of Lori and Andrea, that brings me to what I've always considered the biggest problem with WD, and how I think they've addressed it somewhat in season four.
Death has long been a gimmick on WALKING DEAD. A plot point designed to shock you, even if it isn't satisfying from a story point of view. It's a weird kind of death fetish, substituting actual drama for shock. Yes, I understand that, if a zombie plague really happened, people we love would die. I get that. But you know... this is a story. And in a story, you need to rely on something more than "Who's going to die this season??" The writers (influenced, I'm sure, by Robert Kirkman) have focused on that, to the detriment of good story-telling. For the writers, with a gleeful glimmer in their eyes, to tease viewers with POTENTIAL CHARACTER DEATHS!! all the time is just sloppy and lazy and a cheap way to keep people watching. In season three, so many main characters died that my reaction when all was said and done was a combination of depression and antipathy. I didn't care anymore, and I wound up distancing myself emotionally. Too often, a character death signified nothing except... well, another dead character.
Season four proves my point, I think. It's the best season since the first, and guess what? Only ONE major character dies. Just one (note that by "major character", I mean someone who has been on the show for two or more seasons). And his death was a shocker. It was emotionally devastating and signified a HUGE moment on the show and what happens next. It didn't feel gratuitous. It felt like: nothing will ever be the same now. It pushed the story forward.
That's how you do a character death. You give it meaning. You don't make it yet another useless death that does nothing to advance the story.
One death, and the best season yet.
Finally, and in relation to that, I just want to say that if they kill off Glenn (which there have been some hints about upcoming in season five) I'll be done with the show. This isn't just a pissy comment-- I consider Glenn essential to the show's success. Rick is, of course, the head of the show, and by extension Carl; Darryl is a fan favorite, so killing him off would be idiotic, unless they wanted to lose HALF their viewers; but Glenn is the HEART of that show and always has been. He's the glue that holds everything together on an emotional level.
I just hope the show runners realize that.
I didn’t read a lot when I was a little kid.
Scratch that—I didn’t read a lot of books. I read comics, that was what I did. I’ve mentioned in other posts how much comic books shaped my life, even as an adult, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that comics actually taught me how to read. My mom took full advantage of my bizarre obsession with dudes in tights and capes running around beating up bad guys by making sure I never ran out of comics to read (they were super-cheap in those days). And so, through them, I learned about story structure, conflict, character development (as miniscule as it was) and all those other things that go toward making a story work.
At about ten years old, I began casting around for other heroic tales to put myself into, and that’s when actual books started playing a role. We started studying Greek mythology in school, and I fell in love, devouring Bulfinch and Edith Hamilton. I discovered the exciting and bloody tales of King Arthur via Mallory (no, I didn’t read Le Mort D’Arthur at ten years old, but rather an illustrated children’s version). Basically, these were like super-hero stories, except that the teacher didn’t seem to judge them as harshly. Perfect.
But my first actual adult reading occurred pretty much by accident: stumbling across this short story collection hidden away in the basement, something my mom had apparently forgotten. It was called HAUNTINGS. It had this gorgeously creepy cover by Edward Gorey, and stories by Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, John Collier, and a bunch of others as well. The cover sparked my morbid little imagination, and I sat there in that dark basement and read three or four in a row and everything—I mean, everything—changed for me. It would never be the same again.
Heroics fell by the wayside for a while then, to be replaced by an overwhelming need to have the shit scared out of me.
Through my teens and even well into my twenties I was a horror nut, reading every horror novel I could find and becoming quite the little expert on the genre. I especially fell in love with Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer stories. This all coincided with the so-called “horror boom” of the eighties, so it worked out pretty well.
Not to say that I never read anything but scary shit. There were books we read in school that I actually quite liked. The usual stuff, you know: Lord of the Flies (which is still one of my favorites), Huckleberry Finn, Call of the Wild.
I also got hold of some old Doc Savage re-prints then, great heroic stuff if not exactly brilliantly written. The Shadow followed (to a lesser extent), and Robert E. Howard’s stories about Conan and Solomon Kane.
At fifteen or so, on a whim, I read a couple Mack Bolan Executioner books, by Don Pendleton, and absolutely lost my shit. Ultra-violent, non-stop action. The perfect thing for removing an awkward young man from a world he had no control over and giving him some "realistic" heroic fantasy to cling to. At that time in my life, I needed the well-crafted escapism that the Executioner books provided, and within two months I’d read every single book in the series up ‘til then (which was somewhere around fifty, I think).
Anyway… the finest (and occasionally trashiest) of horror, along with the bloody campaigns of Mack Bolan, sustained me throughout my teenage years. There was other stuff, granted, but that was what made up the bulk of my reading then.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that my reading habits took a monumental turn and opened right up. Books and writers that I still read now, and that had an enormous influence on my own writing.
I read Hammett, then, and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.
But it really started with Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson.
The Black Lizard re-prints of classic paperback original stuff from the 50's were just coming out then, and I can't really over-state what an impact they had on me. I've talked elsewhere about how Pop. 1280 changed things for me, and on the heels of that one I discovered Charles Willeford, Peter Rabe, Dan J. Marlowe, Day Keene, etc.
I started seeking out similar writers, stumbled across John D. MacDonald, Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith.
If I had to boil it down, the "noir" writers had the biggest impact of all. I still loved other genres (and still do), but those paperback original writers who slaved away in relative obscurity made a permanent mark on me like no one else.
In my early 30's I started developing a taste for Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, and discovered that, tonally, they read very much like the noir writers.
For a while, I flirted with a lot of modern speculative fiction, and was particularly blown away by James Morrow, Tim Powers, and George Saunders (who, honestly, is some kind of genius).
All of this varied reading wound up informing the story and structure of my first novel, THE BASTARD HAND, which, for good or ill, defies categorization.
Lately, I've been reading a lot of Westerns. One more genre thrown in the mix, right?
The thrill of discovering new writers and new kinds of stories never gets old. With any luck, it will never stop happening.
HAWTHORNE: TALES OF A WEIRDER WEST is free on Amazon Kindle for the next five days or so. It contains:
An introduction by Western legend James Reasoner, and the stories:
That Damned Coyote Hill
The Long Black Train
The Spider Tribe
The Unholy; or, How the Gowan Gang Died
I won't lie, I'm rather proud of these stories.