Heath Lowrance

The Walking Dead and their weird Death Fetish

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Oct 012014
 

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.

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.

A Biography in Books

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Sep 302014
 

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. 

Publication History

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Sep 262014
 

A few days ago, someone asked me when and where my first story was published. I couldn't remember. Isn't that nuts? I honestly could not tell her the year the story came out, and I had to think for a minute before I could even remember where it appeared. Crazy.

It was important to me, obviously, but damn. There is clearly something wrong with my brain.

So... I took some time yesterday to piece together my publication history, more for myself than anyone else. I've always been really horrible about keeping track of stuff like this. But there were enough resources on my hard drive and on line for me to work it out.

If you're interested, here it is. But like I say, this is mostly for me.

 2007
--“Battle of the Carson Hotel”, to WELL-TOLD TALES podcast. Made twenty bucks, and heard the story read by a really terrific voice talent named Andy Hoff. Later republished in DIG TEN GRAVES. I got lucky right out of the gate, but I wasn't able to sell another piece of fiction for almost two years after this. Well-Told Tales is gone, but you can still find the podcast on line.

2008
--“How the Great Depression Gave America the Blues”, to HISTORY MAGAZINE. Non-fiction, but I’m including it because it was the first time I ever got a substantial amount of money for writing. I have found it plagarized by students in several places on line. Oh well. It actually made me consider giving up fiction writing and going entirely for essays and articles. That didn’t take.

2009
--“Emancipation, with Teeth”, to NECROTIC TISSUE. A very good horror mag which I was proud to be in. They insisted on changing the ending. When I reprinted it in the story collection DIG TEN GRAVES, I re-instated my original ending. No disrespect to the mag, I just liked my way better.

2010
--“It Will All Be Carried Away”, to CHIZINE (number 44). A real breakthrough for me, as Chizine is a very well-respected mag. The editor cited “Carried Away” as one of the best stories he ever read for publication, and it was nominated for a storySouth award. Go, me. Also republished in DIG TEN GRAVES.

2011
--THE BASTARD HAND, my first novel, published by Jon Bassoff at NEW PULP PRESS.  Things sort of broke open for me that year because of it.

--“Blood Relations”, published in CRIME FACTORY #8. My first shot at a Western.

--“Nine Pale Men” and “Bones of the Conquerors”, the Grey Hawthorne adventures, published at THE NAUTILUS ENGINE. Grey Hawthorne was sort of the proto-type for the later character Hawthorne.

--“The World is Made of Candy”, “Greener”, and “Bleed Out” published at Jason Michel’s PULP METAL  over the course of the year. To this day I love working with Jason and I consider him a friend. “Bleed Out” was republished in DIG TEN GRAVES. "Greener" was later reprinted in Pulp Metal's anthology LAUGHING AT THE DEATH GRIN, which, sadly, is no longer available.

--Two chapters of a zombie serial called “Deadland USA” published as e-stories by a small press. Unfortunately, these chapters were a dead end and are no longer available.

--DIG TEN GRAVES, a self-published collection of short stories. Some had seen publication previously. About half were new to the collection.This is the only thing I've ever self-pubbed.

--“Miles to Little Ridge”, a novella published as an e-book by David Cranmer’s BEAT TO A PULP, and featuring his character Gideon Miles. My first contracted work and huge fun to write. 

--“Now I Wanna Be Your Dog”, a very nasty short story published in the anthology OFF THE RECORD.

--“No-Account Sonofabitch”, a very short story published at the great webzine SHOTGUN HONEY.

2012
--“A Freeway on Earth”, published in the anthology BURNING BRIDGES.

--“My Life with the Butcher Girl”, published in the anthology PULP INK 2.

--“Baby Jebus’ Big Score”, published at PULP METAL.

--“That Damned Coyote Hill”, the first Hawthorne weird western, published as an e-book by BEAT TO A PULP.

--“The Long Black Train”, the second Hawthorne, published as an e-book by BEAT TO A PULP.

--“The Spider Tribe”, the third Hawthorne, published as an e-book by BEAT TO A PULP. 

--FIGHT CARD: BLUFF CITY BRAWLER, a novella, under the name Jack Tunney. Published on Sept 1. This is part of the ongoing series of Fight Card novellas published by Paul Bishop and Mel Odom.  

--CITY OF HERETICS, my second full-length novel, published by Ron Earl Phillips and SNUBNOSE PRESS. It came out only days after the FIGHT CARD novella.

2013
--“Bad Sanctuary”, the fourth Hawthorne, published by BEAT TO A PULP. All four Hawthorne e-books are unavailable now, as they've been collected in one volume.

--“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, published in the Lee Marvin-themed anthology LEE, from CRIME FACTORY PUBLICATIONS.

--“The Unholy; or, How the Gowan Gang Died”, a very short Hawthorne story, published at the webzine THE BIG ADIOS.

--“The Dead Hagedorns”, a flash fiction piece featuring Hawthorne, published in 5 BROKEN WINCHESTERS, from ZELMER PULP.

--HAWTHORNE: TALES OF A WEIRDER WEST, collecting all the Hawthorne stories except “The Dead Hagedorns”, published by BEAT TO A PULP.

2014
--“Five Bucks Buys Some Goddamn Vodka”, published in the crime fiction magazine/anthology NEEDLE, editor Steve Weddle.

--“Scarred Angel”, published in the anthology HOODS, HOT RODS & HELLCATS, from Chad Eagleton and CATHODE ANGEL PRESS.

--THE AXEMAN OF STORYVILLE, a novella about an older Gideon Miles in 1921 New Orleans, published by BEAT TO A PULP.

 --To be released: A Western novel that I can't say anything about yet.

--To be completed: A screenplay that I also can't say much about yet.


Doing this actually made me feel a little better about what I'm doing. Not a bad body of work for a few short years. With any luck, this is just the beginning. But you know how these things go... Thanks for reading.

Heath

How to Be Robert Mitchum

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Sep 252014
 

Of all the cool sonsofbitches ever to grace the flickering black and white landscape of a movie screen, none ever tilted the cool meter the way Robert Mitchum did. This is a fact. We watch a Mitchum movie and marvel at the nonchalance, the wry, cynical poise, the sheer wicked-coolness of his persona. His Kind of Woman, Out of the Past, Crossfire… even when he played a baddie, like in Cape Fear or Night of the Hunter, he radiated the kind of laid-back charm that squares like you and me can only dream of.

But don’t feel bad. With a little practice, you too can Be Like Mitch—or at least come passingly close.


Here are three quick examples of Mitch-ness, and how you can emulate them:


In the early ‘50’s, Mitch was arrested for possession of marijuana. In those squeaky clean public image-obsessed days in Hollywood, a drug bust would’ve spelled the end of an acting career… but not so for our Mitch. There’s a great photo of him doing his time in prison, wearing the grays and pushing a mop around, that laconic smile still firmly in place. 

And of course America couldn’t stay mad at him after that photo. He apologized to the public for his “immoral behavior” but if the photo was any indication he didn’t feel particularly torn up about it. And to judge by the fact that his career didn’t lose even half a step afterwards America didn’t mind either.

So, Be Like Mitch lesson one: if you make a bad move and everyone finds out about it, so freaking what? Smile and shrug and get on with things.


Catch-phrases. Hollywood loves ‘em. Ah-nold had “I’ll be back”, Eastwood had “Make my day”. But the phrase most associated with Mitch, uttered with casual aplomb in His Kind of Woman, was much cooler: “Baby, I don’t care.”


Be Like Mitch lesson two, then: Don’t be overly-concerned with what the hell anyone else thinks. Let them all pose and poster and spout off in their self-involved ego trips. None of it has to touch you.


In his later years, Mitch did a movie with a young actor who told the story of how, on set one day, he witnessed Mitch going through his script and marking ninety percent of the pages with the initials N.A.R. The young actor asked him what N.A.R. meant. Mitch grinned and said, “It means No Acting Required, kid.”


And that’s Be Like Mitch lesson three: don’t waste energy or effort when you don’t need to. Banging your head against the wall and putting more into a project than it requires is for suckers. Mitch-types save their energy for things that are worthy of it.


So that’s it. Follow those three simple rules, keep that laconic half-smile on your face, and don’t let the posers and squares touch that inner, cool core of yours. Mitch never did, right? And the world would be much better if we would all just Be Like Mitch!
Sep 242014
 

I suppose it's likely, assuming that I have many more years of reading ahead of me, my choices for personal favorite ANYTHINGS will change. But I'm a sucker for lists. As long as I don't have to be held to them the rest of my life.

Here are my ten personal favorite Western novels, all read within the last two years or so. If you've never read a Western, any one of these would be a great place to start. Oh, and I've limited myself to choosing just ONE book per writer, otherwise this thing would get lopsided in a hurry.





VENGEANCE VALLEY- Luke Short


This was one of the first Westerns I read, and set a pretty high bar for everything to follow. I've read a few other Luke Short's since, and he hasn't let me down. 

From Goodreads: "The Fasken brothers strode into town with a grim announcement: they were going to kill a man before they left--the man who had brought disgrace upon their sister. The man they thought they wanted was Owen Daybright. And Owen was indeed involved with their sister. But he was innocent of any wrong-doing--he just wanted to help her. He also knew the name of the guilty man, but even a confrontation with Fasken guns won't get it out of him. Here is an explosive, fast-moving Western, in which a man's fierce loyalty to a coward makes him a target for killers' guns.




REDEMPTION, KANSAS- James Reasoner


It's no secret I'm a great admirer of Reasoner's. This wasn't the first thing I ever read from him, but it's an excellent example of his skills. 

From Amazon: "Injured in a cattle stampede on a drive through Kansas, Bill is healing in Redemption. Tended to by a shopkeeper's lovely daughter, Eden Monroe, there are worse places he could be. But Bill knows something's wrong. A series of unexplained killings plagues the town. It's up to Bill to figure out what's going on before his beloved Eden gets caught in the cross fire."




APPALOOSA- Robert Parker


I didn't expect to like this one so much, as I'm not a big fan of Parker's "Spencer" novels. Very glad I gave it a chance. It was terrific. 

From Amazon: "When Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch arrive in Appaloosa, they find a town suffering at the hands of a renegade rancher who’s already left the city marshal and one of his deputies dead. Cole and Hitch are used to cleaning up after scavengers, but this one raises the stakes by playing not with the rules—but with emotion."



DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER- Lewis B. Patten


Along with Luke Short, Lewis B. Patten is my favorite of the "old school" Western writers, and this, in my opinion, is his best.

From Goodreads: "Frank Patch had outlived his usefulness to the town of Cottonwood Springs and the townspeople were determined to get rid of him--one way of the another.But Patch had been their sheriff for twenty years. He had fought, bled and killed to turn a lawless cattle town into a peaceful community and being sheriff was the only life he knew.
Then Luke Mills, a harmless drunk, tried to gun Patch down."



DEATH GROUND- Ed Gorman


I knew Ed Gorman as a writer of tight suspense, mystery and horror, but this, his first Western I read, was a revelation. 

From Amazon: "Bounty hunter Leo Guild is on the trail of a wily mountain man wanted for a deadly bank robbery, but he’s not entirely convinced his quarry is the true guilty party."



ADVENTURES OF CASH LARAMIE & GIDEON MILES Volume Two- Edward A. Grainger

The first volume in this series of short stories was terrific, and one of the books that opened my eyes to what could be done in the Western genre. But this one, the second, was even better. Terrific short stories.

From Amazon: "In 1880s Wyoming Territory, two Deputy U.S. Marshals find themselves on the outside of societal norms. Cash Laramie, raised by the Arapahos, is known as The Outlaw Marshal for his unorthodox conduct toward criminals and his cavalier approach to life. Gideon Miles, one of the first African Americans in the marshal service, is honorable, fearless, and unrivaled in his skills with guns, knives, and tracking."



SMONK- Tom Franklin


I hesitated to include this one, as it is decidedly odd and not what you'd consider a straight Western. But damnit, I enjoyed the hell out of it, so here it is.

From Amazon: "It's 1911 and the townsfolk of Old Texas, Alabama, have had enough. Every Saturday night for a year, E. O. Smonk has been destroying property, killing livestock, seducing women, cheating and beating men, all from behind the twin barrels of his Winchester 45-70 caliber over-and-under rifle. Syphilitic, consumptive, gouty, and goitered—an expert with explosives and knives—Smonk hates horses, goats, and the Irish, and it's high time he was stopped. But capturing old Smonk won't be easy—and putting him on trial could have shocking and disastrous consequences, considering the terrible secret the citizens of Old Texas are hiding."




THE SISTERS BROTHERS- Patrick DeWitt

A very clever, well-written pastiche that deliberately stomps all over the classic Western tropes. 
From Amazon: "darkly comic, outrageously inventive novel that offers readers a decidedly off-center view of the Wild, Wild West.  Set against the back-drop of the great California Gold Rush, this odd and wonderful tour de force at once honors and reshapes the traditional western while chronicling the picaresque misadventures of two hired guns, the fabled Sisters brothers."



GUNSIGHTS- Elmore Leonard


I was torn between this one from Leonard and FORTY LASHES LESS ONE, but GUN SIGHTS won out because it's more a traditional western, whereas FORTY LASHES takes place almost entirely in Yuma Prison.

From Amazon: "Brendan Early and Dana Moon have tracked renegade Apaches together and gunned down scalp hunters to become Arizona legends. But now they face each other from opposite sides of what newspapers are calling The Rincon Mountain War. Brendan and a gang of mining company gun thugs are dead set on running Dana and "the People of the Mountain" from their land. The characters are unforgettable, the plot packed with action and gunfights from beginning to end."



TRUE GRIT- Charles Portis


If you don't read any of the above, then read this. Not just one of the greatest Westerns ever written-- one of the greatest novels, period. An absolute joy to read.

From Goodreads: "Mattie Ross, 14, from Dardanelle, Arkansas, narrates half a century later, her trip in the winter of 1870s, to avenge the murder of her father. She convinces one-eyed "Rooster" Cogburn, the meanest available U.S. Marshall, to tag along, while she outdickers and outmaneuvers the hard-bitten types in her path."

Four Elmore Leonard Westerns

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Sep 162014
 


FORTY LASHES LESS ONE

Surprisingly funny Western that takes place mostly within the walls of Yuma prison in the early part of the 20th century. Harold is the only black inmate at the soon-to-be-closed Yuma, and Raymond is the only Indian, which makes them the targets of derision. Shelby, a prisoner with connections, makes their lives hell, until the new warden, Mr. Manly, takes a special interest in the pair and decides to elevate their confidence in the hopes he can bring them to Jesus. Harold and Raymond eventually form a bond, based on their desire to be like the warriors of their ancestry. When Shelby and his cohorts plan an escape, Manly relies on the misfits to bring the fugitives to justice.


I loved how the central characters were nothing like your standard Western heroes-- like pretty much every character in the book, they aren't too bright and they aren't too heroic. But there's something very likable about both of them. 


There's a scene about mid-way through FORTY LASHES LESS ONE that was pure Leonard humor, where Warden Manly is trying to explain some finer points of the Bible to the boys, who are clearly not getting it. It's presented in the sort of dead-pan way that Leonard would later become famous for, and reminded me once again why his dialogue is so enviable.


The very last paragraph made me laugh out loud.





THE LAW AT RANDADO


I believe this is Leonard's second novel, written in the early '50's, and as such doesn't really display the trademark humor and terrific dialogue we know him for. For all that, though, it's still very well-written, spare and lean, befitting the Arizona setting.


A group of Randado's prominent citizens, manipulated by rich cattle baron Phil Sundeen, lynch a pair of rustlers without waiting on due process of law. When the young, green deputy sheriff, Kirby Frye, gets wind of it, he sets out to serve warrants to the men involved-- only to be humiliated and run out of town. But Frye isn't about to let the law be subverted; he gathers himself, along with a loose handful of allies, and sets out to bring Sundeen and his lackies to justice. 


It's a fairly standard Western scenario, especially in the last fourth, with Frye on the trail of the fleeing Sundeen, but still manages to play out in the end in unexpected ways. Frye is an interesting character, torn between youthful impetuousness and level-headed responsibility, and Sundeen is a nicely sleazy villain. The other characters all straddle lines somewhere between the two, but their main crime seems to be cowardice.


So... THE LAW AT RANDADO is a typical Western, elevated by a fast-pace and superior writing.





GUNSIGHTS


Bren Early and Dana Moon are occasional partners and uneasy friends who have been through more than their share of harrowing adventures together over the years. But it looks like fate may land them on opposite sides of a land war-- Moon has taken the job of Indian Affairs agent, tasked with protecting the interests of the residents of Rincon Mountain, and Early is in the employ of a powerful mining company that wants the native's off the mountain. 


Tensions build as newsmen from around the country flock, anticipating an epic showdown between the two gunmen friends, and things are complicated further by the arrival of Phil Sundeen, a rustler who Early and Moon left for dead some years earlier. For Sundeen, the land war is the perfect opportunity for some revenge.


As noted above, I read THE LAW AT RANDADO right before GUNSIGHTS; RANDADO is a very early Leonard and the villain in it is Phil Sundeen. GUNSIGHTS is Leonard's last western, written about 25 years later, and marks the return of Sundeen. The events of RANDADO aren't mentioned in GUNSIGHTS, but I thought it was an interesting choice to bring the sleazy bastard back for another appearance. 


Dana Moon and Bren Early are both terrific characters, and not really typical of Leonard in that they are both rather taciturn. They are a lot alike in some ways, but over the course of the novel Leonard fleshes out their particular character traits, highlights the huge differences between them-- Moon is grounded and knows what he wants out of life, Early is rudderless and a bit in love with Death and Glory. And the supporting characters, especially Sundeen's conflicted man Ruben Vega, are all terrific. 


Moon and Early would have been terrific series characters. Oh well. Great book.





VALDEZ IS COMING


This was actually the first Elmore Leonard Western I read, some months ago, and it's easily one of his best novels, Western or not.


Valdez is a lawman who gets zero respect, hired basically to do thankless grunt work. He's not taken seriously by the town's governing bodies (or anyone else, really), and when they need someone to roust a black man with an Indian wife, holed up in a cabin, they tag Valdez to do it. Valdez is forced to kill the man-- who turns out to be innocent of the crime he's been accused of. While no one else is particularly troubled by this, guilt eats away at Valdez and he tries to take up a collection for the black man's widow. And he won't allow himself to be dismissed. This leads to a violent public humiliation (one of the set-pieces of the book, a scene that's more than a little Biblical in Valdez's "crucifixion"), and being run out of town.


But his enemies have made a huge mistake, because there is only so much Valdez will endure before striking back. When he returns, he brings all Hell with him.


I thought it was interesting how it took the well-being of someone else (the Indian widow) for Valdez to stand up. He's a quietly heroic character, selfless, humble, and ultimately committed to doing the right thing. That he's the butt of the joke for so long is in keeping with some of Leonard's other work-- the two central characters in FORTY LASHES LESS ONE are similar, in that they are targets of derision who ultimately find their self-respect and prove themselves.


Like I said, this was my first Leonard Western, and one I often recommend as an ideal starting place for anyone who hasn't read a Western before. It's lean and fast-paced, with great dialogue and believable characters.


...


More Elmore Leonard Westerns coming soon.

The Joe R. Lansdale Binge of Summer ’14

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Aug 302014
 
I spent all of July and the beginning of August on a Joe R. Lansdale rampage. I read a selection of his books-- some I had read previously, years ago, and others were new to me-- and I'm happy to tell you Lansdale is every bit as terrific as I remembered. It was about 25 years ago, I guess, I first discovered him. I was working in an independent book store at the time, and THE DRIVE-IN caught my eye; even then, I was enraptured with what you might call "trash culture"; that is, B-movies, surf and garage punk, cheesy Americana, etc, and THE DRIVE-IN looked right up my alley.

Oh yes, it definitely was. THE DRIVE-IN threw me for a loop and quickly became one my very favorite books, and Joe Lansdale became one of my very favorite writers. I sought out all of his available books at the time, read them in a near-frenzy of fan-worship, preached the Lansdale gospel to everyone I knew.

But over the years I sort of lost track of him a little. He released book after book, becoming steadily more popular, but I had moved on and shifted my obsession to the great paperback original writers of the '50's and early '60's.

That was pretty stupid of me. When I finally caught up to him, I was very happy to discover that Lansdale had only gotten better and better in the intervening years. He really is a remarkably original voice, and even though his work is closer to mainstream now than it ever was, he is still fearless, still wry and crude, still a writer's writer.

I read a total of 13 Lansdale's in a row on this binge, which took me about halfway through the ones I have on my shelf. Maybe next July I'll tackle the rest...

Here are my notes on the Great Summer Lansdale Binge, in no real order:





















COLD IN JULY

When a burglar breaks into his home, husband and father Richard Dane is forced to shoot him down. Dane isn't a violent man, and the event is traumatic for him-- but when the burglar's father, Ben Russel, comes seeking revenge, Dane finds himself confronting the darkest parts of his own heart. 

That set-up in really only the starting point of this highly unpredictable novel. Bizarre circumstances push Dane and Russel into the role of allies, and their journey leads them to discover a very dark and very disturbing conspiracy that changes both men forever. 


I first read this one some twenty years ago. It was among the first two or three that turned me into a serious Lansdale fan and one I've been itching to re-read for some time. It stands up very well, even though Lansdale has definitely gotten better and his voice more distinctive since. Terrific book.



SAVAGE SEASON


This first of what would become a series about Hap Collins and Leonard Pine is just a terrific book, and I loved it as much on this second reading as I had waaay back in 1990. When Hap's ex, Trudy, shows up, Hap and Leonard get drawn into a search for hidden money. Trudy has hooked up with some old '60's radicals who have big plans for the cash. Things go south, of course, and the last half of SAVAGE SEASON is riddled with tension and double-crosses that come at a lightning pace. There's a huge, amazingly suspenseful action sequence at the climax that just blew me away. Vintage Lansdale.


MUCHO MOJO


While SAVAGE SEASON, the first appearance of Hap and Leonard, was kind of a "caper" novel, this one is more a straight-up mystery. Well, as "straight-up" as you could expect from Lansdale, anyway... and if you know Lansdale, you know he doesn't really do "straight-up". 


Leonard's uncle dies, leaving Leonard a house, lots of money, and a dead boy hidden under the floorboards, along with an assortment of moldering kiddie porn mags. This unsavory discovery sets Leonard and Hap on a quest to clear Leonard's uncle's name and nab the real killer. Along the way, they uncover more victims, and since all the victims are wayward black boys, the police aren't much help. 


At its heart, this is a novel about the politics of race in E. Texas, and Lansdale doesn't flinch when it comes to that subject. It's a solid mystery novel, too, even if the bad guy(s) are somewhat telegraphed. But what really makes MUCHO MOJO shine, just like all the other books in this series, is the terrific relationship between Hap and Leonard; a straight white guy and a gay black guy with a friendship that is as deep and strong as any you'll ever read about. Their banter is witty and affectionate and feels very real. While the other relationships in the novel-- especially Hap's doomed romance with Florida-- maybe fall a little flat, all is forgiven when Hap and Leonard are on the page together. 


ACT OF LOVE


Joe Lansdale's first published novel, from 1981, was released in the early days of the serial killer craze that gripped the reading and movie-watching public in the '80's, the zeitgeist that culminated in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, but kept hobbling along after that until most of us were sick unto death of serial killer stories. 


The story is simple: a depraved killer, The Houston Hacker, goes around slicing up women, and a detective, Marvin Hanson, pursues him. There are a couple of twists and turns near the end as Lansdale keeps us guessing who the killer is. Hanson's family is put in danger when the Hacker decides he's getting too close. That's about it.


It's hard to make any sort of judgment about it all these years later, because all the tropes we're so familiar with now probably weren't so overdone then. And being a huge fan of Lansdale, it's kinda hard for me to be harsh about this one. But compared to the work Champion Joe would do later, ACT OF LOVE is, honestly, not great. There's very little of the writer he would become evident here; none of those eccentric character tics, none of that exceptional dialogue or black humor. In fact, ACT OF LOVE is pretty much a humorless book, and the violence is unrestrained and almost immaturely graphic, to no real purpose. I don't know. Maybe I'm judging too harshly, as right before this one I read THE BOTTOMS, which is Lansdale at his very finest. Maybe it's not fair to compare a writer to himself 25 years ago. 


But regardless, the Lansdale we have now is, without question, one of the finest and most original writers working. Unless you're a hardcore fan or a completest, though, I'd suggest skipping ACT OF LOVE.


LOST ECHOES


After a mysterious childhood illness, Harry Wilkes is left with a strange condition-- loud noises cause visions of past horrors to come to him in crippling clarity. Now in college, he has shut himself off from the world and turned to boozing to numb the vision's power. When he meets Tad, an older alcoholic, they work together to find their "centers", until Harry's childhood friend/crush Kayla shows up begging Harry's help in finding her father's murderer. And the results could end up killing them all.


This is an exceptionally strong novel, even for Lansdale. The characters are fully realized in all their flaws and weaknesses, and the subject of alcoholism is treated with remarkable insight and realism. A terrific thriller.


FLAMING ZEPPELINS


This volume contains two short novels, "Zeppelins West" and "Flaming London"; in the first, Buffalo Bill Cody's travelling Wild West Show winds up in Imperial Japan on a secret mission, where Cody (who, by the way, is just a head in a Mason jar), Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, and Sitting Bull rescue the Frankenstein Monster from an evil shogun. Then, with the Japanese in pursuit, they crash in the ocean, are rescued by Captain Bemo (standing in for Captain Nemo), and taken to the Island of Dr. Momo (standing in for Dr. Moreau). And that's just the beginning. You might get the impression that this is a seriously goofy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, romp, and you'd be right. It's wildly anarchic and over-the-top.


The second volume,"Flaming London", continues the bizarre fun, as Ned the Seal (introduced as a minor character in the first one but taking more center stage here) teams up with Mark Twain and Jules Verne to battle invading Martians a la War of the Worlds. Along the way, they encounter a giant steam man, a talking Martian ape, pirates lost in time, and the Flying Dutchman.


So, yeah. Crazy stuff. Lansdale without a filter, basically. The first novel has a nice, flying by the seat of your pants feeling, as if Lansdale is making it up as he goes and is having a helluva good time. The second one is more cohesive, and maybe a bit more satisfying in the long run. But both of them are well worth reading.


DEADMAN'S ROAD


DEADMAN'S ROAD contains all of Lansdale's tales of the Rev Jebidiah Mercer, the gunslinger preacher who wanders the West destroying supernatural evil wherever he finds it. The bulk of the volume is taken up by the short novel DEAD IN THE WEST, in which the tormented Reverend arrives in Mud Creek, Texas, the target of a vengeful Indian curse and hordes of flesh-eating zombies. In the other stories, Reverend Mercer has his head on a little straighter (which isn't saying much, the guy's a mess) and vanquishes werewolves, goblins, and demonic bees.


All the stories are fun and profane in the best Lansdale tradition. Not too many writers can balance grim against funny, horrifying against goofy, the way Joe Lansdale can, and the result of that is a handful of stories that only HE could have written.


THE BOTTOMS


I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is probably Lansdale's most fully realized novel that I've read so far. It is entirely gripping, with terrific and believable characters, pitch-perfect pacing, and, in the last fourth, almost unbearable suspense. 


Like several of his other more "serious" novels (please note I use serious in quotation marks) THE BOTTOMS takes place in Depression-era East Texas. Young Harry and his little sister Tom find the mutilated corpse of a black woman, and as horrifying as it is, it's only the beginning in a string of murders that ultimately lead to the lynching of an innocent black man for the crime. Harry's father, who acts as a part time constable, has his hands full trying to find the murderer while keeping the KKK from taking further steps in the black community. 


More than a few times, THE BOTTOMS made me think of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; the comparison is inevitable. The narrator is a young person who's father is often the sole voice of reason in a town stained by ugly institutionalized racism. There's even aBoo Radley of sorts, near the end. And speaking of that ending... the last chapter is just flat-out terrifying.


THE TWO-BEAR MAMBO


The third Hap and Leonard book, and the strongest so far. At the request of their cop friend Hanson, the boys head off to Grovetown, Texas, in search of Hanson's girlfriend (and Hap's ex) Florida. What they find is a kind of throwback town, full of Jim Crow types. No sir, they don't like "coloreds" in Grovetown. Trying to get a bead on where Florida has vanished to, Hap and Leonard find themselves in pretty serious straits, asking questions that are making some of Grovetown's more illustrious citizens nervous-- and a little past the halfway mark in THE TWO-BEAR MAMBO, our heroes get a pretty shocking reminder of their own mortality with a pretty brutal beat-down. Of course, it takes a whole mob of folks to do it, but it's enough to make the boys start second-guessing themselves. 


Reading this one, it dawned on me finally that I've really developed an emotional attachment to Hap and Leonard. It's hard not to like them, right from the first book, but in this one it really hit home; there were a few moments when I found myself worried about them, which was ridiculous, as I know full well there are more books in the series after this one, and yet... I got so caught up in events I wasn't even thinking about that.


Anyway, the last fourth of THE TWO-BEAR MAMBO goes dark, as Hap and Leonard find it in themselves to get back on the horse and finish what they started, despite their fear and new-found insecurity. And the climax, set during a raging rain storm and the threat of the entire town flooding with them in it, is a nail biter. Great stuff. 


HIGH COTTON


A collection of Lansdale's most popular stories. Very good stuff, and a reminder of what an original voice he was, right from the very beginning of his career. Most of these stories are pretty brutal and pretty graphic. Others, like "Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland" are surprisingly whimsical, even if they DO have that twisted Lansdale touch.


Favorites include the aforementioned "Bob the Dinosaur", the truly disturbing "By Bizarre Hands", the black comedy "Night They Missed the Horror Show", the action-packed and scary "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road", the Alfred Hitchcock-esque "The Steel Valentine", and the tragic-funny "Godzilla's Twelve-Step Program".


FREEZER BURN


Bill is a loser in the classic mold, a shiftless fella without much brains or ambition. He's been living off his mother's social security checks, but when she dies (and her corpse starts stinking the place up) the pipeline dries up and Bill comes up with a scheme to rob a fireworks stand across the street from his house. The "heist" goes south in a hurry, and Bill has to take it on the lam through a dangerous swamp. He winds up joining a travelling freak show, making friends with a dog boy, and falling hard for the freak show owner's sexy young wife... and of course, the wife has a plan to do away with her husband...


If you've read any old Gold Medal paperback originals from guys like Charles Williams or Day Keene or Robert Edmund Alter, or even if you've read James M. Cain, you already know this story backwards and forwards. But Lansdale does the Lansdale thing with it, making it hysterically funny at times, dark, profane, a little vile on occasion, but compellingly readable. There are lots of surprises along the way, some truly memorable characters and scenes, and seeing the way Bill changes (in some ways he becomes a better person, and in other ways, well... not so much) is fascinating.


Also, I should note, the whole opening segment involving the botched robbery and Bill's escape through the swamp is one of the funniest things I've ever read in my life. It was disturbing too, but I couldn't help but laugh out loud a few times.


BAD CHILI


This one starts with one of the funnier sequences in the Hap and Leonard series, as the boys are attacked out of nowhere by a rabid squirrel; it's a seemingly random beginning that actually becomes relevant at the end. But even if it wasn't, it works as a purely comic scene.


The whole book is pretty funny, really. There's more emphasis on comedy than in the previous books, and that's probably why I like it maybe just a little less. But a LOT happens in this one-- Leonard's boyfriend Raul disappears, Leonard is accused of murder (surprisingly, he's cleared pretty quickly)and the boys investigate a ring of black market gay-bashing video makers. There are lots of quirky characters and quirky scenes, but BAD CHILI maybe doesn't hold together as a whole as well as previous Hap and Leonard novels.


I'm being nit-picky, of course. Even a lesser Hap & Leonard novel is well-worth reading. Some bonus's are the surprise appearance of Jim Bob Luke, from COLD IN JULY, and a really thrilling climax that takes place during a tornado. Poor Hap keeps getting caught in the middle of natural disasters. And of course, the easy camaraderie between Hap & Leonard is a pure joy.


SUNSET AND SAWDUST


Depression-era E Texas: during a violent storm, Sunset Jones kills her husband, the constable, as he attempts to rape her. Much to Camp Rapture's dismay, she inherits his job and finds herself in the middle of a double murder investigation that implicates some of the town's highest officials. And Sunset's life, as well as the lives of her daughter and her friends, is in serious danger.


That summary doesn't do it justice. This is Lansdale at his best. SUNSET & SAWDUST is a suspenseful, darkly comic thriller with all of the great, wry touches Champion Joe is known for. And Sunset is just a terrific character. In this age when too many creators think a "strong female character" is basically just a man in drag, Lansdale gives us a believable and engaging heroine who is strong BECAUSE she's a woman, not in spite of it. You'll definitely root for her.



The Music Behind the Stories

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Jun 142014
 

The wonderful Kate Laity posted something yesterday-- a list on Youtube of songs that had inspired stories from her. I thought that was a terrific idea and immediately decided to steal it.

I don't actually listen to music while writing. I find it distracting, because I tend to want to concentrate on the music, listen to it. It's an activity in and of itself to me. But music still plays an enormous role in my creative life, and there's always a soundtrack playing in my head that fits the story perfectly.

Here are some songs that played roles in various novels and stories of mine.

"Red Right Hand", by Nick Cave. I supposed this one is pretty obvious, if you've read my novel THE BASTARD HAND.



"You don't have no money? He'll get you some
You don't have no car? He'll get you one
You don't have no self-respect, you feel like an insect,
Well, don't you worry buddy, here he comes
He's a god, he's a man, he's a ghost, he's a guru
You're one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by his Red Right Hand."

In fact, the working title of TBH was RED RIGHT HAND. So there you go.

A lot of other music in my head went into that one, as well, a lot of old gospel, some RL Burnside, some Junior Kimbrough.

My short story collection, DIG TEN GRAVES, has a more diverse mental soundtrack, of course, but a lot of the head-music that went into it was more... discordant and disturbing. A lot of Velvet Underground. A lot of Thin White Rope (I've said before that, more than any other band, Thin White Rope captures what the inside of my head sounds like. Two in particular were the Velvet's "Sister Ray" and TWR's "Astronomy".




CITY OF HERETICS? Tom Waits. Especially his release "Alice". That album really captured the seedy, sad desperation I was trying for with my second novel.



And Hawthorne... well, again, Thin White Rope had a big influence. The creepy, discordant lyricism of songs like "Lithium" and "Sack Full of Silver" felt like Hawthorne's world to me. But the primary song that suited Hawthorne, to me, came from the unlikely source of The Pixies. The song "Silver" could be Hawthorne's theme, really, if a film was ever made about him.



Double Date

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Jun 122014
 


Frank and Earle were best friends, and one night Earl called Frank up late and said, "Frank, I need your help, bro. There's this girl I've been trying to get to go out with me for weeks, and she finally said yes. But the thing is, she'll only do a double date, with her best friend. Can you help me out?"

Frank said, "No way, man. You want me to be this other girl's date? I don't think so."

"Don't be a dick. Come on. Please? I'll owe you a big one."

So Frank relented. He showered and dressed and met Earle downtown in front of a fancy restaurant. A few minutes later, the girls, Emily and Sophie, showed up.

Both of them were stunning, and Frank's irritation about the situation quickly vanished.

Inside, they ordered the most expensive stuff on the menu. Earle was his usual charming self, but Frank was awkward and shy, which was his usual condition. His "date" was Sophie, and it was painfully apparent she had zero interest in him. She was, however, very attentive to Earle, just as Earle's date Emily was.

Halfway through dinner, while Frank fumbled with the conversational ball, Sophie interrupted him, saying, "You know what? Emily? Let's switch men."

Emily said, "What?"

Sophie said, "This one,"-- gesturing to Frank, "isn't working for me. He's boring as fuck. And not very good-looking. Why should you have the good one?"

"No way," Emily said. "I'm not switching. Why would I do that?"

"Because. You owe me."

Whatever it was Emily owed Sophie, it was obviously big enough to have an impact, because Emily frowned angrily and snapped, "Fine." The two women stood up and traded seats. Sophie gazed adoringly at Earle, who seemed completely okay with this new development. Emily glared at Frank.

Later that night, when Earle and Frank walked the girls to the entrance of their apartment building, Sophie said, "Why don't you come up for a night cap, Earle? I'm sure Emily doesn't mind. Do you, Emily?"

Emily said, "Nope. Not at all."

So without even a glance at Frank, the three of them headed inside and let the door close right in Frank's face.

The next day, Earle called Frank on the phone. "Dude," he said. "That was the best date ever."

Frank said, "Yeah. It was fucking great, man. Time of my fucking life. Drop dead."