Friday, January 19, 2018

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Western

This behemoth of a source for Western film edited by Phil Hardy strives to give us reference and critical evaluation of practically every Western produced between 1929 and 1990.

Do some films fall through the cracks? Well, yes, it is inevitable that such a thing would occur with such a monumental task, but that doesn’t make this book any less a valuable resource.

Of particular use, to this this reader at least, are the Appendices in the back of the book—notably Appendix 4 which offers Top Ten Lists [and higher numbers] from 17 critics and other scholars of the Western film to guide you to more than a few undiscovered treasures.

Also of note, Appendix 6: Selected Sound Westerns and Their Novel Sources that allows the interested Western reader to track down novels that inspire their favorite films and vice versa.

An invaluable resource for Western aficionados.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sweeney's Honor

A man who limps is still on his feet.”

This is another rugged, sweaty and gritty tale from Brian Garfield. Lt. Thomas Sweeney, a one-armed Irishman is charged with holding a desolate crossing on the Colorado River with only 10 unhappy men at his disposal. He’s got outlaws on one side and Yuma Indians on the other ready to take that crossing.

This fast novel is from Garfield’s later period where he has refined the down and dirty gritty style that compares favorably with Elmore Leonard’s work.

I enjoyed this one a good deal, but if one is new to Garfield, might I suggest starting with Tripwire [reviewed on this very blog] for some lean and mean one-man army fun.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Quote of the Week

"I have always believed the Western people to be much truer than the Eastern people. We in the East are overcome a good deal by a detestable, superficial culture which I think is the real barbarianism. Culture in it's true sense, I take it, is a comprehension of the man at one's shoulders. It has nothing to do with an adoration for effete jugs and old kettles."-Stephen Crane

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Bitter Sage

“I’ve got the revolver,” Vesser reminded.

“I wish you didn’t have it.” Tancred hesitated. “You’ve fired a gun, Mr. Vesser. And you’ve probably hit your target.”

“I’m better with a rifle.”

“You’re not better than they are,” Tancred said, earnestly. “There’s a difference in shooting at a deer and—and a man. You have an aversion to killing—any normal man has—and whether you’d want to or not, you’d hesitate before actually pulling the trigger on a human being, They won’t. They’re killers.”

This brisk 1954 novel from Frank Gruber tells of Wes Tancred, a sort of stand in for Bob Ford, of killing Jesse James fame. We follow Tancred as he tries to live down a reputation of having killed his own legendary outlaw.

This brief novel clocks in at a mere 144 pages, and while not world-shaking in novelty, it plays the old game well and is not a bad way to spend a winter afternoon.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Conversation With Scott Von Doviak

Scott Von Doviak is a pop culture writer for the Onion’s AV Club and former film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has written three books on film and television (Hick Flicks, If You Like The Terminator, and Stephen King Films FAQ) and contributed to the 2017 collection Approaching Twin Peaks: Critical Essays on the Original Series. His debut novel Charlesgate Confidential will be published in 2018 by Hard Case Crime. He lives in Austin, Texas.

First things first, I want to thank you for your book Hick Flicks—I absolutely loved it. With that said, would you mind telling us what made you decide to devote so much effort to what is, admittedly, a niche genre?

 It was a book I wanted to read until I found out it didn’t exist and decided I would have to write it myself. I had been to an outdoor screening of Deliverance complete with canoe trip, and before the movie started there were all these trailers for ‘70s B-movies about moonshiners and truckers and swamps. I remembered some of them from my childhood and it occurred to me that this was a genre unto itself.

Could you sum up a definition of the genre for the uninitiated?

 Everyone knows about blaxploitation, a B-movie genre that peaked in the ‘70s. Those movies appealed to an urban audience, but at the same time stuff like Shaft and Superfly was playing inner city grindhouses, rural drive-ins were flooded with cheaply-produced action movies, mostly set in the South with good ol’ boy heroes pitted against redneck sheriffs. This was hixploitation (a term that’s been incorrectly attributed to me by some, though it pre-dates Hick Flicks).

The genre, to my eyes, in some cases has an element of the Western to it. A bit of Southern Pride, yes, but often it seems to be a sort of offshoot of wild and wooly story-telling. This dialogue from Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy encapsulates what I am referring to:

They’re all following you,” MacGraw monotones.

“No they ain’t,” Kristofferson gravels. “I’m just in front.”

I may have cherry-picked there as Peckinpah was a Western legend in both film and the small screen, but do you see that connection, or am I reaching?

 I don’t think you’re reaching. These are Southerns rather than Westerns, and the stagecoach has been replaced by the eighteen-wheeler, but many of the tropes transfer over pretty easily. There’s a tendency to glorify the macho loner figure and pit him against authorities that are frequently corrupt. It’s no coincidence that Peckinpah was drawn to Convoy.

I love how generous you are with your judgments. The genre has no pretensions to art, although it may hit it now and again as with Deliverance, but you admirably take the genre on its own terms. In many cases, if the film is fast, sweaty, and has a least a chuckle or two it may have done its job. With there being so many dogs in this genre were there times that you thought to yourself, “Good Lord, I can’t take seeing another one of these”?

 All the time. I wrote the book around 2002-03, which was before the dawn of streaming, and I’m fortunate enough to live in Austin which still has a couple of thriving video stores but had more of them at the time. I’d pile up these VHS copies of things like Dixie Dynamite and The Pigkeeper’s Daughter, and I’d get some pretty strange looks at the checkout counter. I’d say the low point was my 24-hour marathon of hillbilly horror, which I chronicle in diary form in the book. Once I’d survived the likes of Blood Salvage and three Texas Chainsaw sequels, I knew I could make it through anything.

You being the expert what films would make the Scott Von Doviak Hick Flick Hall of Fame? Say a good top 5 picks.

1.      Deliverance, the one that started it all for me and probably still in my top 20 movies of all time.

2.      The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the Tobe Hooper original, a grimy masterpiece that transcends the hillbilly horror genre.

3.      Songwriter, a supremely underrated Willie Nelson vehicle loosely based on his own legend

4.      Smokey and the Bandit, a childhood favorite that still holds up as a thoroughly enjoyable comedic chase flick

5.      Southern Comfort, Walter Hill’s semi-ripoff of Deliverance that generates incredible suspense and tension in its own right

Let’s flip that over, can you name a few films that were so mind-numbingly awful you wanted to cry waiting for the third act?

 Too many to count. One that made me feel like I was losing my mind is Poor Pretty Eddy, also known as Redneck County Rape, among other titles. Lesley Uggams plays a singer whose car breaks down in a scary hillbilly town, with results both predictable and otherwise. As I said in the book, “It’s the kind of movie David Lynch might make if something heavy fell on his head.”

The genre is often cars, crashes, girls—rinse, wash, repeat, but there are more than a few sideroads taken, as in RVers vs. devil-worshippers in Race with the Devil. Can you name a few more films that may not necessarily be good, but you have an admiration for the “Wait till you get a load of this premise”?

 One particular subgenre that fascinates me is “Soul Winners,” which were shown at revival meetings in order to scare people back to the Lord. I definitely wouldn’t call them good, but they can be pretty deranged. There’s one called If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? about a communist takeover of the United States in which a soldier tells a roomful of Bible students that if they want to pray for candy, they should pray to Fidel Castro instead of Jesus. And it works!

Did the project leave you with an admiration for the genre or did it sate you for life?

 I still have an affectionate for it, which is good because I’m sort of tied to it now. People are still discovering the book, and every now and then I’m contacted for comment about some hixploitation-related development, so I guess I’m the “Hick Flicks” guy for life now.

There have been a few recent films that fit the Hick Flick definition since publication, such as Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky. Any other films of recent vintage that you would love to include in a second edition?

 I used to keep a list in case I ever got the chance to do a revised or expanded edition of the book, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. In the years since the book was published, Winter’s Bone was one of the best, and I definitely enjoyed Logan Lucky. Nowadays, though, hixploitation is mostly found on reality TV, and it’s pretty depressing.

Again, I admire how you tackled a genre that has received little to no attention. Are there other genres that you wouldn’t mind shining a spotlight on? Biker flicks, Indiansploitation as in Billy Jack, et cetera.

 I’ve done a book on Stephen King adaptations and another on The Terminator and its influences, and from time to time I’ve pondered a book on Texas crime movies. I’m focused on writing fiction for now, though.

What’s next in the pipeline for Scott Von Doviak?

 My debut novel, Charlesgate Confidential, will be published in September 2018 by Hard Case Crime. It’s inspired by a famous Boston art heist and unfolds in three different time periods, with many twists and turns.

Scott, thanks for taking the time, best of luck to you in all of your ventures!

Thanks, Mark! I appreciate your interest in Hick Flicks.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Television Westerns Episode Guide

This huge volume from Harris M. Lentz III covers all United States TV Western Series from 1949-1996.

180 series in all are covered where we get network, stars and a brief plot synopsis for every single episode of a series. Keep in mind these are non-critical episode synopses of the thumbnail capsule variety and not of the in-depth criticism kind. But that is a small quibble when you realize the monumental amount of information within these covers.

It’s allowed me to check-off episodes of old favorites as I renew my acquaintance [The Loner & The Westerner come to mind] and to find a few undiscovered gems that were totally off my radar [my ignorance of Robert Culp’s easy charm in Trackdown, for example.]

If you like TV Westerns, this volume is well-nigh indispensable.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Ruthless Gun

“When the horse topped the hill, the angry sound of the Rio Despacio rose sudden and peremptory. The soft patter of rain had been long ago absorbed into the silence of the countryside that lay bleak and cold in the half-light of sunless dusk as though the rain had washed its color away.”

I may have just read a novel by an alcoholic. This T. C. Lewellen Western from 1964 has passages that are as good as any novel I’ve read: Honest, human heart-breaking insight. And there are sweeping sections that I haven’t the faintest clue what the hell is going on.

It’s not that it becomes fantastical it’s just that the beautiful coherence dissolves into slipshod chaos. Each time I think I’ll toss the book, the author slips back into a bit of beauty.

An odd one indeed.  A+ in passages but the schizoid nature makes this rough going.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Quote of the Week

"I have had 21 bullets fired at me at very close range by badmen in my time, but I don't carry a single lead mark to show."--Ouray City, Colorado Marshal, Jesse Benton

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Brand of a Texan

Time had made changes in Hobart, just as it had made changes in the rider who had pulled up for a smoke at the edge of the moss-hung oak grove a quarter-mile north of the frontier town.”

This 1958 Fawcett Gold Medal title from Steven C. Lawrence is typical of many a Western. Troubled man with a misunderstood past, returns to the old homestead to face down rumors and assumptions and perhaps what lies in himself along the way.

My first title from this author. It is not a bad ride, but if that description made it sound familiar, well, the reading of it kept that same flavor throughout. It is not badly done at all, but the path is admittedly well-worn, and the scenery leaves little new to the eye.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A Conversation with Dave Robbins

Prolific author Dave Robbins was kind enough to consent to a conversation and allow me to corral him to, primarily, his Western work.

First, thank you for taking the time to talk, most kind of you.

Thanks for the interview.

Now, allow me to say, you are one prolific man! 300+ volumes to your credit.

I didn’t start writing professionally until I was in my 30’s. Fortunately, editors liked my work to the extent that I was having ten or more books published a year, under a lot of different pen names.

Science-fiction, horror, Westerns, action-adventure, non-fiction, you name it and there is a title with your name on it. Out of all of these genres do you have a favorite, or are they all equally interesting as we can get invested in the work that is before us?

Growing up, I enjoyed all different genres. In any given week, I might go from, say, WAR OF THE WORLDS to SHANE to a Matt Helm novel. I suppose it’s only natural my own career would reflect that.

Seeing as how this blog is about the western in particular, let's home in your efforts in this area. You are the man behind the long-running mountain man saga Wilderness, which you pen under the name David Thompson. Are Nate King and Winona based on real-life personages or are they amalgamations of mountain men, or simple whole-cloth creation?

The series stems in part from my own fondness for the outdoors. I spent much of my childhood in the woods, and long admired accounts of the early frontier, especially the Mountain Men era. Having read everything I ever came across on it, when I conceived the series, I wanted to avoid stereotypes and capture the real and the true---in fictional form.
Nate and Winona are not so much amalgamations as they are personifications. Anyone who has read, say, Zenas Leonard or Osborne Russell, to mention just two, knows that some Mountain Men were keenly intelligent and astute observers of all they encountered. Some were avid readers, not at all the illiterate bumpkins we sometimes see in print and on the screen. Nor were they bigots. Nate King is a personification of that kind of Mountain Man. His lady personifies those Native American women who chose to marry a trapper and were devoted wives and compassionate mothers.

You describe land beautifully. Allow me to offer a passage from Winterkill:
"The regal Rocky Mountains were cloaked by a thick mantle of gleaming snow. Every boulder, every tree, was covered by the white blanket. From out of the northwest blew a gusty wind that stirred the surface of this pristine natural wonderland, creating swirling sprays of fine white mist."
That is evocative scene setting.

Thank you.

It strikes me that Westerns are as much about the land as they are about the people and events. Do you find this to be true in your approach?

Setting is always crucial. Science fiction stories are regularly woven among the tapestry of ‘the stars’. For Noir Crime Fiction, it’s often ‘the city’. For WILDERNESS, the mountains are as much a factor as the protagonists, in that the land and its inhabitants---both human and bestial---are interactive principals in many of the stories. Nate goes from being a ‘city boy’ to a Mountain Man---and a large part of his evolution is molded by the Rockies themselves.

How much research goes into your Westerns? Historical readings? Visiting of locations? Or are we simply seeing a good craftsman at work?

All of the above. I do the proverbial tons of research. (Which I love doing) Many of the locations are those I’ve lived in or near or explored. For instance, I lived close to the foothills of the Rockies for many years and got up into them many times. Often I would take notes or pics when we were riding or walking so I could recapture the setting in a story. (In fact, some of the early WILDERNESS take place in and round Estes Park. A crucial scene takes place in a meadow where I saw two bull elk battle. You might get a grin to know that in an ENDWORLD, there’s a fight in my house. Or what was left of it after WWIII. And in a TRAILSMAN, Fargo took down a bad guy in my front ‘yard’, which happened to be forest.)
Again, this harkens to my desire, in whatever I write, to make it as real and true as I can.  

You are also behind the Trailsman series. There is a lot of pulpy fun to be had in the exploits of Skye Fargo and his wanderings. For example, in Menagerie of Malice Fargo encounters an elephant on the loose in Utah. Where do you find such inspiration that allows you bring fresh odd elements like these to the table?
When a series is hundreds of books along, a writer owes it to the reader not to crank out the same-old-same-old. A little novelty goes a long way, provided the writer doesn’t jump the shark. When my research revealed that the first elephant was brought to the U.S. in the late 1700‘s, and by 1850 about thirty traveling circuses were touring America, the image that popped into my head was Fargo pitted against a rogue bull elephant. It was something that had never been done before, and I hoped the reader would find it as ‘Wow!’ a moment as I did.
My purpose in all my books---the subtext about the importance of the family and the home and other values aside---has been to entertain.

You tackled a classic in writing The Return of the Virginian. Were you daunted in any way by assuming the mantle of such a representative novel in the genre?
Are you a particular fan of Wister's or was it simply an exercise in carrying on the story?

In this instance, cosmic synchronicity struck. THE VIRGINIAN was one of my very favorite novels when I was a kid. Read it when I was ten. Still have the beat up paperback with my scrawled signature and the date when it was given to me. When I was offered the chance to do the sequel, I relished the opportunity. I tried to do Wister justice by reading all his journals and letters and thematically and structurally replicating his original as best I could.

What Western authors or individual western works have inspired or impressed you? Works that made you say to yourself, "Now, that's how it should be done."

There are quite a number I admire. The very first to blow me away was THE U.P. TRAIL by Zane Grey. SHANE ranks up there, too. In no particular order, others that greatly impressed: WARLOCK, HOMBRE, TRUE GRIT, THE SHOOTIST, MCCABE, THE STALKING MOON---books that are on many ‘Best Of’ lists. For a reason.

Do you have any Western picks that are a bit off-beat that might be little-known to many Western aficionados?

 Ben Haas did some great novelizations. ROUGH NIGHT IN JERICHO is one of them. Clair Huffaker wrote terrific Westerns. His BADMAN became the movie THE WAR WAGON

In your Blade series, we have a protagonist wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape. Do you find any similarities in construction between this character and the Westerners you create wandering the frontier?

There are structural similarities in a general sense but I would offer that each genre has its own specific tenor that sets it apart from others. I’m a big fan of Poe, and very much agree with his THE PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION. Permit me to quote him: ‘I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view---for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest---I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?”

Let's say we have a reader who has never sampled your Western work, what handful of titles would you point them towards to say, "Start here!"?

 WILDERNESS would make for some fun reads. BLOOD FEUD and HOUNDS OF HATE. Any of my Compton books, but especially A WOLF IN THE FOLD, THE EVIL MEN DO, and BROTHER’S KEEPER.

What's next in the pipeline from David Robbins?

Still doing WILDERNESS and ENDWORLD. Have a new series called BATTLEFIELD MARS and another known as ANGEL U. And other stuff.

Thank you so much for taking the time!
Thank you for the opportunity.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Adventures of Captain Bonneville

[In response to Scouts who inform him that a mountain pass is too treacherous to navigate.]

“My friends, I have seen the pass, and have listened to your words; you have little hearts. When troubles and dangers lie in your way, you turn your backs. That is not the way with my nation. When great obstacles present, and threaten to keep them back, their hearts swell, and they push forward. They love to conquer difficulties.

Early American author, Washington Irving, of Ichabod Crane fame, became an acquaintance of the explorer Captain James Bonneville. Bonneville had recently made a long trek West discovering Yosemite and other wonders before winding up at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

The story is all purportedly true, and most likely much of it is, but one can feel Irving's narrative hand here and there, but that is all forgiven as the adventure itself most likely required no touch-up. The enormity of the task and accomplishment is stupendous enough. 

A fine read for Western history aficionados, adventurers at heart, and devotees of Irving.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Two for Texas

Son, it’s no good to go back where you already been. It ain’t the same. Other people own it, and it ain’t yours no more.”

Crime novelist James Lee Burke, of David Robicheaux fame, occasionally dips his pen in Western waters, usually the contemporary west. Here he plunges whole-heartedly into the Old West, and a Dark Vision it is.

We follow Son Holland and Hugh Allison as they try to put as much distance between themselves and a Louisiana prison as they can manage. This distance puts them down Texas way smack dab in the middle of the violent rumblings of the Texas Revolution.

I’ll not lie, Burke’s cotemporary “Westerns” frustrate me but this volume is a mighty entertaining ride.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Quote of the Week

"We tried a desperate game and lost. But we are rough men used to rough ways, and we will abide by the consequences."-Cole Younger, 1867

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Far Empty

The Big Bend of the Rio Grande was outlaw country. Always had been, always would be.”

This first novel from J. Todd Scott is a fine example of modern Texas noir. A Federal law enforcement agent himself the author brings a feel of grit and authenticity to the bad doin’s in Texas Outlaw country and he does so with a surprising amount of elegance and poetry in his prose.

If I have a complaint with this novel is that the opening is so strong we are left a little wanting in passages that give us distance from the malevolence that starts us off. This “complaint” is faint as there is much here to admire and enjoy.

I look forward to seeing what Mr. Scott dishes up next.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Western

This behemoth of a source for Western film edited by Phil Hardy strives to give us reference and critical evaluation of practically ever...