Miller Gives Kelton His Due


Some might remember that a while back I blogged about the life and fiction of Elmer Kelton, possibly the greatest Western writer ever. Over at The Wall Street Journal Online, John J. Miller tips his own hat to the legacy of Kelton while also providing a look at Other Men’s HorsesElmer’s posthumous novel and the final installment in his “Texas Rangers” series . Check it out here.

Elmer Kelton’s Last Ride Into the West


Elmer Kelton died in San Angelo, Texas on August 22nd, 2009. Other than (possibly) Louis L’Amour, Kelton is the most honored writer in the history of the Western fiction genre. Born about two hundred miles west of Cross Plains and almost exactly two decades after the birth of Robert E. Howard, Kelton spent the last six decades writing novels about his native state (and its far-wandering sons). Many would say he did so better than anyone else.

Elmer Kelton’s won a Spur Award for his novel, Buffalo Wagons, in 1957. Before he was done, he’d win six more. In honor of that record-breaking achievement, and for the sheer sustained excellence of his entire body of work, the Western Writers Association voted him “The Best Western Author of All Time.”

I first became acquainted with Mr. Kelton’s work by way of the film, The Good Old Boys, which was adapted from his novel of the same name. Searching it out, I was struck by several things. This was a writer with a deep knowledge of the history of the American West. On top of that (and most importantly), the man could spin a yarn; a yarn filled with characters who acted and spoke authentically (to my mind). Kelton had this to say about the writing of The Good Old Boys: “(It) is probably the closest I have ever come to writing from sheer inspiration. Hewey Calloway and the other characters took hold of the story like a cold-jawed horse grabbing onto the bit, and about all I could do was hold on for the ride.”

The Time It Never Rained (1973), is a novel about the drought of the 1950s, a time when most Texan ranchers gave in and accepted “welfare” (in the form of hay and feed) from the government. Not much hot lead flying, but this novel burns with intensity drawn from the souls of the characters; proud people with their backs to the wall. People who see a way of life that endured for a century being changed irrevocably.

The Time It Never Rained and The Good Old Boys are the only novels by Elmer Kelton that I have ever read. There’s enough proof between the two for me to say that the man was a damned fine writer, I reckon.

A Review of REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #13

My copy of REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #13 came in the post on the same day that a long-awaited guest arrived. Due to previously scheduled essays, I’m only now getting around to singing this issue’s praises. Morgan Holmes has already weighed in on the REHupa site, but I hope that this review will complement his.

I must admit that I never read the earlier issues of “TGR” when they were published back in the 1970s. I was but a wee lad back then. However, I have perused the “Out of Print” section on Damon C. Sasser’s website. REH: Two-Gun Raconteur has always been a worthy publication, mixing real Howardian scholarship, quality art and fannish fun. That was definitely my impression when I bought the first “relaunch” issue in 2003.

REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #13 greets you with a full-color cover depicting Kull and Brule whaling away at serpent-men. Sasser went with color covers (one of the advancements of civilization we can all be thankful for) a while back. That move got my unequivocal support at the time, and this cover changes that opinion not one whit.


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The Duke of Americana, Thirty Years Gone

“I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people and I require the same from them.”

John Wayne in The Shootist (1976).

My general awareness of Marion Morrison, aka, “John Wayne,” started early on. My father (along with my paternal grandfather) was and is a John Wayne shootistfan. I was probably viewing John Wayne flicks in the cradle. My specific knowing of whom John Wayne was, without a doubt, began when I watched a broadcast of True Grit right before I entered the double-digit stage of my lifespan.

John Wayne, portraying Rooster Cogburn, was a dangerous man. I definitely figured that out, way back in 1976. One film critic described the Duke as embodying a spirit of “muscular Americanism.” Whether one agrees with all that implies, John Wayne most emphatically did so. Just as Conan of Cimmeria, without a doubt, personified Robert E. Howard’s vision of “muscular barbarism.”

John Wayne died thirty years ago today.

Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learnt something from yesterday.

— Inscription on John Wayne’s headstone.

A Texan Feast

“In fact, I’m something of a gourmand — I believe you spell it that way.” Robert E. Howard to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. December 1932.

Howard Days in Cross Plains is just around the corner. Thus and therefore (and especially since I’m unable to attend this year), I find myself yearning for fare of the Texan persuasion. My first trip to Howard Days (in 2006), I stayed over in Dallas the night before. One of my Texan cousins steered me to a little hole-in-the-wall called Lee Harvey’s in a fairly disreputable quarter of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Excellent burgers, cold beer and billiards (and discussions regarding Dan Brown and the Knights Templar) made for a memorable evening.

Soon after pulling up to the Alla Ray Morris Pavillion in Cross Plains the next day, I savored the hearty fare purveyed by Joan McCowen and the other estimable members of Project Pride. Nachos and chili just do a pilgrim’s soul good, I must say.

The gustatory highpoint (figuratively and literally) of both my trips to Robert E. Howard’s hometown would have to be the Saturday night barbecues at the Caddo Peak Ranch. Do not breath a word of this to my Kansan brethren, but Texan BBQ has it all over KC barbecue. Marjorie Middleton (and many others) put on a mouth-watering spread of Texan proportions, with attendant Lone Star hospitality.

However, my trips to Cross Plains were but the latest of my personal forays into the splendrous fields of Texan cuisine. Ever since the Christmas of ’76, I’ve visited Texas and sampled its culinary wares. Having relatives in the Dallas area helps mightily in that regard. Probably my most memorable visit (in regards to Texan food) was in 1980. In the short week I was there, my uncle took me to the legendary Tolbert’s Chili Parlor (founded by a Texan with the most Howardian moniker of “Frank X. Tolbert”) and a Tex-Mex restaurant (name unremembered) which served a delectable (and still unknown-beyond-Texas, at the time) dish called “fajitas”. Yeah, I thought my Uncle Gary Bradbury was pretty cool.

Robert E. Howard was, by his own admission, a bit of a “gourmand.” Judging from what Rusty Burke cites in “The Gustatory REH,” Howard was not laying claim to a false title. For a small-town Central Texas boy who reached manhood before the Second World War, REH’s tastes in food were wide-ranging (indicative of his far-reaching studies in numerous other areas). In his letters, Howard speaks of his appreciation for Mexican, Italian, German, Creole (and, by extension, Caribbean) cuisines. Such might be more likely expected (in that era) from a well-heeled sophisticate born to a more cosmopolitan clime.

That said and noted, I believe Robert E. Howard would be highly pleased by the latest (July 2009) issue of Saveur magazine, which is on newsstands as we speak. Most fortuitously (considering that Howard Days are just around 120-121_saveur_cover_306the corner), the editors and writers of Saveur (several of whom have Texan connections) decided to dedicate their most recent issue to the food-ways of the Lone Star State. To my knowledge, Saveur has never devoted an entire issue, cover to cover, to just one region, state or country (depending on whether you’re a Texan or not, the “state” or “country” designation may be problematic).

So, a singular honor has been granted to Texan cuisine by the finest cooking magazine in print (which Saveur is, in my opinion). Several chapters in the July 2009 issue relate specifically to Robert E. Howard’s opinions and tastes. Here’s a few… (Continue reading this post)

Breck redux


From the first review by Glenn Lord to many of today’s write-ups, A Gent From Bear Creek is often considered a collection of the Breckinridge Elkins stories. This, I’ve long thought, is a disservice to Howard, who went to some lengths to make this into another serialized novel, like Hour of the Dragon, although one based more tightly on previous stories. And it is especially interesting to note that the new material for the book, some three more chapters worth, was based on two deeply personal relationships; the old boy meets girl, dark stranger comes between, and love triumphs story of Breck Elkins and Glory McGraw, and the deeply personal ties between Breck and his only somewhat tamed horse, Captain Kidd. The capture and partial breaking of the horse is really far and away the most Texas “tall tale” part of the book. I can imagine “Meet Capt’n Kidd” was written while Howard was in a creative frenzy rivaling that of the wild horse in the story.

Sure, A Gent From Bear Creek started out as a series of stories. But if you read the stories as they appeared in Action Stories (easy to do since the publication of Paul Herman’s The Complete Action Stories) and read Gent shortly after, you’ll find there is quite a bit more material — more story — than is commonly recognized.


For more details on the Elkins publishing history, see this post.

His Like Will Not Be Here Again

This has been an incredibly hard post to compose for a myriad of reasons. Steve Tompkins was nonpareil. His wit, his style, his awe-inspiring intelligence, his impact on Howard studies (and weird literature studies in general), his sheer output; there simply has not been any commentator on our beloved genre(s) quite like Mr. Tompkins. Many writers have pontificated about this or that aspect of weird/fantastic literature. Not one did so in quite the way that he did, nor did they do it quite so well, in this blogger’s opinion.

I never met Steve Tompkins (though we had a near miss at WFC ’06). I corresponded with him for about right on four weeks. Many others who knew him much better have already weighed in with praise for the man and his work. I can only give my perspective as a fan and as someone who hoped to call Steve Tompkins a friend someday.

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Something to Do with Deathlessness, Part Three: Splintered Shards of Time’s Reflection

Part One: Violence Reigns

Part Two: Eyes We Dare Not Meet in Dreams

Sergio Leone’s 1972 film Duck, You Sucker was released as Once Upon a Time, the Revolution in France. Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, like Leone’s Sean Mallory, is a revolutionary, the very first revolutionary, and might nod understandingly at Mallory’s confession that “When I started using dynamite I believed in many things, all of it. . .Now I only believe in dynamite,” but Once Upon a Time, the Revolution works better as an alternate title for the 1979 Conan novel The Road of Kings than for any Kane story. Wagner wrote two Howard pastiches that redeemed the very concept of a Howard pastiche, and if The Road of Kings does not quite measure up to Legion from the Shadows it is in no small part because it is not the novel he had in mind. Just as Duck, You Sucker was a movie that Leone planned only to produce — in his head and heart he was already hard at work on Once Upon a Time in America — until the prospect of a walkout by Rod Steiger and James Coburn forced him back into the director’s chair, The Road of Kings is a fallback option, a salvage job necessitated by L. Sprague de Camp’s veto of Wagner’s original idea. The usurpation epic Day of the Lion was smothered in its cradle to make room for de Camp and Carter’s War-of-the-Roses-with-plastic-petals Conan the Liberator.

Duck, You Sucker was conceived as a riposte to spaghetti Westerns like Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General or Sergio Corbucci’s A Professional Gun and Vamos a matar, compañeros, all of which involve uneasy alliances between cynical gringo or northern European mercenaries and initially apolitical campesinos who down tools and take up arms in response to injustice. Mallory, Leone’s northern European, is an explosives effort but also a full-time revolutionary, an IRA man with a British price on his head, while Juan Miranda is a bombastic bandit who is duped into a new role as “a great, grand and glorious hero of the revolution.” Wagner’s Northern mercenary is none other than Conan, ideologically naïve — his co-conspirators tease him about there being no word for “republic” in Cimmerian — but not a naïf. As a title, Day of the Lion was intended to evoke The Hour of the Dragon, and Wagner, than whom Howard has had no more alert and attentive reader, clearly picked up on the extent to which Zingara in the REH novel is not post-reconquista Spain but rather the anarchic Mexico of the same period covered by Duck, You Sucker.

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Something to Do with Deathlessness, Part Two: Eyes We Dare Not Meet in Dreams

Part One: Violence Reigns

Part Three: Splintered Shards of Time’s Reflection

For a Few Dollars More is the second film in Leone’s Dollars or “Man with No Name” trilogy and the only one equipped with an epigraph: “Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared.”

They also appear in Wagner’s “Raven’s Eyrie,” the basic situation of which — “ruthless, half-wild outlaws hounded by killers as remorseless as themselves” — recalls For a Few Dollars More, as does the disclosure that “The Combine cities of Lartroxia’s coastal plain had set a high bounty on Kane, and Pleddis meant to claim it.” Colonel Mortimer in the Leone film is out to avenge his sister, who killed herself while being raped by Indio; Ionor, raped by Kane seven years before the events of “Raven’s Eyrie,” does not kill herself but only her maternal instincts while scheming to be her own Mortimer. If Kane seems to be cast in the Indio role in “Raven’s Eyrie,” he behaves like the No Name of For A Few Dollars More in “Sing a Last Song of Valdese,” intervening at the moment of truth to secure another man’s vengeance for a rape and murder. As Leone once said, “An assassin can display a sublime altruism while a good man can kill with total indifference.”

Bounty killers presuppose the existence of men on whom a bounty can be collected, and due to costuming and casting constraints and perhaps a venerable European susceptibility to New World noble savages, spaghetti Westerns tended to ignore Indians and the skirmishing associated with John Ford’s cavalry films in favor of bandits by the dozens and hundreds. Wagner’s repertory company is also chockablock with desperados. In “Sing a Last Song of Valdese” we meet Mad Hef, who is by no means resigned to his capture by Ranvyas the ranger: “There was other smart bastards all set to count their bounty money, but ain’t one of them lived to touch a coin of it.” Hechon in Bloodstone doesn’t know enough to get out of Kane’s way, and Grey’s bandits in “Lynortis Reprise” are particularly Leone-esque: “A circle of grinning wolfish faces, casually moving in across the space of washed stone and dry bones.”

Orted ak-Ceddi in Dark Crusade could be straight from an Italian Western — “for all his pose as a popular hero and champion of the downtrodden, Orted the bandit chieftain had been a ruthless outlaw who left a wake of murder and rapine wherever his band passed through” — and just as Indio’s dependence on marijuana was a departure for a Western in 1965, Wagner’s matter-of-factness about “the tingling rush of cocaine” after Orted has “snorted, sneezed, [and] swallowed” marked an arrival: sword-and-sorcery had caught up with the Seventies.

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Something to Do With Deathlessness, Part One: Violence Reigns

Part Two: Eyes We Dare Not Meet in Dreams
Part Three: Splintered Shards of Time’s Reflection

[On October 13 it will have been 14 years since we lost Karl Edward Wagner. On April 30, 2009 we will have had to do without Sergio Leone for 20 years. These are wounds that don’t heal, absences that are always present, and what follows is an attempt to honor both men by way of a two-great-tastes-that-taste-great-together approach]

In his own way he is, perhaps, the most dangerous man who ever lived!
(From the United Artists advertising campaign for the 1967 American release of A Fistful of Dollars)

Once upon a time, two genres got the troublemakers and Maker-troublers they deserved. What Sergio Leone did with — and to — the Western, Karl Edward Wagner did with and to modern heroic fantasy. Both men toyed with clichés and conventions cat-and-mouse–style, and both subjected the phatic discourse of the retread and the rehash to brutal interrogations. Neither, however, was simply a revisionist. Leone and Wagner came not to revise but to revive, and where the revisionist impulse often expresses itself in harangues, they favored the parable and silver-scalpeled illusionectomies.

Nor were the two men iconoclasts, except insofar as iconoclasm involves smashing existing sculptures and thus yields detritus from which even larger and more mythic figures can be fashioned. Christopher Frayling, the author of Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys & Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone and Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, draws a crucial distinction by describing Leone’s “melodramatic expressionism” as “an act of demythologisation, rather than demythicisation.” Wagner’s Kane and Leone’s pistoleros are liberated from ossified mythologies while suffering no shrinkage in stature. Their mischief-making remains mythic in both reach and grasp, and their anarchic activities cannot be plea-bargained down to hero’s journeys.

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