Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Under the Diehard Brand by L. Ron Hubbard (Western short stories audio book)

L. Ron Hubbard is probably best known as the founder of Scientology and creator of Dianetics. These days, his name is largely connected with the antics of the some of the more "outspoken" members of the religion, overshadowing the fact that the man really knew how to tell an entertaining story.

Pulp fiction fans rejoice, because there's a "new" voice on the block that deserves to be noticed. All 150 of the stories Hubbard wrote for the pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s are being rereleased in paperback and audio under the evocative title Stories from the Golden Age.

The recordings I've tried so far are just terrific. They are a professionally produced combination of traditional narrated audiobooks (with narration deftly handled by R.F. Daley) and old-time radio, with actors playing the characters (often multiple roles) and genre-specific music and sound effects rounding out the experience.

Under the Diehard Brand is actually a collection of three short stories. In the title story (originally published in Western Aces in March 1938), Lee Thompson attempts to reunite with his father "Diehard" Thompson, the sheriff of Wolf River, Montana. But when Lee doesn't get the homecoming he's looking for, he gets involved with Holy George Gates by besting his foreman Anvil Bores in a fistfight.

Diehard thinks Holy George is behind a string of murders and stampedes, but the local businessmen appreciate the money Holy George brings into town via his large beef-cattle contracts — even if Diehard is sure it's blood money. They also think Diehard is getting old and going easy on the "real" criminals. (Rheumatism has slowed his gun hand to where he is afraid to use it.)

Corey Burton's vocal performance as Holy George is highly reminiscent of Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. But I couldn't place the accent used by actor (and Firesign Theatre alum) Phil Proctor in his role as Anvil Bores, until it brought to mind images of Boris Badenov of "moose and squirrel" fame (himself no doubt pulp-inspired).

The second story, "Hoss Tamer" (from the January 1950 issue of Thrilling Western) is a redemptive story of sorts. It is entertaining in its own way, though the conclusion is unsurprising. But the Under the Diehard Brand book and audio also contain a real discovery in its tragicomic final tale.

In "The Ghost Town Gun-Ghost" (from an August 1938 issue of Western Story), a man on the run from the law escapes to an nearly empty settlement populated only by a man named Pokey McKay. Pokey fills in the gaps of his loneliness by performing all the needed functions of the town under other names, and speaking of them in the third person. Rob Paulsen (a double Emmy winner for his work on Animaniacs) delivers a tour de force as Pokey and all his personalities.

Author L. Ron Hubbard not only tells an entertaining story, but doesn't shy away from descriptive passages that enhance the atmosphere, like the following from "Under the Diehard Brand":

He sidled up to the bar and stared at the dill pickle and aged cheese, which Long Henry was carelessly wont to call his 'free lunch'. Even so, the meager display was tantalizing to a stomach grown a stranger to food and coupled with a pocket lined only with tobacco crumbs.
There are some unintentional chuckles along the way and the occasional schmaltzy ending, but those sorts of things are to be expected. Nobody reads pulp fiction for the intellectual challenge it offers, after all. That said, Under the Diehard Brand is a highly entertaining listen.

The music and sound effects are of high quality, the actors are experienced professionals, and director Jim Meskimen orchestrates all the pieces beautifully. Galaxy Press has spent the money for a quality product, and it shows. Plus, Under the Diehard Brand gives the reader and listener three solid stories — and two real winners — for the price of one.


Ben Boulden said...

I went through an L. Ron Hubbard phase about ten years ago. I really enjoyed BUCKSKIN BRIGADE, FEAR, and FINAL BLACKOUT from his early years, and TYPEWRITER IN THE SKY and BATTLEFIELD EARTH from his later years.

He was a terrific writer. It's too bad Scientology has overshadowed his fiction.

jim meskimen said...

Thanks for the nice review! Over the last three or so years I have directed over 500 hours of L. Ron Hubbard fiction for Galaxy audio (pant, pant!) and I appreciate what you point out about his terrific writing.
Each of the Stories From the Golden Age are unique and wonderfully expressed.
R.F. Daley as the main narrator did superb work on the series; he is an amazing talent.
We had such fun recording them "Old Radio" style, crammed into a booth and working off each other's energy. The only thing missing was the knowledge that America was hanging off our every word, gunshot sfx and creaky door... but that will come in time as listeners discovery this remarkable series for themselves.
And yes, if I do say so myself.
Thanks for the nice write up,
Jim Meskimen

Craig Clarke said...

Ben -- I'm very curious about Typewriter in the Sky and will look for a copy of it soon.

Jim -- Thanks for stopping by. I really enjoy the "old radio" feel of the audios. I'm especially curious to compare the original Dimension X production of "The Professor Was a Thief" to your version.

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