Friday, January 15, 2010

The Baron of Coyote River by L. Ron Hubbard (unabridged Western audio book)

These days, L. Ron Hubbard's name is largely connected with the antics of the some of the more "outspoken" members of Scientology, overshadowing the fact that the man really knew how to tell an entertaining story. 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 audiobooks are a professionally produced combination of traditional audiobooks, with narration deftly handled by actor R.F. Daley, and old-time radio, with skilled actors, genre-specific music, and sound effects. The Baron of Coyote River contains two stories: the title work and "Reign of the Gila Monster."

In "The Baron of Coyote River" (originally published in All Western in September 1936), Lance Gordon is an outlaw with a price on his head and a chip on his shoulder. He's wanted for the revenge murder of his father's killer, McCloud, and he's tired of running. So, when he's faced with capture by Captain Anderson of the U.S. Cavalry, he decides to go down fighting.

A local man named Tyler admires Gordon's sand and gives him a chance to escape. Holding off the cavalry temporarily, Tyler gives Gordon a horse and a destination: "the Coyote River this time tomorrow." But Tyler isn't risking Anderson's wrath for his health; he's got a job for Gordon: infiltrate the 3B Ranch, stomping grounds of the mysterious cattle rustler known as the Baron, and report back. (Tyler was rather attached to his cows.)

Author L. Ron Hubbard adds welcome touches of humor to this story of a fight against frontier injustice. A particular highlight is when Tyler (played by Fred Tatasciore), spouts off a long-winded telegram while holding off gunfire from his pursuers as Gordon frantically writes it all down. Also, the great pacing of director Jim Meskimen and realistic sound effects put the listener right in the middle of a stampede, adding to the suspense already created by Hubbard's sharp descriptions.

Martin Yurchak takes an unusual tack and hardly plays Gordon as a hero; his performance is, in fact, quite reminiscent of Shaun Duke's villainous Charley Pearson in Six-Gun Caballero. Also, as in that book, some timely government paperwork saves the day in "The Baron of Coyote River," though not in quite as satisfying a manner.

In a change of pace from other audiobooks in the Stories from the Golden Age series, actor Bruce Boxleitner handles narration duties on "Reign of the Gila Monster," the second story contained in The Baron of Coyote River audiobook. (Listeners may remember Boxleitner from Scarecrow and Mrs. King or Babylon 5 but may not know he is also the author of the sci-fi Western Frontier Earth.)

Regular listeners may miss R.F. Daley's solid presence, but Boxleitner's slightly raspy tone is an effective substitute, offering another perspective on the narration. In fact, Boxleitner may be a mite more accessible, sounding somewhat like a favorite uncle telling the story.

A seven-foot-two jasper named Gilman (locally known as the Gila Monster) terrorizes Powderville from the marshal's seat: no drinking, gambling, spitting, or freeloading. Town founder Howdy Johnson (who intended Powderville to be the "mecca of the trail") takes action against the oversized superman because "even Hannibal had his Waterloo."

Hubbard shows his flair for the tall tale in "Reign of the Gila Monster" (originally published in Western Aces in September 1937) especially in his increasingly outrageous descriptions of the title character: "His hat ... looked bigger than an umbrella." "He had once stepped on [a] hound dog, and ... not even an inch of the animal's tail was visible." "He could take a bottle of whiskey in his hand, close his finger, and say, 'Which one have I got it in?'" This must have taxed even Hubbard's considerable skill for hyperbole.

Fred Tatasciore voices Gilman with the appropriate resonance and power, and subtlety is not called for with a character whose quietest tone can still be heard at the city limits. Prolific character actor Martin Kove (the Karate Kid trilogy and over 100 other movies) plays Howdy Johnson with just the right balance of "civic pride" and vice protection. It is a welcome departure from the traditional Western, this twist on the norm, with the villain fighting for "good" and the hero trying to keep the "bad" status quo.

I found both stories in The Baron of Coyote River to be highly entertaining, though they have very different approaches, with "Reign of the Gila Monster" probably in the lead just due to its novel take on the Western. Both, however, will entertain pulp fiction fans, and especially those of us who enjoy a good audiobook.


Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Yeah, but every penny you spend on this stuff goes into the coffers of that horrible cult.

Craig Clarke said...

So get it from the library. That's no reason to miss out on some great pulp storytelling.

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