Sunday, November 25, 2012

Re-Kindling Interest: Serpent Girl by Ray Garton (horror novella)

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print works that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

Newly retired from his well-paying job, Steven Benedetti decides to celebrate with a visit to the carnival. There he meets Elise, the Serpent Girl (she dances with snakes), herself newly unemployed due to a fight with her boss/lover. Elise (whose real name is Carmen Mattox) and Benedetti subsequently hit the road together, spending the night in a roadside motel where they share their bodies and their histories — but not their secrets. That comes later; pieces slowly reveal themselves as the couple have a lot of sex and begin to think they're perfect for each other.

Author Ray Garton is probably best known as a writer of horror fiction (The New Neighbor, Live Girls), but Serpent Girl, originally one of his long line of books from Cemetery Dance Publications, seems to display the influence of the hardboiled crime novels and films of the 1940s and '50s: to wit, the beautiful woman whom trouble seems to follow and the world-weary man who is so attracted to her that he doesn't realize what he's gotten into until very late in the game. Steven and Elise fit their roles well, but each has a little secret in store for the other.

This blend of sex, horror, and crime fiction (I like to call it "erotic noirror," but your mileage may vary) plays to Garton's strengths: creative plots and the rare ability to know when to paint with broad strokes and when to be more detailed. Serpent Girl certainly has its flaws (conversations that border on the tedious, two-dimensional characters, and an abrupt ending), but they don't keep this novella from pulling the reader through to the somewhat unexpected conclusion. Its menacing foreshadowing alone would guarantee that, even if Garton didn't have a couple of surprises up his sleeve.

Garton's longtime fans will definitely be satisfied by Serpent Girl, and those concerned that he might be devoting himself to crime fiction entirely can be assuaged by his recent werewolf novel Ravenous (and its sequel, Bestial). Those, however, wanting more of this direction of the author's work should seek out his two books originally published under the pseudonym Arthur Darknell and now out under his own: Loveless and Murder Was My Alibi.

This review is an updated and revised version of the one that originally appeared in The Green Man Review in 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Best of the West, Vol. 1: Classic Stories of the American Frontier (Western audiobook anthology)

Best of the West, Vol. 1: Classic Stories of the American Frontier is a 2009 audio anthology of classic and modern classic Western stories by a wide range of authors from Matt Braun to Zane Grey, from Will Henry to Elmer Kelton. Here are some highlights:

Author Gordon D. Shirreffs (Rio Desperado) is always good for a Western filled with complex characters and situations, and "Death Hires These Guns!" is no different. Reed Emmons is in the Mexican border town of Nogalles when he gets word that his brother Rance was killed by a backshooter. Of course, he wants revenge, but he has trouble getting a bead on the killer.

First, it's Burt Whitman, marshal at the Cottonwood seat, but the evidence is circumstantial. Turns out Rance was seeing Whitman's sister Aurelia. But when Reed goes in disguise and finds Whitman had nothing to do with his brother's death, will an extra complication make him go through with his plan anyway?

In Loren D. Estleman's "The Death of Dutch Creel" (also available in his Western collection The Bandit and Others), someone who was actually at the titular event (in a way) sets the record straight after seeing a particularly sensationalist "authentic" retelling at the pictures. Arte Johnson's reading emphasizes the wry humor.

Gary McCarthy tells the story of a frontier doctor, James Stanton, who needs to learn how to "Grab, Root, and Growl" if he's going to marry the woman he loves. On the cusp of ending their relationship, he gets his chance. McCarthy portrays another kind of "true grit" here, in having Stanton show that one person's definition of "quitter" does not suit everybody.

Westerns from the Library

I went to the library in the next town over the other day. (If you have a library card in my state, you can borrow from any library in the state's network.) This was primarily because they have a much wider selection of Westerns than the library in my town.

However, as the librarians have mentioned, these Westerns are kept mostly to satisfy a handful of enthusiastic older gentlemen who stop in every so often. As such, I would guess that around 90 percent of them are large-print books. This is not my preference when it comes to reading material, but I'm just happy that the books are there at all.

Usually when I visit, there are numerous folks filing through the various stacks but I am alone in the Western section. Today, however, one of these spoken-of gentlemen was there, too.

We had a short conversation where he mentioned that he got the books for himself and his wife, who has macular degeneration, so he gets the large-print books, though "I have 20/20 vision." (It's little loving deeds like this that make for happy marriages, gents. Remember that.)

I also took the opportunity to ask him for recommendations. After letting me know that his favorite author was Johnstone, and saying that he didn't much care for Max Brand (too much description), he took a few moments to show me some specific books. Though these initial comments led me to believe our tastes might actually be diametrically opposed, I listened appreciatively and with an open mind. (After all, I won't really know until I've tried them, right?) The four I checked out are below.

The Man Who Believed in the Code of the West by George L. Voss

I found this one myself. The title and premise interested me, as did the portion of the author's bio that states on the back flap of this first edition hardcover (which, incidentally, cost $6.95 new) that "Like James Fenimore Cooper, George L. Voss began writing late in life because he was dissatisfied with what he was reading."

It's about a Harvard graduate who goes out West, and the promotional material calls the character "a combination of Destry and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." And if those three classic-Western references don't seem like overkill yet, it continues, "but he has more charm, more wit, and yes, more true grit."

Death Rides the Denver Stage by Lewis B. Patten

I know Death Rides the Denver Stage will be a good one, since I've previously enjoyed Patten's short novel Wild Waymire. (Not to mention the numerous recommendations of his work by fellow bloggers and authors I admire.)

I also seem to have a liking for "Death does something" titles, given my enjoyment of both Death Waits at Sundown and Death Rides a Chestnut Mare (possibly my favorite title for a Western, and a damned fine read to boot).

(Patten himself wrote another called Death Rides a Black Horse, which has this fantastic review on Amazon you should read.)

Killer's Gun by Ray Hogan

Interestingly enough, in searching the electronic card catalog for newer Westerns, I came across the previously unknown name Ray Hogan. The cover to Killer's Gun intrigued me with its bold simplicity. So when Hogan was one of the names the elder gent recommended, I snatched it up with eagerness.

The book is a reprint of a 1966 novel by the prolific Hogan, who also has a good number of books available for the Kindle from Prologue Books. Luke Wade is searching for the man who killed his father. In the meantime, he gets work on a cattle drive and, against rustlers, manages to find ways to keep his "killer's gun" in good shape.

Jubal Cade #2: Double Cross by Charles R. Pike

My benefactor specifically pointed out this series as he stated that the library had all the volumes except the first. Numerous Web sources suggest that the first three books were written by author Terry Harknett, better known under another pseudonym as George G. Gilman behind the wildly popular and influential Edge and Steele series. (The Jubal Cade series was then continued to its conclusion by fellow "Piccadilly Cowboy" Angus Wells, with one intervening volume by Ken Bulmer.)

Based on the summary of this book, the first one saw poor old American doctor, trained in England, Jubal Cade losing his British wife to a killer Lee Kincaid and having to take a blind orphan boy under his care. Because of the need for money on his search for vengeance, he becomes a gun for hire. I've only read a couple of the Edge novels, but based on that, I'm excited to delve into this other series.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dark Thicket by Elmer Kelton (Civil War-era Western novel)

Owen Danforth is home from the American Civil War on temporary leave until his arm, deeply wounded by a Yankee saber cut earned in battle, heals well enough for his return. But Owen is not returning to a peaceful Texas: the people of his hometown are as divided here as on the battlefield. Even at home — Owen's father Andrew is a staunch Unionist though his son fights for the Confederacy.

But blood is thicker than politics, and to keep Andrew out of danger, Owen puts himself in the middle of a different kind of conflict but just as dangerous — and helping two women prisoners escape to the Dark Thicket from Phineas Shattuck and other local heel flies is just the beginning.

Elmer Kelton is one of the greats. His books have substance; they're as meaty and satisfying as a well-grilled T-bone. Buffalo Wagons was the first Western I read that made me realize the genre could offer depth along with a fast-paced read and historical authenticity. It's hardly a wonder that he has won 6 Spur Awards and was voted best Western writer of all times by his peers at the Western Writers of America.

In Dark Thicket, Kelton shows the other side of the Civil War — how it affected those back home, turning old friends into enemies (though those enemies are nonetheless eager to be friends again after the war is over). And in Phineas Shattuck, Kelton offers a villain that is both frightening in his realism and fun to hate in his over-the-top actions.

Kelton combines history with a no-nonsense writing style that expresses genuine human emotion without resorting to overt sentimentality, creating characters that are believable in their conflicted, sometimes inconsistent natures, with real feelings that linger in the reader's mind long after the book has been put back on the shelf. I feel I learned more about the actual effects of the War Between the States on individuals from Dark Thicket than from any history book.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Death Waits at Sundown by L. Ron Hubbard (pulp Western audiobook)

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.  Death Waits at Sundown contains three stories: the title tale, "Ride 'em Cowboy" and "The Boss of the Lazy B."

When a vigilante committee convicts young Frank Taylor of stage robbery, he is scheduled to hang at sundown. His brother Lynn tries to cast doubt on Frank's guilt by robbing the next coach himself -- with the help of the sheriff, whom the vigilantes ran out of office. This is an exciting listen that was first published in Street and Smith's venerable Western Story magazine in the fall of 1938.

"Ride 'em Cowboy" is easily filed under "ranch romance," so much that one would think it first appeared in the long-running pulp of the same name instead of a summer 1938 issue of Western Story. All his life "Long Tom" Branner has been developing his horsing skills in order to prove himself worthy of Vicky Steward. But Vicky is looking to prove herself, and nothing irks her more than competing and coming in second place to Long Tom. The lead actress in "Ride 'em Cowboy" is unfortunately a detriment to this audio, but the action-filled climax more than makes up for it.

All three of the stories dramatized in Death Waits at Sundown should appeal to fans of good old-fashioned Western pulp fiction, and even more so to those who have enjoyed the Western offerings of old-time radio.
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