Friday, January 31, 2020


I picked up this book several years back and only just got around to reading it. I’m sorry I waited so long. It’s the first in a series, which some sites indicate extended to six volumes. The copy I have lists J. D. Bodine as the author, but the book has been reissued by Wolfpack Publishing under the author’s real name, Robert Vaughan. The second book, also under Vaughan’s name, has also been rereleased. It’s entitled Blood Money. I don’t know about the others, which may have been written by another writer under the house name of Bodine.

The story follows five Confederate irregulars at the very end of the Civil War. Marcus Quinn is their leader, thus the “Quinn’s Raiders.” They’ve been captured by Union forces and are being taken north by train to prison. They have a reputation that puts them into the same category as Quantrill’s Raiders, and they manage to find a way to escape. With the war all but over, the five men decide to head west to make their fortune and end up caught in a range war.

The story is fast paced; the writing is very good. The primary characters, Marcus Quinn, Hank Proudy, Bob Depro, Loomis Depro, and Billy Joe Higgins, are well drawn. This first book mostly features Quinn, Loomis Depro, and Higgins. Given the mention of Quantrill’s Raiders, I was wondering whether the characters here would be of the ultra-violent sort, but even though they talk tough and skirt the edge of the law, they are actually decent men who the reader can root for.

I didn’t find any missteps and will certainly pick up the second volume. This would be classified as an adult western because it has several sex scenes in it, but these are relatively mild and actually well done. The women are not objectified but are complete characters in their own way, although they don’t have a lot of time on stage, of course.

I’d heard the name Vaughan before but I haven’t read anything else by him under his real name. He’s had a number of pseudonyms and has apparently written hundreds of books. He’s still writing. Vaughan is a decorated war veteran and has been inducted into the Writer’s Hall of Fame. I look forward to learning more about him as I pick up some more of his work.



Fill a stein and grab a bloody haunch! That, in a heraldic nutshell, is my approach to writing. Simple as a Zen painting and elemental as a pissed-off bobcat.

In other words, when I pour that first cup of morning mud thick enough to float a lumber drey, wrestle onto the floor amongst my snarling curs, and pick up my Macbook Pro which I prop atop my knees while said curs cozy up against my ribs and growl themselves into rabbit-rending dreams—yes, I write on the floor, close to the beasts and cold, hard earth!—I do not pad meekly but bull headlong into that netherworld of my own fevered conjurings of wild-assed adventure.

I throw my head back and bellow as loudly as I can—albeit to myself, so as not to arouse the carrion eaters—“Fill a stein, merry listeners. Pull up a cold rock by my hot fire, grab a bloody haunch of roasting venison, and prick up your ers for the story I'm about to sing.” Unless you’re trying to be Agatha Christie, that’s really the only way to do it.

Why whimper?  Whimpering writers cause whimpering readers. Admittedly, as on most subjects, I have narrow views on writing and literature. I think a story, whether it be short or long, should be a little wild and scary, sort of like the tattooed, Harley-riding jake your parents live in dread of your sister marrying. It should blow some cigarette smoke in our faces, flex its ghastly biceps, make us gasp in shock and giggle in delighted horror at the cheerio it just spun in our driveways.

Not that good fiction—I ain’t so looney as to say I write anything close to lit-ra-chah—shouldn’t also be thoughtful and reflect on our place in the cold, lonely universe in which there may or may not be a god and a reason for our being here enduring all the bullshit.

But it should also entertain the bejesus out of us. Cause our hearts to race.Interrupt our sleep with bizarrely vivid dreams. It should cause us to daydream if for just a few minutes each week in our office cubicles of telling the boss to stick it in her ear, we’re joining a carnival.

As a writer of relatively traditionalists—I really hate that word, because I don’t see myself as traditional at all—westerns, I write to entertain. But I got into this racket after beating a circuitous path through several improbable canyons.

I grew up wanting to be the Hemingway of North Dakota. Or at least the John Updike of the Great Plains. I loved poetry, Tolstoy, and Guy de Maupaussant. I was an English major at the University of North Dakota and finagled a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona with a passel of what one would call 'literary' short stories.

They weren’t half bad, either. One was published in a university quarterly and even anthologized later, and though it first appeared nearly twenty-five years ago now, I've recently received letters about it.

I say they weren’t half-bad, but I don’t think I could revisit even the best of them now without falling asleep. And that’s how I feel about most of the mainstream literature, and even most of the genre fiction, sorry to say, that is published today.  It puts me to sleep. And that’s a bad, bad thing. Because writing—even literary writing—should entertain or at least send some blood to our organs.

As a wide-eyed young English major fresh off the lonely prairie and wanting to read and write adventurous things, tales that made me feel eager and vibrant, I found myself nodding off over most of the novels I was assigned in college. There were many I liked, even some that inspired me.  

Moby Dick and the old Icelandic sagas, for instance—The first was a wonderful if sometimes slow-moving and overly detailed story of one man’s war against the universe; the latter yarns were, as Michael Dirda described them in his Barnes and Noble.com review of one of my old favorites, The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, “spaghetti westerns with swords—only more thrilling.” But so many more I slogged through, blubbering.  You can take Faulkner and George Eliot, and throw them in the same river.

After reading reams of those colorless and only marginally meaningful stories in the small magazines, I was deluded into thinking that that was the kind of stuff I needed to write to be taken seriously. That good writing had to be slowly plotted, overly ponderous, filled with self-conscious devices, and downright boring.

I was among those who sneered at anything that smacked of unheeled entertainment. Even at those I’d grown up reading, those wonderful storytellers who’d first inspired me to spin my own yarns all those years ago on the prairie. Writers like Alexandre Dumas, Rafael Sabatini (Captain Blood!), Ray Bradbury (The Illustrated Man), Jack Williamson, Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Max Brand, C.L. Moore, Robert E. Howard, H. Ryder Haggard, and countless others of the pulp variety. Good, old-fashioned entertainment.

But wait a damn minute—isn’t that the stuff that inspired us to sing around our cave-mouth campfires all those eons ago in the first place? Entertainment? The stuff that made us laugh, cry, scream, dribble down our legs?  That set the boys wrestling, the damsels dancing, and the dogs howling?

Now, I’m not saying it all has to be pulp. Or that when I sit down on the floor with my savage woolies to write my own brand of western entertainment that I don’t try to include more than just thundering .45’s, bulging corsets, and fisticuffs—Not at all.

I think a story should entertain first and foremost.  But it should also cause us to reflect, however briefly and genuinely, without being maudlin, on what it’s like to be humans in a world that is largely unknown and unknowable to us, and filled with tragedy and suffering.

If we genre writers draw our characters well, make them more than just types, but give them flesh and blood and their own unique way of speaking and living and loving, and give a little voice now and then to our own cares, our own angst, then readers will naturally find the depth that is there in the yarn between the shootouts and mattress dances, the depth that reflects the writer and the larger world that we and our tales grow out of. Writers who do that, specifically western writers who do that--are my favorites of the genre.

H.A. DeRosso does that. Just read his novel .44 and his novella The Bounty Hunter, and tell me he doesn’t. Often, T.V. Olson does it, too. Others include Dean Owen,  Merle Constiner, Donald Hamilton, Giles Lutz, and Giles Tippette. My good friend Kit Prate does it as well.  See her wild and sexy Hot Night in Purgatory (as by Steve Travis) as well as Jason Kilkenny’s Gun. You’ll never find more harrowing violence or deeper, more compelling western characters. Jack Vance and C.L. Moore do it in western’s brother genre, science fiction.

What about Louis L’Amour? I don’t care for the jake. He started out as a fair to middlin’ pulp writer and then, taking himself too seriously, became a pompous blowhard. Oh, he was all right when I was fresh from swaddling clothes and before I discovered better, more compelling western scribes like those I listed above, and Mickey Spillane.

But to me he’s the western equivalent of Agathie Christie. His heroes are wooden and sexless. His women are even more wooden and sexless. His plots are as bland as Bonanza, and they rely too heavily on coincidence and the infallibility and moral impeccability of his heroes. And the biggest sin of all—they’re bloodless!

I like sex and violence in my yarns. Lots of it. Interspersed with the tender moments, mind you. But I like the stuff that makes my eyes pop and my loins happy.  I’ll take a hearty dose in every chapter, please! If I want to be put to sleep, I’ll take a pill. That’s just who I am.

I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, caused you to shake your heads and stitch your brows in reproof. Or even to slam my books closed with the ear-splitting blam! of a .44 triggered in the tight confines of a whore’s crib. On second thought, I’m not sorry. Not a bit.

Evoking a visceral response is what I set out to do. And I suggest if you’re trying to write, you do the same thing. Kick off your slippers and go barefoot. Add a little firewater to your mud. Crowd in amongst the beasts and shout at the tops of your wicked lungs: “Fill a stein and grab a bloody haunch!”

Monday, January 27, 2020


Elmer Kelton (1926–2009) was a prolific writer, editor, and eight-time Spur Award-Winner for western fiction. An impressive number, eclipsed by a bounty of additional accolades including an Owen Wister Award, honorary doctorates from at least two Universities, a lifetime achievement award from the National Cowboy Symposium, and many more.

Kelton is responsible for more than forty novels, and at least two genre classics—The Time it Never Rained, and The Day the Cowboys Quit. He wrote for television (Maverick and Colt .45) and his book The Good Old Boys was adapted for the small screen in 1995.

Kelton’s fourth novel, Shadow of a Star (1959), grabs the reader from the git-go. Page one puts us in Coldridge County, Texas, where owlhoots Dencil Fox and his brother Buster watch fellow bank-robber Curly Jack die from a gunshot wound. The deadly slug, inflicted during the gang’s last attempted heist is almost certainly the result of Buster’s own trigger-happy ways.

Leaving the boys to bury their dead, Kelton spirits us off to the town of Swallowfork and young deputy Jim-Bob McClain’s eager point-of-view. He’s equally ambitious as the villainous Buster, but in the opposite direction. Recklessly determined to become a lawman worthy to follow in his late father’s footsteps, he takes more than a couple cringe-worthy missteps.

For a few chapters, we follow Jim-Bob through his duties with sheriff Mont Naylor, watching the button goof-up at everything from his first encounter with a desperate cattle rustler to a couple of awkward encounters with the opposite sex. In spite of it all, Jim-Bob’s a likeable guy, which is a nod to Kelton’s deft storytelling.Before long, the Fox gang makes the scene, and the tension starts to mount. When Mont Naylor is nailed in a fast gun back and forth with Buster, Jim-Bob takes center stage—in town and in the story.

The plot is simple, the characterizations complex. There’s even an undercurrent of legal philosophy as Jim-Bob struggles with some life or death decisions only he can make. The good news is Kelton never foregoes action for pedantic speechifyn’ and Shadow of a Star lopes right along to a climax  as nerve-wracking as it is ultimately satisfying. A highly recommended look at one of Kelton’s early works.