Monday, September 28, 2020

Book Review: Winter in the Blood

Book Review: 'Winter in the Blood' by James Welch

3 / 5 Stars

‘Winter in the Blood’ first was published in 1974; this Bantam Books paperback edition was released in November 1975. The artist who provided the excellent cover illustration is uncredited.

This was the debut novel for Montana-born author and poet James Welch (1940 – 2003) who 
was of American Indian ancestry, and educated at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation school system. Welch went on to write additional novels focusing on the past, and present, experiences of American Indians. ‘Winter in the Blood’ was made into a 2012 film of the same title. 

The first-person narrator of the novel (his name 
never is provided) is a Blackfoot Indian man in his early 30s who lives with his mother Teresa, her husband Lame Bull, and his grandmother (referred to simply as the Old Woman) on the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana. The household raises cattle and is comparatively prosperous, but the narrator is unable to find satisfaction in this simple rural lifestyle and finds himself compelled to travel into town, where he finds himself more or less willingly engaged in drunken endeavors and escapades, some of which leave him the worse for wear. 

As the novel progresses the narrator comes to learn about his heritage and lineage, and makes hard-won progress in coming to terms with the tragedies that have defined both his past, and the past of his tribe. Whether these personal revelations will be sufficient to overcome his existential passivity is for the reader to decide.

‘Winter in the Blood’ is written in a straightforward, declarative manner and avoids treading in the clichés that sometimes come to define ‘Indian’ literature: there are no mystical conversations with the Great Spirit, no lodge ceremonies, no Vision Quests, etc. It is set in a landscape of small and struggling towns covered in mud and drizzle; cattle roundups in the cold air of late Fall; and pickup trucks with cardboard substituting for missing windows. 

In many ways the book is as much an examination of working-class life in the American West in the mid-70s as it is an ‘Indian’ novel; all of the characters, be they whites or Indians, are caught in some degree of anomie that is enhanced by the vast and indifferent landscape surrounding them.

Summing up, ‘Winter in the Blood’ is successful both as a novel about contemporary Indian life, and as a novel about the modern American West. If either category appeals to you, then getting a copy is well worthwhile.

Friday, September 25, 2020

CD Review: Spaghetti II: 'Revenge !'

CD Review: Spaghetti II: 'Revenge'
Million Dollar Records, 1999

Well, the reception for 'Spaghetti: Duck You Suckers !' led to the crafting of a sequel, titled 'Spaghetti II: 'Revenge !' from One Million Dollar records. Released later in 1999, the CD features many of the same bands as from 'Duck You Suckers !'.

As was the case with 'Duck You Suckers !', the opening track on 'Revenge' is rather modest, but the second track, 'Gunman Left Standing' by The Hellbenders, is pure gold and will quickly put you in the mood for some Spaghetti Western action. 

The remaining tracks on the album stay pretty true to the concept, so it doesn't get any more Spaghetti than this........

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Ron Cobb RIP

 Ron Cobb RIP
September 21, 1937 - September 21, 2020

Ron Cobb, cartoonist, artist, and designer, passed away at age 83 on September 21.

Back in the early 80s I was fortunate to obtain a copy of the 1981 trade paperback 'Colorvision', which showcased Cobb's work. My overview of the book is available here. Given that used copies of 'Colorvision' have exorbitant asking prices, the time would seem to be right for a new printing to be issued.

One of the paintings featured in 'Colorvision', 'Autumn Angels', for the cover of the 1975 novel by Arthur Byron Cover, is a favorite of mine and one I always post, year after year, during the Fall months.

Other works featured in 'Colorvision' also demonstrate Cobb's genius for composition and color. If you should happen to see a copy of the book on a shelf in a used bookstore, by all means grab it !

RIP Ron Cob,, 1937 - 2020.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Book Review: Edge: The Loner

Book Review: 'Edge: The Loner' by George G. Gilman
4 / 5 Stars

'Edge: The Loner' (125 pp., February 1972) was the first entry in the 'Edge' series of western novels issued by the New English Library (NEL) in the U.K. 
In the U.S., 'Edge' was published  by Pinnacle Books. 

The striking cover illustration is by the great British artist Richard Clifton-Dey (1930 -1997), who provided cover art for the first fifteen Edge novels, as well as for the 'Gringos' and 'Jubal Cade' western series, among other NEL titles.

'George Gilman' was the pen name of the writer Terry Harknett, one of a number of British authors, designated the 'Piccadilly Cowboys', who churned out western fiction for U.K. paperback publishers during the 70s and 80s. Harknett was born in 1936 and, according to a Dedication in the 2020 Hot Lead: Most Wanted special, passed away in January 2019. 

Through 1983, 61 Edge novels were published, all of them by Gilman. A detailed post on Harknett's writing career, with lots of cover art, is available here.

Google 'Edge: The Loner' and you'll get no shortage of reviews, many of them quite lengthy and in-depth, so I'll restrict my own critique to straightforward observations that are colored by my main occupation of reviewing sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction originating in the era from 1968 - 1988.

The transgressive nature of 'The Loner' is advertised by a blurb on the back page: 'Edge is A New Kind of Western'. And Gilman certainly set out to establish this aspect of the Edge series with 'The Loner'. 

While plot-wise the novel is a revenge tale in which Josiah Hedges, a former Union Army officer, sets out to kill the men who tortured his brother to death, what little exposition exists in the short chapters of 'The Loner' serves to frame one episode of violent action after another. And Gilman doesn't rely on oblique or euphemistic prose to communicate the violence; tissue and skin are sliced, torn, and punctured in graphic detail for a work of fiction issued in 1972.

The passage below is one of the milder ones appearing in the pages of 'The Loner':

‘He died for ten dollars you ain’t going to get either,’ Edge said as he sidestepped the knife thrust with ease and chopped down with his hand, the razor sliding forward, to be gripped by the handle with the blade fully exposed. It’s keen edge made a faint hissing sound as it sliced off the kid’s right ear.

The kid dropped the knife, his hand flying to where his ear had been. ‘Oh, my God,’ he whispered hoarsely.

‘He wasn’t on your side,’ Edge told him.

The kid blinked, gasped, stooped and snatched up the useless lump of severed flesh. Then he spun and ran back down the alley, away from the street. Edge picked up his hat, dusted it off, donned it and continued his interrupted stroll towards the restaurant. ‘Real nice town, Sheriff,’ he muttered.

The appearance of this style of graphic mayhem signals that, in 1972, the western genre was considerably ahead of the horror genre in leavening its works with a Splatterpunk sensibility. And this was done only three years after the publication of Harlan Ellison's 'The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World', and two years before the appearance of James Herbert's The Rats (1974) and The Fog (1975), which are considered by Paul M. Sammon to be among the foundational novels of Splatterpunk.

It's noteworthy that in his 75-page essay 'Outlaws', from his 1990 book Splatterpunks; Extreme Horror, Sammon describes the roots and background of the Splatterpunk movement and mentions quite a variety of authors and their works. 

But missing from his essay is any mention of the 'spaghetti' -style western fiction that came of age in the 1970s through the 'Edge' novels and other works from the Piccadilly Cowboys (as well as from select U.S. authors). 

After reading 'Edge: The Loner' and other entries in the series, it's clear that George Gilman and his contemporaries belong to the illustrious ranks of those who practiced 'Extreme Horror' and pioneered the Splatterpunk genre. They arguably are just as deserving of being honored as Splat Pioneers as Harlan Ellison, James Herbert, and Shaun Hutson.

Of course, I haven't read every one of the 61 novels in the 'Edge' franchise, but for the handful of titles that I have indeed read, Gilman doesn't slacken in his dedication to the transgressive nature of the series. Witness this charming vignette from 'Edge: Slaughterday' (No. 24, Pinnacle Books, October 1977):

At the instant of impact, the deputy was lifted and slammed against the wall. He seemed to remain there for a long time, frozen into immobility. Then the sheened covering of blood flowed. And shiny white bone could be seen......The bunched intestines were a yellowish color. There was a ragged hole in the stomach and half-digested food ran out, looking like vomit. 

Summing up, Edge was indeed a 'new kind of western hero' and the Edge novels were indeed a new paradigm for western fiction. If you are a fan of Splatterpunk, then you'll want to keep an eye out for those few Edge books that still remain on the shelves of used bookstores........

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Book Review: El Mestizo

Book Review: 'El Mestizo' by Alan Hebden and Carlos Ezquerra

2 / 5 Stars

'El Mestizo'(64 pp) was published by Rebellion in November 2018. It's part of the 'Treasury of British Comics' imprint, which - as its name implies - features graphic novels that compile comic strips that appeared in children's papers and magazines in the UK during the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

'El Mestizo' ran from June to September 1977 in the British Boy's digest 'Battle Picture Weekly', a very popular title that was published by IPC Magazines from 1975 to 1988.

Even as 'El Mestizo' appeared in the pages of Battle Picture Weekly, artist Ezquerra also was illustrating 'Judge Dredd' stories in another IPC title, 2000 AD. And writer Hebden would of course go on to create memorable stories in 2000 AD, like 'Harry 20 on the High Rock' and 'Meltdown Man'. 

'El Mestizo' not only channeled the Spaghetti Western vibe, but broke from the traditional depiction of western heroes by featuring a half-black, half-Mexican lead character.

Unfortunately, Rebellion apparently was obliged to use scans of printed comics, rather than the original art pages, and the result is predictably disappointing. Given that 'Battle Picture Weekly' was offset printed on newsprint-grade paper, the scans simply can't capture sufficient detail, and as a consequence the panels have a murky, barely legible character. It's a shame that the original artwork wasn't available for scanning, as Ezquerra's artwork certainly was of a high quality.

As for the writing, for a series that was published in three-page installments, there obviously wasn't sufficient page length for more elaborate narratives. Given these constraints, Alan Hebden did as well as anyone could in terms of coming up with stories that could be standalone in each installment, while adhering to a larger story arc. 

Summing up, unfortunately, the inability to access the original artwork makes this compilation of value only to those who are firmly dedicated to collecting reprints of British comics from the 1970s.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Book Review: West Texas

Book Review: 'West Texas' by Al Sarantonio

3 / 5 Stars

‘West Texas’ first was published in hardcover in April, 1991 by M. Evans and Company; in 2001, Stealth Press released another hardcover version. This mass market paperback was issued by Leisure Books in February 2006. A followup novel, ‘Kitt Peak’, that also features the ‘Thomas Mullin’ character, was published by M. Evans in 1993.

I am familiar with Al Sarrantonio’s novels and short stories in the horror genre ('Moonbane', 'The Man with Legs') so I was interested to see what he could do with the western genre.

‘West Texas’ takes place in the late 1880s and is centered on Fort Davis (in modern-day Jeff Davis county), and the nearby Davis Mountains. The war with the Apaches is past, although concern over possible raids by disgruntled renegades keeps the Fort’s personnel – which includes a detachment of Buffalo Soldiers – from becoming too indolent.

The novel’s opening chapter makes clear that this western features a deranged Serial Killer, akin to those peopling the novels of Thomas Harris (‘Red Dragon’, ‘Silence of the Lambs’, ‘Hannibal’). 

When a Senator’s son goes missing, expert tracker Thomas Mullin – recently dismissed from the Army and the Buffalo Soldiers – is hastily recruited by the dissembling Captain Seavers, the Fort’s commander, to conduct a search and rescue mission.

As Mullin investigates the trails and campsites of the mountains, he comes across multiple graves, indicating that the killer has been operating within the Davis Mountains for some time.

But a killer loose in the Davis Mountains isn’t the only problem confronting Mullin, for there are signs that the Mescalero Apaches are assembling in the hills for a major assault on Fort Davis. Can Mullin stop both the killer, and the Mescaleros, in time to save his comrades in the Fort ? 

In my opinion, ‘West Texas’ comes across well enough as a western novel; however, it gains little from the inclusion of the serial killer trope. At times, the ‘mind of the serial killer’ exposition, as well as the florid presentation of the ‘eerie land of death’ that serves as his hunting ground, are a distraction from the narrative. Take, for example, this purplish passage: 

……..Coming out of the hailstorm, out of the bizarre lightning flashes amidst a rain of ice stones, out of the booming thunder banging off the mountains, it sounded like the wail of an angel – or devil. A high, pained, faraway screech of pain, it sounded like the storm had ripped a hole in heaven itself to let the cry of an agonized creature through.

To its credit, the closing chapters of ‘West Texas’ settle more firmly into a traditional western narrative, and the denouement settles the plot threads in a convincing manner.

Summing up, if you are looking for an offbeat treatment of the western theme, and are willing to overlook some overly melodramatic passages, then you might like ‘West Texas’. At 181 pages of large-font type, it’s a quick read.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Book Review: Fire in the Wind

Book Review: 'Fire in the Wind'
(The Gringos, No. 3)
by J. D. Sandon
3 / 5 Stars

‘Fire in the Wind’ (Gringos No. 3, 173 pp) was published in the UK in 1979 by Mayflower / Granada. The cover artist is Richard Clifton-Dey.

According to the ‘Western Fiction Review’ website, ‘J. D. Sandon’ was the house name used by two writers, Angus Wells and John Harvey, for the UK paperback publisher Mayflower / Granada.
Ultimately, ten ‘Gringos’ novels were published; for many of these, used copies have very high asking prices. I was fortunate to find a beat-up copy of ‘Fire in the Wind’ for a couple of dollars.

Being unfamiliar with the other titles in the series wasn’t much of a handicap in reading ‘Fire in the Wind’, as the franchise is stylistically derived from the 1969 Sam Peckinpah film The Wild Bunch. If you've ever seen The Wild Bunch, then you'll be familiar with the premise of The Gringos.

The Gringos are comprised of four American soldiers-of-fortune: Cade Onslow (a stand-in for William Holden’s ‘Pike Bishop’ character from The Wild Bunch), Jonas Strong (a stand-in for Jim Brown from the 1969 movie 100 Rifles), Jamie Durham (‘The Kid’; explosives expert and heroin addict) and Yates McCloud (amoral, unrepentant Rebel).

As ‘Fire’ opens, it’s 1914, and our four antiheros are working for Pancho Villa in his campaign – conducted in concert with Alvaro Obregon, and Emiliano Zapata – to invade Mexico City and overthrow the government of Victoriano Huerta. It’s revolutionary conflict at its bloodiest, and the Gringos are doing their part by spearheading an assault on the Federale redoubt at 'Medicino'.

Without giving away spoilers, ‘Fire in the Wind’ deals with the adventures – and misadventures – of the Gringos as they embark on additional covert missions to sabotage government forces in Northern Mexico. Along the way they will have to confront their internal dissensions, attempted assassination at the hands of the renegade American arms dealer Hiram Bender, and the intrusion of a uniquely 20th century military asset…….leading to a do-or-die moment upon which rests the fate of the entire revolution………. 

I finished ‘Fire in the Wind’ thinking that it was a well-written novel that takes advantage of its derivation from The Wild Bunch, and the film’s placement in Revolutionary Mexico, to do something a bit different from the more 'traditional' western setting of the American west in the 19th century. However, I can’t say that I found ‘Fire’ to be an engrossing novel, perhaps because I was well aware that the four antiheroes were going to be appearing in future series installments, and this tended to undercut any narrative tension arising from the mayhem that threatens our antiheroes in the pages of ‘Fire’. 

Summing up, ‘Fire in the Wind’ left me sufficiently interested to read the other novels in the series, but not if so doing requires a hefty expenditure. For me, the ‘Gringos’ series will be an impulse buy, and not a dedicated pursuit.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

CD Review: Spaghetti: Duck You Suckers !

CD Review: 'Spaghetti: Duck You Suckers !'
One Million Dollar Records, June 1999

4 / 5 stars

All of the tracks on this CD are available at this YouTube link.

Back in the late 1990s, the indie music CD scene was booming and the local City Paper free weekly tabloid, as well as various hipster zines, were never short of reviews of oddball discs. So it was that in 1999 I ordered this CD from the long-since-gone German indie outfit 'One Million Dollar Records'.

The concept certainly was cool: compile 15 songs, all themed to Spaghetti Westerns, from a lineup of various indie rock bands (mostly of German and European origin). While I didn't recognize all of the participating bands, I did recognize Polo Del Mar, a well-regarded surf-rock band from the late 90s.

There are some duds in 'Spaghetti !', such as the opening track - a two-minute rendering of the theme from 'Hang 'Em High' on fuzz box guitar, by Hank Ray and Thee Executioneers.

But once you get into track two, 'Have a Good Funeral' by The Hellbenders, then the best of the album comes through, and you'll be hard pressed not to throw on your gun belt and poncho, stick a cigar in your mouth, mount up, and ride forth for stolen gold. 

While some tracks stay true to the classic Spaghetti Western music of the late Enio Morricone, others - like the Daytona's 'Baked Beans and Chicken' - meld the Spaghetti and Surf Rock sounds into something with a little of both.

According to Discogs, CDs and vinyl versions of 'Spaghetti: Duck You Suckers !' have rather steep asking prices, and one guy on eBay is wanting $158 for a 'mint condition' CD. 

Needless to say, this is ridiculous. Judging from my listening to the CD in my possession, the tracks available at YouTube have more than adequate audio quality........I recommend adding them to your own personal song repositories.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Book Review: The Slavers

Book Review: 'The Slavers'
by Peter McCurtain

5 / 5 Stars

'The Slavers' (156 pp) was published by Belmont Tower books in January 1970. It's one of what eventually would be six westerns featuring the 'Carmody' character.

According to the Ben Bridges blog, Peter McCurtin was born in Ireland in 1929 and when a young man emigrated to the United States, where during the 1960s he ran a bookstore in Maine. He began publishing pulp fiction in 1970, in both the thriller / mystery and western genres, and eventually became lead writer for novels in the 'Sundance' and 'Jim Saddler' western series, as well as helming the 'Soldier of Fortune' series for Leisure Books in the 1980s. McCurtin died in 1997.

'The Slavers' is set in Sante Fe, New Mexico in 1885. Low on money and possibilities, Carmody (his first name never is disclosed in the book) is about to leave town for Colorado when he runs into an old acquaintance named Elbert Masters. Over some glasses of whiskey, Carmody learns that Masters has a law practice in Santa Fe and a zeal to right wrongs - among them, the enslavement of Indians by a local ranch owner named Thatcher McKim.

McKim doesn't take kindly to Elbert Masters and his efforts to expose McKim's unsavory business practices. Against his better judgment, Carmody decides to ally himself with Masters, and soon finds himself trading fire with McKim's hired hands. This in turn brings trouble with the local Army commander, the corpulent General Brewster Waycross. When Waycross tells Carmody it's in his best interest to leave town, Carmody refuses.......and sets in motion a violent contest with the slavers, one guaranteed to generate a high body count among the arid landscapes of New Mexico.............

'The Slavers' reads like a hardboiled detective novel repurposed to be a western. Few passages of dialogue fail to contain some sarcastic remarks; grins are sour, smiles are bitter, voices are hard (they hiss in ears), screams are like those of banshees, and Chandleresque metaphors and similes make their appearances:

Not all gunmen are short, but you meet more short ones than tall ones. Short on inches and muscle, they use a gun the way a tarantula uses his stinger.

The Rio Grande was dead ahead but the country we rode across looked like it never heard of water.

The necktie I had used to tie him with was wrinkled worse than a Yankee missionary's face.

The man with the whip unlocked the first door and bellowed like a cow giving birth. 

'The Slavers' is suffused with violence, and the latter stages of the novel venture into Splatterpunk territory, giving the book an (arguably) postmodern character that is unusual for a western novel published in 1970. Indeed, another two years were to pass before the advent of the first of the 'Edge' novels by George Gilman, and their emphasis on mayhem as a central feature of the narrative.  

The verdict ? Author McCurtin was intent on producing a revenge tale that relies on straightforward, declarative writing; economical, but competent, characterization; and villains worthy of extirpation. It's a simple but effective approach to crafting a narrative that fills all 156 pages without much in the way of surplus prose. 

'The Slavers' has a bleak tenor that signals the transition from the traditional 'black hats and white hats' western narratives of the 50s and 60s, into the morally ambiguous narratives of the 70s. It's well worth picking up.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Hot Lead: Most Wanted 'All Reviews Special'
Edited by Justin Marriott
May 2020

Well, here we another compilation of reviews of vintage paperbacks, edited by a leading historian and collector of paperbacks: the U.K.’s Justin Marriott.
Like Marriott’s other CreateSpace / KDP Print review compilations (‘Pulp Horror: All Reviews Special Edition’ and ‘Men of Violence: All Reviews Special’) the reviews in ‘Hot Lead Most Wanted: All Reviews Special’ are compiled from a bookzine, in this particular case, ‘Hot Lead’, which is devoted to vintage Western paperbacks.

The Western genre is a genre in decline (an argument could be made that it is, in fact, Dead). The days when men read books for pleasure, and authors like Louis L’Amour were household names, are but fast-fading memories in today’s landscape, in which a 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 32% of men had not read a book in the preceding 12 months.

Only a handful of Western novels nowadays are released in hardback by established publishers, and these tend to be by women, and eschew traditional narratives involving white males and frontier justice in favor of narratives showcasing Underrepresented Ethnicities (for example, ‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’ by C. Pam Zhang, ‘Cherokee America by Margaret Verble, and ‘Simon the Fiddler’ by Paulette Jiles).

Aside from these hardbound books, the majority of contemporary Western novels are a steady stream of self-published Kindle and KDP Print titles that originate both from experienced, and novice, authors.

So……… ‘Hot Lead Most Wanted’ is a worthy effort to take the paperback Western genre – one that saw hundreds of novels published each year, during its heydays of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s - and promote its best examples.
Within its 167 pages, ‘Hot Lead Most Wanted’ features three in-depth essays and 215 capsule reviews, among which are distributed 100 cover reproductions in black-and-white. Along with paperbacks, readers will find reviews of graphic novels and comic books. 

The quality of the reviews varies. While a few are well-done, the unfortunate fact is that many other reviews seemed to have been dashed off without much proofreading on the part of their writers. I can overlook the occasional appearance of comma splices, awkward clauses, mismatched verb tenses, and stilted prose, but when some reviews are nearly incoherent, it makes me wonder: just how hard would it have been to proofread a four-paragraph review before emailing it in to Justin Marriott ? 

At least the reviews avoid disclosing major spoilers. And the use of a five-star rating system is appropriate, with most of the critiqued titles tending towards the higher-starred end of the spectrum.

Regardless of your familiarity with the genre, you’re sure to find some gems among the titles featured in ‘Hot Lead Most Wanted’. I, for one, was not aware of the DC Comics ‘Jonah Hex Spectacular’ from 1978 that portrays the ignominious end of that notorious antihero. Nor was I aware of the early 80s series ‘Six Gun Sumarai’, of which reviewer Steve Carrol remarks, ‘Repugnantly violent, especially towards children…..’ (Is there any better advertisement to the reader of vintage trash fiction ?!) 

Needless to say, it's impossible for any publication to provide capsule reviews of every novel in those series-based franchises that dominated the western genre, particularly given that many of the franchise novels nowadays have steep asking prices. However, the reviews in 'Hot Lead Most Wanted' for entries in the 'Edge', 'Gringos', 'Caleb Thorne', 'Crow', etc. etc. franchises will give readers a good sense of the themes and characters in said series, and inform your decisions to acquire - or leave on the shelf - the individual novels.

Summing up, as with Justin Marriott’s other Review Specials, you’ll want to have ‘Hot Lead Most Wanted’ in hand the next time you head out to your favorite used bookstore in search of forgotten treasures.