Wednesday, 22 November 2017

AUTHOR FAVOURITES: THE SNAKE DEN by CHUCK TYRELL

International prize-winning author Charles T. Whipple, writing as CHUCK TYRELL, (a Sundown Press author like me) is another writer who can’t pick a clear favourite of his novels!
One contender is his prison-set western THE SNAKE DEN, a coming of age story. Chuck tells me this is: ‘Gritty in ways, but ultimately redemptive.’
Shawn Brodie is falsely accused of theft and sent to Yuma Territorial Prison at the age of only 14. Shawn struggles to survive, partly with the aid of another inmate, an Oriental proficient in martial arts. (My excuse to include a picture from ‘Kung Fu.’)


'Kung Fu'

Part of the means of surviving is to stay out of the notorious ‘Snake Den,’ a hole in the ground that snakes sometimes fall into.
Yuma was a serving prison from 1876-1909.



Notorious Arizona law-breakers like ‘Buckskin’ Frank Leslie, Burt Alvord and Pete Spence served time in Yuma.
Amongst the 20 women incarcerated there was stage-robber Pearl Hart, who carried out the last stagecoach hold up in U.S. history when she robbed a stage near Globe, Arizona in 1899.


Pearl Hart

Westerns with a prison setting include ‘There was a Crooked Man’ (1970) and ‘Devil’s Canyon’ (1953.)


Kirk Douglas in ‘There was a Crooked Man’ (1970.)

Rattlesnakes are native to the Americas, living in diverse habitats from southwestern Canada to Florida to central Argentina. The large majority of species lives in the American Southwest and Mexico. Most common in the American West are Western diamondbacks.


Other western ‘rattlers’ include the highly venomous Mojave rattlesnake, the Sidewinder (or horned rattlesnake) and the Prairie rattlesnake.


A Sidewinder in motion.
The rattlesnakes ‘warning system,’ the rattle, is composed of a series of hollow, interlocked segments made of keratin (as is the human fingernail.)
Rattlesnakes rarely bite unless they feel threatened or provoked. Despite that, an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year, resulting in about five deaths.
REVIEWS of THE SNAKE DEN:
‘Remarkable.’
‘Chuck Tyrell has brought authenticity and poignancy to a western with a difference.’
‘Tyrell is a master of character development …This is a heck of a good novel. It does much more than shake a bunch of prison fiction tropes at you. It's a character-based coming of age, student/master, and odd couple/buddy Western that gets tenser and tenser with each scene.’

‘One crisis after another makes the tale fly by and kept my interest throughout. A five-star for sure.’


A Different Breed of Western… as tough and gritty as they get.’ 

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

AUTHOR FAVOURITES: SEASON OF RECKONING by CAMERON JUDD

Prolific and distinguished author Cameron Judd (whose books tend to focus on the early frontier and Tennessee history) couldn’t pick an absolute favourite of his books (I know it’s a tough question!) but does have a particular fondness for his American Civil War/ Mountain War trilogy. His favourite character is Ben Scarlett, the town drunk of Knoxville, Tennessee, who is central to the trilogy.
The final part, SEASON OF RECKONING, takes us to 1864. As the Civil War is ending, the mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina see even more destructive violence and terror; a wounded nation has to start healing after the wreckage of war.
Together, Amy Deacon, Ben Scarlett, and Greely Brown have to face the bitter reality that the Mountain War will carry on after the Civil War has ended.


Nurse Ann Bell tends wounded soldiers in a Nashville Hospital 1864
In late 1864 the Confederacy suffered two major defeats in Tennessee. At the Battle of Franklin Confederate LT. GENERAL JOHN BELL HOOD's attacks on fortified Union positions, held by GENERAL JOHN SCHOFIELD, were repulsed with heavy loss. 6 Confederate generals were killed, 7 wounded and 1 captured, in what is sometimes called the 'Pickett's Charge of the West.' 

Artist’s impression of the Battle of Franklin


Troops at the scene of the Battle of Franklin 1864
A few weeks later MAJOR GENERAL GEORGE H. THOMAS routed Hood's army at the Battle of Nashville. The Confederate Army of Tennessee was effectively destroyed as a fighting force for the remainder of the war.


Soldiers’ camp at the site of the Battle of Nashville 1864
Although Tennessee was a Confederate state, a significant minority – particularly in the east of the state – supported the Union. These divisions are reflected in the fact that ANDREW JOHNSON, from Tennessee, was elected Vice President under Abraham Lincoln in 1864. He became President after Lincoln's assassination in 1865.


Andrew Johnson

The difficult aftermath of the war in the defeated Confederacy is touched on in movies like ‘The Undefeated’ and ‘Run of the Arrow’ – as well as ‘Gone with the Wind’ of course.


The Undefeated

Gone with the Wind - images of the ruined South:




Reviews of SEASON OF RECKONING:
‘I hated for it to end. Totally engrossing series.’
‘Awesome.’
‘Great read.’
‘An outstanding trilogy.’
'Great book. Superb author.'
‘I can’t say enough about this trilogy. I couldn’t put it down – even though I read this book on my honeymoon!’

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

AUTHOR FAVOURITES: THE PHANTOM LEGION by CAMERON JUDD

Prolific and distinguished author Cameron Judd (whose books tend to focus on the early frontier and Tennessee history) couldn’t pick an absolute favourite of his books (I know it’s a tough question!) but does have a particular fondness for his American Civil War/ Mountain War trilogy. His favourite character is Ben Scarlett, the town drunk of Knoxville, Tennessee, who is central to the trilogy.

The 2nd in the series, THE PHANTOM LEGION, deals with events of 1863, when the war in Tennessee and North Carolina goes underground and soldiers use signalling points like Clinch Mountain and Lookout Mountain.


Lookout Mountain

It continues the story of Amy Deacon, Ben Scarlett, Sam Colter and Greeley Brown as they wage an underground war on the side of the Union. This reflects how Tennessee, although part of the Confederacy, had a large minority of Union supporters, particularly in the east of the state.


Confederate soldiers

Battles fought in this area at this time included actions at Fort Sanders at Knoxville, the Battle of Bean’s Station, Chattanooga and Chickamauga.


Artists depiction of the Battle of Chattanooga 1863

Confederate leaders included 


General Braxton Bragg


and General James Longstreet.

Their Union opponents included


 Generals Ambrose Burnside,


Joseph Hooker

and U.S. Grant – who later became President, of course.

Publishers Weekly on CAMERON JUDD: ‘A keen observer of the human heart as well as a fine action writer.’
REVIEWS of THE PHANTOM LEGION:

‘Draws attention to a part of the Civil War that little has been written about.’
‘Historically accurate, fast paced, easy reading.’

‘This is just as good as the first one.’

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

AUTHOR FAVOURITES: THE SHADOW WARRIORS by CAMERON JUDD

Prolific and distinguished author Cameron Judd (whose books tend to focus on the early frontier and Tennessee history) couldn’t pick an absolute favourite of his books (I know it’s a tough question!) but does have a particular fondness for his American Civil War/ Mountain War trilogy. His favourite character is Ben Scarlett, the town drunk of Knoxville, Tennessee, who is central to the trilogy. The first instalment, THE SHADOW WARRIORS, paints a bold picture of the turbulent first years of the Civil War in the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina.



The Great Smoky Mountains North Carolina/ Tennessee

As the Civil War loomed Tennessee was a divided state. A referendum in February 1861 to secede from the United States was defeated by a 54–46% margin. But after the attack on Fort Sumter in April and the outbreak of hostilities, opinion shifted. On June 8, 1861, voters approved a second referendum calling for secession, and Tennessee became the last state to join the Confederacy.


Confederate soldiers at Shiloh, Tennessee 1862
Tennessee furnished more soldiers for the Confederate Army than any other state besides Virginia; but it also provided more soldiers for the Union Army than the rest of the Confederacy combined.


Confederate officers

SHADOW WARRIORS reflects the polarisations of Tennessee in that Amy Deacon, daughter of an arch-secessionist newspaperman, is secretly writing pamphlets for the pro-Union ‘Underground Railroad.’
In this place of bitter division, Falstaffian Ben Scarlett struggles to stay neutral… but can he succeed?
The ‘Underground Railroad’ was a network of secret routes and safe houses established during the early-to-mid 19th century. It was used by slaves in the Confederate states to escape into free states and Canada, helped by abolitionists and sympathetic allies. One estimate suggests more than 100,000 slaves escaped via the ‘Railroad.’



Fleeing slaves who used 'The Underground Railroad.'

Gone with the Wind’ may be (with allowances for monetary inflation) the most successful film in box-office history, but the American Civil War has not been an overly-popular subject in film and TV. Among the movies that have Civil War settings are ‘Raintree County,’ ‘Shenandoah,’ ‘The Horse Soldiers,’ ‘Glory’ and – a particular favourite of mine – ‘The Raid,’ from 1954, about a Confederate fifth column operating in Union Territory.



'Shenandoah' (1965)


'The Raid'



An engraving from Brownlow's Sketches, showing Confederate soldiers marching Union prisoners through the streets of Knoxville in December 1861

Publishers Weekly on CAMERON JUDD: ‘A keen observer of the human heart as well as a fine action writer.’
REVIEWS of THE SHADOW WARRIORS:
'Another great read by Cameron Judd. Mr. Judd's depth of historical knowledge of Tennessee history is vast, yet he is able to weave it seamlessly into his stories while creating great fictional characters.’

‘Very good plot development based on historical events.’

‘A terrific novel by an excellent author.’

‘Cameron Judd's Civil War trilogy illuminates a dark corner of the Civil War, making the era come to life with all the conflict and danger that characterized the war in the mountain south.’ -- Sharyn McCrumb, New York Times best-selling author

‘You would be hard-pressed to find a writer of historical novels better able to capture the dialects, the smells of rabbit cooking over an open fire, or the scent of breath sweetened with cedar twigs …the way Judd does here.’


Wednesday, 25 October 2017

BEST OF THE BAD MEN #1

Like many of the western writers I’ve corresponded with, I didn’t get into westerns from reading the kind of novels I’d eventually write. I was initially hooked by what I watched, on the cinema and on TV, during my boyhood in the 1960s. And entering the world of the screen western was like joining a family, peopled by familiar faces. Actors re-occurred in the same roles – the same leading men, from A-listers like John Wayne and Gary Cooper to ‘lower-birth’ leads like Audie Murphy and Rory Calhoun. The same leading ladies – either the ‘good girls’ who the hero should marry or the ‘bad girls’ (who often worked in saloons) who he definitely shouldn’t! The same ‘sidekicks’ – one thinks of Noah Beery Jr. and Slim Pickens. A wonderful roster of character actors – Ward Bond, John McIntire, Walter Brennan, Ben Johnson and many more. Some even seemed to corner the market in particular supporting roles – if the town doctor or storekeeper wasn’t played by Frank Ferguson, it was usually Vaughn Taylor. All of whom deserve recognition and blogs of their own.

Vaughn Taylor the eternal store keeper
But perhaps most enjoyable of all were the villains.
Westerns are of course morality plays and if the hero represented the best in people, they needed a foil, an opponent, to represent the very worst; worthy opponents against whom the hero has to be tested. And there were plenty of very capable actors who regularly stepped up to the plate to do just that. They were often as enjoyable, and quite often more enjoyable, than the heroes.
One of the misconception about the western, held against it by its detractors, is that it’s too simplistic, 100% pure heroes up against villains without a single redeeming feature. Anyone who thinks that has obviously never watched many westerns! Western heroes are often flawed, vulnerable or conflicted – one thinks of James Stewart in ‘The Naked Spur,’ Van Heflin in the original ‘3.10 for Yuma’ or John Wayne in ‘The Searchers.’ As for the villains, sometimes they’re clearly good men gone bad, or bad men who have their saving graces – for example Glenn Ford as the outlaw leader in the original ‘3.10 for Yuma.’ Sometimes they’re just irredeemably villainous and loving it! Even then, however, they have their likable aspects.

Glenn Ford in the original ‘3.10 for Yuma.’
The best fictional villains – in westerns or anything – are, in my opinion, almost never petty or cowardly. They are often almost as competent, resourceful, charismatic and intelligent as the heroes they’re up against. Sometimes they could almost be the hero’s evil twin, the flip side of the same coin, and often possess dangerous charm and humour. The difference between them is, usually when the chips are down, when they have to choose between serving themselves or the interests of others, the hero chooses the greater good, the villain cynically chooses himself.
There are so many splendid western bad guys that I realised one blog could never do them justice. So I decided to do two. Next time I’ll discuss ‘the hateful eight’ – the eight very best western villains, in my opinion. Meanwhile here’s a brief canter through the ranks of wrong-doers who didn’t make my final ‘worst of the west’ cut, but gave excellent villain none the less. It’s selective and doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, or else this would be the longest blog in history!
I’m not discussing bad girls – that should be a blog all to itself. Nor would I include Native American chiefs. For a long time Native American leaders were routinely characterised as villains – Chief Scar in ‘The Searchers’ for one.  Attitudes changed however, and they began to be depicted as patriots and even heroes fighting to save their peoples, for example in the 50s biopics of Indian leaders from Cochise to Crazy Horse.
Nor would I include military opponents.  General Santa Anna became the ultimate hate figure on the Texas frontier after the slaughters he ordered in 1836 at The Alamo and Goliad. His defenders, however, would argue he was a patriot trying to preserve his nation against foreign aggression. I’m not going to go there!

Ruben Padilla as General Santa Anna in ‘THE ALAMO’ (1960.)
‘Outriders’ on my list of villains would be actors who more normally played good guys who made surprisingly successful forays into villainy. Audiences gasped at the sight of Henry Fonda, ruthlessly gunning down women and children in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West.’ The same man who’d played the stalwart and incorruptible Wyatt Earp in ‘My Darling Clementine!’
Burt Lancaster gave a tremendous turn as a ‘laughing villain’ in 'Vera Cruz', even dying with his trademark grin on his lips! Lancaster illustrates a characteristic of the bad guy that makes them fun to write – their unpredictability. They do what they like, therefore you never know what they’re going to do next. One minute Lancaster is siding Gary Cooper, the next he’s treacherously conspiring against him.

Slim Pickens, usually a likable side-kick, makes a highly effective slimy villain in ‘One Eyed Jacks.’

And Rory Calhoun seems to be enjoying his turn as a bad guy in ‘River of No Return.’ Like a number of western villains he has a girlfriend (in this case Marilyn Monroe) who believes he’s capable of reforming from his wicked ways. She persuades him to talk to his enemy (Robert Mitchum) the next time they meet, instead of trying to kill him. Rory agrees. “All right.” he says, “I’ll talk to him.” He then takes out his gun and checks if it’s loaded. Monroe asks “What do you need that for?” To which Rory replies: “In case he’s hard of hearing!”
Bad guys often got the best lines!

Rory Calhoun and Marilyn Monroe
Amongst the many memorable western villains on screen were: Walter Brennan as the evil Old Man Clanton in ‘My Darling Clementine’; Robert Duvall as the outlaw John Wayne hunts in ‘True Grit’; Gene Hackman as the corrupt lawman in ‘Unforgiven’; Karl Malden as another villainous lawman in ‘One Eyed Jacks’; Warren Oates and John Anderson as two homicidal brothers in ‘Ride the High Country’; Skip Homeier as the sly back-shooter in ‘The Gunfighter;’ Henry Silva as the cold-eyed and clearly unstable killer in ‘The Tall T’; and Jack Elam, Claude Akins, John Dehner, Gene Evans, Alex Montoya, Ernest Borgnine, Leo Gordon, Robert J. Wilke and Victor Jory in many film and TV appearances. And many more!
I always found the lean-faced James Anderson a particularly villainous-looking villain. He was effective as the brutal cavalryman in ‘Little Big Man’ although perhaps his best depiction of evil was in a non-western ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’

James Anderson in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’
Two actors who almost made it onto my ‘hateful eight’ list were Lee Marvin and Donald Pleasance.
British actor Donald Pleasance was an unusual choice to play a western villain but proved to be inspired casting. He’s Charlton Heston’s nemesis in ‘Will Penny,’ a fire-and- brimstone preacher with a brood of sons as psychopathic as he is. Pleasance manages the trick of playing an over-the-top character without (quite) going over the top.


Lee Marvin frequently played western bad guys but capped it all with his performance in ‘The Man who shot Liberty Valance.’ In a film which is an allegory for the passing of the frontier, his Valance is more than a villain; he represents the flamboyance, savagery and unrestrained violence of the Wild West. When he’s felled by a bullet, it marks the end of an era. He’s an equally enjoyable bad guy in ‘The Comancheros’ where he again shows great chemistry with John Wayne.


If your favourite western wrong-doer isn’t here, don’t worry. Come along to my next blog on the subject – BEST OF THE BAD MEN #2 - and you may find them among ‘the hateful eight’, my eight most favourite western villains!

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

AUTHOR FAVOURITES: BAD DAY FOR THE HANGMAN by JEFF BRELAND

Jeff Breland writes westerns, ghost stories and thrillers – and sometimes hybrids of all three.
He’s another author who likes the first thing he wrote best of his work – in Jeff’s case this is the first in his ‘bounty hunter’ series BAD DAY FOR THE HANGMAN. This features Jake Stone who’s a bounty hunter in everything but name.
In the company of a Mexican girl he pursues a ruthless killer across northern New Mexico.
It’s curious how bounty hunters in western fiction are often ‘good guys’: STEVE McQUEEN bookended his career in westerns as a bounty hunter, starting off in 1958 in the TV series WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE, and, in his very last western in 1980, playing perhaps the west’s most famous bounty hunter – even if no one called him that – TOM HORN.


Steve McQueen as Tom Horn


The real Tom Horn

And both RANDOLPH SCOTT in ‘Ride Lonesome


and CLINT EASTWOOD as ‘the man with no name’ are, at least in theory, on the side of the angels.


Despite the popularity of bounty hunters in western fiction, evidence for historical ones remains scanty. As well as Tom Horn, there’s CHARLIE SIRINGO (1855 – 1928) a Texas cowboy and author who, at the age of 36, joined the Pinkerton’s Detective Agency.


He began operating undercover, a relatively new technique at the time, and infiltrated gangs of robbers and rustlers, making more than 100 arrests. Reluctantly, he went undercover to undermine the Western Federation of Miners in the strike they held in northern Idaho in 1892. In the late 1890s, posing as a gunman on the run from the law for murder, he infiltrated BUTCH CASSIDY’s Wild Bunch.


The Wild Bunch in 1900: Front row 1st left THE SUNDANCE KID; farthest right: BUTCH CASSIDY; Back row, 2nd right: KID CURRY

Several members of the gang were captured or killed as a result of the information he gathered, including KID CURRY, eventually killed in a shoot-out in 1904. So Siringo was a bounty hunter more likely to bring a criminal down by digging away in the background, rather than by a bullet in a face-to-face encounter.


 Kid Curry

Award-winning author JACQUIE ROGERS (who writes for the Prairie Rose Publications stable as I do) has produced a fascinating blog on bounty hunters here: http://jacquierogers.blogspot.co.uk/2007/10/bounty-hunters-in-old-west.html

Reviews for BAD DAY FOR THE HANGMAN:

‘Breland has crafted a great character in Marshal Stone… An action packed book with a good plot…. This book was very exciting with twists and turns… I just kept going way past my bedtime because I couldn't figure out what was going to happen.’