Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Weird and the Wild and the Doris Day

When we first sat around in the ZP virtual office telling dick jokes and spit-balling about what should follow our science fiction issue, HEY THAT ROBOT ATE MY BABY, I immediately put my hand up for a western.  I have a long term love affair with the genre. Growing up it was The Duke and Clint who jostled for space alongside The Clash and Springsteen on my bedroom wall.  I had other posters too, the kind showing girls with dubious morals and staples across their stomachs, although I kept them under the mattress, not on the wall. But I digress.

Writing for Zelmer Pulp really pushes my limits. Sci-Fi was a tough gig for me and ROBOTS took me about as far out of my comfort zone as I ever want to be. FIVE BROKEN WINCHESTERS on the other hand was a stone cold blast. Brian Panowich’s RED DECEMBER was already slated to open the collection. It’s a killer story from a writer at the top of his game and when I’d finished reading it I knew I had a really tough act to follow.
As much as I dig the horror mix of the weird western, I wanted to bring something more traditional to the 5BW party. Okay, now some of you are going to get all uppity here and say how the traditional western has been a dead genre since the 70’s and that there are no more stories to tell. With respect, that’s a load of crap. As David Cranmer said to me recently, when the name Bass Reeves rolls off the American tongue like Wyatt Earp then we might be halfway there. Go ahead and Google him. I’ll wait.

The old west was home to some really amazing characters. The true stories of these pioneering men and woman are often far more fascinating than the dime novel myths that have since grown up around them. Everybody has heard of Calamity Jane, right? No doubt that name calls to mind the tooth-achingly sweet rendering afforded her by Doris Day in the musical of the same name. What Hollywood failed to mention was that in real life, Martha Jane Canary (AKA Calamity Jane) was at times a prostitute, a manic depressive and an alcoholic. Instead of riding off into the sunset with Howard Keel, she ended her days washing the whore's undergarments in a South Dakota brothel. The wild west might not always have been as glamorous as the movies would have you believe, but there are plenty of stories still to be told.

MJC - Definitely not Doris Day 
Woman generally get a rough deal in western fiction and always seem to be portrayed as either bodice-ripping sirens with a heaving bosom or simpering idiots who can’t function without a man to cling to. The one notable exception and a truly great portrayal of a western female protagonist is the character of Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’ TRUE GRIT. If you have only ever seen one or other of the movies, then do yourself a huge favor and read the book. Somehow Portis manages to make his Mattie strong and determined while still allowing her to keep an endearing naivety that will have you rooting for her from the very first page. It’s a hell of a book and apart from all that the period dialogue is just wonderful.

I wanted to create the kind of female lead who had what they would have called sand back in the day. She wasn't going to be the kind to jump on top of the nearest cowboy at every opportunity and she certainly wouldn't be bursting into tears at the first sign of trouble. I also wanted a touch of the mysterious bad ass about her. A bit like the man-with-no-name thing that Sergio Leone had going on in the Dollar movies. Above all I wanted the story to have blood and dying and plenty of action. I can’t write the sort of beautiful prose that sings and fills up your heart like my ZP brother, Isaac Kirkman. I’m a pulp hack and for me it’s all about the action. Having said that a degree of authenticity is also important to me.
The end result was the debut of a tough little female bounty hunter who goes by the name of Justice McCann. I haven’t been kind to her; she’s had a hard life up to this point and it doesn’t get much easier for her in THE GUNS OF JUSTICE, but she’s a real fighter. And thanks to Chuck Regan’s red ink she’s a much better protagonist now than when she started out.
It was an honor to be part of FIVE BROKEN WINCHESTERS, not only did I get to have a story of mine in the same book as a Hawthorne tale (That's Heath Fricking Lowrance, people!)  I also got to play in my favorite genre with my best pals.
I really hope you dig the collection.  And if you want to know how Justice came by those God-awful scars of hers, you can find out in my novella GOSPEL OF THE BULLET, which will be released through Zelmer Pulp next year.

Did I really just write this whole post without mentioning Ryan Sayles once?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Goin' Smooth Up In Obsidian ... uhhh ... I Wrote That Wrong ...

I was never a western guy. Just not into ‘em. The closest thing I came to a western was reading Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. I did watch Tombstone. But seriously, Kurt Russell, Bill Paxton and Val Kilmer (before he got shockingly fat) all in one movie? It could’ve been mimes-meet-gay-circus-porn and I would be glued to the TV.

So, on Halloween, 2012, at 11:15 AM, Ron Earl Philips of Shotgun Honey sent me a message on Facebook. He wrote, “You're going to be an editor for The Big Adios.” TBA was a western fiction website he was planning on launching in early 2013, and I happened to read a comment he made about and told him I thought it was a good idea. Then he did that. I said no. I’ve heard working with Ron is like fisting yourself; in the end there’s no payoff because you can’t sit down and all you have to show for it are dookie-covered hands. (That'll make sense later.) But then he sent me a picture of his titties and I immediately changed my mind.

True story.

The website fired up and I started reading westerns. Chris Leek submitted his story Seeds and in all honesty, I was blown away. We got others that made me want to write westerns (Gareth Spark’s Demon’s Road, Nik Korpon’s A Hundred For The Crows and Chris Deal’s Goat Sucker Blues come to mind) but there was something about Leek’s impact.

I sat down and wrote a western scene where an outlaw named Obsidian spoke to a deputy named Hornsby whom he’d just shot. I liked Obsidian. Sometimes an author will delight in writing a character, much the same way that an ignored child will grow up and delight in the fact they've become their parents' legal guardian. Let the payback begin! I was that way with him. He was evil, but I enjoyed his headspace. I wanted to write him as aloof but lethal. Like that snake dangling from a tree branch in the jungle, you can walk underneath it a thousand times and it acts like you were never born. But that one time it feels like it, it just snaps down and bites. It’s not even hungry or mad. It just wants to kill something. That was Obsidian.

I followed that scene with one about Hornsby’s partner, a man named Buford, who was the opposite side of the same coin as Obsidian. I wanted a sense of morality to guide Buford, while id (not a typo) drove Obsidian.

The name Obsidian was from Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son surviving a devastated world. McCarthy mentions the wife/mother character in passing. She gave birth and made the decision to kill herself rather than live through the apocalypse. The husband/father character gave her a piece of obsidian stone and sent her off to slit her wrists somewhere besides around their child. He said obsidian stone would do the trick. Yup. That’s all the reason I need to name a bad guy that.

Buford Pusser was the real-life character the movie Walking Tall was based on. I remember my dad talking about Pusser as one serious bad ass. I think the popular “Buford Pusser Stick” is a Hollywood fabrication, but even if it is, oh well. When a sheriff shows up with a table leg to beat the piss out of a bunch of bad guys, well, that’s all the reason I need to name a good guy that.

The problem was, I wrote those two scenes and that’s all I had. No direction at all. Nothing else came. So, like the wuss that I am, I sat it aside and said I’d come back to it.

Fast forward to the days preceding the release of Hey! That Robot Ate My Baby! Just days before it launched, we were beginning to plan for our next issue, which was going to be zombies volume II. Leek had the idea that we needed more space between the first and second zombie issue, and threw out the idea of a western. Brian immediately piped up and said yes. From there everybody got excited and so, it was time to write a western.

 I revisited Obsidian and, for some reason I can’t pinpoint, I got the idea to give him the head of Medusa. Yeah, that’d be cool. An Old West outlaw running around with the head of Medusa. Where I went wrong was I started adding to the myth, tweaking details until they were unrecognizable, trying to explain how the myth was recorded incorrectly in history, et cetera. I even had plans to make Obsidian into Perseus. In the end it was more confusing than illuminating to have the severed head still be Medusa.

I made it a curse that Obsidian wished to pass off, and after all those years of wandering aimlessly with a Gorgon noggin in his lunch pail, he happens across a deputy with whom he thinks he can do the old switcheroo. Things don’t work out the way he wants. Boom. End of story.

Enter Chuck Regan and his ultra-hot red pen laser scalpel. Needless to say (or write, or whatever), my tears flowed for weeks on end. As it was with my story from Robots, I went back to the drawing board. Chuck is a bully when it comes to writing, but I don't fault him. He has a tiny penis.

However, Chuck is also a Godsend and the final draft of my story was ten times better than what I could have had without him. It’s encouraging when a fellow writer adds a note in the manuscript that simply reads EPIC. Chuck knows how to make a Ryan blush. All right, I’m tired.

Good night.

Oh, and Obsidian and Buford will be back. One day. I got more of them in me. And not in the way that sounds.