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?