Lurking behind this rather mediocre soft-core porn cover is actually a pretty good rural crime novel. Published in 1961 by Beacon Books, THE BARN features many of the same elements that can be found in a lot of backwoods novels. In this case, the dumb but likable hero visits the Kentucky farm owned by his fiancee's family and finds that he's stumbled into a lot more trouble than he expected. There's the fiancee's oversexed little sister, her hoodlum brother, assorted other criminals, and a lot of action and danger. There are so many plot twists that it gets a little silly after a while, with the characters running around the farm like Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam chasing each other in and out of a bunch of different doors. Most of the story takes place during one eventful night, and that non-stop pace kept me flipping the pages even though the story got more and more implausible. These flaws keep THE BARN from approaching the level of the backwoods novels written by authors such as Harry Whittington and Charles Williams, but it's also suspenseful and fun to read. Glenn Low had some stories in the Western and detective pulps during the Forties and Fifties, and he wrote quite a few books for Beacon, Novel Books, and other soft-core publishers during the early Sixties. I enjoyed THE BARN enough so that I wouldn't hesitate to pick up another of his books if I came across it at a reasonable price (this one was three bucks in Half Price Books' nostalgia section), but I probably won't be scouring the Internet for his work, either.
I’ve been reading author Michael Bracken’s blog, which I discovered through Graham Powell’s CrimeSpot. Although I don’t think Bracken and I have ever met, I’ve been aware of his work as both writer and editor for quite some time, and I’ve found his blog to be a fascinating chronicle of what it’s like to live the life of a full-time short fiction writer. The constant drive to write more stories, keeping multiple manuscripts out to market at the same time, the rejections and the resubmissions to different markets, the acceptances and contracts and checks showing up in the mailbox to balance out the rejections . . . I find all of this very interesting because that’s exactly the sort of life I lived for about a decade, mid-Seventies to mid-Eighties. And Bracken’s been doing this for over thirty years. As difficult as it was to make a living that way back when I was doing it, I can’t imagine what it’s like now when the markets for short fiction have shrunk even more. At least I always had MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE and various men’s magazines that bought my stories regularly. Once I even got a check out of the blue for 35 bucks because one of my stories had been reprinted in a DUDE ANNUAL. Or was it a GENT ANNUAL? I forget. Either way, I was really happy to get the check.
All this got me to thinking about how much pure fun it is to write short stories. I hardly ever write them anymore; maybe one or two a year, and some years I don’t write any. Don’t get me wrong – I love writing novels and get tremendous satisfaction out of doing so. But the enjoyment of writing a good short story is both more immediate and more intense. Novels are marathons; short stories are sprints. Beside my computer is a scrap of paper with a mixture of ideas and titles for short stories scribbled on it, seven of them in all. They’ve been floating around in my head for a long time, and one day a year or so ago I decided I’d better jot them down or I’d risk forgetting about them. I planned to write the stories themselves as soon as I got the chance, just for the fun of it, and then try to sell them. So far I haven’t written any of them. But maybe this year . . .
I was also prompted to think about this by the fact that yesterday I read page proofs for one of my rare short stories that will be appearing soon in an anthology. More details on that when the time comes. But I had a really good time reading those page proofs, and they reminded me how much I enjoyed writing the story. I wouldn’t go back to being a full-time short fiction writer – but that sort of life has its compensations, too.
I’m on record as preferring Elmore Leonard’s early Westerns to his later crime novels, and LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER is a good reason why I feel that way. The set-up is fairly traditional: a former Confederate soldier returns home to Arizona Territory after being wounded and finds that Union sympathizers have taken over his ranch. Fightin’ and shootin’ ensues. But what makes this such a fine book are the little touches. Instead of the usual hard-bitten loner who shows up so often in Westerns as the hero, Paul Cable is a family man with a wife (who is almost as tough as he is) and three small children. Several of the other characters aren’t really what they appear to be at first, or what the reader would expect. And the story is told in Leonard’s terse prose and wonderful dialogue. (I think Leonard’s prose is a little too terse now, but in this book he has it down just about perfect.) All in all, this is an excellent example of Leonard’s Westerns.
If you want to read even more of my pontificating about Robert E. Howard, wander on over to Ed Gorman's blog today, where's he posted my comments about Michael Dirda's column on Howard from this past Sunday's Washington Post.
I like Star Trek novels. I've read a bunch of them over the years, going all the way back to the Bantam collections by James Blish that were published when the original series was still on the air. (Those were short stories, not novels, but still, you can see that I've been reading Star Trek fiction for a long time.) Just as I tend to prefer the original series when it comes to the TV episodes, I like the novels set in that era as well. I just read GEMINI, a recent Trek novel by Mike W. Barr, and really enjoyed it. Barr comes up with an intriguing premise -- a planet is about to have an election to decide whether or not it will join the Federation, and Captain Kirk and company are on hand to make sure there are no problems -- then complicates it by having the hereditary rulers of the planet be a pair of conjoined twins with psychic abilities, then complicates things still more with smuggling, political protests, kidnapping, and finally murder. Barr, who wrote the wonderful comic book mystery series THE MAZE AGENCY, does full justice to this twisty plot and wraps things up with a classic gathering of the suspects as Kirk unravels the mystery. On top of this, he does a fine job of capturing the personalities of the characters. This is as good a Star Trek novel as I've read in a long time. Speaking of THE MAZE AGENCY, that series has been relaunched recently. I have the first issue on hand and plan to read and comment on it soon.
I'm told that the party at The Torch on Saturday raised over $500 for the Cross Plains Fire Relief Fund. There are also hints that this will become an annual event, which will certainly be welcomed by me if it comes about. Also, there were items produced specifically for the party (a chapbook of poems, bookmarks, and T-shirts, maybe some other things) that were left over, and I hear that these will be for sale, also with the proceeds going to Cross Plains. So if any of you are interested in obtaining a souvenir of the First Annual Robert E. Howard Birthday Bash, email me and I'll try to put you in touch with the right folks.
Want to make reading all your favorite blogs even easier? Just visit Graham Powell's brand-new site CrimeSpot, which features dozens of blogs by various crime writers, including this one. Great work by Graham. I know I'll be dropping in there at least once a day to see what's newly updated.
This afternoon a small but dedicated and enthusiastic group of Robert E. Howard fans gathered at The Torch, a Fort Worth neighborhood bar, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of his birth. (Tomorrow is actually Howard's birthday.) The crowd included fans from as far away as Washington, D.C. and California. For more than three hours, they visited with each other and took to the open microphone to read Howard poems, letters, and excerpts from his stories. It was a great afternoon, and everyone who made it possible is to be congratulated. I'd start naming names, but I'm sure I would forget someone who deserves the recognition, so I'll leave it at that. I have no idea how much money was raised for the Cross Plains Fire Relief Fund, but I hope the event was a success in that regard. I thought about taking a camera with me so that I'd have some photos to post, but of course I forgot. In other news, according to Blogger this is my 500th post. I don't know if that's true or not, but I suppose I'll take their word for it.
The location for tomorrow's Robert E. Howard birthday celebration in Fort Worth has been changed due to the proverbial circumstances beyond anybody's control. It's now scheduled from 2 until 5 in the afternoon at The Torch, 711 Barden Street, which is very near the big intersection where University Drive, Camp Bowie, and 7th Street all come together. I'm supposed to read the poems "The Ballad of Buckshot Roberts" and "The Grim Land" -- although public poetry reading is not my strong suit. In fact, I've never done it before. But if any of you are in the area and think you can stand it, drop on by. A full report should be posted tomorrow night.
Books, that is. For many years, I've been a one-book-at-a-time reader, always finishing one novel (or giving up on it) before starting another one. This wasn't always the case. When I was a kid, I would often be reading three or four books at the same time and had no trouble at all remembering what was going on as I bounced from book to book, reading whichever I was in the mood for at that moment. Somewhere along the way, though, I stopped doing that. Now, with my limited time and attention span problems that were making it difficult for me to read novels, I decided to give the old method a try again, and to my surprise, it seems to be working. I currently have three different books going. I tend to concentrate most of my reading on one of them, but I don't hesitate to pick up one of the others if the mood strikes me. In fact, one of them I'm reading as a sort of serial, a chapter a day. This isn't the way I plan to read books from now on -- I'm sure I'll go back to the one-at-a-time method sooner or later -- but for now it's been a welcome diversion.
In this case, the question "What lurks below?" refers to below my house, and the answer is: a foundation in serious need of repair. So I spent most of the day crawling in and out from under the house, working on things I really have no idea how to fix. Somehow, though, I improved the situation. I think. At least I gave the rest of the family a good laugh when they saw me in my kneepads and elbow pads and the light attached to my head. This is the first time I've been under the house since the plumbing fiasco of last spring. I haven't missed it a bit. In other news . . . there ain't none. I spent nearly all of last week sitting in my studio and writing. I'm reading a little, but I'll save my comments on that for a later post.
I finished reading this pulp tonight and thought that it was a very good issue. The lead story is a long novelette by Merle Constiner about private detective Wardlaw Rock, also known as the Dean. I've read several stories from this series and liked them all. Constiner takes several wildly different plot elements, obscure historical trivia, bizarre scientific facts, and mixes them all into coherent, highly entertaining mystery yarns. If I had to compare the Dean stories to something current, it would be the TV series MONK, although personality-wise the Dean and Adrian Monk are completely different. The small press publisher Battered Silicon Dispatch Box has done a pricey volume reprinting all the Dean stories. I haven't sprung for it yet, but I may one of these days. This issue of DIME DETECTIVE also features novelettes by Norbert Davis (a Bail-Bond Dodd story) and Day Keene. Davis's stories are always well-written and funny, and Keene is a long-time favorite of mine. And it has a striking cover to boot. Good stuff.
Lately I haven't had the time to read novels (or the attention span, to be honest). So thank goodness for short stories. I've been able to work in a story or two every day, and in recent weeks I've read the December 1948 issue of POPULAR WESTERN, a Wildside Press replica of the August 1935 SPICY MYSTERY STORIES, and part of the December 1943 issue of DIME DETECTIVE. Plus I've started working my way through THE O'HARA GENERATION, a collection of John O'Hara short stories (because Bill Crider posted the other day about O'Hara and got me interested in reading some more of his work). I consider myself lucky that I've got a decent collection of pulp magazines, fiction digests, and anthologies. No matter what sort of story I'm in the mood for, I can generally find several good examples of it. And I'm sure that I'll get back to reading novels sooner or later. I've been at it for over forty years, after all, and I'm too old to stop now.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - JANUARY 06, 2006 ROBERT E. HOWARD 100th BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION FORT WORTH, TX – Robert E. Howard was the first great fiction author born and bred in Texas. He is now considered an inspiration to a who’s-who of modern horror and fantasy fiction writers and illustrators. On January 21 2006, from 2-5PM, the 100th anniversary of his birth will be celebrated in Fort Worth, Texas. An open mic will be available, and various people will be reading excerpts from the vast range of REH works, from Sword & Sorcery (REH was the creator of Conan the Barbarian, and generally considered the godfather of the entire genre), to horror, fantasy, boxing, westerns, humorous, pirate, and historical adventures. Excerpts from letters will also be presented, as REH tells others about his love of Texas, the creation of his characters, and his views on the times he lived in. And various poems from his extensive portfolio of over 700 works will be presented. REH was a master poet, and skilled at all the various forms in which he worked. Guests are invited to participate, reading either their own favorite excerpts and verses, or serving as a reader of material that will be provided to them there. Or just come and listen. The event will be at The Black Dog Tavern, recently moved to 2933 Crockett, just a block east and south of the intersection of 7th and University in the city of Fort Worth. Admittance is only $5/head with all proceeds benefiting the town of Cross Plains, TX, a small ranch and farm community in West Texas (and REH’s hometown) that was recently consumed by wildfires, with over 100 homes destroyed. Books will be on sale, there will be door prizes and various scholars and editors will be on hand to sign books. Your envoy for the afternoon will be Paul Herman, a somewhat wizened and knowledgeable character familiar with the works of he who shall be honored, toasted and commemorated. Other REH editors and scholars will be on hand as well to sign books, answer questions and discuss topics of interest. If you are unfamiliar with Howard's work or would like to get to know it better, this is the perfect opportunity to meet people and fans that will happily tell you everything they know about this true Texas legend. There’s a lot more to him than you think. The Robert E. Howard 100th Birthday Celebration:Saturday, January 21, 2006 2:00 - 5:00 PM The Black Dog Tavern 2933 Crockett (new location) Fort Worth, Texas $5.00 Per Person - All Proceeds will go the Cross Plains Fire Relief Fund, to benefit the city of Cross Plains, TX, home of the Robert E. Howard Museum For More Information - Contact Paul Herman @ 972-418-3571, or firstname.lastname@example.org
I plan to attend this event, so if any of you are in the Fort Worth area on the afternoon of January 21, please think about dropping in and saying hello. The photo of REH above is one of my favorites. I like the way he seems to be staring off into the distance, as if he can see things that the rest of us can't. Which, of course, was true.
These are the shelves in our living room where we have copies of all the books we've written. Also included are Livia's American Mystery Award (top shelf on the left, in front of Shayna's picture) and Shamus Award (middle shelf on the right), both of which she won for her Lucas Hallam novel WILD NIGHT. There are also copies of the various anthologies in which we have stories. It's a pretty good assortment of stuff, and we intend to keep adding to it, of course. (Thanks to Livia for arranging all the books and for providing the photo. Technical stuff like that is pretty much beyond me.)
Among the numerous nice responses to my year-end wrap-up post was one from Sandra Scoppettone, which also posed an interesting question. "I like and have read a number of books on your list. But, alas, once again here is another 10 best with no women on it. Couldn't you come up with one? Ray Banks says he doesn't read women. Is that true for you, too?" No, not really. I do read female authors, but my reading does tend to be mostly males. This is probably due to the fact that I read a lot of pulps, and female authors weren't very common among the Western, mystery, and adventure stuff that I read. I had to go back and check my list to see just how many books by women writers I read in '05. The total is rather shameful: five out of 156. One of them, though, would have made my Top Twenty if I had expanded the list: the romantic suspense novel AN ANGEL IN STONE by Peggy Nicholson, published as part of Silhouette's Bombshell line. The best book by a female author that I read in '05, though, I didn't count officially because it hasn't been published yet -- my wife Livia's A PEACH OF A MURDER. There are a lot of current female authors I've meant to read, just as there are a lot of current male authors I haven't gotten around to yet. One of my favorite authors is Ellen Recknor, who writes excellent and award-winning Western novels under her own name and various pseudonymns. I also particularly enjoy the work of a couple of romance writers, Marsha Canham and Theresa Medeiros. (Medeiros' novel BREATH OF MAGIC is one of the best-constructed, and also funniest, time-travel novels I've ever read.) An area I've neglected, probably unjustly, is current hardboiled/noir by female authors. But I plan to remedy that.
I've never been one to make a big deal about the New Year, and I don't make resolutions. However . . . this year really does seem like a fresh start for some reason, maybe because 2005 sucked canal water in so many ways, from natural disasters to the little personal catastrophes that plague most of us. I've always been a little distrustful of people who say, "I've had an epiphany!", but I have to admit that a couple of things have become much clearer to me in the past 24 hours. Because of that I've made two, or maybe three, resolutions, and I'm going to do my best to keep them. We'll see. Now that I've been sufficiently vague, I'll move on and say that I wrote 15 pages on the current project today. (Woo-hoo! First page count of the new year!) And I'm reading an issue of POPULAR WESTERN from December 1948. The world rolls on.