As we've come to expect from publisher Tom Roberts and Black Dog Books, UNMASKED is another fine collection of vintage fiction, in this case the earliest appearances of some characters who are much better known for their movie and TV versions: Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, Zorro, and The Lone Ranger. Two of my all-time favorites there (Hoppy and the Ranger), and a couple of other characters that I've enjoyed greatly over the years.
This volume starts off with a lengthy, informative, and entertaining introduction by Francis M. Nevins that covers the evolution of the characters from prose to screen, or in the case of the Lone Ranger, from the airwaves to prose. Nevins knows as much or more about this stuff than anyone alive, and he provides plenty of good background info.
Having read many a Hopalong Cassidy book when I was a kid, I had no idea that the original stories had been revised and rearranged for book publication. UNMASKED gives us the first six Hoppy stories as they originally appeared in THE OUTING MAGAZINE in 1905 and 1906, the first time those original versions have been reprinted in more than a hundred years. Clarence E. Mulford's style, especially the use of thick dialect, takes a little getting used to, but once I got into these stories I found them incredibly entertaining. Owen Wister gets credit (deservedly so) for coming up with many of the conventions of Western fiction, but Mulford came along only a few years later and added a lot of things that we've come to expect from Westerns, giving these stories some historical as well as entertainment value.
From the same era is O. Henry's "The Caballero's Way", the only appearance in print of the original Cisco Kid, who, like Hopalong Cassidy, was considerably different from the movie version that came along later. This one is well-written and pretty hardboiled for the time.
Next up is an excerpt from "The Curse of Capistrano", the ARGOSY serial by Johnston McCully that introduced the character of Zorro to the world, and again Roberts goes with the original magazine version rather than the rewritten later versions. I've come a little late to McCully's work but I'm quickly becoming a big fan. His stories are very well-paced, with an almost uncanny sense of what makes a story exciting and keeps the reader flipping the pages. This example is no different.
Finally, UNMASKED gives us a complete novel featuring the Lone Ranger, "The Masked Rider's Justice", from the second issue of the Ranger's fairly short-lived pulp magazine. This is my favorite story in this volume, probably because I'm such a huge Lone Ranger fan. As I began reading it, something about the opening – the Ranger rescuing an unjustly imprisoned young man from a lynch mob – struck me as familiar, so I checked my collection of Lone Ranger novels. Sure enough, this story was rewritten and expanded into THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO, the fifth volume in the hardback series published by Grosset & Dunlap. As Roberts explains in his introduction to the story in UNMASKED, the Lone Ranger pulp novels were published without a by-line, but it seems likely to me that they're the work of Fran Striker, who wrote the G&D series (with the exception of the first one, which is by Gaylord Dubois). But we can't be sure about that.
No matter who wrote it, "The Masked Rider's Justice" is great fun. The pulp version is shorter, punchier, and somewhat grittier since it wasn't intended for a juvenile audience the way the hardbacks were. And it tells you something about the quality that I remembered that opening from reading THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO at least 45 years ago.
UNMASKED is one of the best collections so far from Black Dog Books, and those of you familiar with their publications know that's saying a lot. If you have any interest at all in early Western fiction or Western film and TV, or if you're just looking for some very entertaining stories, you shouldn't miss this one. Highly recommended.