Monday, February 28, 2011

"Horsemen From Hell" by Homer Hatten (Gold Medal, 1955)

Horsemen From Hell has two volume settings: eleven and three. Homer Hatten’s style shifts between being fierce and intense at full blast to tedious and monotonous. It makes for an uneven book, but with occasionally inspired moments.

The book opens with Melissa McCutcheon stepping off the riverboat at a small, portside town on the Mississippi where she hopes to secure passage up north to Springfield. Her husband is a fugitive on the run, and she wants to track him down. The first few chapters are written with vivid details of decay and violence: a muddy wasteland with dilapidated houses whose roofs and walls are collapsing inward. Within seconds of entering the local saloon/hotel, Melissa is under attack from its crazed, libido-frenzied owner. Clothes are torn and tables are crashed. She throws boiling grease on his face, and sets his clothes on fire.

It’s one hell of an opening—savage, exciting, and atmospheric. Like Dudley Dean, Homer Hatten delights in putting his characters through intense physical punishment. As one character thinks in the midst of a fight, “There was nothing real except the brutally swinging boot.”

The next chapter is equally violent. Melissa hides in the attic while Burr Keltin and his Swampers duke it out in the saloon with Dale Mallonee and his band of Cherokees. Dale comes to Melissa’s rescue, and agrees to oversee her trip to Springfield, where he is looking for his former business partner who ran off with all his money. Needless to say, Dale’s partner will do anything to prevent Dale from reaching Springfield…

After a great opening, the plot tones down considerably. Melissa and Dale’s searches are, of course, linked, and Homer Hatten takes way too long setting up the context necessary for the final showdown atop an icy cliff during a storm. It’s well worth it to get to the end, when the action and atmosphere get kicked back up to 11, but it’s a long slog through exposition to get there. Even Hatten seems to get lost—Dale is absent for most of the story, and his “horsemen from hell” barely play any role in the story.

Most of the characters are one-dimensional, but at least Hatten shows us a different and refreshing dimension. The female characters defy the clichéd dichotomy of virgin/whore. Melissa is not so different from Charlotte Sherwood, the presumed “wife” of Dale’s adversary: they’re both intelligent, strong-willed women who fled the oppressive, restrictive morality of their homes. Proto femme fatales, they realize the men around them are easily manipulated by sex, and they’re not afraid to use it to further themselves. What makes them feel modern is that Hatten doesn’t villainize them for their sexuality or the way they use it.

Horsemen From Hell was published in 1955, one year after its author, Homer Hatten, committed suicide. His obituary stated that he had two novels left unfinished. I’m uncertain if Horsemen From Hell was one of them, but the novel’s inconsistent tone and sloppy structure makes me wonder if perhaps Hatten had intended to do more work on this novel, or if another unaccredited writer hastily completed the book from Hatten’s notes. I haven’t read other books by Hatten, so I can’t comment on whether it is stylistically consistent with his other Gold Medal Westerns. I just received Conquest and Westport Landing, so I will report back soon with more details. As it stands, Horsemen From Hell is a Gold Medal curiosity from an author deserving of more attention.

Some quotes I liked from the book:

“Her world had shrunk into a tight little circle that contained nothing except her aching body and a filthy gag that choked her when she tried to breathe and a tight-pulled rope that had long since rubbed the flesh away from her ankles so that now they were raw and tender and burned like fire.”

“Good whisky’ll put a man on his horse and drive a woman outta her petticoats.”

“For Mallonee, it was a nightmare, a furious, deadly madness of desperation, this clawing for a finger hold on the icy edge of a precipice.”

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Cover art by Frank McCarthy

"The Mysterious Elaine" by Larry Withers

Over at Shooting Pool with David Goodis, Aaron Finestone has posted a new essay by Larry Withers called "The Mysterious Elaine." It originally appeared in the 2010 NoirCon program. It's about Goodis' enigmatic first wife, Elaine Astor, and the influence she had on his work.
"She could be Cassidy's Girl. I've heard tell she's the Blonde on the Street Corner. Behold, Clara Ervin is another possible incarnation. She's the mysterious Elaine, Mrs. David Goodis, my mother. There's speculation whether she was an inspiration for Goodis' more domineering female characters, or did he seek her out to fulfill his vision of womanhood? I recognize this woman, but what the truth is, we'll never know. Still, even at her worst, David treats this archetype with a certain reverence and humanity, as with all his characters."
Goodis fans won't want to miss this, and it will give new meaning to some of Goodis' best work. Check out the whole essay here.

Withers also directed the documentary David Goodis...To a Pulp. I got the chance to see it on opening night at NoirCon 2010 (see my coverage for more details). It's a fond and informative tribute to Goodis, filled with insightful and candid remembrances from those who knew him. Withers' fascinating trail of research is impressive, and it's brought to light many important details about Goodis' life and career. Buy it here from On Air Video.

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Photo: Elaine Astor, David Goodis (center), and unidentified friend., Los Angeles, about 1943 (Photo courtesy of Larry Withers via Shooting Pool with David Goodis).

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Heath Lowrance's All Women Are Bad

Who doesn't like bad girls? They may kick our ass, they might rob us, or run us over, and heck they might even kill us -- but we still love 'em!

Heath Lowrance has started a new blog dedicated to just such girls called All Women Are Bad. Lowrance promises more "Bad girls, dangerous dames and voluptious vixens from all eras" and that "They've got groovy, wiggly tails. They've got horns on their heads." First two posts up are about Tura Satana and Julie Newmar.

Check it out and look for more updates soon!

(Also: Thanks, Heath for the great review of Beat to a Pulp: Round One!)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Wagon Train Woman" by Alan Henry (Gold Medal, 1953)

What is an unarmed, unmarried, and flat broke woman to do when she’s abandoned along a wagon trail? Alan Henry’s Wagon Train Woman (Gold Medal, 1953) starts with a promising premise, but it doesn’t take long for the book to run out of steam.

Bethenia Saunders was on her way to California with her lover when he came down with cholera. Their wagon train abandoned the couple and continued westward without them. Along comes Eban Clark, another would-be prospector who brings Beth back to his group of travelers. Eban and his band are torn: some want to kick her out, while others (Eban included) begin fighting amongst themselves over possession of her. As the group threatens to break apart, their dreams of striking rich in California seem further away than ever.

The narrative of Wagon Train Woman feels stunted. Most of the plot revolves around a few characters arguing about what to do with Beth, rather than doing anything about it. And when she finally takes initiative and runs away, they bring her back and start arguing all over again. It’s boring, repetitive, and strangely confusing to read. Even though there are only a few characters, it is hard to keep track of who is doing what and why.

Devoid of the physical details that make the journey believable, and it’s easy to forget that these are gold prospectors crossing a desert. Geographically, it’s not only non-descript, but seemingly invisible—it’s hard to ever picture exactly where any of the story is going on. There’s not much action, and the one-dimensional characters lack enough credibility to be either likable or sympathetic.

Wagon Train Woman also seems to miss one of the profound themes of The Western. A great irony of The Western is that despite the freedom and opportunity promised by the open landscape, the characters in the stories often have no choice when it comes to their actions. Moral conviction, past experience, and fight-or-flight scenarios dictate the Western protagonist’s decisions. Ultimately, it is futile to figure out what drives the characters in Wagon Train Woman: they all lack either credible or logical motivation.

All in all, Wagon Train Woman is a rather dull read. It’s unfortunate, too, because I like the idea of exploring the challenges that face a female character alone on the Western frontier, and the different options she was left with. The author doesn’t seem to know what to do with this premise, however, and reverts to focusing on the male protagonists who treat her like property. Once in a while she speaks up and says that she’ll make up her own mind about what to do – only she never does. It also seems that neither did Alan Henry.

Looking on the positive side, there were a few good lines:

“A man was left with a fury around him and a fury in himself, drawn to a woman like Beth whose kind already scarred him.”

“Beth’s fists were small but her knuckles were cruel and sharp, tearing across Eban’s cheek. Then abruptly she drew away, leaving Eban with a searing memory of the heat that was in her.”

“Always a man ran, and it seemed whatever direction he took, he wound up in the same place, or worse. He ran hardest when he was never as sure that only fool’s legs carried him.”

Friday, February 25, 2011

Any silent film fans out there?


For any of you interested in silent cinema, I just started a new blog where I'll be posting occasionally about silent movies, and filmmakers and actors from the era. The blog is called Silent Film Chronicle. The first piece up is a re-edited version of an article I published last year on Janet Gaynor, the first ever winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress.

So, if this seems like it is up your alley, drop on by and say hello!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Cold Shot to the Heart" Interview with Wallace Stroby

Wallace Stroby kicked off the year in crime fiction with a knockout. Cold Shot to the Heart is as gripping as it is because Stroby matches a riveting heist scenario with volatile and electric characters who never let the pace slow, not even for a second. The story revolves around two characters whose paths – and guns – are about to cross.

Crissa Stone is a professional thief as intelligent as she is cunning. She plans things perfectly, never takes an unnecessary risk, and always walks away clean – and always with the money. But with her partner-in-life-and-crime behind bars, she needs a hefty sum to pay off the right people to ensure he gets paroled. When Crissa accepts a job knocking off a high stakes poker game, little does she realize she's about to run up against Eddie the Saint, a real live-wire, coldblooded killer just out of prison. He's getting in touch with his old partners, collecting debts, and figuring out how to get back on top – and stay there.

Meticulously paced and inventively plotted, its ensemble cast of well-rounded, compelling characters that really takes Cold Shot to the Heart to the next level. Over the years (decades, really), there's been a trend in crime fiction of one-upping the levels of violence and psychopathy. Stroby doesn't walk down that path, though to be fair Eddie the Saint does his share of killing, and he's plenty psychotic. But what makes his character so menacing isn't always what he does so much as what he won't do--and as the story unfolds, you realize there's very little that Eddie won't do. The ambiguity of his limits, and his proven determination, make him unpredictable and unstable, as well as so captivating to read about. Balancing the tone of the novel is Crissa, who is the opposite of Eddie – she's got her warm, human side, as well as her cold, calculated mind when it comes to business. She also has clear lines she will not cross. However, she's also just as determined as Eddie, and so as the plot thickens and things begin to go wrong, Stroby reveals her vulnerable side, and the question arises of how far she'll go to fight back in order to save herself and her loved ones.

Jed Ayres, who (for my money) has one of the finest tastes in crime fiction, has a great review of Cold Shot to the Heart over at Ransom Notes where he calls the novel "a slick, fast-paced, straight-forward thriller with great characters."

Cold Shot to the Heart is out now from Minotaur. Check with your local independent bookstores for print editions; it is also available for Kindle.

Wallace Stroby was kind enough to speak with Pulp Serenade about his work.

Pulp Serenade: What was the genesis for COLD SHOT TO THE HEART? A character, an incident -- what was the trigger that got the ball rolling for you as a writer?

Wallace Stroby: I’ve always admired the minimalist crime writers – Peter Rabe, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block and the like – and wanted to write something in that style. A few years back, I talked briefly with Charles Ardai, publisher of the Hard Case Crime line, about doing a project for him. Nothing came of the idea, but it did put me in mind to write a lean and mean crime novel – 55,000-75,000 words – that would be sort of an homage to some of those books I read and loved. At the same time, as in GONE ‘TIL NOVEMBER, I wanted it to be about a female protagonist, someone who was struggling to make her way in a man’s world.

PS: I read in another interview that for GONE TIL NOVEMBER you didn't use an outline. Did you also not use one for COLD SHOT? What was the process of constructing the novel?

WS: I never outline. I like to have an idea of who the characters are, what the story’s going to be, and roughly where I want things to wind up (though that always changes). Once I know all that, I feel confident enough to start writing, and what happens along the way happens. That’s the exciting part – the leap of faith that things are going to work out. Unfortunately, it’s often counteracted by the looming fear that they won’t.

My friend Mark McGarrity, who wrote mystery novels under the name Bartholomew Gill, liked to quote Ray Bradbury on that subject: “Sometimes you have to jump off the cliff, and build your wings on the way down.”

PS: As a reader, first lines are some of my favorite parts of books, and you start things off with a bang. "Three minutes after she walked in the front door, Crissa had the manager and two clerks facedown on the floor, their hands bound behind them with plastic cuffs." The whole paragraph is one concise sentence, one strong image. How did you settle on this? Were there other openings you considered?

WS: I’m big on first lines. I’m a firm believer in Mickey Spillane’s “The first line sells that book. And the last line sells the next.” I never feel a book’s ready until I have a first line I really like. I rewrote the COLD SHOT opening maybe a dozen times, in different variations, trying to get the cadence right.

Westlake, in his Richard Stark books, was an absolute master of that. The opening line from THE RARE COIN SCORE is one of the best in crime fiction. Cornell Woolrich was brilliant in that respect as well. And George Higgins’ first line from THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE practically reinvented the style in which crime novels were written.

PS: The heist is very exciting to read, especially the repelling bits. Did you have first-hand experience repelling?

WS
: I’ve never rappelled, so I tried to glean as much as I could from internet videos and the like, though I probably should have done some more research. A friend who had a lot of rappelling experience in the Army read that scene, and was fairly critical of it. Unfortunately, his input came when it was too late to fix anything.

PS: What was the most challenging part of writing COLD SHOT?

WS: Doing research. Finding out how high-level armed robbers operate, how they think, how they interact with one another, isn’t easy. They’re not exactly forthcoming, and they’re a rare breed. I did find some useful interviews and books, and they gave me something of a glimpse into that subculture. But not a lot.

PS: How about the most fun part?

WS: Stripping the story down to its bare elements: Characters in place, check. Self-advancing plot, check. Then get it started, rev the engine and see where it goes. That can be a lot of fun.

PS: You write about music on your blog, and you were also the Entertainment Editor at the Star-Ledger for a number of years. If you were to create a soundtrack to COLD SHOT, what would be on it?

WS: I usually do have a soundtrack in my head, and for GONE ‘TIL NOVEMBER I actually put together a mix CD of songs I was listening to while I wrote it, some of which made it into the book. For COLD SHOT though, mostly what I listened to was Philip Glass, especially his film soundtracks, because it seemed to fit the tone of the novel. The only actual song I had in mind was Richard Thompson’s “Love in a Faithless Country,” because the lyrics seemed to speak directly to Crissa’s mindset.

PS: What is your writing station like, and what are your writing habits like? Any particular writing rituals?

WS: Small bedroom converted into an office. Bookshelves on two walls. Huge framed print of Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting “New York Movie” over my desk. It’s one of my favorite Hopper works, very evocative. Unfortunately, when you see it with 21st century eyes, it looks like the blond usherette is talking on a cell phone.

I try to write five pages a day – usually about 1,200 words – and that seems to work for me, because it feels less oppressive. If it’s mainly dialogue, that can go pretty quick. Depending on the day and the material, that five pages could take one hour or five.

PS: In addition to being a novelist, you are also a journalist. How do you see those two types of writing as being similar or different, and do they influence each other at all?

WS: Being a journalist – especially a daily print journalist – teaches you skills I think are invaluable for a fiction writer. You learn how to organize your material, how to write on deadline, how to rewrite, the importance of making your key thought – what we called a “nutgraf” – clear. Those are all crucial.

And in another sense, a novel is the news story of what happens in the narrative, and the characters are your sources. Once you get them talking, you’re on your way.

PS: What attracts you, as both a writer and a reader, to criminals and crime stories?

WS: Not to sound too pretentious, but I think it’s two things: alienation and empowerment. The criminal has either rejected society or society has rejected them, and their alienation has led them to the point where they don't want to be part of society anymore. But instead of wasting away, they flourish. They live by their own rules, do what they want, establish their own code and accept where it will take them - including possibly prison or death.

PS: To end things, how about a more fun question -- if you had to be any one criminal from history, who would it be?

WS: None. I’m a strong believer in karma. I’d rather lead a boring life, and make all this stuff up at the desk. I occasionally get a taste of what that life must be like, either through research or talking to people who are part of it, and that’s more than enough for me. In fiction, that lifestyle can be entertaining. In real life, not so much.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Overlooked Movies: Fritz Lang


For this week's edition of Overlooked Movies, I thought I would post a link to an article I wrote over at Moving Image Source called "The Other Fritz Lang: Cowboys, Swashbucklers, and Guerrillas in the noir master's non-noir films." The article looks at five overlooked movies from Lang's career that aren't his typical crime thrillers. They are his three Westerns (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, and Rancho Notorious), one Swashbuckler (Moonfleet), and a War picture (American Guerrilla in the Philippines).
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