Western Fiction


MAX BRAND “Werewolf.” Novella. Western Story Magazine, 18 December 1926. Included in Men Beyond the Law (Five Star, hardcover, 1997; Amazon Encore, softcover, 2013). [Thanks to Sai Shankar for coming up with the latter information.]

   ALL day the storm had been gathering behind Chimney Mountain and peering around the edges of that giant with a scowling brow, now and again; and all day there had been strainings of the wind and sounds of dim confusion in the upper air, but not until the evening did the storm break. A broad, yellow-cheeked moon was sailing up the eastern sky when ten thousand wild horses of darkness rushed out from behind Mount Chimney and covered the sky with darkness.

   You don’t get a much more evocative opening than that for a Western novella called “Werewolf,” and the story lives up to both its title and that opening in ways you won’t expect from Max Brand (who did write some fantastic fiction).

   I can honestly say this is the strangest story I have ever read by Brand, and as honestly say it is one of the most satisfying, mixing all those elements of mythology and classical literature with a rousing good adventure story set in the more or less modern West (modern enough for telephones anyway).

   On that bitter night Chris Royal (“There were no political parties in Royal County or in Royal Valley, for instance. There were only the Royal partisans and their opponents.”) walks into Yates Saloon to escape the storm where Cliff Main, gun happy brother of killer Harry Main, is looking for trouble over a girl both like.

   Words are exchanged, and there is the smell of cordite in the air.

   Cliff Main is dead and Chris Royal alive.

   At least until Harry Main comes to avenge his dead brother. Chris doesn’t much fancy his odds against Harry Main. His crossbred hound, Lurcher would have better odds, and Lurcher isn’t much to look at. Being convinced that he’s a coward, like the hound Lurcher, who isn’t much good but is loyal to Chris and loved by him, and that he has no chance against Main, Chris hightails it for the high country.

   Which is where this story turns decidedly weird.

   Because something is trailing Chris, and it isn’t Harry Main … “it was no animal of flesh and blood at all, but a phantom sent to cross his way with a foreboding of doom.”

   He’s not far off.

   An old Indian Chris meets fishing in the river sets the philosophical tone of the tale. He warns Chris that no man can escape his fate, and when they hear the wolf that had trailed Chris the night before he explains it is a werewolf:

   “There are two kinds of werewolves,” said the chief, holding up two fingers of his hand. “The first are the ones which have been men and become wolves. They are only terrible for a short time, and then they become stupid. Then there are others. They are the wolves that cannot become men until they have killed the warrior who has been marked out for them.”

   That old Indian is more than a convenient literary device, I warn you.

   Chris masters his fear after that and returns home to face Harry Main, his preternatural calm in the face of almost certain death almost unnerving the mankiller, but even with Main out of the picture there remains that second kind of werewolf, the one that cannot become a man again until it has killed the warrior marked for it, and in that game a worthless cowardly dog named Lurcher get a chance to redeem himself as his master has.

   It is an odd duck of a story by any measure, part Western revenge story, part tale of redemption of man and dog, part dog story, and part … well you decide, but I will reveal this much, werewolf in this story is both a metaphor and not a metaphor.

   If you ever wondered what Max Brand might have written for Weird Tales, this is the story.

CLAY RANDALL – Hardcase for Hire. Gold Medal s1357, paperback original, 1963. Belmont Tower, paperback, 1974.

   Truth in advertising. It was the Belmont Tower paperback I just read, but I do have the earlier Gold Medal edition, so I could just as easily have read that instead, if I could have gotten to where it is. Clay Randall, as many of you know without my telling you, was a pen name of Clifton Adams, 1919-1971, and under this byline he is probably best known for a series of novels, six in all, about a western sheriff named Amos Flagg.

   This, however, is not one of them. It’s a standalone novel about a fellow named Jess Henry, and the title of the book is all you need to know about him. Another word for him might be mercenary — the kind of gunman who will take on most any kind of job for hire — but he does object to being called a bounty hunter, for that is not the kind of work he does.

   In this book he agrees to look for the husband of a famed singer-entertainer who has recently come to an otherwise miserable backwater sort of town called Dogtown, and who since her arrival has charmed everyone in the place, including the town marshal. Problem is, the man does not particularly want to be found, and especially not wanting him to be found are the members of the notorious Butler gang.

   It seems that the missing man is a doctor, and since notorious western outlaw gangs are always in need of medical assistance, they mean to make sure they don’t let their doctor get away. All five factors are in prominent play here: Jess Henry, Belle Steffino, her husband, the town marshal, and the Butler gang.

   Obviously this is an unusual kind of western, but this is also the kind of western I enjoy the most. With all kinds of personal relationships and conflicts between the characters, the author has plenty of room to maneuver, and he makes the most of it. It’s a small scale tale — no historical events going on here — but if ever you should come across a copy. you may have as fun with it as I just have.

Note:   Previously on this blog: A checklist of all of Clay Randall’s westerns. (Follow the link.)


C. C. WADDELL & CARROLL JOHN DALY – Two-Gun Gerta. Chelsea House, hardcover, 1926. Serialized in four parts in People’s Magazine, October 1 through November 15, 1923. Available as a PDF download from Vintage Library, a possibly censored version.

    THERE isn’t much to say about Yavisa except that it is hot and dirty. But then all the towns in Mexico are hot and dirty; so I’ll put it that Yavisa is a shade hotter and dirtier than anything else along the border.

   That is the authentic voice of Roger Francis ‘Red’ Connors, ex-Hollywood stunt man and cowboy star (“You want to remember that I’d had two years’ experience dare-deviling for the films under Milt Leffingwell. As a matter of fact, I’d worked almost the same stunt in one of my ‘Reckless Rudolph’ pictures, as you’ll recall if you’ve ever saw ‘The Pit of Perdition.’), and all around tough guy come South for adventure and about to be up to his neck in it when he encounters the beautiful and fiery green eyed hellion, ranch owner Gerta O’Bierne: “She had a couple of heavy Colts strapped about her waist; and for all her sweet-sixteen look and her quiet manner, I figured that they weren’t just a bluff. Give her half a chance, and she’d use ’em.“

   He has hardly ridden into Yavisa when he spies beautiful Gerta pinned by local bandit and mustache twirler Colonel Manuel Esteban, old Crooked Mouth: “Half Mexican and half something else, I took him to be, but all murder. He looked like the bad man in the movies, only more real. A yellow, splotchy face under his broad-brimmed sombrero, with eyes as cold and deadly as a rattlesnake’s, and a cruel, crooked mouth that ran halfway up his cheek on one side as the result of an old knife scar.”

   In short order Red has saved Gerta and is hired as foreman on her ranch, but it is hardly smooth sailing from there, as soon Gerta is kidnapped, and even once he rescues her Red has to face her jealousy over saloon girl Rosita.

    But with the help of his horse, “El Flivver!…EL Hennery Ford! The devil caballo!” and his Colt .45 automatic, Red is a match for just about anything the Old West or Old Mexico can throw at him save perhaps Gerta.

    Cannon to right of me; cannon to left of me. I couldn’t go back, and I couldn’t go forward. Looked like I was ketched, eh, what?

   But it takes more than a squeeze of that sort to decompose Red Connors:

    “Hold fast!” I barked like a Amsterdam Avenue conductor to this pillowsham I was loaded with.

   Then I flings myself with her over the balcony railing, and hangs by one hand. Henry Ford is just underneath me, his back about two inches from my dangling toes.

    “Whoa, Henry!” I says, and he stands like a rock.

   Then I let go, and lands pretty as you please square in the saddle, with the lady jolted but unhurt still in the hollow of my arm. Another second, and we was streaking it for the archway and the great, open spaces.

    Bang! A red-hot stripe flicks along the side of my neck, and I hears another bullet go zipping past my ear.

   Red, of course, gets the girl and the horse, and at one point has a two way conversation with Henry Ford the likes of which you never encountered in Zane Grey, and it is all insane and mad fun written in the indomitable style of the much maligned Carroll John Daly, who for my money is one of the most sheerly entertaining bad writers to ever hunt and peck deathless prose onto the written page.

   Exactly what C. C. Waddell contributes is hard to guess, because Two-Gun Gerta reads like pure Daly, and Red Connors, like Three Gun Terry Mack, is just a rehearsal for the urban gunfighter/private eye Race Williams soon to emerge from Daly’s white hot imagination.

   It is pure pulp, and Red, Henry Ford, and Gerta are all well worth meeting: ”She’d been heaven and hell. But through it all, she’d been Gerta. And there wasn’t nobody like her.”

   There “wasn’t nobody” like Daly either, or this B Western of a two fisted adventure novel out of Tom Mix by way of Mickey Spillane.

Note: This book is important to the development of the hard-boiled genre for three reasons. Most obviously it is an early work of Carroll John Daly, who, whatever your feelings about his work, is the onlie beggetor (to borrow a Kiplingesque term from O. F. Snelling), of the modern hard-boiled private eye.

   Next, historically this book is further evidence of the ties between the Western and the hard-boiled school of writing where the former genre’s penchant for colorful language, fast action, and smart independent noble heroes with guns was transplanted to the Urban canyons of the Big City, while the quieter pleasures of the detective novel were supplanted by gangsters, floozies, femme fatales, gunmen, gamblers, crooked politicians, and corrupt cops.

   Hammett and Chandler both touch on distinctly Western settings at least once each in their work, and Gardner actually wrote mysteries with Western settings, while Black Mask as often as not included one Western in many issues..

   Finally, Red Connors is only a breath away from Daly’s first two private eyes, Three Gun Terry Mack and Race Williams. Hard going as this book may be for some readers, it is historically important to the genre.


CLAIR HUFFAKER – Seven Ways from Sundown, Fawcett Crest #398, paperback original, 1960. Pocket, paperback, 1975. Cover art by Robert Maguire.

SEVEN WAYS FROM SUNDOWN. Universal, 1960. Audie Murphy, Barry Sullivan, Venetia Stevenson, John McIntire, Kenneth Tobey. Screenplay by Clair Huffaker, based on his novel Directed by Harry Keller.

   I rather suspect Huffaker wrote this book in close conjunction with the film, as part of a package deal, but neither of them is the worse for it. The book is compact and fast-moving as anything from Fawcett, but rich with colorful description and action in the Gold Medal style, spiced with bits of genuine cowboy humor.

   The story is a Western Staple: A lawman (in this case a green Texas Ranger named Seven Ways from Sundown Smith) brings in an outlaw (legendary gunman Jim Flood) across miles of dangerous country, and as the two are forced into an uneasy alliance, a mutual respect forms and grows into friendship.

   Huffaker has a deft way of putting across a months-long trek in a very few pages as the journey across four states and back again spins out in less than 130 pages, yet never seems rushed. We get a real feel for the toil of men and horses across snow, mountain and plain. And he doesn’t stint on the action either; Smith and Flood run into nasty Apaches, bounty hunters, bored roughnecks, plain ol’ owlhoots , and a conniving fellow Ranger, all handled with a pace and economy you just don’t see in great literature anymore.

   Over at Universal Studios, producer Gordon Kay had figured out how to make a good Audie Murphy movie: hire a strong character actor, give him all the good lines, and let Audie carry the story.

   In this case, they had one of the best in Barry Sullivan, who could look deadly just by shrugging his shoulders. It helps too that Murphy is cast as a neophyte lawman; like many other war heroes, he never projected toughness onscreen.

   Perhaps best of all though, Seven Ways from Sundown was directed by Harry Keller, who cut his teeth on fast-moving catch-penny Westerns at Republic, the best school of all for this sort of thing. Keller never made a great Western, but he never made a dull one either, and he moves Seven Ways from Sundown along with grace and vigor that make it a pleasure to watch.

   I’ve asked Dick Etulain, the author of the following book to tell us more about it. He’s most graciously agreed:

RICHARD W. ETULAIN – Ernest Haycox and the Western. University of Oklahoma Press, hardcover, illustrated, 2017.

   This book attempts to resurrect writer Ernest Haycox as a major figure in the development of the fictional Western. It is not a biography; Haycox’s son, Ernest Haycox, Jr., does that in his smoothly written book On a Silver Desert: The Life of Ernest Haycox (2003). Nor is it primarily a work of literary criticism. That book is available in Stephen L. Tanner, Ernest Haycox (1996).

   Rather, my book is a work of literary history, tracing Haycox’s literary career from its origins in the early 1920s to his death in 1950.

   Born in 1899 and reared in Oregon, Haycox contributed to high school publications and then to college outlets at Reed College (1919-20) and the University of Oregon (1920-23). By graduation, Haycox had published several stories in pulp magazines. Hoping to establish strong links to fictional outlets in the East, Haycox traveled to New York City, where he met editors important to his career in the 1920s. Meeting Jill Marie Chord (also from Oregon) on the train east, they married in New York City but soon returned west to Portland, which would be the Haycox home for the remainder of his life.

   By the end of the 1920s, Haycox was a steady contributor to many pulp magazines, including such stalwarts as Adventure, Short Stories, and Western Story Magazine. In 1928, he published his first full-length serial, which appeared the next year as Free Grass, his first novel. In the opening 1930s, Haycox made his first appearance in Collier’s and remained a steady contributor for almost twenty years.

   Hoping to move to the top of writers of Westerns, Haycox experimented with several new wrinkles to chosen genre. He created reflective protagonists (“Hamlet heroes”) and dark and light heroines (passionate and reserved women).

   Even more important, he began to turn out historical Westerns, infusing his lively fiction with historical backgrounds such as building the transcontinental railroad, fighting Indians in the Southwest, and settling Oregon. His most notable historical Western was Bugles in the Afternoon (1944), a fictional recreation of Gen. George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

   Immensely successful, Haycox was nonetheless dissatisfied with the restrictions of the Western and entered a period of revolt in the last half-dozen years (1944-50) of his career. Abandoning lucrative serial markets, he set out to write first-rate historical fiction. His best historical novel, The Earthbreakers (1952), appeared two years after his death.

   Talented, ambitious, and driven, Ernest Haycox became a major figure in popular fiction written about the American West. Haycox’s continuing growth, gradual but steady, amply demonstrates an author determined enough to defy popular demands and honest enough to write novels consistent with his changing literary beliefs.

  ARNOLD HANO – The Last Notch. Black Gat #12, Stark House Press, paperback, August 2017. First published as by Matthew Gant by Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1958. Reprinted under that byline by Pyramid, #G482, paperback, 1960.

   It was Dan Stumpf who reviewed an earlier western by Arnold Hano on this blog, a book entitled Flint, originally published as by Gil Dodge but reprinted by Stark House as this one is under the author’s real name. In that review Dan also pointed out Hano’s more significant claim to fame, that of being the editor of Lion Books, the near legendary paperback publisher of such hard-boiled/noir authors in the 1950s as Jim Thompson, Richard Matheson and David Goodis.

   The Last Notch isn’t in the same league as the work any of those three, but there are very few whose books come anywhere close. What Notch does have, as you might expect, based only on this small bit of background information, is a strong noirish and fatalistic tone to it, a tale that starts slowly but picks up speed as it goes along.

   In essence The Last Notch is the story of Ben Slattery, perhaps the most notorious gunfighter in the territory, and in all likelihood the best, but in this tale he finds himself in a very strange position indeed. He agrees to do one last killing for hire, one that will pay him $5000, quite a sum of money back then, then hang up his guns and take the governor up on his offer of general amnesty to every gunman who will take him up on it, and many already have.

   If I were to pause for a minute and have think about it, by a nasty twist of fate, who do you think it is he’s been hired to kill? That’s the story in a nutshell, but wait, as they say. There’s more. I won’t go into detail — and in a book of 230 pages of small print, there is a lot of story I’m not able to tell you about in a review of less than 500 words — but as it so happens, Slattery has a nemesis, a shadowy figure who follows him closely throughout the book, a gunslinger known only as The Kid, young but with 19 notches already on the handle of his gun.

   There are plenty of other characters in the story as well, each described in quick but distinctive detail. There are a couple of young women too, both beautiful but one considerably more innocent than the other. It is Slattery’s present and past that make it impossible to think of a life and a future with her, or is it?

   The situation Slattery is in is admittedly an artificial construct, but is is one, I submit, that you can find yourself wrapped up in totally and completely, transported to a time and place that may exist only in the minds of authors with some talent. This is also one of the stories that you cannot predict which way it will go, which is precisely why the former statement is as true as it is.

REESE SULLIVAN – Deadly Like a .45. Ace Double M-140, paperback original; 1st printing, 1966. Published back-to-back with Last Stage to Gomorrah, by Barry Cord.

   The first story by Giles A Lutz (1910-1982) to have been published in the western pulp magazines may have been “Square in the Saddle,” which appeared in the July 1945 issue of Western Story Magazine. (Thanks to the online Western Fiction Index for this information.)

   From the mid-50s on, according to his entry on Wikipedia, Lutz not only wrote under his own name, but he also used Wade Everett, Alex Hawk, Hunter Ingram, Reese Sullivan, and Gene Thompson as bylines for the huge amount of western fiction he produced, mostly in the form of paperback novels.

   Even though it barely qualifies as a novel — Deadly Like a .45 is only 132 pages long, and there’s only one story line — it’s a good one, and in it, it’s up to Gard Hubach, deputy marshal for a small town in eastern Oregon, to be one of the few to stand up for what’s right.

   It’s this way. Breck Costigan, owner of the large ranch not far out of town figures he owns the whole town as well, and when a small farmer rustles one of his cattle, he thinks nothing of having his crew break him out of jail for a good old-fashioned lynching.

   The sheriff is in Costigan’s pocket. The only one who will stand with Gard is Dolph Emery, the town blacksmith. The only other important character is Emery’s daughter, Martha. Lutz writing as as Reese Sullivan manages to wring all of the drama out of this fairly standard set-up and make the reader wish for more.

   It’s also a dark, violent tale on more than one occasion, surprisingly so. Short, and while not a deep story, nonetheless an effective one.

PostScript:   The other half of this Ace Double, a story by Barry Cord, a pen name of Peter Germano, also a western pulp writer of some standing, is not nearly as successful. The length is the same, and both the plot and the number of characters are a lot more ambitious, but what it boils down to is this: A stagecoach carrying a fortune in gold disappears and a mine played out long ago suddenly starts producing high grade ore again. Much action ensues, but only in peripheral over-busy fashion.

BENNETT FOSTER – Gila City. Five Star, hardcover, 2003. Leisure, paperback; 1st printing, September 2004. A fix-up novel comprised of six stories reprinted from the western pulp magazines; details below.

   To call it a novel is, truthfully, an exaggeration. What this book actually consists of is a series of connected but individual stories from the pulps, each with its own definitive ending. What’s more than a bit strange about this is that the stories did not all come from the same magazine. Chronologically, and in the same orderas they appear in this book, they jumped from title to title, as follows:

        “Mail for Freedom Hill” Dime Western, November 1946.
        “Pilgrim for Boothill’s Glory Hole” Star Western, February 1947.
        “Dandy Bob’s Cold-Deck Cattle Deal” Dime Western, April 1947.
        “The Joke in Hell’s Backyard” Dime Western, July 1947.
        “Gila’s Four-Rod Justice” New Western, December 1947.
        “Duggan Trouble at Salada Wash” Dime Western, March 1948.

   All of the stories take place in the small western town of Gila City, Arizona. It’s within a day’s ride of Tucson, if that helps you place it geographically. Some of the same townspeople appear now and then, as needed, but the villains generally come and go within the time and space of a single story. (More often than not they don’t even survive to the end of the story.)

   The two primary protagonists, on the other hand, are the same throughout: First and foremost, Dandy Bob Roberts, local gambler and sharply dressed gent of sharper than average wit. He is also not averse to doing a little cattle rustling on the side. His natural-born tendency toward illicit ventures always seem to turn around on him, though, often making a small town hero of him. His stature in town seems somehow to keep rising, mostly because of the interference of Old Man Duggan, town drunk, stable hostler and teller of tall tales, and a constant pain in the behind to Dandy Bob.

   For example: When a dude from the East (or pilgrim, as he’s referred to here) happens to come to town looking for a mine to buy, Bob decides to salt the Widow Fennessy’s holdings. Old Man Duggan, having the same idea, unknowingly manages to switch Bob’s high grade ore back to a bag of useless rock. It all works out in the end, though. An inadvertent explosion in the mine exposes a new vein of gold, starting the Widow Fennessy into thinking a lot more favorably of Old Man Duggan as suitable marriage material.

   Which is more plot detail than I’d usually provide, but it should give you the general gist of these gently humorous stories, along with the not idly stated fact that they are gently humorous. Dandy Bob in one story actually becomes the owner of the saloon he’s been plying his trade in all these years, and in another tale Old Man Duggan somehow manages to get himself elected Justice of the Peace, but alas neither position or status is permanent.

   Totally ephemeral, in other words, but also a more than adequate way to spend one’s time while flying cross country on an airplane.

CLIFF FARRELL – Owlhoot Trail. Doubleday, hardcover, 1971. Signet T5207; 1st printing, October 1972. Zebra, paperback, 1990.

   I almost never read westerns for the history that’s behind them, but once in a while I slip up. This story takes place in the days just before the Oklahoma land rush of 1889, and surprisingly to me, this background helps juice up the whole book quite a bit.

   Vince Barrett is a con-man and a gambler, and he has no interest in land. What does attract his attention, though, is $80,000 in stolen Wells Fargo money, hidden somewhere on the other side of the starting line. With three vicious outlaw brothers determined to get their hands back on it, however, not to mention a large contingent of lawmen in the area as well, he decides to leave it lay — that is, until a girl and her father also get involved.

   Thus begins what promises to be a better than average western tale, but there are just too many secrets involved, and worse, the ending is a minor disappointment, at least in comparison to what came before.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993 (slightly revised).

Bibliographic Notes:   Cliff Farrell (1899-1977) was the author of hundreds of stories for the pulp magazines, beginning in 1926. His first novel was Follow the New Grass, published in 1954, the first of nearly 30 before his death.

KYLE HOLLINGSHEAD – Ransome’s Move. Ace Double 38500, paperback original; 1st printing, 1971. Published back-to-back with Jemez Brand, by L. L. Foreman (reviewed here ).

   I know nothing about Kyle Hollingshead, the author of this Ace Double western novel, other than the fact that he wrote six other westerns, all for Ace (list below), and that itinerant gambler slash con-man Santee Ransome is in at least two more of them.

   He comes to Roaring Springs for a good reason, though. An old friend of his, Howard Giles, is in jail for killing the wife of the man who runs the town, Patrick Clancy. He’s been tried and convicted. The case against is open and shut, but Ransome does not believe it.

   As he soon discovers, though, there are far more threads to the story than this, with several dozen characters clogging up only 120 pages of story, most of them coming on stage only once or twice before disappearing again. Given major short shrift is the mystery of the sheriff’s missing son (his wife just happens to be a old flame of Ransome’s).

   Taking up much of the story is a charade being perpetrated on the teller of Clancy’s bank while Clancy is away. Word gets around that the old white-haired man who has come to town in a fancy private coach and large retinue is none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt. Tis not so. I wasn’t taken in, nor do I think I was meant to be.

   It’s all in fun, but I think it would have helped if the book has been half the size longer, just to fit all of the story into it.

      KYLE HOLLINGSHEAD – Bibliography:

Echo of a Texas Rifle (Ace Double, 1967)
The Franklin Raid / Ransome’s Debt (Ace Double, 1970)
Ransome’s Move (Ace Double, 1971)
Ransome’s Army (Ace,, 1974)
The Man on the Blood Bay (Ace, 1977)
Across the Border (ace, 1978)

Next Page »