Thursday, April 19, 2007


This is the week of the western here at Gravetapping—first The Fire Arrow and now the new paperback original from Max McCoy: Hellfire Canyon.

But first I have a gripe: Each time I wander into a bookstore I’m mystified and annoyed by the shrinking westerns section; at my local bookstore it is down to one paltry shelf. And probably about two-thirds of the selection is either Louis L’Amour or the genuinely terrible William W. Johnstone.

The unfortunate part of this, other than the obvious long goodbye of the genre, is most westerns written today are terrific. They are better than much, if not most, of the westerns written when the genre was thriving. In a sense it is a golden age: the published westerns are better than they have ever been, and should appeal to a wider audience; unfortunately no one reads them, and none of the publishing houses market them. Why? Why?

A good example of a great modern western is Max McCoy’s Hellfire Canyon. Hellfire Canyon is the story of Jacob Gamble: outlaw, renegade and general hell-raiser. He is the archetypal western outlaw, with one exception: He is likable, and rather than the antagonist, he is the hero.

The novel begins when three men trample into young Jacob’s farmhouse and demand breakfast from his mother. They are confederate soldiers with a platoon of blue bellies hot on their trail. This is the catalyst that shapes Jacob’s life—the Union soldiers burn down his home, and he discovers his father is in lockup scheduled to be hanged. Jacob and his mother set out to save his father, but instead find themselves crossing Missouri in the company of a stranger, facing cutthroats, soldiers, the coming winter, and finally forced induction into the gang of the notorious killer Alf Bolin.

Hellfire Canyon is not the typical. There is violence and even gun play, but there is more—a yearning and understanding of history, legend, and even folklore. Gamble is an admitted liar, killer and thief, but he—the story is written in first person—portrays himself never as a victim, but as a survivor. Interestingly, in the opening pages of the novel he casts doubt on everything that is to come: And I won’t tell the truth. Instead, I will spin the tale that is expected—that I was forced by circumstances at the tender age of thirteen to become the youngest member of the Bolin gang.

Hellfire Canyon is a campfire story. It is raw, tender, and fresh, but we are left knowing it isn’t the real story. It is the story the witness—Jacob Gamble—wants us to know, or perhaps more accurately thinks we want to know. It is more folklore and legend than anything else, and I loved every word.

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