Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Move: Part 2

Warning: It is going to be quiet around here for a few days. We are moving back to Salt Lake City, from the beautiful and oh so rural college town of Cedar City. My office gave me a leave of absence to finish my masters degree, which is now complete, and I have to be back at the office on 4-Jan-10. We are moving on Monday December 28, and we should be in our new place December 29. The summer of fun is over....

See you next week.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays!

It’s been a wonderful year for my wife and I, and the holiday season has been no different. We are having a quiet Christmas this year—we watched the first two episodes of Rose Red last night (we’ll finish it tonight) and today we are going to spend the afternoon in Zion National Park.

I hope your holiday is as wonderful. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

BARBED WIRE by Elmer Kelton

I have listened to few audio books. I never seem to have time; at work I tend to concentrate on work and lose the plot and action. In my car I tend to listen to, and curse at, traffic. But my wife gave me an MP3 a few days ago and it took me about two hours to download a book from the library, and I really enjoyed it.

The novel was a short western by Elmer Kelton. The title: Barbed Wire. It was originally published in 1957, and it has lost little of its impact over the fifty years since its first publication. It is a Texas range war story that is told, essentially, from the perspective of a fence builder—although it is told from several view points. The land is split between ranchers and dirt farmers; it is open range country, and the largest rancher—Captain Rinehart—wants it to stay that way.

The story unfolds as the Captain battles against the coming fences that will lock away the water, and cut the land into tiny rectangles of farms and ranches. It is the future; this separation of land that will allow herds to be bred exclusively, crops to be secured against the roaming cattle, and the protection and hoarding of water in a dry country. It is a future that terrifies the Captain enough that he is willing to let himself be mislead into action by his foreman.

Barbed Wire is an excellent western. It is only my second experience with the work of Elmer Kelton, the first was his novel Badger Boy, and I wasn’t disappointed. The plot is fairly generic, but its execution, characters and authenticity, mark it a few notches better than the norm. The prose is gritty and matches the western plot like a glove—

“It was a sorry way for a cowboy to make a living, Doug Monahan thought disgustedly. Bending his back over a rocky posthole, he plunged the heavy iron crowbar downward, hearing its angry ring and feeling the violent jar of it bruising the stubborn rock bottom. He rubbed sweat from his forehead into his sleeve and straightened his sore back, pausing to rest a moment and look around.”

The plot is executed with a tight linear momentum that takes the expected and makes it fresh and somehow new. The characters are tough and realistic, the action is paced with an equitable easiness—a pace that is far from melodramatic, but is exciting and seemingly authentic.

Ken Marks read Barbed Wire. His voice is mellow and southern, a perfect fit for the story. He is easy to understand and he brings the story vividly to life.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Short Film: The Ugly File

A few months ago I mentioned a short film based on Ed Gorman's short story "The Ugly File". It is now available to watch on the Internet. It was directed by Mark Steensland (Peekers) and the screenplay was written by veteran horror novelist Rick Hautala. It was produced by another familiar name, Richard Chizmar.

It is a faithful adaptation, and really pretty good. The streaming quality isn't top-notch, but it will do.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


I recently read another H. A. DeRosso collection—after Under the Burning Sun—edited by Bill Pronzini . Its title: Riders of the Shadowlands. It was published by Five Star in 1999, and it is similar to Under the Burning Sun in that it collects ten of DeRosso’s western-type stories—two were published by mystery magazines, although one is a strange kind of mystery. The tales are less eclectic than the first collection, but no less entertaining, existential, or downright terrific.

The stories in this collection are also lightly edited—James Reasoner in a comment to my post about Under the Burning Sun said, “I compared a couple of the stories in the collection to their original magazine appearances and found only a very few changes.” Mr. Pronzini also states that he only edited superfluous, and redundant words. I only mention the editing because of the recent Internet flare-up about the new Harlequin pulp editions that were edited for content—a situation that is far different than the editing in this volume.

My favorite stories included in the collection are both tales of the “shadowlands.” One is a short story and the other a novella. The novella is the title story, “Riders of the Shadowlands,” a fairly conventionally plotted rustler tale. Its ordinariness ends at the plot however. It is a violent story in a hellish setting with a hardboiled / noir attitude. It has more in common with the hardboiled crime written in the 1950s, but the western setting and attitudes are accurate and beautifully described in a hard-bitten, stark prose.

There is a terrific mystery titled “Dark Purpose,” which was originally published in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (April 1958) under the title “Kill the Killer.” It is a manhunt story set in the wilds of Northern Wisconsin. The wilderness, and landscape, are as central to the story as they are in DeRosso’s “shadowlands” tales. In fact it is as much a western as any of the stories included in the collection.

Riders of the Shadowlands does not include a dud; each is vibrant, entertaining, and dark. The stories were published between 1950 and 1962, and each is an example of how talented and original DeRosso was as a writer.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Top Five Reads of 2009

I’m not sure why I do a top of the year list; probably the same reason I do anything on this blog: to hear myself type. But damn if I don’t enjoy it. So here is the fourth annual Gravetapping Top Five Reads of the Year…enjoy…. And, a little refresher on the rules. The book must be new to me, but its publication date is unimportant.

This year’s list was more difficult to create than its predecessors because, simply, I read so many wonderfully entertaining novels. The year was a year of discovery. I discovered a dozen or so new authors, the bulk of them wrote during the paperback revolution in the 1950s and 60s and I also rediscovered a bevy of authors whom I had ignored for years. The most important from the latter group is Brian Garfield and Donald Hamilton, and from the former H. A. DeRosso, Merle Constiner and Robert Colby.

Here it is, in ascending order.

5. Line of Fire by Donald Hamilton. I read this title in March and I was awed by the power of both its linear storyline and tight, literate, prose. A perfect suspense novel.

4. Cage of Night by Ed Gorman. This is another early 2009 read; I read it in April. It is a story that doesn’t fit a category, exactly, but it lives somewhere between dark suspense, supernatural horror and crime. It is one of the finest horror novels I have ever read.

3. Under the Burning Sun by H. A. DeRosso. I read this one in December. This is a collection of stories written, for the most part, in the 1950s and 60s. The stories, particularly the “shadowlands” westerns are unforgettable. DeRosso was thirty or more years ahead of his time.

2. Fear in a Handful of Dust by Brian Garfield (originally published as by John Ives). I read this title in July. This modern western / suspense novel knocked me off my feet. It is literally perfect. A masterpiece of suspense.

1. Violent Saturday by W. L. Heath. I read it in May. There are only a few crime novels I would ever refer to as beautiful—defined as haunting, sharp, and meaningful—and this is one of them. It is a novel that everyone should read. Really, I mean everyone.

This list easily could have gone to ten of fifteen titles, but I sweated, worked, chaffed, and even cried a few times in my attempts to reduce it to the mandatory five. A few more titles that could have made the list but didn't are: Northfield by Johnny D. Boggs, North Star by Richard S. Wheeler, The Midnight Room and Ticket to Ride by Ed Gorman, Necessity by Brian Garfield, Binary by John Lange, and Slammer by Allan Guthrie.

All in all 2009 was a fine year for reading. I bet 2010 will be just as good.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


The eighth, and reportedly last, Sam McCain novel opens in 1965 at a Vietnam peace rally in Black River Falls, Iowa. The rally is held in the local Presbyterian Church and after 90 minutes of the same arguments—being spoken by different people—McCain is ready to leave the rally for the comforts of a double feature at the drive-in. But then as the newest local superstar, a pretty boy named Harrison Doran, is speaking a man takes the stage and asks to rebut the protestor’s arguments.

The man is not only the father of a casualty of war, his son died in Da Nang, but he is also a prominent and wealthy resident of Black River Falls. His name is Lou Bennett, and it doesn’t take long for boos to start and the scene to turn ugly. There is an altercation between Doran and Bennett, and then later that night Bennett is found dead. Harrison Doran is the likeliest suspect. McCain doesn’t like Doran, but he is enlisted to defend him, and it is a position that makes Sam less than popular amongst the mostly conservative population.

Ticket to Ride is a real treat. It features all of the regulars; the town’s pornographer, writer of sleaze, and McCain buddy Kenny Thibodeau, Judge Esme Anne Whitney, Jamie Newton—McCain’s guileless, but less than competent secretary—and the obnoxious and usually wrong police chief Clifford (Cliffie) Sykes, Jr. Mr Gorman perfectly captures the essence of small town America and he does it with a subtleness that never succumbs to clichĂ© or stereotype. His characters are living, breathing people, who are never clearly good or bad—he shows their humanity in brief and poignant moments of vulnerability, weakness, and strength.

The plot is smooth and sharp; the prose is understated, readable and powerful—
“I wanted to say something smart, but his honesty surprised me. He was admitting that all the scorn hurt him. He had no right to tell me this, because, at least for the moment here, I had to feel bad about making fun of him all the time. Cliffie was supposed to be a cartoon. It pissed me off that he’d forced me to see him as a human being.”
The amazing achievement of Ticket to Ride is that it is written with a humor and innocent cynicism that allows the story a power of both place and time, and also a social commentary that is relevant for the story's Vietnam-era setting, as well as that of modern America. It is simple a brilliantly rendered private eye novel that is a wonderful addition to the series and the genre.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

"Dance of the Dead"

I watched a decent little horror film a few days ago called "Dance of the Dead." It is marketed as part of the Ghost House Underground; whatever that is. It is a clever and humorous look at the zombie tale. The violence is silly, rather than realistic, and the plot is built less for suspense and more for sheer fun and comedy. It is a decent quality independent / low-budget film.

"Dance of the Dead" was written by Joe Ballarini, and directed by Gregg Bishop.

Warning: The trailer is rated R.

IMDb page.

Monday, December 07, 2009


I read an astonishingly good collection of stories by pulp writer H. A. DeRosso titled Under the Burning Sun. The collection includes twelve stories; two are novelettes. Ten are straight westerns, although generally far from traditional, and the other two are suspense with a western voice. It was compiled and edited by Bill Pronzini; in his Foreword he writes the stories, save one, were lightly edited “to eliminate superfluous and repetitive passages contained in the original magazine versions.”

This collection is my first experience with DeRosso’s work and I was stunned by the power of his writing. It tended toward the unusual and bleak, the mythical and surreal, but it also vitalized the characters with a hard-bitten sadness and self-awareness that is rarely found in genre fiction. A major theme in the stories is one of hope, but it is hope that is never fulfilled.  The characters—the protagonists—can see a better place and future, but can never quite get there.

The best story in the collection is a novelette titled “The Bounty Hunter”. It is what Bill Pronzini labels a “shadowlands” story—a surreal western that is related more to the bleak other worlds of The Twilight Zone than a traditional western. It reminded me of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger.  It is a relatively simple story, and follows the track of a bounty hunter called Spurr. Spurr kills an outlaw who, he is told later, may be his own son. It is a mythical story—from the beautifully surreal landscape to the internal demons that drive Spurr to search for the truth.

The other stories range from the more traditional “Hold-up”—the story of the father of a failing rancher who is forced to choose between his self-identified morality and both his, and his son’s, future—to the rich rendering of the final months of the Chiricahuas’ fight to stay off the reservation in “The Last Sleep”.

Under the Burning Sun is more than a collection of western stories. It is a sample of how good the genre story can be. The violence—and there is some—is realistic and vivid. It is examined with a neutrality that allows the reader to see its effects on the characters and story. The “shadowlands” tales—“The Bounty Hunter” and “Those Bloody Bells of Hell!”—are brilliant.  The prose is written in a surreal form that depicts the landscape as a hellish nightmare where only monsters exist. It is best related to a high quality comic book; something like Jonah Hex.

Under the Burning Sun is a wonderful collection. It reads like a train steaming through the vast deserts of the Southwest; desolate, beautiful, and deadly. Bill Pronzini relates DeRosso’s style to the Black Mask school of hardboiled in general, and Cornell Woolrich’s work particularly.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

And the Winner is...

A winner was randomly chosen from the list of entrants to receive the ACE Double (G-638) The Action at Redstone Creek by Merle Constiner / A Time to Shoot It Out by Edwin Booth. Thanks to everyone who entered; there were enough that I may do another contest. Maybe. The winner is...Craig Clarke. Congratulations Craig. Also, you should check out Craig's terrific blog Somebody Dies where he reviews crime, western, and more.

Also related to the contest, I received several terrific recommendations for pulp western writers. Including:

Donald Hamilton, Marvin H. Albert (aka Al Conroy), Harry Whittington, H.A. DeRosso--I just started a story collection and so far I am blown away by the bleak power of his writing--T.T. Flynn, Peter Dawson, Luke Short, Clifton Adams, and Jack Slade.

Thanks to everyone!