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.