The stranger's eyes narrowed to slits of icy light. Before him, puffing on a small cigar, his mouth pressed in a serpentine smile, sat Nelson Nye, alias Clem Colt, author of "Rogue's Rendevous" and "Parson of Gunbarrel Basin." Blood pumped savagely in the stranger's brain. He started to speak, buy Nye cut him off. "Figured you'd be looking me up. Been waitin' on you . . ."
Maybe you get the idea. If you're going to write a Western (or even read one), think heroic. Sunsets are "dappled and golden." The heroine's heart is "drenched with terror." (It doesn't do for her face to get red; pink must "splash into her cheeks like spilled wine.") And of course the names, don't forget the names. The more exotic the better. Chance Fargo, Wade Tillotson, Lance Larraby. Somehow, Harry Wilson doesn't make it.
Listen to this deathless opening from "The Yesterday Rider":
Riley Cord heard the gunshots as he drew to a halt on the lip of a bluff a short distance west of the town. The sound, a quick spatter of reports, rolled lazily across the grassy flats and up the sage-clad slopes of the short hills, and echoed hollowly in his ears. Holding the chestnut gelding he was riding with a short rein, he studied the settlement sprawled in the basic below him with thoughtful eyes.
Whew. Anybody who can write like that doesn't need to be in journalism. But then Ray Hogan, who has written 90 oaters, including 23 in the best-selling Shawn Starbuck series, probably never gave facts a backward glance - fantasy has done him just fine, thank you. Hogan, Missouri-born and New Mexico-reared, is the son of a onetime Western lawman. He has done a bit of everything in his time, from brone-riding to hay-shocking. Like everyone else in the business, he thinks the Western is here to stay.
Maybe, though these days it's getting increasingly hard to find. Although no total sales figures are known, according to Publishers Weekly magazine, only 49 new paperback Westerns galloped into print last year; that's down 16 titles from '75. Most were lost among reissues of such immortals as Luke Short. William MacLeod Raine, Max Brand, and, of course, Zane Grey, who as nearly everybody knows started out as a dentist from the University of Pennsylvania (Brand, a poet and classicist, was a bit odd for the calling, too. Sent by his publisher to El Paso to get a first-hand look at the Wild West, he reportedly holed up in his hotel room and read Sophocles.)
A few publishing houses - Double-day, Batam - report their Western output is up over a decade or even two decades ago, when fans named Eisenhower and Truman were helping out the genre. Most New York editors, however, say the Western market is "cyclical," which is another way of saying it stinks just now.
And yet the readers are there, Gary Player is an admitted lover of Westerns. So is Randy Jones of the San Diego Padres. (He reportedly once said his favorite pastimes were chewing gum and reading Louis L'Amour.) And then there's the 80-odd-year-old investment banker on Wall Street who's forever calling up Doubleday to get its latest list. "We send a few down to our Wall Street store just for him," says a Doubleday executive.
Almost anyone who writes about the so-called dime Western (a misnomer, since even during the pulp heydays they generally cost a nickel) ends up writing about Louis L'Amour. He's the General Motors of the industry. (His worldwide sales total 71 million books; on Oct. 1, Bantam will flood newsstands at airports, bus terminals and drug stores with L'Amour's latest epic, "Borden Chantry.")
But the truth is there are scores of other hearts of the West in this peculiarly American entertainment; most of them are unsung heroes. Men like Jack Zavada, by day a reporter for the Streator (III) Times-Press, but by night the author of such stirring shoot-em-ups as "Rebel Town"; they say he writes to the beat of a banjo.
Or Budd Arthur, a fast-talking Chicago PR man who figures he's polished off "Oh, a couple dozen, plus some scripts. I can't remember how many. I mean, don't ask me for titles. Christ, my father alone wrote 150 of 'em.
Or Tommy Thompson, who 25 years ago cofounded the Western Writers of America, then went to Hollywood to write scripts for TV's "Bonanza"; these days he edits a trailer-park magazine out of Newbury Park, Calif.
Or Mel Marshall, who has owned newspapers and radio stations, but who came home finally to the Texas Panhandle to live out his Old West fantasies at the typewriter. He thinks he's written about 30 Westerns altogether, some for company-owned bylines. His 1971 "Drift Fence," which the British published in a handsome hardbound, chronicles an epic land feud between young Brad Logan and his crusty father-in-law, Sam Bascomb.
Marshall, it turns out, is president of the Western, Writers of America, a band of 300 full-time writers from 38 states and 7 foreign countries trying to give honor to America's greatest legend. He hotly resents the effete corps of Eastern critics who seem always to be treating his organization, not to mention his genre, with benign neglect. "Either that, or with a supercilious gloss of accusatory writing."
Washington-based author and critic Larry McMurtry has left off the gloss. More than a year ago he wrote a piece for The Chicago Tribune in which he described "cheap" Westerns as "essentially subliterary work." (He was distinguishing between the pulp sort of Western and the respected historical fiction of such writers as Frederick Manfred and A. B. Guthrie Jr.)
"As entertainment," wrote McMurtry, himself a Texan with most of his books set there, "the Western may have peaked where it began, with James Fenimore Cooper's 'Leatherstocking Tales'." Near the end of the article, he wrote: "As a form, the Western was frozen long ago - but like mastodon meat it is apparently still edible to the dwindling, passively reactionary band of readers who insist on diggling it out."
This last seems a bit strong. Perhaps it should be noted that, after all, a horse opera is only a horse opera. Tolstoy it ain't. Yes, the plots are hackneyed and the characters stereotyped. Yes, the prose is purple. (Curious things happen when a Western writer gets carried away, such as the man who penned the line, "A coyote circled the camp on noiseless wing.")
But what the best Westerns have are drive and drama and most especially a love for the Old West. Heroes too.If you're going to the movies to see a Western, or sitting down on your sofa to read one, then in one sense almost any one will do, since they all try to work out in Manichaean terms the old conflicts between good and evil in a more or less pristine 19th-century setting. That is all a Western wants to be.
Early this past summer the Western Writers of America held their 25th annual meeting. This year's hoot was in Oklahoma City, in the shadows of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. There were the usual symposiums and panels and award banquets - at which doddering old-timers like S. Omar Barker, who's 84 now with a hearing aid and swollen ankles, got up to read poems about "A yaller moon come boomin' up," and "Those horseback cowboys whose like we will not see again . . . Dusty they rode . . ."
Nelson Nye was there, too. He's retired from a nearly 40-year career of writing shoot-em-ups. He began back in the '30s, averaging six books a year. Once he knocked off three in 20 days apiece. Two years ago Ace Books brought out eight of his oaters at once. He is still being reissued, though not as much now. In his salad days, he says, he wrote for Macmillan, Dodd Mead, New American Library, Pocket Books - you name it. He can't even remember all his pen names.
How did he get down all that wordage?
"Well, I'll tell you," he says, drawing close. He is wearing a bola tie, argyle socks, a flat-crowned leather cowboy hat he keeps knocking back. "The only way to pile up words is to write every day. A thousand words a day is enough. In two months, you got 60,000 words."
He pauses to light up.He was lifting a match to the freshly rolled cigarette when he saw her, and he looked past the flame into her eyes and something seemed to hit him in the stomach. "Now everybody is different, of course, but the way I used to do it was to get up at 7, be done with breakfast by 7:30, go into my study and play some hillbilly for awhile. That's country and Western to you. Merle Haggard's my favorite. I like Freddie Fender, too, cause he scrambles it up a bit, you know? So anyway, I piddle around for awhile and then sometime before 9 I'm at the typewriter. I don't plot. I might write one page 40 times. I also might write it once. At 11 I knock off and have lunch, then go prospecting. I'm a rock hound, you know."
"The hell you say!" Brooks turned to stare. "Then he's the same Bardoul that killed Lefty King, over a Julesburg!"
"Now I say a Western's the hardest there is to write," Nye goes on. "Most people think it's the easiest - a lot of gunfights and stuff. Pornography's the easiest. A Western's gotta move from the opening line. Luke Short, he always had lousy openings."
We did he hang it up? "Well, I was never that exuberantly fond of writing in the first place. It's damn hard work. Then you took at the shrinking market. I mean, who's publishing Westerns today? Only Doubleday in hardback, plus a few paper firms. Viking used to take a crack at one every once in awhile. Besides, they're putting out such little editions. Why, in my day I used to have 500,000 copies; now I get 100,000 from a reissue if I'm lucky. So why beat your brains out? Besides I make more from my backlist than I would from new stuff. And to think, I once had 30 million copies in print. Hell, one year I made 20 grand."
Tom Jeier, 30, would like to make $20,000 today. He's from Munich, Germany, and has been doing Westerns for nine years. So far he's got 16 novels, both in hard and soft, under his belt, plus translations in Swedish and Italian. Only thing, the money's not so good. His latest cowboy novel is something called "Blutiger Schnee." written under the name Mark L. Wood. "That's because I love Natalie Wood," he says in a Teutonic accent.
He says the book is his "late revenge on the German army. It's about a young man talked into joining the cavalry, but later deserts. I'm not very fond of excessive violence, and this book is my statement."
Jeier says he started reading about the Old West when he was 11, mostly the overly romanticized books of Karl Mai. He went to the library and found encyclopedias and histories. Then, when he turned 21, he came to America to research the Chisholm Trail; he knew right off he'd found a life's career.
"I think the German character is both romantic and violent," he says. "The American West would naturally appeal to us. Then there's the land thing, those endless spaces. We have nothing like that in Germany. We get all excited about Monument Valley, for instance. There's enough myth and legend there to fill a hundred books."
Cougar Crossing . . . Once it had been his town nine, no 10 years ago. He's been the marshal, a job at which he had been good and one he'd liked very well, but the day had come, as it does to a restless man, when the urge to move on, see new country, have a look at the other side of the mountain had refused to be pushed aside any longer, and he'd ridden on . . .
But will they survive? Or are Westerns going to just one day dry up and blow away like milkweed?
Mark Jaffe, senior vice president and editorial director at Bantam Books, thinks the cowboy novel will be with us long after James Bond is molding in his grave.
"I think it's basically a cyclical things," he says. "Of course, we have to find new writers, that's all important to survival of the genre. But I have faith that a new generation of reader - the kid 16, 17 years old - is going to discover Westerns and keep them alive. We all went through this tremendous social upheaval a few years back. Now we're looking for a return to values. The cowboy has always offered love, and courage, and . . . well, accomplishment. Just think of those epic cattle drives. I mean you could dream of those for the rest of your life and probably never get tired. That's what the Western myth offers, and that's why it'll always be around."
"There's a few things that never change," Riley said, starting down the street. "I reckon they never will . . ."