Sunday, 27 April 2014

Reading Habits #9: Do you surprise your readers?

© Prashant C. Trikannad

On my blog I seldom review books I write about before I read them, because they lose their novelty irrespective of what I may have to say about them later. There is no surprise element. A reader or visitor knows what to possibly expect, not that public memory is long. Still, I like reading books and short stories that most people might have forgotten about or might not have been aware of. Those are the ones I like reviewing too. My reviews of Public Murders, a crime fiction by Bill Granger, and short stories by Fanny Stevenson, wife of Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Philip Sousa, a renowned presidential musician, created a mild but welcome ripple.

Last week, I picked up three used paperbacks in good condition—Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker, who, according to The Boston Globe, has taken his place beside Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald; The House That Jack Built, a Matthew Hope mystery, by Ed McBain; and Cast a Long Shadow, a Bandolero western, by Wayne D. Overholser. The McBain novel is No.13 in my collection; I haven't read the other twelve yet. While I’m familiar with McBain and Overholser, having read their novels previously, I have not read anything by Parker, the noted American crime fiction writer who created Detective Spenser. I’m looking forward to it. I'll be reading these novels but I won't be reviewing them.


Hiking or trekking, we walk off the beaten track; I apply the same principle to reading and reviewing. How about you?

Friday, 25 April 2014

Three short works by John Philip Sousa

Delightful tales from the musical pen of a composer and writer for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

“That,” said Mephistopheles, solemnly, and with no pretense of sophistry, “is the string of death, and he who plays upon it dies at once.”

The plan was to review American music composer and conductor John Philip Sousa’s The Fifth String (1902), a novella about Angelo Diotti, a fictionally renowned Italian violinist who comes to America and falls in love with Mildred Wallace, the coldhearted daughter of a wealthy banker. 

At the heart of the story is Diotti’s possession of a unique and magnificent violin gifted to him by Satan. Unlike a typical violin which has four strings, this one has a fifth string. The four strings, when played, arouse feelings of pity, hope, love, and joy in the listener, and the fifth string, while also enchanting the listener, will mean death to the player. 

The question is does Signor Diotti play the death string?

The conversation between the composer and the devil is lively, and there is humour in the narrative. However, since I’ve only just started reading the fifty-five page ebook, I cannot offer a full review of this unusual tale.

I also read two other works by John Philip Sousa—The Conspirators, a short story about the abduction of a young girl, and Experiences of a Bandmaster, a short biographical sketch of the music composer.
 

The author in 1900.
© Elmer Chickering
Wikimedia Commons
In The Conspirators, three “scoundrels,”—Dennis Foley and his son Tom, and their accomplice Hildey, kidnap little Lillian and hold her hostage in a shack near Beaver Dam, an isolated creek, and demand ten thousand dollars in ransom from her wealthy father, Colonel Franklin. What follows is a Hardy Boys-like search and rescue of the girl by her brother Gilbert and their friends Sandy, Dink, and Leander, and some tense moments in a boat chase across the river. The action and excitement in The Conspirators is mild compared to a Hardy Boys adventure.

In Experiences of a Bandmaster, Sousa relives some of his memorable experiences as a music conductor in the service of the United States and that of the general public. As a conductor of the Marine Band, he played at state functions in the White House, under Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison in that order.

I think I may say that more than one President, relieved from the onerous duties of a great reception, has found rest by sitting quietly in the corner of a convenient room and listening to the music.

In one anecdote, Sousa recounts his embarrassment when President Arthur approached him quietly and asked him to play the Cachuca, a Spanish solo dance music. When the composer explained that the Marine Band did not have the music, the President, it seems, looked surprised and remarked: “Why, Sousa, I thought you could play anything. I'm sure you can; now give us the Cachuca.” The brief sketch has many such anecdotes.

John Philip Sousa had a distinguished music career and was known mainly for American military and patriotic marches, which earned him the title ‘The March King’ or the ‘American March King.’ He must have composed music as beautifully as he wrote his stories. The two stories and the memoir were certainly well written. You can read more about Sousa here.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

How the West Was Written, Vol.1, by Ron Scheer

Author Ron Scheer
© Buddies in the Saddle
I was fourteen when my paternal uncle introduced me to my first western, Sudden, by British author Oliver Strange. He used to read the Corgi editions in a single sitting of two hours. By the time I finished reading the ten adventures of the lightning-quick Texas outlaw, and an additional five by compatriot Frederick H. Christian (writer Frederick Nolan), I was hooked to western fiction. 

I followed up the Sudden series with westerns by J.T Edson, Zane Grey, Max Brand, George G. Gilman's Edge, Wayne D. Overholser, Giles A. Lutz, and Louis L'Amour whose Flint remains one of my favourite novels in the category. 

Over the past three decades, I read many westerns by various authors. I read them without pattern or proper knowledge of the genre. It was only in the past few years, and especially after I started blogging, that I realised there was far more to westerns than gunfights, saloon brawls, and rustling. My understanding of the Wild West has been coming mainly from reading about early and historical frontier fiction on blogs published by veterans in the field, James Reasoner, Ed Gorman, Ron Scheer, and Richard S. Wheeler, among several illustrious writers. Their reviews and articles about western stories in particular and western fiction in general have enhanced my pleasure of reading both early and contemporary westerns.

My education in frontier fiction is set to get a boost when I read Ron Scheer's just-released How the West Was Written, Frontier Fiction, Vol.1, 1880-1906. The book—the first of a two-volume series on frontier fiction during 1880-1915—is published by Beat to a Pulp whose editor-publisher David Cranmer describes Ron as "the premier reviewer of Western literature." I couldn't agree more as I'm a lot wiser about the Wild West after reading his many in-depth reviews of western books and films. If you're a fan of westerns, then you should head over to his blog Buddies in the Saddle.

While the title tells you what the book is about, here is a brief description from the introduction:


This book began as a question about the origins of the cowboy western... how it grew from Owen Wister’s bestseller, The Virginian (1902), to Zane Grey’s first novels a decade later. A reading of frontier fiction from that period, however, soon reveals that the cowboy western was only one of many different kinds of stories being set in the West.

Besides novels about ranching and the cattle industry, writers wrote stories about railroads, mining, timber, the military, politics, women’s rights, temperance, law enforcement, engineering projects, homesteaders, detectives, preachers and, of course, Indians, all of it an outpouring between the years 1880–1915. That brief 35-year period extends from the Earp-Clanton gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona, to the start of the First World War.

The chapters of How the West Was Written tell a story of how the western frontier fed the imagination of writers, both men and women. It illustrates how the cowboy is only one small figure in a much larger fictional landscape. There are early frontier novels in which he is the central character, while in others he’s only a two-dimensional, tobacco-chewing caricature, or just an incidental part of the scenery.

A reading of this body of work reveals that the best-remembered novel from that period, The Virginian, is only one among many early western stories. And it was not the first. The western terrain was used to explore ideas already present in other popular fiction—ideas about character, women, romance, villainy, race, and so on. A modern reader of early western fiction discovers that Wister’s novel was part of a flood of creative output. He and, later, Zane Grey were just two of many writers using the frontier as a setting for telling the human story.


How the West Was Written promises to be the literary equivalent of the epic film How the West Was Won, 1962. The book is currently available as an ebook for Kindle and in paperback. Ron Scheer says there will be a second volume for the years 1907-1915.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Love Story, 1970

A short run through a popular film of the seventies for Overlooked Films at Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom.

Ryan O'Neal is probably best remembered for the soap opera Peyton Place. But when I think of his films I immediately think of Love Story (1970), based on Erich Segal's popular novel, and Irreconcilable Differences (1984) where a little girl takes her warring parents to court with the intention of divorcing them. I've seen little else. 

Love Story is both a love story and a family drama where Oliver Barrett IV (O'Neal), a Harvard Law student, risks the wrath of his wealthy and elitist father by falling in love with an ordinary but intelligent girl, Jenny (Ali MacGraw), and marrying her. But their love is doomed for reasons other than familial opposition. Directed by Arthur Hiller and written by Erich Segal, Love Story is a poignant tale of two mature adults whose love and friendship depends on complete honesty with each other. 

While the late Erich Segal wrote in a clean and simple style, he weaved emotional stories, playing on the sentiments of his many readers. I believe when Love Story was released people came out crying from cinema halls. His Man, Woman and Child (written in 1970, filmed in 1983) was no less sentimental as a married man and father of two daughters grapples with unexpected events after he learns that he has a son from another woman, the result of a past affair. He wrote lines that became popular like "Love means never having to say you're sorry" in Love Story and "Sheila is why I believe in marriage" in Man, Woman and Child. I never saw Oliver's Story (1979), the sequel to Love Story and also based on a Segal novel.

Love Story is a nice depressing little film. But whatever happened to Ali MacGraw?

Thursday, 17 April 2014

A short break

I'm on a short holiday from Friday, April 18, through Sunday, April 20, during which time I'll not be posting anything. I'm leaving my laptop behind but I'll be reading other blogs on my cellphone and tablet, although I may not have the time to comment. On this trip I'll be reading a book and an ebook respectively—Stallion Gate by Martin Cruz Smith and The Education of a Pulp Writer & Other Stories by David Cranmer. David is the editor-publisher of Beat to a Pulp, a webzine that publishes short stories in many genres. I'll be with my family and giving us company in the hill station will be lots of birds, monkeys, and horses, and unfortunately people too. A happy Good Friday and Easter weekend to you all.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Anne by Fanny Stevenson, 1899

She was, at last, however, forced to believe that she was growing old. She was old, and the days were flying past her with an incredible rapidity.

© Wikimedia Commons
I had no idea Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife had written a short story. I would probably have missed ‘Anne’ in Scribner’s Magazine,  July 1899, had she not been referred to as ‘Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson’ in the contents page. Inside she is mentioned as Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. The famous Scottish novelist and poet was her second husband.

‘Anne’ is the touching story of a gentle old woman who, one spring morning, spends a few quiet moments on a lovely hill reminiscing about her past, her childhood and youth, her marriage to John, ten years her senior, the purchase of their first and only house, and also thinking about their shared present as they grow old, slowly lose their faculties, and prepare to meet their maker. Anne has no children and she has been lavishing all her motherly instincts on her husband, petting and spoiling him like a child.

As Anne dreams on, she hears a clear voice and sees a familiar face, that of Marian, her mother’s cousin who died when Anne was a little child. Anne is startled and frightened when Marian tells her that she is a spirit and that they are not in Anne’s dream. Anne is, however, unwilling to accept that she is dead.

"Don't, don't!" cried Anne; "don't repeat that dreadful word! I am not, I cannot be! And yet I know, and hate the knowledge, that it must come to me very soon, for I am, as you say, an old woman. Let me enjoy this beautiful dream wherein I am still young. But is this youth?"

When a troubled Anne returns home through a mysterious fog, she finds John sitting by the table, leaning forward, probably asleep, but her husband sees nothing and hears nothing when she kneels beside him and places her hands on his.

"Oh, my dear old husband," she said; "husband of my youth and of my old age; we are one; we cannot be parted. I will not leave you. I shall wait beside you."

In the end Anne and John pass out of the house as their serving-maid shouts aloud, "Help, help, master is dead!"

The philosophical underpinning of the story is evident. Anne looks at the inevitability of life and death in a beautiful way, and accepts it, however reluctantly. There is nothing morbid about the story. It is a clean and simple tale with a touch of the supernatural, if you like. Although ‘Anne’ was written at the end of the Victorian era, the writing style is not Victorian.
  

Fanny Stevenson, who was known for her charm and wit and who did not leave her devoted husband in spite of his unfaithfulness, collaborated with him on at least one work of fiction called The Dynamiter, classified as pulp. The 1885 novel is available free online.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Reading Habits #8: 12 questions about blogs

1. What is your motivation for reading other blogs?
Me: I have two reasons: one, getting to know other likeminded bloggers (I have more blog friends than real friends), and two, a shared interest in books and films (I have learned a lot about both over the past few years). Although I haven't personally met any of my fellow-bloggers, I feel like I have known them for a long time. It has been a fruitful blog journey so far.

2. Do you visit other blogs out of a sense of obligation?
Me: Yes and no. I visit several blogs during the week, some more often than others depending on the content and time on my hand. First, I make it a point to visit those blogs whose owners visit mine, a sort of quid pro quo, as most things in life are. Then, I visit bloggers who don't usually hop over to mine; I like to read what they post though I may not leave a comment. Conversely, other bloggers whose blogs I don’t look up regularly visit mine, and I appreciate that. Finally, I visit random blogs that come up during “search” on the internet or in “comments” on other blogs. I visit these blogs on a one-off basis though I may “follow” them later.

3. Do you at times skip blogs that you frequent or follow?
Me: I do, sometimes because I genuinely forget and sometimes because of a serious lack of time. Besides, there are indefatigable bloggers who post faster than I can visit, read, comment, captcha, and exit the first time. I don't know how they do it and I say this with not a little envy. I find getting out of the bed in the morning easier than getting a post out of the way.

4. Do you read the entire post on other blogs or do you skim through and get the essence of it?
Me: I read the entire post from top to bottom even if my interest is waning, my coffee's getting cold, I'm missing a deadline or I'm running late for the 8.23 am train to work, and you know how important those last three things are.

5. Do you always leave a comment every time you visit another blog?
Me: Mostly I do and if I don't, it’s because I have nothing concrete to say. Sometimes I like a post very much but I genuinely don't know what to say. There have been times when I have left a comment and wondered later if I'd said too much or too little, too smart or too dumb, sounded too zealous or what.

6. Are you completely honest in your comments on other blogs?
Me: Almost always. But when I’m saying good things about a post, I’m not being polite, I actually mean it.

7. After reading a review of a book by a fellow-blogger, do you really mean it when you say that you're going to add it to your growing TBR pile?
Me: ‘I’m going to add it to my TBR pile’ is probably the most done-to-death line in blog comments. I mean it when I say it, but I never say when I’m going to read it. I make a mental note. Generally, on a scale of 1 to 10, my score is a poor two, maybe one and a half, which isn’t bad considering the sheer number of “new” authors and books I read about on other blogs every week. My intent is good.

8. Are you impressed or intimidated by what other bloggers post?
Me: I'm both impressed and intimidated. I'm impressed by the kind of books and films my fellow-bloggers review, not to mention the way they review them, and intimated by the superior knowledge and understanding they bring to those reviews.

9. What do you like reading most on other blogs?
Me: Let’s take books. I like reading about miscellaneous stuff, like a blogger’s or an author’s writing process or a visit to a vintage bookstore or new additions to the TBR pile or who is reading what, and then there are the reviews.

10. Do you speak the way you write on your blog?
Me: Not always, sometimes I blow up my writing. For instance, I may use certain words or terms that I'm never likely to use in a conversation. In my answer to Q3 I used the word "indefatigable;" in speech, I'd use the word "tireless," it's easier on the tongue. I take creative liberties.

11. Does your blog reflect the kind of person you are?
Me: Mostly, yes. For example, when I overreact or get carried away in my own posts or in my comments on other blogs, that’s me. I have a rather exaggerated disposition towards most things but as I have been saying all along, I mean it.

12. Are you proud of your blog and do you show off?
Me: I’m and I do. What do you think this post is all about!

All answers submitted by me in this post are true to the best of my knowledge and disbelief. What are your answers like?


For the previous seven Reading Habits, including an animated conversation between a paperback and a hardback, look under Labels.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Public Murders by Bill Granger, 1980

A little-known author and his little-known crime fiction make their way into Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

Soon it would be over. Now she could see. There was the knife only. She could see her own terrified eye reflected in the blade. She watched her own eye staring at her.

My copy of the book. © Prashant C. Trikannad
 
If someone asked me which was the grittiest crime novel I'd read in recent times, I'd have no hesitation in saying Public Murders by Bill Granger, the late journalist turned novelist from Chicago.

The story begins with nine men watching porn in a theatre. One of the men gets up from his seat and walks out. He follows Maj Kirsten, young, good-looking, blonde, Swedish, into Grant Park, Chicago, and brutally rapes and murders her. She is discovered naked and mutilated by a black kid playing softball with his friends.

Soon, two more young, good-looking, blonde immigrants are raped and killed in and around Grant Park. One of them, famous porn star Bonni Brighton, is knifed from behind and neatly cut from back up while watching her own film inside a theatre.

There are suspects including Bonni’s German father, Frank Bremenhoffer, who has disowned his daughter for being a cheap whore. But after months of intense public, media, and political scrutiny, the hard-nosed Chicago law enforcers are nowhere close to apprehending the serial rapist-killer.

Desperate for a closure, investigators send feisty policewoman Karen Kovac, young, good-looking, blonde, as “a decoy to entice a maniac.” Kovac is a single mother who wants to be transferred to homicide.


The characters
There are no heroes, only characters, like those you'll find in an Ed McBain novel. Their names are suggestive of actual Chicago policemen. Matthew Schmidt, “the tall, cadaverous lieutenant of homicide,” and Jack Donovan, chief of the criminal division for the state's attorney’s office, are the principal investigators. They are assisted by Sid Margolies and Terry Flynn, two no-nonsense plainclothes sergeants.

Breathing down their necks are Leonard Ranallo, chief of homicide, Thomas P. Halligan, the new state's attorney, and Leland Horowitz, first assistant and chief political meddler.

Mario DeVito is in charge of trial work at the state’s attorney’s office; Maurice Goldberg is a young assistant at Area One Homicide, where the crimes take place; and Karen Kovac is out to prove her worth as sex bait.

Bill Granger gives the reader a glimpse into the rather bleak personal lives of the law enforcers which is enmeshed with their professional duties. They have serious issues but they don’t let it affect their work. Matt Schmidt has a debilitating illness and his wife won’t wake him up at night, while Jack Donovan, father of two children, is separated from his runaway wife who is insane.

Most of the men are known to one another and 
have worked together before. Some of them, like Jack and Mario, are friends and depend on each other. The men work on this special case as a single unit. They are tough and competent.

Final word
Public Murders is a harsh portrayal of the underbelly of Chicago, its gritty crime investigation division, and its noisy criminal courtrooms.


Again, in the best traditions of a McBain, the novel is strong on police procedurals and courtroom procedures, police jurisdictions and overzealous investigation. The entire story revolves around these elements of crime fiction. Granger does not hold back. His style is blunt, even sexist and racist at times, in keeping with the overall narrative. His description of crimes is graphic but not overly disturbing. There is plenty of dialogue, a lot of it short and coarse; the way cops talk, straight from the shoulder. His detectives appear conscientious and play by the rules, somewhat reluctantly. There is dark humour. And there is frustration as the case drags on.

This is a realistic story that isn’t real. As Granger observes in the author’s note, “Realism presents a problem in this book. The novel is set in Chicago. Chicago is portrayed as it really is… Nevertheless, the story is fiction.”

Did I enjoy it? Very much.

Crime fiction buffs such as Sergio (a sworn Ed McBain fan) at Tipping My Fedora, Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery, and Col at his Criminal Library will like this book. I just hope they haven't read it yet.


© Chicago Sun-Times
The author
Bill Granger (1941-2012) was born in Wisconsin and died in Chicago where he lived most of his life. He specialised in political thrillers and wrote some 25 novels. His first was The November Man (1979), an espionage thriller. He also wrote under the pseudonyms of Joe Gash and Bill Griffith. Prior to becoming a published writer, Granger was a journalist at Chicago Tribune and other Illinois newspapers. He also served briefly in the US Army. Public Murders won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1981.

There is very little about Public Murders on the internet. However, I read a fine obituary of Bill Granger by Dennis Hevesi in The New York Times, May 5, 2012. Among other things, he says, “Mr. Granger’s favorite, and perhaps best-known, book was Public Murders, in which the city is in an uproar as a rapist-murderer strikes again and again. Public and political pressure exacts an emotional toll on the tough, foulmouthed detectives investigating the crimes.”

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Q1 review: six books short

Classic Words Free, the Android version of the classic board game Scrabble (or Spellofun as I knew it in childhood), is to be blamed for the fewer number of books I read in the first quarter, January-March. I've been addicted to the game since early February that cost me at least six books if not more. The six books I didn’t read would have covered one each of espionage, science fiction, horror, and fantasy, and two of nonfiction.

My target was 15 books and an unlimited number of short stories. Instead, I read just nine books and twenty short stories, and a dozen comics I didn’t keep track of.

The only consolation, as I see it, is that I learned new and often unpronounceable words. The built-in Scrabble dictionary is from another planet. I also played a few games online, with other sleep-deprived zombies, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did playing against my tablet. As of today I've won 80 out of 108 games, a success rate of 74.1 per cent. I was winning most of the games until I switched over to ‘Extremely Hard,’ the toughest level. So far my best word is ‘Untaxing’ that earned me a bingo and my best final score is 491. Is ‘Untaxing’ even a word? Whatever, I've added it to my Word dictionary.

Here then are the nine books I read over the past three months…

Thriller: Touch the Devil and The White House Connection by Jack Higgins

Splatterpunk: AN.AL—The Origins by Athul DeMarco

Mystery: The Rome Express by Arthur Griffiths and A Body in the Backyard by Elizabeth Spann Craig

Western: The Renos by Wolf Lundgren and A Noose for the Desperado by Clifton Adams

Humour: Beating Around the Bush by Art Buchwald

General: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

…and here are the twenty short stories.

Charles Allen Gramlich: Killing Trail, Showdown at Wild Briar, Powder Burn, and Once Upon a Time with the Dead, from Killing Trail

Ross Rocklynne: Sorry: Wrong Dimension

Philip K. Dick: The Father-Thing

Isaac Asimov: Rain, Rain, Go Away

Shirley Jackson: Charles and The Witch

Edith Nesbit: The Mystery of the Semi-Detached

Ernest Bramah: The End of the Beginning, In the Thick of It, and The Beginning of the End, from Smothered in Corpses

Dorothy Les Tina: Nice Corpses like Flowers

Evelyn Waugh: Edward of Unique Achievement, Fragments: They Dine with the Past, Conspiracy to Murder, Unacademic Exercise: A Nature Story, and The National Game, from The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh


Julia Greene: Whiffet Squirrel


There are no favourites. I liked all the books and short stories I read. They belonged to various genres and were written by gifted writers. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was a difficult read, like climbing the face of a mountain without gear.

So what do I take away from Q1? I’m back to reading contemporary authors. This time around I read Jack Higgins, Charles Allen Gramlich, Elizabeth Spann Craig, and India’s Athul DeMarco. The review of Charles’ Killing Trail is accompanied by an in-depth interview with the author. The only book I haven't reviewed is Elizabeth’s charming mystery A Body in the Backyard and that will happen soon.

I have a feeling Q2 will be better, in spite of the Android and I continuing to engage in a war of words over Scrabble.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Graveyard shift

Click to enlarge © Prashant C. Trikannad

I took this photograph of an old cemetery at 9.37 am on my way to the office. It is located a few blocks away, next to a crematorium. I look at it every morning as I descend from the railway bridge. It is tranquil and in bloom. There is no one about the place. Sometimes I'm tempted to go there and sit quietly with my eyes closed, walk among the burial beds, contemplate on life, read a scary book, write a ghost story, hear the birds calling out or listen to Thriller. The dead inspire too. Maybe, I'll wait until dark and see what happens.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Killing Trail by Charles Allen Gramlich, 2010

Review & Interview

Under a false dawn they dumped the girl in my yard.

Killing Trail by Charles Allen Gramlich, writer and professor from Louisiana, United States, is a collection of western short stories including a flash fiction piece, and much more. Each of the four stories is a traditional western about cowboys and desperadoes, vengeance and gunfights, courage and honour, land grab and pretty women.

If Lane Holland pursues the man who nearly raped and killed the woman he loved in ‘Killing Trail,’ the flagship story, Josh Allen Boone overcomes betrayal by a woman and fights back to clear his name of a murder he did not commit in ‘Showdown at Wild Briar.’ And if Davy Bonner narrowly escapes ambush and helps the lovely Megan Cross defend her ranch in ‘Powder Burn,’ a gang of fearless and dangerous outlaws take bullets but make the villagers bite the dust in ‘Once Upon a Time with the Dead,’ the flash fiction piece.

In the telling of these action-packed stories, Charles acknowledges the influence of Louis L’Amour, one of his favourite authors, whose characters—“alone and a bit lonely” and “who did what was right”—are reflected in his own. There is little description of the characters but you can picture what Holland, Boone, and Bonner would be like, through their brave deeds and moral soundness. And so quick is the narrative pace that you'd think Charles wrote the stories sitting in the saddle and riding on the trail to Wyoming.

Killing Trail comes in a package of goodies that has more than just these stories. For example, there is a first-person vignette ‘Quint Gives ‘em Hell’ from an unpublished novel that I liked very much, particularly how it ends. The character is influenced by L’Amour and tells about a showdown between two parties of cowboys on the range. It is a tale of great integrity. In the interview I have asked Charles why he did not include it in the main collection.

The surprise package also includes an appreciation of Louis L’Amour and an essay titled A Wild West of Your Own’ in which we are told about the fascinating history behind Fort Smith, Arkansas, and the eighty-six men who were hanged there, thanks to a particularly notorious judge known as the ‘Hanging Judge.’

Killing Trail is a western at its lucid and entertaining best. My only complain is that there are only three stories and the flash fiction piece. This collection deserved a few more. A Kindle edition of the book is available at Amazon. You can also read about the author’s other published works here.

Now, without further ado, I hand over this space to Charles…


‘The soul of the writing experience
for me is to tell myself stories’

Charles Allen Gramlich spoke to the 3Cs in an email interaction which is split into three parts: the book, the characters, and the author.

Photograph provided bv the author.

THE BOOK

Prashant C. Trikannad: Charles, you have dedicated Killing Trail to Louis L’Amour who made you love the west and inspired you to write westerns. Can you talk about L’Amour’s influence in your reading and writing of westerns and other fiction? 
Charles Allen Gramlich: I suspect there is always a certain amount of luck involved with how one writer becomes an influence on another. I was a voracious reader from early on, but because we lived out in the country I wasn’t able to get to the library very often. Fortunately, my brother-in-law, Roger James, was also a big reader. He lived within walking distance so I often went to his house to borrow books. He was a big L’Amour fan and had lots of his works. I read them and loved them. I wonder sometimes, though, about what would have happened if Roger had more Zane Grey or Max Brand books. Would I now be a bigger fan of those writers? For whatever reason, L’Amour was there when I needed him and his work resonated strongly with me—first as a reader, and later as a writer myself.

What are some of the L’Amour highpoints in this collection of short stories?
L’Amour wrote most often about characters who were alone and a little bit lonely. He wrote about characters who did what was right even when faced with heavy odds. Growing up on a farm located six miles from the nearest town, I could appreciate those feelings. The heroes in L’Amour’s novels are also hard workers, courageous, and respectful of others, but they aren’t willing to be pushed around. These are the same kind of values I was taught by my parents. L’Amour’s heroic characters also have a reverence for the land and its beauty, and this was something I felt as well. These are the kinds of things I tried to put into the stories in Killing Trail.

Which are your favourite novels by Louis L’Amour? Do you think he is popular among the new and younger generation of readers of westerns?
My favourite novel by L’Amour is To Tame a Land, about a young boy named Ryan Tyler growing to manhood in the west and becoming a lawman. I reread this book every couple of years. Some other favourites are The Man Called Noon, about a man who loses his memory, Flint, about a gunfighter who only has a few months to live, and The First Fast Draw, which is about the invention of the “fast draw” and the real life figure of Cullen Baker.

I don’t know how popular L’Amour is among younger folks. I’m sure he’s not as popular as he was to my generation, but L’Amour deals with timeless topics so I doubt he’ll ever disappear entirely.

While I read Killing Trail in two sittings and enjoyed it immensely, I wanted to read more adventures. Why did you stop at only four short stories? Can we expect a second edition with more number of stories?
I tend to be a slow writer, and there aren't a lot of markets for western short stories. I don’t typically write more than about ten to twelve stories a year, and most of those are intended for the much more numerous fantasy or horror markets. I love westerns, though, and over the years had accumulated a few stories. I decided to publish them now because if I waited to write a full book’s worth of tales it might be several more years before those were done. I’m currently working on a trilogy of western tales about a gunfighter named Gabriel. When those are done I’ll probably publish them first as an ebook, like with Killing Trail, but then will combine those stories and the Killing Trail tales into a print edition.

You have compared the fourth story, Once Upon a Time with the Dead, a flash fiction piece, to the Desperado movies. I also found shades of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, albeit with a twist in the tale. Did that occur to you as well?
I actually didn’t think about the High Plains Drifter connection, but I can certainly see a similarity in setting, and even in the revelation of who the ‘Drifter’ really is. It hadn't occurred to me before but I have seen High Plains Drifter many times so I bet there is some influence there. Good observation on your part.

Charles, I liked all the stories but I liked the first-person vignette ‘Quint Gives ‘em Hell’ from your unpublished novel even more. Did you think of expanding it and including it in the collection?
As you mentioned, that’s a piece from an unpublished novel. It’s from the first book I ever wrote. Several years back I sat down to reread that old novel and see if I could polish it up for publication. Unfortunately, there were so many things wrong with the book that I realised it would be easier just to write a new novel than to fix the old one. That doesn’t mean I might not turn sections of it into stories. That’s what I did with the title piece from the collection. The story ‘Killing Trail’ is a revised scene from that novel with a new beginning and an ending added to it. The same could happen for ‘Quint Gives ‘em Hell.’ In fact, now you've got me thinking!

How and when did you think of adding the historical essay titled ‘A Wild West of Your Own’ about Fort SmithArkansas, and the eighty-six hangings that took place within its walls in the second-half of the 19th century? 
Even though I grew up about thirty miles from Fort Smith, I never knew until my late teens that it had been as wild and wooly as the boomtowns of the west I’d read about in L’Amour’s books. My first introduction was when Roger James started telling me about Isaac Parker, the ‘Hanging Judge.’ Roger loaned me a book called Winding Stair, which was set in the Fort Smith area and was written by Douglas C. Jones, who grew up in Arkansas. I never thought to write up any of my impressions of Fort Smith, though, until Richard Prosch (http://archive.is/qiZfE) asked me to do so for a feature on his blog called ‘My Personal West.’ I thought the piece fit nicely in the Killing Trail collection.

THE CHARACTERS

The initial three stories are essentially about revenge, as three young men set out to avenge the wrong done to them and to those they loved. As a leitmotif in westerns, do you think it’ll ever lose its relevance?
I think revenge is a motive/emotion that everyone understands. It’s as old as “An Eye for an Eye.” Also, at their heart the best revenge stories are really about justice. Someone has been wronged and there is no one but the hero to make it right. I value a “fair” world but the real world is seldom fair. At least in fiction we can see that justice is done. I personally tend to enjoy revenge stories, although I don’t want the person taking revenge to become as bad as those he or she is seeking to punish. That takes us into anti-hero territory. Revenge is certainly a very old trope, and one that has been featured in many other genres besides westerns. I don’t think it’ll die out as a theme anytime soon.

Were there any outside influences to the three characters of Lane Holland, Josh Allen Boone, and Davy Bonner?
There were. The character of Lane Holland is probably closest to my own personality, although I was never so tough or competent. The original version of that story was written when I was barely eighteen so I put a lot of myself into it. My son, Josh Allen Gramlich, is actually the model for Josh Allen Boone, although as far as I know my Josh has never had quite such an adventure. The story came about from imagining my son in those circumstances. Davy is different. I certainly wasn’t much like him when I was young. Davy is much more extraverted and socially adept. I always admired people like that so I imagine there’s some “wish fulfillment” going on in that story.

Who are some of your favourite characters in western novels?
Wow, there are so many. I loved the whole ‘Sackett’ thing that L'Amour did, where he wrote stories about a bunch of different members of his fictional Sackett family. He sort of told the grand story of the west through their eyes. Ed Gorman has a series of books about a great character named Guild. Guild is an older man, more mature than most of L’Amour’s heroes or the characters in Killing Trail. As I've gotten older myself I've come to appreciate those types. Will Henry created a great character named John Clayton, who appeared in his very fine book called No Survivors. Clayton was a Confederate soldier who was later adopted into an Indian tribe. He was present at the battle of Little Big Horn. Robert B. Parker created two great western characters named Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch for his excellent trilogy, AppaloosaResolution and Brimstone. Another favourite character is Judge Earl Stark (Stark’s JusticeThe Hawthorne Legacy, etc.), created by James Reasoner (www.jamesreasoner.net). My favourite historical western character would have to be Cole Younger, with Doc Holliday a close second.

THE AUTHOR

Charles, what does writing mean to you? How would you describe the experience of writing?
As long as I can remember I've relied on my imagination to entertain me. I’m never bored because I can always disappear into daydreams of adventure. Long before I started writing I simply “told” myself stories. As I got older and the stories got more complex, I found that I needed to record elements of them in order to keep them straight. Before I ever wrote an actual short story, I printed up lists of characters and the names of cities and planets that I invented. I first began putting stories on paper to capture them for myself, so that I could enjoy them again and again. It eventually occurred to me that others might enjoy such stories as well, and I began writing more for publication.

The soul of the writing experience for me, though, is to tell myself stories. The greatest experience in that process is “discovery.”  Every day when I’m writing I discover new characters, new settings, new creatures, and new adventures. It’s the closest thing to pure creativity that humans can experience, and I sure do enjoy it.

Can you take us through your fiction and nonfiction books? Can we expect more westerns from you?
I love to write in all different kinds of genres. My first novel was a thriller with horror and SF elements called Cold in the Light. It’s still the most complicated book I've ever written, plot-wise. Then I wrote the Talera fantasy Trilogy, Swords of TaleraWings Over Talera, and Witch of Talera. These would fall into a category called Sword & Planet fiction, which was first established by Edgar Rice Burroughs with his John Carter of Mars tales. A fourth book in that series, Wraith of Talera, is planned for publication this year, and there will be at least one more in the series, to be called Gods of Talera. I’m about a third of the way through that one. I've also written a Space Opera novella in the tradition of C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, which is called Under the Ember Star. I had a lot of fun with that one.

Besides the novels, I have three collections of short stories out from Borgo Press, now an imprint of Wildside. These are Bitter Steel, which is a collection of heroic fantasy stories in the tradition of Robert E. Howard. Then there’s Midnight in Rosary, a collection of vampire and werewolf tales, with a ghost story thrown in. I always warn readers that there is a lot of sex in that anthology. Finally, there’s In the Language of Scorpions, which is a collection of horror stories, ranging from the super gory to Twilight Zone type twist-ending tales. Some of the stories in ‘Scorpions’ were written during the Splatter Punk movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those tales are very graphic, which was an element of that movement. I consider the primary splatter punk stories in that collection to be, ‘Razor White,’ ‘Splatter of Black,’ and ‘Wall of Love.’ They are brutal and not for the faint of heart.

As for nonfiction, I have Write With Fire, which collects most of my pieces on writing up until about 2009. I did a number of articles over the years for various writing magazines, and produced a regular column on writing for several years for an online newsletter called The Illuminata. A lot of these are ‘how to’ articles. I also collaborated on a textbook called Writing in Psychology with a couple of colleagues. We use it in our departmental writing course.

For the future, I'm working on the fifth Talera novel now, which will close out the original series. One way or another, I'll be writing a novel length western in the next year or so. I've got a lot of ideas and titles percolating in my head right now and am itching to get started.

How different is writing a western from your other interests like horror, science fiction, and fantasy? Which of these do you enjoy writing the most?
I’ve realised in the past five years or so that I’m first and foremost an “adventure” writer. Adventure is at the core of all my westerns, science fiction, and fantasy. They have many elements in common. Readers have told me that you can certainly see “western” elements in my Talera series, and I think they are present in Under the Ember Star as well. My horror fiction is a bit different. Cold in the Light is adventure horror, but many of my short horror stories are not. Much of the material from In the Language of Scorpions might be called “existential horror,” which is horror that arises out of the human experience of a hostile universe. In adventure fiction, good usually triumphs over evil. In existential horror, good usually loses because it is simply overwhelmed by forces that no human could possibly defeat. The “enemy” in existential horror is often not even evil in the usual human sense. It is simply indifferent to humanity. Lovecraft is often described as writing existential horror, but the category as a whole is far broader than that.

Can you briefly take us through your writing process for both short stories and novels? Which of the two is more satisfying?
Short stories start with me from several different places. A title or scene may pop into my head—or even a single evocative phrase. For example, the following sentence occurred to me years ago on my commute: “She had the lips that Satan dreamed of in his long fall to hell.” That phrase then turned into a story called ‘Thief of Eyes.’ Once an idea takes hold, I usually type out a quick rough draft of the piece, which then goes through multiple revisions until I’m finally satisfied with it. The first ending I come up with is usually discarded in favor of something that twists the tale more dramatically.

While stories often come to me by accident, novels start with intent. I decide I’m going to write a novel and then spend quite a bit of pre-writing work figuring out the main characters, settings, and opening scenes. By the time I’m ready to go I know the beginning and have a good idea of the general ending. Then I write my way toward that ending. Often, the ending does get modified as I move along through the book.

For me, short stories are generally a lot more fun. Because I’m a relatively slow writer, I can finish a short story in a reasonable amount of time and see the fruits of my labour. Novels are not only longer, but much more complicated. The process of putting words on paper isn’t harder for novels, but they take a lot more planning. Except for Swords of Talera, I've never written a novel where I didn’t get the feeling somewhere in the middle that it just wasn’t going to work. Most other writers say they experience the same thing and you just have to push on through. That’s certainly what I've found.

To summarise it, when I finish a short story I’m usually exhilarated; when I finish a novel I’m usually exhausted.

Despite that, there are some tales that just can't be told as short stories. I do like writing novels because of the greater scope they allow you. I know I'm going to suffer for that scope, though.

What kind of books do you read, in what categories, and who are some of your favourite writers?
I read just about everything, although westerns, fantasy, and horror make up the greatest part of what I consume for pleasure. I also read a lot of nonfiction, mostly science related. I try to read about 100 books a year and there is always so much more I miss out on. Over my entire lifetime, my favourite fiction writers would have to be Louis L’Amour, Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and John D. MacDonald. Closely behind these would be C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Kenneth Bulmer. In the last fifteen years, I've been reading a lot of Joe Lansdale, James Reasoner, O’Neil De Noux, David Gemmell, Dean Koontz and C.S. Harris. If I look up on my shelves, I also see a lot of books by David C. Smith, Sidney Williams, Will Henry, Andre Norton, and E.C. Tubb. I’m sure there are many more I’m forgetting. In the last two years I've been reading quite a bit of stuff by Bernard Lee DeLeo, and by the Beat to a Pulp writers.

Thank you, Charles.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Entity, 1982

Check out Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom for this Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio & Video. My contribution is a slightly expanded version of a general post on horror movies I wrote two years ago.

The Entity was one of seven horror movies I watched on VCR in my mid-teens. The others were The Omen and Friday the 13th trilogies, The Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, and An American Werewolf in London. I saw them all in a span of one week between 10 pm and 4 am. I can't think of any other period in my life when I was as scared as I was during that one week. I was glad I saw the horror flicks with many of my family members.

Since then and up to now I must have seen about a dozen horror movies, the last of which was The Amityville Horror (2005) starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George. I'm looking for an opportunity to see the 1979 version that has James Brolin and Margot Kidder in the lead. It ought to be better.

The Entity's most frightening appeal lies in the absence of an entity, unlike in The Exorcist. There is something eerie about horror films without graphic apparitions in plain sight. The other attraction is the background music, slow and haunting, that makes you feel as if someone or something is about to reach out and touch you.

Directed by Sidney J. Furie (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, 1987), The Entity was well received in India because of its unusual supernatural theme and, I suspect, on account of a young Barbara Hershey. I remember many of the scenes from the movie, particularly how her character Carla Moran's sexual molestation by an invisible spirit begins and ends. One evening Carla, a single mother, is sitting at the dressing table when she is slapped by a mysterious hand and thrown on the bed and raped by no one. What follows is a period of mental and physical agony as Carla tries to convince people of what is happening to her. The film ends with Carla daring the evil spirit to do what it wants followed by the door shutting itself, suggesting that the phantom rapist finally leaves her alone…maybe.

"All right. All right, bastard. I've finished running. So do what you want. Take your time, buddy. Take your time. Really, I'm thankful for the, uh...rest. I'm so... tired of being scared. So it's all right, it really is, it's all right. You can, uh, do anything you want to me, you can, uh, torture me, kill me, anything. But you can't have me. You cannot touch me."

I've never bought the theory that The Entity was based on a true story.

Do you have any good, or bad, memories of horror movies?