By Kenneth Mark Hoover
I was born in deep Louisiana sugarcane country. I grew up in South Texas around prickly pear cactus and horned toads and a small town library full of literary classics. It was in this lonely crucible where I learned to write, and I’ve been doing that as a professional for the last 30 years.
Lately, I’ve worked on a series of dark western novels that take place in the town of Haxan, New Mexico, a place closer to hell than it is to heaven. The characters in these stories battle the land and each other, and any monsters they meet are human. My take on the Great American West is somewhat different from other western stories you might see lifted from Saturday television or your typical classic western.
I like to walk the back roads in my fiction. I always have.
I’ve visited Palo Duro, Caprock Canyon, Santa Fe, and hiked along the Texas/Mexico border to research my novels. Even in this day of YouTube and Google, you can’t beat feeling the wind in your face while standing under a stark blue sky. It’s a good way to connect yourself to the background.
I think it’s important to witness the land and the people you are going to write about. I’m lucky I am able to do this and take advantage of it when I can. Many writers simply don’t have the opportunity to absorb the settings of the places they want to write about.
Research for my stories is important for a lot of different reasons. When you meet people who lived during that time, or read their personal diaries and correspondence, they talk about the fear and loneliness. Hollywood, and some western fiction, doesn’t touch on this enough.
Instead, Hollywood and television elevates clichés and romantic aspects of the Old West. Unfortunately, these myths were perpetuated and accepted as historical fact through the decades. The result is that most readers recognize these cardboard tropes and don’t feel they offer anything of value.
They are correct about that.
Except this isn’t always the case. The genre has actually changed quite a lot. But it’s hard for serious writers in this genre to fight that old cultural headwind because people are still writing Saturday morning cartoons.
When I decided to write about this period in American history I made it a point to stay away from clichés and myths.
I got my start writing science fiction. SF continues to suffer the literary sins of its past, even after the New Wave movement in the 1960s, which demanded higher literary quality and plots other than spaceships on steroids and female characters who were little more than housewives. So, I was familiar with the pitfalls. As a result, I didn’t have to do much research at all to find out just how much Hollywood got wrong about the Old West.
A perfect example are gunfighters who are often passed off as knights errant. Yes, there were gunfights in the Old West. But no one in their right mind stood 15 feet away from another man with a loaded six-gun in an empty street. That’s suicide. It’s a good image and atavistic in many ways. It carries deep emotional power.
Except it never happened. It’s pure invention.
The reality is they shot one another from alleyways, through open windows, and in the back. It was gang warfare. But this image of an honorable showdown at high noon is embedded in our culture.
I was aware of this when I wrote Haxan. There are three gunfights in my novel and none go according to Hoyle because gunfights never actually happened the way Hollywood has portrayed them.
Now I am not saying writers and filmmakers should not take poetic license. Fiction writers aren’t historians, nor should they pretend to be. If someone wanted to write that story, more power to them. But I wanted to do something a little bit different.
This came home in a personal way when I was in Fort Griffin doing research. I found an account from a town lawman who jailed a man then shot him through the bars of his cell because “he was too mean.”
Now I want you to stop and think about that. The truth is the knight-errant image, which was totally fabricated out of whole cloth, doesn’t hold up.
But we see that story all the time. People keep going back to that well, and it’s been tapped out for about a century. Is it any wonder people outside of the genre have no interest in reading westerns? Why should they when they already know what’s being said?
But westerns are worth fighting for because, at their core, they have a lot more going for them than men in white hats, cardboard Native Americans, and spinster schoolmarms.
I’m not saying everyone in the West behaved like this lawman in Fort Griffin who murdered a helpless prisoner. But they weren’t saints, either. They were people. But the myths and the legends have done more to debilitate the western genre than anything I can think of.
Let’s write something new. Yes, it means doing a little research other than watching old John Wayne movies and working outside your comfort zone. But I think it’s worth it to take chances and push the envelope with anything you write.
The darker story is often the more powerful.
The iconic cowboy is another image I wish would disappear. Not that cowboys didn’t exist; but, they weren’t respected because they were regarded as drifters and bums. The cowboy led a very lonely life on the edge of starvation. He saved what little money he could (about $30 a month). Some cowboys did spend all their money in saloons; but, they were the exception, not the rule.
Many cowboys were of African American, Spanish American, even Native American descent. Some were exiled criminals from the Old Country. When you examine the old photographs, they are standing right there plain as day. But when was the last time you saw them portrayed in film or literature? Not often enough.
People often mention the Old West was a simpler, more romantic time. That people were more genteel. This is demonstrably false. Men and women of all races and different cultures struggled every day to survive in the Old West. They fought the land, the weather, starvation, and each other. There’s absolutely nothing romantic about that. That’s not reality, and it’s not borne out by historical fact and verifiable evidence. That’s a sanitized version of reality.
This is not the world I write about. Even when I leaven dark fantasy into my western stories, I make it a point to stay true to the culture of that day. John Ford accepted printing legend as fact. Ford was a directorial genius, but he was a miserable failure as an historian.
I don’t mind using legends in stories, as long as they remain legends. I’m not willing to accept them as truth when the actual truth makes for a much better story. The West was many things, but it was never a cliché or a trope.
I want to be true to the reality these people faced, at least insofar as the cultures, people, and environments they encountered. I feel it’s the best way I can honor them. I find it very transformative, and it forces me to view things from a different perspective. I’m not saying I am always successful. But that’s what I try to accomplish.
It’s also a challenge, which I don’t mind. When I talk about my westerns, I often get the idea people think a western is about a man with a gun on a horse. The truth is most people in the Old West never owned a gun, and, when they went anywhere at all, they walked.
Iconography and metaphor are important in fiction. Melville showed us that in Moby-Dick, and that’s one example. I’m not discounting the power of myth in western fiction at all. Even I use these elements when the story calls for it. I’m a professional writer. The story always comes first with me. But myth has its place and should not supplant reality. Or, better yet, it should never get in the way of the story, or be the only reason for the story.
Fortunately, we’re starting to see more stories written by a wider variety of voices that span gender and race. I’m glad because new blood and new ideas are necessary for the growth and evolution of any genre. I don’t want to see a rehash of a story that could have been written in 1910.
Let’s try and step beyond that. The western genre is moribund. People don’t see stories that speak to their own experience so they feel no inclination to bother reading them. Let’s show them how the western has changed for the better.
I don’t think that’s asking too much.
I have argued, and continue to argue, that the American western has an incredible amount of literary potential. It lends itself very well to storytelling, conflict, and the examination of human nature. It is atavistic, and recognizable.
As someone who writes in this genre, I’d like to see more of this effort because that means the genre is thriving and that will bring in many new writers and many more readers.
The West will never die. I just want to make sure it continues to grow.
Kenneth Mark Hoover has sold more than 60 short stories and articles. His fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He is a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, the Horror Writers of America, and the Western Writers of America. His latest novel, Haxan, was published by CZP/HarperCollins in 2014. The next novel in the series, Quaternity, is scheduled for a May 2015 release. Mark currently lives and continues to write in Dallas, Texas.
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Very interesting article, cousin. You almost inspired me to try my own hand at westerns.
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