Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Civil War Vampires -and not the sparkly kind!


My horror short story "The Blood of Patriots" is now available as an ebook: Link to Amazon listing
 Description and brief excerpt below:

A SHORT TALE OF TERROR by award-winning author Troy D. Smith

Colonel Jeffords has more to worry about than the Confederate Army. He has chosen to employ an infamous Union guerrilla band led by the mysterious Captain Vincent Caine -a band so bloodthirsty that the enemy may not be enough to satiate them. Vincent Caine has a secret, you see -a terrible, terrible secret. And a terrible hunger...


There was something about Vincent Caine. Something which –from the first moment I saw him outside Fredricksburg –told me that the Englishman was no ordinary fighting man. I could not place it at the time, the odd feeling which crept into my gut on each occasion I saw him. There was a coldness in Caine’s features, you see, which slithered at you in the pale moonlight like a serpent.
Of course, Caine was not an ordinary fighting man –he was an irregular, or scout. A guerilla. That breed of man is often cruel and independent –even arrogant, not used to submitting to military discipline.
And Caine was one of the more infamous Union guerillas. He and his band struck fear into Rebels, and anyone else who crossed them.
Looking at him for the second time, just before Chancellorsville, I could understand why. A buzz of irrational fear pricked at the base of my skull when the man reported in to me, and the sensation heightened when Caine smiled.
“Good morning, Colonel Jeffords,” he said. I had never quite been able to trace his accent –having traveled Britain in my youth, I prided myself on placing regional inflections.
I rubbed my bleary eyes and brought my tin coffee cup to my mouth with both hands.
“Morning!” I said contemptuously as I sat the cup back down. “It hardly qualifies. Two hours till sunrise, I call that night. I definitely didn’t sleep long enough for it to qualify as a new day.”
Caine’s grin grew colder, somehow. “Just one more sacrifice we make to the god of war,” he said. “Many of our actions in his service look better outside the rude gaze of the sun, I think.”

Read the whole thing!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Excerpt from Cross Road Blues

I've decided to post the first chapter of my crime novel Cross Road Blues to give folks a taste. The book has received praise from several folks in the crime fiction biz whose opinions I value highly:

"CROSS ROAD BLUES isn't just one of the best crime novels I've read recently, it's one of the best crime novels I've read in a long time... You need to read this one, and I recommend it very highly." -James Reasoner

"Drugs, murder, a little Voodoo, and the blues -a lot of blues. Troy Smith's got his mojo workin' in this fast moving, atmospheric crime novel set in the blues joints and back alleys of the 1950s. Check it out!"  -Bill Crider

"If Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil at the crossroads, then Troy Smith must have made a deal with the ghost of Robert Johnson. He delivers a story told with the power and passion of the great Blues Man himself." -Robert J. Randisi

Without further ado: Cross Road Blues by Troy D. Smith, Chapter 1.

Nashville, 1957

            “He sort of puts me in mind of that one fella from up in Detroit. What the hell is his name?”
            I was leaning forward on my stool, my elbows on the bar. The whiskey sour rested between my arms, still half-full, and I stared at it. There were other whiskey sours yet unpoured, waiting to take its place, and this one had not made way for them. That didn’t seem right. I breathed out a tired little sigh and nodded at the glass.
“What the hell is his name?” Willie said again.
“That one fella up in Detroit.”
“There’s a lot of fellas up in Detroit, as I understand it. I may be wrong.”
The third member of our trio chuckled. This was Malcolm, and it was his joint we were sitting in. Malcolm’s. It made more sense than a lot of things do. Willie would still pester Malcolm every once in awhile about the name -not a bright thing, since Malcolm was the only cat in Nashville who would pay money to a piss-poor piano man like Willie, but Willie wasn’t too awful bright. He wanted Malcolm to change the name to something more fitting for a blues bar. “Blues Sky” was one of his suggestions, or “Blues’n’Shoes.” Willie is a dumbass.
“No, man,” Willie said to me. “You know what I’m talkin about. That fella from Detroit, the one that stomps his feet all the damn time.”
“John Lee Hooker,” I said. I raised my glass and tossed it back. Progress, is what they call it.  Put down the old and make room for some new.
“Yeah, him,” Willie said.
Boogie Chillun,” I said absently. I was looking toward the end of the bar, trying to get the bartender’s attention.
“That’s who this Newsome boy puts me in mind of,” Willie said. “The way he stomps his feet while he plays that guitar.”
“He puts me in mind of Robert Johnson,” Malcolm said.
The bartender set another glass in front of me. “He puts me in mind of a asshole,” he said. “Punk.” Then he walked back to the far end of the bar.
“Don’t pay no mind to Rhodesia,” Malcolm said. “He hates everybody.”
“Then why’d you hire him as a bartender?” Willie said.
“Why do I pay you to play the piano? My heart is softer than my head. Besides, he’s big as a damn house.”
I was already halfway through my second whiskey sour. It occurred to me that I ought to keep the whiskey next time, but lose the sour. It had been that kind of day.
“Why he put you in mind of Robert Johnson?” Willie asked. “Robert Johnson didn’t never stomp on the floor like he had ants in his damn britches.”
“No, but Robert Johnson was a crazy-ass motherfucker. Same as this boy is. I’m hopin that, when word gets out how crazy he is, folks will come in just to see what kind of crazy shit he’s gonna do.”
“Hell,” I said, and I drained my glass again. “Is that what it’s all about. Maybe I ought to just wear women’s drawers on my head and the money would pour in. Then I wouldn’t have to pump gas all day.” I waved at Rhodesia.
“Slow down,” Malcolm said. “You gonna be too drunk to play.”
“I can blow harp, drunk or not. All’s I gotta do is remember how to breathe. Just give me a plain whiskey this time, Rho. A double.”
“Roy must be havin trouble with his old lady again,” Willie said with a grin.
“It’s what keeps me in business,” Malcolm said. The liquor was helping. I could only dimly hear Sonny Boy Williams on the jukebox. That was a sure sign everything else would fade away before long, or at least subside to a dull drone.
“Don’t get so high you can’t hear this boy play,” Malcolm said. “This is his third time here -you missed the first two.”
“I’ve been beatin myself over the head with a tire iron day and night because of it.”
“Come on, man. I want you to back Newsome up after tonight, and I want you to know how to play around what he lays down.”
“How about me?” Willie said,
“He don’t need no piano music. But he could use some harmonica stuff.”
Del Fenton walked over to the bar. My stomach turned a little when I seen him, and it wasn’t from the whiskey. Del was just like me and Willie -not a has-been, but a never-was. But unlike us, Del didn’t realize it. He went around like he thought he was some kind of star. It never fazed him that no one else bought into his fantasy, and that made him look more than a little ridiculous. He was like some of the chickenshit officers I had known back in Korea. They wouldn’t be promoted no higher than they already were, not if every officer in the United States Army got wasted, and everyone seemed to recognize that fact except them.
Del was fried and dyed. His hair was wavy-straight and a funky shade of red. He couldn’t dye away the wrinkles around his eyes, though, or make anyone forget that the zoot suit he insisted on wearing was years out of style. He had never looked like a blues singer -he wanted to cake city onto his face the way actors put on makeup.
“We about ready to go on, boys?”
“I am,” said Willie.
I looked around at the other customers. There were a couple of guys at the far end of the bar, looking about as active as me -Rhodesia Bain stood behind the counter near them, most likely because they were less talkative than Willie and Malcolm. About a dozen other people were in the smoky room. They huddled close at tables, except for the ones who were alone, and the lone ones huddled close to their drinks. Kind of like me.
I looked at Del and shrugged. “Our public is clamoring for us, man,” I said. “We can’t disappoint them.”
“Ain’t no need to get smart,” Del said. He ran a hand over his hairdo, probably without even being aware of the action. “And you better keep up -I seen how you been drinkin. You fuck me while I’m onstage and I’ll make them chinks that shot you look like your best friends.”
“You keep comparing yourself to the Chinese, Del, I’m liable to start suspecting you of communism.”
“I ain’t no communist.” The hand went over the hair again. “But I am a intellectual.”
“Bullshit,” said Willie. “You just a nigger, like the rest of us.”
“Speak for yourself, chump,” I said. I don’t like being called nigger, not even by a brother.
Someone new had walked into the joint while we were exchanging pleasantries with out fellow professional. He was a scrawny man in a bright suit only a shade removed from Del’s. A black leather hat was pulled low over his face -he had even more swagger and attitude than Del, which did not endear him to me.
“Hey man,” the newcomer said to Malcolm. “You set for my boy?”
Malcolm nodded. “Almost. These guys are gonna do a set first.”
“That’s cool,” he said, nodding. When he nodded the hat’s brim flopped over his face. “Kind of like a warm-up act. I like that.”
Malcolm saw my irritation at the remark. “This is Roy Carpenter,” he told the dude, before I had a chance to speak. Which was good, I guess. “He’s a harpist, a mean one. I want him to play with Jimmy tomorrow.”
“If he can keep up,” Leather Hat said, and he managed to sneer without moving his mouth. Neat trick.
“Roy, this is Bennie Lee. He’s Jimmy Newsome’s manager.”
I almost sprayed whiskey through my nose, I wanted to laugh so bad. “You shittin me,” I said. “Manager? Where the hell you think you are, man, Hollywood?”
“We may be someday,” Bennie Lee said. “My boy Jimmy, he gonna hit it big one day. You gonna be hearin him on the jukebox, ‘stead of a bunch of dead guys. We just got in town and I done got him lined up here and some joint called Ronnie’s.
Ronnie’s,” Malcolm said under his breath, and grunted in disgust. “Them dudes act like jazz is better than blues, like it don’t all come from the same place.”
“You wanna make records,” I told Bennie Lee, “you need to get on that highway headed west, for Memphis.”
Willie chuckled. “Yeah man, Only way you gonna make a record in this town is if you a ofay.”
“An ofay with a cowboy hat, who sings through his nose,” I added. “They don’t feature Negroes on the Grand Old Opry.”
“We just in town to, you know, get down the act.”
“Whatever. Del, we gonna get up there or not?”
“Yeah, man,” Del said. “Come on.” Del’s voice was lower than usual, and more serious. He seemed pleased by my exchange with Lee. I suppose he was pissed off a little by the cocky manager -maybe because Del didn’t have no cocky manager, maybe because this manager was cockier than Del was, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I could tell that Del didn’t like the dude anymore than I did. “Ronnie’s ain’t that bad,” he said to Malcolm as he passed him.
Me and Willie got up and followed Del onto the little stage. We left Bennie Lee in the care of Malcolm. Maybe the two of them could dream up a way to take us all to Hollywood and make us all rich. Maybe we could all wear one of them black leather hats.
Del commenced to plucking on his beat-up old guitar. There was an amp on the stage to plug into, but Del wouldn’t have none of that electric stuff. Del figured Les Paul to be the lowest white man since Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Willie settled himself onto his piano stool and popped his knuckles. I stood behind Del and off to one side, and opened up the little case I carried my harmonicas in -one in each key. Del whispered back to me what we were gonna play. It was more of the same old shit. Del wasn’t much of one for branching out in his routine. I could play the songs he liked in my sleep, and often as not that’s exactly what I did.
We started off with C C Rider, an old favorite, and surprisingly lively for Del. I scanned the faces in the audience while he sang in his peculiar high-pitched voice. There was only two women in the club. There was Peggy, who was always there -she would duck out the door once an hour or so with one man or another, and be back in fifteen or twenty minutes, and we would know that she got no further than the alley but that the man got a lot farther. Looks like she would take longer, since her meter was always running. I suppose the sort of clientele we got couldn’t afford to take no long trips. Peggy was a biffer -that is to say, she was not really all that pretty but she had that special sex appeal which comes with a woman who is willing to do things most pretty women would figure they didn’t have to.
Sallymae was always there, too, and we was all thankful to God for it. She was the waitress. It was rare that anybody ever ordered food, and rarer still that they liked what they got, but Sallymae was an essential part of Malcolm’s operation. She wasn’t no biffer, you see -she was fine as hell. Eyes and nose and mouth that was perfect, skin colored like coffee with just a touch of cream. Men would sit and stare in her direction like they was hypnotized -never straight at her, just like you never stare straight at the sun, only stare at the edges of her. After drinking in Sallymae’s beauty for awhile, sipping whiskey all the time to take the edge off their longings, it must have seemed easier to stumble into the alley with Peggy, face her to the wall and lift her skirt and paint her grunts with the brushstrokes of Sallymae’s soft voice. Then they would come back in and look in her direction once more, but with their cheeks warmed by an easy shame. Still they could not look completely away.
And the odd part about it all was that Sallymae rarely looked at them, or spoke to them anymore than was necessary. She smiled all the time, but she never smiled at anyone. All the men could sense that a touch of Sallymae’s flesh would cost them a far sight more than Peggy’s -it would cost them more than money, more than shame.
Lately I had caught her staring at me. Straight at me, and I would smile back. I smiled back at her from the little stage that night, caressing the harp with my mouth while Del sang about The Jailhouse Blues.
We played on -Conversation with the Blues, and then Cemetery Blues. The latter was about how old Grandpa died and old Grandma was tore up as hell about it. Del finished with Getting Older Every Day, and I’m sure he never even reflected on the irony of that song choice. Del’s repertoire was every bit as depressing as his appearance. He gave the blues a bad name.
When we finished and walked down off the stage, Sallymae brushed against me in such a way that her breast touched my bared arm. I held my breath, savoring the feel of it. In the pit of my gut I felt once more the warmth of the anger at my wife Betty, stoked up by the fight we’d had that evening. Desire for the waitress mixed with the anger and swirled it around, making it into something heady and strong and ugly, and I felt my insides crackling with the heat from it.
Willie sidled to the bar beside me, his face turned to Sallymae.
“Why don’t you come with me, darlin,” he whispered to her. I don’t know why he bothered to whisper, loud and raspy as his voice was. “I’ll show you why they call me Willie Fingers. It ain’t ‘cause of the way I play piano.”
I had a sudden urge to hit him. I know it’s crazy. Behind him I seen Del Fenton, and I read the same thought in his eyes. This surprised me, because I had never figured Del as the sort of man to even entertain the notion of violence.
“I reckon it’s because you have to tickle your own ivory,” she said. She did not look at him, or at me, but I felt the smile on her face.
Willie reached his hand out toward her. “Aw, come on now, honey,” he said.
Sallymae suddenly stiffened. At first I thought it was because of Willie’s ignorant freshness, but then I noticed that she was staring at the door. Now I felt that the smile was gone.
Lester Blackmon had walked into Malcolm’s. Lester was a mean-hearted son of a bitch, and every man in the bar hated him. He was a loafer and a bully. That’s not why we hated him, though. We hated him for the same reason Sallymae did. We hated him because he was her husband.
She hung her head and walked over to stand next to him while she took his order. Rhodesia’s hands went none-too-subtly behind the bar. No one knew what sort of weapon he kept there, but we all figured that if it was worse than his bare hands we wanted no part of it. And we all hoped this was the night Lester Blackmon did something to provoke Rhodesia into using whatever it was.
Malcolm was at my elbow. “Get your mind off that woman, pretty as she may be,” he said. “You got more important things to occupy you.”
I forced myself to look away from her and at Malcolm. “Oh yeah?” I said. “Like what?”
“Like this kid Jimmy Newsome. He’s fixin to start.”
I looked toward the stage. No one was there. Then I saw him -he was walking out of the shadows where the men’s room was. He stalked toward the stage like a hunter. Bennie Lee had already plugged in the boy’s electric guitar, one of those new Stratocasters -an outer-space looking thing with no hole in it.
I didn’t get a clear look at Newsome’s face, and he didn’t make it no easier for me to. He picked up that axe with his back to the audience. He never turned around, not even when he sat down on the stool that Bennie Lee pushed toward him. Newsome’s fingers peeled off an opening lick, and I started to wonder if he was planning to turn around and face us at all. His left hand slid up and down the neck of that guitar, making it moan with a voice truer than anything Del could ever muster up. He made it holler and whine. He hit a boogie lick on it that was as fast and hard as hail. All the while his right foot kept time, pounding the wooden stage loud as any drum.
Then he started to sing, in a deep resonant voice. It was an old Robert Johnson tune -The Me and the Devil Blues.
If I’d had any idea on that first night -any idea at all of what was going to happen, the blood that would flow and the misery that would come into my life because of that boy -I would have jumped up and killed his scrawny ass right then and there.
Instead, like everyone else, I listened to him play. And marveled.

Read the whole book-  Get it here!  Available in trade paperback, coming soon in ebook form

Monday, December 5, 2011

Larry D. Sweazy wins Indiana Book Award

I'm pleased at the news that my pal Larry D. Sweazy's novel The Scorpion Trail has become the first Western ever to win the fiction prize in the Indiana Book Awards. If you haven't read his Josiah Wolfe stories, you're missing out on some good stuff. (Larry has a Spur Award hidden somewhere as well, no doubt quite inconspicuously.)

Way to go, Larry! Congrats!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Christmas Campfire Companion

Available now, from Port Yonder Press: Christmas Campfire Companion, a collection of 14 Western-themed Christmas short stories by some of today's top writers in the genre.

My contribution to this tome is called "Christmas Comes to Freedom Hill." It's about a group of "exodusters" -African-American settlers who moved West after the Civil War to start a new life. I'm very happy with how it turned out.

Here is a list of the contributors:

Terry Burns
Tim Champlin
Douglas Hirt
Matthew Mayo
Rod Miller
Kerry Newcomb
Robert J. Randisi
James Reasoner
Dusty Richards
Frank Roderus
Troy D. Smith
Larry Sweazy
Robert Vaughan
L.J. Washburn

The book is available now, and will also be available in hardcover. If you have any questions you can contact the publisher at contact@PortYonderPress.com .

Here is the address for the paperback edition ($12.95) at amazon: http://amzn.to/ukGBqS

Monday, November 21, 2011

KMN Books: Author Day

Nov. 21- Get an update on my recent releases in all the genres I write in, and post questions if you like, at Karen Michelle Nutt's Author Day: KMN BOOKS

Friday, November 18, 2011

Murder and Intrigue in 5th Century Ireland

Available now in ebook form from Publishing by Rebecca J. Vickery: The first of the Conor MacCormac Mysteries, The King's Avenger and The Infidels.

The hero, Conor MacCormac, is both a man of action and a man of thought. His exploits on the battlefield in defense of the kingdom of Connacht have brought him respect from friend and foe throughout Ireland. It is his keen eye for detail and contemplative nature, however, that are his sharpest weapons; death is not always what it seems in the changing political and religious world of the late Roman Empire, and Conor is often called upon to solve mysteries whose answers have broad-ranging repercussions.

This ongoing series of short stories is rich with historical detail, mystery, and old-fashioned suspense. Future installments will find Conor interacting with the fading glory that is Rome as well as the kingdoms of the Emerald Isle.



Conor MacCormac is not only the most honored warrior of Connacht, he is the king’s closest friend. When his leader is murdered at the High-King’s Fair, it is up to Conor to find the killer. The king had no shortage of enemies –but which one is guilty? And what price must Conor pay to find the answer?


Conor MacCormac, the new King of Connacht, had not wanted a Christian church in his territory, but the High-King – a new convert – had insisted. Now the priests have been slaughtered by raiders from the northlands – or so it seems. Conor must unravel the mystery, and he fears the truth may rock the Emerald Isle…

Available for most digital platforms at smashwords.com, and coming soon at amazon.com

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Writers of the West

I was thrilled to be interviewed by the very talented Jean Henry Mead on her blogsite "Writers of the West". I feel like I've hit the bigtime... if you go over to take a look, stay and check out the many interviews she's conducted over the years with Western luminaries, including some of my all-time favorites: Will Henry, Jory Sherman, Elmer Kelton, Peggy Simpson Curry, Dorothy Parker (kinda), and many more.


Friday, November 4, 2011

The Lonesome Brokeback Picture Show

See if this story, written by Larry McMurtry, sounds familiar.

Setting: The American West. Two young men begin a lifelong friendship. One of them is passionate and sensitive, the other is both more practical, more physical (although both are very physically competent), and has difficulties expressing, and sometimes even admitting to himself, his inner feelings.

There are women in this story. They love these men, but sense that the men have a deeper bond which their female lovers can never be a part of; the women feel excluded, and resentful of their male rivals.

The passionate friend dies, decades into their friendship, and the more stoic friend is left to face life alone. This forces him to face his inner self, and find the humanity he has held in but which his friend was always in touch with.

What is the story?

If you said The Last Picture Show, written in 1966 and adapted as a film in 1971, you are correct. The lives of Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson, and Duane’s life (and emotional odyssey) after Sonny’s death, are examined in five novels, which I like to call the Thalia Cycle:

The Last Picture Show 1966
Texasville 1987
Duane’s Depressed 1999
When the Light Goes 2007
Rhino Ranch 2009

AND… if you said the story in question is the Lonesome Dove cycle, begun with the Pulitzer-winning novel in 1985, you are also correct. The friendship between Augustus MacRae and Woodrow Call spans four novels, listed here in chronological order:

Dead Man’s Walk 1995
Comanche Moon 1997
Lonesome Dove 1985
Streets of Laredo 1993

AND if you said the Oscar-winning 2005 screenplay (with writing partner Diana Ossana) for Brokeback Mountain, based on a 1997 short story by Annie Proulx, you are also correct.

The film version faithfully presented Proulx’s story about the relationship between Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar; McMurtry’s significant addition was the expansion of the women’s roles. The mens’ marriages had not been described in detail in the Proulx story.

Considering the parallels between Proulx’s story and the themes in the aforementioned McMurtry novels, it is not surprising that he wanted to tackle the screenplay. In fact, the three stories not only echo similar plots and characters, they have a certain progression to them. The Thalia books are about two friends who grow steadily apart; Sonny becomes a supporting character in the second novel, Texasville, and dies by the end of it. The Lonesome Dove cycle’s protagonists remain “together” until Gus dies in the third novel (Lonesome Dove, actually the first of the novels to be written and published.) Brokeback Mountain’s protagonists are “together” in a much more intimate way, and are in love.

I haven’t read any of McMurtry’s memoirs and don’t know a lot of details about his biography. I do know that the fictional city of Thalia (and the Dairy Queen that becomes a sort of town epicenter) are based on McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City, and that The Last Picture Show is semi-autobiographic in the sense it is about coming of age in small-town Texas in the early 1950s. I’m not sure how specific the books’ themes are in relation to McMurtry’s actual lived experience, in other words, and it really doesn’t matter. What does matter, I think, is the depths to which he plumbs those themes throughout his work. There’s another theme that is missing from Brokeback Mountain (by necessity, both for loyalty to Proulx’s work and for the integrity of the plot): I speak, of course, of the part where “Passionate Friend” is seduced by an older woman. For Sonny Crawford it was Ruth Popper, the coach’s wife, and for Gus it was Inez Scull, the captain’s wife (I seem to remember something similar in 1995’s Pretty Boy Floyd, as well.)

This repetition of themes is not a bad thing, by any means. Nor is it unique; similar threads run through the works of Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, and many others. I did think it was worth pointing out, though –I bet most of you have read all these books or seen their film versions and never picked up on the fact that they were basically iterations of the same story. Read/watch them again, and see if you find any other recurrent motifs.

SHAMELESS PLUG: I have motifs too! I explore many of the same racial themes in these two novels… and they share a character in common. They’ve also both garnered praise from writers I deeply respect. Check ‘em out!


Monday, October 17, 2011

Why We Never Watch THE MATRIX at My House

One night in 1999 I got a phone call from my old friend and co-author David Allen.
“Hey,” he said. “Have you seen that new movie, The Matrix?”
“No,” I replied. “I haven’t seen it. Is it good?”
“Don’t see it,” David warned me. “It’s going to break your heart.”
I did see it.
It broke my heart.
It’s been twelve years since that night. My college-aged kid tells friends that The Matrix was forbidden in our home (It was.) Close friends can tell you horror stories of the occasions when, usually after having more than my share of drinks, I broke down and told them the Matrix story. They never want to hear it again, and when I reach for that third drink people scatter just in case.
If you’re a writer, maybe you have a similar tale.
In 1993, my friend David Allen and I collaborated on a science fiction novel. Well, it was 48,000 words, and to some people (in the 90s, anyhow) that was in the murky land between novel and novella.
Remember those days?
The voice of Tom Selleck (Magnum, PI himself) came through our television sets, telling us that one magical day we could watch the movie we want the minute we want; we would be able to borrow books from a thousand miles away, carry our medical history on a plastic card, and buy concert tickets from a cash machine—and AT&T was the company that would bring it to us.
Our new Vice-President Al Gore told us that there would soon be a worldwide information superhighway, in part because of legislation he proposed and helped pass as a Senator (or, from a different perspective, Al Gore invented the internet tubes.)
At the University of Illinois, researchers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications introduced MOSAIC—the first worldwide web browser (I could never have guessed at the time that fifteen years later I would be working part-time at NCSA doing something called “digital history.”)
And in 1993, my friend David Allen and I were inspired by all those things to write a book, which we finished in early 1994. We tried to imagine where a worldwide web and virtual reality might take us. We incorporated elements from many of our favorite authors, from the writers of Doctor Who and Chris Claremont’s run on the X-men comics, to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. There were definitely elements of William Gibson and cyberpunk. By far our biggest influence, and the one to whom our novel was an homage, was Phillip K. Dick. Dick’s stories often centered on an everyman protagonist who discovers that nothing is what it seemed; that reality is purely subjective (many of Dick’s works have been translated to the movie screen: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, Impostor… perhaps you detect a theme.)
Here’s a teaser for that book, All That We See or Seem:
Will Shaw wanted a better life. A parenting license, maybe a physical upgrade for his wife. But he has a nasty habit of asking too many questions, an infamous radical brother, and a directive from the Committee of Programmers to report to The Marcheswhere reality and sanity blur, and which few return from. Shaw discovers the government’s shocking secrets, but it is Robert Jenkins, the agent assigned to watch over him, who must face the consequences. Both men learn that nothing in their world is what they thought it was.
We never got anywhere with the book. We submitted it everywhere –really, everywhere, at least every place listed in Writer’s Digest’s Novel and Short Story Writer’s Guide. I have a stack of (mostly) polite rejections; the most common complaint, when one was specified, was length. We set the manuscript aside, planning to re-visit and expand it later. And of course, life got in the way. I sold a western short story, to Louis L’Amour Western Magazine, and got sort of wrapped up in westerns and historical fiction. I wrote a 140,000 word Civil War epic. I didn’t think much about that old manuscript, or the several other science fiction projects I had started (and sometimes finished.) Which is a shame, because when I finally did revisit it years later I found it had aged well.
And then came The Matrix. It was kind of a similar plot. Well, no, that’s not exactly true. It was an extremely similar plot, down to some fairly minute details (although radically different in many ways, as well.) Now, I’m not saying the Wachowsky Brothers ripped off our idea—heck, unless one of them was an assistant editor or slush-puppy at a publishing house or sci-fi magazine in ’94 and ’95, there’s no earthly way they could ever have seen it. And in reality (no pun intended), our work (like theirs) was not exactly the most original idea in the world; I think it is very likely they drew on the same antecedents, and the same 90s zeitgeist, that we did.
What it did mean was… any hope we had of getting a publisher to take on our long-languishing project died an agonizing death. Any casual reader picking it up would say “Huh. This is oh-so-familiar… what a cheap rip-off of The Matrix.”
In science fiction, the idea is the thing. To tell the truth, I stuck with westerns for a long time after that. It doesn’t matter how many other people have written about Custer or Wyatt Earp, you can still find new ways to approach the material. Dave stopped writing for awhile, and only picked it back up in recent years.
But you know what? I think our story was better; at the very least, it can stand on its own.
The publishing world has gone through some rapid, crazy changes in the last couple of years. I have been re-releasing all my old stuff as ebooks, or in paper through createspace. So have most of my writer friends –it is possible, not only to read new stuff, but to find books you haven’t seen since the 70s or 80s for today’s ereaders. So David and I have decided that the time has come to unleash our bastard child on the world. It’s available now on smashwords, where 40%  of it is previewable, and amazon. Check it out here:
Give it a try, if you like sci fi. Tell me what you think.  

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Personal West

My thanks to Richard Prosch, who gave me a forum to talk about my views of the Mythic West at his website. He has posted several other essays about "My Personal West" by Western authors, and they're all worth a read.


Friday, October 7, 2011

Clint Eastwood, Heroes, and Antiheroes

I was recently reading up on the classic screenwriting (and general storytelling) template “The Hero’s Journey” and was reminded of something I noticed a long time ago about a couple of Clint Eastwood western classics. What struck me was the assertion that the hero’s journey and the anti-hero’s journey are identical –up to a point. The article I was reading implied that, whereas the classic hero is an archetype of self-sacrifice and self-control, or “goodness,” the antihero is linked more closely to his base, animalistic side. As a result, the hero’s journey will, at the turning point, see the hero resist temptation and be redeemed, ascending to a moral summit, whereas an antihero will at the same point succumb to temptation and descend into damnation. (Think Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader.)

I’m not so sure this is always the case, but I can’t deny that it often is. And thinking about that made me remember a thought I’ve had for years: that The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven are the same story, told in reverse and with opposite endings.

Let’s take a brief look at the plots of those two films.
The Outlaw Josey Wales:

Josey Wales starts out as a good, honest, family man (in Missouri, on the eve of the Civil War.) His family is murdered by Union guerrillas, and in response he joins a band of Confederate guerrillas. At the end of this very nasty war, he refuses to surrender- and becomes an outlaw, hunted by the federal army.

Wales is clearly a loner –but is not allowed to remain so for long. In his travels he manages to pick up several hangers-on, all of whom are dependent on him in one way or another. There is the old Confederate Cherokee, a young Navajo woman, and a group of settlers that includes a Yankee woman and her granddaughter. By the end of the movie, Wales has brokered peace between the settlers and the Comanches, and his primary nemesis has strongly hinted that he has no intention of “finding” him. Wales has become the nucleus of a community, and an agent of peace rather than chaos. No longer a loner bent on revenge, he has been redeemed and returned in many ways to the condition he had lived in before his family’s murder.


William Munny also starts out as a farmer and a family man, albeit a widower, raising his children on a pig farm. But this was not how his life had always been. Munny was a reformed gunman; in his youth he had been a cold, vicious killer. He had changed because of his beloved wife. An opportunity is presented to him, however, to improve his family’s lot by hunting down some cowboys for a bounty (one of them had cut up a young prostitute, whose friends advertised a reward in order to get justice.)

Subsequent events –including the death of his partner –force Munny to confront the ghosts of his past, ghosts he had been trying to avoid for years. In a tearful drinking binge, he relives the horrific acts of his youth. When he finally arrives to take revenge for his friend’s murder, he has reverted to the cold killer he had been before. He has not been forgiven –not by the ghosts of his victims, and ultimately not by himself.

Josey Wales’ story is one of a hero’s redemption. He goes from being a loner to being the foundation of a community –he is loved, and forgiven. He pulls away from the precipice of damnation that the war has drawn him to.

Will Munny’s attempts to be a simple man and a good citizen are doomed. He is pulled back to that precipice, which he had managed to withdraw from once before, and this time he tumbles into it. He descends into the darkness, and clearly feels much more natural and at home there than he ever did while trying to deny that side of himself. Note how confident and controlled he is at the end of the film, once he has finally given his demons free rein.

Eastwood’s famous Man With No Name from the Leone trilogy is an antihero in the sense that he seems amoral at times, and does not display the classic, noble attributes of the western hero. Will Munny is an antihero in a more literary sense. Even though he survives, the audience knows that he has lost the really important battle, the battle with his own dark side. Josey Wales has won that battle, and found contentment.
The two films are like bookends. I recommend you watch them again from this perspective, and that fact will become even clearer.

I also realized that I have done something similar in two Civil War –era novels I have written. The first, Bound for the Promise-Land, is about an ex-slave turned Union soldier and his quest for the meaning of freedom. Filled with self-doubt, he eventually discovers the truth within himself and finds peace and redemption. The second, Good Rebel Soil, is about the infamous Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson –who, along with Bloody Bill Anderson, served as a template for Asa Carter’s fictional Josey Wales. Ferguson is pulled, by his uncontrolled passions, into a self-destructive path that he knows will end in Hell. The first novel has been re-released, and the other will be soon; I think they are two of my best, and taken together give an overview of the Civil War from both sides, as well as food for thought regarding what makes a hero (or an anti-hero.)




Wednesday, September 21, 2011

New Thriller ebook short

My new crime story "All Great Neptune's Ocean," an ebook short, is now available- you can read a sample at smashwords.com.


An investigative reporter gets on the wrong side of a mobster and pays the ultimate price. Believed dead, he seeks revenge in the only way left to him... by going after the one person his enemy loves. Will revenge restore his lost peace -or destroy him forever?

“Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” -MacBeth, Act Two Scene Two 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

New Interview at Western Fictioneers

Many thanks to the hardworking LJ Washburn for posting this interview at the Western Fictioneers blogsite. The photo, btw, is me in Old West gambler-garb at the White County Fair in my hometown of Sparta, TN, a few years back.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Great new book from pulp reprint masters Black Dog Books

Tom Roberts' great imprint Black Dog Books has released an excellent new collection, Dead Man's Brand. It contains the western short stories of pulp master Norbert Davis (1909-1949), who is usually known for his detective stories. I was proud to add a blurb to this book -Davis was a heck of a writer. You should check it out. In fact, if you love Depression-era pulp fiction like I do, you'll find this publisher to be a treasure trove. I'm currently in the middle of Unmasked, which contains the earliest adventures of the Lone Ranger, Zorro, the Cisco Kid and Hopalong Cassidy. Great stuff.


Friday, August 12, 2011

New interview is up

I have an interview up, mostly about my crime fiction, on the website of author Nigel Bird: http://bit.ly/q9fjcn

Bird's site, Sea Minor, includes a series called "Dancing with Myself" in which invited authors interview themselves -Lawrence Block, among others, has participated. I was delighted to get this fresh exposure from a writer who is fast making a name for himself. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Traditional West

In the early spring of 2010 several western writers came up with the idea of establishing a new writers' organization devoted exclusively to western fiction. I seem to remember the name, Western Fictioneers, being Jory Sherman's idea -someone correct me if I'm wrong. We had our first official meeting in Knoxville that June (during a lunch break from the Western Writers of America conference we were attending.) We decided to also establish an annual award for best novel and best short story, called The Peacemaker. The first winners were announced a few weeks ago.

And now we have published our first anthology... 24 stories by some of the best writers working in the genre today. It's available now on the kindle, and should be available in paperback by mid-July at the latest. I'm about halfway through the book, and it is great reading. One of my stories is in there, "The Sin of Eli." If you like western tales this book is or you -and it just might be the book that introduces you to your new favorite writers (anthologies such as this were how I discovered several writers whose work I wound up following for decades.)

So check it out.

(And if you decided to check out one of my books at the same time it wouldn't hurt my feelings!) :-)

Here's the link: http://amzn.to/rnszpB

Thursday, July 21, 2011

When Men Ride Together: Two Very Different Views of The Wild Bunch

1969: It was the year mankind took a giant step forward with the lunar landing, and it marked the inauguration of Nixon (which, some may argue, constituted a giant step backwards.) It was the last year in a decade of significant change.
1969 was also a significant year in the history of the Western film genre. Two movies were released that year which stretched the boundaries of the Western as they had rarely been stretched before—and in two completely different directions.
The films in question are The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They were ranked #6 and #7, respectively, in the American Film Institute’s top-ten list of the greatest Western movies ever made. On the surface, they hardly seem to go together; one is a grim bloodbath, after all, while the other is a light-hearted buddy movie. Both, however, set the genre’s conventions on their collective ear.

In fact, the two films are more similar than you might think. The plots are basically the same. A group of turn-of-the-century bank and train robbers are pursued by a determined posse; they go south of the border, where they end up in a Latin American village and a showdown with a small army. In real life Butch’s Hole-in-the-Wall gang was also called the Wild Bunch (a sobriquet used earlier by Oklahoma’s Doolin-Dalton Gang.)

The protagonists of both movies are robbers—and, unlike the outlaw-heroes of previous Westerns, were not the least bit apologetic about it. At the same time, they were not amoral “anti-heroes” like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. These gangs had their own set of morals, which they adhered to faithfully. Both sets of characters had depth—especially those in The Wild Bunch—without being complicated. They had simple moral dilemmas. “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.” “Stick with your partners no matter what.” They also had the same theme: something special is passing away forever. The outlaws are trapped in their profession, and in their time, and are destined to disappear with it.

While plot and theme may have been similar, the film’s executions were as different as night and day. In The Wild Bunch we watch the unique era of the outlaw pass away with stark realism and a sense of impending, pre-ordained doom. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid we sit back and enjoy it while it lasts. The former is dark and violent, whereas the latter is playful, charming and funny. In one scene, Butch tricks payroll guard by imitating an old lady’s voice; in another the gang uses too much dynamite and blows up the money. The Wild Bunch gang is fatalistic but meets a noble end—Butch and the Kid are noble throughout, and meet a grim end. That statement may seem incongruous; both gangs get shot to pieces by a small army, which should meet anyone’s definition of “grim.” The difference lies in how each group got there. Both gangs rob a government supply train (in the case of Butch and Sundance, a mule train.) The Wild Bunch is hired by a Mexican general to steal U.S. arms with which he plans to resupply his army. The gang is drawn into their fatal conflict because one of their members supplied some of the arms to a group of idealistic rebels who oppose the brutal general. Butch and Sundance, on the other hand, are identified as the robbers who stole a Bolivian payroll—there was no altruism involved. It is interesting to note that, while The Wild Bunch’s demise is graphically portrayed, the deaths of Butch and Sundance are not shown—the camera freezes as they rush out of their concealment with guns blazing, leaving the two rogues suspended forever in that instant of time.

A woman plays an important part in the story of Butch and Sundance—the Kid’s lover, Etta Place, portrayed by Katherine Ross (in 1984 Ross would marry Sam Elliott, who had appeared in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as “Card Player #2.) Etta is the outlaw pair’s sentimental focus, the world of warmth and security they would like to enjoy but cannot go straight for.

The Wild Bunch, on the other hand, is a man’s world. The only significant female role in the film is the young outlaw Angel’s two-timing girlfriend, who helps set the bloody events in motion. There is no sentimental focus here. Angel murders the girl, and his partners (played by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates) are obliged to rescue him from the vengeful general that the girl had taken up with.

The common people love Butch and Sundance, sometimes hiding them from the law. Common people distrust and even hate the Wild Bunch, with good reason.
Both gangs are pursued by posses, but the posses are very different. The one pursuing Butch and Sundance is nameless, faceless, implacable, and apparently unstoppable. Butch and Sundance are forced to flee, on the edge of panic—“Who are these guys?” they keep asking. The Wild Bunch’s posse is led by an ex-member of the gang (played by Robert Ryan), who had been released from Yuma prison and promised a pardon for his cooperation. He does so against his better judgment, and is disgusted by the immoral, incompetent scum he must work with. Keeping in mind the films’ 1969 release, one can speculate that the posses represent different aspects of “the establishment.” Butch and Sundance mock and defy their faceless, unyielding establishment figures, while the Wild Bunch simply ignores theirs (who are ineffective, and far more immoral than the outlaws.)

Butch and Sundance are a little disdainful of their own gang, although they are loyal to one another, whereas Pike (Holden) is loyal to all in his band. Both groups have trouble with insubordination. Pike glares at his men and holds them together with the sheer force of his will. Butch sucker-punches the ringleader of his mutineers, and then charms the rest.
The Wild Bunch—a movie about violent, cruel men—actually has a solid moral, as articulated by Pike: “When you ride with a man, you stay with him. Otherwise you’re an animal.” Butch and Sundance make no attempt to moralize, unless you count Butch singing—while bicycling to the musical accompaniment of B. J. Thomas—“Never hit your mother in the face with a shovel, for you’ll leave a dull impression on her mind.”

Both these films took an approach that few, if any, Westerns had taken before, and spawned many imitators. They gave the audience new glimpses of the outlaw—one of them more realistic than any of its predecessors, and the other more idealized than most which came previously. They made it impossible to look at the Western in the same way we had before.