Saturday 31 January 2009

The Western - an overview

There was an item on Bill Crider's blog about a bunch of British female novelists writing 'porn' under different names. The first comment to appear suggested that the British should stick to what they wrote best - westerns.
I take that as a compliment as I hope that other Britsh writers will.
The western, as we know it, has been around for - what - 149 years?
Names like Lariat Lil, Fred Fearnot or Denver Dan may mean nothing today. Same could be said of authors like Edward Sylvester Ellis.
Ellis found fame by writing westerns for the publishers Beadle & Adams of New York in 1860.
And just about everybody knows about Beadle's dime novels that cost 5 cents - 30,000 words in a small 160 page book. (About the size of a Black Horse Western these days - though the word count is a touch higher).
Mention of Beadle prompts that the most famous of their writers was Edward Zane Carroll Judson better known as Ned Buntline.
There were those who jumped on the bandwagon and produced magazines like 'Wide Awake Library' and 'The Buffalo Bill Stories'. The British were not far behind producing 'penny dreadfuls' that today would be regarded as 'pirate' copies for which the original American writer would not receive a cent. Another British book was produced by a Frenchman, Gustave Aimard, which went under the title of 'Aimard's Indian Tales' - it proved to be a hit.
The influence of the western spread so that the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would bring it up in the Sherlock Holmes story 'A Study In Scarlet' and return to the theme in 'The Valley Of Fear'.
The inner story of 'A Study In Scarlet' - which involves two children being found and brought up by Mormons - would influence the writing of the classic western 'Riders Of The Purple Sage' (1912) by Zane Grey.
Also, in 1860, as the western 'novel' was born, so to was Owen Wister who would write 'The Virginian' with it's background set against the Johnson County war.
By the 1930s the Western, as a novel, had gone out of fashion. The Depression had set in but the Western was in the cinema - so if people weren't reading they were watching.
If the Americans weren't reading Westerns - the British were and they had a hero in British writer Oliver Strange's ten 'Sudden' novels that were written between 1930 and 1940.
After the Second World War the Western novel picked up again with the likes of Ernest Haycox, W.C.Tuttle, Frank C. Robertson and Louis L'Amour.
For a while the novel and the western movie co-existed with novels being turned into films and vice versa. Then the book and the film encountered a new kid on the block - television. As the western writer, Elmore Leonard, says: "Television killed the western. The pulps were mostly gone by then too, the market was drying up."
Although Elmore Leonard turned his attention to writing crime novels he did not give up on the western genre. One of his later stories written for the Western Writers Of American anthology 'Roundup' was 'Only Good Ones' which was filmed as 'Valdez Is Coming'.
The 1960s saw the emergence of a new kind of western movie - the spaghetti western and in it's wake came the first of a new kind of western hero - George G. Gilman's 'Edge' books.
George G. Gilman was the pen name of the English writer Terry Harknett who had already written the novelisation of 'A Fistful Of Dollars' and 'Hannie Calder'. 'Edge' was at the spearhead of a group of British writers that included John B Harvey, Angus Wells and Laurence James. Shelves that had been dominated by Louis L'Amour gave way to the likes of 'Herne The Hunter',
'Apache', 'Jubal Cade' and 'Hart The Regulator'. Very often these books were written by The Piccadilly Cowboys in collaboration with each other. Others like Bodie, Edge, Steele and Hart had just the one writer.
Like all good things the western went on the wane - yet again.
This time though it covered all media - books, movies and TV.
The western is dead - or so they say. I say they can't make a coffin big enough let alone arrange a funeral.
The influence of the western has always been there. Take a look at the movies, the made for TV films and some of the novels that are read. In the words of the German western writer G.F. Unger - the story is the same it's just that the weapons are different.
Over the past few years I do believe that the western has evolved. Series like 'Longarm', 'Slocum' and 'The Gunsmith' are still going strong. The western has wandered into the realms of detective fiction - James Reasoner's 'Wolf Head Crossing' is an example. Even into Sci-Fi/Fantasy if you count David Gemmell's Jon Shannow books.
Americans like Robert J. Randisi, David Robbins, Jory Sherman and Peter Brandvold and others still fly the western flag.
And for the British? The British are still in there with American, European, Australian and the New Zealanders who write for the only UK publisher of westerns - Robert Hale Ltd - Black Horse Westerns.
Here you will find the likes of David Whitehead, Lance Howard, Elliot Conway, Chap O'Keefe and Rory Black. New writers like Ross Morton and Matthew P. Mayo along with first-timers Jack Martin and Terry James - all writers who believe in the Western.
The one thing that is coming back to me is that demand for these westerns, over the past three or four months, has exceeded the supply. When something like that happens it sounds like a resurgence of interest.
Throughout the history of the western it has 'died' and been revived - like everything else it has gone through cycles but has never gone away.
In 2010 the western novel will celebrate it's 150 anniversary - it would be good to celebrate yet another comeback.


David Cranmer said...

Ray, Lots of info I was unaware of. Thanks.

Jo Walpole said...

Very informative and interesting. I never thought I'd get my name mentioned in an article that included Louis L'Amour! LOL As for the western being 150 years old in 2010, that's quite a milestone and not something I'd ever thought about.
Jo (aka Terry James)

Steve M said...

Superb article Ray, really enjoyed reading it and good to see many of my favourite writers mentioned.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Agree- this is a brilliant piece. I tried something similar myself but you've trumped me. I found that excellent.

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Hi Ray,
I concur with the above comments. You've done a fine job in encapsulating the history of our genre in a readable essay.

Perhaps you could send it to other sites, print publications (to Candy Moulton, editor of WWA's Roundup magazine), and others.

Nice job--and I learned from it, too!


Charles Gramlich said...

Ecxellent post. It was good to hear about Ellis and Buntline. I know the names but not much else about them. The only thing I want more than a western revival is a sword and planet one.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Charles - westerns with swords sounds good.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Nice summary of the genre. I hope to read more Westerns and have been buying a few mentioned by you and others.

Anonymous said...

Nicely done, Ray. I was intrigued by your reference to the two Sherlock Holmes novels. It's probably a connection others have made from time to time, but it doesn't get mentioned in many people's overviews. Today, I have put online the new page at with the lead article outlining how the writing of a new Black Horse Western was shaped, in part, by Valley of Fear. By happenstance, the book, Blast to Oblivion (Sherlockians will spot a significance in even the title!) will be published by Hale on February 27 -- 94 years to the day after Conan Doyle's novel had its first book publication in New York.

Loren Teague said...

Excellent article. Really informative. I have always enjoyed western movies as in Scotland where I grew up, they were very popular. Also, my grandfather saw Buffalo Bill's wild circus when it came to Scotland in the 1900s. I have bought a few western novels mainly romance ones from e-publishers, and now looking foward to reading some ones published by Hale by authors I have met recently. Best wishes, Loren Teague