Me & My Westerns

Jessica Amanda Salmonson


I have always been a fantasy reader, from preschool on -- horror, science fiction, heroic fantasy -- if it couldn't happen, I loved it. But westerns also loomed large in my childhood because my Aunt Cora, who lived one house away on a big rural property, was devoted to Zane Grey, & in an extended family scattered along a triple-homestead, she & I were about the only ones rather too interested in books. Through which fact we bonded.

She read her Zane Grey over & over again, seemingly always surprised by how the stories came out. She handled her copies so carefully they still looked almost new. She kept them on a special shelf by her bed & read them every night decade in, decade out. She didn't seem to need anyone but Zane Grey. I occasionally found her a western by someone else to give her as a gift, & she would read it & duly comment to me upon the story, but these other writers never ended up permanently beside her bed.

She would loan these precious tomes to me one by one & I quite liked them though I never felt, as she felt, that I should re-read them forever. When I was older, in my 'twenties, Cora switched (like too many western fans of the time) to Louis Lamour -- oh my aunty, you faithless old harlot! At the same time she switched from hardcovers to mass-market paperbacks. Her Zane Greys went into boxes underneath the bed, & then she gave them to me.

I remember also the pulp magazine Zane Grey's Western Magazine. Gads I loved that magazine. As a kid I submitted short stories to it. Most of these juvenile efforts are long destroyed & justifiably so. Yet I remember the pain of not being able to break into that lovely magazine, always getting rejection slips & an occasional kind note from the editor. Toward the end of that magazine's long run, when I was twenty-something & had finally begun to learn how to write, I made one more heroic effort to break into its pages -- with the best thing I had written up to that time in my life. By then I'd written enough lousy short westerns, lousy murder mysteries, lousy science fiction tales, & even two truly abysmal spy "novels" of some 25,000 words each -- so that through practice I had finally got the hang of the thing. At last I had written one genuinely fine western tale. I felt that if the editor of Zane Grey's rejected the best I had ever written, then I was doomed as a western writer, perhaps I should even die. It was called "Youngin'" & I duly sent it off to the editor with a note of pride attached. And received back another kind rejection. So no happy ending to my desire to be in those pages; the magazine ceased publication shortly thereafter.

I still think highly of "Youngin'." It's a brutal story -- perhaps too brutal for what Zane Grey's Western Magazine had been, more suitable for kids. The tale can now be read in my short story collection John Collier & Fredric Brown Went Quarrelling Through My Head which was published by W. Paul Ganley of Weirdbook Press. The collection is mostly supernatural & fantasy but a few other things were included, & "Youngin'" had a villain so repellant that the story could pass for a conte cruel type of physical & psychological horror.

Paul said he planned never to read the story a second time, it so distressed him -- a marvelous effect on someone who published so much horror yet found this too-credible tale of infamy in a pioneer town too terrifying to read twice.

I had earlier included the story in a magazine I was editing, but not under my own name. The editor of another magazine who had been rejecting my short stories; but I had never sent him "Youngin'" & since he never saw my name attached he did not know I had written it. He saw it in my magazine under the pseudonym Josiah Kerr. He wrote & asked for Josiah's mailing address, because this was the best new writer he'd seen in ages & he intended to invite submissions to his magazine. Oh, how badly I wanted to tell that fool, "You keep telling me my own stories aren't good enough but the first one you didn't realize was mine you regard as the best thing you've read in ages, so what the bleepity-bleep-bleep-bleep is your problem." His problem was that we were competing for submissions from the same authors & it annoyed him every time I published someone he would've liked -- the churlish cretin actually wrote me a hate-letter when he saw Ray Bradbury had contributed to my humble little journal; & when I said I'd like to publish his commentary without reply in an upcoming lettercolumn, he said he'd sue me if I did. This same editor never published women either -- in something like six issues there was but a single trivial piece by a bestselling woman writer whose name might've sold an extra couple copies, while I knew of many finer stories by women he'd rejected before they were sent to me. I get crabby just remembering it. I tell you this story, however, because what I like about these incident is that it seemed to prove -- or seemed to me at the time to prove -- that "Youngin'" was such a great story that even a prejudiced asshole could not help but admire it. And that fact took the sting out of not getting it into Zane Grey's for which I'd initially written it.

The day of the western short story as a salable item was clearly over. You could be a western novelist still, but not a specialist in the short story. I was having good luck selling my fantasy & horror tales whereas a future as a western writer seemed not in the cards. I had a friend editing westerns for Doubleday, so I did start to write an eerily downbeat novel about the wives of the Woman Chief of the Crow. But I never got beyond a couple chapters. And I discussed with one of my editors a novel about an historical Kutenai lesbian couple who made a living robbing fellow Indians along the Columbia River, with the centerpiece being an historic canoe race down said river, the Kutenai couple versus a white crew. My editor was interested in that book; unfortunately in saying she would be happy to give me a contract for the book, women in the story couldn't be lesbians (though historically they most definitely were). So I never pursued the project further.

Mainly I so prefer the short story that I was never capable of becoming a western novelist per se, which is what commerce would've required. I mostly gave up on the genre & the only western tales I've written since were little true vignettes in my The Encyclopedia of Amazons, entries about wild-women of the west, & about amazonian Indian women; plus my two collections of Pacific Northwest folk tales, The Mysterious Doom and Phantom Waters. But of the rowdy shoot-em-ups I once imagined I should write, of those there's not a one.

Nowadays I cannot say Zane Grey is a favorite writer of mine nor was he ever. Yet when I recently re-read one of his collections, The Blue Feather, there was no question in my mind but that he deserved to be America's best-loved western writer until Louis Lamour usurped him. To me the great old names on vintage westerns -- Max Brand, Emerson Hough, Gregory Jackson, William Colt MacDonald, E. B. Mann, William MacLeod Raine -- are so nostalgic as to induce a kind of anguish that their names are meaningless to so many today. They didn't fall by the way because Western literature was merely naive & America lost its capacity to be simple. Owen Wister remains a giant who "merely happened to be" a western genre writer. John G. Neihardt's Native American fantasy tales & poems are beyond spectacular. The best of Bret Hart will never be out of print. Joaquin Miller, the sage of the west, will impress any modern reader who has the capacity to judge fine writing. Max Evans the state treasure of New Mexico reaches depths of beauty & excitement that has induced many a critic to call him a magic realist rather than an author of westerns, but the Cowboy Hall of Famer is definitely as much a western writer as he is a great word-artist. No, no matter how demanding one became as to quality, how unforgiving of the "pulp" conventions & stereotypes attending gun & thunder fiction, there will always remain a cluster of western writers whose peers are all the greatest writers of a nation.

The popularity of westerns is not assisted by our having raised up a generation that knows too little of history & geography. If you told a random person on the street you were born in Tucson, Alabama, & your father owned a ranch near Tombstone, North Dakota, they would not blink, they would not know you'd said something ridiculous. But there's also a psychological dimension to why Westerns were essential to previous generations but less regarded now.

The wild west provided America its purest romance of itself. Do we now hate ourselves so much we can no longer romanticize who we are, or once were, or dreamed we might have been? Time was the cinema houses, the television shows, & the book stands were crammed full of Western entertainments. Now there are bookshops with no western section at all. There are video stores that have three hundred choices of horror videos, & ten classic western movies. The westerns that dominated 1950s & 1960s television are not even shown on classic television cable stations. The standing "movie towns" that made it economically feasible to launch realistic productions for television & cinema have been torn down & developed for other purposes, or turned into poorly attended imitation Disneylands. You'll find more Westerns fanatics per square yard of Scotland than America.

Our parents' generation or our grandparents' remembered the West as it was, & a lot of it was just as Romantic (in the sense of Romanticism) as fictioneers have dreamed it. To our recent forebears, the nostalgia of western fiction was the nostalgia for their own youth & for a nation they once lived in, but which became modern & eradicated so much that came before. Or if they were easterners, it was a memory of a time when you knew there was someplace you could go, someplace where it was possible to start again amidst wide open spaces -- whereas now the most populace state of the union is as far west as you can get.

To present day readers, that Old Wild West isn't tangible. It might as well be the age of powdered wigs & epee as of gunsmoke & saddle, it seems that far away. Nowadays a young American seeing a western, it has all the connectability as a tale of medieval castles in Spain or the rush of Mongul hordes. It's ancient to living generations. And while it may be of interest upon occasion, for daily fare people need something that speaks to the world they have personally known.

Still, there will always be a select readership who glimpse through vintage westerns a dream that was once reality so that their imaginations, & their reading habits, will be permanently affected. The evidence that vintage westerns will never really die is how the values on these books are as I write in the process of skyrocketing. Old books you could once find for a couple dollars because no one cared about them are turning up on e-bay auctions with multiple bids driving the prices up & up until a Zane Grey first edition can go for $600 dollars! And three-hundred commonly. The antique malls can't get enough of them, nice copies sell so fast. These books are swifly becoming harder to find, though it'll be another few years, I think, before it's impossible to put together the seed of a core collection quickly & without incurring outrageous debt. But too many copies, I'm afraid, did end up in landfill in regions where bookstores felt they couldn't sell old fiction of any kind, including westerns, & this means even a moderate demand must drive up prices for the remaining copies that aren't frayed, jacketless, & soiled.

So not too many years hence these books will be so expensive youngsters won't be permitted to touch them, & what a shame that will be, because it's when we're young that our tastes form. I realize I've turned into an old fogey, but I cannot believe "these kids today" when they're my age will look back on their collection of Magic game cards or Pokemon toys with the same sense of beauty, freespirited heroism, & emotion that these old books have provided me.

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