The last refuge

Westerns, anti-violence, and stories behind choices

I’m now 35-odd books along in my Westerns reading. Some of note:

  • Return to Red River (2017) by Johnny D Boggs. As I’ve never actually seen the iconic(?) film Red River, I am absolutely not the target audience for Boggs’ ambitious sequel. (The Red River Transmedia Empire!) Unsurprisingly, it pretty much bounced off me. The bits I did enjoy were functional: the details of exactly how a cattle drive works - the long hours, the dust, the meals, the travel planning. I was just enough into the characters to care about their bathing and breakfast plans. There’s ‘Hard Science Fiction’ (where the proportion of astro-mechanical technical writing to character development hovers around 50:1), so there should also be the ‘Hard Western’, with an equally intense focus practical cowboy lore.

  • Commanche Captives (1962) by Fred Grove. When I’m doing one of these challenges, I try to avoid any preconceptions of the books at all - I don’t read reviews, descriptions, or even the back cover copy. It says something about my preconceived biases of the genre that I assumed Commanche Captives involved captives of the Commanche. Instead, it was the other way around - and much more thoughtful for it. Not unlike John Prebble’s Buffalo Soldier, Grove’s book was about the distasteful job of the cavalry ‘after’ the conflict had settled - less glamorous charges, and more prison warden. It also, as with Buffalo Soldier directly tackles prejudice, and the role of the rule of law. Not quite as hard-hitting, but still a pleasant surprise.

  • Law Man (1953) by Lee Leighton. The best of the latest batch: a middle-aged sheriff is trapped in a nasty dilemma. His town is firmly divided between ranchers and farmers. The book opens after the murder of several settlers by a gun-hand; one seemingly hired by the ranchers. The sheriff has 24 hours until the murderer hangs: a day in which the ranchers wish to see the man freed, and the farmers are keen to lynch him. Our protagonist has spent his life and his career as the voice of moderation - carefully keeping the community safe, while neither pandering to, nor indulging, either side. He’s now asked not only to pick a side, but to throw away his oath as a lawman - and the reputation he’s carefully created over his career.

Law Man is particularly fascinating because, like many - if not most - of the Westerns on this list, there’s very little violence.

Approaching this task, I assumed my reading would be packed with gunplay. I can blame the Western-as-film for this expectation. Certainly, in my mind, I thought most of these books to play out like the back half of Django Unchained.

There are, of course, Westerns-as-books that are as gleefully catastrophic as any of the film. In fact, there’s an entire era of pulp ‘grimdark’ Westerns. Pick up Edge or The Undertaker to admire the gorily nihilistic potential of the genre. But these are, I’d argue, are a revisionist strand of Western literature. They capture neither the ‘spirit of the West’-ern nor the values behind it. [There’s also something both ironic and appropriate that author of ‘The Most Violent Westerns In Print’ was, in fact, British.]

Westerns - as judged by the hefty sample of award-winners that I’ve been reading - respect violence, rather than indulge it.

My pet theory is that this connects to Westerns as ‘harsh’ spaces: spaces where decisions matter, and have real and deadly consequences. This is also where Western literature departs from Western films and Western pulp: the latter categories convey the West as a space without consequences instead. In the books, the threat of violence is palpable and continuous, but because that threat is so real, the characters try their best to avoid it.

The consequences are never minor. As many a character, across many a book, says: if you carry a gun, be prepared to use it; if you use it, be prepared to kill. This is not a rousing call to arms. It is the reverse - a plea to take violence off the table whenever possible. Remove the possibility of violence, or if you do not, accept that you will be responsible for its consequences.

Even if you ‘win’ a duel, your life is changed: you may be wounded (in which case, you’ll most likely die), you may hang (in which case, you’ll definitely die), or you may become an outcast (in which case, you’ll probably die, just more slowly). For a genre that is supposedly ‘defined’ by violence, it is always presented as the last resort. This, in turn, lends credence to my theory that Westerns can be so gracefully explored through the lens of values. If this a genre of books about drastic decisions, what principles are there that would lead someone to choice?

These books are explorations of what it takes to justify violence, the values behind that justification, and the consequences of it.

If Westerns are - again, surprisingly! - against the use of violence, there are at least two lessons we can take from this. One of craft, and one of consequence.

First, the matter of craft.

Westerns may be ‘anti-violent’, but they’re not non-violent. Violence not only permeates the landscape, but that decision to undertake (or not) a violent act is often the central conflict of the book. This presents a peculiar writing challenge. How do you make a book about violence, when the violence itself is momentary?

The violence in Westerns is nasty, brutish and short - very short. (The most famed gunfight in history lasted for approximately thirty seconds.) Contrast this with, say, the improbable, everlasting carnage of a superhero movie, the grinding boss fight of a video game, or even the hundred-page-plus fight-scenes in an epic fantasy novel. How do you write about the act of violence - and make it feel significant - when the act itself is so brief?

There seems to be two ways about it. One is to lean into the moment: to extend the instant. Drag it out, and make that second feel like a lifetime. Imagine, for example, the pages of description that a romance novel will milk out of the characters’ first kiss.

The other way is to surround the moment.

The moment itself is just that - an instant. The real story is what happens to lead up to it, and what happens after. Here, again, we can find a parallel in romance: think of all the tension and dramatic interplay that leads up to the kiss, and then the emotional foundering (and general hijinks) that result as a consequence.

Mystery novels are similarly good at writing ‘around’ the (ostensible) core of the book. The murder itself is very often ‘off-screen’! - but that doesn’t prevent the story from focusing on everything that led up to it, and everything that resulted after. The choice of a Pride & Prejudice gif was also deliberate: a romance where, in most forms, a kiss never even happens.

Westerns are also an exercise in writing around inevitability. You don’t need to read forty Westerns to know the duel will happen. That the ‘reformed’ gun-hand will dust off his old armament; that our hero will ultimately be driven just one step too far. But, in a good Western, that doesn’t matter: we’re drawn through the story anyway, and the outcome, however obvious, still leaves us gasping. This is neither a weakness of the genre - nor unique to it. You don’t need to be a seasoned fantasy reader to know that the Dark Lord will be defeated (spoiler: Sauron loses), or an expert at romance to suss out that our two protagonists will end up together. The difference between a story and a good story is that we care anyway.

It is an equally inevitable consequence that, by centralising that moment of violence, that Western glorifies it. This result is a shame, as it is - as I’ve argued above - antithetical to the spirit of each of the individual stories. If Westerns are about that moment of pulling the trigger (just as romances are about that moment of first kiss), we risk desensitising ourselves to the meaning of the individual stories when we flatten them into a pattern, or, I suppose, a genre. Within each Western, that moment is something individual, contextual, and personal. Why Cowboy Bob pulls the trigger is explained only by his story. When we aggregate gunshots, we lose the unique story behind each one.

Westerns often contain, within themselves, a warning: a meta-textual awareness of this danger. Within these books, there’s often an active contempt for those who commercialise violence. Both The Shootist and Journal of the Gun Years, for example, both go out of their way to heap scorn on journalists seeking hyperbolic tales of slaughter to sell. They’re profiting from violence - directly or indirectly - without ever facing the consequences themselves. These serve as severe warnings to the reader: never to lose the individual in the abstract, or the story in the genre.

And that, of course, brings us back to the recurring mantra of this curiously anti-violent genre. If you carry a gun, be prepared to use it; if you use it, be prepared to kill. In a Western, you earn the right to carry a gun, not because you can use it, but because you know you shouldn’t. If the consequences of an action become distant, or devalued, we lose respect for the decision that led to it - and the values that underpinned it.

We’re one month out from the election, which makes for a natural conclusion to my Western travels. In an ideal world, I’d get to a nice round (and symbolic) fifty, but that’s pretty unlikely. Right now, I’m planning one more Western-focused piece, in which I’ll see if my meticulous values-measuring exercise has left me with with anything meaningful to write about.

On other fronts:

The Outcast Hours is still - remarkably - a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, so Mahvesh and I will be attending the virtual awards ceremony in our virtual finest at the end of the month (tbc: time zones can be a real bastard).

And, apropos of nothing, I’ve been taking part in Big Green Books’ #buyastrangerabook weekly shenanigans. Every Wednesday! It is worth following: whether or not you are interesting in buying (or receiving) a book, I find it really therapeutic to watch these small acts of kindness unfold. (It is also a perfect example of Maimonides’ fourth level of Tzedakah.)

Join the conversation

or to participate.