Tag Archives: Western

On Westerns and Book Hangovers

We’ve talked here before about book hangovers, dear readers, where a book lingers for so long in your mind and heart that it’s difficult to find another book to suit.  Today, we discuss one of our staff member’s experiences with just such a book: Unbury Carol, by Josh Malerman.

I grew up with westerns.  My godfather, one of the most quietly enthusiastic readers I have ever known, would spend hours in used bookstores and library book sales, searching out pulp Western novels by Louis L’Amour and William W. Johnstone, delighting in the now-forgotten stories that had exclamation points in the title (Montana! or perhaps it was something less specific, like Ghostown!), or the pulp novels like the kind shown at left (via Rough Edges).  My father grew up with the television show Gunsmoke and still watched re-runs with delight.  But even though I was surrounded by westerns, and could appreciate the love that others had for them, I struggled to find the enduring appeal in them myself..  This was largely because all the westerns to which I was exposed featured white men fulfilling traditionally white, masculine roles, enforcing a white, masculine code of justice, and having all-male, almost exclusively all-white adventures.  Though the women, like Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke, were strong, smart, and thoroughly capable, their screen time and their storylines were limited, especially in comparison to the men of Dodge.  They hardly ever left the saloon, and when they did, it was always on the arm of a man who would shoo them away to safety if there was a concern that harm might befall them.

So I was personally delighted to discover that a new generation of writers have begun re-imagining ‘the Wild West’ as a place of diversity, of feminism, and of magic.  The first such series for me was Laura Anne Gilman’s The Devil’s West series, which focuses on a young woman’s coming of age in an American West population by monsters, ghosts, and living embodiments of Native American myths that features characters who are both wise and vulnerable, and a setting that is positively immersive.  And it was while casting around for another such book to enjoy that I discovered Josh Malerman’s Unbury Carol.  Malerman’s novel The Bird Box was a genuinely unsettling, sensory delight, so I knew this story would be memorable.  However, I wasn’t really prepared for how long this book, marketed as dark re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty story, would linger with me.

Malerman, via his author website: http://joshmalerman.com/about-josh-malerman/

The book itself is set, to quote Malerman, “somewhere between a western novel and not”, with elements of supernatural horror and steampunk mixed in with the some of the more familiar aspects of the Western genre, including a long pursuit across a literal and emotional wasteland. Though it is an exceptionally white West, without Native American/Indians, Black folk, or Spanish-speaking characters, its fictional-ish setting redeems what it lacks in historical accuracy.

The heroine of this novel, the titular Carol, is precisely the kind of person that traditional westerns would tend to overlook: though her age is not specifically mentioned, she is no young ingenue.  Carol is a self-assured married woman with her own fortune and relationships outside of her marriage. Indeed, when we meet her, she is mourning the loss of her closest friend, John Bowie, who has recently died of a mysterious and much-feared fever. Bowie, in addition to being one of the most intriguing secondary characters in recent memory, is also one of the only three people who knew the truth of her inexplicable condition–that she falls into a death-like comas during which she is completely paralyzed, but totally mentally alert.  The only other people who know are her husband Dwight, who married her only for her money, and her own true love, the outlaw James Moxie, who abandoned Carol when she revealed her secret. Although she tries to share the secret with her maid, Carol tumbles into unconsciousness before she can fully explain the condition that has shaped her life.

As Carol falls into her next coma, we learn that her husband Dwight has a plan to steal her fortune by convincing the community that she is dead, and burying her alive.  But Moxie also gets word of Dwight’s plan, thanks to the quick thinking of Carol’s maid, and he sets out to right the wrong that he committed against Carol so many years ago by facing up to her condition and rescuing her.  At the same time, Moxie himself is being pursued by madman named Smoke, who is hellbent on foiling his plan, destroying Moxie’s formidable reputation, and unleashing hell in the process. And it is here that the fairytale parallels begin to fall apart, and the real imagination of Malerman’s story shines through, as these two men chase each other down a lonesome trail that is at once dreamlike in its fancifulness and tangibly real in its old-west scenery.

Via Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/gun-control-old-west-180968013/

As Jennifer Weiner so wisely pointed out in an editorial for  The New York Times last summer, it seems that readers “can’t get away from the man-boy as hero…If boys will be boys, then girls must be grown-ups, whose job it is to protect men from their worst impulses.”  On the surface, it seems that Unbury Carol is yet another rehashing of this idea, with immature men controlling the narrative for their own purposes; Dwight’s murder plot is a combination of cowardness and narcissism; Moxie’s whole life (and Carol’s, as well) has been shaped by his inability to face up to reality; the chillingly maniacal Smoke, is driven by a hatred for Moxie and his own insatiable addictions.  Yet, even as this familiar premise plays out, Malerman subverts his own premise by letting us see Carol’s struggles in her coma to save herself, and to remember all her mother’s advice from her childhood. Moreover, Carol’s maid is the only person advocating for Carol throughout the book; and Moxie spends the story confronting his own demonic, destructive guilt, being forced to grow up and become worthy of the woman he still loves.  Beneath the familiar fictional facade, this is a book that shows women working for the benefit of themselves and other women, and men who are forced to confront their own immaturity and selfishness. The final revelation about Carol’s fate was a pitch-perfect ending to this modern western, combining actual historical oddities and a powerful legacy of feminine agency. From beginning to end, this book subverted expectations, from the character’s agency in the main plot to the truth of James Moxie’s magical reputation.  In challenging genre and gender assumptions, Malerman’s restructured, imaginative western is an unsettling, surprising, and spell-binding success.

Westworld: An If/Then Reading List

For those of you still having feelings about Superbowl LII…we see you, and we support you.  For those of you good readers who watched the Superbowl for the commercials, it was a pretty decent showing, all in all.  Particularly those Tide ads, that played heavily on genres, tropes, and gimmicks within familiar commercials.

But for fans of the series, there was no ad quite like the trailer for the upcoming season of Westworld, which debuts on April 22.  You can catch that trailer below if you missed it:

For those who aren’t familiar with the show, Westworld is a science-fiction western thriller airing on HBO.  The television show was inspired by a 1973 film of the same name that was written and directed by Michael Crichton, and stars Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin.  The story takes place in the fictional Westworld, a technologically advanced Wild West-themed amusement park populated by android (robotic) hosts. Westworld caters to high-paying guests, who come to experience life in the frontier town of Sweetwater, and interact with the robotic “hosts”, whose advanced programming allows them to follow a pre-defined set of intertwining narratives, and to deviate from these narratives as visitors interact with them. The hosts repeat these narratives anew each day, having their memories wiped of the previous day, until they are re-purposed or put away in storage. For the visitors’ safety, hosts are unable to harm any other living life forms, allowing visitors nearly unlimited freedom to engage in whatever activities they want without retribution. A staff oversees the park, develops new narratives, and performs repairs on hosts as necessary.  The series begins when a routine update in the hosts’ programming causes unusual deviations in their behavior that allows some of the hosts to understand the truth about themselves and their world…

Though there was some behind-the-scenes drama that postponed the premier of the show from 2015 to 2016, the finished product has been, according to nearly everyone, sensational.  The debut of the series garnered one the HBO’s highest viewership ratings and remains one of the most-watched series on HBO (which, given some HBO series’ devoted followings, is saying quite a lot).  And there are plenty of reasons why it’s continued to be such a talked-about and intriguing show.  First off, the sets, costumes, and scenic details are sensational (hats off to costume director Ane Crabtree, whose historic research paid dividends).  But beneath the stunning veneers, the story of the show itself is a deeply unsettling, curiously arresting consideration of what it means to be human, and what lengths humans are actually capable of going in order to feed their appetites, and what consciousness really means.  As The USA Today wrote, “The reward, beyond the visual splendors you’ve come to expect from big-budget HBO productions, is a set of characters who grow ever more complex.”  Mary McNamara of Los Angeles Times wrote that Westworld “…isn’t just great television, it’s vivid, thought-provoking television that entertains even as it examines the darker side of entertainment.”

So, for those of you looking for a new binge-watching treat, Westworld might very well be the series for which your searching, especially as one series isn’t, comparatively speaking, a huge amount to watch before the Season Two premier on April 22.  But for those of you who are already long-time visitors to Westworld, fear not!  We have a wealth of suggestions to keep your imagination spinning and your gears gyrating until the next episode airs!  Check out some of our top picks below:

Silver on the Road: Readers who are taken with scenes of the ‘Wild West’ in Westworld, and intrigued by the idea of women finding their identity while traversing it, look no further than Laura Anne Gilman’s sensational Devil’s West series.  The series is set in a fantasy west, ruled by The Boss…some might call him the Devil…and full of spirits, stories, and other things too terrible to name.  On her sixteenth birthday, Isobel decides that her true calling is in working for The Boss.  In turn, she is made his Left Hand–but what that title truly means is a mystery.  Rather than explain, The Boss places Isobel in the company of a man named Gabriel, and sent to explore the territory that is now hers.  The story that unfolds is a gently-paced, deeply emotional, and utterly vivid one, that will have you trying to brush the dust from your coattails after every scene.  Isobel’s comradeship with Gabriel is fascinating, unexpected, and stunningly equitable, the lessons she learns about herself and her role along the road are unforgettable, and the best part is that this is just the first book of an outstanding series.  So anyone looking for a Wild West that is just as weird as Westworld, but with a lot more occult and feminism thrown in, look no farther that this book.

Karen MemoryElizabeth Bear takes inspiration from the very real Seattle Underground to create a story about airships, gold miners…and, most importantly, Karen, and her fellow “soiled doves” working at  Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello.  When a badly injured young woman arrives on their doorstep, pursued by the man who holds her indenture, Karen realizes that trouble has fixed its eye on Madame Damnable’s.  But when a body is soon left on their rubbish heap, all hell seems near to breaking loose around them.  While the steampunk genre deals less with robots than automatons (the distinction can be found in the power keeping the machines working and, often, the level of autonomy and consciousness afforded to them), there is a lot of the same high-tech, Wild West skull-duggery going on in this sensational story as in Westworld.  Best of all, once again, we get a feminist perspective on violence, history, and tech, that is heartily welcome.

Utopia: Lincoln Child has terrific fun with the tech-thriller genre, and this book, set in a futuristic theme park, deals with many of the same themes as Westworld, including huge conspiracies, techno-wizards and techno-pocalyspes, and elaborate sabotage schemes going on behind the idyllic scene.  Utopia is a technologically advanced, family-friendly theme park off the Las Vegas strip.  Not only do people flock there for a day of fun, they come to see the system known as the Metanet, a highly secretive and enormously ingenious robotics system designed by Dr. Andrew Warne–a system that essentially runs the park on its own.  But when Andrew is brought in to consult on the possible expansion of the park, he soon uncovers evidence of tampering with the system–from the inside.  His worst fears are realized when one of the rides is sabotaged–and park officials are unable to turn off the rest of the park due to threats of further violence.  Full of fancy techno-details that will appeal to those who love programming potential in Westworld, and told in a thrill-a-minute, breakneck pace, this story is sure to feed your need for danger until Westworld surges back onto the screen.

FantasticLand: This one is a bit of an outlier, but for those of you drawn to the premise of an amusement park from hell, look no further than Mick Bockoven’s vivid, violent novel about an abandoned theme park–and the people who were abandoned inside it.  When the (fictional) Hurricane Sadie threatened Florida with inevitable destruction, the decision was made to evacuate visitors from FantasticLand, but to leave park staff behind with some supplies in order to hold down the fort, so to speak.  But when help finally arrives five week later, they find gruesome and visceral evidence (literally) that something went terribly wrong at FantasticLand.  This book is presented as a dossier of testimony from survivors about what precisely happened during those weeks, when the staff broke into tribes–complete with names and mottoes–and began hunting each other.  There are a number of echoes of Lord of the Flies in this book, and though there is a lot of Milennial-bashing in Bockoven’s work, this is just the thing for a reader whose looking for another dystopian theme park full of menace to tide them over until Westworld‘s gates re-open.