Ten Western Pulp Authors Worth Reading
By James Reasoner
Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient and Spur Award Nominee James Reasoner on the western pulp writers you should be reading.
I've done a couple of posts on my blog (Rough Edges: http://jamesreasoner.blogspot.com) about Western writers whose work I enjoy, and when I decided to do another and spotlight some authors I hadn't covered yet, I thought what better place for it than here on COWBOY JAMBOREE. This time around I'm confining myself to writers who made their reputations in the Western pulps, although they wrote in other venues as well.
Frank Bonham – My introduction to Frank Bonham's work was actually one of his later novels, a juvenile entitled DURANGO STREET. By that time, the 1960s, he was a well-regarded novelist for younger readers, but during the Forties and Fifties he was one of the top Western pulp authors, while at the same time appearing in the general fiction pulps and occasionally in the slicks. He wrote a number of fine Western novels for various hardcover and paperback publishers, then wrote juveniles for many years before coming back to pen a couple more Westerns late in his career. Before any of that, however, he also worked as a ghostwriter for legendary Western author Ed Earl Repp (we'll hear more about him later) and wrote a fine essay about the experience called "Tarzana Nights", which you can find in a collection of Bonham's best stories entitled ONE RIDE TOO MANY.
Eugene Cunningham – This prolific pulpster and long-time Western novelist was the genuine article, growing up in Texas, working as a cowboy, serving in World War I (although he had to lie about his age to get into the fracas), and adventuring as a soldier of fortune in Central America before turning to fiction. His stories, which were notorious at the time for the level of gritty, realistic violence in them, appeared in countless Western pulps and by the mid-Thirties he was turning out novels on a regular basis as well, which he continued for a couple of decades. Like many authors from his era, he wrote in more than one genre and produced some excellent straight adventure yarns and hardboiled detective stories. His work has a terse, distinctive style that takes a little getting used to, but it's very effective. Not a great deal of his pulp work has been reprinted, but used copies of his novels are easily found on-line.
Tom Curry – A writer who began by writing primarily crime and detective stories, Tom Curry would become one of the stalwarts of the Western pulps, especially for magazines in what was known as the Thrilling Group, published under a variety of imprints such as Better Publications and Standard Publications but all owned by Ned Pines and editorially overseen by Leo Margulies. Curry wrote many stand-alone Western stories for these pulps, but he was also one of the primary writers behind the Jackson Cole house-name, turning out more than fifty of the Jim Hatfield novels that appeared in the pulp TEXAS RANGERS. Curry wrote for other Western character pulps such as MASKED RIDER WESTERN and RANGE RIDERS WESTERN, but his magnum opus is the Rio Kid series, which he created and for which he wrote many of the lead novels in RIO KID WESTERN. These tales featured a young former cavalryman named Bob Pryor, who along with his sidekick Celestino Mireles, drifted through the West in the years following the Civil War and became involved in many historical incidents, interacting with such real figures as Buffalo Bill, General Custer, Wyatt Earp, Will Bill Hickok, and many others. The stories were only loosely based on history, but that grounding was enough to give them a realism many pulp stories lacked. After the demise of the pulps, Curry went on to write several hardcover Westerns (many of them revisions of his pulp yarns) and house-name paperbacks, including two in the Sundance series as by Jack Slade. He also wrote most of the Buck Duane stories in ZANE GREY'S WESTERN MAGAZINE, a popular Seventies digest magazine. Many of Curry's Rio Kid novels were reprinted in paperback by Curtis Books and Popular Library, and copies of these turn up frequently in used bookstores and on-line.
Harry Sinclair Drago – Best known under the pseudonym Bliss Lomax, Harry Sinclair Drago also wrote under his own name and the pseudonym Will Ermine. He was more of a novelist than he was a pulp writer, but he had many stories appear in the pulps as well. Later he wrote a great deal of non-fiction about the American West, which isn't surprising given the strain of authenticity that runs through all his work. No matter which name appears on a book, Drago's work is consistently excellent.
Ernest Haycox – I'll admit, it took me a while to warm up to Ernest Haycox's work, although he's widely regarded as one of the best Western writers of all time. Many of his stories were made into iconic movies, such as STAGECOACH, based on Haycox's story "Stage to Lordsburg". He brought a realism and a depth of characterization to his work greater than most found in the pulps. Unfortunately, the pace and action of his stories sometimes suffers because of that, which is why his stories are still hit-or-miss with me. But when they're good, they're really, really good, and I've found that his early tales in pulps such as WEST and SHORT STORIES are very entertaining. I plan to continue reading his work, since there's a lot of it I haven't explored yet.
William Heuman – Although William Heuman is probably best known for the paperback original Westerns he wrote for Gold Medal Books during the 1950s, he was a prolific contributor to the Western pulps before that and provided consistent entertainment for their readers. He was especially good at narrative hooks. I've never read a story by Heuman that didn't draw me in immediately. He was also successful as an author of sports novels for younger readers. Several of his Westerns have been reprinted in large print editions in the past ten years and can still be found in many libraries.
L.P. Holmes – I've started reading L.P. Holmes' work only in the past couple of years, but he's quickly become one of my favorite Western authors. His plots are very traditional, but he had a great command of pace and his style is one of the smoothest and most readable I've encountered. Several of his novels and pulp stories have been reprinted in paperback by Leisure Books, as well as in large print editions, and they're not difficult to find. For me, Holmes' Westerns are pure pleasure reading.
William Colt MacDonald – The long-running series of Western B-movies featuring the Three Mesquiteers was based on characters created by William Colt MacDonald. He had his biggest success with novels such as the ones featuring the Mesquiteers and a later series starring railroad detective Gregory Quist, but he also contributed quite a few stories to the pulps. His work is a very appealing blend of humor, mystery, and Western action, and it's easy to find copies of his books, including a couple of paperbacks that reprinted some of his pulp stories.
Harry F. Olmsted – All of the writers I've talked about here wrote novels as well as pulp stories...except Harry F. Olmsted. One of the top names of the pulp era, Olmsted wrote approximately 1200 pieces of fiction, ranging from short stories to novellas, but never a novel, and none of his work has appeared outside the pages of the pulps, which makes him the most difficult of these authors for a casual reader to sample. But Olmsted's work is worth seeking out. He produced a few series, such as the one featuring cattleman Hoss Greer, but for the most part he wrote stand-alone stories, often with historical backgrounds. Like Frank Bonham, many of Olmsted's stories deal not with typical Western settings and characters but less common backgrounds such as fur trapping, riverboating, and logging. Everything I've ever read by him has been well-written and exciting. One side note: Olmsted's stories were so popular that he was known to employ ghostwriters from time to time to keep up with the demand, just as Ed Earl Repp did. (There's that name again!) As someone who has read a great deal of Olmsted's work, however, I've found it to be consistently in the same voice and don't believe that he resorted to ghostwriters very often. Others have claimed that Olmsted and Repp never wrote anything on their own, but I don't believe that for a second.
Ed Earl Repp – And finally we come to, yes, Ed Earl Repp. It's a matter of record that Repp used ghostwriters extensively, so in a way, when you read one of his stories in a pulp magazine, you can never be sure who actually wrote it. But here's the thing: Repp hired good writers, Frank Bonham and Tom W. Blackburn among them, so regardless of the actual author's identity, the stories published under Repp's name are usually pretty good. Not always, but for the most part I've found them to be quite entertaining. Repp also wrote a considerable amount of science fiction in that genre's early days, and my hunch is that he wrote most, if not all of that himself. There are half a dozen Western novels with the Repp name on them as well. I've read all of them except one, and they're all written in exactly the same style, leading me to believe that one person wrote all of them. I think that person was Ed Earl Repp.
This article just scratches the surface of the Western pulps. There were many fine writers turning out stories for them, and many of those stories are excellent and worthy of being read today. Back in the Sixties, after the first boom of pulp reprints in paperback, some people said, "Everything that's worth being reprinted from the pulps has already been reprinted."
Well, not hardly. The pulps are still a treasure trove of great fiction, and I'll never get around to reading more than a fraction of it in my lifetime.
But I'm going to try.