On the Western Front

My story “Llano Estacado” appears in a new anthology, Wild Frontiers, out from UK-publisher Abstruse Press. The story is an alternate-history Western, in which the main characters are American settlers caught behind the new border after the US loses the Mexican-American War.

The new landowner was Capitan Baltasar Batalla Farias.

“I own all this, everything you see,” he told Tucker and his wife as they stood on their porch. Batalla and his men didn’t even bother to dismount. “You think you owned this land but you never did. You can stay in the house. Only now you must pay rent to me.”

“You son of a bitch — we built this house,” said Tucker’s wife. Her name was Clover.

Batalla and his men laughed. “Do not worry, señora. I would be a fool to come from Mexico City and ignore someone like your husband. Doubtless he knows this land better than anyone. Every playa lake, every blade of grass.” He addressed Tucker: “You can work for me. I will make you chief of my vaqueros.”

Tucker considered the arithmetic. If not, they would have to sell their cattle piecemeal to pay rent. And Tucker and his wife, out there alone, barely made enough as it was to buy the things they couldn’t grow or make.

“I’ll take the job,” he told Batalla.

I wrote “Llano Estacado” six or seven years ago but struggled to sell it. Multiple editors praised it but nonetheless hit send on the rejection e-mail because the story lay in a gray limbo, neither speculative enough for sci-fi anthologies and yet too genre for literary mags. It was, as one editor put it, “just a Western,” and Westerns are almost impossible sales in this century.

Unlike my other trunk stories, I persevered to find a home for “Llano” because every time I read it, I remained convinced it represented my talent at its best. I once read an interview with Clint Eastwood, who said Unforgiven communicated everything he felt about the Western. Well, for me, “Llano Estacado” does the same.

You can find Wild Frontiers for e-readers at Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and B&N, and in paperback at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

In related news, this morning alternate-history publisher Sea Lion Press posted a glowing review of the 2014 anthology Altered America which included a very nice write-up of my contribution, “Rio Grande:”

Kuhl gives a fascinating and thought-provoking look at what this little city-state might have looked like in the 19th Century, and a rather plausible timeline for its creation. Add in some sharp dialogue, good characterisation and fast-paced action scenes, and it all adds up to a cracker of a counterfactual story.

That’s a nice way to start my Friday! My thanks to reviewer Adam Selby-Martin. You can read more of my thoughts on “Rio Grande” here.

A Different Sunlight

Nightscript, Volume 4C.M. Muller’s fourth volume of Nightscript has hit the streets and it features a contribution of mine, “A Different Sunlight.” The story concerns a boy in northern England whose father attempts to develop a machine that can construct entire homes from scratch.

Randall’s father was proud of a particular innovation he developed. The new concrete ties were not prefabricated but rather poured into place by the machine using rebar and quick-drying cement. The possibilities of these materials soon seized the father’s imagination; he became distant and preoccupied at meals, given to odd remarks about what seemed to Randall as random news events or statements of fact: the Great Fire of Newcastle in ’54, or the lack of housing for the country’s exploding population, or of the cheapness and abundance of concrete itself. Then, after weeks of midnights spent at his drawing table surrounded by reams of tea-ringed paper, he emerged with plans for a machine even greater than the company’s steel snail chugging over the mountains.

Think of it, Randall, he said as he stabbed at various lines and shapes on the whiteprints, A machine that can build a house.

As might be expected, events turn out unexpectedly.

What’s funny is that when I wrote the story, I believed I had concocted the idea of one-piece cement houses from my imagination alone — I fancied a giant steampunk 3D printer, maybe scuttling around on mechanical spider legs, printing houses with concrete. Turns out that none other than Thomas Edison was way ahead of me, and while his houses weren’t created by a single machine, his motives were very similar to those of Randall’s father:

During this period, Edison also came up with the idea for building homes out of cast-in-place concrete. … In theory, this would result in a whole new kind of home with various benefits: fireproof, insect-proof, easy to clean, and at a very affordable $1,200 per house. Edison saw this as a potential solution for cities with housing shortages, allowing people to move from slums to cheap new residential areas of poured concrete houses.

Great minds, am i rite?

Nightscript, Volume 4 features stories by 20 other authors as well, including terrific writers like Steve Rasnic Tem and V.H. Leslie (who also appeared with me in issue 31 of Black Static, way back in 2012). It’s available at Amazon in paperback and for Kindle.

Vaya con Dios

You may be aware that a few years ago, I began writing 19th-century alternate histories as a literary vacation after Smedley. The series soon morphed into a stream of weird Westerns, ghost stories, and even a little steampunk; while simultaneously their creation transformed into a kind of palliative during the Years of Real-Estate Madness. Distracted by garages, painting, buying, selling, and restorations (not to mention paying employment), my attention was too fragmented to think about more books or even short nonfiction with its relevancy demands and expiration dates. The great thing about short fiction is I can write something, walk away for weeks, and then come back to pick up where I left it.

In keeping with a theme of endings and new beginnings, it’s time for Strange Wests to ride off into the sunset as I readjust my focus toward longer projects and nonfiction. Nobody has been more astonished than me by Wests’s reception from editors and readers. A bunch are in various stages of the pipeline, which means there’s more to appear, and never say never: I’m happy to write fresh material as the inspiration or invitation strikes. Plus I’ve come to depend on fiction writing as an analgesic too much to quit it altogether. I will still be writing historical shorts as time allows, only these, for the immediate future, will be set in New England.

My goal is to bundle Strange Wests into an e-book collection to be published in 2015.

Down on the Rio Grande

Altered AmericaMy story “Rio Grande” appears in the new alternate-history anthology, Altered America. Gambling gunfighter Lorenzo seeks vengeance against a card sharp in the Republic of the Rio Grande, an independent country based on the economic principles of Frederic Bastiat:

“When the Republicans defeated the Mexican army at Morales, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Mexico tried again. They realized our little breakaway estado could only be held by force. Force means men. So they encouraged homesteading to grow the population. They tried various policies for a few years but nothing worked. Everyone wanted to go to California instead. Finally President Jordan discovered the writings of a French philosopher named Bastiat. This philosopher advocated free exchange. No taxes. No tariffs. No customs. A strictly confined government. ‘Law is organized justice,’ said the philosopher — anything beyond that is perversion. So they scrapped everything and started over with a new constitution based on his writings and principles. They advertised it in all the eastern newspapers. Cheap land. Live tariff free. Women can vote. And where there are women, there are men and soon enough children who grow up to defend against Mexico. Then there weren’t enough branches in the trees to beat back the settlers.”

“But how do you pay for the judges and the marshals? Who builds the courthouses?”

“The philosopher wasn’t against taxes so much as their unfair and arbitrary application,” said Valasquez. “So to keep everyone honest, there are none to begin with. Citizens can make donations. But that’s exactly how Jordan managed to convince his caudillo supporters to agree to the constitution. It meant only self-sufficient people could afford to be judges and marshals.”

“Only the wealthy, you mean.”

“How is that worse than America?”

Alien Space Bats maybe, but I’ve often wondered why banana-republic rebellions usually take such a distinctly left-hand turn. The answer, I suppose, is Marxism’s empty pledge to eliminate the elite classes, a mistake based on the assumption that class derives from economic systems rather than being a natural by-product of state-level civilization.

In any event, “Rio Grande” isn’t for or against libertarianism so much as it is a stab at that most pernicious of modern ideologies, utopianism. Earlier this week at Reason.com, author Anne Fortier noted the power of historical fiction:

To the freedom-friendly novelist, one further advantage of historical fiction is that the entire history of mankind is jam-packed with tragic examples of what Hayek called “the fatal conceit” and the corrupting effects of power — especially state power.

It’s worth reading her whole essay, though I’m not sure what business Fortier has throwing speculative fiction under the bus after writing a whole book about a mythological matriarchy (for all of her self-satisfaction, it seems Fortier hasn’t learned that genre — the difference of where you’re shelved in the bookstore — is simply packaging). But she’s right: history shows that power disparities are inevitable once a certain complexity of social organization is reached, and the key is not a false promise of eradicating those disparities but rather blunting power so that it does the least harm.

You can purchase the whole anthology here — I’m happy to report the Kindle edition has seen a steady burn of sales since its release — or read my complete story for free here. And if you enjoyed the antho, please leave a review at Amazon or Goodreads.

 

The Gao of Bill

Heartless Gao Walks Number Nine Hell.Never heard of Bill Ward? It’s your loss, though understandable. Despite having appeared in such pubs as Howard Andrew Jones’s Flashing Swords, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Kaleidotrope, and enough anthologies to burst an equort’s saddlebags, Ward remains shamefully underrated and unknown in the genre community.

Part of the handicap lies in the fact that as a short-story writer much of his work has appeared on paper rather than Paperwhite, which in modern times cockblocks discovery. Recently though, Bill collected and re-published his fiction as five e-books, each affordably priced at $3.99. Such value!

Interestingly my short story backlist sort of naturally fell into 30k-ish sized chunks of themed stories. There are two collections that are mostly heroic fantasy, sword & sorcery, or dark fantasy, those being ‘The Last of His Kind and Other Stories’ and ‘Mightier Than the Sword and Other Stories.’ ‘Heartless Gao Walks Number Nine Hell and Other Stories’ collects mostly ‘mythic’ type pieces, stories that are written in a style more akin to fables or legends. I also had enough for two science fiction collections, divided roughly into ‘naughty’ and ‘nice.’ On the naughty side we have ‘Named in Blood and Other Stories’ which is darker, grimmer stuff; ’20,000 Light Years to Lilliput and Other Stories’ is a funnier collection, less serious, and a bit more all over the place genre-wise.

Having previously purchased a copy of Heartless Gao (which at that point only contained the titular story), Bill sent me a copy of the expanded Heartless Gao Walks Number Nine Hell and Other Stories. Included are nine fantasies set in days of yore. Lust for wealth and the daughters of oracles drowns whole Hyperborean landscapes in “The Wroeth’s Grinding Bowl” and “The Old Man and the Mountain of Fire,” while Irish legends echo in “The Midnight Maiden” and “When They Come to Murder Me.” The Aesopic “How Antkind Lost Its Soul” satirizes corporate cubicle-copia; likewise, the repentant soldier-turned-monk Heartless Gao takes on the bureaucracy of a Chinese afterlife in the very clever and very worthwhile namesake tale. My favorites are the collection’s two bookends, “Gandolo of the Watchful Eye” and “Crow: A Triptych,” the first a rich sardonicism combining the best of Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, the other an arc reaching from classical Greece to post-apocalypticism.

I wish Bill would write more, especially in the “Gandolo” style. His dry humor is rare among fantasists (you can hear the laugh track when most writers combine labyrinths and levity) and his stories are almost always whole narratives — you know, those things with beginnings and middles and conclusions — rather than the pretty scenes strung together in literary ostentation seen so commonly in the pro markets. Please consider this humble recommendation when spending your Christmas Kindle gift cards.

Barbary Etymology

Whilst combing the internets, I happened upon this kind review of my story, “Barbary:”

Despite some odd word choices (geezer), Kuhl vividly evokes a dissipated waterfront atmosphere… And, as a pipe-smoker myself, I raise my Peterson to the author who has written an authentic horror story which works through artifacts rather than artifice, and which delights and surprises throughout. This is the first Jackson Kuhl story I’ve had the pleasure to read and, I hope, not the last. Well worth investing in a copy of this issue of Black Static to read Barbary alone.

Much of the language used in “Barbary” was researched to prevent anachronism but apparently I didn’t dig deep enough. While “geezer” does hail from the early 1880s — the same decade in which the story is set — it derives from the word “guiser,” slang for someone who dressed eccentrically. Only later did it become a pejorative for senior citizen, which is how it’s used in the story. Mr. McEvoy is correct to bean me for it. Now somebody get me rewrite!