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.

The Dead Ride Fast Is Now Available

The Dead Ride FastThe Dead Ride Fast is now available at Amazon and Kobo.

It is not available on the iTunes store. That’s because uploading an e-book to Amazon is easy, uploading to Kobo is extremely easy, and uploading to Apple is a multi-stage clusterfuck. The ubiquity of Apple’s overpriced and cumbersome tech is one of the great boondoggles of our age. Throughout this process, the only serious roadblock I encountered was uploading to iBooks, which ended with me throwing a frustration-soaked towel into the ring.

I also have not uploaded The Dead Ride Fast to the Nook store, mainly because there’s no need. I’ve gleaned from other e-publishers that their Nook sales were either nonexistent or so low that it wasn’t worth the effort; and regardless, a Nook/Kobo merger of some kind appears to be inevitable. Kobo has positioned itself to be the only viable competitor to Amazon in the e-book space.

Anyway, I hope you nerds have enjoyed my adventures in e-book publishing. So what’s next?

I have almost enough material for that second collection I’ve mentioned. I won’t jinx myself by publicly declaring a timeline like I did with The Dead Ride Fast, but having done it once, the process should go smoother and faster next time. I’m already psyched about the cover.

Beyond that I will retreat into my customary elusiveness as I ride off into the sunset. Thanks for reading and maybe even laying down a shiny nickel on the virtual sales counter. Until next time — happy trails.

Cartagena Hotel

Plate III from Our Reptiles and Batrachians by M.C. Cooke, 1893

Of all the stories in The Dead Ride Fast, “Cartagena Hotel” trod the most convoluted road.

I began writing the story in 2014. The original draft was longer than the idea behind it could sustain, so later I returned to it and hacked it down before moving on. Occasionally I would add or subtract, then set it aside again.

I don’t try to consciously emulate other authors but the story that eventually took shape reminded me strongly of an Ambrose Bierce tale, very short (around 2,000 words) and revolving around the theme of disappearance — or more specifically, the idea of whether anyone else would notice if someone or something disappeared.

As he was soliciting stories of psychological horror, I submitted it to Eric Guignard for Horror Library, Volume 6. I made the cut. It was my second time working with Eric, who also published “Quivira” in his antho Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations. Eric believed, however, that the story was too curt, too elliptical, and asked that I expand it to let the characters breathe. The result, I think, was a much improved story and three years after its first draft, “Cartagena Hotel” appeared in the aforementioned volume this past April.

For The Dead Ride Fast, I stripped out the scene breaks as I felt they disrupted the story’s flow. Otherwise it appears as it did in Horror Library.

Realgar

The John S. Cook and Company building in Rhyolite, Nevada CC BY Brian W. Schaller, 2004

Of all the stories in The Dead Ride Fast, “Realgar” is probably the closest to a horror story. I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of escheat — the legal provision in which land in the United States cannot be unowned. If no one else owns a parcel, then it reverts to the ownership of the government, which in turn can sell it to somebody else.

That means ultimately any site or building — like, say, a haunted ghost town — is owned by someone, whether it’s a person, company, or government entity. You can’t just walk away from evil.

For The Dead Ride Fast I’ve restored a couple of sentences that were cut when “Realgar” first appeared in the 2012 anthology Low Noon. I don’t think the cuts were intentional; rather I suspect they resulted from an assembly error while the editor was stitching together the book manuscript. They’re fairly minor lines but I’m glad I had the opportunity to knit them back in.

The town of Realgar, BTW, is based on the Nevada ghost town of Rhyolite. I’ve never been there. All of my weird Westerns are inspired by a backpacking tour I took of the southwest in the early 90s as well as a 10-week period when I lived on the outskirts of Houston. My memories of those times, so staticky and sepia-toned, factored largely in my desire to write these sorts of acid-Western stories — to create these landscapes that are neither literally true nor figuratively false.

Barbary

Barbary
Barbary by Ben Baldwin, 2012

Ah, “Barbary.” My favorite among The Dead Ride Fast.

An initial concept when I began writing my Strange Wests stories was a focus on water.

Western landscapes in both books and movies can be divvied into two categories, either mesa-choked desert or rolling plains. Forgotten is the importance of watercraft in the expansion of the western frontier. Think of the major American cities situated along Mark Twain’s Mississippi alone: Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis. One historian (I can’t remember who) called New Orleans the gateway between the Old South and the Wild West because much of eastern and southern Texas was settled by folks who arrived via ship from NOLA. In 1850, California, with its 840 miles of coastline, became our 31st state, sandwiching a wide swathe of unexplored land between it and the rest of the states. Some of its settlers crossed the continent directly but others went by sea, most of them arriving via San Francisco.

I wanted to set a sailing story in San Francisco, which for the second half of the 19th century was probably the US’s largest city west of the Mississippi (by 1880 it was the nation’s ninth most populous). It was very much a frontier city, so raucous and dangerous that its Vigilance Committees — organized in the face of horrible police and government corruption — gave us the word vigilante.

Married to this setting was my fascination with 19th-century mummy unrolling. I also wanted to experiment with an untrustworthy narrator who spoke in a rich, overwrought style not unlike that of Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance — a style I call my Pompous Purple. Writing in Pompous Purple can be tricky; it takes a special kind of editor to get the joke, and I have far more unsold Purple manuscripts sitting on my hard drive than I have in print. Fortunately, Andy Cox at Black Static loved “Barbary” and bought it immediately. After publication it received a fair amount of attention on review blogs.

I wrote other “wet Westerns” too, stories about privateers in the Gulf of Mexico (“Galveston”), riverboat gamblers (“Rio Grande”), New Orleans rising above the bayou (“Crescent City”). But “Barbary” is the best of them.

For what it’s worth, “Barbary” received an honorable mention in Ellen Datlow’s long list for 2013’s The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 5.

Double Bar

Faraway Ranch, Arizona, circa 1920s

When I was putting The Dead Ride Fast together, I noticed that for a book of ghost stories it oddly didn’t feature a single haunted-house story. There are haunted places a-plenty but nary a haunted house.

“Double Bar,” being the sole non-reprint in the collection, aims to remedy that. It’s an episodic short with various brief chapters told out of chronological order, plus some commentary on the nature of stories themselves and how we often construct narratives from random snippets we collect. Often we can never know the truth of a thing, we only cobble together an interpretation pieced from different sources.

Or something.

There’s also a couple of levels of storytelling within storytelling in “Double Bar,” which is always fun in a ghost story.