Saturday, March 16, 2013

Iron Men and Silver Stars: Donald Hamilton's western anthology

Iron Men and Silver Stars
Gold Medal, Greenwich, Conn. (Fawcett Publications: 1967)

Donald Hamilton is known among PBO readers and Gold Medal collectors as a writer of vigorous prose, dramatic situations, careful plotting, well-delineated characters with realistic, human personalities and reactions. He's best known as the creator of the Matt Helm series of thrillers. But he's also a writer of westerns.

Based on this last qualification -- and probably to capitalize on the popularity of the Helm novels -- Fawcett had Hamilton edit a western anthology, Iron Men and Silver Stars.

The collection opens with a slight piece by the editor about writing westerns, originally published in the Western Writers of America's April 1956 issue of The Roundup. But everything that follows that preface is a fine example of solid writing by masters of the short prose form. I'll share a few opening paragraphs to demonstrate the energetic, engaging qualities of the writing in this book:

"Green Wounds," Carter Travis Young
He was a big, easy man with a way of relaxing completely that was rare in Burt Haskins' experience. Strangers just didn't settle down on the other side of the sheriff's scarred oak desk and act like they'd come home! (p. 11)

"Epitaph," Tom W. Blackburn
The man in overalls could run like a rabbit. He was shifty on his feet and fast as hell, but he was a sitting duck, just the same. Like the shot Jack Dall had put through his hat inside the Pioneer Bar when the fellow had loudly claimed the marshal of Fort Sand was a saloon marshal, Dall's shots here on the street were precisely planted. A warning, a chastisement, stinging the man's heels, driving him to a more frantic retreat. There was only one way to rule a turbulent town.

"In the Line of Duty," Elmer Kelton
The two horsemen came west over the deep-rutted wagon road from Austin, their halterless Mexican packmule following like a dog, its busy ears pointing toward everything which aroused its active curiosity.

"Coward's Canyon," John Prescott
Jimmy Conroy's mouth was dry and sour in an acid-like way and the jogging of his horse intensified it in some way. The bullet-laden bandoliers, crossing at his breastbone, the big Frontier Colt, slapping at his thigh, and the buck-loaded double shotgun in his scabbard, all dragged their weight upon him in a nagging way, and failed to provide him with the assurance he thought he should expect of them. If he alone of the posse had felt this weight of fear he might have drawn sustenance from the others, but in three days they had lost two men from ambush, and he could tell they all felt the thing by now.

Each of these paragraphs sets a stage for a compact drama that will engage the reader in a narrative as compelling as a novel-length work, but with fewer words. To simply call these pieces short stories denies the energy and craft evident in each. They are all small but potent bursts of narrative magic.

Once upon a time, the western short story ruled the publishing market. Tons of ink and paper were devoted to satisfying the reading public's desire for more western fare.

Options for placing western short stories are far fewer now. But the examples in Iron Men and Silver Stars provide a picture of a time -- late in the heyday, to be sure, but still viable at the time -- when the western short story still commanded respect in the mainstream publishing industry.


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