Sunday, December 29, 2019

Comanche Moon by William R. Cox

The 2nd printing of the Signet paperback edition.
(The 1st printing was in 1961, but the 75 cents
tag suggests this came later in the decade.)
My copy looks more beat-up than this one.

I didn’t know William R. Cox’s name when I first encountered his writing. It was a novel featuring drifting Thomas Buchanan, a self-proclaimed “peaceable man” who somehow ends up in trouble—usually someone else’s trouble, but it’s someone who must rely on Buchanan to clear up the mess. The Buchanan series of westerns was published by Fawcett-Gold Medal—currently Piccadilly Publishing is re-releasing the novels in the ebooks format—as written by Jonas Ward. William Ard created the series, the first novel of which was published in 1956. Ard completed only five books in the series. He died while writing the sixth, Buchanan on the Prod, which was finished by Robert Silverberg. Brian Garfield, immersed in writing westerns before publishing his breakout novel (DeathWish), wrote the next—Buchanan’s Gun, and Cox took over the series with Buchanan’s War (1971). He ended up writing more Buchanans than Ard, a total of sixteen books. To be honest, I prefer Cox’s Buchanan to Ard’s version.

Comanche Moon was published under Cox’s name in 1959, twelve years before Fawcett released his first Buchanan. The earlier book develops a tone that is harder-boiled than the overall feel of most Buchanan novels, but includes elements one can see arise later in Cox’s Buchanan tales.

For example, Comanche Moon brings together a disparate group of people—an old plot device even at the time Chaucer used it for TheCanterbury Tales—which happens in several Buchanan stories. Further, Comanche Moon focuses on this group trapped in Comanche Station, a stage-line station halfway between Pecos and El Paso, by a war band of raiding Indians. In 1973’s Buchanan’s Siege, the eponymous hero and a band of allies are trapped by a large gang of badguys.

The main difference in the two books is that the Buchanan stories typically have an identified villain, usually a land baron or crooked banker or swindler working toward a big score. For Comanche Moon, the threat comes from a large gathering of Comanches. Cox makes them essentially faceless and thoroughly vicious presences—think of the attackers in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13—who form the stereotypical savage Indians from innumerable Hollywood oaters. While the massed warriors surrounding the station may not—from Cox’s perspective—consciously represent the nightmarish, primeval wilderness arrayed against the representatives of civilization trapped within their deadly circle (harking to cultural critic and historian Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence [“the eternal presence of the native people of the woods, dark of skin and seemingly dark of mind, mysterious, bloody, cruel”] and literary critic Leslie Fiedler in Loveand Death in the American Novel discussing Charles Brockden Brown’s 1799 novel, Edgar Huntly [“It is not the Indian as social victim that appeals to Brown’s imagination, but the Indian as projection of natural evil and the id; his red men are therefore treated essentially as animals, living extensions of the threat of the wilderness, like the panthers with whom they are associated”]), Cox occasionally describes them in ways that echo these dark shadows that haunt civilization’s dreams. As one character states, “They fight to kill. They try to kill you all over, not just in one place.”

Other passages that demonstrate their bogeyman qualities:

They were riding harder and harder. There were so many of them that it seemed they could ride right through the buildings, sweeping everything away.

They were coming as he remembered a storm marching across a wheat field and it was like shooting at slanting raindrops.

Only three members of this mass of warriors are named. More on them later in this essay.

Another similarity between this novel and the Buchanan series: Comanche Moon’s Luke Post is a small-statured gambler who’s full of chutzpah, savvy about the wily and cowardly ways of cornered men, and quick with a gun; Thomas Buchanan mentions at least once per story his acquaintance with real-life Luke Short, a diminutive cardsharp known for his gun skills. (This is not Luke Short, the pseudonym of prolific pulp- and slick-fictioneer Frederick Glidden. Bat Masterson wrote in 1907 of the actual Short, “Luke was a little fellow, so to speak, about five feet, six inches in height, and weighing in the neighborhood of one hundred and forty pounds. It was a small package, but one of great dynamic force.”  Clearly, Short’s history made quite an impression on author Cox.

Quite different from the easy-going but effective Tom Buchanan is Cox’s ostensible protagonist, Pierce—who initially appears to the reader in the guise of a hard-boiled, amoral anti-hero remarkably savvy about fighting Comanches, but who later is revealed to be haunted by demons even he can’t restrain.

We’re introduced to Pierce as he’s going about his business—collecting Indian scalps that he sells to the Mexican government. It’s an ugly business about which he appears to have no qualms. Indeed, his initial appearance suggests he might fit in very well with the band that marauds its way through Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. When his two companions are apparently ambushed by a scouting party—their fate remains unknown, because the two simply disappear after Pierce sends them to surprise an Indian family—Pierce gives no thought to rescuing them or even looking for them before skedaddling to a safer location. It doesn’t matter that the two companions are clearly lowlife-types with no more human regard for their victims than Pierce. That Pierce abandons them to certain death—or, more likely, to horrible torture and then death—with no more consideration than he gives his Comanche victims, immediately frames his character for the reader.

Cox doesn’t even tell us Pierce’s full name. We know only that he’s called White Eye Pierce:
“White Eye,” they called him, because of the rage which made glass of his eyes when he caught them unprepared and killed them and took their hair. They hunted him and he hunted them, and so far as he was concerned that was proper and the way it had to be. There would never be an end to this so long as Josie was alive and with them, never.

Only later in the novel does Pierce fully reveal the source of his hatred. He tells one of the trapped travelers, Ben Tyler—a sympathetic and mostly honorable fellow from the East—how the Comanches had killed his parents when he was young, and made captives of him and his sister, Josie; how they’d repeatedly raped his sister until one of the war chiefs, Bear Head, had taken her as a wife; how Pierce, once he was older, had repeatedly implored Josie to escape with him, but she had refused, pointing to the children she’d borne as tying her to the tribe. The first of these children, Walking Jay, had been the child of one of her rapists and was adopted by Bear Head. And Pierce realized that he’d lost all chance of removing her from the Comanches once she’d become pregnant, but he continually fought an internal battle over the pre-captivity sister he’d adored and the adopted Comanche she’d become and that he hated.

Late in the novel, Pierce encounters and kills Walking Jay, his nephew--and his sister's first-born son. Several times he sees Bear Head guiding the warriors during their attacks. And at least once, Pierce sees his sister at Bear Head's side, encouraging the war chief's efforts. It is a sight that nearly crumbles Pierce's precarious mental state.

Tyler is sympathetic to Pierce’s anguish, and he admires his leadership qualities among the besieged as well as his fighting acumen, but he’s also repulsed by the vile manner by which Pierce expresses his hatred toward the Comanches. Although Tyler is among those trapped by the native warriors, he can’t quite align himself with Pierce’s view that the Comanches are aliens whose existence is completely antithetical to anything non-Comanche.

It is Tyler’s observations of Pierce through the rest of the novel that lift the scalp hunter from a mere two-dimensional hating and killing machine to a fully formed character.

Cox demonstrates his storytelling skill by successfully fleshing out Pierce’s character into a believable personality. The writer truly shines in delineating the other characters trapped at the station. While the scenes of action and violence lend a pulse to the plot that pulls along the reader from Chapter One, it’s the quieter moments of interaction between the twelve men and two women that knit the narrative cords binding the story into a cohesive, entertaining whole. As in the best tales, the tension that builds between characters—builds, ebbs, and sometimes explodes—engages the reader in a way far stronger than the external drama (the surrounding threat of the bloodthirsty Comanches) that frames the visceral scenes within the walls of the station. The emotions, the scheming, the cowardice, the dreaming, the foolishness, the heroics of these fourteen characters are what truly bring Comanche Moon to life. The heightened moments Cox composes inside the surrounded station at times rival those dramatic, claustrophobic, deadly scenes that often mark Harry Whittington’s best-remembered books.

Cox, who wrote scripts for a number of television shows over the years, notes at the novel’s beginning that it originally was developed as a screen treatment. My research turns up no info suggesting the story was ever filmed, but its scenes suggest it could have made a powerful movie. It has all the elements to be such: an outsider protagonist with a troubled past that haunts his present, an ensemble cast with room for a variety of character actors, a dramatic plot. Although Anthony Mann and other directors were making noirish, hard-boiled westerns in this vein during the 1950s, some of Cox’s lurid or sexual details might have had to be diluted for the tale to have made it to the screen at that time. Still, there’s plenty of room for an enterprising director to tackle a motion picture based on Comanche Moon today.

This is a strong, excellent novel composed in the guise of a traditional western. As noted earlier, Piccadilly Publishing is releasing Cox’s Buchanan novels. The company also is releasing another series Cox wrote under his own name—the Cemetery Jones novels—plus a number of Cox’s stand-alone westerns. As of this writing, Comanche Moon isn’t yet one of these, but be on the lookout, as it would surely be a fine addition to their catalog.


Daryl S. Herrick said...

Particularly when reading fiction was a norm, being a profitable prolific popular author meant mastering mechanics. The writer followed a plot that was as plain and structured as a blueprint plan. His fingers were flexible pistons that powered the typewriter keys to pile word after word on the paper.

While producing product, some writers imparted a little of themselves, whether by accident or by design, into their fiction. In those moments that might not survive an editor pruning away passages that stand in the way of the story, the reader climbs in the writer’s head and sees and interprets things through writer’s eyes. From your review of William R. Cox's Comanche Moon, those moments are what stood out about the novel.

The writer of a New York Times review from when Comanche Moon was released concurred with your assessment of the novel, “an unusually gripping and honestly adult account of a handful of travelers caught at an isolated stage station surrounded by what appeared to be pretty nearly the entire Comanche nation.”

I usually associate Cox with pulp magazines featuring sports stories. He even authored a latter-day Frank Merriwell novel. That is neither here nor there other than point out that Cox was versatile.

Your description of Pierce, the principle character of Comanche Moon, and his hate-filled life after the abduction of his sister by members of the Comanche tribe brought to mind John Ford’s film, “The Searchers”. In the film, racial hatred drives the protagonist, portrayed by John Wayne, after his niece is abducted in a similar Comanche raid. Perhaps Cox thought lightning would strike twice when he thought the plot of Comanche Moon would make a good movie.

Daryl S. Herrick said...
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Daryl S. Herrick said...
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