Vultures of Whapeton
Copyright 1973, 1974, by Glenn Lord
The Vultures of Whapeton
Showdown at Hell's Canyon
Drums of the Sunset
(out of 5)
Starting about 1933, Robert E. Howard began writing westerns, since the "weird" market was drying up. He grew to like them so much that, shortly before he died, he claimed he intended to devote the rest of his career to "regional fiction". While he wrote something like forty-one westerns, most of those were humour pieces, often using his Breckinridge Elkins character -- stories which I don't much care for. The four stories contained in this collection are more traditional westerns, with gunslingers and shootouts. The best ones are "The Vultures of Whapeton" and "Wild Water."
Howard felt "The Vultures of Whapeton" (which takes up fully half this book) was the best thing he'd ever written, and, while that might be a little extreme, it isn't far wrong either. Howard is at his best when his stories involve a lot of complex machinations, and here he is at his best.
The western mining town of Whapeton is under a cloud of terror from an outlaw band called the Vultures. Nobody knows who is a member. The sheriff, Middleton, hires a Texas gunslinger, Corcoran, to replace his deputy, killed in an ambush. But Corcoran soon learns the truth -- Middleton is the head of the Vultures. He hired Corcoran simply to placate the townsfolk. Even worse, Middleton plans on double-crossing his own gang and skipping town with a fortune in gold -- a fortune which he offers to split with Corcoran if the gunslinger will help him. Corcoran is an unlikely hero, and pragmatically agrees to the plan. Unfortunately, he falls in love with a dancehall girl. When she gets in Middleton's way, the sheriff takes care of her, and Corcoran takes care of the sheriff...
As complex as many of Howard's stories are, they rarely truly surprise the reader. Heroes are heroes, villains are villains, and everyone acts precisely the way we expect them to. Here, things are more interesting. "Vultures of Whapeton" surprises the reader, not only with plot twists, but with the unusually complex characterization of its "hero". Corcoran isn't a bad man, but he isn't good either. He has his own code of honour, but that code allows him to betray the townsfolk for gold. In fact, there is more than a hint of Treasure of the Sierra Madre here -- anyone can go mad at the sight of that which glitters.
Howard actually wrote two different endings, both of which were originally published. In one, the girl survives and Corcoran gets her. In the other, published here, she dies. To my thinking, without the tragic ending, the story really has no point.
One minor complaint: Howard often defines his characters according to their ethnic origins. Here, we are forever being told that Corcoran's actions are no different from what any other Texan's would be. His reverence for women, for example, we are told is standard for a Texan. But, if any Texan would have acted the same, then what's so special about Corcoran? Why should we be interested in him? We want a character whose actions spring from things special about him, not from a racial stereotype.
"The Vultures of Whapeton" was based on a real historical incident which Howard followed quite closely, and which may actually explain why it seems more "true" than his usual stories. Sadly, it saw print only shortly after he had killed himself.
"Showdown at Hell's Canyon" is a lesser story, although not terrible. Stan Brannigan hooks up with a gunslinger named "Spike" as they follow a treasure map. Spike's true identity is a mystery, but he tends to lose his cool whenever the name of Mike O'Mara, a reportedly deceased gunslinger, comes up in conversation. They encounter Joan, fleeing a shotgun wedding, whose brother was killed by Mike O'Mara -- news which clearly perturbs our boy Spike. Another gunslinger, Hansen, is also after the treasure, and shows up with the shotgun groom. In the end, Hansen kills the groom ("Have you thought that maybe I want her too?"), Spike kills Hansen, but is himself mortally wounded. With his dying breath, he reveals that he is Mike O'Mara and bitterly regrets his life of outlawry.
Unfortunately, the "surprise" ending is no great surprise, and without that there isn't much to recommend this. Unlike most of his westerns which were written after 1933, this was written earlier in REH's career, which may explain the weaknesses.
"Drums of the Sunset" is another minor piece, with only a scant plot and characters that come across as two-dimensional. Steve Harmer (another Texan) falls in love with a lovely blonde (another Joan) who is being held somewhat against her will up in the hills by her father and some shady friends. They're up to no good, but what precisely is going on is a mystery, since they shoot at anyone who ventures within range. An old man tells Harmer he thinks it has something to do with a lost gold seam, but then, the local Navajos start passing around counterfeit bills -- and ominous drums are heard in the sunset. The Navajos finally attack and kill the father and friends, who were cheating them with counterfeit money. Mistakenly thinking Joan was killed in the attack, Harmer swears bloody vengeance...
The writing here is all right, but the story has little in the way of real suspense. While we are told there is a mystery, we spend most of the story thinking the answer is the gold seam. When it turns out to be counterfeit money, it's too late -- and, anyway, we saw that coming a mile off, too. As for motivation, frankly our sympathies are with the poor Navajos who were cheated, and so it's hard to get in the spirit of the thing when our frothing hero swears: "They killed her! By God, I'll kill 'em all! I'll kill -- kill --"
"Wild Water" is, stylistically, the best thing in this collection. I know I said "The Vultures of Whapeton" was one of Howard's best, but "Wild Water" is actually a more mature and ambitious piece. It just isn't as much fun as "Vultures".
"Wild Water" takes place in a single stormy night, when the protagonist, Jim Reynolds, snaps big-time over the bank's foreclosure of his brother-in-law's farm. Reynolds kills the banker, decks the local law officer, then sets out intent on doing the Bonny and Clyde thing. Meanwhile, the mother of all storms has unleashed its fury, flooding the local waterways, its thunder and lightning a symbolic reflection of the violence below. But then, Reynolds meets up with another victim of bank foreclosure who is even crazier than he is -- this guy means to blow the dam and drown everyone in the nearby town. Reynolds stops him but is himself killed in the fight -- ironically saving the very people he hated most.
In "Wild Water", REH's writing has to be read to be believed. It's incredible stuff, particularly the fascinating use of the storm as reflection of the violent drama being acted out on the earth below. Howard has never been better -- nor as personal. In fact, that is part of the problem with this story. Howard's sympathy for Reynolds and hatred for the banker leaves the reader uncomfortable for much of the thing. Howard himself carried a lot of rage inside, and here that rage seems to find too-welcome release in the form of this madman on the loose. Only in the ironic climax is the reader able finally to find common ground with the protagonist. It works, but it runs the risk of coming too late to win the reader back.
Of the four stories here, only "The Vultures of Whapeton" saw print in a professional magazine.
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