I end the weird western series with a retro review from September 2, 2013.
Review: The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok, Richard Matheson, 1996.
While Matheson is mostly known as a fantasy and horror writer, this is not really a weird western though, arguably, a small element of the fantastic is present in Hickok’s brushes with Spiritualism.
Matheson’s introduction says he did not intend to write this book to demean Hickok, but there is, especially for those who have read Joseph G. Rosa’s biographies of him, a certain perverseness in the story despite Matheson largely following the historical chronology of Hickok’s life. In his surviving letters, Hickok appears somewhat illiterate. Here it’s all an act as Hickok tells us in this account of his life written a few days before Jack McCall guns him down in August 1876. While associate Doc Carver noted Hickok’s lack of prowess shooting a rifle, it’s the weapon here Hickok most likes, and the novel’s Hickok certainly does not start out with an innate talent for shooting revolvers.
The perversity continues with accounts of the “real” story of Hickok’s gun battles at the Rock Creek stagecoach station and his duel with Dave Tutt and the circumstances behind his dismissal as city marshal in Abilene. Still, despite the violence done to the historical record, there were a couple of highlights that may appeal to those devoted to Rosa’s account of Hickok. One is the humorous tale behind how he came to be dressed in the buffalo coat and fur cap captured in a famous photo. The other is Hickok’s encounter with Matheson’s creation Clay Halser, featured in Matheson’s Journal of the Gun Years, another man, like Hickok, trapped by the expectations of his legend.
Oddly, Matheson does not mention the improbable tales surrounding Hickok’s horse, Black Nell, and little is done with Hickok’s brief stage career. Matheson does do a lot with an area of Hickok’s life for which little documentation exists: his romance and marriage to trick rider and circus performer Agnes Lake.
Mostly, though, Matheson uses the historical Hickok to give us a fiction of a fearful man, his nerves frequently calmed by whiskey, trying to live up to his father’s strict admonitions to act like a gentleman and ensnared, and, yet, oddly ennobled by his dime novel myth.
A pleasing work of frequently humorous fiction but perhaps not for those seriously devoted to the historical Hickok.