The Weird Western Adventures of Haakon Jones

(This first appeared in Innsmouth Free Press  on July 4, 2013.)

Review; The Weird Western Adventures of Haakon Jones, Aaron B. Larson, 1999.

]n 1874, 17-year-old Haakon Jones leaves Minnesota, his mother dead, his older brother set to inherit the farm. Trading in his prized violin for a Colt Army revolver, which is going to see a whole lot of use in the next 32 years, he wanders the American West and beyond, ending up in San Francisco just in time to be involved with its 1906 earthquake. You could think of him as sort of a Western version of haakonjones-w622-h350Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane. Indeed, the book is dedicated to Howard, except the ideals his Unitarian pastor back home admonishes him to remain true to are less fervently Christian than Kane’s Puritanism.

That’s all very nice, I hear you say, but why are you covering a 14-year-old book – and a Weird Western, at that? Innsmouth Free Press’s own J. Keith Haney, in his Retronomicon column, already does that quite ably. Why? Because this book deserves to be more widely known.

There are new additions to the Weird Western subgenre all the time in games, fiction, comics, and movies. I’ve been interested in it for decades, starting with old Twilight Zone comic books and the Clint Eastwood movies High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider. The trouble is that, while I haven’t looked at every single example of the subgenre, I have sampled quite a few and most have been disappointing. For me, that disappointment comes in three areas: annoying and unrealistic depictions of the West, conceptually lazy plots that simply throw werewolves or vampires or aliens into a western setting, and a failure to evoke a sense of place. The latter is important because, after all, place, a particular geographical setting and historical time, defines the “western” half of the “Weird Western.”

Now, there are werewolves and space aliens and vampires in this book, but there’s also a whole lot of other weirdness, a true smorgasbord of it. There is a golem, giant critters, weaponized vampire bats, lake monsters, Sasquatch, witches, trolls, a Mayan mummy, zombies, flying saucers, ghosts, Wendigo, Nazis, a mad scientist, and, yes, some Lovecraftian monsters, too. (Besides Howard, Lovecraft is another of the pulp authors the book is dedicated too.) There are more conventional menaces, as well: a pedophile, a gang of gunmen, and, in what I suspect is an homage to Howard’s boxing stories, a heavyweight champion of Mexico.

Larson can cram all this into less than three hundred pages because this fix-up novel is told through 35 chronologically arranged stories, most having first been published in Classic Pulp Fiction Stories in the 1990s. If you’re bored with one sort of monster, it’s not long until the next one will show up. Jones’ narration is often wry, sometimes poetic. It’s the speech of a drifter with a yen to learn life’s secrets. He frequently stops at libraries when he comes across them. It’s not the tall-tale, laconic, over-the-top drawl of Joe Lansdale’s Jonah Hex, which I never liked.

Larson also conveys a sense of the real American West and its people, though not every story is set there. Lakota mythology shows up with Hin-Han, the owl spirit that becomes a regular warning of the eerie about to show up in Jones’ life. His friend, and occasional partner in adventure, is Small Jumper, a Lakota he meets while both serve as scouts in Colonel Custer’s Seventh Cavalry.

One story involves a Dakota Territory community of what my parents would have called “Black Russians,” German immigrants from the Black Sea area. Cameo appearances of historical and fictional characters of the time abound: Buffalo Bill Cody; characters from the TV westerns, The Wild, Wild West and Have Gun, Will Travel; and the man associated with the most significant work of fantasy to come out of South Dakota, Frank L. Baum of Oz fame. In the zone between history and fiction, Larson also works in the legend of El Dorado, the disappearance of the Anasazi, and Vikings in America.

Larson also does a fine job of evoking place. Now, I have to admit my perceptions may be colored by my own unique perspective. I’ve either lived or been to the places mentioned in his Minnesota and Dakota Territory stories. (Indeed, the first place I ever saw this book mentioned was South Dakota Magazine.) On the other, hand S. P. Somtow wrote a long novel, Moon Dance, set at the same time and in many of the same areas, and didn’t bring the place to life. And, while I’ve never been to Seattle, I thought the story “In Seattle the Rain Comes for You!” did a nice job describing the city. That story, incidentally, seems both a nod to and argument with Lovecraft’s somewhat notorious “The Horror at Red Hook.” Both involve dastardly cults conducting underground rites in sleazy port cities, but Jones is helped in his fight against evil by a black preacher.

And, yes, there are quite-specific Lovecraftian elements here. Captain Lawton, Jones’ superior in the Army, is a reoccurring character with an interest in blasphemous books. They include Larson’s addition to that library, Olag Tryggvesson’s Dagbok av en Vanvittig Djevel av-en Utenfor Natt, which seems to translate as “Diary of a Mad Devil of Outside Night.” There’s also the little detour to an uncharted island in the Pacific in “Surf City, Here I Come” and the monster lurking in New Mexico in “The Door in the Desert.”

Now, this is not a perfect book and some of the flaws were more obvious on my second reading. Obviously, you’re not going to get a whole lot of character development in such short stories. Sometimes past subjects of Jones’ romantic attraction are too conveniently mentioned in only one story. Larson maintains his continuity pretty well, but one villain, seemingly killed in one story, pops up later in others. Perhaps, as the foreword says, we need to “forgive an old man’s memory.”

The reaction to a character’s death in the actually rather poignant and powerful “Can You Hear a Ghost Dance …,” based on the conflict between Small Jumper, who rejects the promises of the Ghost Dance, and his son, who joins the movement, weakens the story’s emotional effect. I was somewhat disappointed to see the supernatural menace of two of the stories set in and around the Black Hills of South Dakota, my old stomping grounds, to be somewhat vague in their manifestations and resolutions, though most of the stories set in that locale pleased me. And, of particular sorrow to a Lovecraft fan, I have to state that the problems brought up by some of the characters’ names in “Action on Arkham’s Boot Hill” almost completely ruined the story for me.

Still, though, Jones remains the high point of my travels in Weird Western territory, and I suspect many of you Innsmouth folk will cotton to something in it.

 

 

Science Fiction Trails #12

Lately, I’ve been thinking about narrowing the scope of this blog and, as I put it, reading more like a normal person. In other words, reviewing less of what I read.

I’ll probably continue to do the weird western stuff though. It gets a moderate amount of interest, and it’s an area not a lot of other people cover

Review: Science Fiction Trails #12, ed. David B. Riley, 2017.Science Fiction Trails #12

In 2017, David B. Riley gathered the posse for another ride in Science Fiction Trails.

That magazine’s successors, Steampunk Trails and Story Emporium, didn’t generate a lot of interest, and Riley wanted to still provide an outlet for writers of weird westerns.

Counter to that was Riley’s perennial problem in even getting enough submissions for the magazine.

So, it’s no surprise that all the members of the posse are old reliables from previous issues.

Not only this is a shorter issue than regular, but it’s even got a couple of reprints.

First up is “Belfrey’s in Your Bats!” from Aaron B. Larson. There is nothing wrong with the story. It gives a hat tip to probably one of the most popular weird westerns of all time, the tv show The Wild Wild West (the other being, perhaps, the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter). But it’s not the best of the stories collected in that powerful parcel of weird western fiction: The Weird Western Adventures of Haakon Jones which I’ve reviewed at length elsewhere. Continue reading “Science Fiction Trails #12”

The Devil Draws Two

A couple of months ago it was time for the summer trip west and back to South Dakota.

That meant it was time to read the usual nonfiction Old West history book and a weird western. (I already did the usual geology reading.)

I’ll get to the history book another time.

I’ve been reading David B. Riley’s work on and off since encountering his publication Science Fiction Trails in 2013.

I am rather picky about what I consider a successful weird western. Ideally, it should be science fictional and not take the easy route of using magic and avoid the easy crutches of time travel and aliens.

Under Riley’s editorship, a surprising number of stories managed to do that.

Perhaps that standard was why Riley had trouble getting submissions and eventually ended publication of the magazine.

Science Fiction Trails is back, though, and I might do a review of its too most recent editions, both available in print and kindle form.

It was in another defunct Riley magazine, the first issue of Steampunk Trails, that I first met his character Miles O’Malley in “The Big Green Orb”. That story takes place after the ones in this omnibus.

Review: The Devil Draws Two: The Weird Western Adventures of Miles O’Malley, David B. Riley, 2012.Devil Draws Two

Miles O’Malley would be the first to tell you he’s not very bright and kind of naïve and that his horse Paul is smarter than he is.

He’s not a very good barber either.

Yet, as he wanders about the West circa 1880, he manages to tangle with vampires, time travelers, Susquatches, a robot, Martians, ghosts, demons and best them through some mix of charm, a lot of luck, and some fine shootin’ courtesy of a special revolver.

Which brings up Miles’ mighty peculiar circle of friends and acquaintances. There’s Nick Mephistopheles who gave him that gun. Miles doesn’t just pay a call to Hell to meet Nick. Miles also goes to Heaven.

There’s Molly Madison, intrepid female reporter and fellow boarder at the same San Francisco rooming house as Miles. Wing Ding, Chinese laundry owner and smuggler, tags along for a few adventures. Continue reading “The Devil Draws Two”

Dakota Dreamin’

There are not a lot South Dakota writers of the fantastic. There aren’t a lot of South Dakotans period.

Yes, yes, there’s Frank L. Baum and The Wizard of Oz written in Aberdeen, South Dakota. But Baum was just passing through the state.

As far as I know, Aaron B. Larson was a native South Dakotan and wrote The Weird Western Adventures of Haakon Jones while living in the state. Hardly a renowned classic, like Baum’s, but I thought it worth reading.

Bill Johnson, like many of us, left the state. But he did sort of return for one story … which is why you get this November 1, 2000 retro review.

Review: Dakota Dreamin’, Bill Johnson, 1999.Dakota Dreamin

I’ll admit I bought this collection because I expected Johnson to be sort of a Clifford Simak for South Dakota, but the state only shows up as a setting in Johnson’s most famous story, the Hugo-winning “We Will Drink a Fish Together.” Now, I’m from South Dakota too, but I’m not familiar with fish drinking or the idea of “lines”, sort of clans of not necessarily related people. But, then, I’m from the Black Hills, the other end of the state from the town of Summit where the story takes place. And, as Johnson notes in the collection’s introduction, that’s a different geography and a different culture. The story is like Simak in its mixture of aliens and rural America and quirky characters though its plot, involving an alien ambassador fleeing assassins and the narrator attending the funeral of the head of his line, is a bit hard edged for Simak. Johnson’s perceptions match mine when he talks about Dakota weather and the easy acceptance of strangers there.

Aliens show up frequently in these stories as they do in Simak’s work. Continue reading “Dakota Dreamin’”