A fine Western novel
I have just read Warlock, the 1958 Pulitzer-shortlisted source novel for Fox’s 1959 movie Warlock, as recommended by readers Boppa and Walter S. It’s a superb book.
It is by Oakley Hall, “considered the dean of West Coast writers” according to Wikipedia, whose name sounds like that of a Victorian stage actor but who only died in 2008. He wrote six Western novels as well as a series of five featuring Ambrose Bierce.
Warlock definitely belongs to the tradition of literary, rather than pulp Westerns. It is stylishly written and thoughtful. It makes a particularly interesting read to those who know the Western movie well. The film, directed by Edward Dmytryk, used Robert Alan Aurthur (1922–1978) to adapt the novel for the screen. I must say, though Aurthur eliminated whole strands of the plot – necessarily – and wrote no other Westerns, he did respect the integrity of the novel and managed to transfer Hall’s characters of Blaisedell and Morgan (Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn) marvelously well. In both book and movie the spirit of the classic (i.e. mythological) West shines through.
What I said about the movie in my review is also true of the book:
In his introduction to the novel, Robert Stone, himself a Pulitzer-nominated novelist and short-story writer, says:
In his introduction to the novel, Robert Stone, himself a Pulitzer-nominated novelist and short-story writer, says:
He refers to Richard Slotkin’s book Gunfighter Nation (part of a work that seems longer to me than ten bibles but which I might review one day, if I ever finish it before dying of old age). Are works like Hall’s “the country in its cowboy suit”? Are they “infantile self-deception enhanced by cheap theatrics”? Ouch! I suppose he has a point. Certainly Hall’s town of Warlock is close to the fictional Tombstone of Hollywood legend. But then Stone suggests that Hall’s work is closer to the famous remark by New Mexico resident DH Lawrence:
Stone remarks, “As Slotkin writes and Oakley Hall subtly demonstrates,
It’s worth quoting Hall’s own short ‘prefatory note’ in full:
We start in 1880 with the journal of a Warlock storekeeper, Henry Holmes Goodpasture (a key commentator and narrator who, however, does not appear in the movie). We learn how the local lawman, Deputy Canning, “a good man, a decent man”, is having difficulty controlling the wild element in nearby San Pablo, the Cowboys. This of course immediately puts us in mind of the rustlers who infested the area outside Tombstone, Arizona, and their leader, Abe McQuown, has something of Ike Clanton about him, and his aged, bitter and violent father, Old Man Clanton. Red-bearded Abe does at least have “a certain charm” but Dad McQuown is “a mean and ugly old brute.” Cowboys hurrahing the town, and thus the population needing a tough lawman, well, that is a classic Western trope.
It’s a silver-mining town and the miners and mine-owners will play a key part in the story, a whole strand of the narrative that will be excised in the movie version. Fair enough: the movie script is necessarily much shorter, and something had to go. The book is nearly 500 pages long.
Goodpasture says that the Cowboys may be disreputable, unruly and not law-abiding but several are decent types deep down, especially Curley Burne, and “only Cade is truly bad”. Cade does indeed show himself the most evil of them all, a backshooter who will eventually… But no, you must read it!
Canning has buffaloed a young cowboy, who subsequently was thrown from his horse and died. The San Pabloites blame the deputy. They run the lawman out of town (a scene done better in the film, I think). One of the Cowboys, Pony Benner, shoots the barber for nicking his cheek with a razor (another scene very powerfully staged by Dmytryk). It is this which finally prompts some of the townsfolk, including Goodpasture, to form a Citizens Committee and send for a tough gunman to clean up the town.
Clay Blaidesell, from Fort James, is the one - “a tall, broad man with long arms and a way of carrying himself that was halfway between proud and arrogant.” We are told that he has “intensely blue eyes”, so of course we think immediately of Henry Fonda, and indeed, it is hard not to ‘see’ Fonda and Quinn throughout in the novel when Blaisedell and Morgan appear. I suppose that’s what happens when you know a film so well before reading the book. Blaisedell shot Texas badman Big Ben Nicholson in Fort James and the writer Caleb Bane presented him with a brace of gold-handled Colt’s Frontier models. This Bane is clearly a reference to dime novelist Ned Buntline and his supposed gift of long-barreled Colt’s Buntline Specials to Wyatt Earp and other Dodge City peace officers.
Blaisedell’s arrival in Warlock is preceded by that of his friend, the saloon owner and professional gambler Tom Morgan, “a handsome, prematurely gray fellow of a sardonic aspect and reserved nature.” I don’t know why the film makers gave him a gammy leg and had people call him a cripple; there’s no mention of this in the book. Morgan, a very Doc Holliday-ish figure, is much less respectable than Blaisedell (as Hollywood Hollidays were by comparison with the Wyatt Earps). He sets up shop in The Glass Slipper and speedily wins a reputation as a dangerous foe and unreliable friend. He cheerfully murders several people. He will earn the dime-novelish soubriquet of the Black Rattlesnake of Warlock.
Footnotes give the novel a quasi-historical feel and we learn much about the backstory of various characters from them, and indeed the origin of the name Warlock, which I was wondering about when reviewing the movie. It concerns the Warlock mine which was named for a half-crazed prospector named Richelin who miraculously escaped the marauding Apaches of the region so that some said that he must have flown away, riding the handle of his shovel like a witch. Here of course we have a version of the naming of Tombstone, with Richelin taking the part of Ed Schieffelin.
The character of Bud Gannon, one of McQuown’s men who is revolted by the dishonorable conduct of the San Pabloites, especially in the matter of the massacre of Mexicans they carried out (a deed attributed in Western mythology to the Clantons and their crew), has a higher profile than the part (played by Richard Widmark) in the film. In fact he is in many ways key. He stays in town, deserting San Pablo, and will eventually wear the official deputy’s star.
I would say that the characters of the women - Jessie, “the Angel of Warlock” who falls for Blaisedell, and Kate Dollar, Morgan’s ex, a “tall woman, black hair, a fair-sized nose”, who dallies with Bud Gannon – play a more important part in the story than they do in the movie. Blaisedell consorts with Jessie but does not love her, it seems, and he will eventually depart without giving her a second glance, while Kate (modeled on the Big Nose Kate of myth, Doc Holliday’s woman) only dallies with Gannon and she will leave him (she half-heartedly invites him to leave with her but he will not, for a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, etc.) So the relationships are far from deep.
Jessie’s great ally, especially in support of the shamefully exploited miners, is the doc, Dr. Wagner, a character given much less to do in the movie (played by Don Beddoe).
Judge Holloway (the excellent Wallace Ford in the film) is a great character in the book, an alcoholic depressive who is irascible as he is noble, in his way. He is “a sagging mixture of pride and shame, dread and grief”. He is only a judge “on acceptance”, as he often says, and everyone knows he pockets the fines he imposes, but he is still a force to be reckoned with in Warlock.
The county seat of Bright’s City (Tucson?), which is riddled with corruption, is presided over by the gigantic and practically senile General Peach (after whom Jessie’s boarding house, where Blaisedell lodges and which becomes the headquarters of the miners’ strike, is named). Peach is a huge figure metaphorically too. The ‘hero’ of the defeat of the Apaches (Goodpasture says that he had “the capacity throughout his career for giving miserable and inexcusable fiasco the semblance of thrilling victory”), he is not persuaded that the struggle is over, and he single-mindedly seeks to hunt down and capture old Espirato, the Apache leader, who is probably dead long ago. This inexorable pursuit will eventually save the miners, in fact, and be the death of Peach.
When we come to the “Fight in the Acme Corral” (no prizes for guessing the reference here) we get an almost verbatim quotation from the Earp/Holliday exchange of legend:
“I am always one for a shooting match,” says Morgan.
“It is none of your fight, Morg,” says Blaisedell.
“That is a hell of a thing to say to me, Clay!”
There are other Tombstone similarities. Curley Burne does a border roll on Deputy Carl Schroeder just as Curly Bill did on Marshal Fred White in Tombstone in October 1880. Blaisedell stands down a lynch mob as the Earps did in defense of Johnny-behind-the-deuce.
Another good thing about the book is the high derringer quotient. The judge always puts a derringer and a bible on the table in front of him when presiding. Morgan’s saloon lookout Murch uses one to kill a miner who is about to beat his boss in a brutal fight. Kate Dollar has one (unsurprisingly; they were classic weapons for saloon women) and Jessie is pretty handy with one too: she even backs Blaisedell standing off the US Cavalry with one. So that’s good. Morgan himself, however, whom you might expect to have one, being a silk-vested saloon owner and all, eschews the derringer in favor of the Banker’s Special. This is a bit odd as Colt’s Banker’s Special didn’t appear until 1926. Still, perhaps Hall used it as a generic term for any very short-barreled handgun. Gamblers liked them – Luke Short had a special snub-nosed Colt .45 with a very short barrel.
The early death of Abe McQuown out at San Pablo, probably murdered by Morgan to protect Blaisedell, is perhaps a dramatic weakness. The film, which reserves McQuown’s demise for a showdown in Warlock, is a more classic Western trope. While Abe’s henchman Cade survives and presents the necessary threat, it is not quite the same thing.
While the homoerotic subtext of the Blaisedell/Morgan relationship is less pronounced in the book than in the film, it is still very clear that they are more than close friends. Hall says of Morgan that “His friendship for Clay had become all that there was.” To the point where the ending, when Morgan does everything possible to be “posted” by Blaisedell, i.e. run out of town, and he eventually lays down his life to this end, seems bizarre at best. It’s a curious bond the men have, far stronger than the male friendship we are used to in Westerns, and is not easy to understand.
I wonder too if Oakley Hall had not seen The Tin Star, Paramount’s Western of the year before Warlock was published, because there are a couple of passages where Blaisedell seems to mentor Deputy Gannon, teaching him how to draw and how to shoot just as Morg Hickman had to the young Sheriff Ben Owens in that movie. Of course, the fact that The Tin Star’s Hickman was played by Henry Fonda may have contributed to that impression, whereas Hall was not to know that Fonda would be Blaisedell in the film version of his book.
The language of the book is saltier than in the movie, but then what you could get away with in a book for adults in 1958 was more than you could on the screen, 50s Hollywood bourgeois values and self-censorship being what they were.
The whole Army/miners clash, which dominates the last part of the novel and which simply doesn’t appear in the film, is very well done. I think Warlock the book would make an excellent Deadwood-style TV series these days, which would give scope for a full treatment of the themes of the book, as well as some very strong characters. And by the way, Ian McShane would make a great Morgan. But having canceled Deadwood so peremptorily, HBO probably won’t want to do that. Come on, Netflix, get busy!
An afterword, a letter from Goodpasture to his grandson dated 1924, ties up some loose ends for us and tells us what happened to certain key characters. Dr. Wagner and Jessie go to Nome (as Wyatt and Sadie Earp did). Other happenings I shall not reveal!
It’s a fine book, a, excellent Western novel and an excellent American novel (no wonder it was Pulitzer-shortlisted) because it deals with the myth of the American frontier in a classic way.
At one point Goodpasture reads a pulp dime-novel account of the events he has been writing about in his journal and is disappointed, even angry:
"Will not this cheap and fabulous account in this poor excuse for a magazine become, on its terms, a version much more acceptable than ours, the true one? It is a curious thought; how much do these legends, as they outstrip and supersede the originals, rest upon Truth, and how much upon some dark and impenetrable design within Man himself?"
There Goodpasture, and Hall, of course, encapsulate the myth of the Wild West, a world where the fiction has almost become the fact. What people ‘know’ about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday is far more deeply-rooted and widespread than what actually happened. Luckily.