Western Writer: Will Henry

This is the first installment in the Western Writer Series.  Other writers in the series can be found here by searching Western Writers Series.

Tom-Horn-Will-HenryEvery now and then, I am asked to recommend a western writer or a western novel to someone unfamiliar with the genre. In most cases as I probe to see what they may have already read and hence what may be a good fit for them, I find that they really only know: two names, Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurtry… and one book, Lonsesome Dove.

Over the next few weeks, MontanaWriter will be highlighting some good western writers that may be household names as far as western fans are concerned, but are relatively unknown to most other people.

Will Henry, the pen name of Henry Wilson Allen (1912-1991), was a prolific writer: novels, short stories, and screenplays… western and otherwise. His work garnered him five Spur Awards. (For the un-initiated, Spur Awards are the western equivalent of a Hugo or an Edgar.)

Most of his acclaimed work – Chiricahua, The Gates of the Mountains, From Where the Sun Now Stands, Tom Horn –  tends toward the historical-fiction end of the western spectrum. While solid research and real life-experience as a cowboy and a gold miner ensure that all the little western details are correct, in the end it is his strong writing style and wonderful story-telling ability that won him his awards… that make him worth reading.

Allen (Will Henry), like most of the writers of his day, lived and wrote in the shadow of L’Amour who so dominated the western marketplace that in the end it was probably not much different than what it is like writing westerns today: what you publish is virtually invisible. Allen spoke of this phenomenon in an interview:

 Louis L’Amour, for the past many years, worked for the same company Will Henry has worked for, namely Bantam Books, and if you think standing second in line to Louis L’Amour is any great riot of fun or delight, try again. After Louie, the fall to number two place would kill anyone; would kill an ant or an elephant. And yes, Will Henry has certainly been affected by the presence of Louie L’Amour at Bantam Books. There are, or have been, other authors: Luke Short, Jack Schaefer, all types of name brand authors at Bantam Books through the years–the Louie years–who have been affected by him. But that’s inescapable. Not just at Bantam, either. If you are in the western writing business retail sales points, looking for a copy of your novel, and you have one little single copy in the last part of the rack, farthest from the front, where, if you don’t have your flashlight or a cigarette lighter with you, you can’t even see it. Now, that’s being affected. (cf. “Will Henry Interview by Jean Henry-Mead)


A quick look at Amazon show that there are some kindle editions available of his work but most of what is available is from the used marketplace. Little has changed apparently for Allen (Will Henry). Louis L’Amour is everywhere… but Will Henry westerns remain difficult to find. But certainly worth the search.


 Will Henry Partial Bibliography

  • No Survivors, 1952
  • Death of a Legend, 1954
  • The Tall Men, 1954
  • To Follow a Flag, 1955
  • Who Rides with Wyatt, 1955
  • The Fourth Horseman, 1956
  • The North Star, 1956
  • The Texas Rangers, 1957
  • Yellowstone Kelly, 1958
  • Journey to Shiloh, 1960
  • The Seven Men at Mimbres Springs, 1960
  • From Where the Sun Now Stands, 1962
  • MacKenna’s Gold, 1963
  • The Gates of the Mountains, 1966 (Spur Award)
  • Custer’s Last Stand: The Story of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, 1968
  • One More River to Cross, 1968
  • Alias Butch Cassidy, 1969
  • Outlaws and Legends, 1969
  • Chiricahua, 1973 (Spur Award winner)
  • I, Tom Horn, 1976
  • Summer of the Gun, 1978
  • The Squaw Killer, 1983
  • The Ballad of Billy Bonney, 1984
  • Reckoning at Yankee Flat, 1989
  • Jesse James: Death of a Legend, 1996
  • The Hunting of Tom Horn, 1999


Pet Peeves: Romance & Sex in Westerns

john-wayneLike most things cinematic and western, John Wayne understood perfectly by the end of his career what role romance should play in a western movie: almost none. Unfortunately many western writers, no matter how many westerns they may write, never come remotely close to figuring this one out.

There is little in life more frustrating than settling into a great western novel – one with strong writing, a great understanding of the relationship between landscape and plot, and the right kind of dialog – only to have everything come to a screeching halt when a two-dimensional female character enters the picture. Bang! Another potential western masterpiece shot down by a clumsy, pointless, cobbled-on, two-dimensional romance.  The only thing worse is the movement in some more modern westerns to transform the bad romantic scenes to bad pornographic scenes.  “Disappointment… thy name is Legion.”

Truism One: Westerns are primarily a male genre… written and read by males. There are exceptions, of course. But they are just that, exceptions.

Truism Two: For most men, sex is way more interesting than romance. By definition most men would rate a romance novel or a romantic movie somewhere on a continuum between “deathly boring” and “completely pointless.” Sex, of course, is something altogether different.

Truism Three: Reading about sex is boring. Even though men find sex interesting they do not like to read about it  [Note: I said “read” not watch or look at] any more than they like to read about romance. Go to any bookstore and look in the Erotica section. Erotica is for women. Women like to read about romance and sex… not men.

Truism Four: Male writers cannot write convincingly about either romance or sex. There are, of course, notable exceptions.. but these are few and only Larry McMurtry writes westerns.

Truism Four: Westerns should have no romance or sex.

Truism Five: There are exceptions to every rule… or at least there should be. But before you think, dear western writer, that you are the exception, please do us all a favor and show the story to at least six women. If they think it is really not the same old  two-dimensional, adolescent bullshit, publish it. And I will promise to buy it.

On the Western

Bannack, Montana (photo  m.a.h. hinton)
Bannack, Montana (photo m.a.h. hinton)

As a literary and film art form, the western’s time has passed. And yet… there remains a small number of dedicated western fans who remain loyal to this most American of all art forms. I count myself as a proud member of this anachronistic remnant.

One of the many peculiarities of the western is that the greatest practitioners of the western as art form came after the form’s apparent demise: Elmer Kelton, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy. (Elmore Leonard is still alive and writing, but he has not written a western in decades.)

Even though McCarthy and McMurtry have been critically and commercially successful,  any true western fan is painfully aware that good, new westerns are difficult to find. Those that are published for the most part seem to fall into one of four ultimately dissatisfying categories: reprints of old classic westerns that are in the public domain anyway, historical fiction novels that happen to take place in a “western” context, romance fiction that takes place in a “western” context, and male-adventure fiction (soft-core action stories featuring hot, beautiful women and virile, superhuman protagonists) that takes place in a “western” context.

While it is certainly nice to have reprints available of classic works by Max Brand, Zane Grey, Owen Wister and other pioneers in the western form, these writers are not the best example of the art form. Some, like Grey, are unreadable by modern standards. And since all of these writers are available for free from places like Gutenberg, what is the point of re-publishing them anyway. There are a great many writers whose works are out of print but not in the public domain that could be published. But these are not the ones generally reprinted.

What western fans really want… what the publishing and movie industry needs…. what America needs is more new western writers and new western books, and more western movies. The myths and symbols that we embrace, share, and love define and shape us. Fans of the western know that as a country, a people, and individuals, America was at its best when the dominant American myth was the western.

What fans of the western intuitively understand is that by turning our back on that most American of myths, by replacing it with smaller and smaller “post-modern” myths, we have left a large hole in the American soul and psyche. A hole as large as…well, the West itself.

Book Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales by Forrest Carter

The-Outlaw-Josey-Wales2-185x300In summer we often gravitate to “lighter” fare, summer blockbuster movies, quick-read novels. What is it about long days that make us want to shy away from heavy lifting?

The movie, The Outlaw Josey Wales, is one of Clint Eastwood’s most memorable westerns – great characters, memorable lines (“Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.”), and great scenery.

In High Plains Drifter, Eastwood arrived as a true western star, in Josey Waleshe fully completes the work of art. In the spaghetti westerns the rough outline is there, but like the scenery of those films Eastwood as western star and the West as a place of grandeur and limitless vistas is greatly diminished, cramped and small, a European’s vision of the West and the western myth. Eastwood directedHigh Plains Drifter and Josey Wales so they are two of his first real Westerns. In the end, only an American can direct a true western, for the western hero, or western anti-hero, is the most American of all icons.

The movie The Outlaw Josey Wales is based on a the book that was originally called something like Gone to Texas. The story of its author, if Wikipedia is to be believed,  is almost as interesting as the book itself and mirrors the story in many ways.

Forrest Carter (Asa Carter) like his fictional outlaw was apparently an unrepentant confederate. A Klansman and speech writer for George Wallace, Carter fought against integration and the Federal government for years. Finally like Josey Wales he fled to Texas and tried to put his past behind him, something he was for the most part able to do. The book now called The Outlaw Josey Wales was his first novel.

As a western novel, The Outlaw Josey Wales is very satisfying. In story and tone the movie follows the book very closely. Most of the great lines from the movie come from the book, except the best line, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy” (here a screenwriter or Eastwood made a great decision).

In the movie, the female love interest is played by willowy and wimpy Sondra Locke. Carter’s love interest is more Spillanesque (for those not fluent in Mickey Spillane, read that statuesque), the picture is of a dreamy Velma. For Carter, one theme stressed in the book is of men and women big enough for Texas, big enough to live in the West. The pale and sickly looking Locke would be only big and strong enough for a cramped and tiny eastern state like Rhode Island.

The Outlaw Josey Wales – the movie and the book –are worth spending a few summer evenings with. Settle into your favorite chair, pour yourself a few fingers of good bourbon, and enjoy. This is, after all, what summer is all about.