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Westerns, Anti-Westerns and Neo-Westerns

What Is A Western?

  • The Western is the national myth of the United States (just as the King Arthur story is the national myth of England).
  • The Western is the last of the great creation myths, because the American West was the last liveable frontier on earth.
  • This story form has been written and rewritten thousands of times. So it has a highly metaphorical symbol web.
  • Westerns and Science Fiction are the most metaphorical/symbolic genres.
  • The Western is the story of millions of individuals journeying west, taming the wilderness and building a home. They are led by a lone-warrior hero who can defeat the barbarians and make it safe for the pioneers to form a village.
  • Like Moses, this warrior can lead his people to the Promised Land but not enter it himself. He is doomed to remain unmarried and alone, forever traveling the wilderness until he and it are gone.

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Short Story Study: People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water by Annie Proulx

THE TITLE

People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water: When it comes to neighbours who’ve been through terrible hardship, no one asks all that much of you. You’re not going to fix their problems, but you can extend just a little kindness and that’ll go a long way.

This is another story about a community rather than an individual. These stories tend to say something about how communities work, treating these groups of people as a flawed individual. I see what people mean when they call Annie Proulx ‘deterministic’. If an individual hero has some choice in how s/he acts, a community is not a sentient being — once a certain social group has been formed, things must take their course. I am feeling that way lately about the state of politics. We’re entering a new age of right-wing horribleness, and there doesn’t seem much we can do about it until ‘things have taken their course’. The best I’m hoping for in 2017 is that this far right thinking will swing back hard the other way, afterwards. After what? I don’t know.

STORY WORLD

The term ‘geographical determinism’ is the full phrase used to describe the work of Annie Proulx. Alex Hunt explains what that means in The Geographical Imagination Of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism. It occurs when a text retains elements of local colour fiction but the characters are limited by the surrounding geography and climate. It’s sometimes known as ‘environmental determinism.’

Determinism was popular with geographers in the early decades of the 20th century (when this story is set) but fell out of favour because it became linked to justifications for imperialism and racism. Jared Diamond, who in 1997 wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel did a lot to restart the conversation about determinism and basically made it okay to talk about that again. Annie Proulx was of course writing these Wyoming stories at this exact time. There must have been some sort of zeitgeist. Now it is okay to look again at the ways in which a physical environment (climate, natural resources, disease, plagues) shape individuals and cultures.

You stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. The wild country – indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky – provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut. Continue reading

The Blood Bay by Annie Proulx

At around the same time this story was written an episode of Six Feet Under saw Claire in big trouble for stealing a severed foot from her family’s funeral business and taking it with her to school. That episode, like this story, was darkly funny and made use of someone’s severed foot.

Six Feet Under, like The Blood Bay, uses a severed foot as prop in a darkly humorous episode.

Scene from Six Feet Under

It was inevitable that a TV series called something about feet would have to at one point make use of an actual foot.

While this is icky, North Americans haven’t been so squeamish about carrying around rabbits’ feet for good luck. Larry McMurtry writes of that practice in his cowboy novels. (Only the left hind foot is lucky.)

Severed human hands have a stronger history in folklore than severed feet. Characters with severed hands tend to be either victims, or monster-like villains. For more on that see Severed Hands as Symbols of Humanity in Legend and Popular Narrative by Scott White. The severed, walking hand also makes for a memorable horror scene.

STORY WORLD

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Short Story Study: Job History by Annie Proulx

A gas station in Wyoming, taken 1984.

Reading “Job History” in 2017, I propose an updated subtitle: “The Life and Times of a Trump Voter”.

Annie Proulx doesn’t seem to go public with her voting decisions but her interest in the environment and the ideas in her fiction suggest she’s probably not on board with what’s going on in the USA this year:

[Annie Proulx’s] voice rises: “Nobody can visit the big trees again; the huge forests do not exist. The understorey has gone, and the smaller plants and animals – the ecosystem has been damaged. Change is right with us, and you can get frightened.” I ask if the thought of Donald Trump, a denier of manmade climate change, in the White House frightens her. “I think the country has more or less brought this on themselves,” she says. “I don’t have personal feelings about it because that’s not who I am, but I am watching.”

The Guardian

Whatever the author’s political thoughts, I’m 100% certain Proulx would’ve seen the era of President Trump coming a mile off. Having lived most of her live in rural Wyoming, the story of Leeland Lee, who in 2017 would be about the same age as Donald Trump himself, is a portrait of a Trump Voting Everyman. It’s well worth a read for that reason alone, if you can stomach it. Continue reading

Short Story Study: The Mud Below by Annie Proulx

The cowboy is so central to Wyoming identity that a bucking bronco features on its licence plate.

It was the super popular S-Town podcast that made me return to this collection. I read this collection about 10 years ago and had forgotten all but the most brutal scenes. But I was moved to revisit after learning our real-life tragic hero of S-Town, John McLemore, calls this collection “the grief manual” and was in the habit of reading the entire collection over and over.

As evidenced by John McLemore’s identification with Proulx’s characters, these stories pack a powerful punch with men. The stories are written in a specifically masculine voice. Not only that, they’re about male culture. “The Mud Below” is a case in point — our tragic hero Diamond Felts is a rodeo performer. Women exist only peripherally in that scene. We all know a good writer has to be “genderless”. That’s often said. But can you think of any iconic male writers who have so successfully portrayed specifically female arenas, over and over? What Annie Proulx has done here is truly amazing. She is able to cross gender boundaries better than anyone else I can think of, and it’s a skill that’s almost expected of female writers rather than admired as something extra. Historically, men write about men; women write about men and women.

Does Annie Proulx write about women, though? These stories are all about men, with women on the periphery. What Proulx does so well is she manages to write about masculine culture while at the same time setting that against femininity. Here we might read the landscape as ‘feminine’. Animals, too, are associated with femininity. According to these try-hard cowboys, animals, the landscape, and also women themselves are there to be tamed and conquered.

“The Mud Below” was first published in the 1998 summer issue of The New Yorker and is the second short story in Proulx’s Close Range collection, retitled Close Range: Brokeback Mountain And Other Stories after the movie adaptation.

STORYWORLD

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The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx

A steer, but not half-skinned

A steer, but not half-skinned

“The Half-Skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx is, as said by Mary Lee Settle “as real as a pickup truck, as ominous as a fairy tale.”

Animals make an appearance in a lot of the story submissions we receive. Bunnies are maimed and killed. Dogs behave mischievously. Alligators threaten to attack. The truth is, many short story writers include animals in their tales, for different reasons. Many times, in our contests for emerging writers, an author will use a mangled or dead animal as a (seemingly) direct symbol for the loss of innocence, a dysfunctional family dynamic, or the end of a relationship. In other cases, the animal is not a direct symbol but merely a story element that interacts in a pleasing way with the rest of the narrative structure. Animals can add a level of tension or mystery to a story, they can drive the plot, or they can simply add texture. Though they can (often) be cute, animals are powerful presences in a story, and it’s interesting to consider the many different ways that they add to tales by contemporary writers.

The Masters Review

Contains spoilers, as usual. Continue reading

The Difference Between Uncanny And Fantastic

With the uncanny, impossible events eventually find a rational explanation which in the end undermines the preternatural.

With the fantastic, the reader is left to hesitate between a rational and an irrational interpretation of impossible events, and the text does not clearly support one or the other.

Short Film Study: Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death (2008)

The Japanese title is “The Bad Dream Of Bakery Street’.

LOGLINE

Wallace and his dog, Gromit, open a bakery and get tied up with a murder mystery. But, when Wallace falls in love Gromit is left to solve the case.

GENRE BLEND

comedy, horror, romance >> cosy mystery

STORY WORLD

The town’s milieu was inspired by thoughts of 1950s Wigan. It’s sort of like 1950s steampunk. Similar towns are seen in the live action Midsomer Murders series. It’s very English. As a consequence, Wallace comes out with very British idiomatic expressions pretty much every time he speaks. His life revolves around very English foods, especially cheese.

The films appeal to a dual audience partly by including a frequent scattering of allusions to pop culture. There are plenty of puns and nods of recognition in the intratext — Meat-a-bix written on Fluffles’ bed box instead of Weet-a-bix, for instance. Continue reading

Scarecrows In Children’s Stories

Tattybogle

Perhaps this story has more longevity as a stage play because my daughter’s class performed it last year as part of the Year 2 drama unit here in Australia. The book, however, is out of print.

A bogle, boggle or bogill is a Northumbrian and Scots term for a ghost or folkloric being, used for a variety of related folkloric creatures including:

  • Shellycoats
  • Barghests
  • Brags
  • The Hedley Kow
  • Giants such as those associated with Cobb’s Causey (also known as “ettins”, “yetuns” or “yotuns” in Northumberland and “Etenes”, “Yttins” or “Ytenes” in the South and South West).

They exist for the simple purpose of perplexing mankind rather than seriously harming or serving them.

Worzel Gummidge

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Retro Kids’ Mystery Story Title Generator

Long Title

First, pick a number between 1 and 24.

Now pick two numbers between 1 and 55.

1. The Mystery Of The Old Bungalow
2. The Secret Of The Spooky House
3. The Clue Of The Broken Parrot
4. The Case Of The Black Cave
5. The Crime Of The Hidden Puppet
6. The Curse Of The Dancing Cat
7. Intrigue Of The Moonlit Scarecrow
8. The Haunting Of The Dark Dragon
9. Sign Of The Invisible Ghost
10. What Happened To The Fire Magician
11. The Story Of The Shrinking Footsteps
12. Adventures Of The Crooked Cipher
13. Night Of The Double Labyrinth
14. Day Of The Sky Maze
15. The End Of The Thirteenth Witch
16. Crusade Of The Underground Wizard
17. The Tale Of The Twin Dungeon
18. The Crime Of The Disappearing Pearl
19. The Search For The Black Treasure
20. Operation: Christmas Mountain
21. The Disaster Of The Dangerous Island
22. The Time Of The Murderous Crow
23. The Final Hours Of The Green-eyed Spider
24. Sabotage Of The Doggone Hand
25. Living Jungle
26. Cliff-top Stranger
27. Flaming Professor
28. Underground Thief
29. Scarred Claw
30. Secret Escapade
31. Musical Butterfly
32. April Fool’s Day Cat Burglar
33. Wedding Day Train Robbery
34. Sneaky Trouble
35. Flower Show Lighthouse
36. Museum Valley
37. Art Gallery Mess
38. Thanksgiving Disaster
39. Evil Floor
40. Fearsome Gold
41. Winking Silver
42. Blinking Boomerang
43. Moaning Mask
44. Muttering Chest
45. Sneezing Clock
46. Terrible Shed
47. Cranky Basement
48. Kidnapped Nightmare
49. Invisible Terror
50. Talking Pumpkin
51. Wandering Lair
52. Two-toed Trap
53. Nervous Slumber
54. Headless Smoke Screen
55. Melted Cauldron

 

Short Title

Pick two numbers between 1 – 55.

1. The Magician’s Secret
2. Ringmaster’s Sapphire
3. Crocodile’s Mother
4. Joker’s Silver
5. Spider’s Wedding
6. Werewolf’s Revenge
7. Viper’s Key
8. Monster’s Mansion
9. Stalker’s Summer Camp
10. Ghost’s Circus
11. Vampire’s Trumpet
12. Zookeeper’s Blues
13. Librarian’s Fright
14. Substitute Teacher’s Last Resort
15. Rogue’s Target
16. Stamp Collector’s Games
17. Dog’s Trail
18. Wolf’s Footsteps
19. Station master’s Island
20. Whale’s Cavern
21. Pigeon’s Lake
22. Master’s Mine
23. Shark’s Deathtrap
24. Mermaid’s Creep-show
25. Witchmaster’s Cabin
26. Scorpion’s Splutter
27. Phantom’s Tale
28. Skeleton’s Mirror
29. Owl’s Shadow
30. Warrior’s Twin
31. Pirate’s Brother
32. Professor’s Laugh
33. Shop keeper’s Knee
34. Monkey’s Father
35. Raven’s Scar
36. Chum’s Giggle
37. Wildcat’s Wail
38. Detective’s Helmet
39. Dinosaur’s Sister
40. Serpent’s Pyramid
41. Devil’s Mark
42. Apeman’s Siren
43. Millionaire’s Freighter
44. Zombie’s Arrow
45. Outlaw’s Bridge
46. Demon’s Flight
47. Kennel-keeper’s Journey
48. Smugglers’ Sting
49. Criminals’ Sock
50. Psychic’s Tunnel
51. Robot’s Ransom
52. Renegade’s Crime
53. Candy Striper’s Challenge
54. Rhino’s Vision
55. Trick-o’-treater’s Seven

 

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