On my first trip out West, my brother Matt and I drove into the Arizona desert where we discovered what we thought was an abandoned farm. The corrals were empty sand, the windmill lopsided with missing blades, and the farmhouse floor was littered with bottles and hypodermic needles. It reminded us both of the old houses overrun by scrub and swamp that we’d explored in our home state of Florida. The sort of place filled with mystery and danger and ghosted with evidence of past events.
Outside, we kicked at the sand, leaned on a fence, and plotted where to go next. Matt suddenly stiffened, nodded toward the far side of the corral. A man and two boys had materialized from the rippling heat. They were armed with rifles. The sun burned brighter.
The man grinned and called out a greeting, but the boys just stood there grimacing with their rifles in the crooks of their elbows, looking tough.
Matt did the talking, said hello back. We were both acutely aware that these strangers were armed and we were not. Also, we were a couple of teenage trespassers and they seemed to belong here.
“Passing through,” the man said. His tone was flat. It was unclear whether he was saying that they were passing through or if he was asking if we were passing through or encouraging us to do so. Made me shiver.
Before we could respond, the man yelled out, “Prairie chicken!” and all three of them leveled their weapons and fired – the deep-throated boom of a 30.06 was followed seconds later by two lesser pops. Matt and I dropped. If they’d been shooting at us we would’ve been dead before we hit sand.
Matt came up cussing under his breath. So did I. Feathers and rings of smoke drifted toward the western edge of the corral. The three riflemen were gone. We looked around, the vast desert expanded in every direction. The house and corral shrank around us.
“What the hell?” Matt said, almost whispering.
“I didn’t know they had prairie chickens in the desert,” I said.
Matt looked at me like maybe I’d missed the point. And I still don’t entirely get what happened. For whatever reason, the experience lingers, continues to haunt me.
The stories in Ghost Towns edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Russell Davis take me back to that day in the Arizona desert. Each story in this collection includes a ghost town, real or imagined, set in the West. Some of the stories have supernatural elements, some don’t. All in all, the stories haunt long after the first reading. Many of them, as Davis says in his introduction, “would make fine tales to be told around the campfire.”
Johnny D. Boggs, Lori Van Pelt, and Larry D. Sweazy, talk about what haunts them about the West and how they tackle setting in fiction. Boggs is the author of The Killing Shot, Soldier’s Farewell, and the story “Mr. Kennedy’s Bones” in Ghost Towns. Sweazy is the author of The Rattlesnake Season, The Scorpion Trail, and the story “Silent Hill” in Ghost Towns. And Van Pelt is the author of American Heroes: Amelia Earhart, Open Range: Poetry of the Reimagined West, and the story “End of the Line” in Ghost Towns. Each of them has won at least one Spur Award from the Western Writers of America, in addition to other awards and honors.
What haunts you about the American west?
Johnny D. Boggs: When you get away from the myth and romance, the West is a pretty haunting, often tragic, place and period of our history, from the treatment of Indians and other minorities, to the ordeals of homesteaders. Even the weather often seems haunting, whether you’re baking in a blistering sun or feeling the chill of an early autumn wind.
Larry D. Sweazy: Ghost towns are monuments to broken dreams. I think for all of the romance we see, and love, about the west, sometimes history, and the modern world, fail to see the price that was paid for “taming” the West. If you think about The Trail of Tears, or the Mountain Meadow Massacre, how can you not be haunted by the past of the American West?
Lori Van Pelt: The old frontier is still near enough to touch. It’s as close as the shards of olden-day broken bottles poking through the dirt. I live less than an hour’s drive from the private property where the now-defunct town of Benton, the setting for my story, “End of the Line,” was once located. Issues important to early-day westerners remain so today-—property rights, law and order, justice, the quests of individuals pursuing their own dreams. The good and dark sides of human nature have not changed, either.
Larry D. Sweazy: For every heroic story we know the name of, there are a thousand tales of loss and tragedy that go unheard and, often, unseen.
What advice do you have for a writer struggling with setting, place, and description? And what can he or she learn from reading Westerns?
Lori Van Pelt: Westerns transcend genre restrictions because the good ones offer a taste of everything readers hunger for in stories—adventure, romance, history. Often, in western books, setting not only enhances the tale but becomes a character as well. Writers having trouble with setting, place, and description can remedy most of those difficulties by writing what they know. That is, set your pieces in places you already know well or visit often. That alone will help you bring your fictional world to life for readers.
Larry D. Sweazy: When I’m struggling with these things, I sometimes turn to the poets of the west. There are a lot of really good western poets working today. Red Shuttleworth and Larry D. Thomas come to mind, as well as the poets of the past. The emotion of the land, and economy of words are there for the writers, and reader, to digest. Then, if at all possible, go to the location where the struggle is. Sit and listen. Taste the wind. Feel the ground. If there’s a road kill coyote or deer, stop and smell it, touch it.
Lori Van Pelt: The West is a place that needs to be experienced first-hand before one can fully appreciate its nuances. Getting the details right about your story’s setting is crucial. Western readers are discerning. Many of them have visited their own favorite “haunts” in the West, and they know when writers take short-cuts in writing about those areas.
Larry D. Sweazy: Writers have to get out into the world physically and emotionally, and travel with intention, even if it’s in their own mind.
Johnny D. Boggs: Read, read, read. Not just histories being published today, but period newspapers, contemporary books and magazines, even novels published during the time you’re writing about. What you can’t do is put 21st Century ideals or morality to the past. That’s out of place as a zipper in the 1860s.
Lori Van Pelt: Read the works of the great western writers—Louis L’Amour, Elmer Kelton, Don Coldsmith, Dorothy Johnson, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz—to give yourself a strong background in the history and the peoples of the West. Studying the works of these authors will also give you a good idea of the importance of setting and how they handled the challenges of setting, place, and description in their books.
Johnny D. Boggs: Good historical fiction, really good, can transport you into another period, but isn’t restricted the way a nonfiction book is. That said, I’ve read some truly excellent nonfiction that does a magnificent job of putting you in that place and time. Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder, for example. But a good Western, something beyond the traditional shoot-em-ups, can evoke the struggle and courage it took to settle this country. And, of course, a good ol’ shoot-em-up can be enjoyable when it’s well written and serve as escapism literature the same way one can enjoy a Randolph Scott movie.
Larry D. Sweazy: Westerns will teach a writer the fine art of storytelling. Think about the tales told sitting around the campfire. That’s what a reader finds in westerns; good, solid, entertainment, sprinkled with a little history, to while away the hours.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.