Author: Richard Matheson
Published: Forge, an imprint of Tor Books (2009); originally published by M. Evans & Company (1991)
There is no stopping Richard Matheson, of that I am quite sure. I'm already a fan of his horror and sci-fi stories, and if that's not enough the man writes westerns too. I had no idea. I stumbled across this novel late last year in a bookstore while looking for a bargain. In the back corner of the store, where the fantasy and sci-fi novels were relegated, a small shelf displayed a number of western titles. A neophyte to the genre, the only names I recognized were Louis L'Amour and Larry McMurtry. Then I saw "Richard Matheson" emblazoned on the cover of a book. That's all the incentive I needed.
Journal of the Gun Years is a story presented as a gunman's private journal entries over the course of a little more than a decade. But the first thing readers find is a foreword by Frank Leslie, a writer and acquaintance of Clay Halser--the Hero of the Plains. Leslie recounts his final reunion with Halser, as well as his untimely yet inevitable death in a gunfight. Internationally renowned, much in the same manner was Wild Bill Hicock, Halser's reputation precedes him and has been inflated to such mythic proportions that Leslie feels it imperative to share a more honest and accurate portrayal of the gunman's formidable years. And the best way to do that is publish Halser's private journals. Through these selected entries we see an unfortunate man's rise from obscurity and crime to a reluctant beacon of law and order in towns that want little of either.
Matheson crafted a tragic figure in Clay Halser that was tempered with not just humor but anger too. The characters written about in the diaries have pieces of the familiar--allusions to Hicock's own fabled life are apparent--and are also given such an intimate approach it's easy to suspend disbelief. The language is so sincere that Halser becomes more and more real with each entry. And I'm not a guy who usually goes for these journal style novels, so I applaud Matheson for hooking me from the get-go.
Despite knowing Halser is headed for an anticlimactic showdown with a young roughneck out to make a name for himself, the story gripped me as his life ran the gamut. Each happenstance in his life set him on that path to a sad demise. Hoping for some measure of redemption is not unreasonable when reading this book. Whether any is achieved is something you'll have to find out for yourself if you choose to read this story.
I loved it. I should have expected to from the start. It's Richard Matheson after all.
You can find other blog reviews of this title at: Retro Brett