Alan Dean Foster is an author whose work I have read and owned since I was a teenager. In the mid-1970s I saved up and bought one of the books of the animated Star Trek series that Mr Foster had written. When I bought the book of Star Wars just after the film came out, ostensibly it was by George Lucas but it turns out that Mr Foster ghost wrote it. And soon afterwards (1978) I bought Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. The same year Disney made the science fiction film Black Hole, and again I bought the Alan Dean Foster novelisation. After that the novelisation of Alien. I could go on for ages, but the thing that you will note is that all the films that I mention are science fiction.
And then we have Pale Rider (1985) – a western.
Have you seen the film? It’s a Clint Eastwood classic. The plot is fairly standard Western fare. A bunch of small-time miners and their families are being bullied by an evil rich bastard and his henchmen until an anonymous Preacher rides into town and stops it. This then escalates with some external bad guys being hired by the evil dude. The Preacher then transforms into a gunslinger and you can guess the rest. Sorry if this is a bit of a spoiler. This said, I’ve probably also ruined about 50 other Westerns for you because it is an over-used plot except for the fact the hero is a Preacher at the beginning. There are also subplots that I won’t ruin for you. One of the talking points about the film is that it resonates with Biblical allegory, such as the obvious connection between the titular Pale Rider and the one in the Book of Revelations (Death).
So OK. We have a Western written by an author famous for his science fiction offerings. What will it be like? I could not remember whether I had liked it when I read it back in the 1980s, but as it had turned up during a bit of a cleanup of my book boxes, I thought that I would give it a go.
The first paragraph reads thus:
They called Conway “Spider” for several reasons, the foremost being that he insisted on it, his real name being less than suitable for his current occupation. Rumour had it his parents had dubbed him Percy, but there wasn’t a man in California who’d dare say that to his face.
Yep, that was pretty good. Actually the whole book reads well and I found it difficult to put down. Obviously Mr Foster had a solid screen play to draw upon, but as you see from the first paragraph he added to it quite considerably. The novel is full of tidbits about each character, tidbits not mentioned in the film, that add so much depth to the people involved.
The novel also contains a lot of dialogue. I would guess that maybe a quarter conversation. Maybe not, but I really felt like I was reading a lot of talking. This is a good thing, because he chooses well the words between each bit of dialogue to demonstrate the listeners responses to the words being said. It really makes it seem like a film because the reader visualises everything.
If I had to find a flaw in it’s construction, I would mention the fact that it jumps around a lot from character perspective to character perspective within each scene. A few times I thought that I was following one person’s perspective only to realise a few sentences later that it was someone else. But, in all fairness, that kind of follows the film too, but because film is a visual medium the confusion is less likely (if not impossible).
I must admit that I found myself studying the wordsmithing, and for me that is a sign of a good author: when I actually want to take notice of how it is being put together.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the book. So if you are a Western fancier, or simply someone who enjoys a simple but well-written novel, then do yourself a favour. There are bound to be second-hand copies somewhere.