Friday, October 6, 2017

The Twilighters by Noel Loomis - review

The Twilight Zone stretched for a hundred miles between Texas and Louisiana, and harbored more killers, thieves and assorted human monsters than any area its size in the world. But law-abiding men fought their way through it--on the other side lay Texas and all the great Southwest: the frontier that restless Americans were pushing westward. Some made it, got through. Some didn't...

Two qualities mark the best of Loomis’ work. First, he wrote about violence in a way that that was ahead of its time and still remains relevant today. Second, he was able to find these pockets of history where really interesting stories could be told that were unlike any others. For example, The Twilighters takes place right around the time of the Louisiana Purchase. 

I've remarked before that reading old westerns these days is a lot like panning for gold. There are a substantial amount of forgotten, under-remembered, great writers and books. And holy shit is this a good book. One that even the western cognoscenti seems to have forgotten about. He was a contemporary of DeRosso and his work was, in many ways, darker. DeRosso has been able to find a small cult audience over the years, Loomis is still waiting for his. 

Loomis is forgotten and shouldn't be. His reputation should rest on his five best novels. A Noel Loomis omnibus (maybe 2 vols.) from Stark House with the following novels: West of the Sun, Shortcut to Red River, Rim of the Caprock, Cheyenne War Cry, and The Twilighters, introduction by Bill Pronzini is a thing that should exist. Stark House and Loomis would make a great fit. 

Noel Loomis’ entry in Twentieth Century Western Writers is worth quoting at length:

Violence shapes the work of Noel M. Loomis. There is a savage force at work in his novels, evoking the atmosphere of a harsh untamed land. His writing captures the taste and scent of another time when danger stalked a man with every stride and life hung by a thread. Yet the violence is not all. Against the cruelty of man and nature Loomis sets his heroes, tough, honest men embodying the frontier virtues, strong enough to face the challenge of the land and tame it.

Some of Loomis's early work appears under pseudonyms such as Sam Allison and Frank Miller, names which served him for the novels Trouble on the Crazyman and Tejas Country. Nevertheless, his reputation rests justly-on the handful of novels produced under his own name between 1952 and 1959 when his creative powers were at their peak. Five outstanding works, whose merits indicate their author as the foremost in his field, are Rim of the Caprock, The Twilighters, Rifles on the River, The Leaden Cache, and Connelly's Expedition. In each of these novels, Loomis selects a precise time and place, and brings then stunningly alive. The "feel" of the period is magnificently caught in description, in attitudes revealed by the laconic dialogue, most of all in full-blooded action which at times takes the breath away. The sense of barbaric savagery in whites and redskins alike anticipates the Eastwood vogue in the cinema by 10 or 15 years, in works which that cult has never equalled. The with its casual stomach-turning violence, is among Twilighters, the most savage books in the genre. It is also a tour de force, a superb picture of wilderness America at the time of the 1802 Louisiana Purchase. And in the honest, hardy Nathan Price it has possibly the finest of Loomis's heroes, a man whose struggle with his conscience renders him more human than most.

Though brutality is part of the world he describes, Loomis does not rely on it for his effects. His plots are authentic and imaginative, often with a strong historical basis. Rifles on the River (in the U.S., West to the Sun) takes the frontiersman Dan Shankle through Comanche ambushes and imprisonment in Mexico in the 1770's, returning him at last to unmask and kill the gunrunner Meservy prior to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Ross Phillips in Connelly's Expedition (Short Cut to Red River in its American edition) braves attacks by Indians and renegade whites as he leads a trading expedition from Chihuahua to Arkansas. Rim of the Caprock shows life among the Comancheros in Texas while in The Le Cache (Cheyenne War Cry in the U.S.) Stuart Nichols undertakes a dangerous mission to prevent lead and powder from falling into Indian hands. Captured by the Cheyennes, he undergoes horrifying tortures before being rescued. The savagery is present in every book- the scalping and mutilation, the massacres, the vicious frontier fighting with its biting and eye gouging. Loomis describes this darker side of western life without comment, but at no time is he seen to condone it. Though never "soft" or "liberal" in his sentiments, he shows a refreshing racial tolerance, with Indians and Mexicans often shown in a good, if unromantic, light. Two of his heroes marry Mexican girls, and most of them count them among their friends. The strength of Loomis lies not in his cruelty but in his vigor, and this breathes life equally into villains and men of solid virtues. Usually the latter prevail.

This is true of The Twilighters, most violent and convincing Loomis's works. The plot brings together two related threads, the family of the despotic Mat Foley-run out of Mississippi for the killing of a neighbour's son and the outlaw bands of Harpe and Mason. Opening with a murder by Harpe and his accomplice Claydon, the plot shifts to the Foleys, and traces the circumstances which lead to the death of the boy, and the family exodus which crosses the path of the outlaws Nathan Price defies Mat, his father-in-law, and with his wife sets off to begin afresh. He avoids the fate of the others, who are massacred by the Twilighters at a river crossing. A fight to the death between two of the outlaws ends the book. The violence described in terse prose, is often appalling. Yet at the heart of it, Nathan endures, and it is with him that the reader's sympathies lie. In time, we know, his kind will tame the wilderness.

The work of Loomis is far ahead of its time. No other western writer of the 1950's depicts so honestly the nature of the land and its people, or renders them so alive. Avoiding commentary concentrates on the atmosphere of time and place experiences with him the of Indian camps and frontier trading posts, the breathtaking vision of the Caprock, the of a surprise attack. Loomis, in his swift en terror character his descriptions, his lithe brings world to life before our eyes. In the field he chose, he has yet to be surpassed as cadier

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