Friday, August 15, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Hell Bent Kid

Charles O. Locke's The Hell Bent Kid (1957) is a very interesting curiosity, a Western novel that seems at times like an absurdist play, in which people don't act rationally and resemble characters in a Samuel Beckett play, yet there's enough action to keep a Western reader interested. The novel won a Spur for the best novel, yet it seems to be now totally unknown and doesn't appear to be in print at all. I even think it was one of the best 25 Western novels in the list that the Western Writers of America voted in the late seventies. It was published in Finnish as Tuhoon tuomittu (Doomed) in 1959, in hardcover by Otava.

It is interesting to note that this was published the same year Arthur Penn's Billy the Kid film with Paul Newman, The Left-Hand Kid was first shown. Both have the same type of qualities, absurd humour, absurd characters and some kind of twisted sense of the West. In Penn's film, the characters are always a bit out of focus and never in the middle of the frame, always on the outer edge of the frame, like moving away, schizophrenically. This applies also to The Hell Bent Kid. A movie was made from Locke's novel, by Henry Hathaway, under the title of From Hell to Texas (seen in Finland as Ajojahti).

I found a biblio for Charles Locke from a site that doesn't seem to be around anymore:

Charles O. Locke was born in Tiffin, Ohio in 1896. He worked for the Toledo Blade (the family newspaper) until he finished college in 1918. From 1928 until 1936 he worked as a desk and rewrite man for the New York Post and the World Telegram. From 1936 to 1944 he was the assistant publicity director for Benton and Bowles handling such companies as Bristol Myers, Colgate-Palmolive-Peet, U. S Rubber, and General Foods. He was also a ghost writer for such celebrities as Fred Allen and Charles Winninger and wrote the lyrics for So This Is Paris and Cyrano de Bergerac. During this period he also worked for the Office of War Information, while writing for the New York Post, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Sun. From 1945 to 1956 he worked for the Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborne agency but also operated on his own as a publicist for General Electric, The American Cancer Society, U.S. Steel, and Ethyl Corp.

In the 1950s Mr. Locke wrote several novels including his most popular book, The Hell Bent Kid. Other novels include A Shadow of Our Own, The Last Princess, Amelia Rankin, and The Taste of Infamy. He and his wife, the former Virginia Sherer, spent most of their life in Boonton, New Jersey. Mrs. Locke died in 1970 and Charles Locke died in 1977. Charles Locke was a grand nephew of David Ross Locke the famous Civil War humorist who wrote a column under the name "Petroleum V. Nasby".

Charles Locke is best known as the author of The Hell Bent Kid, which was very popular and one of the first "psychological" westerns. He was also known as the 1930s script writer for a musical version of Cyrano de Bergerac.


August West said...

When I was a young kid, I thought this was the best western out there. I forgot all about it, and I guess that is what is nice about "Forgotten Books." Thanks Juri, for bringing back a glimpse of my youth. I don't have the book now, (probably tossed out) but WILL be looking to replace it..


Juri said...

Thanks, August, nice to hear about that!

John Carlisle said...

I've just finished this book. Found it in a garage sale and almost didn't read it! So glad I did. Your review is excellent. Locke wrote brilliantly really. I note, from several reviews I've managed to track down, the film altered the ending making to something less tragic. However, in so doing they obviously failed the author by turning what could well have been something quite remarkable into a film some reviewers saw as forgettable. That was also tragic. Though I gather there were some memorable scenes. I would very much like to see the movie, but the chances seem slim as it is very rare. The book, however, I will keep as it is, in my mind, a stand-out Western.

Unknown said...

The western film that was made out of it is still my favorite western, and is a rare beauty made by one of the old masters of the genre Henry Hathaway. It's called "From Hell to Texas".

Richard said...

This is a really fine book, one that I never would have read had it not been recommended to me by George Frazier who was an eclectic reader. Fine writing, understated, surprising.

Jason Schmidt Web Design said...

Charles O Locke was my grand father. What the bio doesn't include is that grand dad also wrote a few plays. This might explain the posters impression of his writhing style. On a side note, "From Hell to Texas", the film version of "The Hell Bent Kid" stars a very young Dennis Hopper. It's nice to see that's grand dad's works are still enjoyed and appreciated :)

Jason Schmidt Web Design said...
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Juri said...

Thank you for all your comments! Seems like this post gathers quite a few of those who hit Google for Charles O. Locke. Nice to see that!