About 2 weeks ago, I found myself in a dark room, sitting in a massively plush chair, a director to my left, a producer to my right, watching a big screen of a soon-to-be released movie as the two of them and a third digital technician color corrected the film. This time-consuming process is fasincating, clicking back and forth between stills to correct bad lighting. It’s set in the 1920’s and the props were old, authentic and specific to the time. In a corner of the screen, I noticed a familiar red and tan cover, and asked the director if it were a Zane Grey novel. She was impressed. She thought I was too young and frankly, her tone indicated her opinion of my level of literary sophistication. But yes, she acknowledged, it was a Zane Grey. Her attitude jolted me to the wonderful memories of the books. That night, I pulled one of my favorite’s off the shelf and began reading.
Before the era of the undead, non-fornicating human-mystical creature trend took hold, author Zane Grey pioneered the art of the build up between regular men and women. Grey wrote an anthology of westerns and 110 of his books have been adapted to films. Grey’s life was as interesting as his books, as he was a minor league baseball player, dentist and unrepentant ladies man before (and after) he decided to devote his attention to writing.
When his wife’s inheritence provided a cushion for Grey to write full time, he did, turning out dozens of western’s, starting a craze in the early 20th century. His most famous novel is Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), but I have my own favorites. I’ll share 2, and the reasons why they are timeless classics.
As a youth, my summers were spent on a relatively remote California lake. In between fishing, waterskiing and generally making noise w/my siblings, I’d sunbath, reading one of the forty Zane Grey books on my mother’s bookshelf. The books were were already faded and worn from her many read-throughs, and my Grandmother’s before her. The unique, red linen covers with their tan spines frayed, in some instances, the spine had separated.
I was not immediately captivated by the slow start–few have plotlines that jump from the first page–more like page 50, but the writing hooked me enough to keep me going. In West of the Pecos, one of my favorites, a young girl from the South goes West with her father after he loses his fortune (and his wife) in the war. Needing the help of a boy on his journey, and fearful for his daughter’s safety in the wild west, the father dresses the girl like a boy. This charade works for for a few years after her father’s death, about until the time she hits late teens, hires (and reforms) a handsome cowboy and gets herself kidnapped. (Robert Mitchum starred in the movie).
When I was thirteen, the story was all the adventure, excitement, pent-up romantic tension and fulfilling ending I could have wanted. When I finally succumbed to peer pressure and read a few of the recently popular series (Twilight, Hunger Games etc) along with my standard James Patterson and Ludlum reprises, I realized an odd thing: the Zane Grey was equally exciting, free of bad language (I may use bad language but honestly, I don’t want to read it. Swearing in general, brings me down, and on the page it somehow shouts at me which I find distracting) and as cool in its own way as anything modern.
Another simliarity is the absence of sex. The romantic build up is as much a part of the story as some of the aforementioned popular books, and let’s face it. Romantic plotlines are always more rewarding when the lead-up is long, interesting and fraught with the push and pull of ‘will they or won’t they get together.’ Zane acquired the technique of flowing dialogue and rich, well-written antagonists (bad guys and gals). Apparentlly much of the credit goes to his long-suffering wife Dolly, who traded a monogamous relationship for a huge mansion and lots of cash. But whatever. We all make choices in this life, and hers had a hugely positive effect on Grey’s writing.
Light of the Western Stars.
“She was tired of fashionable society. She was tired of polished, imperturbable men who sought only to please her. She was tired of being feted, admired, loved, followed, and importuned; tired of people; tired of houses, noise, ostentation, luxury. She was so tired of herself!
A rich girl goes west, gets a clue, falls in love, never goes back to the East. It’s awesome. The book is so old it’s also in the public domain, so it can be had for cheap on the Kindle. I could only spirit a couple of the books from the cabin, leaving the other 38 on the shelf for the next generation to read. In fact, my mother may flip when she realizes I have 2, but I couldn’t help it. Grey is a classic. If you have Austen, Tolkien or even dare I add contemporary authors to that list, you must have a few Zane Grey’s.