Friday, December 14, 2012


Within the next week or so I'm going to e-publish my Western novel Four Sixes to Beat: John Wesley Hardin in El Paso.  For those who may not recognize the name, allow me to introduce my protagonist.  Wes Hardin was probably the most prolific killer in the history of the Old West.  He is believed to have done away with as many as forty-two of his fellow human beings.

Some of you may know that I am the son of a Methodist minister.  Incredibly, so was Hardin, who of course was also named for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.  I first learned about him and his bloody deeds as a child of about twelve, and perhaps because of our common link to Methodism I have felt an odd fascination with him ever since.  I can't describe that fascination except to say that Hardin's life and works seem so much at odds with those of my preacher father, and of mine, that the story of his life poses a kind of existential challenge for me:  I've been both repelled by him and drawn to him; repelled because he seems to have embodied evil in a peculiarly heedless and hypocritical form; and attracted because the similarities in our backgrounds seem to suggest that I too might harbor the capacity to do great wrong disguised, as Hardin's was, as justified action.  As an adult I felt a compelling need to explain this strange and frightening man to myself; to try to discover why, in him, so much that was terrible came out of what must have been a well-intentioned upbringing, in a home steeped in religious faith just as mine was.

I read his autobiography (yes, he wrote one, however improbable that may seem) and his book only reinforced the sensation of linkage wedded to repulsion.  I did some further research on his life and finally, several years ago, wrote a novel about his last months, after he had served a sixteen-year sentence in Huntsville Penitentiary for murdering a Texas law officer.  I called the book Four Sixes to Beat (these were his last words, spoken just before he was shot to death while playing craps in a saloon).  I tried something in that book I'd never tried before and, for reasons I'll explain below, will probably never try to do again:  I tried to worm my way into the mind of a sociopath who had actually lived and breathed, who was not a character created by me in a work of fiction.

That voyage into the psyche of Wes Hardin was a trying one.  While I didn't know this when I began the book, I learned before I completed it that several writers who had preceded me in portraying Hardin in print had suffered unsettling and, in some cases, damaging consequences.  In fact, there exists a sort of urban legend to the effect that Hardin, or his ghost, avenges himself---well over a century after his death---on those who write about him.  Naturally when I first heard this proposition I disregarded it as implausible and ridiculous, even when one of his biographers wrote me describing how, at a convention in Texas where he was to speak about Hardin, he found himself sitting on the curb outside the venue weeping uncontrollably for fear of a dark presence that had plagued him during the process of writing his book and now seemed intent on preventing him from speaking.  One of Hardin's first biographers, I learned, died in middle age of a sudden heart attack.  A modern biographer died unexpectedly just before his book came out.

I'm not a credulous sort of fellow, so I discounted these purported incidents.  But then, as I worked on my own Hardin book, I began to sense a palpable but unseen presence watching me as well.  The presence did not threaten me or manifest itself in any obvious way; it only allowed me to feel its nearness--and its cautionary essence.  I found it hard to sleep, hard to relax.  At the time I lived alone, but my most primal senses hinted to me that I was not alone at all.  When I had finished the book--no easy task, under the circumstances--that sense of being watched and cautioned went away; and by the time it did, I had actually come near to believing in the truth of the legend, to believing that I had been monitored by the dreadful presence of Wes Hardin.  And one thing more:  I had a strong sense that he had not only kept me under close surveillance but that, in the end he had approved of what I had written.  That was a more terrible realization than any, for it suggested that I had somehow, in the act of writing my novel, actually penetrated into the very heart of pure evil and may have even, in some way large or small, understood it far too easily and perhaps even unintentionally condoned it or become complicit in it.

If that was the case, perhaps it was why the book never got into print.  Publisher after publisher turned it down.  Few gave reasons, but I think this was because the darkness of Wes Hardin's soul and mind which I had captured (and which the shade of Wes had seemingly endorsed) was too unsettling; my protagonist too irredeemable; the imagery and language and explicit violence and sexual content too off-putting, for any house to dare unleashing on the reading public.

So, caveat emptor.  Buyer; reader, beware.  This is a disturbing book.  To this day I'm uncertain whether it deserves to be released.  I believe in the quality of the writing and in the profoundness of the message I wanted to convey:  that I think Wes Hardin lived a life that was as bad as any life can be lived; that he was something approaching the embodiment of evil; and that he achieved that embodiment to nearly absolute perfection.  But for me to have imagined such a life, even if I imagined it correctly, may have been a great mistake.  It has occurred to me that I may be paying for that mistake now.

In previous blogs I've described my recent struggles with memory loss, vertigo and confusion.  These conditions assailed me, Ruth and I thought at first, because of a recent episode of severe stress.  But now I'm wondering whether Wes Hardin hasn't crept back into my life as my idea of e-publishing my novel Four Sixes to Beat began to take shape.  Of course by any rational measure that is superstitious nonsense and no doubt Ruth believes, if she does not say, that if I'm a victim of anything it's melodramatic self-delusion.

That may well be.  My sensible self tells me it is.  And since a number of my friends, including my dear Ruth, have read the manuscript and suffered no ill consequences from the experience (that I know of), I assure myself that the book can be made available to the public without endangering my readers.  For as terrible as the shade of Wes Hardin may have been--and still may be--it could hardly multiply itself that many times without diluting its power to do harm (assuming it sells well). 

John Wesley Hardin as a Young Man
Google Image
Perhaps fortunately for her, Britt Kaufmann, my surrogate daughter and the designer of the stunning book cover below, has not read it and is probably not at risk. Besides, she is safely wrapped in her protective cloak of Mennonite rectitude.  I cannot say the same for those of you who may download it from amazon or barnes and noble.  Certainly I cannot say so for myself, as its possibly demented creator.  Even without having read the book, Britt has captured its essence with her remarkable cover design, which offers several possible interpretations--a consuming fire, a sunset or sunrise, or the gates of Hell through which Wes Hardin most certainly passed.  I thank her for this riveting image.

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