Charles Price answers the riddle of a killer
by Rob Neufeld
(cover images by Britt Kaufmann)
Charles Price, one of the most significant writers of historical sagas in this region, has taken a turn for the West.
His quartet of Hiwassee Valley novels, starting with “Hiwassee” and concluding with “Where the Water-Dogs Laughed,” stands alongside John Ehle’s sextet, Fred Chappell’s quartet, and Wilma Dykeman’s threesome.
Price has his own brand—and I don’t mean market niche. I mean a design that burns and marks his fiction, and which carries over to his latest venture, westerns of a sort.
“Four Sixes to Beat,” a craps reference, is the third western he has published exclusively as an e-book. It concerns the life of John Wesley Hardin, the killer.
Hardin, as the book opens, is living, toward the end of his life, in El Paso, writing his memoir. He questions himself, trying to make himself right by the lights of his late father, a Methodist minister.
As with Price’s locally set fiction, hard times and hard people dictate an unfashionable level of realism—violence, racism, and, in the Hardin book, sex. Throughout all his work, as the following interview also reveals, Price seeks to resolve the disturbing chasm between the gentle religion in which he’d been raised—his father was a Methodist minister—and the soulless horrors that plague us still.
As an aside, I feel there’s always a market for good literature, if the publishers do their jobs. One novel with which Price’s fiction has a kinship, “Deadwood” by Pete Dexter, was turned into a very popular HBO series.
Q: How many westerns have you written?
A: I have written several westerns, but it’s more like writing historical novels set in the Old West. And I have a non-fiction book that will be coming out (in June) about the Espinosas, serial killers, set in 1863.
Q: How did you come to write about John Wesley Hardin?
A: I was fascinated in imagining the mind-set of a person who was able to kill 42 human beings and justify it…He was the son of a Methodist minister, as I am.
Q: What is part of the explanation?
A: His environment was Reconstruction Era Texas, in which killing had specific social connotations. It was justified and even applauded by society. Most of the murders that Hardin committed had been against officials, blacks, and state police.
Q: Have you seen the new Tarantino movie, “Django Unchained?” The “New York Times” praised its mix of sensationalism and ethical seriousness. The only ethic I saw was: “slavery—bad.”
A: Tarantino has done more to trivialize violence than almost anybody. My book is full of blood. The characters have conversations about violence. Hardin has a little bit of a conscience left. He wonders if he is a vessel of violence to be eradicated. There’s a serious discussion at the end about the meaning of violence.
Q: Hardin’s first flashback is triggered by a smell of apples. Is smell an important sense in your stories?
A: There’s more and more sensory detail that comes back to him as he considers his victims. He becomes obsessed. His killings are coming back to haunt him. There’s a legend that people who write about Wes Hardin end up being haunted by him. Leon Metz wrote the biography, “John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas.” I called him when I was doing research. He felt afraid of Hardin at the time of his writing. When at a book signing, he felt Hardin’s displeasure so strongly, he found himself sitting outside on the curb afterward, weeping in fear.
Q: What about you?
A: After I finished, I began to feel that there was another presence in the house. It was like he was saying, “You did good,” which is horrifying to me. I had not endorsed his actions, but to think that what I had done pleased him was disturbing. In the end, I came to the conclusion that satisfied me regarding the riddle about who he was.
Q: Can you say something about your connection with Hardin in having Methodist minister fathers?
A: Hardin was named after the founder of Methodism. His narration is loaded with Biblical allusions. He was drenched in religious doctrine, yet was one of the worst killers in the West. He linked himself with people in the Bible who spilled a lot of blood. The parts of the Bible that people like him cling to come from the Old Testament, which should be seen as a precursor to its fulfillment, the New Testament. My father (Edgar C. Price) stood for kind and gentle things, and I worshipped him. I’ve recently been writing about a group of heretics—the Albigensians—in 13th century France against whom the Pope declared a crusade. The crusaders ran up against a practical problem when they came upon the targeted towns. Whom should they kill? There were innocent people among the heretics. The papal legate said, “Kill them all.”
Q: What’s the reason you’re going with e-books?
A: Rejections I have gotten from publishers have said, “We can’t sell it.” I never wrote a single line with an idea of the market. I wrote only what I wanted to write. I had things I wanted to say…I’ve got a lot of unpublished novels—about ten books that I’ve written over the last 17 years (aside from five bound books in print and one upcoming)—that I want to get out. Four of them are e-books now. Britt Kaufmann, the poet, playwright, and graphic artist, did the covers. She’s brilliant.
Four Sixes to Beat: John Wesley Hardin in El Paso by Charles F. Price (e-book, Dec. 15, 2012, $9.99).
Other new Price westerns: Above the Caprock (Nov. 30, 2012); and Vengeance on the Sweetgrass: A Literary Western (Oct. 21, 2012).
New e-book, set in 12th century Europe: Call Down Heaven’s Fire (Jan. 4, 2012).
Visit Charles Price’s website at www.charlesfprice.com
Four Sixes to Beat
Call down Heaven's Fire
Vengeance on the Sweetgrass