Because One Frederick Faust Post Isn’t Enough: The Sacking of El Dorado

Because One Frederick Faust Post Isn’t Enough: The Sacking of El Dorado

frederick-faust-in-brentwood“So it will be when we are dead that perhaps our lives will stand for something.”

“A typewriter is almost like a human being to me.”

“Have recently sent thirty-eight poems to our leading magazines and received thirty-eight poems back from our leading magazines.”

“All that can save fiction is enormous verve, a real sweep, plus richness of character, blood that can be seen shining through.”

“Why is my verse so difficult, so dead, so dull to other people?”

—Frederick Faust, from various letters

I was surprised but pleased to see the positive reaction that my post about Frederick Faust, a.k.a. Max Brand, received last week. It was enough for me to want to spend an extra week on the author, specifically to take a closer look at an individual volume of his work. Faust has rarely received this sort of attention, as John C. Hocking pointed out in the comments last week, and so I’ll spend another Tuesday of your time talking about a man who was not only the most prolific of the pulpsters, but one of the most skilled and literary.

I previously mentioned that even minor Frederick Faust contains material that’s worthwhile; there is actually no “bad” place to start in reading him, the same way that there’s no “bad” way to start listening to Duke Ellington. The Untamed (1918) is arguably Faust’s most influential Western novel, and it makes good horse sense for anyone who wants to immediately get to some of the author’s finest prose to start with this easily available book. (It’s in the public domain on Project Gutenberg if you want to get started right now.) Trailin’ is another early Faust classic from the same year that won’t disappoint new readers. The first full-length Faust novel I read was The White Wolf (1924), and that certainly astonished me, although it is a Western animal-fantasy and therefore not as representative of the bulk of the author’s work.

However, I first started reading Frederick Faust through his short fiction, specifically two University of Nebraska Press collections, The Ghost Wagon and Other Stories and The Black Rider and Other Stories. His numerous novellas and short stories only started to appear in collections in the 1990s, when Faust finally started to receive critical editions that considered his writing as important works of 20th-century literature. Faust’s short stories and novellas represent a significant section of his opus and feature unusual experiments in tone and narration.

The most interesting volume of his short work that I’ve come across is The Sacking of El Dorado, which is still readily available. If I had to pick a single book for a newcomer to Faust to read, it would be this one: Faust’s literary abilities, his unique storytelling skills, his emotional power, and his escape into a fantasy world of the West are all at the forefront of this anthology.

The collection The Sacking of El Dorado was originally published in 1995 in hardcover by Chivers North America. The 1997 paperback from Leisure Western, the company that handles all of the Max Brand paperback releases, added the story “The Man Who Forgot” to the contents. This volume is one of the finest examples of what made Frederick Faust such an unusual and memorable author of the Western, since its contents emphasize both the fantasy aspect of his frontier stories and his adherence to psychological drama as the thrust of storytelling. This combination is what makes Faust’s Westerns so timeless in their appeal.

Jon Tuska, who manages the Faust literary estate through the Golden West Literary Agency, wrote in his essay “Frederick Faust’s Western Fiction” (The Max Brand Companion, Greenwood 1996) the method he used to select the contents for the The Sacking of El Dorado: “…I went back and read all of the Western short stories that Faust wrote immediately after the publication of “Above the Law” [his first Western story, 1918] and during the period which saw the first appearance of his earliest Western novels, THE UNTAMED, TRAILIN’, and THE NIGHT HORSEMAN. In these early stories Faust was feeling his way, developing and rehearsing his psychological themes, trying again and again to find the best way possible to express them in a dramatic narrative.”

Thus the seven stories in The Sacking of El Dorado all come from Faust’s first three years of professional writing. Although he was getting a sense of genre he would inhabit for most of the rest of his life, he was already at one of his creative high points. The stories here show the broad reach of his style, and different sort of stories he could tell: action, plotting, character, suspense. Each work has something extraordinary to it, something that makes it worthwhile. What unites them is a theme about the interaction between illusion and reality: the characters either live fictitious lives (“The Sacking of El Dorado,” “The Man Who Forgot”), uncover a fiction about the life and people around them (“The Consuming Fire,” “The Fear of Morgan the Fearless”), or a combination of both (“Bad-Eye: His Life and Letters,” “Sagebrush Cinderella”).

With one exception, all the stories originally appeared in magazines under the Max Brand pen name. The entire collection is published under the Max Brand byline, as it is a registered trademark, but Tuska’s introductions all use the author’s real name.

Faust’s office in his Italian Villa

“Bad Eye: His Life and Letters” is the second Western story Faust wrote, and it appeared in the 19 October 1918 issue of All-Story Weekly (the same magazine that debuted John Carter and Tarzan). It has the flavor of an O. Henry tale in the way it crafts a romance out of a twist ending based on misunderstanding. But the character-driven path to that end is what makes it such an enchanting fable. Faust was just picking out his way around the short story after years of writing only poetry, and he seems to have a naïve fascination with the structure while already mastering the language.

The title is a bit of blind, for James Jerrold “Bad-Eye” Melrose dies only a few pages in. Melrose is a drunk who hangs around Master’s bar in Nevada, apparently living off money sent monthly from a woman. One night he finally pushes the bartender Mac too far and gets shot to death. When a lady with the last name of Melrose arrives in town a few months later, Mac is certain she’s Bad-Eye’s wife; worse, she’s a tough woman and probably bent on revenge. Masters sets out to help his employee by kindly seeing if he can scare “Mrs. Bad-Eye” off with the harsh ways of the West. But “Mrs. Bad-Eye” is more than she seems… in more ways than Masters expects.

“The Ghost Rides Tonight!” (first published as “The Ghost” in All-Story Weekly, 3 May 1919) is a clever piece plotting that misses some of Faust’s more psychological qualities but shows how easily he could craft an ingenious and satisfying story — and make memorable characters in a short space. The titular Ghost is a mysterious bandit holding up gold stages near the town of Murrayville. The town elects the nastiest and most violent gunman among them, Silver Pete, to track down the Ghost with the promise that he will keep whatever loot he finds with his quarry. Geraldine, the amusing town drunk whose spinning of songs gives him a “Homeric repute” (only Faust would think of using this epithet), lays into Silver Pete’s search with ridicule throughout Murrayville. Readers might think they know what is about to happen, and they’re partially right, but Faust crafts a double-cross and mixes it in with an act of mercy that leaves a powerful impression at the end. It’s an amusing campfire anecdote told with character, and the cowhands would’ve loved it.

“Sagebrush Cinderella” (All-Story Weekly, 10 July 1920) is one three novellas in The Sacking of El Dorado, and it’s a work filled with astonishing riches. As the title hints, it uses the fairy-tale of Cinderella as the backdrop, plus a pinch of Pygmalion and references to a few other classical authors, and weaves a fable in Old West outfits from it. Tuska’s introduction to the story notes that this use of the archetypal fable is one of the appeals of much of Faust’s work: “they draw their vividness from the same primal material as folk tales.” As Faust’s biographer Robert Easton remarked in Max Brand: The Big Westerner, “Faust introduced old world myth into the new world West. This — with his poetic approach — is his unique contribution to the Western story.”

The story opens with a passage that is almost certainly autobiographical. Faust worked as a youth on ranches doing hard labor, and spent his nights reading the classics that removed him from the dreary existence of waking life. His heroine Jacqueline “Jac” During experiences something similar. It’s worth quoting the entire opening for how much it illuminates Faust’s writing style and his early life:

She lay prone upon the floor, kicking her heels together, frowningly intent on her book. Outside, the sky was crimson with the sunset. Inside the room, every corner was filled with the gay phantoms of the age of chivalry. Jac would not raise her head, for if she kept her eyes upon the printed page it seemed to her that the armored knights were trooping about her room. A board creaked. That was from the running of some striped page with pointed toes. The wind made a soft rustling. That was the stir of the nodding plumes of the warriors. The pageantry of forgotten kings flowed brightly about her.


Jacqueline frowned and shrugged her shoulders.


She raised her head. The dreary board walls of her room looked back at her, barren, a thousand miles and a thousand years from all romance. She closed her book as the door of her room opened and her father stood in the entrance.

“Readin’ again!” said Jim During in infinite disgust.

Jac is the Cinderella of the story. She’s a tomboy who works for her father’s hotel and never has had any man interested in her. Carrigan, a newcomer to the town, serves as both Pygmalion and Fairy Godmother when he transforms Jac into “Jacqueline Silvestre” so she can attend a dance in a nearby town to impress the man she’s always wanted for her gallant knight, Maurie Gordon. The trouble, however, is that while Carrigan plays the Fairy Godmother, he would really like to be Jac’s Knight in Shining Armor.

I dislike the overused critical term “magic realism,” but it pinpoints the effect of “Sagebrush Cinderella,” which moves into a dream-state akin to traditional fantasy. Faust often did this in his Westerns, bringing the pure Romanticism of his poetic ambitions into his memories of rural laboring. Here, Jacqueline dreams herself into a fairy-tale like the ones she reads:

She would not turn her head, for then the vision with which she rode would have vanished. While she looked straight before her, past the tossing head of the horse, it was not Carrigan who sat at her shoulder. It was not his voice which spoke to her. It was not his breath which touched her throat now and again! No! For though the horse had not journeyed far, Jacqueline had ridden a fabulous distance into the regions of romance. The amber beads were now a chain of gold, and, where they touched cold against her breast, that was where the jeweled cross lay, the priceless relic before which she said her prayers at dawn and evening. The hair was no longer red. It was yellower, richer than the golden moon. The slight clinking of the bridle rein, where the little chain chimed against the bit, that was the rattle of the armor of her knight. He had ridden far for her that evening. He had stolen into the castle of her father. He had reached her chamber, where the tapestries made a hushing along the wall like warning whispers. He had lowered her from the casement on a rope made of twisted clothes. He had helped her across the moat. Then, with a rusted key, they turned the harsh lock of a secret portal and were free — free — free!

The Cowboy as Knight of the Range: we know the archetype is pure fantasy, Faust certainly knew that it was, but it’s a culturally powerful one. I could probably quote endlessly this story, since the writing is nonstop with passages Faust crafts with tradesman’s excellence. He even brings on violence and fisticuffs in the conclusion, but never unbalances the storybook quality.

Later in 1920, the Munsey publications Argosy (the first true pulp magazine) and All-Story Weekly combined to become Argosy All-Story. Yes, creative, but there was a trademark the company needed to keep visible. “The Consuming Fire” Appeared in the November 27 issue of the portmanteau magazine.

It’s a bizarre story, even for Frederick Faust and his West of the Dreamlands. It appears to occur in contemporary times, looking back at an old man’s frontier: Ed Raleigh comes of age and wants to know more about the stories his father Peter Raleigh used to spin about the town of Sierra Padre and the Bald Eagle Mountains of his youth. Forbidden until now to venture into them, Ed makes his way to Sierra Padre and discovers the men of his father’s boyhood tales seemingly frozen in time—and an old vengeance against his father still boiling, the “consuming fire” of the story. The sense of past and present intertwined with no dividing line, either in inner or outer reality, make this a Byzantine piece of Western folklore that only Frederick Faust could have written. It rewards repeat readings.

Frederick Schiller Faust’s and his pseudonyms’ most frequent home was Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine, where they started appearing in 1920. Western Story Magazine was one of the powerhouses of the pulp industry, selling at enormous levels with weekly publication schedule for decades. (Can you imagine a newsstand fiction magazine publishing weekly today?) Faust and his army of pennames were one of the main drivers of this astonishing fiction engine.

“The Man Who Forgot,” the second novella in The Sacking of El Dorado, was only Faust’s second appearance in Western Story. It was run under the “John Frederick” byline for 25 December 1920 issue, where the editors changed the title to “The Man Who Forgot Christmas.” It does contain a strong seasonal theme, which is the story’s only weakness. The Christmas reminders seem a bit of maudlin sentimentality that Faust used as trimming for a work that had enough power without it.

“The Man Who Forgot” is a prime piece of Faust’s psychological writing. It’s a prolonged character study in a suspense situation that builds to a release that only the granite-hearted won’t find moving. The main character is Eastern “sneak thief” (a term applied to him again and again) Lou Alp, who escapes from prison with Jack Chapel, a man wrongly convicted of murder. The story at first views Chapel as a dangerous and strange figure, and Alp as the cunning survivor. After they go west and pull a robbery that concludes with Alp getting shot in the leg, a loyal and honest side appears in Chapel, while Alp goes into a steep moral decline.

Chapel carries his partner to the nearest house, the home of the Moore family, where Alp recovers. Both men are taken with the beautiful daughter, Kate, but envy gnaws away at Alp. The danger of discovery hangs over both of them, and Faust starts to build a turn of events through his intense focus on Alp’s irrational hatred of his “partner” and his own moral cowardice.

The collection now backtracks a year and a half to 28 June 1919 and All-Story Weekly for “The Fear of Morgan the Fearless,” the shortest offering in The Sacking of El Dorado. This is a standout work among Faust’s short fiction, and shows how narrow the boundary between “literary” and “pulp” writing often is, something critics of the day would never have dared to admit.

Although ostensibly a Western story, the physical action all occurs in a restaurant in modern (1919) New York City among a cadre of journalists listening to the establishment owner tell a tale of a gunfighter he once knew named Morgan. The narrative of Morgan’s final defeat is not so much about Morgan as it is about the storyteller and his audience; how the tale of Morgan affects them is the point of the larger story that you’re reading. The character work among the four men involved—Pete the tale-spinner, Holmes, Crosby, and the unnamed first-person narrator — is intricate for a short story. Morgan’s “fall” at the assault of the mere words of his opponent makes for a simple fable about the illusions that powerful men build to protect themselves, but it doesn’t appear so simple when the reader witnesses its different and devastating impact on the four present at its telling. It’s a masterful piece of short fiction, as cynical and introspective as “Sagebrush Cinderella” is optimistic and fantastic.

The Sacking of El Dorado closes with the title novella, published in the 11 October 1919 issue of All-Story Weekly. If “Sagebrush Cinderella” draws from the fairy-tale, then “The Sacking of El Dorado” draws from the well of Faust’s beloved Greek tragedians as it tells of a man who digs himself to his own doom, thinking he’s mining for riches that will never end.

The anti-hero is Blinky Meyers, a Bowery cardsharp who flees New York for the West after shooting a detective in a shakedown. The cowardly man eventually ends up kicked off a railroad car and finds himself broke and deserted in the strange world of Frederick Faust’s West. He meets a mysterious man named Donahue, amicable but with an edge of danger to him. Donahue accidentally shoots himself with Blinky’s own pistol while trying out a sharp-shooting stunt, and Blinky discovers that the dead man is wanted for robbery with a huge reward on his head. Blinky rides into the nearby town of El Dorado and claims the reward and builds for himself the false reputation of the tough man who shot down Donahue.

Blinky then begins “the sacking” of the town with his cheating at cards. The story starts to turn toward proto-noir territory: the reader feels the inevitable destruction of the main character through a combination of coincidence and arrogance. Faust maintains the suspense throughout. It’s not the clean-living Western tale would might expect from a pulp Western.

Although the seven works in The Sacking of El Dorado take different approaches, they do have the consistency of Faust’s beautiful writing style, which never flags for a moment. It isn’t flashy or distracting, but rather at a perfect consistent level of engrossing. Every page contains some turn of phrase, flash of dialogue, or stinging insight that most writers can only hope to happen once in a story.

I’ll leave you with one quote from Frederick Faust, regarding how he wrote. For me, it tells almost the whole story of his seemingly supernatural abilities at storytelling: “I cannot write prose if I think… I don’t believe that Shakespeare stopped to think out reasons for doing things. I believe he simply worked by instinct, the sure workman’s instinct.”

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truly Faust is one of the most interesting authors i’ve ever heard of. it makes me wonder if all of the people who read Max Brand novels no the true story of the author…my guess is no.


I also forgot to add that these two blog entries have been some of my favorites..even better than the conan pastiche’s

[…] returning to the subject of Frederick Faust for the third time this year. But I have a specific, Black Gate-centered justification for it: I wish to unearth his single […]

[…] My own experience reading Faust completely supports Tuska’s statement. I’ve read a few novels and stories from his typewriter that weren’t remarkable, but nothing that was flat-out bad. But so much more stands out that was fantastic, such as the dog-fable The White Wolf, and the three “Thunder Moon” novels, which were ahead of their time in their sympathetic portrayal of Indians as protagonists. Faust’s first Western novel, The Untamed, is still one of the best examples of the genre, as is its first sequel featuring his primal character, Whistlin’ Dan Berry, The Night Horseman. Another early Faust Western, Trailin’, is equally astonishing. Others I can list right off the top of my head that have stayed with me are Gun Gentlemen, The Desert Pilot, the already mentioned Destry Rides Again, Sixteen in Nome, the supernaturally tinged Luck, and the stories collected in The Sacking of El Dorado. […]

[…] positively to the three articles, the first covering Brand’s general career, the next analyzing a collection of his early Western short fiction, and the third examining his rare foray into science fiction, The Smoking […]

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