Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wicked Settings

The setting as antagonist.

Sometimes the biggest obstacle to a protagonist achieving his or her goal is the setting itself.

On the way back from Las Vegas to Phoenix, Duke Hiroi and I stopped by three of the four ghost towns on the road that leads over the new bridge near Hoover Dam (Boulder Dam when I was young) and on to Kingman, AZ. By name, running from north to south, the towns were White Hills, Chloride, Mineral Park, and Cerbat. Cerbat is on private land, so we were only able to visit the first three.

At the Mineshaft Market in Chloride, I picked up a Gordon D. Sherriffs paperback entitled Hell’s Forty Acres. That night in the Hill Top Motel in Kingman, I opened the yellowed paperback, ©1987, and found that the story was about the ground we had covered that day.

The protagonist was a treasure hunter named Dave Hunter, who was in search of a silver mine found by the Spanish in 1745. The antagonist (other than people who want to take the treasure away from him) is the geography of the place called Hell’s Forty Acres.


Sherriffs above, Mineshaft MarketListen:

Dave looked at the naked rock heights brooding on each side of him. They seemed to be moving in on him. He winced as the ahrsh sunlight needled into his eyes. “It’s a jest,” he said quietly. “A cruel joke. Damn you! Have your fun with me, but I’ll beat you yet.” He looked up sideways at the canyon walls. There didn’t seem to be the slightest possibility that there might be silver in this particular area and yet there was the indisputable evidence of the float, a bit of silver ore detached from a larger deposit up the canyon and washed down by one of the terrifying flash floods generated by violent and sudden thunderstorms.

Does the adversary, the antagonist, the geography sound forgiving? Will it give Dave the benefit of the doubt? Let’s continue:

Dave wiped the stinging sweat from his burning face. The Colorado River was to the north and also to the west, scouring its way through solid rock and harsh earth on its journey south to the Gulf of California. Dave was somewhere within the Big Bend of the mighty river where it made its change from flowing west to flowing south. It was a hell’s package of a country, arid, almost completely waterless, burned and ravaged initially by the awesome fires of Earth’s creation and then seared by eons of a pitiless sun from cloudless skies. The distant mountains beyond the intricate labyrinth of canyons were like islands rising from the sea, veiled by shimmering heat waves that gave them the illusion of engaging in a slow and sinuous ritual-like dance. Nothing else moved in that lost and remote place of blazing sun and bright blue sky; of rock too hot to touch, deathly silence, and the long, empty distances of a land forgotten by man and likely by God as well. It was like the damned gut of all Creation. But there was a persistent legend, verified by Mexican government and Jesuit sources, that there was a vast lode of pure silver somewhere in the Big Bend country.

Does it sound to you like Hell’s Forty Acres are going to roll over and let Dave Hunter scratch its belly? Not likely. Hear this:

Dave’s horse had broken a leg three days past and he had been forced to kill; it. Amiga, his patient female burro, stood on spraddled-out legs with a down-hanging head. A thin thread of yellowish salive hung from her dry mouth. She didn’t have long to live at this rate. The only living thing in sight that seemed to be able to survive the 110-degree heat was the tall, gaunt, dun-bearded man who stood there softly touching his badly cracked lips with dirty fingertips while his squinting blue eyes scanned the upper reaches of the canyon.

The pressure from the terrain and climate hammer at Hunter and hammer at him, never giving him a moment’s rest. And from the latter half of the book, we have:

Dave walked out into the glaring sunlight. There was no reason to stay any longer in Chloride. His supplies were ready to be picked up. All he needed were the horses and burros, plenty of water, and a two-hour start after the moon rose. The question of Lila Duryea was eating in his mind like a canker. What was her relationship with Matt Denton? Denton knew whose sorrel the mare had to go up into that country. He could kill two birds with one stone that way, by having Dave guide him: find the woman and locate the silver strike as well. It was the woman who had brought all this onto Dave’s shoulders. Damn her! That was why she had not wanted to come with him. She should have warned him about going to Chloride riding her sorrel mare, which hd puyt immediate suspicion on Dave. Now, not only was his strike in jeopardy, but his life as well. He had no illusions about his fate once Denton located the woman and the silver strike. Damn them all to Hell! It was Dave Hunter’s lode and he meant to keep it that way.

This is about halfway through the book. The terrain is still giving men fits. Would that an antagonist could be as strong.

We won’t get into how the book ends. Just say that the antagonist, the area locked in behind the Big Bend in the Colorado River, takes an ever-increasing toll as the tale unfolds.

We who write novels need to remember how strong an antagonist weather and climate and geography can be, and it adds depth to the story. In my case, I’d just been through the country, and was able to relive Sherriff’s story in what I had seen.


  1. Charlie, I remember when I read Conagher by Louis L'Amour, and how much of a "character" the land is in that book. In fact, I wrote a blog about it, because in the beginning, Evie Teale is so afraid of the land and what might become of her and her new husband's children. Oddly enough the land is what kills her husband and gives her a brand new lease on life. And as time goes by, she learns to love the land and explains this in a couple of places in the book--to her young stepson, and to the visitors from "back East" that stop there when her home becomes a stage station. I really do like the idea of using the terrain, weather and climate as an antagonist, but found it very unusual that Evie's outlook changed and the land was not her enemy any longer; in fact, she came to love it.

    You used some great excerpts from Shirreffs' writing to illustrate your point. I really do enjoy these Wicked Wednesdays!

  2. Gordie was a fine writer (as you are yourself, Charlie) and a fine man as well. He was one of the good guys, and I counted it both joy and privilege to have known him.

  3. One of the allures of westerns for me has always been the unforgiving setting, and how the protagonist deals with it. I loved the examples you gave, Charlie. What a lesson--thanks!

  4. Cheryl, a good lesson in how you may not like a person (or a place) until you truly understand them (it) and grow to love them despite their weaknesses.

  5. That's very true! I'm sorry I couldn't promote the blog on FB today--for some reason, it wasn't letting me copy and paste links later on in the day--I had copied and pasted a link for my blog at P&P and after that--couldn't get in to do it.