37. Clarence Mulford – Bar 20 and Bar 20 Days (1911)

Burroughs has an ambiguous relationship with Westerns. As a gun-toting, freedom loving American who wants nothing more than to mind his own business and have others mind theirs, the cowboy archetype has a clear appeal.

On the other hand, the flag-waving, Bible-thumping small town Americana that came to typify the Western genre in 1950s Hollywood was everything that Burroughs detested. A world he would conjure with a catchphrase – “nigger-killing lawmen counting their notches” – used over and over again across his whole oeuvre.

He was clearly drawn to unusual Westerns. The Ox-Bow Incident; a psychological portrait of a lynch gang. Blood Meridian; McCarthy’s directionless odyssey (a photo of Burroughs’ bookshelf from the late 1980s shows four separate copies!).

I’ve been told by a Burroughs fan he also loved True Grit, though I’ve struggled to find any reference to it in his works, letters, or interviews.

His absolute favourite, however, was the straightforward popular Western writer Clarence Mulford, the creator of Hopalong Cassady.

Having read a couple of the Hopalong Cassady books – Bar 20, where he’s introduced, and Bar 20 Days, which Burroughs thought the best – it’s clear why Burroughs liked them.

They’re extremely pacey. Each book is more like a collection of short stories tied together through interconnecting incidents. In under 160 pages you’re guaranteed between eight and twelve adventures involving Hopalong and the Bar 20 boys.

Hopalong follows the old Bugs Bunny rule: he never starts fights, but boy does he finish them!

In Bar 20, he faces down trouble from rustlers, Indians, crooked lawmen, gamblers, and the pokes from neighbouring ranches.

In Bar 20 Days, Mulford goes wild! It starts with Hopalong and his main man Red riding into town only to find themselves drugged and pressganged. The first two stories see the cowboys joining the pirates, then mutineering, and riding back to the Old West in their pirate ship.

After this, they deal with Mexican ghosts (revealed, in true Scooby-Doo style, as bootleggers), a mob out to lynch him, and – in an unexpected political touch – a barbed wire company who are moving in, building fences, and ringing “the death-knell to the old-time punching”.

Hopalong always keeps his cool. His the quickest draw with his double pistols, and Red’s the finest longshot in the West (even if Hopalong doesn’t approve of his old-fashioned rifle).

Hopalong’s code is simple: “he must tolerate no restrictions on his natural rights, and he must not restrict.” A true predecessor to Burroughs’ personal policy of M.O.B.: Minding Own Business.

He’s also, as his name suggests, a “cripple”. We get no origin story for Hopalong’s limp. He seems to have been born with it. Or perhaps a mindful reader would know best not to ask… Either way, it’s rarely mentioned; only coming up when smart guys with big mouths decide to challenge him, not having heard of his reputation.

Needless to say, they don’t stay smart so long.

The equalising force of the gun is sufficient to turn the limping Cassady into Hopalong: the West’s best-respected and most-feared cattle puncher. Burroughs, who was no he-man himself, may have identified with Cassady. The sense of being an outsider, at least. One who is visibly different.

Another appeal can be found in the relationship between Hopalong and Red. Red’s the hotheaded troublemaker to Hopalong’s strong and silent diplomacy. They constantly bicker, but always have each other’s back. All the other cowboys recognise their friendship as something special.

In Bar 20 Days the gay subtext rises extremely close to the surface.

After a row, Red rides off into the sunset. The next day, Hopalong sees him riding back, waving his sombrero. “Wigwagging for forgiveness!” Hopalong beams. “Couldn’t get mad at him if I tried.”

It turns out he’s not waving for forgiveness, however, but to warn about an Indian warband on his tail. Red and Hopalong team up, lead them out of town, and end up besieged in an old abandoned barn.

Surrounded, they fall to a’cussin and a’feudin. “The more they squabbled the more they liked it,” Mulford tells us. When Hopalong gets shrapnel-dust in his eyes, Red bathes them with water. After that, they fall to a’cussin again.

The erotic charge between these strong, gunfighting men is no doubt an inspiration on Burroughs’ later gay cowboy scenes, most fully developed in The Place of Dead Roads.

Depending on when Burroughs read this books (they came out in the 1910s and were hugely popular through the ‘20s and ‘30s, so could have read them as a child), we might also see in Red a prototype for the red-headed “wild boy” that, like Rossetti’s Elizabeth Siddal, recurs throughout Burroughs’ work: part Muse, part erotic fixation.

The tremendous pace and punchiness of these books also clearly left a mark on Burroughs’ own writing. Despite his favourite author being Conrad, Burroughs very rarely extends a paragraph beyond four sentences. His implicit understanding that, to be fun, writing must be fast, was a lesson learned possibly more from Mulford than from any other writer.