Author Steve Frazee (1909-1992) began selling his stories to the western and adventure pulps in the late 1940s. After a successful run of frontier storytelling, Frazee would later serve as president of the prestigious Western Writers of America. Using his experience as a heavy construction and mine worker, Frazee would often include elements of the mining industry into his writing style. Novels like “Ghost Mine” and “Hidden Gold” exhibit those characteristics while offering high adventures in Northwestern America. However, one of his most successful mining-adventure works was the novel “High Cage”, originally published by MacMillan in 1957. The theatrical adaptation, titled “High Hell”, was released by Paramount in 1958. Crest Books, an imprint of Fawcett Gold Medal, reprinted the novel as “High Hell” to coincide with the film.
The book is presented in first-person by Craig Rhodes, an experienced miner and heavy machinery operator. Craig is hired by an investor to run a mining expedition in the frozen Canadian Rockies. To assist with the drilling, Craig hires four experienced miners – his brother Danny, Luke, Frank, and Charley. But much to Craig's surprise, he ends up with one unexpected guest. It's this character reveal that sets the tone for “High Hell”.
These five rugged men ascend the snowy slopes and begin setting up the mining operation that will run through the winter. I won't spoil it for you, but there's an ordeal that ends up placing a woman named Lenore in the mining camp as the sixth laborer. As the snow begins to fall, the men understand that there is no descent until the Spring thaw. It doesn't take a psychic to see where this is going.
As the five hard-working, frozen workers contend with drills and pick-axes in endless snowstorms, Lenore busies herself by making warm meals for the men. As the weeks roll on, the men begin to have cabin fever that's elevated with their sexual desires for Lenore. Danny is still in love with her, yet she's married to Frank. Craig finds himself fighting his brother as both of them are lustfully eyeing Lenore. It's this burning temptation that allows the author plenty of creative space to work his magic.
Set in the 1800s, “High Hell” works like a western adventure with burly men fighting (and dying) for a sultry woman. Craig is the iron-fist, no-nonsense leader that demands as much from himself as his men. Yet, his will is the first to break. From that point, it's a high-tension game with plenty of danger and intrigue to propel the pace. The author's brilliant placement of Lenore in the ranks of snowbound men was captivating. I read this enthralling paperback in one sitting.
“High Hell” should appeal to fans of snowbound action. While it can be a slow burn at times, the payoff was well worth the price of admission. Despite my failed attempt to embrace Steve Frazee's writing, “High Hell” was certainly a redeeming use of my time. Frazee is the real deal.
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