Sunday, December 25, 2016

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Medicine Shows Part 3

The Old West was rife with troubles and no one liked to handle ‘em a treat better than the snake oil salesman. He had cures for every ailment, a salve for every scrape, an answer for every question. It was nonsense medicine, little more’n booze and dope but – notwithstanding the obvious effect of these curatives – folks couldn’t get enough. They bought ‘em by the passel and asked for more and well, if you think on it for two seconds, it makes a certain sense.
You’d have a rough go out on the frontier, if you made it past that first day. Gunshots required amputation if they didn’t out and out kill you. Broken bones, severed limbs, any serious wound would do you in. Rabies, tetanus, a cold could kill you. The flu could kill you. Food poisoning, vitamin deficiency, heart disease, stroke, all were waiting for you and wasn’t much a man could do about it.
Snake oilers didn’t exactly have their work cut out for them. There were problems enough for settlers so if the Professor said he could solve a few, who’d argue? Not like anyone else had a cure for whooping cough or scarlet fever or the ever-present ‘female complaints’. Shit, everyone was just tryin’ to keep all their fingers and toes on ‘til it was time for supper.
It was big business for the Professors out there on the trail, often mixing up their gimmicks right there in the wagon they rode on. But they were small outfits, independent entrepreneurs and, despite the market being wide open, had no chance of covering all that demand. More and more offshoots prevailed, local pharmacists concocting their own brands and newspaper ads ran far and wide to prevail upon the paying public.
It wasn’t long before concerns arose of course, all that money and all them loopy folks running around trying to cure their hangnails with heroin and cobra venom. Hell, some potions were outright deadly, alongside their addictive nature. Given the drug and alcohol content more than a few adults died, even kids, though the label might specifically mention its medicinal advantage on them or even infants.
Sure, some doctors and other scholars decried patent medicines from the get-go. Can’t be giving people cures for cancer, stomach and joint ailments, skin disease, what have you. The docs might not have the answer themselves but they felt they had alternative treatments that, if they didn’t cure the disease, might ameliorate its effects without the dangers inherent in the narcotic effects of the elixirs, not to mention their other suspect ingredients. Lead, mercury, dead spiders, what have you.
The money side of things wasn’t having anything approaching regulation though, and put their foot down on the grounds of ‘Fuck you, we’ll do what we want’. The potion manufacturers all grouped together under their own banner and fought right back. Calling themselves ‘The Proprietary Association’ they had the press on their side, them elixir ads meaning major dough for the local papers. Muckraking of the legitimate medical establishment ensued, the temperance movement put in their two cents, curatives and remedies flew off the shelves.
High times indeed and in 1881, they went right into orbit. Enter: Doc and Texas, a couple boys who decided to get into the patent business and see if they couldn’t give the field of drug and alcohol dependency a little of what it’d been missing: tacky spectacle and zero accountability. Thus, the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company was born.
John Healy and Charles Bigelow (Doc and Texas Charley if you please) had nothing to do with the Kickapoo tribe and weren’t Injun by a long shot. They capitalized on the Native American mystique alone, though they did include Indians in their shows and even put a few authentic ingredients in their curatives. Alongside some dangerous, evil shit you wouldn’t poke with a stick.
See, what Doc and Texas wanted was to drown the frontier in snake oil and make a mint off the mass production of the Kickapoo brand. Oh, they had branding back then, believe it. They had marketing and advertising and product launches, damn straight. They had a Show like none other; a big, grand, hot-damn-the-gang’s-all-here type show and when they hit town, the town stayed hit.
The boys had upward of 25 shows traveling at a time, big ass shows like a three ring circus. Newspapers announced their arrival, as well as advertising their various products. Books were sold detailing their ‘age old mystical’ practices and pamphlets littered towns extolling their various products.
When showtime finally arrived they had costumed Indians flinging fire and chanting to the gods. Acrobats and animals and troupes of actors and magicians and crate after crate of curative. Their Professors were dandies all and strutted out in tuxedos and long tails, tipping their top hats while huge campfires blazed off their fine gold buttons. This was no single wagon show, ladies and gentlemen. This was an event.
Real life Indian Medicine Men charged out and shook their magic sticks and called down the wind and sky. Oohs and ahhs abounded amid plumes of colorful smoke and the drone of Kickapoo chants. Dr. John Johnson was central to many shows, a real Indian shaman who spoke of his people’s powerful medicine and how their tonics and syrups all held the strange, unknowable magic of his tribe.
And Doc Johnson believed it too, since he thought he was a real Injun. Johnson’s story is something else entirely, but suffice it to say, he’d been kidnapped by the Mikmaq Indians decades before and was brought up to believe he was indeed, a blood Indian. Lived his whole life with the tribe, learning shamanism and was considered by his adopted people as a tried and true Medicine Man. Actually got himself a name as a practicing physician among the whites later on. Just another level of Weird in the layered history of these surreal entertainments.
Doc and Texas kept it up long after the Mom and Pop wagon shows petered out, finally selling Kickapoo for a handsome sum in the 1920’s. They inspired others however and the medicine show did go on, up until World War II.
By then the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act gave ‘em all troubles with laws against false advertising. 1938 acts meant they had to test their products for safety. No more snake oil, ladies and gentlemen, no more fire and smoke, no more gold buttons.
The last of these shows, the Hadacol Caravan, survived until the early 50’s, touting Hollywood celebrities and all manner of hoorah with their hi-test Hadacol Tonic. In a shocking turn of events however, the entire enterprise erupted in scandal and the medicine show was no more.
Some products survive to this day, sure enough. Luden’s we mentioned, and well, everyone knows Listerine. Vick’s Vapo-Rub used to be called Richardson’s Croup Salve. Bayer Aspirin saw its start as a patent medicine, as did Doan’s Pills, Geritol (ask your grandparents about that one), regular old tonic water and as most already know, Coca Cola.
Dozens more remain and while their ingredients have changed and some no longer can claim medicinal properties, there they are, living testament to that wild and wonderful ineluctable elixir of horror and hilarity, the one dose that gives you the most, full of six guns and tons of fun, our ever lovin’ everlastin’ supersonic tonic like a kerosene high calonic, the one, the only, Weird, Weird West!
Buck a bottle, if you please. Thanks for comin’ out.

Monday, December 12, 2016

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Medicine Shows Part 2

So, the Snake Oil Salesman charms his way into town, a troupe of threadbare actors and cut-rate magicians behind him, brandishing brown bottles of purifying potion and enervating elixir. They were loved far and wide, these men of medicine and why not? They brought solace and comfort to millions and provided for the betterment of future generations.
Well, they didn’t actually do any of that, except the part about the magicians. They came with their traveling medicine shows true enough and hawked their suspect syrups and while they maybe weren’t loved, they were certainly held in high regard. For their expertise? Depends on how good of a salesman they were. They weren’t doctors, much as some claimed to be. Not Professors either, at least not from any accredited university.
No, they were held in esteem for their results.
And no, not from the curative properties of their medicines, much as most probably made folks feel real good. Hell, they were laced with cocaine or morphine or opium or were simply straight-up suspensions of those drugs in some sugary solution. They had alcohol contents that’d put you off the rails after more than a few sips.
They were things called Doc Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, Daffy’s Salutis for “colic and griping” (that is, ‘the grippe’ or the flu) and a thousand others. Whooping Cough curatives, ‘cures’ for asthma and ‘female complaints’, black lung, rickets, polio and whatever else. Even prairie madness. Oh, yes. Prairie Madness was an actual thing. I’ll need to do a post on it one of these days. That’s some good Weird West right there.
So “Step right up for your own personal portion of this perfect potion!” was the cry and up they came. The Professor stood in the middle of the street, extolling the virtues of his wares and if you can’t believe one teaspoon lets his strongman lift those thousand pound weights (which maybe were painted cardboard, but who can be sure?), then take the testimonial of that gentleman right there. A regular townie like you folks, “Sir! Try a taste and tell these good folks of the immediate and lasting effect of this superlative soporific, this magnificent mixture, this wonderful thunder of calmative curation.”
“Oh, he’s a plant!” they shouted.
“A plant!”
“Hell yes! He’s part of the show!”
“I am not!”
“Sir,” asks the Professor, “Have we met?”
The plant shakes his head.
“We have never met, no sir.”
“See? The Professor pronounces and the naysayer pounces, this is cents on the ounces son, you can’t possibly renounce it!”
“Folks this is a patent medicine! Pat-ent. United States Patent Office, full o’ folks smarter than you n’ me put together! Would they grant a patent to a huckster? No sir!”
“Hey, he’s got a point. ‘Patent’ sounds pretty official!”
“True enough. And his name is Professor Shyster McHonest!”
“I’ll take five cases!”
“Me too!”
It was all in good fun and well, it probably helped that anyone downing the stuff was immediately drunk or high. Did it cure their baldness? No, but it was hard caring while you stumbled back home, watching your hands melt.
Helped too, that ‘patent’ part of ‘patent medicine’. Did it have a thing to do with the Patent Office of the United States? Well, about as much as ‘butter’ in Ms. Butterworth or ‘fruit’ does in your average fruit juice. That is to say, not a thing.
‘Patent’ in this case ain’t the patent we take for granted, that is, some exclusive right granted to an inventor of a product designed to solve a specific problem. That is, the right to pursue his ‘unobvious’ design to a certain common problem and open the market to that product’s specific result in solving that problem.
No, in this case, ‘patent’ meant something manufactured under a grant, or, an amount of money given to someone by some other entity. For our purposes, the royal families of Europe. They granted to inventors ‘patents of royal favor’ or patent letters, which meant the inventor produced the thing in question (often medicine) and the favor, or, ‘patent’ meant that product could be licensed and sold with the royals’ official endorsement.
Real patents have to disclose their ingredients see, or moving parts or meaningful additions to an existing design, in this case, chemical structures and most medicine men were loathe to do so. Trademark the name they could do, but legally prove their product was useful? No. That was quite impossible under the standards of the time. And our own time, too.
Some of them medicines survive to this day, true enough. Luden’s Cough Drops and Angostura Bitters are two such examples. Now, they do what they say, no more, no less, but back then, it was, well, to coin a phrase: The Wild West. You could do damn near anything and get away with it.
And knowing that – and given there weren’t legal protections for the Professors, Colonels and Doctors prescribing these curatives to the ailed and infirm – nothing stopped your average citizen or pharmacist from proclaiming their own homebrewed tincture as the ‘affordable substitute’ or ‘absolute best alternative’ and the Professors sent word went out to the fans and followers of the original product to ‘Accept No Substitutes!’
So if the drinks didn’t work, how’d the industry manage to get along like it did? Well, it’s that placebo effect I spoke of last post. Folks believed and cured they became. Melting hands and all. And remember, there wasn’t much science on the frontier. They had docs and surgeons but these weren’t usually trained men. And if they were, well, they just didn’t know what we know today.
Not that we can bitch much these days that them folks were fools. As said, we are plenty foolish now. Moreso, not for what we know but what we claim to. And now, same as the Old West, if a thing makes money, no one’s much interested in the right or wrong of it.
And the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company knew that better than anyone.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Medicine Shows Part 1

We all know the scene: that fool in a Colonel Sanders outfit fleeing the dusty town ahead of some mob of trusting folks, a banjo playing in the background. They’re all shaking their fists and wondering why the man’s baldness cures and ‘revitalizers’ gave them a bunch of extra toes and made their teeth fall out.
Well, their stupid ain’t got a monopoly on the Old West (we got plenty o’ dummies who paved that road) but damn sure without it, we wouldn’t have an important piece of the Weird West. Without ‘em, we wouldn’t have medicine shows and wouldn’t have them dark brown bottles of snake oil our fine Colonel liked to trade town to town, promising everything from longer legs to proper diction.
Why snake oil? Well, word is, the Seneca Indians, up New York and Pennsylvania way used to rub oil seepage – that is, petroleum that seeped up the ground on its own – on their cuts and scrapes. The European settlers saw that and thought ‘Let’s bottle it for a buck or two!’ and the phrase ‘Seneca Oil’ became ‘Se-nake-a Oil’, then ‘Snake Oil’.
But we all know that’s bullshit. It don’t ever work out so perfect. Really, no one can say absolutely why. A better story comes from actual snake oil (venom, it’s supposed) taken from rattlers that Chinamen put on their aching joints while building the Transcontinental in the 1860’s. Thing is, though, there was ‘viper oil’ before that, back in Europe and them folks used it for every damn thing.
Maybe it’s a bit of all that. Maybe too, it comes from the rattlesnake root, or ‘seneca root’, a plant that resembled a rattler’s rail. The ‘rattlesnake oil’ squeezed off it was believed to cure a rattle bite or even repel the serpents out on the frontier. So, in that roundabout way – once folks started using it for everything from corns to colic – we ended up with ‘snake oil’.
Whatever we did, we had ourselves something someone says does something we ain’t exactly sure it actually does. (And are pretty sure it don’t, but can’t chance not believing in it. Called the ‘placebo effect’, that is.) Let’s not forget, there wasn’t much ‘science’ to medicine back in the Old West, no sir. Best depend on the Weird to get your doctorin’ done.
Folks employed a speciously logical approach to things, you see. If you had an ailment and did this or that and the ailment went away, well, that must be the cure. Maybe that was your intention, maybe not but the word went out. There’s a reason folks still believe you can rub a wart with a piece of potato and bury it under the moon or douse your face with pee to cure acne.
And the Colonel and his types knew this. Knew this because it worked so well for their predecessors, in Europe way back when. The Colonel (AKA the Doctor or, a big favorite, The Professor) of course, isn’t a new thing. He took his cues from the charlatans, who rolled into say, Paris, and strung up a show with music and some hootenanny and danced around selling quack medicine in the 1600’s or so.
‘Quack’ now, comes from a few decades before all that, around 1570 with ‘quacksalver’ which is Dutch for ‘hawker of salves’ or, medicines. Like the snake oil Professor, someone who promises something he can’t deliver. But it goes farther back still. The Ancient Romans had a phrase ‘Nostrum Remedium’ (our remedy) suggesting the Weird West can’t lay claim to scrubbing folks of their hard earned dollars, nor can folks in 17th century Paris or those back in the Middle Ages, when around the 15th Century ‘quacking’ meant to shout.  As in, shout ‘em over and get their dough.
So, it’d been going on for some time and by the 1850’s ol’ Doc Colonel Professor simply stepped in as the latest incarnation. Some version of him’s still around today, in fact. Pharma Pitchmen talking about Restless Leg, idiot celebrities claiming kids get autism from vaccinations, this or that doctor saying this or that herbal remedy is the only safeguard against cancer. Plenty of fools are out there to convince folks reason has no place in a world with some simple fix they’re pleased to provide. Coffee beans build muscle, say. Blueberries cure arthritis. Salmon makes your skin tight.
But this ain’t about now, it’s about then. And then, as the frontier expanded (and with it, anxieties about the unknown: plants, animals, various new ailments) this quack medicine or ‘patent medicine’ took off like a shot.
Because see, them French charlatans back when weren’t just grifters coming in for a quick take and then move on fast before they got caught. No, they were salesmen, first and foremost. They wanted to build confidence not just in their product or service, but also themselves. They wanted to come back time and again to the same folks time and again, if they could. The Professor wasn’t any different and he didn’t stray much from the standard model of the charlatan’s pitch.
The charlatans put on shows with comedy acts and juggling and all kinds of freak shows or mysterious performers. It was like a little circus come to town and hell, who don’t love the circus? So the Professor and folks of his stripe put on their medicine shows and much the same way as the charlatans, trotted out dancing horses and musical acts and had magicians and all kinds of people wowing the crowds while just beneath, they hawked their miracle cures.
So when did they get chased out of town to that plucky banjo music? They didn’t. Hell, patent medicine was a major industry through the Second World War. Folks couldn’t get enough and with names like Loasby’s Wahoo and Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, who could blame ‘em?
Now ‘why’, you ask? Well, step right up my friends and read on about the fantastic and elastic curative and purative all-purpose restorative calorative sure to entertain and delight that’s right: The Old West Weirder than the Rest Hot to Trot Dollar a Shot Act Now for that Taste of Wow Medicine Show.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


   Ain’t nobody really knows ol’ Queho. Who he was or what he was truly about. He lived, that’s all anyone’s for sure on. But was he the psycho Indian savage they say? Or just some mysterious hermit or bank robber or rampaging fugitive from justice?
   All of ‘em or none, the Weird West doesn’t care. It takes ‘em as they come and they rarely come stranger'n Queho.
   He was born around 1880 and by the time he died, he had the title of first mass murderer in Nevada. Called him 'The Mad Indian.' There’s no iron-clad evidence for any murders, but why split hairs? Man was a half-breed, and folks all knew what them was like. White folks, anyway.
   His pa was a miner maybe or coulda been a soldier. Brave from a rival tribe? Maybe that, too. His ma, most are sure on, was a member of the Cocopah tribe.
   Maybe. It’s all gonna be maybes, here. A thing like Queho, I’m not sure we want to know for sure the world had him around. If he did exist like they say, well, give him time. Being dead’s not like to inconvenience him for long.
   He was raised up like any lad, in the beginning. Lived on a reservation out Vegas Way. Did a little ranch work, some house labor. Moody little cuss, they say. Real pissy. Made himself an easy target with a temper like that.
   It’s said he killed his own half-brother in a spat and that started off the whole legend. Some day otherwise. Killed a policeman, a town elder, they say it all. Records we have don’t show any trouble with the law, for sure, until 1910. Got in a scrape with fellow tribal and did him in. Killed two more making his escape.
   So they say.
   They say too, he headed for the El Dorado Mountains. Stopped for supplies on the way, busted up a shopkeeper while robbing his store. Beat him near to death with an axe handle. Some say pick handle. Some say bare handed. Got himself a woodchopper after that. Killed him with a piece of his own timber. Some say shot. Some say stabbed a hundred times and one.
   Posse went after the sumbitch, tracked him to a gold mine. Dead watchman, shot in the back. Maybe stabbed. Maybe hung with his own guts. His badge was gone, they’re sure of that. No. 896. Posse ranged out for 200 miles in search, but came up empty. Spent months on his trail, but by February 1911, called it quits.
   It didn’t stop folks from talkin'. Things went lips to ear to pen to paper and slow and sure, a Weird West legend was born. He was insane, he was possessed, he was wronged, he was smoke and mirrors. Police couldn’t solve their crimes, sure as hell no Indian crimes, so they’d cooked up a patsy.
   They say.
   Patsy nothin’, come the reply. Who else could possibly be responsible for all them cattle thefts, kidnappings and unsolved murders out here? No man could do all that by himself! Not unless he was the Devil come to life!
   And it just so happened, that’s what Queho was. So they say.
   In the years to come there was the blind man, the miners, the schoolteacher, all dead. The lawman, the rancher and Indian after Indian. All dead. All Queho. Children by the passel. Ate up, mutilated, shot up and stabbed. Parents'd tell their kids: “Straighten up, or Queho’s comin’ for ya!”.
   Years would go between sightings, but soon as a body showed up and no one standing over it covered in blood, it was Queho. Maude Douglas was found outside her cabin in 1919, blasted through with a shotgun. Young boy in her care said the husband did it, but that wasn’t quite possible, what with the Mad Indian’s ‘distinctive footprints’ all over the scene.
   Had a club foot, they say. Made him real easy to track. Strange how they never found him as a result, but that was likely due to his special powers. Mystical powers, they say. Queho would curse the land in his wake and made it treacherous for bounty killers to follow. For anyone to follow. 'The  Curse of Queho' was real enough, even if it was only words. Folks believed, and that was enough.
   Believed too, his life was worth a $3,000 reward. Up from a grand not long before, but after Mrs. Douglas, enough was enough. Police put down some dough, some private citizens, anything that’d help bring that monster to justice.
   A new posse come together then and set out to bring him in. Tracked Queho from the Douglas place into the Muddy Mountains. Through freezing rain and snow, they rode on for two hard months. Found two more bodies, too. Freshly mutilated. The work of Queho. Then two more, but gone down to bones. A pair of miners, lost years before. The work of Queho again.
   On they rode, but no Queho. They rode home, the glowing red eyes of Queho blazing into their backs from his mountain hideaway. Most likely.
   Last time anyone saw the man he was strolling down Fremont Street in Vegas in 1930. By the time police arrived, he was gone.
   Did they find him at last in 1940, digging up some old mine near the Colorado River? They seemed to think so, as the bones had a badge No. 896 right beside ‘em. Shotgun shells too, very same used on Maude Douglas. Of course, couldn’t bury the man right away. Brutal creature like that, no. So he was carted around like Elmer McCurdy himself and ended up in the Vegas Elks’ Club.
   Ol' Queho became the main attraction at the Elks 'Helldorado' celebrations for years after. Even rode in a convertible once, for one of the parades. Times went and changed though and come January 1962, the club wouldn’t have their reputation tarnished by such a garish display. So, off ol’ Queho went, into the local landfill.
   After that he ended up in some private collections, then the museum at the University of Nevada. 1975, a lawyer named Wiley stuck his nose in and got the man dug in proper. He’s at Cathedral Canyon now, out in his home state.
   So they say.
   Might be worth a look if you’re ever out that way.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: Elmer McCurdy, the Bionic Mummy

It’s said the Old West ended in 1912, when Arizona and New Mexico became states. No more West to be had. Well, still plenty of unexplored ground to cover, but the ‘frontier’ was conquered. No more swaggering ranchers, fierce miners, vicious robbers and bold lawmen blazing our path through a great wilderness. It was over.
For everyone that is, except Elmer McCurdy. He didn't intend to, but he saved a piece of the Old West and dragged it with him right on into the present day. Along with a hell of a lot of weird.
Elmer was born in 1880 and had a hard life that, coupled with his own nature, kept him from getting out in front of anything. He liked to make trouble and vex folks and pretty much kept that up to the day he was finally buried in 1979.
Maybe Elmer saw the West ending in 1911 when he took up robbing banks and trains. Maybe he thought himself one of those hard types that could make a name for himself. Maybe he was just greedy. He certainly wasn’t bright so I doubt he gave either much thought. Elmer liked explosives so that was his calling card when he worked a job. A little nitroglycerine, some terrible luck and a career was born.
He blew up more than he ever took, that is, when he was even in the right place. Last job he did he was on the wrong damn train altogether. October 4, 1911 he wasn’t on a Katy holding 400 grand, he was on a passenger deal with about 46 bucks. Elmer snatched it up though, along with 2 jugs of hooch and off he went, the law on his tail.
Most folks, that’d be the end of it. Hands up and come quietly.
Not for Elmer. Like I said, he liked to make trouble.
Two days later he got himself killed in a shootout and even then, wouldn’t let up. The man who embalmed him used a concoction full of arsenic that turned him into a mummy. Such a fine job it was, the man charged folks a nickel a gander, as they say. His own kids put Elmer on roller skates and chased each other around. Why not? No one ever came to claim ol’ Elmer, he might as well serve a purpose.
That is, until 1916, when two gents showed up with a wad of cash and stuck Elmer in their carnival. Elmer ended up in a tent as “The Outlaw Who Would Not Be Captured Alive.” From there, it was carnival to carnival, sideshow to sideshow. He sat in someone’s “Museum of Crime” alongside wax mannequins of Jesse James and Bill Doolin. He was the “Thousand Year Old Man” in a spookhouse, hanging there to give you a jolt as your little cart went by. “Dead Dope Fiend” was another honorific, sitting out in movie theater lobbies to accompany the run of an exploitation film.
Elmer saw one of the first cross-country marathons in the U.S., the set of the movie She Freaks, Mount Rushmore and ever more sideshows and carnivals as a zombie, ghoul or “Real Egyptian Mummy” until he wound up covered in a gloss of bright orange paint, hanging in another spookhouse in The Pikes, a Long Beach, CA amusement park.
It was 1976 by then and Elmer had so many titles on his roster, they’d forgotten who he was. Or even that he was. Far as anyone knew - he’d been so traveled and traded - he was just another wax mannequin. But he had two more titles to rack up. One was "Guest Star on an Episode of the Six Million Dollar Man" that was shooting at the park, and the other was "The Body of Former Outlaw and Nitroglycerine Enthusiast Elmer McCurdy".
The first would've gone off fine if a crewman on the shoot hadn't knocked poor Elmer's arm off between scenes. This led to the second. Because the crew saw bone there in that broken dummy and this led to cops, forensics and a whole big shebang about who he'd been and how in holy hell he'd wound up hanging in some fun park.
They worked it out, finding carnival ticket stubs and old coins in Elmer's mouth, then got on with the science and gave the ol' boy a ride back to Oklahoma. There, they held a nice procession with a few hundred folks in attendance and, just to be sure Elmer didn't get up to his old ways, dropped two feet of concrete on his grave. He's there still.
Or should be.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: A Brief History of Weird Western Fiction

   Quite honestly, there ain’t a whole lotta signposts or benchmarks or whatever you want to call ’em, for Weird Western literature before the 1970’s. Strange as hell, considering the Old West itself only ended about a hundred years ago. Since, Weird Western stories have been a slapdash affair, folks throwing this or that on the heap, rarely as a cause of their own and more like, “Hey, I like westerns, I like horror/sci-fi/fantasy, let’s toss a few thousand words off and see what happens.”
   Robert E. Howard. creator of Conan, Kull and a host of hard-faced gangsters, sailors and yep, boxers, got us started. The Horror from the Mound is considered the first Weird Western story, printed up in Weird Tales in 1932. It concerns a man named Brill, a haunted patch of land and hidden Spanish gold.
   It’s not Howard’s best, his love was for far-flung eras like with Conan and Kull, the swords clashing, the blood knee deep. But, whether he knew it or not, or even cared, he got the game going. Or at least, built the stadium. Problem was, no one else seemed interested in even walking on the field.
   You might say Max Brand drew up the blueprints. About a decade before, his MacDonald’s Dream in 1923 concerned ghosts and dreams but wasn’t committed to the idea of them as real. Brand dealt more in the eerie or ethereal – when he went that way in the west – and, like Howard and like Anonymous in 1939, attempted to anchor his story in a realistic framework, like it could actually happen. it wasn’t a ‘Weird Western’ so much as ‘A Weird thing that happened in the West’.
   The Anonymous I speak to is, of course, the fella who wrote Six-Gun Gorilla for the British magazine The Wizard. It’s just what it sounds like. And also what I say it is. That is to say, not nearly what it could be.
   See, no one yet took the weirdness of the Old West for granted. It wasn’t a place set in folk’s minds, with the blowing dust and big nothing hopeless and dead at the door. It was just the Old West still, and these stories were more like legends or tall tales.
   Wish I could say there was more afterward, year after year, inching us on our way, but there ain’t. Howard killed himself in 1936 and Max Brand – the only man might’ve kept things interesting – was killed in WWII. That left us with a lotta western-themed comics: cowboy heroes powered by ghosts or pretending to be ghosts and fighting old west crime. Weird, but not Weird Western. No grit in them tales, no framework of the Real West about them. More taking their cues from the idealized serials and films of the time, than anything.
   From about then on, nothing happened. Oh, this or that, we had TV shows like Wild Wild West, Spaghetti Westerns and Acid Western films (film took greater strides toward the genre those days than writers did) and novels like Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (more bizarre than weird, like the film Terror of Tiny Town) but still, no one played that game. Hell, no one knew the rules! That damn stadium just sat empty.
   Jonah Hex comics came along in 1972 and at least put up some decent lighting. Reminded folks there was a game to play. Some say he never was Weird Western, but not me. There’s no comic then or now more Weird West than Jonah Hex. That’s another thing entire, but there it is.
   After that, Brautigan’s Hawkline Monster popped up in 1974. Arguably a Weird Western, but it’d be a loud argument. Gives our stadium maybe a lone hot dog vendor, wandering around. Brautigan describes the book as ‘Southern Gothic’ and he’s right. But it is a bit weird. Gothics themselves are another animal, but at least related to the Weird Western. On their mom’s side, twice removed, through a damn bad marriage, but they are.
   Any rate, Hawkline does have Weird and it does take place in the West. It involves ghosts and mutations and strange disappearances, though the final cause of these happenings – while outlandish – comes to be fairly mundane in the reckoning of what constitutes a true Weird Western.
   Which brings us to the present day. Not ‘now’, but to 1978, when Stephen King’s short story The Gunslinger was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and served as, well, call it the first road sign to our Weird Western Arena. Yeah, it takes place in the future or maybe another universe (who knows, who cares) but it’s the West all over. And pretty goddamn Weird.
   After that, them big arc lights finally flashed on, (Spectros in 1981, the full Gunslinger novel in 1982) refs walked on the field (Burrough’s The Place of Dead Roads 1983, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian 1985) and finally, with Lansdale’s Dead in the West in 1986 (the man who would define the genre once and for all) the crowd began to stream in.
   The game, as they say, was on.

   Anyone interested in a free reading of “The Horror From the Mound”, it can be found by clicking HERE.

   And if there’s folks who don’t believe anyone came up with something as “Holy Shit!” as a Six-Gun Gorilla way back in 1939 (and in England, of all places) well there used to be a free e-book but all you can get now is the scanned PDFs by clicking HERE.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Soul of the Weird Western

   I love the Weird Western for the same way I enjoy a good ol' fashioned 'regular' western. They pit man against the land, against himself. An unknown land full of the unknown, makes a fine combination.
   I can damn near convince myself maybe the Old West had spooks and whatnot back then. Not like we have what you'd call real complete records of the time.
   Sure, we know how it went and what we get wrong with our TV and movies and all that but it's not a time I would say is documented end to end. Not like we have today. I enjoy the thought that a few things mighta slipped through the cracks.
   These days, you see the videos and the so-called 'evidence' of a ghost or creature, some picture someone doctored and a quick Google takes you plain to a site pointing out how they screwed themselves. How the picture didn't quite come out right or the video shows the strings or whatever to make that creature dance.
   The Old West though, it just might've had a few strange things in it. Things we'll never know because that was a big land and there was nothing but room to get lost in.
   So, writing about that, I feel like I'm telling some secret. Being all clever and showing folks a glimpse straight through this peach of a world, this Old West, right into its weird, unknown heart.
Shame then, the Weird West genre has become this catchall anyone can throw an idea into. Just having something weird go on in your story or movie you decide to set in the Old West don't make it a Weird Western.
   It's the difference between Weird Western and Weird 'in the West'. The latter is just some idea someone has they want married to the Old West. You could set it anywhere, but they have it in a cowboy town. Most zombie "weird westerns" you read are like this. Werewolves, Magicians, Vampires, all could be anywhere else but they chose the Old West. That's fine but we need a name for that stuff before it dilutes what scarce credibility the Weird Western genre still has.
   And it lacks the heft of a "real" genre for that sole reason. Because it's a shitbox, now. The redheaded stepchild of speculative literature. You need to spice up your terrible monster story? Throw it in the Old West. Makes it "gritty" makes it "real" makes it "distinct". Makes it goddamn annoying, is what it does. Now, if you say Weird West, where do people's minds go because of that shitboxing? To zombie cowboys. That image of the undead gunslinger, every time.
   We got him attached to this very post.
   It's compelling imagery, sure. But I took it in its true spirit. For what it symbolizes. The unknown. The mysterious and supernatural. I ain't saying zombies don't exist in a Weird Western, or can't. Hell, no, that's foolish. Course they can. And do. So can vampires and werewolves. But I'm talking about the nature of menace, that defines a Weird Western. Where that Unknown and Mysterious Evil comes from.
   The Weird West starts in the middle. When a Weird Western story begins, it's already weird. The world don't 'become' weird. It's already a place where your weird thing can happen. This weird thing is just another weird thing in a bushel full of 'em. No one fully understands it or believes their world went and turned "normal" after it was gone.
   Look to the Acid Western for a true idea of the nature of Weird Western-ness. The Shooting. Greaser's Palace. Those films give us weird with both hands and never look back. Spaghetti Westerns like Django Kill and Get Mean. Weird damn films. Real ethereal menace.
   See, of course a Weird Western has to have the Old West in it, that's a given. But the thing folks miss, the most important thing, is the 'unknown' or 'unsettling' quality of that menace. Ever see High Plains Drifter? Man strolls into town, might be a dead guy, might not be. Rallies the town against some very real bad guys but his means and methods are left to the imagination. You never really know where he came from or where he ends up. That's a Weird Western.
   Weird Westerns ooze a sense of otherworldliness through the seams. Their heroes are born out of mist and distance. Their goals are murky, their allegiances shift. When they blow into town, the town ain't blown. It knew he was coming all along. They just didn't know it was today.
   You never can quite get your head around the real villainy of a Weird Western. It might come from a magical item or another planet but what drives it, you don't know. The 'why' of it's unknown. Its heroes are unknown. Good and Evil for the sake of themselves.
   And when the Good heads out, will he be back? Does he sense when someone needs help or did everyone just catch him on the right day? And sure, that Evil is rid of, but it lingers. In a Weird Western, the West itself makes you wonder if it just might bring that Evil back.
   For spite, if nothing else.