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.