Monday, October 31, 2016

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 1

   To talk about Weird Western movies, I need to talk about all Western movies. And to talk about all westerns is to talk about Musical Westerns, Serial Westerns, Acid Westerns, Horror Westerns, Eurowesterns, Revisionist Westerns, Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu Westerns, Osterns, and Porno Westerns. Hell, even 3-D Westerns. Each of them, in their own way, weird. Damn sure that 3-D one.
   But, to know the Weird Western movie itself is to know the Western movie at large and to know that, you need to know just what the hell a Western actually is and how it came to be.
   Now, we all seen a ‘Western’. Bad guy rolls into town, the town trembles. The town bands together or a good guy shows up and evil is vanquished. Probably a girl in there too, maybe a wedding. Maybe a ranch being taken over. White hats and black, fistfights, someone plays guitar around a campfire. It’s in black and white if you don’t know a lot about the genre, or has John Wayne in it, if you know someone who does.
   However, when thinking of that classic story, the Duke or no, what you’re really thinking on is cowboy fiction. It got its start with James Fenimore Cooper in 1823 and his Leatherstocking Tales, featuring Natty Bumppo. Bumppo was an idealized character (based a bit on Daniel Boone) but he wasn’t some superhero. He was a good man though, always good and always did what was right. He was American through and through and to many, represented our bold, frontier spirit.
   That same spirit was present later with the first dime novels, (Malaeska, 1860, is the first) but their popularity soon took over and well, give the audience what they want. And then some. While the dimes were based on tales being told at the time, (of things that, on the surface, mostly happened) they soon embellished the facts something fierce. Folks ate that up.
   Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, dozens and dozens more, all got grand legends grown up  around them that – in many cases – stayed true well into the next century. Actually, the whole notion of the Big Figure, the Western Archetype, that sullen, sultry Lone Gunslinger (who didn’t ‘truly’ exist in the Old West) came from dime novels.
   Once the frontier was tamed, well, the pulp magazines started in 1900 and the western story wasn’t just for those out west no more. It went back east and soon, our whole country was reading about the brave men who’d claimed this country and shot and fought and rode their way into the history books.
   There were people still alive at the time who even knew these brave men, or knew people who did, who might’ve even been that type themselves, out there riding and roping and shooting once upon a time. In fact, some were still out there, living in the last of the frontier that wouldn’t officially be called ‘tame’ until 1912.
   Naturally, they’d make that all into a movie. Who wouldn’t pay to see that? The frontier was still fresh in our hearts and minds when the first silent pictures came out. Powdered faces, clean costumes, picture cards popping up for dialogue. Film was hand-cranked of course, and not too fluid, so the action was abrupt and stilted and horses ran around real damn fast. The word ‘gunslinger’ comes from one of those films in fact, Drag Harlan, in 1920 and got picked up by western writer Zane Grey, who popularized it.
   Well, any rate, when they got sound for their films in the mid-20’s, no more Tom Mix or Zorro or any of that. Instead, they went independent and producers started making serials. The first Weird Western (as most folks consider the genre) was The Phantom Empire in 1935. A hidden civilization of ‘Muranians’ is discovered by a singing cowboy (Gene Autry) and prevented from causing some chaos. Seems odd, we get a Weird Western that fast, but not when you think on just how it came to pass. 
   No one at the time was subverting the silent genre and taking westerns in some outlandish new direction. (Well, most, but we’re not there yet) Hell, the genre wasn’t 30 years old in film yet, (The Great Train Robbery is considered the first western, in 1903) so they were drawing on what was popular at the time. It was of course, the pulps, full of horror and science fiction and these provided an obvious source for those wanting to give folks the time-honored western film with some ‘contemporary’ punch.
   No one in fact, had any idea what a Weird Western was, much less a Weird Western film. But they’d take their cracks at it, sure enough. Not to create a new genre of course, but instead to preserve, or – as time went on – even destroy, an old one.

Friday, October 28, 2016

LEGENDS OF THE WEIRD WEST: El Muerto, The Headless Horseman

   As weird as things sometimes got in the Old West, it was full of some fairly sensible people. They had to be. Soldiers fighting off Indians, miners in the earth, ranchers trying to master their empires, regular folks in between scraping for jobs or a piece of fame or history. You had to be sensible, reasonable to survive.
   The West was unforgiving and didn’t truck with foolish ways. Let your attention wander in some fancy flight and that was that. The end of you. Crops, weather, locals – a man had enough to worry about without running into the dark jabbering like a fool.
   He hears howling on the wind, it needs to be coyotes. Sees shapes in the dark, it’s bandits or Indians. The world made sense and was a thing to be wrestled into place. Controlled, not controlled by. It was wood and water and what you could see. Not what might be. Whatever weird thoughts a man had about the wind or the dark, he kept them his own.
   Or tried to.
   Because when something like El Muerto, the Headless Horseman rides by, well, you can’t deny your eyes. When you can see him as simple as the tree on your own acre, there’s little else to do but start giving in. After all, if you can see it, it’s there. Reason says so. Even if what you’re seeing defies all reason. Then a man forgets about what he knows and starts to really wonder what he doesn’t. Oh, he can say it’s a prank. Foolishness. But the horse rides and the man on it bounces in the saddle like any other. And no one cuts off heads on a prank.
   Though in this case, it wasn’t for foolishness. Ironically, it was done for the same sensible reason men were out west to begin with. To wrestle it into place for reasonable, civilized folks.
See, the Texas Rangers were men’s men. Drinkin’, swearin’, livin’ in the saddle day in and out. Vicious men, too. They weren’t above beatings, hangings, even cutting folks up to make a point. Rustlers, bandits, Indians all knew what was waiting for ’em on the wrong side of Texas law. Didn’t seem to stem the tide, though.
   One day in 1850, two of them had enough of it. Creed Taylor and William “Big Foot” Wallace got an idea. They’d tracked a rustler named Vidal to his camp and were lying in wait. Vidal was an arrogant sort and had a high price on his head. Not the type to be frightened by his fellows hung off trees or left to rot in the desert. He’d proved that time after time with his villainy and had just done so again. But with this latest raid, snatching up a passel of horses from some settlements near the San Antonio River, he’d gotten a few off Creed’s ranch to boot.
   That did not sit well, for obvious reasons.
   So, the two Rangers decided to get creative. They rode in and put him down, him and his crew, then cut Vidal’s head clean off. Ol’ Big Foot propped him on the back of a mustang and lashed him in place, the head tied down right in front of him. Then they gave that horse a slap and off he rode. El Muerto: The Headless Horseman.
   Sightings of the strange rider soon cropped up, no doubt about that. El Muerto was seen by settler and Indian alike and word began to spread. Not about the corpse tied to a mustang, though. No, this was about the headless phantom spreading death and misfortune wherever it went. About the devil rider who ruled the South Texas wasteland.
   Makes a certain sense. No reason to fear the unknown when it gallops right up to you. At least you can keep your eye on it. Easier than thinking your fellow man had gone and cut off some fool’s head to keep your world spinning.
   When El Muerto was finally chased down by a posse, he had enough wear and tear (and arrows sticking out of him) to attest to the fear he had wrought during his terrible reign. Vidal was cut down from the horse’s saddle and buried in an unmarked grave.
   But that of course, wasn’t the end of it. To this day, people claim to see that dark spirit. A headless rider galloping across the desert, crying out “It’s mine, all miiiiiine!”
   The ghost of Vidal himself? Who could blame him? Maybe revenge, maybe he just rode so damn long he forgot how to stop. Maybe too, the land itself simply picked up where the Rangers left off.     Put its own man out there.
   Hell, why not?
   Reason is for fools. Weird is for the West.

Tuesday, October 25, 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.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

LEGENDS OF THE WEIRD WEST: Pirate Raiders of the Colorado

  Weird West has a lotta things buried under its sand, locked in its barns, roaming its mountains. Ghosts, UFOs, strange creatures and missing men. It's even got a mighty Spanish Galleon, laden with treasure and the hot, white bones of its plundering warders, glowing bright beneath the noonday sun.
    You heard me. Ships in the desert.
    In 1870, a man named Charley Clusker returned to civilization after some time and reported that yes, he had in fact found the Spanish Galleon sitting out there, aground in the Colorado Desert. Los Angeles Star reported it. He got his wagon stuck after a wrong turn he said, and had to come home.  He was going back again now, better prepared and was gonna be a very rich man. He left some time after November 12.
    Case you're not a geography buff, no, there ain't some desert in Colorado. Oh, sure, there's some little bits in the southwest corner and the one in Wyoming trickles down a bit up north but come on, now. No damn ship is gonna make it from the Pacific over to Colorado. That's just silly talk.
    Now, from the Gulf of California up to a bit of Sonoran Desert say, about 100 miles inland from San Diego known as the Colorado? Why the hell not? Charley says it was there, it was there. Shit, he found it twice. Maybe three times. Found it once and came back and said, 'I'm gonna find it again'. Went and did that, then came back a second time and said 'Yes, there she is. Be right back.' Maybe he did find it that third time. After his story in the paper December 1, 1870, no one knows. He disappeared.
   Was he just tempting fate (three times) on some half-ass local legend? Improper prepared, that desert will kill a man, no question. Charley was lucky with that stuck wagon the first time and the second, barely made it back after running out of supplies. Why a third go? Sure, people are stupid, but someone that dumb would be hard-pressed to find their way out of bed in the morning.
    Hell, maybe Charley was that dumb. Maybe just insane. Or maybe he was relying on the accounts of folks all saying, insisting, for years, either some Spanish Galleon, Viking Warship, the Pearl Ship of Juan De Iturbe, or even a boat from King Solomon's Navy wound up in the piece of the Sonoran they call the Colorado Desert, 100 miles east of San Diego.
    Were they all dumb and crazy? Could be. Little of both could take someone's mind right over in days when facts were a man's word and the world was just too damn big and untested not to always have a little something...weird waiting around every new corner. Man comes up and says he knows of a ship, sure, another man might believe him. Might even try to find it. Three times, though, who knows. If Charley had such bad luck or ill-plans, he was either dumb, crazy, or just so goddamn sure he knew where it was, he rushed it, figuring he'd be there and back in no time.
    And little as he probably knew it at the time, science backs Charley up plenty. See, that desert has a dent in it, called the Salton Sink. Today, it's called the Salton Sea, accidentally made back in 1905 when some fools from the government were trying to irrigate the area and it got away from them. Sink got flooded and here we are. Salton Sea. (More like a lake, though)
    This lake however, is an old thing. Going back at least three million years, that dent in the Colorado was filled many, many times with water. Whole Colorado Desert was. Over the eons, a push of silt and sand (a river delta) formed a barrier between the desert and the Gulf of California. The gulf went back to the ocean, the desert dried up and the Salton was either a sea/lake, or a big, dry dent, depending on the weather. Every 4, 500 years, it'd evaporate and fill back up.
    Now, the Colorado River is basically a big shoelace wadded up and dropped on the southwestern United States. It winds all over but trust me, it eventually runs into top of the Gulf of California. In fact, recently as 1922 (which killed 80-some folks on a capsized steamship), it ran into the Gulf in a big way. See, before we got our heads around that irrigation out there, the River and Gulf would smash up and make "tidal bores" that washed over the delta separating the Gulf from the desert.
    These days, we got millions of folks drawing the Colorado off into lakes and pumps and canals and machines and there's no 'oomph' left in the old girl by the time she gets to the Gulf. But back in Spanish days? Oh, certainly. Spanish were all over that place sniffing around. Maybe the galleon had a map and were feeling brave. Maybe they were lost. Maybe it was weather. One way or the other, they just might've ended up in a bore and found themselves up over the coast of California and dropped down into a filled Sink.
    Wouldn't fill much. Enough to set 'em down and realize they were skunked. Not enough to accommodate the draft of a big ship like that so they'd sit in the shallow, feeling the ship settle more and more into the mud beneath. They'd look back at the high wall of that delta, then on out upon the water seeping, seeping away into the desert beyond and eventually...
    Hell, who knows. I don't know. No one knows.
    Except Charley.

Wednesday, October 12, 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.