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.


  1. Really interesting and informative article/post. You've solidified my understanding of the Weird West horror sub-genre. Although that may not be an accurate way of classifying it. Please feel free to clarify!

    1. Well, Weird West is its own thing. The Western part is already Weird when the story starts. So if you got a Western story and then tack on some horror or sci-fi elements, that's more a mashup since when the story ends, the world generally goes back to making sense. If you got sci-fi or horror or supernatural elements in your Weird West story, the world is somewhat defined by them elements already and when the story ends, their presence adds to the world around it. They don't just go away and in fact, end up making the world weirder.