Friday, January 20, 2017

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.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

LEGENDS OF THE WEIRD WEST: Mailbox Baseball in the Weird West

  I believe in aliens like I believe in spooks. I mean, we have to have a soul, look at us! The things we get up to and damn few of them are biologically important. Art, War, Fine French Cooking, we don’t need that stuff. We like it. It pleases us. It pleases the soul. Now, look up into that big black sky at night. Does something to the soul, too. And the brain, if you let it.
   A man can’t stare up at them stars and tell me things only worked out for us. One planet, one bunch of idiots, that’s it. Us. No, it’s too damn much up there. They say best evidence there’s intelligent life in the universe is none’s tried to reach us. I tend to agree. Because we are troublesome. But who’s to say aliens don’t have their own troubles? Troublemakers, say? Grab a ship, head out to the farthest reaches like I used to with my dad’s truck back on the farm. He had a ’56 Ford cab-over, loved that truck. We’d find a place to run out of gas, sit on the flatbed in back. Maybe a girl, some beer, maybe watch those stars. Maybe ride on the hood down the highway or bash a few mailboxes, we did that, too.
   So maybe aliens ain’t come down to shake hands. But nothing saying there ain’t been a few hotrodders out there who let too much of their daddy’s ship get away from ‘em. One goose of the gas pedal and they end up ass over teakettle in our neck of the woods. And what better place to do it than the Old West? Say, Aurora, Texas, 1897.
   Story goes, April 17 of that year, ship crashed on J.S. Proctor’s farm round about 6AM. Right into a windmill, tore up the ship, killed the poor fool inside. Story goes a lot of ways but it starts there. They got a look at the driver, pilot, whatever they thought of what he was, and concluded he was “not of this world”.
   Some even said Martian.
   So, being good Christian folk, they buried the body in the local cemetery, said their prayers (that’s part of it, they said they prayed for him), walked away from his unmarked grave and that was that. They have a sign in the town to this day, outside that cemetery, very official, saying this is where he is. Not exactly, but in that area. Little story about the crash carved in there, too.
   Naturally, reasonable folk can leave that alone. Or not, shit, reason’s a relative thing. Some might say Hell, not even worth considering. Some might not be ready to know if it’s true. Some still, sure it’s false and wanting to rub that in some faces.
   Me, I don’t care one way or the other and let’s just say it did. I like the thought. Old West is a perfect setting for an alien crash. It’s what makes the Weird West possible, stories like that. The blend of intractable frontier land and intractable universe. Lone cowboy on the prairie looks up at the sky, lone alien pilot screaming behind his joystick as he goes down in flames.
   We were exploring still, back then. Maybe they were, too. We were braving a frontier, maybe our neck of the galaxy is the alien’s version of that same thing. We’re the wild natives, dancin’ and hootin’ and scarin’ the hell out of ’em. Bein’ enlightened, they’d leave us alone.
   Like I said, aliens, if they can build ships, they’re smarter’n us. Enlightened and they wouldn’t dream of slumming with our kind. But their kids? See, that’s a different story.
Kids are troublemakers, no matter how far your race has come. This one hitting the windmill, probably stole the keys like I first did on that cab-over. I was 13, rode the hell out of that truck a good 2 miles before I hit the side of my uncle’s barn and tore out two fence posts. Substitute alien ship for Ford pickup and Earth for barn, I think it starts coming together.
   Grave’s unmarked because the kid jumped out the last second. After taking out a windmill, of course. His version of mailbox baseball. Said his sorries, begged the townsfolk to cover for him and off he went. Probably thought he’d have a damn good time down here. Why not? Earth in 1897 was a humdinger.
   William McKinley was President. We’d just invented Dos Equis. (And the aspirin to take for your hangover from it.) A man still carried an iron on his hip. He ranched cattle, mined for copper, walked outside at night and breathed the freshest damn air. We had cities too, but not as many. And not as big. There was a lot of open spaces between things. Lotta room for a kid to hide from his daddy for stealin’ that ship.
   I hid after them fence posts, believe it.

Friday, January 6, 2017

MYTHS OF THE WEIRD WEST: Cowboy Gods of the Apocalypse

Our friend Charles Skinner (Ghost Train No. 19, remember?) wrote a tale called Sacrifice of the Toltecs, rife with strange notions. When you're done here, give it a read in Myths & Legends of Our Own Land and you'll see what I mean. Loved the scene he set, though, so had to make it my own. It's got nothing to do with Toltecs now, it's just about the West.

And it how it got Weird.

   Centuries past, a Great Empire loomed over the endless desert wastes. Across Mexico and up into what is now Arizona and California. The entire southwest was their world, arenas and temples hunched against the pale, blue sky. They were a mighty people and much feared. Their enemies lurked at their ever-expanding boundary, swords and spears clutched in dark, trembling fists.
   Their king was a vain and pompous man, whose soul was only for his Gods, that they might deliver power and prosperity for all time. His coffers brimmed with an ocean of gold coins, his army stood bristling with weapons upon every ledge and parapet. The Empire’s men were fat and happy, the women were languid and scheming.
   It is no surprise then, they fell prey to luxuriant boredom and ruthless over-confidence. Often the sky rumbled black threats and the borders grew menacing shadows, but they would not abate. The king would merely take a young woman and shove her at the high priest, demanding the Gods be satisfied. The city would choke the temples in their lustful fury and bellow ecstatic cries as the blade was punched deep within the maiden’s heart.
   But the Gods would not be swayed. They owed their lives to the worship of this kingdom, true, but its anguished melancholy was now their own. They looked across the vast, blasted tracts of their own empire and sighed. The time had come to see if the Gods themselves had souls. They cast their eyes below and set to work.
   Then the whole earth shook and great fissures split the underworked fields. Lazy farmers sat up from their naps beneath the trees and gaped at the destruction. Cracks like forks of brutal lightning sliced through the city. Houses burst, shops crashed and the arena fell.
   The king pushed away his concubines and ran to the window. His city threw great clouds of dust and debris and the screams of the dead were deafening. He fled from his chamber and cried for the high priest.
   There was no time to prepare a maiden he knew, for the world would soon end. He grasped the robes of the high priest and pulled him close. “Go to my daughter’s chambers!” he roared, “Drag her to the temple!”
   No Gods could deny the loyalty of an empire willing to sacrifice its own lifeblood.
   Tears streaming, the princess kicked and spat as the robed minions of the high priest wrestled her out of the palace. Outside, chunks of rock tumbled, fires blazed and the dead littered the streets. A cry went up that the reservoir was next and all would be drowned. The high priest whipped his horses to a frenzy, the young woman held tight by his men in the back of the wagon.
   The temple pillars wobbled and fell as the holy retinue galloped inside. The altar stood high upon its dais, shivering in a shaft of sunlight where the ceiling had collapsed. Picking their way over the destruction, the priest pushed the princess onto the warm, black marble and fitted the chains to her wrists and ankles. She thrashed for his prayers and invocations and spit the wine he poured in her mouth.
   A wall of the temple fell outward, crushing a caravan fleeing down the street. Children screamed for their mothers. All was dust and smoke and the frantic silhouettes of the damned within. There was a great boom in the distance. A growl of throaty, raw thunder.
   The reservoir had burst.
   The holy man wiped the blade of his jade knife and kissed it. The princess screamed as it came down, grunting blood through her nose. Her eyes rolled in their sockets. The priest raised his hands to the sky then, palms together, calling upon the will of the Gods. The temple collapsed upon him.
   All was ash and darkness. The ground tore apart and shelves of rock sawed together, spewing magma and spires of flame. The reservoir surged in and swept all before it, carrying a froth of mud and bodies into a deep, grand, canyon that led to the bowels of the earth. For hours the empire was torn asunder amid fire and water and lashing rain.
   And the princess stood over it all, the edges of her spectral form wafting like ribbons. All the maidens past stood with her and they looked into the canyon as a waterfall of shattered stone and broken bodies tumbled over its rim. They greeted these souls as they were torn from the depths and soon, the entire Empire was watching itself die.
   Then the sky opened up and the princess led her people to the world beyond, empty of Gods and pettiness and fear.
   No survivors remained. Only a few foundations, only a few bones sticking up from the mud to ever know an entire world was no more. From now on, there would only be god souls and shadows. Only whispers to suggest the merest sense of far-flung kingdoms and their foolish notions.
   But it would be more than enough, to let men know they were indeed, in a weird land.