A figure silhouetted in a hat and dusty jacket bursts into a bar. Poker players and prostitutes scramble as the loner saunters in, steely eyes prepping for a showdown.
The scene is all too familiar in old western stories, along with iconic characters ranging from outlaws, gunslingers and law-keepers.
For better or worse, the stoic cowboy hero archetype helped set the foundation for some of today’s superheroes and modern American fiction.
But the Weird West genre offers a fresh take on the iconic—and sometimes overused—imagery and caricatures of the Old West.
In the deluge of today’s reboots and retellings, audiences hunger for original stories. Rather than another story romanticizing Wyatt Earp or the Lone Ranger (as fun as those can be), the Weird West offers a new frontier of exploration. Both readers and writers can tap into fresh perspectives and fantastical elements in a Old West that never fails to, in equal parts, inspire and terrify.
What is the “Weird West?”
Simply put, the Weird West genre mashes western elements with other genres ranging from horror, scifi and fantasy.
It has been around as long as the “old west” aesthetic itself.
Stories of werewolves, demons, zombies, ghosts, aliens, magic and otherworldly elements seem right at home amidst wild mountains, endless desert and a vast, unforgiving landscape.
“Set in the American West, or in a similar off-world environment, and written in the gritty yet descriptive language characteristic of the Western genre, what sets the Weird Western apart is the presence of supernatural and often mythic elements or forces. Mystic forces have long lurked in the background of Westerns, often embodied by nature or native forces; American tall tales and legends demonstrate this with their larger than life and otherworldly characters. In Weird Westerns, the supernatural emerges from the shadows and steps into the spotlight in the form of monsters, zombies and sorcerers.”Senior Librarian Tara Bannon Williamson in “Wanted, Dead or Alive or Undead: The Weird Wild West“
Where did the concept of the Weird West come from?
The term “Weird West” emerged in popular culture around the 1970s, when DC’s Weird Western Tales debuted.
Since, Weird West stories have appeared in popular culture in graphic novels, movies, TV shows and games, such as Deadlands, BraveStarr, The Goodbye Family, The Wild Wild West, Preacher; Jonah Hex, Cowboys & Aliens and Doomtown. Additionally, authors Joe R. Landsale and Stephen King have both made indelible marks early in this genre.
Despite the success of many of these tales, the Weird West has been a relatively unknown genre. Recently however, more writers and creators are embracing Weird West fiction and bringing a breadth of fresh perspectives.
What genre mashups make up the Weird West?
Weird West tales generally fall into the broad categories of horror, scifi and fantasy. Alternate history is also often seen in the Weird West (e.g., what if the Civil War outcome had turned out differently?).
The Weird West blends easily with horror elements, with a glut of stories centered on cursed lands, haunted mines and other unsettling backdrops.
Though far too many to name, several stories in the genre have stood the test of time. The adventures of anti-hero, hexslinger Jonah Hex is one prime example. Award-winning author Joe R. Lansdale has written prolifically in this area, and his novel, Dead in the West, is one of the classic tales of zombies in the Old West.
Deadlands: Ghostwalkers by New York Times bestseller Jonathan Maberry, tells the stories of monsters and mayhem in the setting of the well-known role-playing game (RPG). Other gruesome notables in this genre include The Crossings by Jack Ketchum and Shadow on the Sun by Richard Matheson.
Real-life reports of unidentified flying objects, alien bodies and strange creatures are plentiful in historic accounts of the American West. In addition to otherworldly sightings, many stories also fuse Old West aesthetics with fantastical steam inventions or pseudo-science gadgetry.
The subgenre of steampunk in particular frequently fuses science-themed elements and steam power to an Old West setting. Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear and Coilhunter by Dean F. Wilson are two of note, among many other fun and provoking tales.
Fantasy elements are prolific in the Weird West genre, fusing magic, myth and battles with evil in the Old West. A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files, The Territory by Emma Bull, Six-Gun Tarot by R. S. Belcher and the award-winning The Etched City by K.J. Bishop are prime examples.
Perhaps the most famous Weird West story is the Dark Tower saga by Stephen King. In this epic story, fantastical elements of all kind are woven into a masterwork of Weird West fiction unlike any others, all beginning with one of the most intriguing opening lines in modern fiction: “The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”
An Easy Death by New York Times Bestseller Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse series, features young gunslinging Lizbeth Rose in an alternative timeline of the Old West rife with magic, while Laura Anne Gilman’s Silver on the Road tells of a woman who goes to work for the devil west of the Mississippi. Six-Gun Snow White by Cat Valente is another novel that fuses Native American magic and spirits in an Old West-fairy tale mashup.
What else should I know about the Weird West?
Of course, any fan of westerns knows that the wild west isn’t all adventure and heroism, gunslinging and poker fights. The Old West was also “a vast landscape of cruel promise.”
For many, the allure of “the frontier” was the chance to reinvent one’s self and tap into new opportunity. But this appeal bumped up against the very real issues of isolation, disease, oppression and death. It was a time of turmoil, violence and change for anyone on those vast plains, deserts or mountain ranges.
The gold rush of the mid-19th century ushered in a massive wave of immigration from all over the world. Chinese workers, in particular, helped to create the foundation of the American West, such as building transcontinental railroads under brutal, deadly conditions and rampant racism. (For a fictional film take on this perspective, check out The Warrior on Netflix.)
Black Americans likewise faced relentless racism, and are largely erased from the heroic viewpoint in traditional Wild West portrayals, even though historians estimate that 1 in 4 cowboys were black.
Perhaps none suffered more than Indigenous peoples. Often portrayed as brutal, ignorant or otherwise villainous in traditional Wild West tales, Native Americans contended with the loss of their land and horrific, unthinkable massacres during a period of intense turmoil and violence.
The Old West has a long and bloody history often largely ignored in pop culture. Tales about this time period, weird or otherwise, can find meaningful ways to tell new stories about all of the players in this period.
“What is it about the American West that continues to inspire? There’s the romanticized notion of expansion, the simplistic morality of white hats and black hats, of cowboys vs. Indians. And there’s the post-modern Western that does not gloss over the era’s exploitation and violence; all the birth pains of a new nation. Then there is the Weird West, a genre-hopping category that uses a lot of the Western window-dressing—gunslingers, railroads, Pinkertons—and mashes them up with cosmic horror, alternate histories of American icons, and a vast landscape of cruel promise and harsh awe.”Theresa DeLucci – “Six-Guns and Strange Shooters: A Weird West Primer” on Tor.com
This contrast between the romanticized simplicity and real-world violence of the wild west only adds to the appeal of the Weird West. In fact, it makes some Weird West genres, like horror, all the more apt.
Hopefully this primer on the Weird West was informative. If you’re ready to dive into some reading, check out this list of where to start.