A relatively new sub-genre, weird west combines elements of a western with those of another genre, usually horror, fantasy or sci-fi. It is even more distinct than other combination genres because authors are usually able to incorporate both sets of elements, without having to deviate from either. The western is a very distinct genre, as it is often influenced by actual events. This is extended to the weird west, where a merger of fictional characters and real people happens frequently.
The sub-genre was officially categorized in the 1970s, but several stories that were published in pulp magazines contain a combination of the same types of elements. Some of the earliest include The Horror from the Mound and Old Garfield’s Heart written by Robert E. Howard and published in Weird Tales in 1932 and 1933 respectively. In the 1950s, Lon Williams also wrote a series about a deputy, Lee Winters, who had adventures that involved ghosts, sorcery and creatures from Greek mythology.
Like westerns, weird west stories feature many opposing forces such as: criminals and lawmen, natural and supernatural and good and evil. Westerns also takes place during a period when industrialisation was in its prime yet many people and entire communities, such as the Native Americans, had supernatural beliefs. These superstitions vs modernisation created the perfect contradictory background for the sub-genre.
Most of the towns that were in their prime during the Wild West era are now abandoned. Many of them had been known for rampant gun violence, harbouring outlaws, and promoting gambling and prostitution. The banging saloon doors, dilapidated buildings, and eerie sounds that are now the essence of these ghost towns, as well as the haunted mines and unmarked graves that surround many of them, create the perfect setting for a horror, fantasy or sci-fi combination.
Stephen King’s series, The Dark Tower, features a western scene in another realm. Roland, The Last Gunslinger, takes readers on an epic journey reminiscent of the Wild West and the feuds that used to occur, but with added magical elements making it a classic weird west novel.
Other authors incorporate various levels of magic in their stories, depending on what they are trying to convey to the reader. In some books, magic is a part of everyday life, while in others it only takes place occasionally.
S. Bletcher has created a world where supernatural meets western in his Golgotha series, which includes a sheriff with the mark of the noose around his neck and a half-human deputy. This series blends steampunk with western fantasy, and uses the abandoned mines outside the town as a major part of the plot.
Like magical elements, the supernatural is used by authors in varying degrees and is often mixed with magic to enhance the storyline.
While many westerns maintain simple plots, which are boosted by the elevated levels of violence they contain. The plots in weird west novels, however, tend to be complex with lots of action, intrigue and adventure. This combination keeps readers on the edge of their seat, as well as the customary violence from the western influence. Lawless societies continue to dominate, and many stories feature a single lawman endlessly trying to maintain the peace.
The western also often includes running away to begin a new life. This makes a large part of the western undertone about potential. Here are also many people that refuse traditional roles, such as Calamity Jane, creating the scene for those that stand out rather than fit in. The sub-genre adds to these features often creating elaborate conditions for characters’ growth and development.
In addition to that lawman with a never-ending amount of resilience, the typical western may include gunslingers, damsels in distress, and the occasional outlaw posse. Many authors create other characters to compliment these, or eliminate many of them altogether. The characters may also be based on real people such as Wyatt Earp, in Emma Bull’s Territory.
Guns are a key feature in any western. Stories in the weird west sub-genre enhance them by including futuristic and technological enhancements. Others may eliminate them altogether, and characters will use magical weapons that complement the plot instead.
TV and Film
TV series within the sub-genre have been popular since the 1960s when The Wild Wild West introduced audiences to science fiction in the Old West. Other series, such as The Twilight Zone, occasionally feature weird west episodes.
Films have also paired infamous cowboys with other well-known villains, such as Billy the Kid vs Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter both brought to the big screen in 1966.
Both Marvel and DC Comics published weird west stories. In Marvel Comics western characters, such as Two-Gun Kid, often battled costumed supervillains. DC Comics took a more horror approach to their weird west, with aliens and monsters attacking western towns and civilians.
Jonah Hex is one of the most enduring weird west comic characters. 19th century Hex was raised by a brutal father and then sold into slavery with the Apaches. After being betrayed several times by a brother in the tribe, Hex is branded as punishment and severely scarred for life. He becomes a bounty hunter, mixing his killing instincts with his need for good. All this while living in a world rich with supernatural and mystery.
Both readers and authors are craving new styles of writing, and the subgenre continues to flourish to meet these needs. The bolder the risk, the greater the reward, is a motto many writers have embraced making the weird western an integral part of modern storytelling.