Sixguns & Sorcery: The Weird Western

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One of the great things about fantasy fiction is that it mixes well. Fantasy elements can be added to most other types of fiction quite easily. Mix it with noirish mystery and you get urban fantasy. Stir it with science fiction and you get science fantasy. Splash it on romance and you get paranormal romance.

A personal favorite of mine is the Weird Western. There’s just something perfect about the combination of fantasy and the Wild West. Maybe it’s that frontier idea, pushing out into the wild wilderness, that seems ripe for the fantastical and unexplained. Or maybe it’s the collision of folklore and industrialization, law and chaos. Whatever the reason, it’s a great combination. 

Of course there are risks. The Western period was also a time of tragedy, particularly for America’s native population, who were pushed off of their lands and often became the victims of violence. It’s a fine line to walk, sometimes, especially with fantasy. It’s far too easy to enter magical negro territory (or more often in this case, magical natives or Chinese). Our ideas of the Wild West are filled with stereotypes and it’s something to avoid. The best Weird Westerns, of course do this. Here are five great examples of modern Weird Westerns to check out.


Territory

Emma Bull practically invented the urban fantasy genre with War for the Oaks, so it’s perhaps fitting that she would take a shot at mixing fantasy and westerns. I’ve talked about Territory before in this column, but it’s still a great example of the genre. Territory is set in Tombstone, Arizona, around the time of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral. While it includes all of the well-known figures from that famous showdown, it focuses on the enigmatic Jesse Fox and Mrs. Mildred Benjamin, a writer. Bull captures the feel of the western while injecting a wonderful sense of magic as well. As I mentioned last time, a sequel, Claim, is coming, but I haven’t seen a release date mentioned yet. 

Buy Territory from Amazon.com

 

Liminal States

I talked about Liminal States back in my Back to School post and it’s really more of a science fiction novel if we want to be strict about it, but the first part of the novel is about as Weird West as it gets. Gripping, well-described, and with some truly strange elements, Liminal States opens with Warren Groves, a lawman, and Gideon Long, a rich, bitter criminal, both of whom are in love with the same woman, Warren’s wife Annie. When Gideon’s attempt at a train robbery goes wrong, things start to spin out of control, pitting Gideon against Warren. But things take a turn for the weird when Gideon discovers a strange, abandoned Pueblo village out in the desert and the strange pool that it contains. The novel eventually leaves the Wild West to jump ahead in time, but the western parts are some of the best weird western fiction that I’ve read.

Buy Liminal States from Amazon.com

 

The Half-Made World

Felix Gilman’s take on the Wild West is the only one on this list that doesn’t take place in a version of our world. Gilman reimagines the Wild West where the western frontier isn’t just unexplored and wild, it’s actually unmade. Doctor Liv Alverhuysen, out East, takes an offer to to help cure soldiers traumatized in the war out West at the House of Dolorous. Also heading to the House of Dolorous is John Creedmore, an Agent of the Gun. The Gun is at war with the Line, a group focused on industrial developments, including trains and weapons. One of the more original works on this list. A sequel came out last year, The Rise of Ransom City.

Buy The Half-Made World from Amazon.com

 

The Sixth Gun

The Sixth Gun is a comic, but it embodies the concept of the weird western. The title refers to one of six guns, all with dark powers. Becky Montcrief inherits one from her grandfather, and people come looking for it. One of these men is Drake Sinclair, a gunfighter with a dark past. Also looking for it are the bearers of the other five guns, under the leadership of the resurrected General Oleander Hume. Cullen Bunn’s writing is spot-on here, and it brought him to the attention of Marvel Comics. Brian Hurtt’s artwork captures the look and feel of the period with plenty of detail to help give it life. If comics aren’t your thing, you can hopefully check out The Sixth Gun when it comes to television. NBC recently ordered a pilot to be made. 

Buy The Sixth Gun, Book 1: Cold Dead Fingers from Amazon.com

 

The Six-Gun Tarot

A recent release, The Six Gun Tarot is a sprawling story that centers on the town of Golgotha, a silver mining town that is a magnet for the strange and supernatural. Each chapter is named for a different card of the Tarot and jumps around visiting different characters and even different times (such as angels at the dawn of Creation). Young Jim Negrey comes to Golgotha fleeing the law, with a strange jade eye in his possession. He soon becomes caught up in the activities of the townsfolk, many of whom seem to be under the influence of something strange. He teams up with others in the town--the unkillable sheriff, the shapechanging deputy, and others, to help stop what’s happening.

Buy The Six-Gun Tarot (Golgotha) from Amazon.com


In addition to those listed, there are plenty more weird westerns out there. China Mieville’s Iron Council, for example, draws on the western genre. Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente is Snow White reimagined as a western. Weird Westerns also work as short stories as the work of Joe R. Lansdale proves. Here are a few (including one by yours truly):

Mr. Hadj’s Sunset Ride by Saladin Ahmed

Card Sharp by Rajan Khanna

Hangman by Erin Cashier

How do you feel about Weird Westerns? Love them? Hate them? What are some of the better ones you’ve seen or read?

Image of Iron Council (Bas-Lag)
Author: China Miéville
Price: $3.73
Publisher: Del Rey (2005)
Binding: Paperback, 576 pages
Image of Six-Gun Snow White
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Price:
Publisher: Subterranean (2013)
Binding: Hardcover, 168 pages
Rajan Khanna

Column by Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, is due to be released in October 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at Tor.com and LitReactor.com and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is www.rajankhanna.com and he tweets, @rajanyk.

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Comments

Frank Chapel's picture
Frank Chapel from California is reading Thomas Ligotti's works March 14, 2013 - 12:49pm

When I think of "weird western" i think of Wellman's Silver John character. That's not sci-fi at all but I'd definitely call it a "weird western."

The one I'd reccomend that does meet this articles definition is a graphic novel called "Ignition City."
Think of the popular Deadwood TV series, only in place of famous figures from that era you get analogues of Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon and others in their lost, twilight years, with a murder mystery to make it more interesting.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson March 14, 2013 - 12:56pm

I read this old Western called The Hawkline Monster a while back. It was def weird, and seems to have some sort of cultish following.

Half-made World and Liminal States both sound really cool.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words March 14, 2013 - 12:58pm

seems to me like this particular genre mashup is getting some attention. I really liked Liminal States and the Rise of Ransom City (the sequel to the Half-Made World). I think that Stephen King's Dark Tower/Gunsliger series qualifies (although truth be told, I've only read the first two books as well as the comics).

 

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words March 14, 2013 - 1:12pm

and Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day might qualify, being as his larger novels tend to incorporate the strange, and it definitely has a western bent to it.

Jeffrey Shanks's picture
Jeffrey Shanks March 14, 2013 - 3:10pm

Supernatural themes in Westerns are quite old, but the first true Weird Western in the modern sense was probably "The Horror from the Mound" by Robert E. Howard published in Weird Tales in 1932. It featured a gunslinger taking on a vampire. Howard wrote a good half a dozen or so Weird Westerns for the pulps and his works were an important influence on Joe R. Lansdale.

 

EdVaughn's picture
EdVaughn from Louisville, Ky is reading a whole bunch of different stuff March 14, 2013 - 6:08pm

Very cool. I've been wanting to get in to some Weird Westerns. I'll have to check these out.

Frank Chapel's picture
Frank Chapel from California is reading Thomas Ligotti's works March 14, 2013 - 6:48pm

I totally read this wrong, or got lost in my own train of thought. Wellman's Silver John series is a better example. Ignition City, is still a damn good read though.

And a writer named Norman Partridge used to mix witchcraft/western, that was the first I'd heard of the mixture. I never had a chance to read but one story though.