We’re heading west, the weird west, every Wednesday. Weird Western Wednesdays are devoted to the wonderful and often wild sub-genre of speculative fiction, weird westerns. Guest authors will contribute a posts discussing weird westerns.
Welcome K.G. Anderson to Pulp Reports.
Why spec fic writers fall in love with the West
by K.G. Anderson
Horror, fantasy, and time-travel set in the American West have been with us since the Golden Age of science fiction.
Imaginative writers are attracted to the West for exactly the same reasons they’re attracted to fantasy kingdoms, outer space, and the supernatural. The West offers wide open spaces where identities can be changed, fortunes can be made (mining, gambling, crime), and the environment favors the sorts of tough, eccentric characters readers find appealing. And there’s always plenty of action: conflict, pursuit, and extraordinarily scenic and challenging travel.
From an author’s viewpoint, the West is outer space without the radiation and the need for warp drive; it’s a ready-made fantasy without the need for complicated world building; it’s horror released from the confines of the haunted house or dark basement and set free to roam an environment filled with terrifying wildlife, poisonous plants, harsh environments, and a whole cast of unpleasant characters.
Thus the mash-ups seem endless: Time travel in the West (the Wild Wild West films and the Star Trek episode “A Fistful of Datas”); aliens in the West (Howard Waldrop’s “Night of the Cooters”); supernatural curses in the west; supernatural beings in the West, often drawing on Native American mythology (the chupacabra, the coyote, the crow); and, of course, Jack the Ripper (Savage).
While there are a few writers who take up residence in the Weird West (Joe R. Lansdale and Robert E. Howard did for while) a lot of folks (Emma Bull, Cat Valente, Stephen King) are just passing through town, adding their own indelible touches to the growing bookshelf of Weird West fiction.
But writer beware of the seductions of the Weird West: Just about any subgenre’s strengths can also quickly become its weaknesses.
Like the alternate history subgenre, the Weird West makes fierce demands on writers for procedural credibility. Or at least it should. Any number of promising Weird West stories get spoiled when writers fluff the details about guns, trains, patent medicines, clothes, and more.
Wolfsinger Press editor Cynthia Ward last year pointed out another pitfall of Weird West writing. She’d received a wave of submissions for a Weird West anthology in which the vast majority of the stories featured white, male protagonists. Ward asked writers to look beyond the traditional stereotypes and write about the other people who populated the West. The result of that second call, Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West, will be out later this year. (It was Ward’s post about the submissions that inspired me write “Escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse, following a Jewish mail-order bride and a golem into the West.)
Related to Ward’s call for diversity in Weird West fiction, it’s worth taking a look at what writers from outside the U.S. have done with Weird West tales and characters. Italian cartoonist Benito Jacovitti created the gunslinger Cocco Bill; the classic manga series Cowboy Bebop has a key female character (Faye Valentine in “Honky Tonk Women”) based on the Wild West figure Poker Alice.
The call of the Wild West is far-reaching and enduring. Who can resist?
K.G. Anderson is a Seattle writer whose day job is writing nonfiction for a wide range of technology companies. She has three short stories appearing in 2015, including the Weird West tale “Escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse” in Story Emporium (David B. Riley). Follow her @WriterWay on Twitter.