Genrely Speaking: Weird Western

Boy oh boy we have not done this in a while. Long time readers know that genres are a thing that fascinate me, they are at once an attempt to codify stories and make discussing them easier and, at the same time, somewhat arbitrary groupings that carry different connotations among different people. For whatever reason the standards, exceptions and idiosyncrasies of genre classification entice me to think about stories through new lenses as I try and narrow down exactly what defines a story and its thematic content. Now all genres are broad categories and they tend to spawn a bunch of subgenres that narrow the scope to an extent, which for the purpose of Genrely Speaking are counted as regular genres rather than some beast of their own. A subgenre is almost narrow enough to be a useful tool for analysis rather than just a section in the library. 

That is, when it’s not just two genres pasted one on top of the other. 

Enter: The Weird Western. 

As the name implies this genre is built on a base of the Western. It has all the open horizons, independent lives and harsh consequences as that genre but it layers something… extra on top of that. That extra usually comes in the form of some kind of Space Opera or Low Fantasy (or, on rare occasions, some other Fantasy genre). On the one hand a Space Western can serve as a look at technology or social trends when they’re boiled down to just one or a handful of people surviving in harsh places. On the other a Fantasy Western takes many of the superstitions and traditions of the West and makes them real, living forces that the protagonists have to deal with on a daily basis. 

Given the many facets this broad genre can take I’m going to confine “weird western” to the realm of the second half of the blend, the Western with Low Fantasy, and refer to the first half as a Space Western. Note that this doesn’t rule out the Weird Space Western for the truly ambitious writer (see: Jack Irons, the Steel Cowboy.) Given this context, what are the pillars of the Weird Western? 

  1. Personification of the forces of change. This can take many forms, from clashes between Native American and European figures of myth to the personifications of railways directing expansion west to some kind of magical disaster driving people across the plains, some form of the supernatural will be involved in humanity’s move westward. This is true even if the Weird Western is set in some fictional world with no historical ties to the United States. One interpretation of this theme that I found particularly interesting was Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century, where zombies started slowly overrunning the West in a metaphor for the creeping dehumanization of mechanization. 
  2. Magic as a treasure to acquire. The West was a place where people grabbed for a great many things. Land, water, livestock, transportation and precious metals to name a few. While all of those things still hold value in most Weird Westerns most of the players in the story are more interested in magic, which serves as a stand in that simplifies and streamlines the many different conflicts of a traditional Western into something a modern audience can easily understand. As modern culture has moved away from the kinds of work that defined the Old West fights over pasture or farm land and the relentless expansion of the railways have lost some of their immediate impact. Many Americans today don’t even own their own property, much less property that they use to sustain themselves. They are more used to wealth and prosperity in the abstract, in terms of bank balance, investment and the like. Magic in a Weird Western typically serves as an analogy to these more familiar landmarks of prosperity and survival and frames the characters’ desires in a format modern readers instantly resonate with. 
  3. A focus on outsiders. While the Western has always had its love for characters from ‘outside’ communities, from the traveling gunfighter to the displaced veteran, they still tend to focus heavily on specific communities. High Noon, Shane and Tombstone all feature very, very local stories with mostly local casts adding maybe one or two outsiders to provide prospective or an audience vantage point. This makes the narrative a bit more grounded and lends the tale an air of believability (roving gunslingers were by far the exception in the West, after all). In Weird Westerns outsiders are often a much bigger part of the narrative, with large numbers of them roving the West in search of the things that make them powerful and effective. Or, on the flip side, the story may feature people who have been displaced from a quiet town or camp and forced into bigger, more mystical environments that they must then learn to survive in. This lends the Weird Western Genre a tendency to build casts of hunter gatherers, rather than farmers or miners. If not balanced properly it can undercut the Western feel of a story (see the novel A Few Souls More for an example of this). 

What are the weaknesses of the Weird Western? It combines two genres that have a limited appeal. The most popular flavors of fantasy are some kind of Modern or Urban Fantasy and High or Epic Fantasy while Western is a genre few people pay much attention to at all. The tropes and archetypes that define the genre just aren’t as immediate and appealing to most people as they used to be. 

The genre also runs a serious risk of doing too much to really excel at any one thing. Most Weird Westerns try to blend a magic system or two with building a realistic supernatural West, strong characters, historical events and real world cultures. They also need a good plot, the ability to write dialog that is at once snappy and somewhat archaic and a sense of the bittersweet nature of a vanishing frontier. The author needs to do all of these things while balancing them so neither half of the Weird/West balance overwhelms the other. It’s a hard genre to do well and not a lot of people will be excited even if you execute perfectly. 

What are the strengths of the Weird Western? Like many forms of fantasy it gives us the ability to examine difficult questions at a bit of a remove. But more than that, when done right it taps into a section of myth that is powerful and currently quite fresh and new to the modern mind. The West is also one of the best settings to juxtapose modern knowledge and understanding with the conflicts of might and right, civilization and nature. Many of the conflicts we face today are the same as were fought in the West, and with the supernatural to personify the clashing forces there’s much you can say quickly and easily in the Weird West. 

The biggest struggle in the Weird West is building a world that will hold both the supernatural and mundane human portions of the narrative. The West was a very specific place and time, as I’ve mentioned before, and you have to be careful how you introduce anything new to it if you wish to keep the defining elements of the Western present. It’s fun, for sure, but also a tricky challenge. There may be something to talk about there. Hm… maybe we’ll take a crack at that next week. 

Fantasy is Inescapable

One of the most common complaints a modern fantasist hears about his or her work is that fantasy stories are so incredibly trivial. By the same token every modern fantasist has written some kind of rebuttal to this notion. George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, each took up the standard in turn. Other authors, from bestsellers like George R.R. Martin and Stephen King to lesser known talents like Bill Willingham and Larry Correia, have donned the mantel and defended the fantastical in turn. While I’ve looked at the question of why we love fantasy myself, years ago, I’ve never thought about how to defend the fantastical tale if I had to justify its existence. 

Even now I’m not sure why people question fantasy. We’re surrounded by things that evoke wonder every day. Sunrise and sunset, birth and death, history and nature, all hint at deeper truths that underpin the world as we know it. Humanity’s response to these deep truths has always been the fantastic. From the earliest days of recorded civilization we have had a very sophisticated and story driven way of grappling with the portions of the world beyond our comprehension. 

From the beginning of recorded history the fantastic has come and gone in the stories we read. Gilgamesh fought and befriended Enkidu, the wild man, and together they slew the Bull of Heaven. Then Enkidu died and his death drove Gilgamesh to seek immortality. In a nutshell we see the contest of man versus nature, the cost of building a civilization and how it drives men to memorialize these sacrifices in the fabric of their culture. A sociologist or anthropologist could discuss these concepts in terms of numbers, pressures or psychological drives and add a great deal to the overall picture. But in a single fantasy the basic concepts are expounded on and laid bare to the casual listener in a way no other kind of discussion can. 

The English language is no stranger to fantastic stories either. From the early days of King Arthur’s legends to the plays of Shakespeare, fantastic characters have given voice to such abstract forces as the legitimacy of rulers, the forces of nature and the human drive for vengeance. Edgar Allen Poe transformed the influence of a hostile and overprotective father into a garden of poison that would slowly kill or warp those who lived in it. George MacDonald transformed the battle between good and evil in the human heart into the slow, horrific distortion of the human body. All of these were serious stories for sober minded men attempting to understand the world as it is. They left their marks, great and small, in our own understanding of the world. But all pale before the king. 

The most influential novel in the English language is undoubtedly Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s been parodied or homaged in every long running TV show or, in the old days, radio play. It’s been adapted to stage and film more than any other story in the Western canon. Everyone from Sir Patrick Stewart to the Muppets has taken a crack at it. And on a very fundamental level, A Christmas Carol is a fantasy. 

Ebenezer Scrooge is surrounded by ghosts. These specters embody any and every idea about the human condition you could want – greed, generosity, family, loneliness, regret, past, present, future, death, redemption and second chances. All of these things have faces and voices – or a lack thereof – that makes their impact on Scrooge felt with greater strength than millions of pages of academic prattle about these concepts ever could. In fact, millions of pages of thoughts on A Christmas Carol undoubtedly exist, but none of it comes close to equaling the thing itself. 

And this is a truth paralleled in Dickens’ tale itself. Scrooge understands all the fundamentals of Christmas from the first word of the book. But that simple understanding is insufficient. Ebeneezer understands Christmas but he cannot live it until he meets with it. And he hasn’t met Christmas in such a long time that it will take something fantastic – or, in the book’s own words, wondrous – to effect that meeting. This is why the first words of the book remind us of a simple fact: Marley was dead, to begin with. And later on Dickens reiterates this theme with the following words: 

“There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” 

The meeting of Scrooge and Marley, seven years after Marley’s death, was a wonder that opened the door for Christmas to meet Scrooge as well. And it was this meeting that would turn the grasping, clutching covetous old sinner into a man who could live Christmas all the year round. A transformation easy to miss in the mundane world but obvious  to all when it speaks to us through fantasy. 

A Christmas Carol is one of the first stories I can clearly remember my mother reading to me. It was the first play I saw live on the stage. And, perhaps because of this, I have never once had an issue with abstract ideas like generosity or regret wearing a human face and speaking its own mind. Add in a lot of reading of myth in high school and I’ve always assumed fantasy is an integral part of human culture. We need to hear the voices of progress and nature, heroism and despair, judgement and redemption. We need these things to be more than abstracts, we need them to walk among us and talk to us before we can truly come to grips with them, as Ebeneezer Scrooge did. If giving voice to those concepts, if giving them the power to make their will known, somehow classifies my stories as fantasies then that is what they must be. That is how humans are best equipped to hear them and that is how I want to tell them.