A Journey into the Weird West

My father wasn’t a happy man; if anything, he was a miserable bastard. Few things brought a smile to his face: a pint or two of stout, a horse race or a cowboy film were about his only pleasures in life. On a Saturday afternoon, he come home from the pub, the aforementioned beers consumed, watch the horse racing, and then he’d settle in for one of the mainstream cowboy TV shows: Bonanza, High Chaparral, The Virginian, Branded, The Rifleman and Gunsmoke were amongst his favourites. Often we’d get a film thrown in for good measure. Once the racing was over, he’d strong-arm me onto his knee and we’d sit though whatever Westerns were on the idiot box.

Although there were some very good Westerns made in the 1960s and early 1970s, the BBC and ITV – the sole broadcasters in the UK at the time – didn’t show them. Instead of gritty violence, revenge and badly behaved self-serving individuals, we were dished up the bland, sanitised, moralistic garbage which the powers-that-be thought we needed … unless the victims were Indians, of course. They didn’t count. They could be butchered, raped and tortured, as long as the heroes and their families were in the chapel on Sunday, thanking the Lord for saving them from the savages.

I grew up with bland Westerns, but to be fair , I didn’t know they were bland. With no internet and very little in the way of communications, my circle of influence – like all of my peers – was school playground chat. We all watched the same films and were spoon-fed the same claptrap. It was only later in life we realised that not all Westerns were trips into the morally upstanding canyon of dogma.

As a teenager, I enjoyed discovering the world of Spaghetti Westerns, but once I’d seen most of them my interest in the genre waned. I became distracted by a whole host of other literature, films and art that I also didn’t know existed.

My writing has always presented me a problem, in that I don’t really know where to place it, genre-wise. The Devil’s Hairball, for example, was influenced by Voltaire’s Candide and Don Quixote by Cervantes, in that it’s a tale of an well-meaning idiot setting out on an impossible journey. I’m not claiming it to be anywhere in the class of those two classics, far from it. The point is the book combines bizarre and absurd themes, horror and comedy, but it does not fit in with any of those single genres. It’s not [pure horror, nor is it pure comedy nor pure bizarro.

During a bit of searching to try and find a suitable genre ‘pigeon hole’ for the novel, I stumbled across references to ‘Weird West’. I’d never heard of the genre at all, despite my interest in Westerns. Immediately, my interest was piqued.

Most people – normal people – would have investigated the genre, buying a few classic examples and immersing themselves in the world of the strange Western. At the time I was editing Hairball and planning a new novel, The Butcher’s Other Daughter. I tend to slow down my reading when editing or planning, because I don’t want other things to influence my thinking. Instead I made a mental note to revisit Weird West and all it entailed at a later time.

Before I could, the concept of the Weird West cropped up again, during a bout of insomnia. I found myself mulling over what I thought would be a Weird West story. The fact I’d never read anything from the genre meant I wasn’t constricted by expectations or conventions.

I ended up plotting out a novel, which should follow The Butcher’s Other Daughter. I also scribbled a few short stories, just to try and a get a flavour of … well, I didn’t know what I was trying to get a flavour of, because I still hadn’t read any examples. I did discover two things: I liked writing Western stories, and they seemed to willingly bend to my style.

Here’s the rub. After I’d finished planning the Western novel and put together a few short stories, I finally dipped my toe into the Weird West pool, and was somewhat surprised by what I found. By and large, it wasn’t what I expected.

My overwhelming impression was the stories tended to focus on two things: having a Western setting, and including another genre – werewolf, ghost, zombie, steampunk, romance, erotica, space wars, etc.. What was odd was few of the stories were Westerns. If anything, they were werewolf, ghost, zombie, steampunk, romance, erotica or space wars stories, uncomfortably shoe-horned into a Western setting.

Many of the stories focused on ensuring the reader knew the tale wasset in the Old West, with another genre at play. That seemed more important than telling a good story. It was almost as if the writers needed to establish their story ‘qualified’ to be considered as ‘Weird West’ at detriment of the story itself.

A look at submission guidelines for the few publications handling Weird West gives something of a clue. Guidelines tend to stress (and at times over-stress) that stories must be Western-based, with a crossover into another genre. If submissions don’t meet that brief, then the story isn’t Weird West.

Thus far, my journey into the Weird West has left me feeling like I’m riding through an artificial canyon of cliches. I will still write the novel, because I’ll enjoy doing it, and hopefully someone will enjoy reading it. However, I think I’ll distance it from the Weird West tag.

In the meantime, you can read one of my Western stories, a flash fiction piece, at Close to the Bone.


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