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 programmes: Bonanza, High Chaparral, The Virginian, Branded, The Rifleman and Gunsmoke were amongst his favourites. Once the racing was over, he’d strong-arm me onto his knee and we’d sit though whatever was on that Saturday.

On a Sunday he’d head back to the pub, returning for dinner, and afterwards it would be whatever Western film was on one of the three channels we had in those days. Although there were some very good Westerns made in the 1960s and early 1970s, the BBC and ITV didn’t show them. Instead of gritty violence, revenge and badly behaved self-serving individuals, we were served 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 wives and children 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 , we 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 is not singularly in any of those genres. During a bit of searching to try and find a suitable ‘pigeon hole’ for the novel, I stumbled across references to ‘Weird West’. Immediately, my interest was piqued.

Now, most people would have investigated the genre, sought out a few classic examples, purchased them and immersed 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, so I made a note to revisit Weird West when the time was right.

Of course, it ain’t that simple. During a bout of insomnia I found myself mulling over the idea of a Weird West story. The fact I’d never read anything from the genre actually made me feel less constricted by expectations or conventions. In fact, the word Weird was probably not helpful either. Everything I write has an edge of weirdness and darkness to it, so maybe I just needed to write a Western.

Since then I’ve plotted out a novel, which should follow The Butcher’s Other Daughter, which I’m hoping to have finished by mid-summer. I’ve also scratched up a few short stories, just to try and a get a flavour of … well, I didn’t know what, because I still hadn’t read any examples at that point. I discovered two things: I liked writing the stories, and I felt they were typical of my style.

Here’s the rub. After I’d done my planning and put together a few shorts, I dipped my toe into the Weird West pool, and I was somewhat surprised by what I found. By and large, it wasn’t what I expected. In fact, it wasn’t for me. I’m bound to be wrong, because I’m still feeling my way through the authors who set out their stall be write Weird West, but so far (albeit reading a few anthologies) my overwhelming impression is that the stories tend of overly focus on first and foremost having a Western setting, and then the second driving element of the story is to layer another genre – werewolf, ghost, zombie, steampunk, romance, erotica, space wars – on top.

A lot of the content seems to be focused on driving home the point the story is set in the Old West, with another genre at play, rather than telling the story. As a reader, I feel my ability to work out what’s going on has been ignored, and as a result many of the storylines are cliched or rushed. This is something I’m not aware of in other genres, where writers feel the need to establish their story ‘qualifies’ to be included, at times to the detriment of the core tale being told.

A look at the few publications handling Weird West gives something of a clue. Submission guidelines tend to stress (and at times over-stress) the point that stories should be Western-based, with a crossover into another genre. At times, they will list the genres that constitute Weird West. This isn’t the crossovers they are happy to consider, but what makes a story Weird West.

Thus far, my (admittedly limited) journey into the Weird West has left me feeling like I’m riding through an artificial canyon of cliches which exists for no other reason than a few publishers decreed it should. My concern is that whenever a small group of people dictate what does and does not constitute something, it’s often the first clue that its dying.

I will still write the novel I have planned, 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, unless any of you can point me towards some examples which will change my mind?

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

 

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