Nowadays, with the popularity of genres like science-fiction, fantasy and crime fiction, westerns seem quaint and old school at best, problematic at worst.
But, as in film, the western has been revived in newer and unconventional ways in recent years. There has been the rise in popularity of the “weird western,” a hybrid genre that blends elements of the traditional western (a lawless frontier, a hero fighting against all odds) with those of other types of fiction such as noir, mystery, horror and science-fiction (namely the alternate Victorian universe known as steampunk).
Kathleen Kent’s The Outcasts is one of many westerns featuring a strong female lead character, in this case Lucinda Carter, who is determined to start her life over after escaping a Texas brothel. But what makes the novel a weird — or, better, quirky — western is the odd array of characters that makes up the landscape (the Gulf Coast circa the 1870s): a stingy landlady, a rookie Texas Ranger and a serial killer, among others. The Outcasts is a gripping western novel that is also part-crime fiction and part-historical fiction.
In Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill, the wild frontier is a post-apocalyptic, post-human Earth that has become Martian in its barrenness. The robots have eradicated all human life and all artificial intelligence (AI) has been uploaded to a One World Intelligence — all AI except for that of a minority of rogue robots who simply will not give up their individuality. One resister, Brittle, roams through the new lawless frontier trying to maintain himself with parts from dying robots while making sense of the life he has led.
Noirish detective fiction, the supernatural and the sheriff-centred westerns all combine in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series (15 novels and 23 short stories). Harry Dresden is a private investigator/wizard in a present day Chicago inhabited by werewolves, demigods and ghosts — think of a combination of The Untouchables, Gunsmoke and Kolchak, the Night Stalker. Storm Front is the first book in the series and, in it, Dresden’s consulting business is down in the dumps until he is hired to investigate a double murder in Chicago’s mob underworld. The mob kingpin in this case turns out to be a rival master of black magic.
Likely the best known of the weird westerns, The Dark Tower series by Stephen King combines the western with elements of Tolkien-style fantasy novel as well as some science fiction. The series is seven books long, not counting a prequel novella, The Little Sisters of Eluria, and an interquel (Book 4.5) entitled The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole. The series arc has Roland Deschain, the last living member of the Gunslingers, searching for the Dark Tower, said to be the nexus of all universes. He eventually finds it in the last book and, once inside, makes a shocking discovery.
Red Country by Joe Abercrombie is a standalone novel set within the world of his First Law trilogy. This world combines the revenge-tale western with the age-of-exploration historical novel and the supernatural horror novel. In Red Country, a farmer named Shy South has just had her brother and sister abducted and her family house burned down. Thereafter, Shy and her stepfather, Lamb, set out on a long, strange, violent journey through the plains of the Far Country and up into unmapped mountain territory to recover her siblings. Along the way, Shy and Lamb are forced to confront their bloody pasts in order to find the strength to go on.
Steampunk author Cherie Priest began her Clockwork Century series with the novel Boneshaker. In Seattle in an alternate 19th century, Briar, the wife of a missing inventor, and her son search for his father’s whereabouts. Years earlier, Leviticus Blue had invented the Bone-Shaking Drill Engine for Russian prospectors to drill under the Alaskan ice fields for gold; while testing it in Seattle, Leviticus’ invention accidentally drills into a vein underground, which releases a poisonous gas, destroying a neighbourhood and killing its residents in the process. The area is walled off and Leviticus disappears. Briar and Zeke look to prove him innocent but before the truth is revealed, both face formidable obstacles.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy was published in 1985 and had little critical reaction at the time; 20 years later critics, and even Time magazine, praised as one the best literary works of the 20th century. Considered an “anti-Western,” the dark, hallucinatory novel is a strong critique of colonialism and, in particular, Manifest Destiny (in the U.S., the conquering of the American frontier and massacre of Indigenous peoples). The story takes place between 1849 and 1878 along the Texas-Mexico borderlands. The 14-year-old protagonist, referred to as The Kid (and later on as The Man), spends much of the novel following the notorious Glanton Gang, specifically its leader Judge Holden, on a long trail of nihilism and brutality. The journey is as much metaphysical as it is literal.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt is a black comedy in which two hitmen, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are paid by their boss, the Commodore, to kill a gold prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm. Easier said than done as the Sisters brothers get caught up in myriad misadventures on the way and, when they finally meet up with Warm, they decide instead to join him on his search for gold just outside of San Francisco. The Sisters Brothers was recently released as a film.
Rustle up some of these wild, weird westerns at your local library — if you can handle ’em.
A Good Read is a column by Tri-City librarians that is published on Wednesdays. Vanessa Colantonio works at Coquitlam Public Library.