Saturday, July 16, 2011

Weird Westerns – A Fistful of Frightful Freak Shows and Creepy Critters

We call them “weird westerns.” Two words that conjure a wealth of images – blazing six-shooters and strange other-worldly creatures. Hollywood discovered the weird western long ago with films like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, a 1966 double-feature that made more money than you would expect. The fusion of genres is nothing new, but it is rarely handled well. Most of the films and literature that combine westerns with horror are simply not very interesting. But of course there are exceptions, and those exceptions are what interests me. I am naturally selective in my choice of weird western reading material. Over the years I have discovered some real gems and here is a partial listing of a few favorites.
By far my all-time favorite weird western collection is Dead Man’s Hand by Nancy A. Collins, the 2004 edition from Two Wolf Press. Dead Man’s Hand is a collection of five stories with an introduction by Joe Lansdale (more about Joe in a moment). The stories included in this collection are “Hell Come Sundown,” “Lynch,” “Walking Wolf,” “The Tortuga Hill Gang’s Last Ride,” and “Calaverada.” Collins has never been better and these stories are so damn good I re-read them at least once a year. Well known for her Sonja Blue vampire series, Nancy Collins has a strong fan base and is currently writing a supernatural series set in “Golgotham.” The first volume is titled Right Hand Magic. You should check that out, too.
Of course you’ve heard of Joe R. Lansdale. The master mojo storyteller lives in Texas and kicks ass. A long-time favorite of mine, Joe has done several notable weird westerns. Dead in the West was originally published in 1986 and has been reprinted several times. I understand that Joe has written a sequel. You can bet I’ll pick it up at some point. Featuring a character he calls The Reverend, Dead in the West is one of the best western-horror novels I’ve ever read. Equally appealing is The Magic Wagon with its now famous opening line: “Wild Bill Hickok, some years after he was dead, came to Mud Creek for a shoot-out of sorts.” Lansdale is outrageous, compelling and ultimately brilliant.
Tim Curran scares the hell out of me. The first book of his I read was Hive, a sequel to H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. His weird westerns include Skull Moon and Grim Riders but Skin Medicine is his masterpiece – so far. He tops himself with every book he publishes. Skin Medicine is a unique and creative fusion of horror and the western. There’s nothing like it on the market and that’s what makes Curran so good. Boy, this guy knocks ‘em dead every time, no pun intended. Curran is the type of writer that rookie writers should read to see how it’s done. He really is that good. Watch this blog for an overview of Curran’s novels coming soon.
Howard Hopkins writes outstanding traditional westerns for Robert Hale Publishers famed Black Horse Western imprint under the name Lance Howard. Pistolero is a non-traditional western and can only be described as a page-turner. Howard is a genius at creating memorable characters and unique plot lines. Pistolero is no exception. In this one Johnny Hickok sets out after a Jack-the Ripper style killer in the old west, and that’s when the fun begins. Howard’s other western-horror novels include The Dark Riders and Grimm. If you haven’t read anything by Howard Hopkins then Pistolero is the perfect place to begin.
The Blood Rider by Mark Tarrant is the first book in his “Blood and Spurs” series. This is a masculine knock ‘em down and stomp ‘em brawny supernatural pulp western. I loved it. I think Tarrant needs to write more and I’m eager to see his next book.

So there you have it – Nancy A. Collins, Joe R. Lansdale, Tim Curran, Howard Hopkins and Mark Tarrant. With inspiration like this its only natural that I would try my hand at a weird western. I’m 46,000 words into one and when it’s finished I’ll post the details on this blog. Meanwhile, I’ll see you along the bloody trail.

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