11 Totally Bizarre Takes On The Western Genre

The phrase "dead man's hand" refers to the poker hand held by the gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok when, in 1876, he was shot and killed by the coward Jack McCall.
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The phrase "dead man's hand" refers to the poker hand held by the gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok when, in 1876, he was shot and killed by the coward Jack McCall. There's little doubt that Hickok was playing cards at the time of his death, but what Wild Bill was actually holding seems to be open to some debate. Legend has it that Hickok's hand was comprised of black aces and eights (with the fifth card a mystery), but in some accounts it's jacks and tens, or other variations. I suppose the only way we could ever know for sure would be to ask the man himself by reanimating his corpse or traveling back in time... both of which are the kinds of things that can happen in the "weird western" tale.

Not to be confused with "space westerns" like Joss Whedon's beloved, cancelled-too-soon TV show Firefly, weird westerns generally take place right here on Earth, only the world we all know and love is just a little bit different: Like clockwork cowboys roam the frontier. Or 49ers head to California to mine for mana instead of gold. Or airships patrol the skies. In other words: Weird westerns are stories of the Old West infused with elements of science fiction, fantasy, or horror, and often with a little counterfactual twist thrown into the mix for good measure.

And that's the focus of my new anthology, Dead Man's Hand. It features 23 stories of the Old West with "weird" twists, including original stories by Hugh Howey, Seanan McGuire, Jonathan Maberry, Joe R. Lansdale, Kelley Armstrong, and many others.

My own inspirations for doing this anthology were many and varied, from the recent movie (and graphic novel) Cowboys and Aliens to Cullen Bunn's The Sixth Gun comic. I could go on and on listing my own favorite examples of the form, but I thought it would be more fun if I asked the contributors to the anthology to tell us a little bit about their favorite examples of the weird west instead.

Note that we decided to keep individual short stories off the list, to focus instead on longer works, though of course there are tons of great ones, like Howard Waldrop's "Night of the Cooters" and Norman Partridge's "Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu"--and before I edited Dead Man's Hand, I even published some myself. (Plus, Dead Man's Hand showcases 23 pieces of weird western short fiction--that should be plenty for now!)

So that's the game, pard. Pull up a chair, ante up, and I'll deal you in. The game's "Weird West," no limit, and everything's wild.

FICTION: Territory by Emma Bull (Tor Books)
Emma Bull's novel Territory is one of those books that is so good, everybody who has any interest at all in the subject matter should read it. It's a historical fantasy that concerns itself with The Matter of Tombstone, which is to say, the Earps, the Clantons, Doc Holliday, and John Ringo in the time leading up to the Gunfight one block over from the O.K. Corral--but does it largely from the perspective of the townsfolk who are trying to live and thrive while a range war fraught with sorcerous malice builds up all around them. It's a secret history--there's nothing in this book to give the lie to history as we know it; it just tells more of the story, as it were. And being Emma Bull, it's beautifully written and characterized, too. There's only one problem with Territory: the lack of a firm publication date for the sequel, Claim. More, please? --Elizabeth Bear

FILM: Back to the Future Part III, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Universal)
The finale of the trilogy finds Marty and Doc in the Wild West, where they figure out how to steampunk their DeLorean and learn more lessons about love and friendship. The film mashes up tropes from Westerns and science fiction to great effect, and by referencing Jules Verne, explicitly reminds us of the common origin of both genres in adventure stories. Who among us hasn't wanted to drive Doc and Clara's flying, rail-ignoring, time-leaping, steam locomotive? --Ken Liu

COMICS: Jonah Hex, created by John Albano & Tony DeZuniga (DC Comics)
Jonah Hex, when he debuted in 1971, was certainly not the first Weird Westerner to show up in comic books, but he has been one of the most enduring.

Hex is very much a man of his era; his origin winds through much of the American 19th Century and the myth of the Old West. He is raised by a brutal father, sold into slavery with the Apaches, and then betrayed by one of his new tribe. He later joins the Confederate army, but is torn by their support of slavery. In attempting to escape the war, he surrenders, but is tricked into betraying his former comrades, making him a fugitive.

This is nowhere near enough conflict for a good comic book origin, of course, so after escaping the Union Army he returns to his Apache tribe, but is betrayed again by the same brother warrior and ends up having a red-hot tomahawk pressed against his face, which causes the monstrous appearance he is later known for--one eye bulging, terrible scars on one side of his face, teeth visible through his cheek. He becomes a bounty hunter, but although he is a brutal killer, he still hews to his own code of honor, á la Philip Marlowe, John Shaft, Dirty Harry Callahan, and countless other American antiheroes.

And, of course, Jonah Hex represents not just the innate confusion of Man: the Creature Who Rationalizes, but particularly that of the 19th Century, the era when slavery and Manifest Destiny were the stages on which Americans tried to reconcile their schizophrenic vision. Hex isn't just divided by his conflicted participation in the Civil War; he's divided by his dual background as White Man and Native as well, and later as both Outlaw and Lawman. Hex isn't a man who symbolizes duality, he literally IS duality, as everything that makes him is in opposition to another important part of his character.

In a world of half-measures and relativity, Hex is about simplification, about finding your beliefs and sticking to them, no matter how ugly the results. --Tad Williams

FICTION: The Dark Tower by Stephen King (Penguin Books/Plume)
Stephen King infuses his novel series The Dark Tower not just with the archetypes of the old west to great effect, but by the time he's done, begins to weave in deeper mythology from a swathe of history using the frame of the stranger with no name. It's an amazing landscape. --Tobias S. Buckell

TV: The Wild Wild West, created by Michael Garrison (CBS Productions)
In the mid 1960s, Westerns were a standard feature on U.S. television, and James Bond--and secret agents in general--were huge. Networks must have thought: James Bond + Western = Ratings Bonanza! And, when The Wild Wild West debuted, that was more or less what happened. In order to provide villains for our heroes, James West and Artemus Gordon, to thrash, the writers created an unforgettable series of megalomaniacs, supervillains, deranged inventors, evil sorcerers, ninja warriors, invisible assassins, and the occasional giant ape. As gadgets and extreme technology were a feature of the secret agent movies of the period, these villains' arsenals bulged with earthquake machines, steam-powered tanks, clones, tidal-wave machines, flamethrowers, radio-controlled torpedoes, steam robots, and disembodied human brains. The series was canceled after four seasons, but it had some unanticipated side effects in the popular culture. The Wild Wild West set out to merge two different genres, and instead invented something new: a phenomenon now labeled "steampunk." --Walter Jon Williams

FICTION: The Work of Joe R. Lansdale (various publishers)
Joe Lansdale is the patron saint of weird westerns, complete with a ten-gallon halo and twin six-shooters labeled "Horror" and "Western." His short novel Dead in the West is one of the seminal works in the genre, and placing zombies in the Wild West was a match made in both Heaven and Hell. He's a horror veteran who also nails one of the key components of any good western--an authentic voice. And all with a healthy dose of humor. Saddle up with Deadman's Road which contains the complete text of Dead in the West along with other stories about the Reverend Jebediah Mercer. Or try Flaming Zeppelins which mixes real-life personalities like Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley with literary characters like Frankenstein's Monster and Captain Nemo. Not content to pioneer the weird western in only fiction, Lansdale later turned his attention to comics, creating some of the finest weird westerns in that medium as well with his run writing Jonah Hex. Simply put, a gunslinger of the highest order. --Rajan Khanna

VIDEO GAME: Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare (Rockstar Games)
The Wild West third-person shooter Red Dead Redemption is one of my favorite video games. The only thing that could make it better? Zombies, of course. In the "Undead Nightmare" DLC, the world of the main campaign, has been overrun with zombies, both human and animal. And for a mount, you can tame one of the Four Horses of the Apocalypse. It's great weird western fun. --Kelley Armstrong

FICTION: Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press)
Catherynne M. Valente's novella Six-Gun Snow White is one of those stories that can only come out of transformation. It's a purely American approach to a tale that predates the United States by a matter of centuries; it's a myth we all grew up with; it's a synthesis of the two, told by a storyteller who's spent her life recreating her own roots. It's beautiful. I'm normally a bit of a snob about my Snow White stories, and this one had all the hallmarks of a "no, thank you," but the combination of Catherynne Valente's prose and the ingenious approach to making the familiar new again won me over in no time at all. It's just beautiful. --Seanan McGuire

FILM: The Burrowers, directed by J.T. Petty (Blue Star Pictures)
2008's The Burrowers is firmly in the "weird west" category with what seems to be a straightforward western--rescue the kidnapped settlers from an unknown Indian tribe--with an odd/unnatural twist. But what makes this movie so effective for me isn't the weirdness of it, but the way it plays on the sense of intense and expected isolation of the characters--by distance, by language, by skin color--of that time period, and shapes their reactions to the threat. --Laura Anne Gilman

FICTION: The Work of Robert E. Howard (various publishers)
Robert E. Howard's Texas background bears considerable similarities to my own, including intellectual isolation. Literature was for him and me, like a life raft in a wide, deep ocean of cultural indifference. My style and his are considerably different, but the passion is the same.

Of Howard's work, my favorites are "Pigeons From Hell" and "The Horror From The Mound," the former being Southern Gothic, the latter Western horror. Much of my work has in one way or another sprang from these sources. In tribute to Howard, I wrote a pastiche of sorts, "The Redheaded Dead," an effort to duplicate his breakneck pace and earthy atmosphere. I hope I've done him justice. --Joe R. Lansdale

COMICS: Secret of San Saba, by Jack "Jaxon" Jackson (Kitchen Sink Press)
One of the single biggest influences on my work--and come to think of it, the person I dedicated the original script of Cowboys & Aliens to in 2001 (!)--was the great comics chronicler of Texas history, Jack "Jaxon" Jackson. He dabbled in weird fiction too, of the Western kind, including drawing an adaptation of Lansdale's Dead in the West in 1993.

But my absolute favorite is this rarity from 1989, Secret of San Saba, in which early conquistadors from early Texas discover an unearthly Lovecraftian horror beneath the sagebrush that poops gold. (Yes, really.) It's been out of print forever, like most of Jackson's work, so if you see it in some dusty bookstore shelf--grab it! --Fred Van Lente

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