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What is a Weird Western?

My first novellas are now available on Amazon, and they exist in a category known as Weird Western. It's a cousin to the better known genres of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, and maybe the cousin that lives far away and doesn't get talked about much. It's also a genre with a history that is, as you'd assume, weird.

The origins of the genre most likely start with a short story by Robert E. Howard (he of Conan fame) called "The Horror from the Mound." It's a quick tale about a cowpuncher from Texas who notices the odd behavior of his Mexican neighbor, and incorrectly attributes it to superstition about a burial mound near his property. From there, things get weird and scary. It was published in 1932, and followed by other stories in the genre, such as 1939's The Circus of Dr. Lao, about a spooky traveling circus.

I find Weird Western as a genre fascinating partly because of how relatively recent it is. Fantasy stories date back thousands of years, in one form or another, from Arthurian legends to the Mahabharata to Beowulf to Greek Mythology. Horror similarly has its origins in oral traditions of scary stories, usually meant to frighten children, but has its literary lineage going back to 1765's Castle of Otranto. And while most people think of Mary Shelley's 1818 Frankenstein as the founding story of science fiction, the genre has roots going back even farther, with a story entitled "The Chemical Wedding" (or "The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz") being published in 1616.

But in order for the Weird Western genre to exist, the genre of Western first had to be established. In simple terms, Weird Westerns take the familiar elements of Westerns and mix in other elements. There's no limit to what can be added, really: zombies, aliens, robots, fanciful sci-fi gadgets, any or all of these can make an appearance. But the Western foundation, at least in my opinion, is essential to the genre. This is why I don't include something like Joss Whedon's Firefly under the Weird West umbrella. It blends sci-fi and western, certainly, but its approach is rooted more in the former than the latter, with western tropes being used to embellish or twist sci-fi elements, rather than the other way around.

And you may disagree with me there! The characters in Firefly rob a train, have shootouts and bar brawls, and brood about their failed military service, for heaven's sake. There's certainly a case to be made for it as a Weird Western. I'm not the arbiter, just a guy with a website and a bunch of words.

So what drew me to Weird West? There's something freeing about writing in this genre. I get to play in the Western space, with its rugged heroes and dangerous lands, while feeling free to change or abandon certain aspects. I can take liberties with who would be involved in my stories, assembling an unlikely team that would seem strange in a more "traditional" Western story.

And that's to say nothing of the joy of including zombies and monsters in my tales. It gives me lots of freedom within the vast world of the wild west.

Maybe the most famous example.

Over the next little while—however long it takes, I guess—I want to take closer looks at some famous Weird Western stories from the past. Some might be well-known and beloved, while others will be ones I'm only aware of because of my research into this project. But it should be a fun trip through a very weird world. Many of these stories show their age, with their writing styles and influences, and their cultural attitudes, but I'm excited to mine their depths and see what nuggets of gold (or maybe ghost rock!) I can dig up.

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