Here we go! The first entry in our Weird Western history, starting with the story considered to be the first in the genre.
Robert E. Howard is probably most well known for his Conan the Cimmerian series of novels. This hardly-dressed pile of muscle and brutality chopped his way across dozens of fantastical lands, in tales written by scads of different authors. While they're often thought of as being fairly straightforward fantasy tales, Howard incorporated plenty of weird alongside the swords and sorcery. A notable example is "The Tower of the Elephant," in which Conan's quest for treasure leads him to discover a strange creature from across the stars.
Howard was a contemporary and friend of another pioneer of weird fiction, HP Lovecraft. In "The Horror From the Mound" Howard leans into the weird and macabre, maybe taking a cue from his old buddy HP, blending it with the already-popular Western fiction for a frightening new angle on both.
Something notable from the beginning of "The Horror From the Mound" is the protagonist Steve Brill's attitude toward the burial mound. He chides his Mexican neighbor Juan Lopez for being superstitious about the mound, avoiding it on his nightly walk home.
Anyone familiar with horror movies or novels is likely familiar with the well-used trope of the "Indian Burial Ground." It's an old chestnut; a cliché that gets subverted and lampshaded and joked about regularly in pop culture.
But Howard's story was published in 1932, and his main character already demonstrates a kind of cynicism about the concept. He accuses Lopez of being scared of ghosts, and reassures him that "them Indians been dead so long their ghosts 'ud be plumb wore out by now."
Nothing to worry about, Steve thinks. That's just superstition.
But then Lopez subverts the trope in a different way: "There have been more than Indians in this country. In the old times strange things happened here."
This was a surprising attitude to me. In some ways Lopez is a tired depiction of the uneducated savage and his irrational superstitions, a trope that I suspect is going to be much too present in some of these stories. But he also has a more nuanced view of the history of the American continent, compared to Steve's earlier insistence that pioneers "wrenched West Texas from the wilderness." Lopez understands that many other people have lived on these lands.
And of course Lopez turns out to be right! Steve, like an absolute dolt, decides that despite all of Lopez's efforts and fear, he's going to go ahead and dig into the mound anyway. There could be gold in there!
First, it's funny that Steve knows he is going to get the information he wants just a few hours, but instead decides to just hack into the mound with a pickaxe. He can't even sleep on it, once he decides that he needs to know what's in that mound! And he doesn't trust that helpful and reasonable Lopez, neither!
Second, the actual truth about the mound is very cool, and feels like a subversion of something that hadn't even been established yet. It feels ahead of its time and smart, and I like that.
Third, it sucks that Steve screws this up so very badly and still comes out on top. So badly. Just go to bed, Steve, you'll get the answer in the morning. Stop trying to dig for treasure in the dark. What a dummy. He blunders his way into a terrible situation, then blunders his way into surviving it.
Anyway, maybe give "The Horror From the Mound" a try! You might be surprised how well it holds up.