WolfEye Studios' Weird West is coming soon, and has a setting familiar yet not wholly embraced in gaming. So we asked Weird Western and horror writer Christian D. Read to lead us down the red road to examine one hundred years of the horror cowboy genre. Read on for more...
The Western. The rider on horseback in the desert sun, instruments of death strapped to his waist. His eyes distant. A man like that… ghosts ride with him.
The vacquero. The hard man. Cowboy.
The cowboy means a lot of things to a lot of people. When they started out, recorded in the dime novels and story papers of the 1860s, they were just exciting tough guys. Slowly, they became unironic symbols of goodness, fighting off badmen and bushwhackers and, of course, Indians, to use the parlance. In the 1920s, they moved to film and were a staple of cinema, commoner than an underachieving superhero film is now. And so, they remained, up until the 1960s, where the spirit of the time was very much concerned with deconstructing the old.
"Romanticised loners riding an unending path in these picturesque backdrops, isolated from society, yet existing above it, ethereal like...”
Then came eccentric acid Westerns. Inspired by psychedelia, it was a strange genre that mixed in hippy bullshit while the revisionist Western tackled the complex legacy of the American nation’s activities on the frontier. It made room for women leads, native stories and widened the scope of the Western in an almost ironic sense. As a result of this expanding density of the genre, cowboys very quickly became morally complex figures. At the same time, the famous Italian ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, some of the best, had no problem in having absolute bastards, mentals and stone-cold killers as protagonists.
And more, of course. We think of Westerns as taking place in unforgiving, dangerous -- sometimes achingly beautiful -- terrain. Romanticised loners riding an unending path in these picturesque backdrops, isolated from society, yet existing above it, ethereal like.
Until here we are today, with the cowboy an international figure of masculine energy and ruggedness. A complex but often heroic idea. A romantic symbol of a time we know with our mind’s eye was dangerous and tragic, but we hope in our heart’s heart was real. Figures of almost myth.
And all that time, shadows have been following the cowboy.
The Black Muster
Now, gothic is just literature-nerd talk for ‘dark’. It’s how scholars talk about horror without having to sully themselves with a dirty povo-popular genre. It deals specifically with themes of death and sin and guilt and wickedness
Of Dust and Space Dust
Sometimes Weird Westerns include science fiction as an element. Often, as in Cherie Priests’s excellent zombie Western Boneshaker, this is called steampunk, in which the technological concerns of sci fi play out. Sometimes, as in 1981’s Outland and anime like Cowboy Bebop, themes and imagery from the Western rocket off into space. But weird fiction is supernatural fiction, and linked inextricably with the gothic, so the focus is on horror and not Mr Spock in leather chaps. We’re sad we can’t talk more about that image, too.
The literal becomes the metaphorical -- the werewolf the true face of savagery and the ghost a dead memory that will not be forgotten.
And given that most Westerns take place in the Victorian era and when the American mania for religion was taking root, you’ve also got the dreadful eye of the Good Lord watching for sin and doubt to destroy and pox the lax and weak. Mad preachers and creepy undertakers and snake oil salesmen -- all cleverness and theft.
A perfect match then, the Western and the horror story. Made *somewhere*. But probably not heaven.
The Western genre, then, is innately gothic. A world of murder and revenge, of lonely frontier towns in a land not your own, and a dangerous land at that. The buzzard waiting to pick your bones clean, the road agent looking to end your life for coins and the savage red man wanting to kill you, all because you stole his land, genocided his people and destroyed his culture.
Dread and death and sin is as the hee to the Western’s haw. Cowboys are good at being haunted; they deserve it. And we call this genre the Weird Western.
Tales From the (De)Range
The Weird Western takes the tropes of men living on stolen land, having fought a vicious civil war against each other, in lawless domains and complex politics with violence constantly present. And from there the thinking is ‘this genre could use some aliens and ghosts’.
Also, turns out cowboys are, well… emo.
"His take, however, ended up a story of an immortal race of sadistic necromancer cyborgs...”
The dime novels and the pulps liked Scooby Doo-style mysteries. ‘By gum, old man Withers done painted his cows white!’ and the like. But perhaps the first outright horror Weird Western was done by none other than Robert E. Howard. The dude who invented Conan. Howard, along with being mates with H.P Lovecraft, was mainly known for his homoerotically entrancing Cimerian barbarian, but he also wrote straight horror and historical stories as well as dabbling in the Weird Western. He also wrote about sports.
Published in Weird Tales in 1932, where modern horror basically started, The Horror From The Mound is a story of an ancient native burial site and conquistador vampire.
Lovecraft himself, when commissioned to write a ghost story, also based a legend of a headless ghost seen near a mound. His take, however, ended up a story of an immortal race of sadistic necromancer cyborgs -- there’s a reason he’s The Boss.
But then the genre in written form dropped off a bit after WWII.
Once Upon a Time in the Filmic West
Film had taken up the mantle, though. And in contrast to Lovecraft’s vision, the ‘Singin’ Cowboy’ Gene Autry, famous white hat idol, had his fictionalised self take on The Phantom Empire in 1925. A journey to a lost Atlantean-style civilisation that will make the accursed surface dweller pay. Autry saw off these time lost bastards and was yodelling by tea time.
"Youthful teens swearing and dancing and disrespecting elders was a common theme...”
For the next few years, entries were spotty or perhaps lost. (Film’s historical records are patchy, at best.) 1938 saw all-dwarf Western The Terror of Tiny Town, a cult curiosity, yes, but also very stupid. 1957 saw a deeply unwise entry into the very popular teenage delinquent phase of American cinema. Youthful teens swearing and dancing and disrespecting elders was a common theme, and Teenage Monster saw a teenage farmhand locked in a basement on account of some classic monsterism. You know, that old chestnut.
Then, 1959, Curse of the Undead by Universal came and presented a genuinely sinister gothic that is a personal favourite. The baleful black-clad Drake Robey, with none of the standard issue Dracula suite of powers, preys on a local township. Influenced by noir, if your brain isn’t blasted by MCU and modern Ridley Scott, make time to watch this underrated, slow burn classic.
A few years later the Famous Monsters branding came out and Curse was largely forgotten. Soon, parody and camp films like 1964’s Wrestling Women vs the Aztec Mummy, in which wrestling women fight an undead Aztec princess, took centre stage. 1965’s Billy the Kid vs Dracula, in which the venerable count is portrayed in his bat form by a spray-painted black tennis ball with what I’m sure is black cellophane paper for wings, came into unfortunate existence. Not a keeper.
The 60s also saw proto-steampunk TV show, The Wild Wild West. Remade in the 90s and not as good as Gen Xers remember and, of course, later a bafflingly terrible film, the show was a lighthearted romp about two secret agents who used gadgets to fight espionage. It’s perhaps best remembered for the four-foot tall diabolical genius, Miguelito Quixote Loveless, and his butcher, the absurdly sinister, Voltaire, played by the towering Richard Kier, who would go on to terrify Shooter McGavin and threaten Bond as ‘Jaws’.
Then Penny Dreadful had a few episodes in Season 3 that were a fevered mix of cowboy witches, werewolves and outrageously Freudian psychology. Lovely jubbly.
By the 70s, inspired by growth in the genre, perhaps the first artistically ambitious Weird Western was released with the Acid Western A Man Called Horse, which had demonstrated O-kee-pa, an ancient ceremony where a Sioux brave was suspended by hooks passed through his chest.
By 77 Bronson got his turn with White Buffalo. Based roughly on the hunt for the big white fish bastard, Moby Dick, Bronson must deal with the almost supernatural titular creature while, apparently, tripping his own balls utterly off. There’s a reason parodies of 70s directors focus on cocaine and insanity.
Sadly, the push didn’t last. By the 80s, cowboys were double plus uncool. But back over in books?
Workin’ the Ghost Railroad
Joe Landsdale, probably most famous now for Bubba Hotep, in which Elvis and JFK fight a cowboy Aztec mummy, filmed in 2002 by the incomparable Don Coscarelli and starring Bruce Campbell himself as the ageing King. Landsdale’s darkly funny and violent work often drew on supernatural elements, mostly in the burning heat of Texas. A few other standouts of ilk include Emma Bull’s Bone Dance and Territory. And The Merkabh Rider, which draws on elements of Jewish mysticism and the history of Jewish settlers.
"For expensive-bland nothing tops Cowboys Vs Aliens and the supernatural reboot of The Lone Ranger...”
Landsdale would eventually write two remarkable graphic novels with the scarred bounty hunter Jonah Hex. In his stories, Hex dealt with a hokum man turned sideshow Master of Ceremonies, and then those things from Tremors. This would be the basis for the 2010 Jonah Hex film, which saw a brief renaissance in the genre. Bone Tomahawk which is overrated and The Pale Door, a film clearly shot at someone’s house on mobile phones. For expensive-bland nothing tops Cowboys Vs Aliens and the supernatural reboot of The Lone Ranger, in which future cannibalism enthusiast Armie Hammer is bitten by a radioactive ghost or something. I dunno, I skipped it.
Really though, for now, the weird western film rests uneasily in the tomb. Sometimes it wakes for a full moon, but they’re more an oddity these days.
The Moonlit Trail
WolfEye's Weird West could herald a new wave of games set within the subgenre
The Weird Western Comes… Slowly
WolfEye isn’t the only stranger in town tryin’ to breathe life back into the Weird Western in games. Evil West, an on-the-nose shooter with bold visuals and bombastic stylings also has some husky things to say, while current Western mainstay, Red Dead Redemption 2, is still having its darker, weirder side unearthed more than two years on thanks to its many buried secrets.
And in case you missed it, 2020’s West of Dead can still scratch that itch, especially given its ever-replayable roguelite makeup, its Ron Perlman silky gravel and its stunning Mike Mignola-inspired visuals (and unashamed Ghost Rider love).
So as movies and novels were in a Weird West slump, games were growing as a valid place to find interesting Weird Western narratives. Westerns have always been a part of the gaming genre, with a release a year since the 70s. The first is the now semi mythical Oregon Trail, famous for morbid deaths and cutting edge gameplay. Custer’s Revenge is famous for being based around unfortunate sexual violence.
Possibly the first game with explicit Weird West horror elements is 94’s Alone In The Dark 3. A neo-Western supernatural detective sorts out a case of zombie cowboys. 95 saw the release of Silverload, the first proper cowboys Western game. With a wolf god causing problems, zombies and vampires and lycanthropes up to no good, it was utterly panned in the gaming press of the time. Then there was 97’s Blood. And it was next level. An FPS in which the player is a vampire gunman up against the Slavic god of darkness. In those early days of Doom clones, Blood stands out for a genuinely gothic landscape of strange technologies, graveyards, railyards and mines. New engines allowed manipulation of light and shadows, creating a bleak and eerie atmosphere. An underrated classic and the first really strong Weird Western game. It was followed up by a sequel taking place in the distant future of 2028 that was stupid.
In 2003, Wild Arms Alter Code F was released, showing an influence of the Weird West, taking the tropes and landscapes the Western lives in, and transposing that onto a fantasy world. That had been done in novels -- David Gemmel’s Jon Shannow, the Jerusalem Man wandered a magical apocalyptic America with guns and hat. The Dark Tower novels of Stephen King imagined much the same. But Wild Arms took the aesthetics of the JRPG, and it’s clearly an answer to then enormously popular Final Fantasy, and wedded that to the cowboy. It’s certainly a strange melange of influences and styles, but never rose to more than a curiosity, and more’s the pity. I’d fancy Western influenced fantasies more than the dreadful squee of BioWare.
"Death and hell stalk the land. Here, the towns take on the feeling of being remote and alone, prey for the supernatural...”
Then came Red Dead Revolver. A spiritual ancestor to the latter Red Dead games, 2004’s Revolver has no overt supernatural elements, despite the presence of the preposterously named ‘Shadow Wolf’ native character, but it is a gothic narrative make no mistake. A blasted tale of bounty hunters and a pair of legendary revolvers, a rare PC who is saddened by his own actions. Games are rarely good at melancholy, but Revolver is. With a protagonist who you weren’t entirely sure was the goodie and a West that was presented as a dangerous and treacherous land, sadly gameplay bugs and poorly implemented mechanics saw the game largely forgotten. Nevertheless, we were in the age of the PS2 and absolutely in a modern gaming era.
Next up was the sadly overlooked Darkwatch. A vampire cowboy, Jericho Cross is a sort of gunslinging Raziel from Soul Reaver, sworn to hunt bloodsucking bastards until he’s transformed into one by Lazarus Malkoth, the winner of the world’s flounciest vampire name this side of a World of Darkness LARP at a cravat factory. Jericho turned his big irons on seductive sirens, an apocalyptic plot and a landscape of dark and moonlit deserts, ancient labs and temples and haunted mines.
It would be wrong to say the 00s saw the Weird Western going large but there was a steady stream of colourful releases. There was the Wii’s neo-Western Red Steel 2, that combined a Wuxia feel with a cowboy vibe but really didn’t nail either. The cult classic Bizarro RPG Kingdom of Loathing produced West of Loathing, a sort of happily and purposefully eccentric take on the cowboy tale, and the odd XCOM-inspired Hard West, a turn-based game. Hard West broke away from the werewolves and vampires, and imagines its supernatural elements as more primal. Death and hell stalk the land. Here, the towns take on the feeling of being remote and alone, prey for the supernatural. Like the Souls games, lore was often communicated sparsely, allowing gamers to carefully piece together a story of nightmarish forces and human insignificance. There’s a particularly Tom Waits/Nick Cave devil running around.
And the last game of note is Undead Nightmare, standalone expansion for 2010’s spiritual sequel to Revolver, Red Dead Redemption. Based around a zombie plague narrative sweeping through the lands, and emphasising protecting territory, it didn’t offer much new conceptual ground to the Weird Western but was and still is wildly popular.
The Town Drunk Saw Somethin’
Meanwhile, the runt of the nerd litter, comics, has always had fun on skeletal horseback. In 1978, DC Comics published Weird Western Tales, which seems to have been the giver-of-names. It was an anthology comic, best known for the earlier-mentioned Jonah Hex, but also El Diablo, a man hit by lightning and blessed by a shaman, which seems greedy. The Lakota private detective Pow Wow Smith, a character simultaneously less, yet more, racist than you’d think. And my favourite, Bat Lash, a cowboy dandy who hated fighting and loved being asleep. There was also Cinnamon, the redheaded cowgirl. Yes, a woman. We’re aware the genre is a sausage party.
"El Diablo, a man hit by lightning and blessed by a shaman, which seems greedy...”
Later, Hex, Diablo and the rest formed a sort of cowpoke Justice League, who met time travelling capes with a regularity that would cause Doctor Who to spew off his stupid fez. But superheroes and cowboys don’t mix very well. They were perhaps best in The Justice Riders, the 2011 Elseworlds, where all the JLA are in spurs. Some of the characters work, like Wonder Woman and Hawkman, but the blood and death and horror that is Stetson Superman don’t mix.
In the Marvel/DC shared Amalgam Universe, Chamber, a mutant with the power of having exploded his own face off, was melded with Hex for some reason, in a comic that makes about as much sense as a marshmallow sex robot.
Legendary comics mag Heavy Metal published Tex Arcana in the 80s. The mag was famous for allowing drawings of big titty horror girls, and Arcana was no different. But it soon took itself seriously, moving yet again in the gothic horrors of vampires and sins. Then, of course, there’s Preacher, a neo-Western shot through with demons and vampires.
Even roleplaying games have been in on the Weird Western. The big one is Deadlands, a flamboyant cowboy Shadowrun. Malifaux has lashings of the genre in it’s lavishly monstrous Victorian setting. Even the big dog, D&D saw some 3e love with Owl Hoot Trail, a radical rethink of the fantasy as a Western setting and a criminally underrated one we wish would punch a fist up through its grave.
And that brings us up to the Second Year of Plague.
It’s going on 90 years since we first really saw the Weird Western and it seems oddly… insular, doesn’t it? There’s some standout attempts to be different, especially in the novels, but it returns over and over to the classic monster trilogy -- vampire, werewolf and zombie. So, there’s certainly room to grow. There’s loads of American folklore to draw on, from the strange folk magic of the apotropaic marked farmhouses of the Pennsylvania Dutch to the monstrous, yet politically progressive, Jersey Devil.
But also, we’ve got a stronger picture of who actually lived in the West, who the people were behind the fiction. Ex slaves of Yoruban heritage where vodou was born. The Chinese with soul-stealing wizard and hideous ghosts. The Scandinavians with their Jotun abominations. The Irish with the fey and one-eyed Balor. The Slavs with their shapeshifting dragon sorcery…
It would be good to see more women characters, because, yes, some dudes can enjoy women protagonists without our penis shrieking and running off like that thing in Alien. Promise that’s true. Also, because women writers, developers and showrunners might have some of those new ideas, new takes and new ways to approach the genre.
Will the Weird Western ever be popular? Probably not. A hundo years in and it’s never found a steady audience. It’s just too strange for sunshine types. They miss out on the haunted eerie tales of death, please give them a try and know what we know. Open the door. Come in.