Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Weird Western Halloween: An Introduction

Ah the Western, the piece of American cultural myth that is almost completely lost to us today.  What does it have to with Halloween?
Well this season I propose to explore it and maybe we can come to a consensus on the subject.  Reckon we better git started if we're gonna make any progress at all.  Saddle up, and let's hit the trail, pards.
VHS box art for Ghost Town (1988 Empire Pictures)

The Western genre was once amazingly popular in American culture.  Westerns were prominent in early television and radio programs and definitely popular in film.  In some ways this is probably because the Old West wasn't yet that old.  We can say that the Wild West, the Old West, ends shortly into the 20th century.  The West was America's Frontier.  A frontier is the region of your nation that is not yet "civilized", or tamed and the region just beyond it.  It is the wilderness, full of danger and promise.  By the early 20th century with railroads and automobiles, the loss of aboriginal lands and finally airplanes we'd conquered the frontier.  A frontier no more.  This is not to say that the American landscape was one big paved road flanked by suburbs.  Indeed in rural areas all over the nation even as late as the 1950s there were families living on homesteads without indoor plumbing, without televisions, and certainly without HVAC.  The Old West just wasn't that old yet.  Cowboys were a popular topic for genre works and shows such as Rawhide (1959-1965), Gunsmoke (1955-1975), Bonanza (1959-1973), Death Valley Days (1952-1970), and Wagon Train (1957-1965), to name a few, where beloved by young and old alike.  Some shows, like Gunsmoke, had started out as radio programs, and there were several Western genre radio programs that never made the transition as well.  Need I even mention the Lone Ranger?  An intellectual property that was found in film, radio, television, cartoons, and comics.

In the world of print the cowboy or western was popular in comics books, themselves an outgrowth of pulp magazines featuring stories of adventure, mystery and imagination.  I cannot even begin to list even a fraction of the many western titles that have come and gone since the 1930s.  Before astronauts the American kids had cowboys as heroes.  Before (and after) Kal-L rocketed from doomed Krypton to become Earth's Superman, there were a slew of often interchangeable cowboy and gunfighter heroes for the kids to read.


It all starts with the Dime Novel.  Well, really it all starts with the folktale, but the Western really comes into prominence when oral culture gives way to print.  Similar to the Penny Dreadful, the Dime Novel was a relatively cheap (in both cost and quality) fictional novel marked by lurid tales of melodrama.  The West was one of many such genres of Dime Novel, but it had a great appeal to people back East.  Past the Mississippi, where the Frontier began the world was unknown, harsh, untamed and violent, and stories of the men and women who tamed it by blows and force of will made for exciting reading to an urban population.  Of course the Frontier wasn't really as lawless as the stories made it seem, but nobody wants to read boring stories about digging wells and building cabins.  The late 1880s saw the rise of Wild West Shows (Buffalo Bill Cody's signature show being the best known today...Cody even toured Europe and received much acclaim from the Royal Family of England), and these served in no small part to paint a colorful, if wildly inaccurate (or at least hyperbolic and apocryphal) picture of life on the Frontier for the tenderfoot Eastern audiences.  Even while the West was still being won, the legendary West, the Wild West, was a popular subject for fiction.  From the Dime Novels came the Pulps, magazines full of adventure, spies, detectives, and not a little sex (tame by modern standards) and from this, indeed from the publishing houses themselves, came comics.  It was only natural that comics would feature a plethora of westerns.
Women Outlaws #1 (1948) case you wondered what sparked the creation of the Comics Code.
The media tie-in is nothing new either.  Famous television and film cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers (and that Lone Ranger we mentioned earlier) would be the heroes of comic books as well, often featuring photographic covers but fully drawn insides.  The stories were simple to write and easy to read; naturally kids (and some adults) ate them up.  A western was often the easiest of movies to film as the natural features of desert were considered the ideal backdrop.  For plot a studio needed only some rustlers, train robbers, or bank robbers and a hero or two and the story was practically told.  Throw in some savage Indians and it was as easy as pie to knock out a Western picture for the crowds.  A proven genre, easy to film, the money guaranteed it would work.  As noted above, the Old/Wild West really wasn't that long ago either.  People could drive along Route 66 and see the desert, still largely empty of civilization and feel the pioneer spirit if they were so inclined.

In terms of genre the Western married well with action/drama and comedy, but could sometimes cross over into science fiction or even occasionally ghost stories.  After all, what is a campfire tale without a little spooky subject matter as the coyotes howl on the lone prairie?  Yet what was the Western, really?  It was myth.  It was the American Myth.
The word myth is often maligned, used as a pejorative for something that is untrue.  This is a disservice to the word and concept.  Myths aren't just stories.  Myths are stories that serve a purpose.  They explain beliefs, customs, ideals, and are culturally relative.  Just because they are proved to not be the reason for something in a purely scientific sense, does not destroy their value; they still serve cultural purposes.  Legends are similar to myths in that legends tell a culture a story that has relevance to it.  Ultimately both words derive from Greek words (mythos-a tale or story; legein-to say) and show us the importance of stories to a culture, indeed to the human psyche.  The Western is our American myth of how we formed our great nation out of a rough frontier.  It tells stories of rugged individuals standing up against threats to forge the American ideal.  Yeah, in a way its all bullshit, but nobody wants the truth.  Truth is ugly.


Which brings us to today and what all this has to do with Halloween.
In 1935 singing cowboy Gene Autry starred in The Phantom Empire, a serial about his cowboy, Gene Autry (played by Gene Autry) who sings and runs a dude ranch (so a contemporary Western) and ends up clashing with an underground empire that has ray guns and robots and all and was the remains of an ancient pre-Ice Age civilization.  Was that sci-fi or western?
It was both.  Genre crossover is nothing new.  Pulp magazines, which featured some of the early pre-Sputnik science fiction, even the work of E.A. Poe, these things worked in the fantastic and before the Fantasy genre became all dragons and elves and shite that meant things that were fantastic.  Genre crossover was long a common thing.  The true origins of the Weird Western are lost in the pulpy pages of the past, but today we know it is a genre wherein the Western is combined with some other genre, typically fantasy, sci-fi and horror or where the Western provides the trappings for one of these fantastic genres.  We could argue that the Western always had this potential anyway.  Like I said, campfire tales are no doubt places for a good ghost story and the West had just as many spooky locations and ghost tales as any other.  Where people gather the supernatural is never far behind.  Weird Westerns also easily cross over to Steampunk, indeed the line is often quite blurry, given that Steampunk defaults to the Victorian Era which is the same time as America was having its Wild West.
the Ghost Rider #2 (1949).  Covers like this promised more than the usual rustlers and robbers western fare for a public that had seen a man from Krypton fly.

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993-94), The Wild Wild West (1965-69), DC's Weird Western Tales (1972-1980), the Ghost Rider (Magazine Enterprises, 1949, later used by Marvel as Phantom Rider), are some examples of the Weird Western.  The PEGinc RPG Deadlands, the "spaghetti western with meat" is the ultimate example of the genre when all possible weird derivations are included.

If you can combine monsters, vampires, aliens, sorcery and ghosts (and maybe a little Lovecraftian cosmic horror) with a cowboy, you have a weird western on your hands.  The horror western sub-genre of the weird western is ideal for Halloween-time.

That's what we are going to explore this season.  The Weird Western in all its Weird Spooky Glory.

Saddle up, pards, we got pumpkins to light!


  1. Interesting comparison between two genres we don't often see together. I remember the Western Ghost Rider. I read one single story of the comics, but it had a strong impression on my mind.

    Two other elements of comparison that come to my mind: Quincey P. Morris in Dracula is a Texan and very much a cowboy that would fit any Western and The Missing is a movie mixing both genres (with the amazing Cate Blanchett).

    1. A most excellent observation, mon ami, and one I had completely forgotten as I wrote the piece. I am speaking of Quincy Morris, the lone Texan in Stoker's "Dracula", of course. You have underscored a very important point, which is that the eras of the American Old West and Victoria are the same time. I assume this accounts for much of the Steampunk aesthetic as well.
      Thank you for your visit and comments.

    2. My pleasure. I am big fan of Dracula, so when I think of cowboys in horror stories, I think of Quincey Morris.