I’ve just started the second draft of what I’ve planned to be a series of novels set in No Man’s Land, a stretch of land now known as the Oklahoma Panhandle. But I didn’t want to go full cowboy on this one. I wanted something different. Something that better represented the blend of movies, games and books that have influenced me across the years.
So what does that look like? Let’s call it a western fantasy. No, not like that, you perv. Actually, I just Googled it and, turns out, it’s called Weird Western. You know, the kind that involves a gruff anti-hero who fights men and monsters both? I’ll throw in a wizard for good measure.
So when will I drop the details and reveal the cover? Probably when I write the damn thing. Jeez, get off my back. I’m already cranking out all this microfiction for y’all on a regular deadline that I only have myself to blame for!
Mental note: Don’t forget to use “y’all” in all the dialogue.
Because I love old stories and their evolution through time, I want to flip back the calendar pages to the days of the Wild West and pre-statehood Oklahoma to look at the origins of the Western genre.
Go West, Young Man
What made the Wild West so interesting to people? Let’s start with an exercise. When you think of the “Wild West,” what comes to mind? And where did it come from?
I bet the most common answer to that question involves a television or film screen. In the 1800s, however, the most likely culprit was the dime novel.
Dime novels were cheap and popular books that often embellished tales of adventure. The stories in these pulp novels ranged from gritty cowboys on the dusty trail to the legendary gunslingers in high-noon duels. Many times they featured real people, like Buffalo Bill, Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid (Bill must have been a popular boy’s name) and Calamity Jane, but in a romanticized form that shaped the mythological appeal of the Wild West.
These stories ─ coupled with Manifest Destiny, the vast natural resources and untapped potential of the West ─ drove people to seek new lives in lands beyond of the Mississippi River. By the late 1800s, after the Civil War was over and Texas sold most of the Great Plains to the United States government, the West was dying out and an anxiety to preserve its culture was growing among the now-Industrialized society. This spurred showmen like Buffalo Bill Cody to start his Wild West shows, which featured gunslingers, Mexican cowboys, Indian riders and dancers, Russian Cossacks, Japanese acrobats and aboriginal Australian performers.
*It’s worth mentioning here (and very important to remember in contemporary discussion) that these people were not the original settlers of the land. There was a large and diverse population of Indigenous people that lived here before white expansionists, like Spanish conquistadors and English explorers, devastated their ways of life.*
From Page to Screen
With the decline of dime novels and the rise of film came opportunities to revive the Western genre. In fact, the first film in the United States was The Great Train Robbery (1903). From those early years to the 1940s, Westerns reigned supreme and gave us exciting plots of revenge and redemption dispensed at the hands of such cowboy movie stars as the terribly racist John Wayne.
From there the genre evolved into several subgenres, with the most notable being classical westerns (The Magnificent Seven, The Man from Laramie), spaghetti westerns (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) and the contemporary western (No Country for Old Men). Each of the subgenres expanded the boundaries of the Western’s storytelling, which eventually came to include samurais, erotica (yeah, really), sci-fi and, like my upcoming novel, weird westerns.
Seriously, there are a hundred different subgenres and I recommended reading up more about samurai films and the history of the spaghetti western. Also, check out my post about The Mandalorian and it’s Western genre influences.
From Screen to Stream
Today, the Western still has life as a genre on your average streaming platform and are likely to show up in your queue. Netflix’s Godless (2017) is a recent and popular entry of the classical sort, which features a mining town caught up in a villain’s revenge against a former outlaw that stole from him. It’s fine. There’s also Yellowstone, Deadwood and several others.
Beyond the pure Western, the other subgenres are going strong. HBO’s Westworld (adapted from a Michael Crichton novel) is in its third season and blends futuristic AI with cowboys and gunslingers (although, it’s starting to move away from that setting). SYFY’s Wynonna Earp is a fantasy horror show! Thankfully, there’s plenty of source material for you to scour and find exactly what you’re looking.
Give Me More, Cowpoke
Behold, a list of Western (and Western adjacent) stuff that I’ve found creates some quality inspiration:
- Red Dead Redemption and Red Dead Redemption 2 (a little bit of everything)
- True Grit (novel) and True Grit (Coen Brothers’ film) (Classic / contemporary western)
- The Fistful of Dollars trilogy (spaghetti western)
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (weird western)
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (acid western)
- WestWorld (sci-fi western)
- Yojimbo (samurai film or “ramen western”)
- The Mandalorian (space western)
- Firefly (space western – RIP)
- Cowboy Bebop (space western anime)
Hopefully, within the next few months, I’ll have more to say about this upcoming novel series. Until then, enjoy some of these Western classics and contemporaries!