“The funeral procession made their way out of town and up the slight incline towards the boneyard. The boy’s father, older brother, uncle and two cousins lugged his casket, faces cast downward. The preacher clutched his bible and hummed Amazing Grace. The womenfolk wept and the menfolk clutched their hats tightly against their chests . Dusk fell, turning the sky a deep, dark blue. Wooden crosses and name markers rose up to greet them as they made their way to the open grave, dug that very afternoon. The wasting-away disease that took the boy had worked fast, bringing him down in less than two days.
The pallbearers set the coffin down beside the grave and began tying on the lowering ropes. The boy’s mother wailed with anguish and was answered by the lonely screech of a nightbird. The preacher began his holy rolling, spinning yarns about pearly gates, still waters and eternal life in heaven. He told them the boy would be reborn in the blood of Christ and would rise to claim his unending reward.
He wasn’t wrong either. It just happened a lot quicker than anyone expected.
With shadows sweeping across the low hill, a knocking sound came from inside the coffin. It was faint at first but quickly became a frantic pounding.
“Oh dear Jesus we’re buryin’ my Henry alive!” The boy’s father fumbled at the latches on the casket while the townsfolk moaned and muttered, closing in around him. He couldn’t get them open so one of the boy’s brother’s grabbed up a rock and bludgeoned the latches till they broke. The moment the latches fell off the coffin lid flew open and the tiny figure of the boy sprang up from his silk-lined repose like a wildcat. He seemed very spry for someone who’d been shut up in a wooden box for most of the day. He surveyed the surprised funeral-goers with eyes that glittered red. He looked the same as always, small and comely in his best Sunday suit, but there was nothing of Henry in that animal grin. His skin shone white like marble and his teeth had grown long and sharp, glinting in the blossoming starlight. Before anyone could react, the boy spun and battened on to his brother Milt, sinking his new choppers into the other boy’s neck. Henry murmured with hideous pleasure as he milked blood from his brother’s jugular. Everyone watched in stunned horror, all mouths agape. Then a voice from the back of the procession called out.
“Back away from it.” It was the long tall stranger who’d taken up residence above the Yellow Dog Saloon. He’d pulled a six shooter from the holster tied down at his hip and pointed it at the tiny feeding figure. “I got silver bullets in this ’cause I thought somethin’ like this might happen…”
Stories of the “wild west” are a uniquely American phenomenon. Other countries and cultures have stories that stem from the development of their society but something about the expansion from one end of our continent to the other seemed to catch on, even while it was still happening. The western territories weren’t even all states when Wild West shows began popping up and travelling the country, spinning tales of gunfights, brawls, savage natives and pretty saloon girls. Brave sheriffs and cruel bandits became the new knights and ogres. Western fiction sprang up quickly and blossomed in the 1920’s and 30’s. It was helped along by the new method of storytelling–the movies and was a well established genre by the 1940’s with recognizable tropes and archetypes. We all knew the good guy wears a white hat, the bad guy wears a black hat and robs stagecoaches and trains, and Injuns (sorry Louis) could be either noble, or murderous, depending on the teller of the tale. Even now the west seems more exotic to most Americans than any other part of the country (except for maybe the deep, swampy south, but that often gets lumped in with western folklore anyway). The wildlife there is more dangerous and plentiful. Rattlesnakes, wolves, bears, tarantulas and scorpions all can kill you. There are less people and a lot more open space meaning that if something happens to you out there–you’re on your own. No one may find out what happened to you. You could meet a bad end and your body might just moulder to bones without anyone ever finding out. The characters of western fiction and folklore are larger and wilder. The women could hold their own in a fight, the men were stoic and all could shoot with pinpoint accuracy. The drunks were hilarious and full of wisdom. It was and still is a rich tapestry for writers to pull from. It is as strong a concept as sci-fi, romance or war stories with its own boxed set of terrain and player pieces (to use a tabletop gaming metaphor).
Which is maybe why it took so long for it to cross pollinate with the equally well established horror genre.
When Worlds Collide
Of course since people started telling tall tales about the west there were a few spook stories thrown in there. Some of them were based on truth; the terrifying reality that food was no guarantee and sometimes people had been forced into eating each other (the Donner Party, whether exaggerated or not, is still the gold standard for American cannibals and the Native American Wendigo legend was born to help starving tribes rationalize their own need to turn to the practice when winters turned harsh) was fodder for both Yellow journalism and the penny dreadfuls. There were tales of ghost towns–places that had sprung up during gold and silver rushes and then dried up as quickly as the ore was hauled out–haunted by the uneasy spirits of gunfighters who’d perished out in the dusty streets. Still, the horror genre and the western genre didn’t get tossed together into a truly delicious and sought-after salad until relatively recently.
In the sixties there was the television show The Wild, Wild, West, which did combine some sci-fi/horror elements. This show is probably one of the earliest examples of Steampunk which is a breeding ground for horror westerns, though of a very specific kind with very specific set pieces. There were also some kind of silly western/horror crossover movies around that time: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, and there were a couple of others that kind of straddled the line (most notably the American Clint Eastwood western High Plains Drifter) but it really wasn’t until the seventies that the two worlds collided and became their own legitimate subgenre.
It was DC’s comics series Weird Western Tales that gave birth to the term “weird west” and many of the best stories of its kind are still found in comics. Probably because comics, with their blend of images and words lend themselves to more gonzo storytelling and can go places that in prose fiction and films come across as silly, where in comics it can still feel genuine. In the nineties Joe R. Lansdale really helped define the Weird West movement with a number off novels and short stories (including one of my all time favorite shorts, Across the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks which can be found in the original “Book of the Dead” zombie anthology). Other writers began expanding the ideas, relishing playing in a sandbox that included gunslingers and vampires. Speaking of gunslingers, Stephen King himself turned the western mythology on its head blending it with both horror, sci fi AND Arthurian heroic fantasy in his “Dark Tower” series. The Deadlands roleplaying system refined it even more giving roleplayers a world to run around in and more fiction was created in that universe.
Part of what makes horror and westerns such great bedfellows is the mysterious nature of the American frontier. You have a huge, unknown landscape filled with who knows what, and you can put anything you want there. Monsters, ghosts, zombies–and face them off with the character types we associate with the western. What’s more hardcore than the idea of the Man with No Name firing his Smith and Wesson at a rampaging werewolf? What’s more seductive than the idea of hot, sexy saloon girls (aka prostitutes) who are also vampires (just think of Salma Hayek as Satanica Panemonio in From Dusk till Dawn and you’ll probably say, “nothing.”)? The legends and folklore of Native Americans are also rich veins full of monsters, demons and spirits. The possibilities are endless for creating badass horror adventures.
I could go on and on listing all the great horror fiction (including my own novella, The Blessed Resurrection) and movies but I’ll let you discover them on your own. It’s a genre I can’t get enough of and I’m very excited for us to be discussing it this month on Night of the Living Podcast. So put on your Stetson, load up your Colt with silver bullets, grab your best girl and lets ride into the sunset because, who knows what’s shambling along behind us from out of the dark canyons where the wind howls and the sun never shines.