In a way it’s maybe strange that the western is such a prominent genre. Given it’s connected to such a specific time and place – the mid-to-late 19th century, American west – why are we all so familiar with the many tropes of the western? Cowboys and Indians, shootouts and saloons, cattle rustlers and sheriffs, tumbleweed and canyons?
Why are we constantly reinventing, reshaping and reimagining this one particular time and place?
The western has a particular hold on the popular imagination, partly for reasons of historical and cultural influence, but ultimately because of its supreme adaptability, its capacity to mingle and merge with other genres.
Which is where the “weird western” comes in. The weird western is a term given to works that blend classic western tropes with other aspects speculative literature: so generally science fiction, horror, or fantasy. It’s a hybrid genre and there are plenty of hybrids: space westerns, steampunk westerns, supernatural and horror westerns, time travel westerns, westerns drawing on Afrofuturism and indigenous futurism, and many, many more.
On this week’s episode I chat to Dr Sara Spurgeon about westerns past, present, and future, from the classic to the very weird indeed.
Dr Sara Spurgeon works in literatures of the American West and Southwest as well as nature/environmental writing, gender studies, and postcolonial theory. She is the author of Exploding the Western: Myths of Empire on the Postmodern Frontier, co-author of Writing the Southwest, and editor of the critical anthology Cormac McCarthy.
She teaches at Texas Tech University and you can read her full bio here
Works Mentioned & Referenced
Owen Wister: The Virginian
Zane Grey: Riders of the Purple Sage
Ghost Rider (Marvel Comic Series & 2007 Film, dir Mark Steven Johnson)
James Fenimore Cooper: The Last of the Mohicans
Cowboys and Aliens, dir. Jon Favreau
Edgar Rice Burroughs: John Carter / Barsoom Series
George Lucas: Star Wars (1977)
Gene Roddenberry: Star Trek: The Original Series (1966)
Cheyenne Autumm, dir John Ford (1964)
Thomas Berger: Little Big Man & Film, dir. Arthur Penn (1970)
Michael Blake: Dances with Wolves & Film, dir Kevin Costner (1990)
Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
Percival Everett: God’s Country (1994)
Rebecca Roanhorse: Trail of Lightning (2018)
Pam Zhang’s: How Much of These Hills is Gold? (2020)
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Looking for more westerns? There’s a whole episode on nervousness and the American west here
There’s even a version I did as a live show here
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I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect
Stories of the Fiction that shapes popular culture
In a way it’s maybe strange that the western is such a prominent genre. Seemingly it’s connected to a very specific time and place – the mid-to-late 19th century, American west. Why are we all so familiar with the many tropes of the western? Cowboys and Indians, shootouts and saloons, cattle rustlers and sheriffs, tumbleweed and canyons?
Why are we constantly reinventing, reshaping and reimagining this one particular time and place?
It’s not as if there’s an entire popular culture industry around, I don’t know, the west of Ireland in the 18th century, or Russia in the early 20th century. But the western has a particular hold on the popular imagination, partly for reasons of historical and cultural influence, but ultimately because of its supreme adaptability, its capacity to mingle and merge with other genres.
In many ways, the least important element in labelling something a western, is a setting in the American west.
The “weird western” is a term given to works that blend classic western tropes with other aspects speculative literature: so generally science fiction, horror, or fantasy. It’s a hybrid genre and there are plenty of hybrids: space westerns, steampunk westerns, supernatural and horror westerns, time travel westerns, westerns drawing on Afrofuturism and indigenous futurism, and many, many more.
There is also obviously a long tradition of what we can call classic westerns – westerns without zombies or aliens or other interventions – and it’s a genre that plenty of writers and filmmakers and others return to again and again. But it’s the weird westerns, the hybrid westerns that I want to look at, because this is where the western is at its most creative, most ground-breaking, and most fascinating today.
The demise of the western is regularly heralded, and yet, much like the undead creatures of the many horror westerns out there, it steadfastly refuses to die. It keeps reinventing itself decade after decade.
So when I came across an edited collection of essays on this very topic – Weird Westers: Race, Gender, Genre I figured I’d better chat to one of the co-editors
I’m Dr. Sara Spurgeon. I teach literatures of the American West, at Texas Tech University.
And as she explains, the weird western is a pretty broad category:
We define weird westerns as a hybrid genre that crosses itself with sci fi with fantasy with horror. Sometimes it leans harder on one of these than the other. But westerns do tend to lend themselves well to anything action/adventure oriented, anything haunted, as it involves a fairly haunting history of colonialism and violence. You know, in fact, all types of speculative fiction tend to eventually have a fling with the Western. For example, superheroes, right? One of Marvel Comics, most popular superhero characters is Ghost Rider, a kind of modern Western outlaw who’s gotten superpowers after he sold his soul to the devil. And now he has to ride forever on his Harley Davidson motorcycle, instead of a horse. He was famously played by Nicolas Cage in the 2007 film. A lot of people have read DC Comics film, The Suicide Squad as a kind of remake of the classic Western, The Magnificent Seven, which was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s the Seven Samurai. So really, westerns are an impure genre from the very beginning. Which means that it’s a genre that welcomes the kinds of crossings that get called weird.
To get to the heart of the weird western, though, you have to look at the history of the western. And the thing to understand is that the western has kind of always been weird. You can get a pretty good overview of its history, if you look at it from the point of view of the other genres it gets crossed with.
Firstly, there’s fantasy. The western is fantastical in many ways. The “west”, in inverted commas, was always a fantasy location, a land of white, male wish-fulfilment. As a geographical space it was largely invented by rich, Eastern urbanites – the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Owen Wister, Frederic Remington and several others. These were men who visited the west, often for therapeutic reasons, to cure their nervousness – and for more on that, go listen to episode 6 on this very topic.
And they then created a fictional world of noble cowboys, escaping the constraints of urbanism and domesticity, a violent male world of rugged individualism and wild landscapes. Novels like Owen Wister’s hugely influential 1902 classic The Virginian helped shape these ideas in the public consciousness. It introduced lots of cowboy tropes into the genre – including the shoot-out ending – and helped create a fantasy west that would become the basis for the western genre. So it’s little wonder that the western so easily blends with fantasy, given its origins in a fantastical, romanticized version of the west.
I should say as well that a lot of these themes were carried across from much earlier work, not actually set in the American west at all – James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. The most famous of these is The Last of the Mohicans – you’ve probably seen the film – it’sis often considered the first western novel.
And that’s published in 1826. So 50 years earlier, but also 1000 miles to the east, of where we think of westerns being set today. In other words, in New England, where the Indian Wars there have already finished, but other than the setting in the the dense forests of New England instead of the wide open spaces of the American West.
Cooper’s novel really gives us all the themes that will be taken up by the so called dime novel westerns of the 1880s and 1890s. So a beautiful but dangerous wilderness, Indians as noble savages, Indians as savage savages, captive white women who need to be rescued by brave white men with very large guns, and then eventually outlaws horse, thieves, cattle rustlers, who are opposed by a courageous white sheriff.
These themes were taken up in dime novels later in the 19th century – these were cheap paperbacks that cost a dime and were therefore accessible to the masses. And then the third major work to have a huge influence on the genre is Zane Grey’s greatest novel. Riders of the Purple Sage from 1912. Grey was a phenomenally successfully writer, earning millions from his dozens of western novels. Riders of the Purple Sage is very different from The Virginian – a tale of love and revenge set around Mormon frontier life – but it also established so many of the classic elements of the genre – there’s cattle-rustling, the black-clad, gun-slinging cowboy, thrilling chases on horseback (which are great actually, Grey writes a good horse chase scene) and lots more. Like the Virginian, it has spawned numerous stage plays, Hollywood films, TV series and other adaptations in the century or so since its publication.
So, the western is full of fantasy. But it’s also closely aligned with science fiction. Do you remember that Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford film Cowboys and Aliens from a while back? Aliens land in Arizona in 1873, scifi explosions and western gun fights ensue.
Well, it’s not a strange blend at all really, cowboys have been fighting aliens since the very beginnings of both science fiction and the western. It’s not a coincidence that both genres emerged in the late 19th century, at the height of colonial expansion in Europe and the US. Both genres are obsessively concerned with violence and colonialism and racially othered people – cowboys and Indians / cowboys and aliens.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ (a writer who’s made a few appearances on this show, would you believe) explicitly wrote a western scifi novel. His hero John Carter begins in a western novel, in Arizona, and quickly ends up on a suspiciously western-like Mars.
And so much science fiction is like this. Star Wars is a western in so many ways
right? It’s got savage aliens as Indians. It has a pioneer family. It’s got a dusty frontier town, a gun slinging hero, even a classic saloon scene, right? And the current Star Wars series, the Mandalorian, is also openly positioning itself as a Western, the bounty hunter version of the Western, right?
Many folks may be aware that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry famously pitched his series to NBC executives, as wagon train to the stars, nodding to the enormously popular 1950s TV series Wagon Train. So, you know, how is it that we recognize these examples as westerns, when literally none of them are even set on planet Earth, let alone the 19th century West? It’s because each of them takes the thrills, the images, the themes of the classic Western, again, a wild and dangerous frontier to be explored. Right?
What does the opening of Star Trek tell us: space the final frontier. There’s a racially othered enemy to be conquered. There is an opportunity for justified violence typically carried out by a white male hero, who is in a battle not just for himself, but for his people, his race, his civilization, it just simply moves to another planet, right?
And there were other things going on too at the end of the 19th century, when science fiction and the western were emerging:
it’s also the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement.
So it’s not an accident that that early movement begins at exactly the same time as the western, right, a genre in which all the heroes are male. They get to solve every problem by shooting someone. And the main domestic spaces they inhabit are saloons, gambling halls, and brothels. Right? The gender anxieties aren’t even subtle here. But neither are the racial anxieties, right.
So if you look at what’s going on in the US, during the second half of the 19th century, the Civil War has just ended, newly freed African Americans are beginning to demand equal rights, just as women are beginning to demand equal rights. In fact, many of the early women’s suffrage activists had before the Civil War been abolitionists.
So in the US, of course, miscegenation, that is mixed race marriages, were still illegal in most US states. At this time, in fact, they would remain illegal in the US until 1967. But out west, there were large populations of Native people and Mexicans. There was in the Old West, an awful lot of racial mixing going on. And let me pull us forward just a bit here. It’s no coincidence that the western begins in that violent and tumultuous time, but that it then has its golden age in the 1950s which is, of course, the height of the Cold War, the US is, in the 1950s, being wracked by the civil rights movement, the supremacy of white American men is under direct assault, domestically and from abroad. So, you know, what better place to imagine yourself than in a fantasy version of the Old West, where men were men and women were helpless captives and, in the words of general Sheridan, who was the commander of Chief in the US Army in the 1980s, the the only good Indian was a dead Indian.
And so after fantasy and science fiction, we have horror. The western, I mentioned at the beginning, is a genre that keeps coming back from the dead, that keeps patching itself together from bits of other genres, that can change shape and reappear in other forms. It is, in other words, horrific and supernatural.
It can also, like the horror genre, provoke and reflect our fears about the world around us. It is a genre, in its original form, that is not only full of violence and conquest, but of fears and anxieties on the part of its authors: about racial purity, about frontiers and borders, about identity and nationality, about sexuality, urbanization, masculinity, mental and physical health.
those worries that sort of haunt the western are still things that, in the US, trouble us today, which is why the western keeps being reimagined by each new generation that needs to think through these issues.
So I’m going to take a quick break because the show has a sponsor this week, in the form of another podcast: 180 Degrees. So this is a show all about sustainability and green energy from the SEAI, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. It basically answers all those sustainability questions you might have – like how do you reduce your carbon emissions at work or what are the benefits of driving an electric car or how energy research is influencing government policy. They answer all these question by sharing the stories of people across Ireland, working towards a cleaner energy future. Season 2 has just launched so go check it out: it’s called 180 Degrees and its is brought to you by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, supported by the government of Ireland.
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Back to the show
So the western has always been a hybrid form in many ways, but in the 21st century some really exciting and original developments have emerged. Initially, from around the 1960s, this took the form of more sympathetic portrayals of native American culture.
so the director John Ford makes the film Cheyenne Autumn and 1964 that portrays the Cheyenne nation sympathetically, although also quite patronizingly. In 1964 also, the author Thomas Berger publishes Little Big Man, which will be made into a hugely popular film in 1970, starring Dustin Hoffman as a white man who goes to live with the Indians. In 1990, Kevin Costner will adapt Michael Blake’s novel Dances with Wolves into a genuinely sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of the Lakota in the 1860s, which also features a white man who goes to live with the Indians.
And then in 2009, we have James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar about, you might guess, a white man who goes to live with the Indians, who this time are sexy, blue-skinned natives in this weird Western alien film. All of those you may have noticed, involve white male writers, white male directors, and a white male hero, through whom the story is told.
More recently, thankfully, there have been some refreshingly different perspectives from authors who are not white men:
So African American novelist Percival Everett in 1994, wrote a Western novel called God’s Country. It’s absolutely brilliant. It’s laugh out loud funny, and it’s also a devastating satire of the classic Western.
The young, Native American and African American author Rebecca Roanhorse, who has already won both a Hugo and Nebula Award – these are literary awards given in the genres of science fiction and fantasy – published a weird Western novel in 2018, called Trail of Lightning
I really enjoyed this novel. It’s got lots of westerns tropes – it’s set in a post-apocalyptic west, one brought about by climate change. There are saloons and shoot outs and cowboys and gamblers, and the main character is a bounty hunter. Except she is a Navajo monster hunter with special powers, who is paid to slay monsters from Navajo mythology – because the apocalypse has also resulted in the presence of Navajo gods and mythological beings. It’s kind of like Neil Gaiman’s [gayman] American Gods with lots of post-apocalyptic scifi and western and horror and fantasy. It’s fascinating and really inventive, oh and there’s a follow up, which I very much plan to read.
Yes, that that novel is enormous fun, it’s gotten very good reviews, and Roanhorse has now been asked by the Star Wars franchise to author a series of novels for them. If you’re looking for something even more literary, there is Chinese-American writer Pam Zhang’s 2020 novel, How Much of These Hills is Gold? Now, this was long listed for the Booker Prize. And it, in some ways looks like a classic Western. It’s set in the mining camps of California during the gold rush. But it also features magical creatures from Chinese mythology that roam the hills along with the two Chinese American children, a brother and sister who are the novel’s main characters.
So there’s plenty out there, alongside other more mainstream weird westerns – perhaps most prominently HBO’s Westworld, another scifi reimagining of the west, as well as all the other western TV shows and films that are regularly released: Steven Soderbergh’s Netflix series Godless, about a New Mexico mining town inhabited almost entirely by women, the Coen Brothers Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, and plenty of the others.
The western, weird or otherwise, is not going away any time soon. It’s a genre that was born out of huge societal change, and not just in the US – around empires and colonization, questions of race and gender and identity. And these are not exactly issues that have gone away, they are more vital to address than ever, and so the western has been reimagined and reformed, taken on new perspectives and merged with genres and subgenres.
to have one genre that sort of folds all that together and lets you have cool gun play and horse chases, what’s not to love?
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening.
A huge thanks to my guest this week Professor Sarah Spurgeon. I’ll put links to her work, incuding her collection on Weird Westerns, which is just out, on the Words To That Effect website. And that’s at wttepodcast.com.
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I’ve realised that I’m coming dangerously close to episode 50. I’m not entirely sure what I should do to mark the occasion so if you have any ideas let me know.
For now, that’s it, I’ll see you in two weeks.