The old west is a perfect setting for horror tales. Isolated farmhouses, a mysterious stranger dragging a coffin, a hero who cannot be killed, (and that’s just from Django) all the elements are there. I can’t think of too many literary versions outside of Joe Lansdale; most of what comes to mind is from the cinema (Into the Badlands, etc.). Fortunately, we have Russ Anderson to correct the situation. How The West Was Weird: Campfire Tales, hit the Internet stands a few months ago and features some of the best writing in this new cross-over trend. There are definite traces of steampunk, oops, Victorian science fiction and traditional oater tales. We’ve even got one journey to the center of the earth. And of course there are zombies. You have to have zombies these days.
The collection leads with my favorite, “Mr. Brass and the Crimson Skies of Kansas”, by Josh Reynolds. Normally, I don’t like mash-ups with historical characters and literary ones. I don’t usually like retreads of established literary characters. It seldom works, the recent BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes being the exception to the rule. But “Crimson Skies” makes it all happen. Teddy Roosevelt is flying in a cavorite-powered airship across the open prairie. It’s been years since the martians tried to conquer earth, but he’s still protected by two Pinkerton operatives, one of whom is a cybernetic clockwork man. There’s even air pirates led by Buckaroo Banzai‘s Hanoi Xan. Even Mark Twain makes an appearance. And yet it all works to make an excellent pulp adventure.
“Hell’s Own” by editor Russ Anderson mixes Max Brand with George Romero. One night a meteorite falls outside a small town in the old west unleashing a horde of flesh-eating zombies. It’s up to the town’s sheriff to do his best to defend the civilians against the raging fiends, but he is hardly up to the task. To tell more would ruin the story.
“The Tale of the Baron’s Tribute” by Better in the Dark Podcaster Derrick Ferguson is mythic story, almost into Sergio Leone territory, with a touch of Jodorowsky. Lone gunman Sebastian Red travels to the disputed lands between Mexitli and the United Republic of America to spend time in an isolated Iahn village. The villagers are having a celebration: they are going to pay-off their padron, Baron Orwell and own the land free and clear. But Sebastian Red has enemies who will go to great lengths to get at him, even if it involves the death of innocents. This is a good story which would’ve made a better novel.
The final selection, “Gunmen of the Hollow Earth”, by Joel Jenkins, takes the readier into Edgar Rice Burroughs land. A group of old west heroes are on the run from banditos and venture into the prehistoric world of the Inner Earth. There’s Amazon warriors (always a plus for me) and cowboys battling it out with dinosaurs. It ends a little abruptly, almost with a “to be continued” feel, making me wonder if “Gunmen” isn’t a treatment for a larger work.
Western, horror, fantasy,and sf fans should check out this anthology. It may pave the way for a new genre. CowFantasy? SplatterWest? OaterPunk? You decide.
First written 10/17/2011