What Is a Weird Western?
Riding the line between Space Western, Steampunk and the downright weird (think ghosts, other supernatural experiences, encounters of the fourth kind, and the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft,) Weird West is the kind of literary and fashion sub-genre that takes elements of the American West and asks “what if?” mixing together historical fiction and demons, aliens, or anything else paranormal that a given author might choose to throw their readers’ way. It is the crossroads of the weird and the historical, the familiar and the unexplained that combines seemingly anachronistic elements together to create stories wholly unlike anything that has ever been seen before.
What Is Not Weird West?
Weird West can sometimes be difficult to untangle from some of the other various sub-genres that contain similar elements (those typically associated with the American west) such as Horror Westerns, Steampunk and Space Westerns. As a sub-genre it is virtually indistinguishable from Horror Westerns, and some have argued that it is rather an umbrella term which includes anything Western-esque which is not basic or mainstream (including the Horror Western.)
Steampunk, however, is a vastly different organism altogether. While there can (and certainly has been) some crossover between Steampunk and the Weird West (Wild Wild West is often cited as being an example of this) Steampunk in general tends to involve Victorian aesthetics (instead of cowboy/western aesthetics,) clockwork monstrosities, zeppelins, flying cities of brass, and other similarly fantastic elements.
Space Westerns are also a vastly different animal from the Weird Western. While Weird Westerns are typically stories of weird things happening in the old American west, Space Westerns take the elements of the old American west and project them into futuristic times, mixing them side-by-side with starships, planetary colonization, advanced technologies, and other concepts generally associated solely with science fiction. A simple way to tell the difference between a Space Western and a Weird Western is to look at where (and when) it takes place. If the piece in question happens in the depths of space or occurs in the future (like Firefly,) then you’re dealing with a Space Western. If it occurs in the old American west and drops anything out of place into that setting (like Cowboys and Aliens,) it’s a Weird Western.
Examples From Popular Culture:
Probably the most familiar example of the Weird Western today is the film (or the book) Cowboys and Aliens. Beginning with a setting recognizable as being steeped in the historical ambiance of the old American west, Cowboys and Aliens takes the old notion of Cowboys and Indians and turns it on its head. As an idea, it is incredibly creative, and the novel is not only well written, but well executed as a work of art as well.
Deadlands is another well executed example of the Weird Western. Though it combines many elements which are classically ascribed to the Horror Western and Steampunk sub-genres, there is enough individuality and weirdness within this RPG to place it firmly into the Weird Western sub-genre. Imagine a world where the shamans of the Sioux were able to bring about a zombie apocalypse in the old west as a means to drive out the Europeans. It’s weird, it’s wicked and it’s so unique it can’t be anything but cool.
Steven King’s The Dark Tower saga has also been acclaimed as an example of a Weird Western. Described by King himself as his “Magnum Opus,” The Dark Tower is hailed for its progression into and through a number of genres and sub-genres (including Weird West.)
What happens when the west gets weird? Anything and everything. In a sense, the sub-genre of the Weird Western is simply the concept of the Western unbound. It is the Western in the next stage of its evolution, released from its box and allowed to fly free. It is an example of what happens when the authors working within a given genre step outside the boxes of that genre and delve into new lands previously seen as being only surreal and, indeed, too weird to be written about.