Conventions & Events

Worldcon 74: How the West Got Weird


[Header image by Teresa Wickersham]

What is a weird western? The description is self explanatory. It’s a western with elements of science fiction, horror, or fantasy. A western, for the purpose of this panel, was defined as a story that took place between 1850 and 1910 and west of Kansas City. The term is recent, but the history of weird westerns extends back to 1868, with Steam Man of the Prairies, which was also the first dime novel. In Steam Man of the Prairies, a teenaged boy named Johnny Brainerd invented a colossal steam man to carry him over the prairies.

I learned all of this from David Boop, who ran a solo panel on weird westerns. There was some history on weird westerns, but the panel audience quickly became interested in naming all the science fiction related westerns they could think of. There was supposed to be an exercise as well, but we never got around to it.

RELATED: David Boop Interview on SciFi4Me TV

When the west was settled, people brought their fears and legends from the old countries with them. They were facing the unknown. Anything could be out there.

Heroes sprang up to conquer the west. People like Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok and Kit Carson became glorified as people who tamed the west.

The Wild Wild West is the perfect example of a weird western. James West uses advanced spy weapons to defeat his enemies and faces robots, cyborgs, and earthquake machines in battle. The purpose was not to create a weird western, but to make James Bond in the wild west. One of the audience members remembered that Sammy Davis Jr. played a ghost who could control horses with his mind in one episode. In researching it, the ghost was faked by Sammy Davis Jr.’s character with the help of James West but he did indeed control horses with his mind.

There were strange movies from the sixties, like Billy the Kid versus Dracula, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, and the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. One of my favorites from late night television during my childhood was The Valley of Gwangi, which had an eohippus as well as a T-Rex. Cowboys roping dinosaurs: what more could you want? It was one of David Boop’s favorites, too. Whether it was because of the low quality of spaghetti westerns or because the public was getting tired of them, westerns in general went into a decline and weird westerns went with them.

Westerns became popular in comics because of the comics code, a self-censorship code amongst comics producers that aimed to lower the amount of violence and sex in comic books. It also banned werewolves, vampires, and zombies. However, comics being comics, the supernatural elements crept back in.

Examples of more recent weird westerns would be The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Legend, and the Secret Adventures of Jules Verne from the nineties. None of those series lasted long, but all of them are worth taking a look at if you can. The fourth Tremors movie is set in the old west with prehistoric graboids. Boop credits, or rather blames, the movie remake of Wild Wild West with Will Smith for killing the weird western again.

But like the undead, dinosaurs and unstoppable aliens, the weird west subgenre keeps coming back. Jonah Hex is a popular comic book character from the seventies who had a movie in 2010 and has appeared on television. Cowboys & Aliens, while unevenly received, is a perfect example of the genre. It has cowboys fighting against aliens. I listened to an author, Holly Messinger, at a panel at Kansas City Comic Con who had written a book set in St. Louis in 1880 with a protagonist who can see ghosts. That’s a weird western. So is Emma Bull’s Territory, set in 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona, but with magic.

Screencap from 'Cowboys & Aliens'
What kind of horse is that? [Still from Cowboys & Aliens, and courtesy Universal Pictures]
I’ve always thought of movies like Cowboys & Aliens as being mash-ups. Now that I am aware of the long history of genre westerns, it makes sense. Why wouldn’t aliens invade the wild west if they’ve been around since they built the pyramids? If there are living dinosaurs, why not in a hidden valley in Mexico? Why wouldn’t there be vampires or zombies or anything else that people feared from the old country? Or entirely new demons that are native to the west?

Photo by Teresa Wickersham
Photo by Teresa Wickersham

David Boop uses the Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns by Paul Green, as his, well, encyclopedia. He has also written weird westerns himself, such as the one in the anthology Heat of the Midday Sun: Stories of the Weird, Weird West.

For more coverage on Worldcon, check out this link for articles and interviews.


Teresa Wickersham

Teresa Wickersham has dabbled in fanfic, gone to a few conventions, created some award-winning (and not so award winning) masquerade costumes, worked on the Save Farscape campaign, and occasionally presents herself as a fluffy bunny or a Krampus.

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