I’ve read three weird westerns more-or-less consecutively in the past few weeks: The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King, The Half-made World by Felix Gilman and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. The first two have far more in common than the last, and deWitt’s novel falls under the description more by its dream-like nature and by evoking cosmic horror rather than any overt supernatural elements.
Weird westerns seem like a natural genre development to me. Westerns evoke an American myth of vast untamed expanses, of good and evil, order and chaos; weird westerns take the mysterious west, unexplored and untamed, and adds the supernatural and a surrealism that shows a blurred border between the natural world and whatever lays outside it. It’s not an accurate reflection of the historical West over the course of the nineteenth century, but it does capture how settlers felt about the world over the next hill and our own relationships with the mythology of western expansion.
The Wind Through the Keyhole touches on the fear of the wide world outside, and the stories we tell about those places. No less than three nested narratives, the title referring to the tale sandwiched in the middle: a particularly brutal fairy tale of entering the unknown woods. This is a belated instalment in the seven-book Dark Tower series that King himself described as his attempt to mix The Lord of the Rings with spaghetti westerns. He does something a bit more interesting with the idea of the borderland throughout these books: the mythic west is a different reality entirely, and not the “New World” waiting to be settled but instead a very old one that is slowly but surely falling apart, stretching and deforming towards a state of unbeing. Our hero Roland Deschain is a Gunslinger, a knight of Gilead, seeking out the tower that forms the lynchpin of the multiverse in the hopes he will heal the world.
This is deeply compelling stuff, though very uneven over the course of the series as Roland moves from one world to the other. King often tears us away from the initial setting, which is the main attraction, what with his cryptic references to old world myths and remnants of super-technologies long forgotten. Fortunately, The Wind Through the Keyhole keeps us in the dying world, giving us a bit more background in a refreshingly brisk fashion.
The Half-made World owes a lot to The Dark Tower, as the marketing blurbs warn us. On closer inspection, it’s a reversal: the world is literally “half-made”, the West is not just unexplored but literally uncreated, and settling the West solidifies it into ordinary reality. It’s a heck of a lot like the post-apocalyptic scenario of Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-away World, only that the blank chaos can in fact be tamed. The secondary world is Earth-like in terms of names and dates (chapter headings indicate it’s the nineteenth century) but greatly different in others. In the West, a war ranges between the forces of the Line and the Gun. The Line is a technologically advanced civilization ruled by giant demon-inhabited locomotives arising from the cosmic soup, who value order above all else. The Gun is a set of demons who inhabit gunslinger pistols that stand for chaos. All the archetypes of your classic western thus have supernatural and physical counterparts here; it’s a much more direct analogue than Stephen King’s imagined quest and raises some interesting issues about how these narratives mingle. The status of the West as an idea is further complicated by the utopian ideals of the Red Republic, long collapsed but representing a “third way” for the shaping of the West–and this notional republic, too, passes under scrutiny as yet another imperfect solution in this world of absolutes.
It also has gunfights, battles, monsters, demons and magic, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. But for all the intriguing ideas whirling around we still have issue of the West’s prior inhabitants, here represented by “the Folk”, who aren’t quite human, and who might work as the Western’s conceptions of magical Indians (not dying here, because they’re effectively immortal) but don’t jive too well with current Native American issues. See Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories for the reasons why.
Finally, we have The Sisters Brothers, which follows Eli and Charlie Sisters as they pursue an assassination job during the California Gold Rush. The novel carries an ever-growing sense of dread, starting with a “gypsy witch’s” curse near the beginning and following through with two “intermissions” involving a demonic girl Eli encounters under different circumstances. It’s not clear if anything supernatural is happening, but the haunting landscapes indicate something supernatural aught to. As an evocation of the old west, The Sisters Brothers isn’t any more “true” than The Half-made World. It focuses on the same ideas, albeit on a smaller scale and using subtler metaphors. The California Gold Rush twists people into violent archetypes, but the Sisters brothers are already deeply broken and bred to violence; the same crucible changes them in a very different way.
It’s a short book, which is fortunate, since I wouldn’t want to spend too much time in that world of cosmic dread, or with the rather grotesque cast of characters. It bears some comparisons to Blood Meridian in its relentless pessimism, though Cormac McCarthy went a lot further in stripping away the archetypes and narratives of the Western myth to reveal the history of cruelty and violence beneath them. The Sisters Brothers has cruelty and violence a-plenty, but its deliberate unreality acts to distance us from the underlying myth, bends it but doesn’t break it.
There is a feeling that all three of these novels don’t go as far as I’d like in exploring the weird western’s potential to subvert and re-purpose the straight-laced western. Of course, I don’t think The Wind Through the Keyhole ever meant to; that just wasn’t King’s concern, he wanted to show the reflecting mirrors of the two stories nested inside the main narrative of his sprawling main saga. The Half-made World is more ambitious and does the most to appeal to my sensibilities, but it sometimes feels trapped by the same formulas its trying to cut through, and ends up being messy (at least gloriously messy). The Sisters Brothers isn’t messy at all, but the tight plotting and heaping misery doesn’t give much room to breathe and branch either, leading to a host of dangling questions, never answered.
Are they satisfying, though? Yes, especially taken as a whole like I just did. There is a conversation going on between fantasy and the western (and there arguably has been ever since the 1930s) that shows how injecting fantastic elements into established realist genres can make for effective commentary on some of our cherished cultural myths. This is one aspect of fantasy I’m always happy to see.