In the introduction to DEAD MAN’S HAND, his latest anthology of all-new short fiction, editor John Joseph Adams defines “Weird West Stories” as “stories of the Old West infused with elements of science fiction, fantasy, or horror, and often with a little counterfactual twist thrown into the mix.”
In a contemporary era that has seen such popular literary mash-ups as Jane Austen’s characters interacting with zombies and Abraham Lincoln killing vampires, the Weird West sounds like a logical but ultimately new idea (with some unexpected similarities to steampunk).
Surprisingly, Adams traces the origins back to the 60s with TV shows like THE WILD, WILD WEST, the Stephen King novel series, THE DARK TOWER of the 70s, and as far back as the 1930 works of Robert E. Howard. Still, for many readers the ultimate flowering of the Weird West was Joe R. Lansdale’s short novel, DEAD IN THE WEST (1986), which introduced the conflicted, gun-slinging Reverend Jebediah Mercer.
Adams agrees, and so treats us to a new Reverend Mercer story by Lansdale that opens the collection. In “The Red-Headed Dead” Reverend Mercer takes refuge in an abandon cabin in the midst of an East Texas tornado, only to then battle a vampire beast descended from Judas. During the fight the Reverend continues to wonder if God is truly worth the effort, but fears the consequences if he does not carry out his mission.
Lansdale is not the only author who previously created Weird West characters. Orson Scott Card presents his first new Alvin Maker story in over a decade. In “Alvin And The Apple Tree,” an entertaining but overly preachy story, the seventh son of a seventh son meets Johnny Appleseed and witnesses the dire results of the fruit of a certain tree planted in a nearby town. Alan Dead Foster presents a new story featuring Mad Amos Malone. In “Holy Jingle” the huge mountain man and his steed, Worthless, are hired to rescue a stagecoach employee from the enchanted love of a Chinese prostitute.
One can’t venture too far into Weird West fiction without thinking of the movie Cowboys & Aliens, and so Adams includes a story by Fred Van Lente, author of the comic book series that was the basis of the movie. In “Neversleeps” a very special prisoner is transported by train across Monument Valley in a time very different from our own.
Of the contributions from authors first venturing into Weird West fiction, notable examples include “Red Dreams” by Jonathan Maberry, a chilling tale of a warrior cowboy who confronts his mortality after a brutal Indian massacre as a shooting star falls from the sky. And popular fantasy author Tad Williams proves equally effective in an Old West setting with “Strong Medicine,” an eerie tale of a man returning to the town of Medicine Dance, in the Arizona territory, for the strange occurrences that come with each Summer Solstice.
Other contributors to the total 23 original stories include Alastair Reynolds, Elizabeth Bear, Jeffrey Ford and several others. Brief author biographies are included in a section following the stories, and Adams starts each story with a location and year reference.
Too bad there wasn’t room for more illustrations from the unnamed artist who created the cowboy skull and six-shooters logo on the cover that also appears on the title page of each story.
But this is a minor carp for what is otherwise a thoroughly satisfying collection of new stories that are sure to please fans of western fiction who rarely venture into science fiction, fantasy, or horror – and vice versa!
Highly recommended. And if you hanker for more Weird West fiction, proceed immediately afterwards to Joe R. Lansdale’s DEAD MAN’S ROAD for more adventures featuring Reverend Mercer. —Alan Cranis