Please welcome Gemma Files to The Qwillery. Gemma is the author of the Hexslinger series -
- which will be published tomorrow in The Hexslinger Omnibus edition, which features the 3 novels and bonus materials.
Putting the Weird in Weird Western
I didn't set out to write a Weird Western, specifically, when I began my first Hexslinger Series novel, A Book of Tongues
. Instead, it was a fortuitous collision of genres on my part, kicked into gear by my then-obsession with the movie 3:10 to Yuma
(James Mangold's remake, not the original). Due to a depressing confluence of events—losing my job, my son being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, etc.—I'd spent the previous year writing nothing much except 3:10 to Yuma
fanfiction, which in hindsight was not quite the ridiculous idea I thought it was at the time, since when I tallied up my word-count at the end of 2008 and realized that I'd already written the equivalent of a novel, it made my decision to actually sit down at the beginning of 2009 and see how far I'd get doing something a bit more original a very easy one indeed.
Of course, the plain fact is that most original fiction gets jump-started this way, whether or not its authors choose to be explicit about it. You obsess on something, then screw with it until it's not that thing anymore, not exactly: boil it down for parts, render 'till you find the grit inside the pearl, and grow a fresh new pearl of your own. So while the paragraph above explains why I chose to set A Book of Tongues
in New Mexico, just after the Civil War—ie, it was a background I was already pretty damn familiar with, thus allowing me to skip the research portion of the evening and just dive right in—it was the basic process of making it “mine” that added the Weird to the Western, because what I write is horror.
Some people would be willing to call the Hexslinger Series “dark fantasy” rather than horror, but those people are being kind. I'm well aware of my proclivities—things tend to follow crooked paths into some pretty dark places with me at the helm, and the sheer amount of gore plus other bodily fluids that my characters routinely end up covered in, to my mind, establish the genre in question rather specifically. Actually, while I was working on Book
, I used to call it a blood-soaked black magic gay porno horse opera, which I still think is essentially accurate...though grantedly, that's a bit hard to fit on a label.
Going into this project, I think I mainly took my mood and structural cues from formative stuff like Jonah Hex
(the comic, not the movie), Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man
, Michael Ondaatje's poetry cycle The Collected Works of Billy the Kid
, and William S. Burroughs's psychedelic Western fantasia The Place of Dead Roads
. But that makes it sound more high-brow than it actually was, because there was a fair bit of Young Guns
thrown in there, too, along Gary Jennings's massive history-pulp novel Aztec
, and the single episode of David Milch's Deadwood
I'd once caught in New York, when I was heavily pregnant. My mind works best when fed with as much garbage as I can get my hands on, so it'll rot quickly, producing its own compost. And out of that mulch something new hopefully emerges, like a homunculus cooked in a dung-heap.
Now that I look back on the process, however, it occurs to me that while it may seem as though horror and the Western have no business ever cross-breeding, the union is really an extremely natural one. Both are genres with their roots dug deep in the pulp tradition, either actively decried or dismissed outright by the mainstream. Both are, at heart, fantasies about power—having it, losing it, having it exercised against you. Because the Western takes place on the frontier, in the empty places (not really, of course, because Manifest Destiny was a poisonous construction designed to help white people not feel bad about rooking indigenous people's land out from underneath them), while horror is often about the familiar becoming unfamiliar, both can seem inherently conservative and normalizing: things intrude from the outside, upset the “natural” order, then get re-set—it might be zombies or Apache, but the collective usually triumphs. However, if you're prepared to mess with those patterns a bit, both can also actually provide a lens through which to reassess and question societal fundamentals, particularly as they apply to the toxic concept of the Other, or Othering.
With Westerns, this process is usually called revisionism, and you see it happening throughout the careers of genre backbone creators like John Ford (who goes from using indigenous people as human plot twists in Stagecoach
, where the entire emphasis is on the threatened microcosm of white travellers, to challenging the polluting qualities of casual racism in The Searchers
, in which John Wayne relentlessly pursues his kidnapped niece, perfectly willing to kill her in order to “save” her from potentially becoming “a squaw”) or Clint Eastwood (who moved from embodying the emblematic might-makes-right gunslinger in various Spaghetti Westerns to questioning whether or not a gunslinger can ever be anything but a hired killer in his own films, like High Plains Drifter
, The Outlaw Josey Wales
). Revisionism, in turn, intersects beautifully with that strand of horror which reframes the “monster” in question not as something coming from outside the narrative/protagonist's POV, but from the inside—in which, to some degree, the protagonist becomes the monster, or discovers monstrous qualities in themselves while fighting one: horror which admits that if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares also into you
, as the old Nietzsche quote goes.
Given that there are mighty few characters in the Hexslinger Series who can be described as outright, uncomplicated “heroes,” this latter type of horror is definitely what I was going for—my protagonists are anti-heroes at best, complicated villains at worst, while my antagonists (even the least-human of them) were never designed to be simply bad for the sake of being bad. I wanted to place the Other at the centre of my narrative, and I started with the kind of Others I'm most strongly attracted to: cleric-turned-outlaw Reverend Rook and his lieutenant and lover, Chess Pargeter, whose mutually uplifting yet inherently self-destructive obsession with each other is the engine that drives most of the plot. I then added magic, creating a world in which some people suddenly bloom up into demi-deities at the point of death, only to be prevented from allying against the non-magicals who hate and fear them by their own desire to parasite off each other...though with the introduction of a Mexica/Maya goddess seeking rebirth through blood sacrifice, this may start to change, and does.
With each new instalment, however, I felt driven to try and deepen or spin as many of the characters I'd already introduced as I could, while also introducing others that would address problems of representation—female characters to match my male characters, a fuller spectrum of queer characters to match my central gay couple, plus a slightly less whites-only vision of the historic Wild West...and while I can't claim to be any more perfect in my intent or effects than any other privileged writer struggling with similar intersectional issues can, I'm still pretty happy with the result.
So there we have it: the Western and the Weird, allied for great spectacle, plus—hopefully—at least some justice, if occasionally only at random. So check the Hexslinger Series Omnibus Edition out, if you're so inclined, and thanks for the opportunity to explain why you might be.
Former film critic and teacher turned award-winning horror author Gemma Files is probably best-known for her Hexslinger Series (
, all from ChiZine Publications). She has also published two collections of short fiction and two chapbooks of poetry. Recent work has appeared in
. Her next book, also from CZP, will be