The best books for those who like their westerns weird

Who am I?

I became fascinated by westerns when my parents took me on vacation to Deadwood, South Dakota and I came home with a brace of toy six-shooters and a book called The Gunfighters by Lea F McCarty, which featured bios of various notorious westerners, from Billy The Kid to Calamity Jane. I eventually left Clayton Moore and The Cisco Kid behind for Sergio Leone. I had a strong interest in ghost stories, and it was Robert E. Howard that gave me the bug for the weird western genre. I wrote two straight-up western novels, Buff Tea and Coyote’s Trail, but I didn’t find an audience until I started injecting my stories with ghoulies. 

I wrote...

Merkabah Rider: High Planes Drifter

By Edward M. Erdelac,

Book cover of Merkabah Rider: High Planes Drifter

What is my book about?

The last of an ancient order of Jewish mystics capable of extraplanar travel, The Merkabah Rider roams the demon-haunted American West of 1879 in search of the renegade teacher who betrayed his enclave. But as the trail grows fresher, shadows gather, and The Hour Of The Incursion draws near... Four novella episodes in one book.

In a town hungry for blood, the Rider encounters a cult of Molech worshippers bent on human sacrifice ("The Blood Libel"). A murderous, possessed gunman descends upon a mountain town, and only the Rider stands in his way ("Hell's Hired Gun"). A powerful ju ju man with powers rivalling the Rider's own holds a fledgling Mexican boomtown in his sway ("The Dust Devils"). Finally the Rider faces the Queen of Demons and a bordello full of antediluvian succubi ("The Nightjar Women").

The books I picked & why

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The Black Stranger: And Other American Tales

By Robert E. Howard,

Book cover of The Black Stranger: And Other American Tales

Why this book?

Best known for creating Conan The Barbarian, Howard fathered the weird western genre with his seminal 1932 short story "The Horror From The Mound," collected here along with "The Thunder-Rider" and "Old Garfield’s Heart." Reading these early genre mashup stories of conquistador vampires, reincarnation, and Native American magic in high school was like tasting peanut butter and chocolate for the first time. They made new notions bloom like a field in my mind. You could take the gritty frontier of Lonesome Dove and introduce an element of the magical fantastic, and if you respected both genres, come up with something entirely new. I especially appreciated the culture clash of the frontier.

It’s something I explore a lot in my own work; that disparate peoples meet, mix, and come away changed by the encounter. This is an idea that Howard, who adored research and folklore, represents pretty well in "Old Garfield’s Heart," where a mortally wounded white man benefits from a Native shaman’s folk magic...until he doesn’t anymore.

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

By Cormac McCarthy,

Book cover of Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

Why this book?

If you’ve never read this book, fair warning, you’ll want to throw it across the room in the first five pages. It notoriously eschews all punctuation and most established narrative rules in its telling of a nameless Kid falling in with a vicious band of Indian scalp hunters (by that I mean they hunt Native Americans for a bounty laid on their scalps by the Mexican government). I laid it aside for months before I returned to it. Somewhere around page thirty or so though, I believe the book truly hypnotizes you. Reading it becomes a mystical experience, and you are steadily immersed in an apocalyptic revelation of surreal, otherworldly horror, wherein characters become dream archetypes and every scene vividly paints itself on the mind in strokes of blood.

Its supernatural aspect is undeniable in the timeless character of The Judge, a towering, philosophical albino who metes out life and death with the casual assurance of a slumming god. The book contains my favorite passage in all of literature….a single sentence description of a band of blood-soaked Comanche raiders that spans nearly two and a half pages!

Dead in the West

By Joe R. Lansdale,

Book cover of Dead in the West

Why this book?

If Howard is the father of the weird western, Joe Lansdale is the godfather. The trope of the wronged Native American shaman afflicting a frontier town with an undead plague has surely been used time and time again in the genre, but this is the original and best iteration. Joe’s Texas dialogue pops like a bullwhip cracking on a skeletal mule’s vertebrae and you can smell the iron and gunsmoke in his prose. He establishes his reputation with this book and in my opinion, cements it with the Jonah Hex weird western comics Two-Gun Mojo and Riders of The Worm and Such.

By the Gun: Six from Richard Matheson

By Richard Matheson,

Book cover of By the Gun: Six from Richard Matheson

Why this book?

Richard Matheson’s career was as prolific as it was varied. He’s best known for I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, to say nothing of his Twilight Zone episodes, but he also wrote the Spur Award-winning Journal of The Gun Years and its companion novel The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickock – huge influences on my own found document novel. A number of his western shorts are collected here. Most notable in terms of weird westerns is the cleverly titled "Gunsight," the story of a blind lawman preparing to defend himself from a band of approaching killers a la High Noon.

The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I

By Stephen King,

Book cover of The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I

Why this book?

The undisputed horror master recasts Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in the mode of an errant Arthurian knight questing a strange post-apocalyptic landscape in search of his arch-nemesis, The Man In Black, at the beginning of his epic Dark Tower series. Roland is both Blondie-Joe-Manco of the Dollars Trilogy and El Topo wandering a surreal Alejandro Jodorowsky backdrop. This is the most western of the bunch (and, in its basic plot of the last of a special breed of gunfighters seeking the man who betrayed his order, influenced my own books), with Roland bringing his polished six-shooters to bear on monsters, human or otherwise.

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