Lately I have become interested in the idea of Western and have been delving into this vast and fascinating genre. There is something ominous and menacing about the western genre that I find most interesting. Westerns are eerie. Sometimes theyre even a little bit spooky. Imagine a tumbleweed blowing across a deserted town while a batwing door creaks in the wind and youll be reminded that horror can (and often does) play a big part in the western genre. There are now petrified ghost towns strewn about the western landscape to remind one of a no-time/anytime place where brothels and saloons went up with reckless abandon and where murder and mayhem occurred at regular intervals, leaving ghostly remnants ingrained in the land, like a bloodstain on the cracked and dirty soil. Heck, with a little stretch of the imagination, it is not impossible to imagine a western taking place on the surface of Mars.
Anyway, I have been reading a lot of Louis L'Amour. I guess if one wants to delve into the western genre, L'Amour is as good a place as any. One title Ive read recently was called The Comstock Lode, about silver mining at the end of the 19th century. It was about mining practices at that time -- quite scary, actually. They fashioned their hard hats out of wax and hoped for the best when they went underground. Couple this with the fact that the competition was always trying to blow up its rivals and youve got the makings for some harrowing tales. But one LAmour title that I found particularly intriguing was The Haunted Mesa. In this novel LAmour explores the notion of a parallel universe in which ancient American natives originated. In this novel, there is even a portal (almost a la Stargate variety) and monsters. This verges more into the Weird West category, and is very much speculative fiction, but it nonetheless illustrates the degree to which that lonely and desolate land found on the western frontier can capture the imagination, especially for the darker subjects.
There is also something particularly scary about an unknown, undiscovered land where man is in constant conflict with himself, fellow man and the unforgiving nature that surrounds him. Such settings have the ability to truly send chills up ones spine. What is also interesting is how the idea of west became an ideal in its own right, as the frontier was perpetually moved further and further toward the Pacific and the aboriginals were conquered and the horror further promulgated. There have been wars, rapes, hangings, beheadings, trials by fire, diseases and millions of amputations without anaesthetic all in the name of Western Expansion. Ironically, westward expansion can only go so far before it becomes East again.
Another medium that is giving the western genre a much deserved renaissance is video games. The trend started earlier this year with the release of Call of the Juarez: Bound in Blood on all major platforms, but it wasnt until the release of Red Dead Redemption where interest in the genre seems to have really exploded amongst gamers. Although I have not tried Juarez yet, Red Dead Redemption is one of the best games available today. The action is great, the cut scenes beautiful, but it is the compelling story that propels everything forward that is the real success of the game. I hope that the genre continues to thrive and be a creative outlet for game developers.
Hollywood hasnt had much success with the western genre in recent years, but thats bound to change. Westerns come in cycles, so it will be interesting to see what the future has in store. Unfortunately Jonah Hex appears to be at the forefront of the next trend; let us hope it is not a harbinger of things to come. It was bad, and bombed at the box office. I hope it doesnt inspire knee-jerk reactions to other potential projects. The Wild West is a perfect backdrop for horror and I would love to see Deadlands or Wasteland translated onto celluloid. Of course there is also Stephen Kings The Gunslinger series coming to film, spearheaded by Ron Howard, and we can only hope that something awesome will come of that ... with any luck ... fingers crossed.
Nonetheless, one does not have to wait for future titles to come out. If you are eager to jump into a good western there is already a ton of material available for your reading and viewing pleasure: visit your local library, video store or the Western/American History section of your local book store and take a trip through the past darkly.
Editor: "Through the Past Darkly" is a biweekly column published Tuesdays.
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