The Weird West is a newer term for a genre that traces back to the pulp era when authors like Robert E Howard would slap together all sorts of crazy stuff, as long as it involved an evil horror rising and some badass needing to stop it with manly violence. And for all his pulpishness, Howard was pretty decent writer and could often pull the story above the simplistic pulp formula. As far as i know, Weird West can be said to have originated with Robert E. Howard, although he didn’t really do more than dabble with it.
His classic Weird West story is The Horror from the Mound, first published in Weird Tales Magazine, 1932.
We are not here today to talk about Mr. Howard however. No, we are interested in the next weird west tales to pop their monstrousy heads up. In the 1950s, during the last of the pulp era, writer Lon Williams wrote a whole bunch of weird western tales featuring gunslinger Lee Winters and his horse Cannon Ball, from the town of Forlorn Gap, who were thrown into all sorts of supernatural situations ranging from Ghosts to demons, and Greek gods to the Three Fates.
The two recurring characters are Doc Bogannan, the Saloon Keeper from Forlorn Gap and Lee’s eventual wife Myra. These tales ran from 1951-1959 in the pulp magazine Real Western Stories.
The best part of this little literary blog from the fog is this next bit. Over at http://pulpfan.livejournal.com/5672.html, Mr. Pelpfan has taken the time and trouble to break down the standard plot structure of the average Lee Williams story, the sort of thing i find delightful. In his words:
“It was a perilous thing I did ….
… no, I’m not referring to the fact that in the last few weeks, I had to endure having to go to two dentists to get one tooth extracted.
… The *perilous* part was that, to kill the time, in either the reception area or the dentist’s chair, spent idley waiting for the needles and such, I printed up a number of Lon William’s Lee Winters stories and read them all at once.
This is always a perilous thing to do with a pulp writer — the stories were meant to be read with a separation of a month or so between each story. You start reading a bunch of stories by a pulp writer all at once — even one of the really *good* ones — and often the pattern, the formula, they wrote by, becomes all to evident, and saps the enjoyment out of reading any of their subsequent works.
The Good News
First, if you are looking for distraction from imminent dental agonies, the Lee Winters stories work really well: they are spooky and humorous and just involving enough to take you away from the mundane realities, for ten or fifteen minutes.
Second, even really the formula that the majority of these stories adhere to does not entirely remove the enjoyment of them: once I started seeing the joins and structures of the formula these stories are written to (and the majority of them *do* adhere to a set formula), I found myself enjoying them nonetheless, partially because Lon Williams descriptive passages of often very well written, atmospheric and eerie, and partially because, no matter how outre the stories get, there is always a streak of humor, balanced with melancholy, which can intrude at surprising times and in surprising ways.
Third, though, there are stories where it seems that Williams starts down the path of his usual formula — and, apparently, getting struck by inspiration — chucks it and goes with the flow. These stories are exceptional — although even the formula stories remain entertaining.
The Bad News
I now know exactly how a standard, formula, Lee Winters story is structured.
If you want to make the discovery, for yourself, then don’t look beneath the cut.
It can be rendered thus:
- Lee Winters, coming back to the town of Forlorn Gap, seeming some weird, alarming, troubling or strange.
- Winters goes to Doc Bogannon’s tavern and tells Doc what he has seen.
- There are two or more strangers at the tavern, each of whom has some peculiarity, and agenda.
- (Sometimes Lee Winters meets one or another of the strangers … sometimes not. He often tells some story about his youth in Texas — a story which, at first seems absurd, but later proves relevant.
- One stranger persuades the other to go with him, on some pretext.
- The one stranger kills the other, using often some clever, ingenious, or eccentric method.
- (In some stories, Lee Winters goes back home, and has a conversation with his wife, Myra, who makes some sort of key observation. She seems to be used when some key information needed for Lee Winters to win out in the end is of the sort that would sound better coming from the mouth of a sagacious, bookish woman than from Doc Bogannon)
- Lee Winters goes back to Doc Bogannon’s tavern, and meets the predatory stranger.
- The stranger leads him away.
- (Doc Bogannon usually tries to give Lee Winters a warning, but is either too late, or unheeded).
- The stranger leads Winters into a trap.
- Winters, either using his native common sense and/or information gleaned from Doc Bogannon or his wife and/or an insight gleaned from the story he told earlier, turns the tables on the predatory stranger.
Although the formula is pretty well articulated, it is interesting that it does allow room for a number of varieties of emphasis, and tone. And Lon Williams is a good enough writer that even the formula stories are still pretty entertaining.
With all that in mind, though, I do recommend the following stories:
- King Solomon’s Throne
- Fountain of Youth — a man who claims to never need sleep meets a man who claims to have never-ending youth. Who is scamming whom?
- Satan’s Wool Merchant
- Lantern in the Sky — two strangers meet, both of whom claim to be reincarnations of great poets of the past.
- The Kite Flier — two self-proclaimed philosophers meet. One decides to put his ideas to a — potentially deadly — test.
- The Deadly Slowpoke — a master hypnotist encounters a feared gunman — but who, really, has the advantage on whom?
- The Three Fates — three eccentric archaeologists come to town, each one of which claims a distinctive gift: the ability, respectively, to know what’s what, who’s who, and where’s where.
- The Dancing Trees — Lee Winters has a run-in with Orpheus and Euridice — I kid you not!
- The Salt Wagons — Winters somehow finds himself present at a confrontation between ancient Greeks and Persian, some time before the Persian war
- The Water Carriers — Another confrontation with Greek mythology, but the names and roles are curiously skewed
A Portion of Seven is, mostly, another formula story — but this one reveals something of the background of Doc Bogannan, the Saloon Keeper of Forlorn Gap.
In The Banshee Singer, we have what seems, for most of its length, to be a standard, formula story — but then it takes an odd .. and haunting …. twist.
The Bee’s Nest is, similarly, about 80% formula … but then takes a surprising turn.
You can find his stories at http://www.pulpgen.com and at http://www.munseys.com — just search under “Lon Williams”. Given a choice, I recommend Pulpgen because they have the stories in .pdf format, with the original illustrations. However, Munseys has the stories available in a number of different formats for download — and, recently, they have been making available a number of vintage crime and detective novels from the 40s and 50s, with the original cover art, as well.”