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These Weird Horror Western Books Are Re-Inventing the Genre

Where the horror howls.

cowboy on a horse on a mountain by the light of the moon
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  • Photo Credit: Kym MacKinnon / Unsplash

Back in 2017, I noted the following trend on my blog for library workers:  

“…Westerns are making a comeback…because the genre is shifting to fit what readers want to read about today, while still staying true to the essence of what makes something "a Western." 

Up until recently, in order to be called a "Western" a book needed to be about the expansion of the West—and the men who “tamed” it. It also had to be set from after the Civil War to the turn of the 20th Century.

Okay, before I go any further, you can see right away why there is a problem with this definition—mostly white men, very strict time frame, and limited scope. 

But there are other things that are appealing about Westerns that many readers love and that this genre always got 100% right. For example, the rich descriptions of the beautiful landscape and the plots which place the characters in a morality play (with) revenge and redemption…at the center. These appeals are not unique to the West but they are things about the genre that fans also adore. 

This renewed interest in Westerns uses these basic appeal factors and a broad definition of "The West" as a place, but not always in those former strict time constraints. These are stories of the West that add in something else, like another genre, a darker tone…or are just plain "weird." They can now also be set anytime as long as "The West" as a place features prominently.” 

This popularity has only increased in the seven years since I first wrote that post, culminating most recently with Lone Women by Victor LaValle, a Weird Western, showing up on best lists from Library Journal to Book Page and as a nominee for awards like the Bram Stoker Award and the LA Times Book Prize.  

Looking back from 2017 to now, we not only see an increase in the number of titles being released, but within the classification of “Weird Western,” we have also seen a wider range of stories available to readers.

From science fiction and dark fantasy influences to atmospheric historicals to pulps, there is a Weird Western for every reader to join the wagon train and ride this popular trend into the sunset. 

River of Teeth

River of Teeth

By Sarah Gailey

Based on a very real plan by the United States government in the early 20th Century, in response to the possibility of a meat shortage, it was proposed that the wetlands of Lousianna be reconfigured to support the importation of hippopotamuses to be bred for food.

This is a pulpy, action-packed Western except the “cowboys” are wrangling hippos—oh, and one more fact, hippos are mean, can move deceptively fast, and have very powerful jaws. As you are hooting and hollering along with the characters and the action (and, I promise, you will be), it is cool to step back and realize that this is not so silly because it all could have happened!

The only complaint about this fun twist on the traditional Western is that it is only 180 pages long. 

Sea of Rust

Sea of Rust

By C. Robert Cargill

Welcome to a Weird Western that features zero humans because this post-apocalyptic story is set in the wasteland that is America after the robots won the war, having murdered every last human.

Brittle, a scavenger robot narrates, and she is surprisingly sympathetic despite the fact that we know she played a big part in the destruction of humanity. Readers follow Brittle and her quirky group of robots as they traverse the barren landscape looking for a place to call home, not that unlike those pioneers who set out on the Oregon Trail.

This is a compellingly paced but also philosophical story, that will have you looking a little more critically at the advances in AI. 

The Hunger

The Hunger

By Alma Katsu

Here we have Historical Horror at its finest and with a real-life frame as Katsu puts readers alongside the Donner Party on their doomed trip West to start a new life.

The story is riveting, even though we know these characters will never make it. Focusing on their interpersonal relationships, using multiple points of view, Katsu provides detailed info as to the backstories of the key players and their motivations for making this treacherous journey.

And if things weren’t tense enough with the real-life obstacles, there is clearly something supernatural stalking them as well. A sure bet Weird Western that continues to find new readers even six years after its release 

Unbury Carol

Unbury Carol

By Josh Malerman

Carol falls into comas so deep they mimic death, but while in them, she is very much alive and sentient. Her husband is one of the only people who knows her secret and he uses it to his advantage to fake Carol’s death, attempting to bury her before this latest spell ends. Her only hope is her long-lost love: the outlaw, Moxie.

However, in this retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fable, the only one Carol can reliably count on to save her—is herself. Malerman blends Steampunk, Horror, and the Western, borrowing what each does best, creating something wholly new, an intricately plotted, lyrical, page-turner, featuring complex characters that explores love, betrayal, revenge, and the primal fear of being buried alive. 

Stoker's Wilde West

Stoker's Wilde West

By Edited by Steven Hopstaken and Melissa Prusi

This sequel to Stoker's Wilde brings back the vampires, secret societies, and of course, the odd couple, monster fighting duo of Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde.

For Book Two, they have left London high society for the mythological American Wild West to help the U.S. government stop a land developer from opening a portal into a dark realm.

Following the cadence and genre tropes of a pulp Western, Hopstaken and Prusi further employ an epistolary style that allows multiple voices to emerge, revealing characters’ personalities, eccentricities, and feelings about one another while also magnifying the immediacy of danger and suspense.

Readers who are exploring Weird Westerns do not need to worry about reading the first book here, as they will utterly enjoy the story and the hysterical and endearing yet completely fictional relationship of the real-life authors. 

The Magpie Coffin

The Magpie Coffin

By Wile E. Young

The violence, grit, and supernatural elements of splatterpunk slams head first into this tale of the outlaw Salem Covington, a legend in the western territories, earning the nickname “The Black Magpie” over his twenty years of shedding blood.

It’s now 1875, his mentor has been murdered, and Salem is seeking revenge while also preserving his body in a special coffin. But Salem is not the only one out for revenge, as his own past may be out to get him as well.

Magpie Coffin not only won Best Novel at the 2021 Splatterpunk Awards, but it is also the first book in the excellent Splatter Western series of stand-alone novels from Death’s Head Press, meaning that those of you who really like this one, can quickly help yourself to more. 

When the Night Bells Ring

When the Night Bells Ring

By Jo Kaplan

Waynoka and Mads are traveling across a near-future, climate disaster landscape in Nevada, searching for shelter and water when they stumble upon a Silver Rush-era ghost town.

They explore the abandoned mine with the hopes of finding freshwater under the parched ground, but Mads is badly injured on the descent and the two women are forced to shelter in a natural cave where they find the diary of Livinia, a resident of the town back in 1869.

What follows is a harrowing story of survival, told in two-time frames featuring Waynoka and Mads in the novel’s present for one, and Livinia’s diary entries which unveil the monstrous truth hidden deep within the land itself, as the other.

Blending the Western with Ancient Evil and Cli-Fi, Kaplan offers readers an original, immersive, and compelling story that builds to a shocking conclusion. 

Melinda West: Monster Gunslinger

Melinda West: Monster Gunslinger

By KC Grifant

Set in an alternative version of the quintessential Wild West, there is a place known as “The Edge.”

Situated at the foot of the mountains, it serves as a borderland between our known world and the home of monsters, such as giant flying scorpions and snow krakens—who sometimes cross over, slip into settlements, and threaten all they encounter.

Melinda West, and her life partner, Lance have just returned from a year on the road saving numerous towns, finally gathering enough money to settle down. However, a soul-sucking spider attack quickly changes those plans, sending Melinda and Lance straight for the hills.

This fun, imaginative, and confident debut novel will scratch the Weird Western itch.

Hungers as Old as This Land

Hungers as Old as This Land

By Zachary Rosenberg

In this high-octane tale that is 50% Horror, 50% Western, and 100% fun, Rosenberg introduces readers to Esther and Siobhan, who have grown up in Grey’s Bluffs—a thriving Jewish community on the Western frontier.

It is hard to survive as an independent community in the harsh territories, but Grey’s Bluffs is situated near the mountains known as The Hungers, and there are pacts to be made there, to ensure prosperity. Cyril Redstone, a killer for hire, leads a pack of Blackhawks across the territories and Grey Bluffs is his next assignment.

This fast-paced, thought-provoking, and terrifying novella rises above the Weird Western pack—both as a historical tale and for the fear it radiates into our present. Rosenberg is a horror star on the rise and a sequel to this book has already been scheduled.  

Red Rabbit

Red Rabbit

By Alex Grecian

Lots of Westerns use the “wanted man” trope to bring a group together in pursuit of justice, but none have done it like Grecian.

Sadie Grace is a wanted witch. Dead or alive all of Kansas, it seems, is after the reward money offered if they can bring her in.

Readers follow an eclectic group composed of a real-life witch hunter, his mute ward, a widowed school teacher, and two cowboys traveling in a stolen red stagecoach on the adventure of a lifetime. They may be after a witch, but there are more dangerous monsters out on the plains, and some may be closer than they realize.

This fast-paced, adventure tale leaves plenty of room for strong character development as readers will get very attached to the rag-tag group, and root for them to succeed on their journey and in life.

But beware: animals are harmed in this story. 

Featured image: Kym MacKinnon / Unsplash