A Beginner’s Guide to the Western Gothic Genre
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“The what?” I hear you say. Ride a horse, partners, and let’s explore Western Gothic, a genre you’ve certainly heard of but perhaps never had a definition.
What is Western Gothic?
Wikipedia defines “gothic western AKA western gothic AKA prairie gothic” as “a subculture that blends gothic and western lifestyles which are notably visible in fashion, music, film and literature.” While this is a useful start, what exactly does it mean?
Western Gothic is, at its core, the story of The Mysterious Man / Person In Black. It quickly develops from there, taking a typical cowboy story to a deeper, more anti-hero place. It turns out that at this point, Western Gothic integrated into many aspects of literature and other art forms. While gothic themes explore inner darkness, westerns tend to lean towards the light – white hat cowboys being straight heroes, etc. – and the mixture of the two leaves the reader in the liminal space between light and dark.
The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western by Richard Brautigan
The first book to use “gothic western” in its (sub) title was The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western by Richard Brautigan, published in 1974. This book a. he. all. Gunslingers for hire? Check. Crazy scientist creating an Adam-style monster in ice caves beneath his ruined Victorian mansion in eastern Oregon? Check. Beautiful daughters of said mad scientist, from which Adam escaped (as you might expect), forcing them to send a young native woman to hire said pistols? Check.
I’m not saying I can see where this book might go, but I’m pretty sure Brautigan had me in “ice caves”. The Hawkline Monster has perhaps the most illustrative blurb of its kind you can find, being literally a mashup of the traditional western and the original Gothic masterpiece that is Mary Shelley Frankenstein.
The blood of Eden Julie Kagawa series
While this genre might be called “western,” one key thing to note is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be located in the western United States, and the protagonist doesn’t need to be located in the western United States. be a man (obvs). For example, Julie Kagawa’s The Blood of Eden series is set in a fantasy world, has a female protagonist, and involves the eternal struggle between humans and vampires. The thing that makes this western gothic series is the antihero with leadership qualities, especially if those qualities are buried under A Dark Past. The struggle between the status quo and the way things are should to be.
A key aspect of the genre is, as one is familiar with other Gothic literatures, the atmosphere. It has to be dark, it has to be scary – if not literally, then emotionally. Usually Gothic literature has a ecologically freezing atmosphere – dark and cold, sometimes it snows, maybe an English or New England winter. In contrast, Western Gothic often has elements of warmth, similar to Southern Gothic.
The best western gothic books
The gunslinger (The Dark Tower, Volume 1) by Stephen King
One of the best-known examples of the genre is that of Stephen King The gunslinger and the next seven brick-sized books from The Dark Tower series. The main character is based on “The Man with No Name” by Clint Eastwood, who is a mysterious man in black who also has a past if there is one. The Dark Tower series spans many genres, befitting a work of this magnitude, and everything to do with it, from the oppressive atmosphere to the metaphorical quest for the gunslinger himself, howls Western Gothic.
Lightning trail by Rebecca Roanhorse
If you’re not quite ready to commit to over 4,200 pages, you should start with the incredible Lightning trail And subsequent The sixth world, a series of which two are published and two are eagerly awaited. Lightning trail tells the story of Maggie Hoskie, a monster hunter in the post-flood apocalypse Dinetah, who searches for a missing girl. The last sentence on the back of the blurb sums it up well: “… she will have to face her past – if she is to survive.”
Quite deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios
For those looking for a visual entry into Western Gothic, this is a great start. Here, we learn the western-sounding spaghetti story of the Daughter of Death, who rides a smoke horse and whose punishment is savage, feminist and only due to her backstory.
If you’re looking to step into a sister genre, check out Annika’s excellent gothic horror list.