A good Western is more than a setting. You can’t just slap together a saloon, a mountain stream glittering with gold, and a few Stetsons and call it good. There’s a certain tone and attitude to a good Western, an understanding that you’re in a raw and unpredictable place where safety and lawfulness can’t be taken for granted.
The Western shares many attributes with horror, which makes mixing the two together seem like a guaranteed win. But, likewise, there’s got to be more to horror than the expected superficial trappings for a story to be called “good.”
Two stories into How the West Was Weird from Pulpwork Press, I was beginning to despair that this was an anthology full of Western settings and horror trappings, but no good Western horror stories. I wasn’t a hundred percent correct, as a couple of authors got the formula right, but overall the package was a disappointment.
Ironically, the one that really hit the nail on the head, “Space Miners” by Ian Taylor, skipped the Western setting altogether, opting instead for the vast, lawless frontier of outer space. The conflict between the titular human miners and a group of bloodthirsty aliens recalls similar tales told of violent clashes over gold claims. The miners in the story are fun and engaging, the aliens are foreboding, and the pace is brisk. It’s a fun read.
Unfortunately, it’s the only story I can really describe as “fun.” Even “You Need To Know What’s Coming” by Ian Mileham, the only other story I can call a success in this collection, is just more competent than fun. It’s atmospheric and well-written, but, unlike “Space Miners,” it doesn’t really stick once you’re done with it.
The other stories suffer from a variety of bad plot decisions, from protagonists who do most of their fighting by talking (instead of the exorcism or shootout the particular story demands), to twist endings that fall flat on the page. Reading this book is a little like strolling through the abandoned set of an old Western movie – all of the pieces are in place, but there’s no life to it.
There are plenty of good horror/Western mashups floating around. They’re just not to be found here. I understand there’s a second volume of How the West Was Weird on the way, and hopefully they got it right this time. I’d be willing to give Anderson and crew another shot. But, despite a couple of relatively bright spots, I have to recommend you give this first attempt a pass.