“The…what?” I hear you say. Saddle up, partners, and let’s explore western gothic, a genre you have definitely heard of but maybe never had a definition for.
What is Western Gothic?
Wikipedia defines “gothic western AKA western gothic AKA prairie gothic” as “a subculture that blends gothic and western lifestyles that are notably visible in fashion, music, film and literature.” While that is a helpful start, what exactly does that mean?
Western gothic is, at its core, the story of The Mysterious Man/Person In Black. It expands rapidly from there, taking a typical cowboy story to a deeper, more antihero place. It turns out that at this point, western gothic has worked itself into many aspects of literature and other forms of art. While gothic themes explore the darkness within, westerns tend to lean toward the light—white hat cowboys being straight-up (verrrry straight) heroes, etc.—and the blending 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 has. it. all. Gunslingers for hire? Check. Mad scientist creating an Adam-style monster in ice caves beneath his mouldering Victorian mansion in Eastern Oregon? Check. Beautiful daughters of said mad scientist, whose Adam has (predictably) escaped, requiring them to send a young Indigenous woman to hire said gunslingers? Check.
I’m not saying I can see where this book might be going, but I’m pretty sure Brautigan had me at “ice caves.” The Hawkline Monster has possibly the most illustrative blurb of the genre one can find, being quite literally a mashup of the traditional western and the original gothic masterpiece that is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The Blood of Eden Series by Julie Kagawa
While this genre may be called “western,” a key thing to note is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be set in the western U.S., nor does the protagonist need to be male (obvs). For example, Julie Kagawa’s The Blood of Eden series takes place in a fantasy world, has a female protagonist, and involves the eternal struggle between humans and vampires. The thing that makes this series western gothic is the antihero with leadership qualities, especially if those qualities are buried beneath A Dark Past. The struggle between the status quo and the way things should be.
A key aspect of the genre is, as one familiar with other gothic literature, the atmosphere. It must be dark, it must be chilling—if not literally then emotionally. Usually, gothic literature has an environmentally chilling atmosphere—it’s dark and cold, sometimes snowing, perhaps an English or New England winter. In contrast, western gothic often has elements of heat, similar to southern gothic.
The Best Western Gothic Books
The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, Book 1) by Stephen King
One of the best known examples of the genre is Stephen King’s The Gunslinger and the subsequent seven brick-sized books of The Dark Tower series. The main character is based on Clint Eastwood’s “The Man With No Name,” who is a Mysterious Man in Black Who Also Has A Past if ever there was one. The Dark Tower series spans many genres, as befits a work of this magnitude, and everything about it from the oppressive atmosphere to the metaphorical quest of the gunslinger himself screams western gothic.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
If you’re not quite ready to commit to 4200+ pages, you should start with Rebecca Roanhorse’s incredible Trail of Lightning and subsequent The Sixth World, a series of which two are published and two are anxiously awaited. Trail of Lightning tells the tale of Maggie Hoskie, a monster hunter in post-flood apocalypse Dinetah, who is seeking a missing girl. The final phrase on the back of the book blurb sums it up nicely: “…she will have to confront her past—if she wants to survive.”
Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios
For those looking for a visual entry into western gothic, this is an excellent start. Here we learn the spaghetti Western-esque story of the daughter of Death, who rides a horse made of smoke and whose retribution is savage, feminist, and solely due to her backstory.
If you’re looking to take a step into a sister genre, check out Annika’s excellent list of gothic horror.