WisCon 42: Weird West Panel

Despite being scheduled at 8:30 am, the Weird West panel at WisCon was well-attended and led to some great discussion. I’m posting my rough notes from the panel; my questions are bolded, and my comments are in brackets when they occur in panelists’ responses. Please keep in mind that these are very rough notes combined with my own recollection and are not verbatim transcripts of what was said at the panel.

Panel Description

Weird West | Sunday, May 27, 2018 from 8:30–9:45 am in University B
S. Qiouyi Lu (moderator), Natania Barron, Eric M. Heideman, Gayathri Kamath

Westworld and Wynonna Earp are mining the American West for both science fiction and supernatural horror in what are essentially closed societies. What makes the West so suitable for being Weird? What does the setting contribute to these shows in particular? And how are these shows commenting on the outside world?

Panel Discussion

What defines a western versus a weird western? What are some themes that recur in weird westerns?

GAYATHRI: The gunslinger, the stranger coming into town. A certain backdrop and time period. The use of guns as protection because the law wasn’t always available.

NATANIA: An unknown quantity: the uncovering. There are consequences to the unknown, to visiting a town that’s not quite right. Groups of people creating microcultures and something new; the discomfort of those moments. You’re picking at a scab. Some examples: Godless (TV series), The Beguiled (film).

ERIC: Culture clashes. Codes of honor.

What are some of your favorite weird westerns?

GAYATHRI: The Wild Wild West (TV series and movie; notes movie had some bad representation of trans women and race), Wynonna Earp (TV series), where the gun is embodied with magic and only one person can wield it.

NATANIA: Weird westerns often don’t find much commercial success. Territory by Emma Bull. The Devil’s West series by Laura Anne Gilman: an inclusive, cool series. Joe Lansdale’s work, where you often have to sit down and breathe after short stories. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest—it’s set in Seattle, but still follows with the expansion themes of westerns.

ERIC: Seconds Territory. The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr. (TV show). There’s a self-referential attitude. A Million Ways to Die in the West (movie).

How much of the “weird western” is a conception of an alternate history, versus just a setting or an aesthetic?

GAYATHRI: There’s a sense of space and tension, but there’s also room for alternate histories where colonization doesn’t happen. Wynonna Earp is set in the present day, but it’s still often considered a western.

NATANIA: The western often involves the moment of turning over a rock and seeing how everything changes. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie is set in a time where colonization is just beginning. There are elements and themes that may not be considered as part of the western.

ERIC: There’s a lot to argue about the specifics of what makes something a western. However, the concept of a frontier is a core element in most narratives.

What narratives and elements are missing from weird westerns?

GAYATHRI: People living as a different gender were so rampant during that time period that people didn’t even mention it. Guns also leveled the playing field and provided empowerment for people with less strength and power, such as women.

NATANIA: Mentions the Strange California anthology. San Francisco was the edge of the west, but it was a multicultural place with an old-world feel. Manufacturing and immigration were large elements of the time period. Mentions a work with an Iranian cowboy who was part of the large carpetmaking industry and stories of Chinese women who immigrated from very different parts of China. There was a lot of variation with how people behaved. Speculative fiction is an open medium, but the research still has to be plausible and give voice to the people who were there. There was also organized crime in China [that may have been replicated in the United States?]. If you can dream it, that person probably existed.

ERIC: Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary features Chinese railroad workers who encounter the mysterious Sarah Canary, who acts as a Rorschach test with how various people interpret her. You have to try to represent the various peoples from the time period and do the work.

Speaking of guns leveling the playing field for people with less power: What are some examples of how disability manifests or is portrayed in the weird western?

NATANIA: There are some representations of cognitive disability, but they are mostly played as bizarre. But there’s lots of room for representations of disability, such as PTSD and the trauma of gun wounds, since many wounds didn’t result in an instant death. Despite its various problems, Dances with Wolves did a good job of portraying infection and its consequences. There’s lots of room for exploring disability in the weird western, such as how disfigurement and genetic issues may affect people’s experiences.

I only recently found out that Chinese immigrants built most of the roads that go into Yosemite National Park. Among them was a chef who was well-respected and used innovative cooking techniques. What are some portrayals or information on cuisine that you’ve seen in the weird western?

GAYATHRI: There’s a lot to look into with regards to what natives ate. Sean Sherman’s The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen would be a great place to start; it contains recipes that use native ingredients that would have been available at the time. In addition to native cuisines, there were several waves of immigration, including Chinese people and South Asians, who would have brought their own food and spices. White migrants would have had their own traditions as well. San Francisco was a cosmopolitan city [so you would have probably seen many of these cuisines there]. There’s also the other consideration of what you might carry as a single person on horseback.

NATANIA: Cuisine is often erased with the image of the cowboy on horseback with tins of beans and dried beef. But towns would have had different options. Contemporary natives are doing work to rediscover their indigenous cuisines; there’s a documentary about an Alaskan chef researching microgreens, seal meat, and other food that was traditionally eaten. Food connects people. It’s easy in stories like spaghetti westerns to create a villain by making an Other without food and therefore without a connection to community or cooking. Imagine the spices, curries, and fusions that would have arisen: it’s more than just opening a can of beans. The West is desperate, but food offers respite and respect.

ERIC: A recurring character is the cook, who earns people’s respect and loyalty through their skill. Mentions Red Rivers. [I’m getting a lot of results, so I’m not sure which one it is.]

What are some details that are overlooked in weird westerns? For example, in your research, have you found clothing details that are overlooked when people rely on the stereotype of what a cowboy should look like?

GAYATHRI: A lot of women wore men’s clothing simply because it was more comfortable, but dress often isn’t discussed except to Other someone. There’s also the trope of the dance hall girls, such as Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke. There’s lots of tropes to play with.

NATANIA: Fashion is a huge topic for this time period. There’s a big contrast of wearing handmade items with the rise of manufacturing, in particular the presence of the Sears-Roebuck catalog, which sold hygiene goods like soap, as well as hats and pretty much everything you’d want to get the look. You could even buy a house from the catalog! There was tension between commercialization and handcrafted items. For women’s fashion, corsets were very restrictive, but the lines in the dress silhouettes were incredibly artistic. Death was also eminent, so you got a gilded concept, even with guns.

ERIC: Calamity Jane is perhaps one of the most well-known characters with an interesting outfit and style. Deadwood (TV series) is also a good reference.

Natania, you mentioned death as being eminent in westerns. What are some ways people died in the west? What were some death rituals and funerary rites that you’ve seen either in your research or in fiction?

GAYATHRI: Have Gun – Will Travel deals with this. There’s also the story of two tongs fighting over who gets to be sent home for a funeral. Would Hindu or Sikh people want a cremation, especially in a flammable prairie? There’s also the consideration of whether someone would be buried or left out for the elements. Consider also Boot Hill.

NATANIA: Death acted as a leveler. There are also cultures where the body can’t be disturbed, or where there isn’t enough time to deal with the body. What did Jews in the West do? Adaptation happens. What would it like to be a priest in the West? Faith is taken into the wilderness. Deadwood explores this question.

ERIC: Actual gunfights didn’t happen in the streets; people were often shooting behind defenses. There’s also a Twilight Zone episode about Boot Hill where all the inhabitants were revived.

Continuing along that train of thought: How does religion manifest in the weird western? I imagine it may have been more difficult to construct elaborate places of worship. Additionally, Chinese immigrants would have probably had a different experience of religion: many Chinese people adhere more to a folk form of worship than any kind of organized religion, so people often have small altars in the home that would be quite portable.

GAYATHRI: Neil Gaiman grappled with the question of how immigrants bring their gods to new lands [see American Gods]. Spiritual aspects follow you. With Hinduism, much is in the home; much can be taken with you. A Muslim cowboy would have to stop several times a day while traveling; how would someone account for that? When you consider the weird angle, that prompts the question of what kind of monsters would follow you, too. Would a djinn or a jiangshi follow its way to the West?

NATANIA: Catholics have a tradition of tying saints to certain locations and Christianizing locales with missions, knowing that people will be drawn to familiar religious figures. But these traditions weren’t as rooted and were more temporary: ghost towns are prevalent; establishments were ephemeral. What kind of religion is left behind?

ERIC: [Relates a work of fiction about Mongolia—my notes are sparse, so I’ve lost the details.]

Natania, you mentioned Christianizing forces, which have often been used to convert and oppress native populations. What are some of the oppressions that we see in westerns?

GAYATHRI: Natives were pushed out of their land. However, when the land was reopened to be settled again, there were some Ho-Chunk people who came during that open period to reclaim their land.

NATANIA: A utopic view of the West is uncomfortable and unlikely. There was a steamrolling toward a technical future. When we consider railroads, what if Chinese people didn’t do the building? Whiteness was defined against Chineseness. Newspapers from the era were rampant with blatant racism. People were oppressed in very real ways, so when you deal with people who exist and existed in fiction, you have to tread carefully to not mitigate or erase actual experiences.

ERIC: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest takes as its central plot point a lot of the conflict and oppression that arises with colonizing forces entering an indigenous land.

Audience question: What are some examples of environmental impacts in westerns? For example, near-extinction of bison and the rise of strip mining.

NATANIA: I have a story originally published in Crossed Genres about strip mining [appears to be “Dead’s End to Middleton,” reprinted in EscapePod]. There was a lot of opportunity; greed over resources was prevalent. Animals like the carrier pigeon went extinct because people didn’t consider the impact of their actions.

ERIC: There’s the story “The Ugly Chicken.” [My notes are sparse and I’m getting a lot of results, so I’m not sure which one this is referencing.]

Audience comment: Indigenous populations may have adapted technology in different ways and had different relationships to land and resources.

Audience question: How do you tread the line between inclusivity and cultural appropriation?

GAYATHRI: Take the Writing the Other course. As an immigrant and a nonwhite person, I have had to learn to write the Other, because those are the stories that I’ve heard. You have to acknowledge and gracefully survive making mistakes.

NATANIA: It’s anxiety-inducing, but it’s worth trying to do. The world we want to see is a diverse world.

ERIC: Make a good-faith effort.

Audience question: What are some genres that you like to see intersecting with the western?

NATANIA: There’s a lot of room for exploration narratives instead of colonization narratives, like when westerns intersect with fantasy. Characters can explore a fantasy world. Especially when it comes to steampunk, it’s through a very white, Victorian lens. What about stories of natives meeting other natives?

Post-panel comments

Many westerns don’t take into consideration the various nonbinary genders that indigenous people have and that were often in an exalted place.

Pemican is a great food to explore in western settings.

The boundary between “indigenous” and “Latinx” was a lot more fluid at the time.

Additional Resources

Eric M. Heideman runs a Western-focused event called Con-Sarnit. Con-Sarnit Eleven is taking place on June 8 and 9, 2018, in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’ve scanned a copy of the flyer and made it available for download.

Eric also provided a list of some weird westerns compiled by Con-Sarnit:

Movies

  • The Undead (1946?)
  • Westworld (1972?)
  • Outland (1981)
  • The Proposition (2003?)
  • Undead or Alive (2007)
  • Jonah Hex (2010)
  • Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
  • A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)
  • The Revenant (2015)
  • Bone Tomahawk (2015)
  • The Dark Tower (2017)

TV Series

  • The Wild, Wild West (1960s)
  • The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr (1990s)
  • Westworld (2010s)