New Mythologies of the Frontier: A Neo-Western Reading List


I never thought I’d write a Western, which might seem strange considering my first book’s set in the nineteenth century and features scummy dudes with guns riding around on horses. But technically that one’s a Southern Gothic. And yet, like so many Southern Gothic writers, I found myself at midcareer eyeballing the Western and its herd of subgenres.

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At first, I figured it might just be one of those phases in the Southern Gothic writer lifecycle, but the more I dug into the Western and my own feelings about it, the more appealing it seemed to write one.

The way the Western’s most iconic elements can be repurposed by artists, taking them out of the context of the nineteenth century American West, that really made it appealing to work in the genre. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Historical Western and I really love its mean-ass cousin the Revisionist Western and every sub-sub-generic category in between…but the kinds of Western stories that hit me hardest, and the ones that shaped my own entry into the genre most deeply, are what I’d call the Neo-Westerns.

Now, traditionally, the Neo-Western means a story set in the present-day American West that features some of the figures and themes of the Historical Western, something like No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water. I love those kinds of Neo-Westerns, too, though I don’t love them as much as the ones that push a little further into the borderlands, movies like Near Dark or Saloum or Cherry 2000.

The kinds of Neo-Westerns I’m talking about take the genre’s classic elements and put them in radically new contexts. They don’t demythologize the Western, they use the mythological elements of the Western to make their stories more monumental and grand.

And that’s what I wanted to do with The Great State of West Florida. This list, like my book, contains a whole lot of genres and forms, from 80s anime to cyberpunk to the inescapable Southern Gothic. But with its gunfighters, besieged homesteads, conniving landowners, political bosses, and intersecting stories of revenge, The Great State of West Florida is, more than anything, a Western, and a Neo-Western at that.

Here are five works of fiction that shaped the way I approached the Neo-Western genre in my book, and what I love about them.

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Charles Wilkins Webber, “Jack Long; or, the Shot in the Eye”

C.W. Webber actually rode with the real-life Glanton gang, of Blood Meridian fame, and who some say is the model for the fictional Judge. A sensation in its time, hyped by Edgar Allan Poe himself, “Jack Long” sets the pattern of the Western revenge story, in which our protagonist is violently wronged, left for dead, and sets out on the vengeance trail, finally becoming a mythical figure through the scope and prowess of their vengeance.

Remarkably, the wrongs that turn Jack Long into a sharpshooting wraith of the badlands are committed by the landed gentry: the slaveholding planters of East Texas, rather than by Native Americans or Mexicans or the symbols of federal authority so often cast in the role of villain in these sorts of stories.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that seeing punch-sipping enslavers get plugged whenever they ride out to do some trophy hunting is pretty doggone cathartic, and I tried to bring that sense of catharsis to the climactic scenes of The Great State of West Florida, when the gunfighter Rodney Woolsack faces off with the hideous, villainous Troy Yarbrough, a right-wing politician who’s plunged the region into a bloody conflict and whose family has warped Rodney’s life from the time he was small.

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Donald Westlake (Curt Clark), Anarchaos

Some say people tend to resolve grievances via interpersonal violence because they feel disconnected from the recourse of the state, the judiciary, civil government. (There’s a direct and plausible connection between the end of dueling in the United States and increased access to post offices, for instance.) Whether you agree or not, revenge in the Western, whether neo or otherwise, is inescapably a comment on the idea of personal freedom.

Set on a crimson planet lit by a sun called Hell, and populated with the greedy and the insanely violent, Donald Westlake’s Anarchaos takes the idea of personal freedom and twists it into one of the most harrowing and strange pieces of fiction it’s been my pleasure to encounter.

Anarchaos is a planet with no rules, a Libertarian paradise of a kind, and as such it’s a nightmare world for all but those whose wealth is built on both the misery of others and the system of hideous self-interest that drives all below them to be selfish and cruel. When Rolf Malone, who’s just done time in space-jail for murdering his neighbors because they were playing their music too loud (seriously), arrives planetside, seeking revenge for the murder of his brother (who, in classic Western fashion, was killed to protect a mining claim), Rolf takes a cab from the spaceport, undoes his belt, wraps it around the cabbie’s throat, and strangles him to death, casually dumping the body and taking the vehicle.

At this point, we know we’re dealing with somebody who’d make Anton Chigurh blink, if not blush. Except he isn’t the antagonist; he’s our hero. Rolf is no Parker (Westlake’s frequently wronged and implacably vengeful anti-hero thief); he has no code of professionalism or even warped honor. He’s an admitted psychopath.

But over the course of a story in which he’s mutilated and enslaved for years in the planet’s mines, we come to feel things for this being, even if he doesn’t feel much himself. By the time he’s finally unleashed on the mining executives who had his brother killed and had him enslaved, we’re truly rooting for him, rather than simply reading for the next shocking scene (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).

It’s a showstopping finale, set aboard a black yacht on an even darker sea with Rolf slicing through the last of the villains like an 80s slasher—but Westlake and Rolf aren’t done with this hell-world until the system that makes it possible is utterly destroyed. I read this one in a matter of hours, jaw on the floor. I reference Anarchaos directly in the first chapter of The Great State of West Florida, bowing to Westlake’s book and to McCarthy’s reference to the gnostic Anareta, a planet of dread and ill tidings, in Blood Meridian.

I’d love to write an adaptation of this one. I think it’d make a terrific comic with the visual styling of, say, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires.

Little Constructions - Burns, Anna

Anna Burns, Little Constructions

“There are no differences between men and women. No differences. Except one. Men want to know what sort of gun it is. Women just want the gun.” So opens the funniest book I’ve read this side of Charles Portis’ Norwood or the stories of Helen DeWitt.

But Anna Burns’ second novel is also one of the nastiest, most upsetting revenge stories in contemporary fiction. And with its archetypal figures, themselves influenced by the depictions of the violent American West, and an iconoclastic spirit, this is a Neo-Western to me, even if it’s set in Ireland.

The Western revenge story, by rights, tends to build to a showdown, and from the moment Jetty Doe, scion of a criminal family, bursts into a local gunshop and carries off an AK-74, Little Constructions goes from one showdown to the next at furious speed, borne along by some of my favorite sentences anywhere. There are showdowns not only with the brutal men who’ve warped generations of a Northern Irish family, but with the past of the entire country and the nature of male violence.

More than anything, or at least most exciting to me, this book is a showdown with the English language itself. Burns builds rhythmic and rhetorical structures that sometimes puzzle before they explode into dazzling perfection. Character names repeat and refract until we have Does such as Johnjoe and JanineJoshuatine bouncing off the page.

I could see the latter move striking some readers as cute or ridiculous, but as a member of a formerly criminal family (though no way near as lousy as the Does) with six siblings all of whose first names start with the same letter, my credulity remained unstrained.

I love Milkman, which won Anna Burns the acclaim she so rightfully deserves, but I adore Little Constructions. It’s hilarious, frequently horrifying, and utterly humiliates the very macho gun culture that the Western often embraces.

Vampire Hunter D Omnibus: Book One - Kikuchi, Hideyuki 

Hideyuki Kikuchi, Vampire Hunter D (illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano)

I know it might seem like I’m stretching even my own loose definition of Neo-Western by including a Japanese novel set in the year 12,090 AD, but when you’ve got a handsome enigmatic stranger riding in to help a small-time ranch heiress who’s beleaguered by coarse local beaus and the nearby gentry (who are, in this case, vampires and the rulers of a massively stratified society), you’ve got a Western on your hands, pardner.

But Kikuchi isn’t about subverting generic expectations, or at least not in the makes-you-think sense; he leans so far into genre that he breaks all the barriers we use to define them, uniting the Western and Gothic Horror in a far-future SF-Fantasy world that’s every bit the equal of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique or Gene Wolf’s Urth. It’s a ripping yarn, with as many fights and chases and perilous escapes as the Saturday morning serials that brought the Western to cultural preeminence almost a century ago.

To tie a ribbon on this wonderfully propulsive, endlessly thrilling gift of a book (published in an omnibus edition with two of Kikuchi’s other D novels, which also totally rule), every couple of pages you get a gorgeous ink illustration by none other than famed Final Fantasy designer Yoshitaka Amano.

Like many Americans my age, I first came upon the character of Vampire Hunter D in the mid-nineties, late at night, on the Sci-Fi Channel, during one of their marathons of what was then called “Japanimation.” From the moment D rode up on his mecha horse, looking like the lovechild of Lestat and the Man With No Name, I was completely hooked.

The novel more than lives up to its more famous adaptation, and whenever I felt like I needed to ramp up the action in my own book, I’d take a dip back into the strange and beautiful world of D.

Pity the Beast - McLean, Robin

Robin McLean, Pity the Beast

If I was pressed at sixgun-point to name my favorite novel of the last decade and my favorite living American writer, the answer to both questions is Pity the Beast by Robin McLean. When this book came out there should’ve been celebrations in the streets, because here at last we have a writer squaring up with the grim violent Western tale and its practitioners not on their terms, but on hers.

McLean does so many things in her fiction that make her, for my money, peerless, but one of the most characteristic and thrilling aspects of her work is that she never, ever forgets the natural world and relentlessly scales her human characters against it in such a way that they are alternately reduced by the majesty and indifference of nature, but also enlarged by that sense of scale. Her characters aren’t archetypes, even though many see themselves as such, they don’t tower and loom over the landscape, but set against such a masterfully rendered landscape, they sure do stand tall.

And, most importantly for me, here we have some of the most heartstopping sentences I’ve ever read. Set in the American West of the present day, we follow Ginny, a rancher who’s assaulted by her husband and neighbors and left for dead, but survives and takes up rifle and horse, hitting the trail to outrun her pursuers, who want her silenced and worse—this one’s as close to a traditional Neo-Western as anything on this list.

But saying so risks reducing a novel that contains a galaxy of voices, times, and tones, one that can speak in the voice of the pop-culture Western (often literally, in the voice of a TV narrator and shows like Gunsmoke), of a team of pack mules, and of far-future arboreal census-takers hovering over a radically changed and peaceful Earth. McLean isn’t leapfrogging POVs for the sake of pure pyrotechnics; each jump is built on the characters of the novel and how they see themselves, their interior lives, their fantasies. It’s utterly marvelous, and the sheer verve and excitement of the whole thing manages to balance the truly ugly events of the opening chapters.

Roberto Bolaño once described a classic as a book that’s able to decode or reorder the canon, and for my money Pity the Beast is a classic. But McLean’s novel does so much more than repurpose or critique the canonical elements of the western or the revenge story, it does another thing Bolaño says classics do, it “ventures into new territory and in some way enriches (that is, illuminates) the tree of literature and smooths the paths for those who follow.”

You read a book like Pity the Beast and suddenly you’re one of the other runners in the world after Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, thrillingly aware that what you once believed to be impossible is actually achievable. There’s no guarantee you’ll pull it off, and I’m not sure my anime-infused pulpy bloodbath of a book does, but it’s fun as hell to chase that feeling, and that’s what kept me coming back to the page.

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The Great State of West Florida - Wascom, Kent

The Great State of West Florida by Kent Wascom is available via Grove Atlantic.



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