How We Got Weird: Behind the Creation of Weird Westerns

Kerry Fine, Michael K. Johnson, Rebecca M. Lush and Sara L. Spurgeon are the editors of Weird Westerns: Race, Gender, Genre (Nebraska, 2020).

How We Got Weird

Okay, we were always a little weird. But we hid it well. We think.

And each one of us thought we were pretty much alone in our interests in the weird and the speculative, especially as we were wandering through Western Literature Association conferences, roaming in and out of panels on Stegners, McCarthys, Cathers, and other realist western writers.

We first came together as a group at the 2015 WLA Conference in Reno, Nevada. As origin stories go, we should probably claim that we all met while waiting in line to have Arigon Starr sign our copies of Super Indian. But, really, the precipitating event was probably a panel called “Decolonizing Frontiers: Gender, Race, Region,” on which Rebecca M. Lush was presenting on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer as a Neo-Western, and Kerry Fine was talking about “The Zombie Apocalypse as the New Frontier.” Michael Johnson and Sara Spurgeon were in the audience. We all knew each other at this point, but this was the first moment when we all realized how much our interests aligned, and, given the good audience turnout at this 8:00 a.m. panel, we also began to realize that there might be others out there who shared our interests in both the weird and the western.

Weirdness had already been circulating in the WLA. At the Lubbock Conference in 2012 (when Sara Spurgeon was the WLA president), there were a couple of panels featuring papers from the then forthcoming anthology Undead in the West (edited by Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper, both contributors as well to Weird Westerns), and a featured reading by writer Stephen Graham Jones, whose growing acclaim and popularity over the past few years has been one of the driving forces for the interest in the weird within the Western Literature Association (and who kindly provided the afterword for Weird Westerns). But it was really in 2015 when things started to come together and we decided to make the leap of faith that is a Call for Papers, and, most amazingly, a (much larger than expected) group of scholars and writers took a similar leap of faith and sent us abstracts for proposed chapters on the topic of race and gender in the weird western. And, suddenly (well, five years later), Weird Westerns: Race, Genre, Genre has come into being.

In some ways it seems oddly appropriate that our weird book edited by some weird people should find its way into the world at a deeply weird moment during the midst of a global pandemic. But it’s also a moment that has led to collective discussion about racial justice, tribal sovereignty, and LGBTQ civil rights—issues that are at the core of our book.

Our collection invites readers to consider how the weird is always present in the western where claims to realism should always be considered suspect. Our collection is especially interested in how the weird elements are used either to bring to the fore or to obscure deep-rooted assumptions and stereotypes about race and gender in the western genre. The western has long been a complex and fluid genre, and by acknowledging the various and ongoing legacies of weirdness we hope that our collection will inspire scholars to rethink (or expand) the place of the western and scholarship about it in the 21st century.

As the old saying goes, when the going gets weird, the weird get weirder, and we have already started thinking about a future volume, tentatively titled “Hell Bent for Leather: Sex and Sexuality in the Weird Western.” Keep an eye out for a call for papers sometime this fall.

Kerry Fine is an instructor in the Writing Programs at Arizona State University. She has published and presented on an array of subjects and authors, including Ursula K. LeGuin, Sons of Anarchy, Rachel Carson, and zombies. Michael K. Johnson is professor of American literature at the University of Maine at Farmington. He is the author of Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West (2014). Rebecca M. Lush is an associate professor and chair of the Literature and Writing Studies Department at California State University San Marcos. Her publications include articles and chapters on authors as wide-ranging as James Fenimore Cooper, Gerald Vizenor, Aphra Behn, Lady Gaga, and Stephen Graham Jones. Sara L. Spurgeon is Professor of Literatures of the American Southwest at Texas Tech University. She is the author of Exploding the Western: Myths of the Empire on the Postmodern Frontier (2005) and Cormac McCarthy (2011).

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