My new novel, The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh, features a hero born in 1842. A former orphan of New York’s slums, and a Civil War veteran, Watt O’Hugh does what many young desperate men from the 19th century East did – he goes West. He works on a cattle run, fights a range war, becomes a dime novel hero then an outlaw, all the time determined to save Lucy Billings, the socialite-with-a-past whom he loved and lost in New York City before the War. I carefully researched the history and delivered a rip-roaring Western adventure.
So far so good, except that I also delivered a novel filled with what I like to call the Magic of the old West. So while one blogger calls my book “a Western with some flashy fantasy heels” an Amazon reviewer stated flatly, “Despite the cover art and the main settings, this isn’t really a ‘western’ or ‘cowboy’ book … It’s sci-fi and fantasy mixed up in the vein of Vonnegut.” He liked it; but to like it, he had to deny that it was a Western.
Is Watt O’Hugh a “real” Western? And, more importantly to those of us who love and revere Westerns, is the mini-trend in which I am playing a small role – mixing a Western setting with science fiction/fantasy elements (or even with magical realism, á la Gabriel García Márquez) – good or bad for the survival of the genre?
Let’s face facts – many people think of “Westerns” only as something they don’t read or like, without really knowing why. Many agents and editors in Jeff Herman’s definitive guide list “Westerns” as the only genre they won’t even consider, and one reason I went the Indie route was my trepidation over the idea of even trying to sell a Western to editors in 2011. (I really should have added some vampires!)
Why did stories about the West between 1860 and 1900 win their own “genre” in the first place? New York during that same period was a fascinating place; while it has inspired more than a few great novels (think The Alienist and A Winter’s Tale), it cannot lay claim to its own genre. (Or for that matter, Paris between, say, 1690 and 1735.) But Westerns are more than a time and place. They are Arthurian legends of roaming knights in a lawless land, updated first for Eastern dime-novel readers in a 19th century staggering through a boom and bust economy, and then for War-shocked movie audiences dreaming in the ‘teens and ‘20s of what was already a heroic, mythical past. Douglas Fairbanks fondly lampooned this trend way back in 1917, in his Western spoof, Wild and Woolly.
A real Western must have a respect for historical accuracy mixed with a recognition of the American myths of the last hundred-fifty years. But no matter how much we may deconstruct them, and no matter how grounded in fact, Westerns – like pirate stories, or the Knights of the Round Table before them – are myths. The further the old West drifts from living memory, the more fantastic, magical and impossible even its truths will seem.