The American old west, for all its potential, is a setting to which many horror creators have been resistant. The identification of the western (especially in print, where Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour remain to this day the titans of the genre) with a spirit and a fanbase largely incompatible with horror fans, possibly makes it an unappealing setting. The western is a strongly defined genre with its own set of conventions, expectations, and perhaps most importantly, a sphere of appeal that is regarded by many as exclusionary of the average horror fan (it’s not, but perception is a powerful thing). Westerns are things old, conservative dads watch, and as such, it’s not an attractive genre for horror fans—unless, of course, it’s from Italy, in which case the films can serve as a bridge between fandoms in the same way that punks and metalheads (traditional enemies, where I grew up) can meet on the common ground of Motorhead.
It’s not that it isn’t there—just that it seems like there should be more, what with all that lore and those vast lonely places that typify the American old west, especially when compared to the concurrent Victorian era in Britain, which has the same silk and velvet waistcoats but decidedly more book and movies wet within its milieu. Many of the films that do make use of the setting end up playing out more like action/adventure films than horror. This is where I’d place Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk till Dawn (1996), for instance, though it’s not my place to enforce my opinion of where one genre ends and the other begins on those of you who define things differently. Some do indeed venture out into the desert, and the results, while mixed, have produced some quality work: Ravenous (1999), for example, and The Burrowers (2008).
In recent years, with the expansion of small publishers and self-publishing revitalizing horror fiction (likely with an assist from so many horror-tinted spaghetti westerns finding their way onto home video, to say nothing of the popularity of the video game, Red Dead Redemption), there’s been more new written horror set in the old west, as well as retrospectives of pioneers such as Robert E. Howard (never shy about exploring the western) and weird western pulp writer Lon Williams (whose stories showcase the common limitations of pulp but are pretty fun for what they are and if not read close to one another). The folk horror of the American west, sourced both from indigenous people as well as colonizers, is finally being explored with greater frequency.
One of the most eye-catching additions to the canon of old west horror, thanks in large part to their splashy covers, is the “Splatter Western” series from Death’s Head Press, an independent publishing house founded by Jarod Barbee and Patrick C. Harrison III. Currently sitting at thirteen self-contained books (though there are some characters from one appear in another) from several authors, the Splatter Western series leans heavily, as you can likely guess, into gore and horror along the lonely trails, rickety towns, and mysterious caverns of the old west. Within those parameters, the books delve into a variety of subgenres and styles, from folk to Lovecraftian horror, slashers to zombies—with occasional ghosts.
The first four books (The Magpie Coffin, Wile E. Young; Hunger on the Chisholm Trail, Mike Ennenbach; Dust, Chris Miller; and The Night Silver River Run Red, Christine Morgan) set the stage for what is to come. Each book trades in the conventions of both horror and the western, combining tales of wayfaring strangers out for bloody revenge with tales of wayfaring strangers possessed of mystical knowledge that will come in handy when the ghouls and demons and the occasional Elder God ride over the range. If you made them into movies, Klaus Kinski would be in all four, and David Hess in at least one. Comparison to film is warranted, as the influence of spaghetti westerns (especially the few directed by Lucio Fulci of Zombie fame) is heavy. Some are better than others, but none of the four are bad, and all of them are short enough and packed with enough bloody horror that even at their shakiest, they’re never less than entertaining.
The Magpie Coffin
Young’s The Magpie Coffin (2020) starts the series off strong, with a tale about Salem Covington, known in many parts as the Black Magpie. Covington prowls the American frontier, collecting lore and legends of a dark and terrible nature, as well as the occasional damned soul. When he receives word that his mentor in things supernatural, the Comanche shaman Dead Bear, has been murdered, Salem loads the not-so-peaceful corpse of his teacher into an enchanted coffin, presses a dubious soldier into his service, and sets out on the red path of revenge. Said revenge will bring him into contact with more than just run-of-the-mill outlaws and gunslingers.
The Magpie Coffin deftly balances the horror and western genres, making the most of the places where the two naturally intersect—tension, violence, atmosphere, and place. It makes the most of the bleak, epic landscapes of the west, from sun-parched deserts to snowy mountain towns. Young parcels out violent western and supernatural elements with a good pace as the Magpie drifts through an episodic but connected series of quests and revelations infused with murder, spirits, and dark magic.
Hunger on the Chisholm Trail
Mike Ennenbach’s Hunger on the Chisholm Trail (2020), the second book in the series, ventures into the zombie territory one could pretty much expect was going to make itself known early on. This is, however, a variation on the theme, setting loose a wendigo hungry for human flesh. Like skinwalkers (and, to be fair, zombies and vampires and werewolves and just about every creature born from folklore), the nature of a wendigo tends to vary from story to story, especially as the old Algonquin tales were picked up by French and English frontiersmen, who inevitably misinterpreted and mixed the stories with beasts from their own mythologies.
Algernon Blackwood conjured such a wind-walking beast in his short story, The Wendigo (1910), a tale of hunters in the Canadian wilderness who succumb to the madness of isolation and are set upon by an unseen creature that travels with the wind and takes the form of a member of their party. The wendigo, in some forms more authentic to the old tales than others, became a fixture of much weird fiction in the 1930s, with August Derleth in particular, returning to the creature many times and never quite being able to make up his mind what it was. Of more recent vintage, the afore-mentioned western/horror hybrid Ravenous invokes the wendigo, in the form of a fiend hungry for human flesh and with the ability to possess.
I can’t claim much in the way of authentic wendigo bona fides—my first exposure to the creature was in “Cry of the Wendigo,” a story from Amazing Spider-man #277, in which Spider-man is out and about in a blizzard blown down from Canada, during which he finds himself the protector of a little girl pursued by kidnappers, who are themselves being pursued by something decidedly more elemental in the wind. Granted, it’s been decades since I read the issue, but it struck young me as haunting and atmospheric, and I recall it fondly (if vaguely).
Hunger on the Chisholm Trail‘s wendigo is very much of the Ravenous type, also very much in alignment with old tales in which it is an evil, cannibalistic supernatural being that dwells in the cold and is attracted to famine and privation. A group of cowboys gets a crash course in wendigo appetites when they run afoul of one on a long and lonely cattle drive. The creature lurks on the periphery of such trails, drifting ever closer to an isolated town called Duncan. Also on the trail is Karl Beck, another outlaw/wanderer with a store of esoteric occult knowledge (one expects one will encounter quite a few of these men in the Splatter Western series) and the best chance of figuring out what is happening and how to stop the horrifying creature that comes to prey on the people of Duncan.
Hunger on the Chisholm Trail is more slowly paced than its predecessor, more like an old Gothic horror than the fast-paced survival/action horror. It takes its time moseying down the trail, introducing characters, and working to develop them so that when the wendigo blows into town, the threat feels more substantial. For the most part, this is time well-spent, though it’s not always successful. Some of the attempts at dialect are rough, vacillating between overwrought and anachronistic. It settles down after a spell, though, and that slow ignites a thoroughly satisfying, gore- and action-packed siege finale.
Unlike his Texas contemporary Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft was East Coast to the core and never showed interest in the American western. However, the mythos that evolved from Lovecraft’s writing proved endlessly adaptable and easily transported to other settings. Chris Miller’s Dust (2020) is the first in the Splatter Western series to venture into the rich and convoluted world of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, though with a protagonist who is much more in the mold of Robert E. Howard’s two-fisted tough guys than H.P.’s nervous fainting academics.
James Dee (who made a cameo appearance in Hunger on the Chisholm Trail, meaning that while the books work independently of one another, they do still occur in the same shared universe), named for infamous English alchemist John Dee, is yet another wanderer with a store of arcane knowledge. His knowledge has led him to seek out the semi-mythical East Texas town of Dust, where something immensely evil is going to happen. Hot on his trail is another man with a fair share of occult knowledge and less altruistic ideas about how humanity might wield the nebulous horror lurking in Dust.
The introduction of cosmic horror and Elder Gods makes Dust the most outré entry in the series so far. Alternate dimensions, tentacled fiends from beyond, the bending of time and space all make for a story that juggles both the western and horror genres while also, as was often the case in Lovecraft, introducing elements of science fiction as well. The balancing act is largely successful. Still, Dust takes a few missteps here and there. One of the main characters, an escaped slave, provides an emotional center for the story but also veers uncomfortably close to parody from time to time, as well as being pushed toward fulfilling the tired cliche of “black man who sacrifices himself so a white man can find his soul and triumph.” The book also pulls a slightly annoying plot reset, in which things accomplished are undone, and we’re asked to retread territory.
But, once again, these faults are minor when measured against the overall entertainment value of Dust, which is ambitious in scope. Knowing that the books may not depend on one another but are nevertheless interconnected means the potential for the world of Splatter Westerns is greatly expanded by Dust, which ups the complexity and cosmology of the series’ world. That means there’s a lot of potential for subsequent books to really delve into the “weird” of the “weird western” as much as it does the grue-soaked splatter.
The Night Silver River Run Red
Dust is followed by Christine Morgan’s The Night Silver River Run Red (2020). The town of Silver River is nice enough, though like any town it has its share of shadows and secrets and is experiencing a patch of rough financial luck. Things get weird when a band of depraved outlaws decides the town is an easy target. At the same time, a mysterious circus sets up on the outskirts of town, snagging the attention of a group of kids and the suspicion of the adults, as such things are wont to do. The kids sneak off to peek at the forbidden circus just as the gang launches its twisted, violent assault on the town. Needless to say, things get weird and bloody.
Morgan’s novel is largely devoid of the supernatural elements present in the previous three books (save one uncanny relationship with ravens and some possible werewolves), playing out more like home invasion horror. When it hits, it hits hard and effectively. But when it misses, it misses just as hard. A large portion of the book is given over to character/torture vignettes, both for townsfolk and bandits, that slow the story. Rather than giving a more well-rounded picture of the inevitable victims of this perverse gang, it merely adds pages. Most of the characters are present primarily to jack up the body count. That their stories and fates are predictable doesn’t translate into narrative brevity and some of these passages are stretched beyond their narrative value, especially the drawn-out pages devoted to the gang members obsessed with how long someone can stay alive after being beheaded and another, named Horsecock, who has particularly convoluted attitudes about rape.
Christine Morgan is known for writing shocking stories and is well-regarded by many fans of more extreme horror, so it’s no surprise that such elements would be much more pronounced here than in the previous three Splatter Western books. She does indeed create many a situation that makes a reader squirm, but some of it simply goes on too long for me, rendering some of it less shocking than it could have been, and a bit of a chore—much like the mean-hearted home invasion films (Straw Dogs of course, but more accurately, films like Last House on the Left and House at the Edge of the Park) this book takes as its models and which have rarely appealed to me personally.
That said, once this is out of her system, the remainder of The Night Silver River Run Red is pretty great. The diverse group of kids are interesting protagonists, as are the adults the story eventually settles on as its main characters. The carnival folk are an interesting, ambiguous ingredient in the volatile mixture, and while it’s obvious to anyone familiar with similar stories that they’ll end up not responsible for horrifying acts initially thought to be their work, the knowing doesn’t interfere with the impact of their presence. Although hastily sketched, each one of them is interesting and brings something thrilling to the fight.
Following the home invasion template, Morgan hits her stride when the siege turns into an all-out war in which the “home” that is invaded is an entire town. The showdown isn’t resolved quickly, but unlike the preceding torture vignettes, it’s well-paced and engaging, ultimately saving what was, for me at least, threatening to be a bit of a misfire. I mean, it’s hard to stay mad at a story that features a swordswoman, a strongman, and an angry pack of ravens.
Following the Trail
Taken as a whole—which is not entirely fair but also is a likely reflection of the fact that if you read one, you’re likely to read them all—there are a few cracks, just about all of which strike me as unavoidable when you are dealing with multiple writers and multiple books within two genres with so many conventions and expectations. Already mentioned are some issues with dialogue and dialect, as well as the frequent appearance of a wandering stranger with secret knowledge. There are also certain phrases one might refer to as “copywriter writing” that pop up over and over. Read too closely together, and one notices frequent references to “bits of skull and brain matter,” which it seems everyone feels the need to include. Similarly, someone is guaranteed to have a “rictus grin” in every book.
Granted, it’s not as if one writer working independently of another is going to know what’s happening in the other’s manuscripts, but heightened awareness of certain well-trodden turns of phrases might help future authors in the series avoid retreading ground. And something else that is repeated across all four books, to my great enjoyment, is some truly creepy, disturbing, and even scary imagery and mood, from the grim human abattoir into which the children of When Silver River Run Red stumble in a particularly effective and tense scene to Hunger on the Chisholm Trail‘s disturbing wendigo that makes the skin crawl, the cellar torture chamber of Dust and the visceral interaction of the Black Magpie with the spirit world in The Magpie Coffin, each book sports a number of scenes in which it really hits that next level.
All that said, those are minor quibbles at their worst. Even The Night Silver River Run Red, about which I had the most criticisms, still proved to be a satisfying read. Given that all four books are the length of old pulp paperbacks, they never stick around long enough to crash and burn. Each book was fun and fast to read, made me excited to read the next, and make me excited to continue the series—which is easy to do. Death’s Head Press has been keeping an old-school pulp pace to their publishing. Since the series launched with The Magpie Coffin in March 2020, they’ve published an additional twelve, the most recent being Bryan Smith’s Last of the Ravagers, released in February 2022.
Like spaghetti westerns that used elements of horror—whether it was Lucio Fulci’s gore, Sergio Corbucci’s nihilism, or the Gothic/giallo mood of films such as Kill the Poker Player (1972) and Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (1967)—the Splatter Western series has, at least for these first four books, found that sweet spot between the genres, while also throwing back to the glory days of sleazy pulp paperbacks. I hope the series continues to expand the diversity of horrors waiting for unlucky range riders. Native American legends overflow with worthy chills beyond the wendigo, and the entirety of Mexican folk horror is waiting just across the Rio Grande. The old west was a big landscape full of beauty and terror. Exploring it in the company of occult warlocks, haunted gunmen, bloodthirsty psychopaths, cranky specters, cosmic horrors, and flesh-hungry ghouls may not make for a great holiday, but it sure is fun to read.