Dead Man’s Hand and the Perils of the Weird West

Dead Man's Hand anthology

There are a great many wonderful westerns. There are miles of splendid sci-fi and fantasy novels. And there are a few books that combine the best of both, presenting western landscapes flush with supernatural Pinkerton agents, werewolf tricksters, ghost parades, and Frederick Douglass kicking the butts of alien life forms.

Thus did resourceful humans invent a subgenre home for these unusual delights: the Weird Western. (That would include The Dark Tower series.) To see the Weird West in living color, just check out Wild Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens (and its graphic novel inspiration), or that episode of Doctor Who with Susan the horse, who just wants you to respect his life choices.

Better yet, to get your feet wet in this steampunk sister niche, check out Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West, out today from prolific editor John Joseph Adams. Authors included among this collection of 23 tales include Orson Scott Card, Joe R. Lansdale, Seanan McGuire, Jonathan Maberry, Fred Van Lente (a Cowboys & Aliens scribe)—so no one you’ve ever heard of…unless you’ve heard of books.

This is the gold rush of Weird Westerns, with more gunslingers, demons, fiery ladies of the evening, time travel, playing poker with the devil, and big ol’ bugs than you can shake a stick at. (The book’s dedication is to Wild Bill Hickok, for crying out loud.) Here are but six reasons you need to revel in its dusty glory and gore:

Money-grubbing aliens!

Ben H. Winters’ “The Old Slow Man and His Cold Gun From Space,” besides being excellently titled, features extraterrestrials with guns that detect gold, which is mighty handy in 1851 California. But also problematic, as is discovered with the story’s almost Bradbury-ian ending.

Kooky Johnny Appleseed!

Orson Scott Card, creator of Ender Wiggins’ trials and tribulations, contributes a new story in his Alvin Maker series, which takes place in an AU American frontier in which certain people have supernatural “knacks.” In this outing, Alvin comes across Johnny Appleseed, whose knack you might be able to guess. Not all is coming up roses in John Chapman’s nursery, however, as we are transported to a bizarrely pious little frontier town to learn that you are what you eat.

Automatons!

They’re everywhere. In David Farland’s “Hellfire on the High Frontier,” the hunt for a murderous clockwork gambler ends up in the High Frontier, a Wild West nestled into the clouds and accessible by dirigible. As a wise prophet once said, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em. For her part, Beth Revis introduces mechanical spiders that hold the key to the universe in “The Man With No Heart.” In somewhat related events, the machines may or may not be trying to kill us in Alastair Reynolds’ “Wrecking Party.” So the stakes aren’t high or anything.

Perfectly enormous bugs!

Seanan McGuire busts out another of her Incryptid stories, this time focusing on Apraxis wasps, who are described thusly: “picture a yellow jacket the size of a shoe…now, give that yellow jacket human intelligence.” If that is alarming, at least there’s also the presence of cultish, talking mice.

Revenge of the nerds!

What happens when the town bookkeeper becomes its No. 1 gunslinger? Death by the bucketload. Charles Yu’s “Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger” also features grammar corrections as two men are about to shoot each other, so that’s a bingo.

Dinosaurs on the homestead!

The standout story in this collection for me is “Strong Medicine,” by Tad Williams, which centers on the town of Medicine Dance. It’s the Night Vale of the Old West, coming unstuck in time each Midsummer’s Day, and violently so every 39th Midsummer’s Day. Sometimes that means the town travels a long way in time, and it’s no picnic of a vacation. Not since Dinosaur Supervisor Phil Tippett let those raptors into the kitchen in Jurassic Park have things seemed quite so prehistorically turbulent.

Do you want to take a trip to the Weird West?

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