There’s a lot of cross-pollination between Science Fiction and Western. Both are genres about boundaries: the border between settled and wild, the boundary between right and wrong action, the boundaries between nations (as the United States pushed aggressively westward, absorbing New France, pushing Mexico south and driving the indigenous nations before them in one of the most infamous, and and infamously un-discussed, genocides of human history).
The mythology that sprang up around the great colonial push westward is thus one about these boundary conditions, how boundaries change and how boundaries change people. In addition, the characters in westerns are frontierspeople, and their life is defined by exiting the familiar and colonizing the unknown.
Science Fiction deals with much of the same psychic content. Especially in the case of space exploration fiction, but also in stories like Starfish, or even Ancillary Justice characters find themselves thrust out of the familiar (be that the comfort of being one body of many networked to an AI, their remembered time or dry land) and sent to colonize the unfamiliar (a deep sea rift, the future, an existence as an individual) knowing that they can never return unchanged.
Justice of Toren / Breq can never go back to being a vast AI ship mind. Seivarden cannot return to her past. Lenie Clarke does return to dry land, but what comes back isn’t really what went in. And like the history from which the western genre sprang, these colonizations of the wild are often highly destructive, especially to the people or creatures who already lived in those places.
With so much shared conceptual space, it’s not surprising that weird west is a thing that exists. And I’ve got to say, it’s one of those genres I really should read more often than I do. I like weird west. I even liked Wild Wild West – giant steampunk spider and all. It’s not a short hop from science fiction to weird, and it takes an even lighter touch to tint the already mythological ground of the wild west with a weird brush.
But a lot of weird west jumps up and down on its weirdness: spell slinging cowboys, monsters, demons, zombies, giant robot spiders whatever, just throw it all at the wall and sees what sticks.
This can be very entertaining. But it’s not very subtle.
Haxan is a subtle book.
It’s fully possible to read the book without any supernatural or unnatural context at all. The things that happen in the story are grounded in the grit and mythological realism of the western genre so thoroughly that there’s no actual need to say, “It’s western, BUT…”
However you can also read Haxan as a story about an immortal warrior, summoned from somewhere nameless to fight for order in a town that might exist at the behest of a psychic settler from a vastly distant elsewhere.
And that reading would be just as valid as the gritty mythological realist one. This is a story that assumes a Navajo understanding of the spirit world is at least equally valid to a surface reading. This is a story that takes the romantic ideal of the quickdraw gunslinger and simultaneously roots it in the dust and death of all-to-real gun violence while simultaneously cranking the mythic resonance of the act of the duel to 11.
This is a story where coyotes encroach on a town because the land is dry and they’re thirsty. But also because the town must be isolated so that its lone guardian can stand against What Must Be Faced.
Hoover has a beautiful talent for description, and the town of Haxan and surrounds is powerfully realized. But it’s not just the ability to see, taste and smell the world that gives this book power, it’s the author’s ability to infuse those descriptions with a sense of doom in the old Scandinavian sense of the word.
Haxan is the first western I’ve read in a very long time, and it hit just the right note of weirdness without going all to tentacles and mechanical spiders. And if this is indicative of the state of the genre, perhaps I should read more.