I grew up on Gunsmoke and Bonanza and The Lone Ranger and Maverick and The Virginian and The Big Valley and The Rifleman and Wagon Train.
I wish I could tell you this were so, but it ain't true, pard.
The book that got me into horror was a little anthology called The Ghouls, edited by Peter Haining. I picked up the collection because it was a collection of monster stories that became famous horror movies - I was into horror movies and was beginning to discover how cool literary terrors could be.
One story in particular from this collection stood out to me. It began with the words, “West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut…”
That story was, of course, "The Colour Out of Space."
I was hooked on Lovecraft for life.
The truth is those Western TV shows were on in the background - my dad and grandparents sometimes watched them, and I picked up on them, enjoyed them just fine, more or less indifferent. I would play cowboys and Indians in the backyard, but I was just as apt to pretend I was Flash Gordon or Tarzan or Superman or that more modern legendary Cowboy Roger Staubach.
“The Outsider” made me cry the first time I read it as an angsty teen. I wasn’t a Goth or anything, just an ordinary middle-class, go-cruisin’-on-a-Friday-night street kid, but I identified with it in so many ways. True story, and I ain’t afraid to admit it.
I was an only child who lived in the country until about fourth grade, and, truth be told, if my cousin next door wasn’t around to fill in one of the roles, I’d likely be caught in my room with the handful of action figures I had on hand, playing Evel Knievel vs. Godzilla, Shazam vs. the Sleestacks or G.I. Joe vs. Mr. Mxyzptlk.
Kids are naturals at creating mash-up stories.
It wasn’t until college that I really started to appreciate Westerns as an art form, when movies like Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven started taking those tropes I was so used to and twisting what I expected. Wild West heroes trying actual diplomacy with realistically and sympathetically portrayed Native Americans and a legendary gunslinger who only killed because he was a mean drunk were revelations to me - or, rather, the true surprise was simply the fact that filmmakers were willing to portray these things instead of falling back on the old reliables. The only Westerns that had given me a similar thrill before that had been The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Searchers and True Grit, with their quest motifs, and The Long Riders, with what was at the time pretty much ultra-violence on a level few movies had shown outside of grindhouse or Sam Peckinpah. Young Guns was a thing, but those two films, for all their bon homie and Bon Jovi and Billy the Forget History Kid was, for me, more or less a boy band making a shoot -’em-up music video.
Another true story: As an undergrad in college, I got a perfect score on a paper discussing what changes would have to be made to H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” in order to adapt it for film.
I should note that, at the time, I still hadn’t seen a bunch of the best of the west, like The Wild Bunch, The Magnificent Seven or Once Upon a Time in the West - the latter being my all-time favorite Western, and stuff like Costner’s Open Range and the True Grit remake and Tarantino's forays into the genre were yet to come out.
No, wait. Tombstone is my favorite ever Western.
“I’m your huckleberry.”
“Your friends might get me in a rush, but not before I make your head into a canoe”
“Smoke that skin wagon and see what happens!”
And the devastating, “Well...bye.”
No wait. No Country for Old Men is my favorite. Modern setting, badass western (and a relentless serial killer horror story to boot).
I saw a great cartoon once - I’m presuming it was by Gahan Wilson - featuring a writer genuflecting under a statue of H.P. Lovecraft, head bowed, holding up as a suppicant offering a manuscript entitled “My Cthulhu Story.”
If you write horror, you gotta write at least one. Or, like me, several.
As its title suggests, “The Cowboys of Cthulhu” is intentionally a little over-the-top; I wanted to take certain tropes of the Old West - the snake oil show, the Heathen Chinee, the squinty-eyed gunslinger - and have fun and push the envelope. I’m as influenced by Blazing Saddles and Grim Prairie Tales as by High Plains Drifter and 3:10 to Yuma.
But at the same time I wanted to do them justice - I do research for my historical tales; unless there are supernatural reasons otherwise, the guns work the way the guns should. The settings and historical personages are as accurate as I can make them while taking appropriate literary license. For instance, the Cowboys of Cthulhu is the introductory tale in my Riders of the Weird West series, and the gang will eventually visit a very authentic Dodge City - with zombies.
The ‘90s were a Golden Age of small press anthologies and I’d been invited to write one for a planned collection of weird Westerns. I’d just read Richard Matheson’s Journal of the Gun Years, as fine a Western as you’ll ever encounter, and Lovecraft was still a staple of my reading, so I was rarin’ to go - I was a kid again, alone on the playground of my keyboard, playing a great game of mash-up!
That particular anthology went under before it saw print, but “Cowboys of Cthulhu” has since been reprinted several times and downloaded literally thousands of times - it also, for better or worse, seems to be my most pirated story. Whatever form people read it in, I remain proud of it; it’s brought me a ton of readers and a ton of pleasure.
Said pleasure started during the writing of the tale, of course - I always feel privileged and grateful when I sit down to the keyboard, but … well, I’ll tell you this much: I remember distinctly I had a shot or two of the barkeep's best bourbon during the spinning of this here yard, just to get in the mood.
To anyone who wants to argue that I should only write while completely sober, I say, with all confidence, “I have two guns … one for each of ya!”
"The Cowboys of Cthulhu" is available at Amazon in print, audio and ebook, as is its sequel, the full-length novel Riders Where There Are No Roads.