The Dark Frontier is thrilling ride through the Weird West: a world which feels both excitingly familiar and exquisitely strange. Anyone who feels slightly bored by more traditional western stories will find plenty to enjoy in this new collection of genre-bending writing.
Weird western stories often use the frontier experience, one of the most important themes discussed in western fiction, to explore thematic and stylistic boundaries. The Dark Frontier is a case in point: the collection blends familiar western tropes with elements of science fiction, horror and fantasy. The result is a potent cocktail that may put off some purists but will delight more open-minded readers.
For those who have been paying attention, the western has been about more than cowboys and John Wayne for quite some time now. Neo- and revisionist westerns such as Django Unchained (2012) have been busy unpacking, criticizing and rebuilding its fictional worlds. This is not a recent phenomenon, either: films such as Zachariah and El Topo were twisting the western genre as early as the 1970s. In literature, writers like Cormac McCarthy have been using its tried and tested formula to create something entirely new.
Unfortunately I don’t have space to discuss every single story The Dark Frontier contains, but I was still struck by how well all the stories sit together. Although they are the creations of very different writers with very different backgrounds, they feel as if they are all set in, and contribute to building, one big weird western universe.
Take, for example, “One Way Out” by Bryan Dyke, a story with a dark fantasy and almost Lovecraftian tinge in which a lone ranger fights his way out of an enemy-infested citadel. Instead of offering a self-contained adventure, the story reads as if it’s part of a much longer epic and made me curious to read more.
Hawk and Young’s story “The Bride’s Road”, on the other hand, feels much more post-apocalyptic with a hint of science fiction. The suggestion, rather than detailed description, of alien life works well. It effectively keeps the story out of the realm of corniness and therefore makes it all the more intriguing.
I was delighted, finally, to see strong female characters in several stories including Douglas Smith’s “Memories of the Dead”. The female narrator does not only shape this story with her actions, she also questions the ethics of her outlaw lover, which turns her into much more than an ornamental pretty face. The character of Bishop, as a result, becomes even more alluring in its complexity.
All in all, The Dark Frontier successfully blends genres to create a Weird West where anything seems possible. This anthology may be an acquired taste for some but for me, its unusualness only made it more exciting. Highly recommended for readers who fancy something a bit different and further proof – if anyone needed any – that short stories can be as powerful as a thousand-page novel.
Curious? Sample and buy The Dark Frontier here
Image: cover art by L.A. Spooner