The Long Red Light of the West

One of the things you learn when you research the Old West is how utterly violent it was. It is this long red light, the murderous plain of humanity if you will, that I want to talk about today.

From genocide to rape to murder to shotgun blasts from an alleyway into someone’s back to carving a drunk with a bowie knife until his guts spilled out over your hand in a hot steaming mass — the Old West was one big killing ground. And it never stopped. It was a violent arena of grinding bone, quick death and irrevocable loss. Torture and greed were the raw sinews holding it together.

Of course, you don’t see that often in movies and books or on television. Oh, you see violence. Hollywood is great for splashing buckets of violence across the silver screen. But all too often the violence in novels or film have an underlying meaning or symbolic reference behind it. But the reality of the Old West is the violence didn’t have a poetic framework. It wasn’t a vehicle to portray the warring forces in a man out to wreak vengeance nor was it an exercise in splatterpunk devoid of emotion. History proves this out.  Violence in the Old West existed because Man himself existed. Nor do I mean to rag on the Old West and single it out as a special case.

This is but the history of our species.

We do one thing really well. We kill stuff. Amidst the architecture and mathematics, violence exists because Man exists. The Old West was but one more boiling crucible in the history of our species that showcased dark desires and bright greed.

I don’t mean to say there were not people who wanted to bring law and order to the west. There were voices who wanted equality and fairness for everyone. But how could they be heard above the winds of genocide and destruction?

The longer I work in the western genre the more convinced I am the only way this genre is going to grow and evolve is if we treat its fundamental truths with more respect. Personally, I want to see more voices in this genre. I want to see  voices from people who didn’t historically have their stories told. The west was more than one thing. It was made up of millions of people from different backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures. That’s what I want to read, don’t you? We have seen the sanitized picture reflected through American culture in a thousand shards, and they are all the same. I want to look beyond the glittering icons and down into the abyss. I want what some might consider dangerous stories to be elevated into the American consciousness. If that is possible.

I work in this genre. I want to see other voices in this genre. I want to hear their stories. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are many good writers who are doing better work than I could ever hope to do in this area. I am starting to see elements of this in more and more stories. But no matter how good they are their voices are nearly drowned out by American myth perpetuated.The west was many things. I would like to see those differing stories from new voices.

I don’t know. Maybe someday it will happen and we will be able to see the west as something other than simplified romance. There is such great potential in this genre. It lends itself to so  many interpretations. The ground is rich for writers. But the headwinds are great, hurricane strength. And while humans are good at killing they are also good at self-delusion.

It’s safer, and far simpler, to believe in romantic fairy tales than to face the long red light of murder that was the Old West. I’m just saying that needs to be changed. The Old West needs to become dangerous. That’s where the best stories are, I think.

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2 Comments

  1. Good stuff. You’re right, our romantic view of the Old West is way out of touch with the reality of violence and lawlessness.

    Reply
    • Completely out of touch. But as I think about this the more convinced I am it’s simpler and safer to believe in the sanitized and romantic version we’ve been spoon fed for decades rather than face the truth.

      I want to write about the truth in the Old West. I have no interest in candy corn.

      Reply

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