The settler fantasy is weird: Travis Franks, ‘Make Settler Fantasy Strange Again: Unsettling Normative White Masculinity in Robert E. Howard’s Weird West’, Western American Literature, 54, 3, 2019, pp. 295-322


Excerpt: Originally published in Weird Tales in 1932, Robert E. Howard’s short story “The Horror from the Mound” blends conventions of Western and horror fictions, particularly in the characterization of the cowboy protagonist and the vampire antagonist. The story is set in the border region of west Texas around (if not exactly) 1845 and details the heroic but harrowing account of former cowboy Steve Brill, who unleashes and eventually destroys a centuries-old vampiric Spaniard, Don Santiago de Valdez. Brill unknowingly unearths Valdez while plundering what appears to be an Indian burial mound, in the process discovering, too, that his neighbor Juan Lopez, the embodiment of several anti-Mexican stereotypes, belongs to a secret order meant to safeguard against the vampire’s return. Owing largely to Brill’s greed, Lopez fails in his sworn duty and, having hurriedly penned a short history in which he reveals to Brill the truth of the mound, dies in an anticlimactic confrontation with Valdez. A much more dramatic final showdown between cowboy and vampire takes place in Brill’s home, which has accidentally been set afire in the course of their fighting. Nevertheless, the cowboy is able to break the vampire’s back and escape, leaving Valdez to burn with the house. As the story closes, Brill gives thanks to God that no one else will ever know of the evil Spaniard’s existence.

Despite not being well-known today, Howard is credited with having created the Conan the Cimmerian series and the “sword and sorcery” genre of fantasy to which it belongs. “The Horror from the Mound” is also largely overlooked, although some critics suggest that not only might it be the first “undead Western” story ever published, but that, with a handful of similar stories, Howard likely pioneered the entire genre of the weird Western. Not surprisingly, the scant scholarship that exists concerning this formative short story focuses almost exclusively on its “weird” elements. As such, critical discussion about the story has not done justice to the complex construction of Anglo frontier masculinity that Howard undertakes in “Horror.” This essay aims to do just that and, in the course of analysis, to unsettle the text, not by demonstrating the ways it establishes weird genre norms but rather by revealing several normative impulses of settler identity within the story that must be made strange.

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