Genre Friday – Weird Westerns

Weird West

True or False?

Sergio Leone’s iconic Man with No Name Trilogy would’ve been better if Clint Eastwood’s horse was actually a steam-driven, robotic mount and he had a demonically-possessed, talking Peacemaker that had all the best lines.

If you answered “True,” or even “False, because those movies are great, but I would totally watch that crazy robot horse, talking gun one too,” then weird westerns might just be for you.

Weird West tales, you may have guessed by now, are a mashup of traditional Western settings, themes and tropes and various elements of speculative fiction. Many such stories incorporate steampunk elements. Remember The Wild, Wild West TV show… or the later movie starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline if the TV show was before your time? Perfect example of what we’re talking about. They may also feature magical realism and/or fantasy like incorporation of magic or fanciful creatures. Like other historical fiction, the stories can feature real-life people and events, although many weird westerns start their world-building from scratch.

Examples:

16104414Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

The Devil’s Call by J. Danielle Dorn

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

The Haunted Mesa by Louis L’Amour

Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher

The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt (illustrator) & Tyler Crook (illustrator)

 

 

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Genre Friday – Nordic Noir Crime Fiction

Nordic Noir 101: 10 Best Books to Get to Know the Genre

Tunnel

Photo © Shutterstock

I first stumbled onto Nordic noir through Christopher Nolan’s 2002 film, “Insomnia,” which was a remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name. That film’s complex plotting, desolate atmosphere, and morally compromised protagonist immediately hooked me. My next real foray into the subgenre would come a few years later when I picked up a copy of Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, to see what all the fuss was about and then immediately plowed my way through the remainder of the initial trilogy in the Millennium Series. Like millions of others I was hooked and Nordic noir has maintained a section on my bookshelf ever since.

For fans of crime fiction, Nordic noir represents the bleakest of the bleak, often centering on brutal crimes tinged with shocking violence. The tales invariably feature protagonists who, while possessing a generally ferocious sense of justice, are nonetheless tortured, brooding, and generally introspective. The settings, whether city streets or remote villages, are desolate and harsh. Combine these elements with densely plotted mysteries that often feature more than a few shocking turns and a spartan, direct prose style to accentuate the genre’s dark themes and it is not difficult to see why Nordic noir has been so influential and successful a piece of the crime genre.

The runaway success of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo in many ways kicked the doors open for other booms in fiction from this Northerly part of the world. Though Larsson unfortunately passed away before the publication of his bestselling novels, for fans of his mercurial and damaged heroine, Lisbeth Salander, journalist and author David Lagencrantz has fortunately and gamely stepped up to continue the Millennium Series. The latest, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, is now available. That makes this the perfect time to take look at some of the best from the classics to more recent favorites.

The cover of the book The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye

David Lagercrantz

In the fifth installment of the Millennium Series, brilliant hacker and troubled outsider Lisbeth Salander is as close as she’s ever been to unraveling the mysteries of her traumatic childhood. In order to finally do so, she turns to Mikael Blomkvist, editor of the investigative magazine Millennium. The duo soon find themselves in the midst of one of the most dangerous predicaments either has ever faced.

 

The cover of the book Smilla's Sense of Snow

Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Peter Hoeg

This acclaimed 1992 novel by Peter Hoeg was part of the vanguard of Nordic noir. It centers on Smilla Jaspersen, a scientist specializing in the study of snow, who is drawn into the investigation of the death of her six-year-old neighbor.

 

 

 

The cover of the book The Snowman

The Snowman

Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo may be the current king of Nordic noir and his tortured investigator Harry Hole is one of the genre’s most intriguing protagonists. Hole is a celebrated, if unorthodox, detective and Norway’s leading investigative expert on serial killers. The very limits of his endurance and sanity are tested when he falls into a deadly game of cat and mouse when a missing woman leads him to a pattern of disturbing murders from the last decade. While The Snowman is the eighth Harry Hole novel, it also works as a standalone read and is arguably the point where Nesbo really hits his stride with Hole’s character.

The cover of the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was an instant classic upon publication and stands as one of the finest thrillers in recent memory. Centering on the forty-year-old investigation of a missing person’s case, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a dense and atmospheric read and introduced the world to one of the thriller/crime genre’s most captivating heroines in Lisbeth Salander.

 

The cover of the book The Crow Girl

The Crow Girl

Erik Axl Sund

This 2016 bestseller focuses on the murder investigation that follows after the body of an abused young boy is discovered in a city park. As Detective Jeanette Kihlberg dives into the case, she is drawn into a deep and complex web of violence and corruption. Originally published as a trilogy in Sweden, The Crow Girl is an intricate and emotionally complex read.

 

The cover of the book The Ice Beneath Her

The Ice Beneath Her

Camilla Grebe

The Ice Beneath Her is the American debut of acclaimed Swedish author Camilla Grebe. Taking place in Stockholm, the novel follows a group of investigators unraveling the threads of a brutal murder that is eerily similar to an unsolved killing from a decade previous. It is an ingeniously plotted and twisting thriller.

 

The cover of the book Faceless Killers

Faceless Killers

Henning Mankell

This first installment of the Kurt Wallander series sees the gruff and somewhat misanthropic detective investigating the grisly bludgeoning death of an elderly farmer whose wife was also left to die. It is an excellent introduction to one of Nordic noir’s most iconic characters as well as the style of Henning Mankell, an author often thought of as the dean of Nordic noir.

 

The cover of the book I'm Traveling Alone

I’m Traveling Alone

Samuel Bjork

This American debut for Norwegian author Samuel Bjork is a chilling thriller centering on the hunt for a vengeful killer targeting children in disturbing fashion. The novel follows Investigators Holger Munch and Mia Kruger – a brilliant and haunted detective with her own unnerving past – as they delve into a case with increasingly personal implications.

 

The cover of the book The Keeper of Lost Causes

The Keeper of Lost Causes

Jussi Adler-Olsen

With The Keeper of Lost Causes, bestselling author Jussi Adler-Olsen introduces Carl Morck, one of Denmark’s best homicide detectives. Morck is in charge of a growing pile of cold cases, left to him following a career blunder. Though expectations are low for new developments, Morck is drawn into one particular case centering on a missing politician presumed dead but who may be, for the moment at least, anything but.

The cover of the book ROSEANNA

ROSEANNA

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

This one is a true classic that heralded the Nordic noir genre. Originally published in 1965, Roseanna is the first of the Martin Beck Police Mysteries and inspired an entire generation of writers. It follows beleaguered detective Martin Beck as he investigates the mysterious death of a young woman who appears to have been strangled and tossed overboard during a cruise. In a lot of ways, it laid the template for what has come to be known as Nordic noir.

Genre Friday – Wuxia

If you had to sum it up in just a few words, I suppose you would call the stories in the wuxia genre Chinese, historical, martial arts epics. It’s almost the Chinese version of a western but, instead of the rough-around-the-edges, drifter with a gun that blows into town in the American west of the 19th century to clean up the place the hard way, it’s a lone, often lowly-born, wushu warrior in pre-modern China. Plus, there is normally an element mystery.

It’s actually got a pretty complex and storied history, so rather than attempting to explain it further, I’m going to hand it over to Chinese-born romance author, Sherry Thomas…

Wuxia Explained: A Look at Mystery Storytelling Across Cultures

Wuxia

Photo © Shutterstock

The Chinese enjoy a long literary tradition of stories dealing with crime and punishment. Often those stories have for a protagonist an incorruptible magistrate – not that easy to find, it would seem, in the imperial bureaucratic system, and therefore the more heroic for his rarity. The magistrate has a lot of power over his jurisdiction: He is prosecutor, judge, and jury, not to mention the lead detective on the cases that come before him.

Modern western mysteries were introduced to China late in the nineteenth century and quickly became popular. Chinese readers consumed a lot of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures and Chinese writers produced many detective titles of their own. But after Communist rule was established in the mainland, that output ground to a halt, since it seemed to serve no “revolutionary” purposes.

Outside the Communist sphere, however, in Taiwan and Hong Kong, mystery writers continued apace. But mystery writers weren’t the only ones to adopt and adapt the formula: Some of the most widely read mysteries written in the Chinese language were, in fact, martial arts epics.

Collectively known as wuxia, martial arts epics are some of the most popular genre books in the modern Sinosphere. They feature heroes and heroines who are adept in the various disciplines of martial arts, and portray grand dramas set against something of an alternate society, in which characters belong to myriad lineages of martial training and often find themselves involved in blood feuds dating back generations.

Classical wuxia novels were more likely to be straightforward accounts of itinerant heroics. But the most influential writers of the modern era delight in incorporating mystery elements. Sometimes it is done as a partial plot arc, such as when the clever heroine of Legends of the Condor Heroes, a work comparable to The Lord of the Rings in its reach and influence, figures the true murderers of her fiancé’s masters. Sometimes it is the entire plot: Long before I knew what a locked-room mystery was, I had read one, about how a roomful of great martial arts masters, on seclusion to take their skills to the next level, were all found dead when the doors to the hall were at last thrust open.

Mystery novels aren’t just about solving the puzzle; they are also about seeing justice served. Classical western detective fiction usually did not deal with the portion of the legal process that would actually see the culprits punished; the implicit assumption was that, with means, motive, opportunity so clearly laid out, often with a confession to boot, the system would work as it should. (Agatha Christie sometimes liked to have the murderers commit suicide, just to be sure.)

But such a legal system does not exist in the parallel universe that is the martial world in wuxia novels. The revelation of guilt, therefore, is often followed by a battle royale, from which our heroes emerge victorious, and the villains are disposed of extra-judiciously, but justly, a solution that suits the ethos of wuxia literature, with its emphasis on a system of honor, rather than a system of laws.

The funny thing is, I had devoured all the wuxia novels I could lay my hands on in my adolescence, never once realizing that they were, in fact, a melding of eastern and western storytelling. It was only later, when I read more about the development of modern wuxia, that I learned its highest practitioners had made the deliberate choice to fuse the structure of detective fiction onto the age-old setting of the martial world.

All I can say, looking back at my voracious reading of yesteryear, is that as an artistic choice, it totally worked!

Genre Friday – Hobbit Day Tribute Edition

Baggins BDay

Welcome to the house that Tolkien built. Epic Fantasy (also known as High Fantasy) is the quintessential fantasy sub-genre, the fount from which all other fantasy sub-genres have flowed, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves and orcs and rings (oh my) utterly dominate the field. There are, of course, stand-outs and outliers, stories that forge news paths in an old sub-genre, but even when a tale isn’t filled with staff wielding wizards and subterranean, master-craftsmen called dwarfs anything called epic fantasy still contains a few essential elements that were originally established when Tolkien first fleshed out Middle-earth on paper.

Epic fantasies create entire worlds, with long and complex histories and vivid cultures and lifestyles. How complex and vivid? Tolkien actually created (or adapted) a historic timeline leading back to the creation of the world, myths, legends, deities, several races of creatures (many of which have become staples of the fantasy genre), multiple kingdoms, and an entire language for the fictional inhabitants of his world! If you look hard enough in the right places I bet it wouldn’t take too much effort to find someone that speaks at least passing Elvish. They are not all that in depth, but that is the kind of detail you are potentially looking at when you jump into an epic fantasy.

In case that isn’t enough to wrap your head around, epic fantasy also almost always has a large cast of characters taking part in quests and adventures that will affect the fate of an entire kingdom or world. Possibly multiple worlds.

So, it is a complex workout for your imagination and memory. What else?

MiddleEarth

While hand-drawn maps of the world are not strictly mandatory, they are strongly encouraged. 

It’s big. Aside from its often immense geographic scope, as it is not unusual for the cast of characters to have to trek across continents and cross oceans in the pursuit of their goal, these stories can also cover large spans of time, with years, decades or even generations passing by in the course of the story (or series of stories). They are also big in another way – these are not typically short books. Once you get sucked into an epic fantasy series you are in it for the long haul.

 

Examples:

Sheepfarmer's DaughterThe Belgariad series by David Eddings

The Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy by Elizabeth Moon

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson

The Original Shannara Trilogy by Terry Brooks

The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind

The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan

Genre Friday – Pastiche

We continue to stretch (and occasionally ignore) the definition of “genre” here on Genre Friday. This time around we’re dealing not with a “genre” that is tied together by similar form, or theme, or subject, but by what it is attempting to do instead. That’s right, it’s pastiche time.

First, it’s pronounced pa’ steesh.

Second, it’s sort of like that saying that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. Unlike parody, that imitates something in order to poke fun at it, pastiche imitates something to honor it or to bring it to life for a new generation. The results of such an attempt can be light-hearted, even flippant, but it is still generally respectful of the original material. It is done as much out of admiration for the original art or artist (and it can be applied to any art form – painting, films, music, literature, etc.) as anything else.

It’s actually a really nice idea if you think about it.

House of Silk

“Hey, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Raymond Chandler, James Joyce, Agatha Christie, and so on, and so on, I am really picking up what you’re putting down. I want to be like you when I grow up.”

Sometimes the new work is only loosely related to the original (think West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet). Sometimes it is an off-shoot or continuation of a pre-existing story or set of stories. Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, for example, is an authorized continuation of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, however, is not an official sequel to Gone with the Wind, but still pays homage to the original source in its style and subject, not to mention main character.

Plus, once you get the hang of it, it’s kind of fun to say. Pastiche.

 

Genre Friday – Rampant Technology Horror

Toaster

Like this except, you know, evil.

It’s late, the wind is howling outside, you’re all alone in the house… and then your computer comes to life with malevolent intelligence and takes over all your appliances. Next thing you know your chased screaming from your home with sinister kitchen appliances and a surprisingly angry vacuum cleaner close on your heels only to find your lawn mower and snow blower waiting to ambush you in the front yard. Through the creative and unrestrained use of a shovel and framing hammer (thank goodness the simple tools haven’t turned against you) and running, lots of running, you manage to barely survive the night.

We’ve all been there.

Rampant Technology Horror (aka “The machines are alive and killing everyone!”) is a small but memorable horror subgenre dealing with exactly what it sounds like – technology and machines that have either taken on a life of their own or are being controlled by some mysterious outside force and subsequently turned on their erstwhile masters. It all exploits the fear that man has gone too far and dared too much, creating machines and technology that we can no longer understand (who knows how an iPad works? *crickets*), let alone control. The best (read most ridiculous and therefore entertaining) of the subgenre, in my humble opinion, comes from the late 70s to early 90s when it was all evil automobiles (see Stephen King’s film Maximum Overdrive, based on his short story Trucks) and horrifying home appliances (again, Stephen King provides an example with his story The Mangle about a violent washing machine). Once the digital age was upon us and computers became a household item though they stole the limelight and it all became frighteningly plausible.

Genre Friday – Pulp Fiction

Actually, it has surprisingly little to do with Quentin Tarantino.

Pulp

Pub. January 1952

Initially more a format than a genre, Pulp Fiction was a general term used to describe the stories published in pulp magazines – cheap magazines printed on rough, wood pulp paper (magazines printed on smooth, high-quality paper were called “glossies”). It was not a complimentary description.

Pulp fiction was synonymous with run-of-the-mill, low-quality literature that got by more on its cheap thrills and lurid details than on any merit.

It was, of course, wildly popular.

At least until WWII, when paper shortages and rising production costs spelled the end for many pulp publications.

Pulp_modern

Pub. June 2017

Today pulp fiction lives on mostly as an homage to those early 20th century writers and short stories. Pulp fiction, whether it be sci-fi, adventure, crime fiction, etc., had a certain sensationalist feel and many common themes and elements that developed over the decades of their popularity and some modern authors (especially hard-boiled crime authors) have taken those elements and brought them to their books and stories today. Or movies (there’s your Tarantino-tie-in).