Genre Friday – Comedic Fantasy

So You Want to Read Comedic Fantasy: Here’s Where to Start

Illustration: Paul Kidby/Orion Books

Fantasy fiction is serious business, until it isn’t. While we love our multi-volume doorstoppers and grimdark epics as much as the next reader, sometimes it’s fun to let loose and look for a laugh. Enter comedic fantasy.

Where fantasy began as a genre is certainly up for debate — one we’re not having now — but if you consider mythology a predecessor, then humor has been part of it since the beginning. Norse myth offers a tale of Thor dressing in drag to fool a frost giant into returning his stolen hammer Mjölnir. There’s also Anansi the spider, an African trickster spirit that cheerfully trolls anyone and anything it can. Those are just a couple of examples.

There are plenty of funny fairy and folk tales, too. Jack and the Beanstalk, Puss in Boots, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears, just to name a few. Of course, Shakespeare worked plenty of laughs into his own take on the fairy tale, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Heading into the modern era, fantasy fiction godfathers Lord Dunsany, and James Branch Cabell, wrote for chuckles, as did fantasy-adjacent authors like Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. Plenty of old school fantasy writers did, too. Fritz Leiber’s stuff is full of chuckles, as is Fletcher Pratt’s.

There are plenty of contemporary fantasy writers who know their way around a joke, and if you’re looking for a laugh, then you’ve come to the right place. Here are our suggestions for the humor-hungry bookworm.

The cover of the book Kill the Farm BoyKill the Farm Boy
KEVIN HEARNE AND DELILAH S. DAWSON
Iron Druid Chronicles author Kevin Hearne and Star Wars: Phasma author Delilah S. Dawson’s Kill the Farm Boy is a take-no-prisoners comedy assault on the high fantasy genre, complete with a trash-talking goat, necromancer named Steve, and a Dark Lord who is a bit of a turophile — a cheese lover, that is. It isn’t out until July 17, but this should be a definite pre-order for the comedic fantasy fan.

 

The cover of the book The Color of MagicThe Color of Magic
TERRY PRATCHETT
Sir Terry was the 800 pound gorilla of comedic fantasy, and that’s not going to change any time soon. Few, if any, fantasy readers would argue with the contention that his Discworld series pretty much made the genre what it is in the modern age. What is arguable is where one should begin reading the series. According to some fans, you can jump in anywhere you like. Others point to this or that volume as being better points of entry. With all of that in mind, I’ll just point you toward the first book, The Color of Magic, and you can decide for yourself.

 

The cover of the book Another Fine MythAnother Fine Myth
ROBERT ASPRIN
Robert Asprin, like Sir Terry, was a giant in comedic fantasy. His Myth Adventures series started with a fairly formulaic trope — the bumbling wizard’s apprentice — and took it to some weird, weird places. Book one introduces the aforementioned apprentice, Skeeve, his fearsome-looking demon sidekick Aahz, and a host of other misfit characters you’ll come to know and love as much as I did. A note: the series seems to be out of print in dead tree, but the ebooks are still available.

 

The cover of the book The HikeThe Hike
DREW MAGARY
Drew Magary’s fantasy novel The Hike is one of the strangest and funniest contributions to the genre that I’ve read in the last few years. It’s the story of a guy whose short walk in the woods turns into an epic journey across a fantasy world populated with hungry giantesses, witheringly sarcastic crabs, dog-men, and dwarves — Oh God, the dwarves. I almost forgot. Dwarves.

 

The cover of the book The Princess BrideThe Princess Bride
WILLIAM GOLDMAN
You were expecting this one, weren’t you? Well, you should be — and with good reason. Goldman’s The Princess Bride is as heartwarming as it is funny, and the book is just as much a pleasure to experience as the movie based on it. (You’ve never seen “The Princess Bride”? Stop reading this now and go. Just go and watch it. I’ll wait.)

 

The cover of the book In the Company of OgresIn the Company of Ogres
A. LEE MARTINEZ
A. Lee Martinez has written a ton of funny stuff across half a dozen genres. In the Company of Ogres is his sharp, pointy stick in the eye of proper fantasy fiction. It’s about a guy — a guy who has trouble staying dead — who is put in charge of an oddball company of monsters, including, but not limited to, a two-headed ogre

 

The cover of the book The Tough Guide to FantasylandThe Tough Guide to Fantasyland
DIANA WYNNE JONES
The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land is your travel guide to the fantasy worlds of your favorite authors. Which ones? All of them! Jones parodic masterwork skewers the fantasy tropes that all of us know and love, from magic swords to dark lords. If you’ve ever lost a few hours at tvtropes.com, then this book is for you.

 

The cover of the book Bored of the RingsBored of the Rings
THE HARVARD LAMPOON
Bored of the Rings is a parody of J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic written by Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kenney, Harvard Lampoonstaffers who went on to launch the classic humor magazine (and movie production company) National Lampoon. Like the Lampoon itself, the humor of Bored of the Rings can be downright crude, but if your taste leans that way, then you’ll probably enjoy it. (No judgment!)

 

The cover of the book Kings of the WyldKings of the Wyld
NICHOLAS EAMES
In a world where adventuring parties are like rock bands, Clay Cooper and his rowdy crew of mercenaries were legends. Now they’re older, and out of shape, and married, and … well, they’re not kids anymore. But it’s time to get the band back together, and show that you’re never too old to rock. The cover of this book, while awesome, makes it seem a lot darker than it really is. Honestly, it’s a really funny story about the bonds of friendship. And friendly zombies. Air ships, too.

 

The cover of the book To Say Nothing of the DogTo Say Nothing of the Dog
CONNIE WILLIS
I’ll readily concede to stretching the definition of “fantasy” for this one, but I would be remiss not mentioning this bona fide classic.The invention of the time machine has opened up the past to historians in a way that their forebears could only dream of. There are rules, though: You aren’t supposed to bring anything back with you from the past — least of all a cat. Now an overworked Oxford Don has to return to the 19th century to set things right. To Say Nothing of the Dog is part of the same universe as The Doomsday Book, but a heck of a lot funnier.

 

The cover of the book Heroine's JourneyHeroine’s Journey
SARAH KUHN
Does comedic fantasy only come in chainmail and wizard’s hats? I think not. Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex novels stand as proof that you can find big laughs in other forms of fantastic literature. In her case, superhero fiction. Heroine Complex is about a former personal assistant to an A-list superhero whose life turns upside down when she discovers her own powers. Look for book three, Heroine’s Journey, on July 3!

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Genre Friday – Vampire Fiction

Despite how it may have seemed over the last decade or so, Vampires are not a genre unto themselves. They mostly reside under the Horror genre, although they are popular enough that they pop up everywhere from Fantasy to Romance to Literary Fiction.

Vampires are not new – they existed in the minds of humanity long before Twilight – and they will likely be sticking around for quite some time. Fittingly for an idea that has spanned over many centuries and cultures, vampires, even when found in their native habitat, Horror fiction (and sometimes Fantasy), come in several different varieties. The reading list below gives a nice variety to choose from to get you started.

So You Want to Read Vampire Fiction: Here’s Where to Start

It isn’t hard to find books featuring vampires these days, but finding one to your taste can be a little more difficult. In our list of suggested reads, we’ve tried to provide an overview of the vampire in all of its literary incarnations: suave, savage, sexy, and psychopathic.

 

The cover of the book The Powers of DarknessThe Powers of Darkness
BRAM STOKER (AUTHOR), VALDIMAR ÁSMUNDSSON (AUTHOR), HANS CORNEEL DE ROOS (TRANSLATOR)
I know that if you’ve even got a cursory interest in vampires then you’ve probably read Dracula. It’s been done to death on these kinds of lists — no pun intended. That said, it keeps popping up for a reason. With Dracula, Bram Stoker took a hodgepodge of Eastern European folklore and produced an indelible horror archetype that has haunted the popular imagination for going on two centuries. Still, you’ve likely read it. With that in mind, why not check out Powers of Darkness? Icelandic author Valdimar Ásmundsson’s 1900 supposed translation of the novel is actually a stand-alone work that adds new characters and plot elements not found in Stoker’s original.

 

The cover of the book I Am LegendI Am Legend
RICHARD MATHESON
Richard Matheson’s apocalyptic tale of one man — possibly the last man on Earth — waging an impossible war against the vampires who used to be his friends and neighbors has been adapted several times for the silver screen, with none of the results really capturing the tragedy and paranoia of the original story. Ironically, the one film that kind of did was an unauthorized rip-off: George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” : a movie that, in turn, single-handedly created the zombie apocalypse genre. All of that aside, if you’re looking for a thoroughly modern interpretation of the vampire — one without the gothic affectation or erotic subtext — then you can’t go wrong with this one. (“Come out, Neville!”)

 

The cover of the book Interview with the VampireInterview with the Vampire
ANNE RICE
Okay, I hear you: You’re actually more in the mood for the other kind of vampire — the sexy kind. In that case, I recommend Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, a gothic novel par excellence. Rice wrote Interview following the death of her first child, and the book is overflowing with the grief and anger she must have felt. Protagonist Louis de Point du Lac is a tragic figure who wants nothing more than to die when he is transformed into an immortal being by the vampire Lestat — a dark miracle that brings him no closer to understanding the savage world around him.

Editor’s Note: There’s a new book in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles coming out on October 2nd! It’s called Blood Communion: A Tale of Prince Lestat, and if you like Interview with the Vampire, you’re going to want to check it out.

 

The cover of the book Already DeadAlready Dead
CHARLIE HUSTON
Forget the velvet and lace. Maybe you’re more of a leather and chains kind of reader. Following wizards and witches, vampires are among the most popular protagonists in the paranormal detective genre. While there’s no shortage of great material in that vein (Get it? Get it?), my personal favorite has to be Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt Casebooks. A former punk rocker turned street hustler, Joe’s transformation into a “vampyre” leads him to a career as a fixer and leg-breaker for New York City’s rival vampyre clans. Joe refuses to swear allegiance to any of them, making him the go-to guy for odd (and bloody) jobs around the city. Joe is a killer with a heart of stone — he’s nobody’s idea of a knight in shining armor. If you see him coming around, then you’d probably better start running.

 

The cover of the book The Moth DiariesThe Moth Diaries
RACHEL KLEIN
Vampires are also popular in young adult literature, but wait, don’t leave — I’m not going to recommend Twilight. Instead, I’d like to direct you to Rachel Klein’s The Moth Diaries: a gothic novel of toxic friendship and (possibly) the supernatural set at an exclusive girl’s boarding school. The set-up and subtext of this mature tale for younger readers will undoubtedly remind longtime vampire aficionados of Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic story “Carmilla”.

 

 

The cover of the book The HistorianThe Historian
ELIZABETH KOSTOVA
Do you like alternative history and conspiracies? If so, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian should be up your alley. When a scholar and her father investigate the historical Vlad the Impaler they uncover a secret that should have been left buried. Is there some truth to the old legends of the blood-drinking Voivode of Wallachia? Did he have more of a connection to the story of Dracula than even popular culture would have us to believe?

 

The cover of the book Let the Right One InLet the Right One In
JOHN AJVIDE LINDQVIST, TRANSLATED BY EBBA SEGERBERG
Obviously, the vampire myth is a great one for exploring the darker corners of human existence, and Let the Right One In does so in spades.  The story of a friendship between Oksar, a bullied boy, and Eli, a centuries-old vampire stuck with the body of a child, Let the Right One In a truly unsettling book.

 

 

 

Genre Friday – Gothic Fiction

Is it Gothic Fiction?

Is it dark (in tone or in luminous intensity)?

Usually.

Is it creepy in an undeniable, but sometimes indefinite, way?

Most of the time.

Is death featured heavily, either as an event or preoccupation?

Absolutely.

Does it leave you with a deep distrust of old, palatial manners, moldering estates, dilapidated plantation homes and crumbly castles?

It would have if I weren’t already freaked out by those places.  

Is it focused on an individual (or small group or family) and their thoughts and feelings as they try to deal with everything listed above without going completely insane?

Yup.

That’s Gothic Fiction alright. This genre looked at the rugged individualism, intense emotions, introspection and focus on nature and the past (in particular the medieval period) of Romanticism and said, ‘Yeah, but where is all the deep, existential and psychological terror and death?’ It’s not necessarily terrifying in the way traditional Horror is but it will almost certainly get your skin crawling at some point. Or at least make you look over your shoulder as you walk down dark and deserted hallways, should you have occasion to do so.

Now that we have that established the real question is, where is it set? For Gothic Fiction, setting is what determines subgenre – American (or, more specifically, Southern), English or Space (you read that right, space).

American Gothic

As you would assume, we’re dealing with American settings here — the frontier or wild west, the deep south, sometimes even suburbia. The stories often explore the darker parts of American culture and history; slavery, war, genocide and the exploitation of the nation’s natural resources and wilderness come up fairly regularly. Horror is there in some form or another, but it isn’t always supernatural (as people are more than capable of being horrifying on there own), and when it is, it might be implied rather than clearly identified. This brings in the unreliable narrator and mental illness, which is another common theme in American Gothic stories. Set it in the sweltering southern heat, and liberally sprinkle in racial tension, degradation, and poverty left over from the Reconstruction era and you have Southern Gothic.

Examples:

The cover of the book We Have Always Lived in the CastleThe Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

English Gothic

Grappling with mental illness or spiritual angst, while dodging ghosts on the windswept moors or in a crumbling tower? In England? You’re in an English Gothic story. Watch out for untimely death, doomed romance, and villainous depravity – if it hasn’t happened already, it’s only a matter time. And, this probably goes without saying but, try to stay out of neglected graveyards, cobwebbed dungeons and, of course, haunted castles.

Examples:

The cover of the book The Castle of OtrantoThe Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Racliffe

Gothic Space Opera

You know those sci-fi stories where civilization and technology extended so far and so fast that when it eventually and inevitably collapsed the average person was suddenly left stranded in a pseudo-medieval, superstitious and decaying society despite the fact that they live on an alien planet or massive star ship? Well, they’re out there, and they are frequently the starting point for these Gothic Space stories.

In these cases, the rickety star ship serves as haunted mansion/castle analog and the inky, vast blackness of space the misty, eerie moors that surround typically surround them. Authoritarian regimes, oppressive cults and demonic alien forces are common issues, as well as the usual wear and tear of long space travel — time dilation, the assumption of death-like states of suspended animation, and the dementia-inducing isolation of space travel, to name a few examples — on human relationships and sanity are frequent topics.

Examples:

The cover of the book The Burning DarkBlindsight by Peter Watts

The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher

The Explorer by James Smythe

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Nightflyers by George R. R. Martin

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

 

Genre Friday – Psychological Horror

So You Want to Read Psychological Horror: Here’s Where to Start

Psychological horror is a vein of frightening fiction that uses the mental states of its protagonists to evoke feelings of dread. Its narrators are often unreliable, and there may be some question about what is actually happening in the circumstances they find themselves in. If tales of madness and terror are your thing, then you’ll love the following reading recommendations.

The cover of the book The ShiningThe Shining

STEPHEN KING

Writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance is looking for a fresh start, and the winter caretaker job at the sprawling Overlook Hotel seems made to fit. Three months of peace and quiet, just Jack, his family … and ghosts. Lots of them. The Overlook is booked almost solid with the souls it has claimed, but still has room for just a few more occupants.

 

The cover of the book House of LeavesHouse of Leaves

MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI

A young family moves into a house and discovers it is larger on the inside than the out. It might be haunted. Maybe the house itself is alive. The mystery of the house is bigger than anyone can truly understand, but they’ll try anyway, and maybe lose their sanity in the process.

 

The cover of the book The Red TreeThe Red Tree

CAITLIN R. KIERNAN

Shortly after moving into a secluded old house in rural New England, writer Sarah Crowe discovers a manuscript hidden in a wall. It was left there by an anthropologist determined to uncover the truth about an old tree long associated with murder and various other unpleasant incidences. If she isn’t cautious, Crowe, too, will be drawn into the tangled history of the Red Tree.

 

The cover of the book Final GirlsFinal Girls

RILEY SAGER

The media calls them the final books: a group of women — strangers to each other — who were the sole survivors of massacres perpetrated by horror movie-style serial killers. Years later, and they’re still all trying to put the worst nights of their lives behind them. Unfortunately, the past is coming back to haunt them. When one of the Final Girls turns up dead, the victim of a supposed suicide, these haunted women begin to believe that the killing may not be over.

 

The cover of the book American PsychoAmerican Psycho

BRET EASTON ELLIS

Patrick Bateman is a high-powered businessman in eighties New York City. He’s also a psychopathic murderer who punctuates his gruesome killings with lines of cocaine, weirdly obsessive monologues about his skin care routine, and power lunches at some of the city’s chicest restaurants. Or maybe not: Bateman’s worst acts of violence and depravity may be entirely imaginary. Ellis leaves it up to the reader to figure out.

 

The cover of the book The Fall of the House of Usher and Other StoriesThe Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories

EDGAR ALLAN POE

You can’t talk about psychological horror without talking about Edgar Allan Poe. The tortured genius behind “The Raven”, The Fall of the House of Usher”, and so many other haunting works of prose and poetry virtually created the genre single-handedly. If high school was the last time you read his fiction, then it is definitely time to revisit it.

 

The cover of the book Dark TalesDark Tales

SHIRLEY JACKSON

Shirley Jackson was one of the twentieth century’s foremost practitioners of psychological horror fiction. While her novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House should have high priority on any reader’s list, her short stories are a great place to start. Dip into her wonderfully creepy fiction with this new collection of horror stories.

 

The cover of the book The Wasp FactoryThe Wasp Factory

IAIN BANKS

People aren’t born bad, or are they? The Wasp Factory is a look inside the mind of a young psychopathic murderer. Graphic, funny, and altogether unique, The Wasp Factory is like nothing you’ve ever read before.

 

The cover of the book The Silence of the LambsThe Silence of the Lambs

THOMAS HARRIS

Clarice Starling is an FBI agent in training under the Bureau’s behavioral science unit. “Buffalo Bill” is a serial killer at large. Her best chance to find him is to interview his former psychiatrist: the now-imprisoned Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. A master manipulator with nothing but time on his hands, Lecter is more than happy to help — for a price.

 

The cover of the book A Head Full of GhostsA Head Full of Ghosts

PAUL TREMBLAY

A New England family was thrown into chaos when one of their daughters had what appeared to be a severe psychotic break. When medicine didn’t help, they turned to an exorcist — who brought along a television crew. Years later, the possessed girl’s sister agrees to an interview with a writer. What really happened in the house may not have matched what viewers saw at home, and it is time for all to know the truth.

Genre Friday: Sword and Planet Fiction

Is it fantasy or is it science-fiction?

Yes.

While it might be past it’s prime as a genre it remains a fascinating and fun mash-up of beloved genres, themes and tropes. Interested? Keep reading to get a quick intro from Unbound Worlds.

So You Want to Read Sword and Planet Fiction: Here’s Where to Start

Mash together fantasy’s sword-swinging heroes, and the far-out alien civilizations of early science-fiction, and you’ve got Sword and Planet fiction. Arguably the brainchild of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sword and Planet tales usually features human protagonists adventuring on a planet teeming with life, intelligent or otherwise. Science takes a backseat to romance and derring-do in Sword and Planet stories, with little if any consideration given to the actual conditions on Mars, Venus, or wherever else the story takes place.

It isn’t as popular of a genre as it once was. Honestly, like the fanciful canals that we once thought crisscrossed Mars, Sword and Planet is all but extinct as an idea. So little was known about our planetary neighbors in the days of Edgar Rice Burroughs, so It was easier for readers to imagine intelligent life on Mars, or Venus. Reading tastes have changed, too. Episodic, pulp-flavored fantasy has fallen in favor, replaced in the public imagination by epic fantasies that stretch across multiple volumes.

Where Sword and Planet can really be seen today is in the influence it has had on popular culture. The lightsabers, blasters, and planet-hopping heroics of “Star Wars” probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Sword and Planet. Neither would “Avatar” or “Stargate”. Regardless of its current status, the classics of Sword and Planet literature are still very much worth seeking out, and with this list we hope to provide you with a good starting point.

The cover of the book A Princess of MarsA Princess of Mars

EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS

Before there was Tarzan, there was John Carter: a renegade Civil War veteran mysteriously transported to Mars: home to a dying civilization locked in eternal conflict with enemy barbarian tribes. There, among a people entirely unlike any he has ever met, Carter will find everything he ever wanted: adventure, riches, and love.

 

The cover of the book The Ginger StarThe Ginger Star

LEIGH BRACKETT

Leigh Brackett was one of the pulp era’s great women writers. She has never quite gotten her due, despite having not only written many great novels, but also first draft of a little film titled “Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”.  The Ginger Star is the first volume in her series, The Book of Skaith: a collection of tales starring outlaw spacer Eric John Stark. In this installment, Stark has to rescue his foster father from the Lords Protector: a group of despots guarded by vicious, telepathic dog creatures.

 

The cover of the book Planet of AdventurePlanet of Adventure

JACK VANCE

Jack Vance is, of course, famous for his Dying Earth stories — and deservedly so. However, he wrote a lot of other things, among them Planet of Adventure: a cycle of four novels chronicling the adventures of Adam Reith: a space traveler stranded on Tschai: a savage alien planet home to slavers, murderers, and monsters.

 

The cover of the book Transit to ScorpioTransit to Scorpio

KENNETH BULMER

The Dray Prescot series was one of Sword and Planet’s longest series, clocking in at 52 volumes in total. In Transit to Scorpio, the first book in the line, adventurer Dray Presott finds himself ensnared in a planetary chess game far larger than any he has ever encountered.

 

The cover of the book ParagaeaParagaea

CHRIS ROBERSON

Paragaea is the story of Leena Cirikov, a Soviet astronaut inexplicably transported to a strange world of mystery and adventure. Fortunately for Cirikov, she’s not the only Earthling trapped in this dimension. There’s also Lieutenant Heironymous Bonaventure of the Royal Navy: an officer who left home to fight Napoleon and never returned. Bonaventure, along with his jaguar man companion Balam, have agree to help Cirikov find a way home, but is their mission a futile one?

 

The cover of the book Old MarsOld Mars

EDITED BY GEORGE R. R. MARTIN AND GARDNER DOZOIS

Editors George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois invite readers to explore the Mars of yesterday: an ancient planet of deserts, ruined cities, and canals twisting through the endless red sands. Featuring stories by Michael Moorcock, S. M. Stirling, Liz Williams, and many more, Old Mars will leave you longing to visit a world that has never been.

 

The cover of the book Old VenusOld Venus

EDITED BY GEORGE R. R. MARTIN & GARDNER DOZOIS

In this follow-up to Old Mars, a collection of award-winning authors tell tales of the Venus of yesterday: a steamy, jungle planet teeming with dangerous alien life. Contributors include, Gwyneth Jones, Elizabeth Bear, Joe Haldeman, and others.

Genre Friday – WESTERNS

Image result for western genre

The Western genre is uniquely American (more-or-less – Australian and Eurowesterns [see below], and spaghetti western films [many oddly inspired by Japanese samurai films] create a few exceptions to this rule). The genre’s main feature is its setting, the untamed western half of the United States during the 1800s (and occasionally stretching into the late 1700s or early 1900s), which makes sense as it got its start in the “penny dreadfuls” and “dime novels” of the 19th century. These cheap books were wildly popular and helped spread the mythic image of the old west with stories about the mountain men, outlaws, settlers, and lawmen who were taming the wild western frontier. Western novels as we know them today began appearing in the early 20th century, popularized by well known authors like Zane Grey and later, in the mid 20th century, by authors like Louis L’Amour. Maybe due to the timing of it, as the Western novel was becoming popular as motion pictures came into their own, but the Western genre is as well known for its movies (and movie stars) and TV shows as it is for its books (maybe better known). This is why you’ll notice in the list of Western subgenres below that more than a few of the examples given are film titles.

Sadly, the genre peaked around the early 1960s and has been undergoing a long, slow decline ever since. Most of the best movies are old, and a lot of the new ones are remakes, and many of the most iconic Western novels (and their authors) are several decades past their prime. Still, as long as there is an audience for them, Westerns and their rugged heroes will continue to prevail before stoically riding off into the sunset.

Western Subgenres

You can be fairly certain that there will be six shooters and horses, but aside from that Westerns can vary quite a bit. Below is a list of many of the subgenres associated with tales of the wild west.

1063180Australian westerns are a rare exception to the ‘time and place’ bounds of the genre, moving from the western US to the untamed Australian outback. Sometimes, the protagonist is an American that is no longer satisfied with the rapidly-filling western United States, and instead settles in Australia’s vast outback. Sometimes the story centers around European or Australian outlaws and their western-like adventures and escapades. Ned Kelly, the fictional account of a real Australian outlaw is a good example.

Black Cowboy (Buffalo Soldier): These westerns feature a protagonist of color. Gerald Haslam’s story Rider is a fine example. These stories sometimes depict members or veterans of the US Army’s 9th and 10th Cavalry (aka Buffalo Soldiers), African-American soldiers that gained fame for their actions in the west. Z.Z. Packer’s novel The Thousands is a good example of this subgenre.

Bounty Hunter tales center upon these morally ambiguous characters. Peter Brandvold’s novel Bounty Hunter Lou Prophet is a clear example. Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian follows a band of bloodthirsty killers after the money offered for killing Native Americans.

Cattle Drive westerns are set amidst this definitive frontier activity and, along with gunslingers and wagon trains, is among the most well known and frequently depicted western subgenre. Often the young protagonist makes long strides toward adulthood during these grueling journeys. Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove and its sequels are famous examples. Clay Fisher’s novel The Tall Men is another.

2881203Civil War westerns are defined by the conflict that gives the subgenre its name – pitched battles having been fought as far west as New Mexico. Stories can be set during or after the war as former soldiers carried Blue/Gray antagonisms throughout the frontier in the years following the official end of the fighting. Johnny D. Boggs’ novel Camp Ford is a comprehensive example. Howard Hawk’s 1970 film Rio Lobo places John Wayne in a similar situation.

463124Cowpunk is a subgenre that derives its name (and irreverant tone) from science fiction’s ‘cyberpunk.’ It can also, but does not have to, overlap with the steampunk subgenre of sci-fi to varying degrees. These tales depict all sorts of bizarre happenings on the remote frontier. Elisabeth Scarborough’s novel The Drastic Dragon of Draco Texas mixes ethnic mythology with comedy and horror.

Doctor and Preacher is a subgenre with two main types of protagonists. I’ll give you two guesses… Well done.

The common thread between the two character types are that such lead characters are committed to peace and healing (or know they should be) despite frequently finding themselves surrounded by violent situations and people. TV’s fictional Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman is a well-known example. Robert B. Parker’s novel Preacher is a more recent one.

Winnetou I: Kepala Suku ApacheEurowestern tales come, as the term implies, from Europe. Karl May’s German-language novels, starting in 1892 with his Winnetou I, brought the excitement and allure of the rugged frontier across the Atlantic. Sergio Leone’s classic 1966 ‘spaghetti western’ films, like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in the white and black hats, could also be considered part of this genre. Traditional examples of this subgenre are often more gritty; in a an emotional and violent (and even dusty) sense, than its American cousins, which could depict a more romanticized version of the Old West.

257837Gunfighter tales are an iconic western subgenre. In reality, two men dueling each other on the dusty main street of an old west town almost never happened , yet that image is probably what people most often picture when thinking of westerns and it is essential the plot of these stories. Often a ‘white hat’ protagonist reluctantly agrees to go up against a cruel ‘black hat’ villain on behalf of oppressed common folks. Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel Shane is a classic example. Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 film High Noon casts Gary Cooper in the lead role.

2917585Humorous or Parody is self-explanatory. Mel Brook’s 1974 film Blazing Saddles towers over this subgenre. Gene Kelly’s 1970 film The Cheyenne Social Club is another example and Ellen Recknor’s novel Prophet Annie is full of wry humor.

Indian Wars dominate the subgenre of the same name. They are often historically accurate in the details, but can also reflect the time and worldview (and thus, bias) of the author. James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans remains a classic. Douglas C. Jones’s novel The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer vividly depicts a “what if?” cultural clash, asking ‘was General Custer a hero or a villain?’ Many older American films depict the Indians as ruthless savages to be swept aside. In Arthur Penn’s 1970 film Little Big Man the natives are wise and noble and white Americans cruel interlopers. Kevin Costner’s 1990 film Dances With Wolves portrays a more realistic mixed bag.

235292Land Rush stories usually focus on Oklahoma, where vast tracts of land were suddenly opened to homesteading — whether the resident Native Americans liked it or not. Al and Joanna Lacy’s novel The Land of Promise is one example. Ron Howard’s 1992 film Far and Away has a dramatic portrayal.

4554887Lawmen (Texas Rangers): This subgenre centers around the honest lawmen (especially Texas Rangers) who struggled to bring order and justice to the wild frontier. Often the protagonist is, or is based upon, an actual person. Jack Cumming’s novel The Last Lawmen is a realistic example.

1063298Mexican Wars (Texan Independence): Stories in this subgenre include the decisive geopolitical events of 1845-48. Marion G. Otto’s novel Hugh Harrington is a good example. Many Texan tales feature the siege of the Alamo, like Stephen Harrigan’s novel The Gates of the Alamo. Mexican authors who write in this subgenre often depict the secession of Texas, and the US invasion of Veracruz and Mexico City — but with heroes and villains reversed.

48119Modern Indians is a western subgenre that is set in the present day with a protagonist must bridge a venerable Native American heritage with modern American culture and technology. Tony Hillerman’s novel Coyote Waits is perhaps the best known example. Hillerman’s books are often listed with the ‘mystery’ genre, as they feature the Navajo tribal police. To his credit, they’re immensely popular in Navajo country.

24598788Mormon tales center upon the settlement of Utah in the 1840s and 50s, under the leadership of Brigham Young. Marilyn Brown’s novel The Wine-Dark Sea of Grass is an unstinting depiction and From Everlasting to Everlasting, by Sophie Freeman, mirrors real-life experiences. Many of these novels are published by imprints associated with the LDS church.

3680174Outlaw westerns focus on the ‘black hats,’ the colorful villains of that era cast as anti-heroes. The Dalton Brothers, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and many others became legends in their own time. Eugene Manlove Rhodes’ 1927 novel Paso por Aqui (later reprinted as Four Faces West) depicts an unusual robber hunted by the famous marshal Pat Garrett.

1208794Prairie Settlement tales are not quite standard ‘westerns,’ but they do fall within the time-and-place bounds of the genre. They depict the taming of the vast flat plains of the midwest, during the 1800s. Ole Rolvaag’s classic novel Giants in the Earth depicts a Norwegian family enduring bitter winters and maddening loneliness, as civilization slowly follows them west. While intended for children, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series is enjoyed by all ages.

830742Prospecting (Gold Rush): This subgenre focuses on the quest for sudden riches, whether as a comfortable silver mine owner or a hardscrabble gold panner. In the 1860s, Bret Harte and Mark Twain immortalized these characters even as the California gold rush was in full swing. Jack London extended the ‘western’ genre northward, with realistic accounts of the 1896 gold rush into Alaska and the Yukon Territory, most famously in his novel The Call of the Wild.

10090301Quest westerns involve a protagonist on a mission, set against a harsh untamed frontier and relentless rivals and/or enemies. Cameron Judd’s novel The Quest of Brady Kenton is an oft-cited example of this subgenre. Elmer Kelton’s Cloudy in the West is another.

Railroad stories center upon a titanic project: the bridging of the east and west coasts by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines. Rugged geography, indentured Chinese workers, and international scandals add depth to this milieu. John Ford’s 1924 film The Iron Horse remains a classic.

169751Range Wars (Sheepmen): These stories center upon a peculiar western rivalry, as ranchers trying to claim the best grazing land came into conflict with homesteading farmers (sometimes sheep ranchers) who were fencing off said grazing land. Owen Wister’s classic 1902 novel The Virginian, later filmed at least twice, depicts Wyoming’s fratricidal Johnson County War.

A few subgenre tales focus on shepherds, many of them Basque immigrants, and the wool merchants who owned the flocks. Zane Grey’s 1922 novel To the Last Man depicts a cattlemen vs. sheepmen feud (based upon real Arizona history) so vicious its title is a literal description.

10035073Revenge westerns are a relatively dark subgenre. A determined protagonist, often a young survivor of some cruel massacre, goes after the perpetrators. In the Western setting, witnesses to crimes were few, and law enforcement scarce (and sometimes corrupt), leading to such harsh individual actions. Charles Portis’s 1969 novel True Grit, soon filmed by Henry Hathaway (also remade by the Coen brothers), follows a determined young woman on such a mission.

3467451Romance is an overlapping subgenre, where the Romance and Western genres meet, which features the elements of Romance but in the ‘western’ novel setting. A.H. Holt’s Silver Creek and Morgan J. Blake’s Redemption are two such novels.

Town-tamer westerns are well described by their name. A lone gunman, or sometimes a group of friends, take on the corrupt and oppressive leaders or marauding bandits that are terrorizing an isolated town. Frank Gruber’s story “Town Tamer,” filmed by Lesley Selander, is a clear example. Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 movie Silverado is a great depiction. John Sturges’ 1960 film The Magnificent Seven extends this subgenre into rural Mexico.

822935Most Trapper or Mountain Man tales are set earlier than other western subgenres, when Native Americans still dominated the land and civilization was still a long way away in the “East.” Often the rugged protagonist is the only white man for hundreds of miles around, and he’ll find a native bride. Louis L’Amour’s novel To the Far Blue Mountains depicts the earliest English settlement of the Appalachians, in the 1500s. A.B. Guthrie’s novel The Big Sky crosses the continent, and James Michener’s sprawling Centennial is another example.

Wagon Train westerns are a quintessential subgenre. The Oregon Trail was the interstate highway of its era, with lumbering Conestoga wagons, and hardships that were often extreme. Zane Grey’s 1936 novel The Lost Wagon Train is a classic example. George Stewart’s episodic novel Sheep Rock follows waves of settlers through a remote Nevada desert.

The WindWomen protagonists lead this subgenre. Some tales idealize their courage and triumphs, as with the real-life Annie Oakley. Opposite this, Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel The Wind is a harsh depiction of a young woman’s life in frontier west Texas – so harsh that the leaders of Texas at the time protested.

Genre Friday – Magical Realism

Robert Gonsalves, On the High Seas

Magical Realism is a very interesting genre. In the broadest, and most obvious terms, it deals with stories that incorporate magic into realistic settings. That could be viewed as an oversimplification though, since the same thing could be said for Urban Fantasy, which is a very different animal indeed. So, while magical realism could arguably be given a place at the speculative fiction table (and maybe even the little table near the kitchen that is reserved for Fantasy genres and subgenres), it typically isn’t. And for good reason. Often viewed as literary fiction, rather than the often less respected genre fiction (haters gonna hate) it could be compared to, it has a style and feeling all its own.

This may have something to due with its attributed origins as a primarily Latin American product.  Jorge Luis Borges, Elena Garro, Juan Rulfo, Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, among others, are seen as founders and pioneers of the genre. It has spread out from there, with authors of other places and cultures taking to the surreal world of magical realism, but no matter where they are from the genre always has certain elements in common to one extent or another.

Magical realism incorporates magic into the everyday, mundane world in a way that almost suggests it is commonplace; or, if not commonplace, than at least not terribly alarming to the protagonist. Its mystic elements, usually (or at least traditionally) rooted in folklore or mythology, are often subtle or underplayed and may go completely unremarked upon in the story. The subtle blending of the detailed, real-world setting with the fantastical, and the characters’ often almost casual acceptance of it (‘Huh, cats don’t usually talk, but it would be rude not to say hello‘ or ‘That is a little odd, the ghosts of my long dead ancestors don’t usually appear in my breakfast nook, I should ask them if I can get them anything‘) create a surreal, dream-like feeling in many of these works. In many situations, the calm, dream-like feeling is strengthened even further by the narrators indifference. They are frequently equally as unaffected by the “real” elements of their world as they are the fantastic, never seeking an explanation for their circumstances or the things they have witnessed. Meanwhile, the reader, confronted by a constant barrage of strange and impossible events in this realistic setting, experiences an ever-building sense of mystery, and occasionally foreboding, as the characters and the story calmly approach the point of climax.

If you enjoy waking from those particularly weird and vivid dreams that leave you with a distinct sense of confused wonder, or if wish you had dreams like that, then this is the genre for you.

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Examples:

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez