When Cormac McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian he approached the western from an honest place, meaning he genuinely liked the genre and Blood Meridian came from a long gestation of consuming the genre. Blood Meridian is a very popular book and it’s influence cannot be overstated. This is, potentially, a problem because subsequent writers carry Blood Meridian as a primary influence without all of the ground work that influenced McCarthy’s writing of it. Kind of like a history book that cites only secondary influences.
The revisionist western is one of two types of westerns that I enjoy the most (I’ll write about the other type another time). That’s my starting position in writing this. One of the problems, as I see it, with revisionist westerns in a post-Blood Meridian landscape is that they all think that they are the second ones to try and turn the genre on it’s head. Revisionist westerns continue to trickle out, a couple a year or one every couple of years, and, for the past few years, each occurrence is treated as if it’s the best thing since the last time one was published.
The lack of grounding in the genre and its history is part of the problem. Another aspect is that, are you sitting down, Blood Meridian isn’t the first revisionist western novel. Revisionist westerns go back to at least the late 50’s*. The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider came out in 1957, Warlock by Oakley Hall came out in 1958, and, most important to the discussion of Blood Meridian, Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams came out in 1960. Butcher’s Crossing is partly Moby Dick in the west and partly a proto-Blood Meridian. Certainly Butcher’s Crossing is a book that Blood Meridian stands on the shoulders of. This may come as a surprise to some of Blood Meridian’s fans but is true nonetheless.
*I’m not aware of any revisionist western novels before the mid to late 50’s. If you know of any earlier ones please let me know. Yes, westerns were growing more psychologically and morally complex but the first wave of actual revisionist westerns started in the late-50’s.
This, to me, is the proper tradition in which to place Haints Stay. Two and half decades after Blood Meridian kicked off the second wave.
Two qualities of the modern western present in Haints Stay. First, a number of modern western writers are largely influenced by western movies primarily, and in many cases solely (with the exception of Blood Meridian). So there is a growing generation of western novels whose influence is filmic. The tropes and trappings of the genre are present and it is, based on its setting, a western but it is divorced from much of the western genre’s history. This isn’t necessarily a bad quality but it is one that I think is worth mentioning because it affects the tone.
“Haints Stay was more intentionally built from movies than novels or experiences, though I’m pretty sure all the movies I watched were based on books or short stories — something that is notably common in the Western. I was interested in the stage dressing of the Western. But I didn’t let myself read many Westerns, though I wanted to. If they influenced Haints Stay, it was through gauzy layers of interpretation or my own bad memory.”
The western genre, perhaps willfully, resisted an accurate view of the west, and ignored the diversity of the west that was present. The western, for many decades, catered to a white, American, masculine audience, and was filtered through that view point. By the time the revisionist history books of the 1970’s came out that showed a more accurate representation of the west and, more perhaps more importantly, the effect of those books were felt in fiction in the 1980’s, it was too late for a course correction in a genre that imploded overnight in the 60’s. Since the 50’s the western has been used as a screen on which was projected the social influences of the time that it was written. Haints Stay is a product of its time and as such, takes a look at modern issues like gender identity, self-identification, gender fluidity, and characters who are transgender.
In short, Haints Stay is a stylistic, dark, moody, modern, revisionist western that is tonally related to the Sisters Brothers. Chances are if you liked The Sisters Brothers you’ll like this one too.
Future revisionist western topics I’d like to explore: splitting them up into waves, where they fit within the revisionist western film tradition, the end of the first wave, why, and possible seeds for the creation of the second wave, a list of revisionist western novels and a plea to help expand that list.
Cowboy Quote (an irregular feature of Western Wednesday where I quote and link to an article on the subject of westerns that I found interesting):
“But when the Western gave up its promise of empty entertainment, it finally could achieve its true destiny. The cowboy story could now take its place as the authentic American epic, raw and unapologetic. When writers gave up the pulp formulas that had charmed readers during the first three-quarters of the 20th century, a new honesty and complexity could emerge in their works. Only after we stopped assigning roles on the basis of white hats and black hats could we come to grips with what was really wild in the Wild West.“