Monday, May 27, 2019

American Fantasy: Weird Western vs Northam


(Originally Posted on Dec 18, 2017)

I admit, I am a bit obsessed with categorizations. I love learning about new sub-genres in fiction, and seeing different flavors of fantasy, sci-fi and horror pop up over the years. Sci-fi for example, has gone from planetary romance a la John Carter, to the space opera of Flash Gordon, Isaac Asimov's hard sci-fi, William Gibson's cyberpunk, and the new wave of self and trad pub military space opera.
Fantasy too, is going through some very cool changes. What used to be a fairly straightforward genre of elves, dwarves and drow is rapidly ballooning into several unique and interesting sub-genres. And one of my all-time favorite fantasy subgenre, the subgenre that I personally write in...doesn't have a name. You can look for it on Worlds Without End, but it's not on there. And thus, in lieu of finding a genre category that these stories fit, I decided to name my own. North American Fantasy, or "Northam" for short.

"But hey!" I hear you say..."Isn't that just Weird Western?" And to that I say no. There's a lot of difference between the two, and here's why, as well as my thoughts on this emerging sub-genre. My two cents on that below:

Weird Western – These are stories set in the American Wild West that have supernatural, fantasy or sci-fi elements. Historical figures such as Wayatt Earp or Billy the Kid may or may not be involved and/or vampires and/or vampire hunters. Either gritty or comical, and magic is often seen as a very hidden and dangerous thing, since real-world religious institutions play a huge role. Sometimes these are so over-the-top they end up being self-parody.

Some examples of this sort of fantasy settings are: Deadlands, Six Gun Tarot, The Hexslinger, Tales of Alvin Maker, and Territory.

Northam – Derived from the words “North American,” it describes “secondary world” fantasy a la Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, etc...but with heavy North American influence in lieu of traditional European fare. Wizards, warriors, rogues and rangers still exist, but they may speak with a southern drawl, or carry a six-gun next to that steel sword. Usually set in a Victorian and/or Wild West-inspired period, and occasionally dovetails with dieselpunk fantasy, American myth, and pulp fiction.
Flintlock Fantasy is very closely related, but may not always be focused on North American-inspired settings, sometimes taking inspiration from Pirates, or Napoleonic eras.

Northam, unlike almost every Weird West story, can also be gunless, a la Into the Badlands, but with magic and other fun stuff. Honestly, as long as it's influenced heavily by North American media, culture and myth and is fantasy, the sky's really the limit.

Some examples of this sort of fantasy setting are: Iron Kingdoms, Red Country, Eternal Card GameAllow of Law, and The Half-Made World. I have not read The Powder Mage Trilogy, but from what I can gather, it seems to fit a more revolutionary war-era Flintlock variant of this. I could be wrong on that, though the Terrarch Chronicles absolutely fits that descriptor to a friggin' T. Oh and it has Lovecraft aliens, so it gets an ENTHUSIASTIC recommendation from me.

As stated above, the big point of separation between WW and Northam is the concept of a secondary world. Weird Western stories are set in 'Murica by definition, while Northam stories can build their own world that either parallels America, or uses elements of American culture to create something wholly new. For a good example of the latter, I highly recommend the Iron Kingdoms setting, which is steampunk with heavy Northam elements.

But beyond that, there's a another difference between "mainstream" fantasy and Northam. Mainly, that European-influenced fantasy traces its roots all the way back to epics such as the Norse Eddas and Beowulf, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (all of which influenced Tolkien). Northam fantasy however, is much more influenced by dime novels, pulp fiction, cowboy movies and other two-fisted tales. Sometimes it may borrow elements from epics, but the gritty American roots still remain, giving these books and setting a unique flavor. Because of this, many Northam books are also Grimdark or Heroic Fantasy as well. Like all good bits of Americana, it's a melting pot of different genre and cultural flavors.

Anyway, I feel it's important to make a distinction between these two, because as the fantasy genre expands and grows, more and more books will fall under the “Northam” category. Guns and kingless, knightless settings are starting to pop up, and gunslingers are making their way into otherwise standard fantasy RPGS. Books like Red Country and Half-Made World are well-loved stories on Goodreads. And yet, as this sort of fantasy slowly gains (badass wild west magitek train-produced) steam, it remains a fairly obscure sub-genre often erroneously (in my opinion) lumped together with the Weird Western genre.

Honestly, I think that's a shame! Northam is a breath of fresh air from the knights and kings and castles of many other fantasy books, and seems to bring in those who might otherwise not be interested in the genre. And it often has a “gritty,” more realistic feel than many D&D-influenced medieval fare with elves and drow and all that. It also opens up influences from other cultures, as American mythology is a patchwork of European, African, Hispanic and Asian influences.
I also wanted to make the distinction because while I personally dislike Weird Western stories (in fantasy, anyway love 'em in sci-fi) I absolutely LOVE Northam secondary worlds. Pretty much every book I've read that fits in my category oozes with personality, grit and bare-knuckled action. I'm a huge fan of pulp fiction, cowboy stories and weird tales, but also the layered world-building of traditional fantasy. Northam is both those things, in spades.

As someone who grew up reading Jules Verne, Lovecraft, and other pulp/Victorian-influenced media, as well as a resident of the US, these types of stories really appeal to me. They contain all the stuff I like about fantasy, mixed with all the stuff I love about penny dreadfuls, adventure serials and pulp fiction. They can be more fun like Eternal, or more Deadwood-y and grimdark, but the appeal's there for me all the same. And judging by how well-loved a lot of these books/settings are, I can't be the only one who thinks it's a match made in heaven.

Closing Thoughts

I have no idea if any of this will gain (badass steampunk magitek train) steam, or if anyone would care to categorize stuff like Red Country beyond a basic "Heroic Fantasy" label. Perhaps it'll just be one of those things that's so niche it doesn't even need a sub-genre, but I personally think these settings are becoming a thing. And hey, maybe it won't use my name for it. Maybe it'll get a better name, but for what it's worth, I'll be using Northam for the time being.
Who knows? Maybe it'll be a thing some day. Maybe not. Either way, I thought it was at least worth bringing up. Maybe there's more nuts like me out there who really like this stuff.

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