Introduction—John Joseph Adams

The phrase “dead man’s hand” refers to the poker hand held by the gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok when, in 1876, he was shot and killed by the coward Jack McCall. There’s little doubt that Hickok was playing cards at the time of his death, but what Wild Bill was actually holding seems to be open to some debate. Legend has it that Hickok’s hand was comprised of black aces and eights (with the fifth card a mystery), but in some accounts it’s jacks and tens, or other variations. I suppose the only way we could ever know for sure would be to ask the man himself by reanimating his corpse or traveling back in time … both of which are the stuff of the “weird western” tale.

Not to be confused with “space westerns” like Joss Whedon’s beloved, cancelled-too-soon TV show Firefly, weird westerns generally take place right here on Earth, only the world we all know and love is just a little bit different. Like clockwork cowboys roam the frontier. Or 49ers head to California to mine for mana. Or airships patrol the skies. In other words: weird westerns are stories of the Old West infused with elements of science fiction, fantasy, or horror, and often with a little counterfactual twist thrown into the mix.

You might be thinking: That kind of sounds like steampunk. And it’s true that steampunk and weird westerns are similar in a lot of ways, and you’ll find some stories—like Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels—that could certainly be considered both. But where steampunk can take place anywhere (and often is set in Victorian-era Britain), the weird western almost always takes place in the American Old West; where steampunk is often focused on urban settings and the accouterments of its period, the weird western is typically a darker, grittier take on a similar notion, with strong elements of the traditional Western genre–the wild frontier, the gunslinger/cowboy, gold fever. And while in both you often see anachronistic uses of technology, steampunk tends to be more focused on such counterfactual scientific advancements; whereas the weird western welcomes that but also equally embraces magic and other elements of the supernatural. So while both may have clockwork automatons, it’s in the weird western where you are most likely to have a dead man reanimated by a necromancer only to be subsequently gunned down in a duel by the aforementioned automaton.

The origins of the genre can be clearly traced as far back as the ’60s with television shows like The Wild Wild West, and the ’70s with Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series—and perhaps all the way back to the 1930s with the works of Robert E. Howard and the strange Gene Autry serial The Phantom Empire—but it was Joe R. Lansdale’s acclaimed novel Dead in the West (1986) that truly blazed a trail; the book, which features the gunslinging Reverend Jebediah Mercer, is considered by many to be the definitive example of weird western literature, and consequently helped define the genre.

As such, this book would be incomplete without a contribution from Mr. Lansdale; happily, I did not have to contemplate such a notion, for the good Reverend Mercer has a new unholy monster to battle in the very first story in the anthology, “The Red-Headed Dead.”

Unlike the abovementioned story, many of the tales in the anthology have no literary antecedents—such as “Neversleeps,” Cowboys & Aliens writer Fred Van Lente’s a wildly inventive tale of magic, alternate history, and clockwork chrysalises, and Walter Jon Williams’s “The Golden Age,” a rip-roaring adventure story of superheroes in the Old West—but several of the other writers herein, like Lansdale,  have already staked their weird west claims and, at my request, have returned to mine them once again:

Alan Dean Foster, who over the last thirty years or so has written more than a dozen tales about Mad Amos Malone and his magical steed Worthless, brings the mountain man back to battle the occult once again in “Holy Jingle.”

Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker, the seventh son of a seventh son who is locked an epic battle against the Unmaker, returns in “Alvin and the Apple Tree”—the first new Alvin tale in more than a decade.

In “Stingers and Strangers,” Seanan McGuire brings us a new InCryptid story in which cryptozoologists Frances Brown and Jonathan Healy encounter some very weird wasps (plus some other unpleasant surprises).

And in “Second Hand,” Rajan Khanna returns to the world of his story “Card Sharp,” in which decks of playing cards are imbued with a magic that makes any deck of cards a deadly one.

That’s just a little taste of what this anthology has in store for you, and that last example brings us right back around to playing cards and our eponymous dead man’s hand. To sum up, in the weird western, we take the historical hand we’re dealt, but we bluff reality and make what you would think is an impossible play.

So that’s the game, pard. Pull up a chair, ante up, and I’ll deal you in. The game’s “Weird West,” no limit, and everything’s wild.