David Riley

Earlier this month I realized I hadn’t heard from David B. Riley in a while, and after seeing that his most recent blog post was from December 26 of last year, I searched around to see if he was OK. That’s when I discovered he passed away in January.

I reached out to Julie Campbell, who worked with David on several projects including the magazine Steampunk Trails. She told me that David succumbed to long-running health issues on January 3. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered in the desert. She didn’t know much more. Julie spoke to David shortly before his death and he didn’t mention any illness, so whatever happened occurred suddenly and, let’s hope, without pain.

David was a prolific writer but I knew him best as an editor and anthologist. He was, above all, a champion of weird westerns. He worked almost exclusively in the genre, with some dips into sci-fi.

I’m not sure how he felt about straightforward historical westerns but David could certainly tell you the difference between a sheriff and a marshal. At the same time, he really wanted the weird in weird west. Speculative-fiction markets these days either publish bespoke literature or, more often, have pretensions to do so. David wasn’t so snobby. He loved westerns mashed up with aliens and dinosaurs and lizard people. The more incongruous the ideas, the better.

David published three of my works. The first was a pretty mediocre early effort called “Glorieta Pass;” and the last was an experimental epistolary piece called “Red River,” set in the aftermath of The War of the Worlds. Both appeared in his magazine, Science Fiction Trails.

He also published the horror western “Realgar” in the anthology Low Noon. It’s a favorite of mine and I know it was a favorite of David’s. When he posted a review of my collection The Dead Ride Fast on Amazon, he called out “Realgar” specifically by name. I’ll be forever grateful for his publication and endorsement of that story.

David could be a little ornery — do you expect anything less of a western writer? — but I’ll miss his gonzo energy. The weird west has never had a more enthusiastic contributor and advocate.

The Weird Western Front

Hey nerds! Two of my weird Westerns are now available in new anthologies.

Befitting the theme, editor Eric Guignard assembled an international table of contents for Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations (Amazon | B&N). My favorites include Gitte Christensen’s future vision in which humanity has divided into voluntary yet contract-based subcultures (in this case, a group of ocean-exploring steampunks); and a very smooth ghost story by Joe Lansdale. Besides my own contribution (which Eric touted, “Out of the submissions I received, few struck me as unique and colorful”), there are a couple other weird Westerns in the book too. The publisher is staggering the release of e-pub editions but not by long, so if you prefer to read it on Kindle or Nook, you should only have to wait a few months.

Also out is Low Noon (Amazon | Kindle) from Science Fiction Trails editor David Riley. David mentioned being a fan of ghost stories and so I sent him an idea that had been simmering awhile. I like suspense, not horror; I refuse to watch contemporary horror films because of the sadism and gore, yet I love me some H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James, and decades later I’m still traumatized by The Changeling and The Fog and The Shining. One of the items on my weird-West checklist was to write a story about property rights in an abandoned mining town — and so it all came together in “Realgar.”

As always, thanks for reading my stuff, whether it’s here or somewhere on the trail.

Wild Wild Alt-West

This past May, with the manuscript and revisions for Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer delivered and my eyes burning from months of reading the faded handwriting of countless 18th-century letters and receipts, I went on a fiction binge. Reading fiction — Jeffrey Barlough’s Anchorwick, Tim Powers’s On Stranger Tides, Brian McNaughton’s absolutely incredible The Throne of Bones — but also writing it.

I scribbled a lot of short fiction back in the 90s before abandoning it for nonfiction, which truly is the stranger of the two. Yet recently I’ve returned to it as a counterpoise to features and inverted pyramids, as an approach to those questions and issues raised but elided by factual accounts. Ever try to discuss the existence of God or the meaning of life on the Internet? Good luck with that. Fiction, meanwhile, allows a metaphorical dialogue that is otherwise culturally inexpressible.

And so — because after writing a book, I like to unwind with a little writing — this summer I banged out a series of stories in a genre I love but had never before attempted myself: alternate history. Specifically, alternate-history Westerns.

Now you’re probably thinking, Jackson! Are there really enough publications out there willing to buy short stories set in an ahistorical North America west of the Mississippi River between the years of 1850 and 1900? Isn’t that a fairly niche audience?

You’d be surprised. Some of the market abundance is due, I think, to the general mainstreaming of science fiction — even though there is nothing scientific about history or historical speculation. Writing history, like journalism, is more of a work ethic, a way of doing things.

I suppose alt-hist is lumped into science fiction because it is the inverse of traditional sci-fi: an imagining of what could have happened rather than what could happen. Yet more specifically the growing acceptance of weird Westerns owes a lot to the popularity of steampunk. The number of markets open to speculative Westerns, if not dedicated to an explicit Western theme, is an American co-opting of steampunk, of moving it from English Victorianism into a uniquely American embrace.

Oddly enough I’m not a fan of the literary Western beyond the shorts and novels of Elmore Leonard. I am, however, a huge fan of the cinematic Western, particularly those of Sergio Leone and other spaghetti directors. Geography is such a vital part of the genre that the analogy is perhaps more strongly communicated visually than it can be on paper — existence is a wilderness and a man or a woman is alone in it — but regardless it’s precisely that loneliness and uncertainty I attempt to bring to the page.

“Glorieta Pass” appears in Science Fiction Trails 7, available in hardcopy or for Kindle.

“Galveston” appears in Another Wild West, out now for Kindle and Nook, and available in paperback December 2011 from Amazon and B&N.

“Quivira” will appear in Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, spring 2012.

This is just the first batch I sold. More to come, let’s hope, behind the setting sun. Happy Thanksgiving!