Fantastic History #52: Horror and Magic in the Old West–Beyond the Western Mythos by Oliver Altair

When thinking about Westerns, the image of the cowboy riding into the sunset always comes to mind. But what happens after the sun sets?

The American Frontier represents, in itself, a horror trope: the voyage into the unknown. The American philosophy of the Manifest Destiny guided settlers from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in a time when traveling such distances represented a titanic, if almost suicidal, feat.

The settlers walked into hostile and unforgiving land, facing their most primal fears. Imagine being part of the famous Oregon Trail:

You rein your horses as your wagon crosses the Great Plains, following the wagon train. Everybody’s hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. The trip pushes you and your family to your limit, but at least there’s plenty of open blue sky to cheer you up. Then night falls. Darkness reigns supreme. The light of your fire seems but a dot under the black, starry sky above you, beautiful and daunting. All you can hear are the whistling of the wind, the howling of coyotes and wolves, and the occasional rattle of a rattlesnake, warning you to watch your step. How near these beasts might be, you cannot tell. A sick man whimpers on the wagon closest to yours. Everyone knows he won’t make it. You pray the disease won’t spread.

After a long night, the sun finally rises. Some fears recede, but new ones are about to come up. Your wagon master chides you for moving too slow. You’re in Indian land and an attack might be imminent. Later, he’s worried about the bandits roaming the area, ready to ambush, pillage, and kill. But it’s too late to go back. So, you hold on to your reins and move forward, always forward.

Such was the day-to-day of a pioneer traveling the trails of the West. Yet reaching a destination didn’t make life any easier. The settlements were small, far apart, and difficult to defend. Food was scarce. Sickness spread swiftly from one cabin to the next, as did fire. Some people survived by doing their best, some, their very worst. Justice was dubious. Survival was everything. Death and violence were as much a part of Western culture as anything else.

But Western travelers also found adventure and awe. Magic, if you will. Pilgrims on their way to Salt Lake Valley heard their voices boom and bounce when crossing Echo Canyon, with its twisty walls and strange colors. The majesty of the Blue Mountains both challenged and enraptured pioneers, its cerulean peaks almost part of the sky itself. Faced with the rush of the Shoshone Falls, the endless vastness of the Great Plains, the oddness of Chimney Rock, travelers found themselves time and again in places that seemed out of this world.

This sense of wonder nurtured the pioneers’ hope, their endurance and their will to follow their dreams. It reinvented Western folklore, adding new legends of heroes and monsters, spirits and gods, blending European and Native American myths. A trip through the West could be as magical as it was dreadful, as mysterious as it was epic. If the West was Wild, its magic would be too.

As a horror and fantasy author, the Old West offered me a delightful playground, one that already showed the perfect balance of adventure, legend, and dread. In my short story “Gold,” I explored the Gold Rush, a fascinating historical landmark of exploration tied to obsession and greed that broke more men than it made rich.

My first and second novels are set in Souls Well, a small mining town in the San Juan mountains of Colorado, based on the mining camp of Animas Forks. One of the highest mining settlements in the country, Animas Forks was infamous for its constant blizzards and its tendency to get completely cut out from the rest of the world in the winter. Isolated, dangerous, and inhospitable: a perfect place for a suspense story that dives into the occult, where heroes and villains are forced to remain at an arm’s length.

My third novel will explore Mesa Verde and its awe-inspiring Puebloans ruins. If you’re not familiar with the area, just search for a photo of the Cliff Palace. You’ll immediately understand the attraction. The place breathes mystery and magic. It’s a treat for any fantasy author and a fantastic trigger for the imagination.

The Wild West is much more than the cowboy mythos that was built in the pages of the dime novels of the 19th century. Its reality is sometimes darker, sometimes lighter, but always inspiring, intriguing, and deeply human. I invite you all to do as the pioneers did and dive headfirst into the unknown. What you’ll discover will be worth the trip.


Oliver Altair is a storyteller that dives into the beauty of the bizarre. Highly influenced by classic science fiction and fantasy, and the stories in the golden era of Pulp magazines, Oliver loves exploring all sorts of uncanny possibilities. Oliver lives between the United States and Europe and loves to travel.