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  • Make Settler Fantasy Strange Again:Unsettling Normative White Masculinity in Robert E. Howard's Weird West
  • Travis Franks (bio)

Originally published in Weird Tales in 1932, Robert E. Howard's short story "The Horror from the Mound" blends conventions of Western and horror fictions, particularly in the characterization of the cowboy protagonist and the vampire antagonist. The story is set in the border region of west Texas around (if not exactly) 1845 and details the heroic but harrowing account of former cowboy Steve Brill, who unleashes and eventually destroys a centuries-old vampiric Spaniard, Don Santiago de Valdez. Brill unknowingly unearths Valdez while plundering what appears to be an Indian burial mound, in the process discovering, too, that his neighbor Juan Lopez, the embodiment of several anti-Mexican stereotypes, belongs to a secret order meant to safeguard against the vampire's return. Owing largely to Brill's greed, Lopez fails in his sworn duty and, having hurriedly penned a short history in which he reveals to Brill the truth of the mound, dies in an anticlimactic confrontation with Valdez. A much more dramatic final showdown between cowboy and vampire takes place in Brill's home, which has accidentally been set afire in the course of their fighting. Nevertheless, the cowboy is able to break the vampire's back and escape, leaving Valdez to burn with the house. As the story closes, Brill gives thanks to God that no one else will ever know of the evil Spaniard's existence.

Despite not being well-known today, Howard is credited with having created the Conan the Cimmerian series and the "sword and sorcery" genre of fantasy to which it belongs. "The Horror from the Mound" is also largely overlooked, although some critics suggest [End Page 295] that not only might it be the first "undead Western" story ever published, but that, with a handful of similar stories, Howard likely pioneered the entire genre of the weird Western (Finn and Shanks 3). Not surprisingly, the scant scholarship that exists concerning this formative short story focuses almost exclusively on its "weird" elements. As such, critical discussion about the story has not done justice to the complex construction of Anglo frontier masculinity that Howard undertakes in "Horror." This essay aims to do just that and, in the course of analysis, to unsettle the text, not by demonstrating the ways it establishes weird genre norms but rather by revealing several normative impulses of settler identity within the story that must be made strange.

Geospatial, raced, and gendered symbols active in "Horror" produce a contextually specific and connotatively rich heroic literary figure embodying what Lorenzo Veracini refers to as settler fantasy ("District 9" 361). This term names a contradictory logic whereby the frontier violence necessary for the formation and continuation of a settler project must be disavowed in order to legitimize modern settler societies as models of civility (Veracini, Settler Colonialism 75–78). To deconstruct this fantasy, I rely on a definition of settler colonialism that recognizes its intersectional and relational potentiality rather than insisting on an all-encompassing settler/Indigenous binary. Iyko Day explains, for example, that the "political economy" of a given settler colonial project is "more appropriately figured as an ecology of power relations than a linear chain of events" (112–13). Evelyn Nakano Glenn more explicitly defines settler colonialism as "a framework that is amenable to intersectional understanding because . . . colonial projects simultaneously structure race, gender, class, and sexual relations within and between colonists and the colonized" (54–55). Daniel Martinez HoSang and Natalia Molina stress the relationality inherent to colonization and racial hierarchy, which "rely on logics of sorting, ranking, and comparison that produce and naturalize categories of racial difference necessary for the legitimization of slavery, settler colonialism, and imperial expansion" (3). With this understanding of settler colonialism in mind, I do not intend to suggest that the degradation, oppression, [End Page 296] or marginalization experienced by one ethnic or racial group is more or less significant than those experienced by others. I intend, instead, to demonstrate ways in which Anglo-American frontier masculinity relies upon the oppression and marginalization of multiple raced and gendered subjectivities for its exalted status as a privileged...


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