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John Wordsworth on "How the Zombie Ate the Cowboy"

Screenshot 2015-07-06 15.58.24

People have been predicting the comeback of the Western for years.

There have been some notable hits on both the big and small screen: Django Unchained, HBO's Deadwood, and the True Grit remake, among others. While the pulp Western novel is buried in a dusty hilltop cemetery in Wyoming, there have been some excellent more literary takes on the genre, including Philipp Meyer's The Son and, going further back, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove series. You also can't ignore the impact of the massively popular game Red Dead Redemption. But somehow this trickle of new Westerns has never become anything more than that.

My theory is that, in fact, the Western is back ... but as the Zombie genre. (ZomGen? Zomre?)

The world post-zombie apocalypse is very close to that the traditional Western. Replace the wagon trains with convoys of campervans and Harleys, the ranches with compounds, the cavalry with an armed militia, and the American Indians with the undead, and they are pretty much interchangeable. Little wonder, then, that Cormac McCathy was drawn to the post-apocalyptic, cannibalistic backdrop of The Road, given that his earlier novels such as All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men are - broadly speaking and don't hate me - literary Westerns.

After all, zombie stories are rarely about zombies. Their role is to lurch and moan on the fringe of the narrative, adding tension and occasionally make their presence known by munching a supporting character. Like Westerns, the stories tend to be about a pioneering group of survivors, their relationships, and their attempt to forge a civilization in a harsh and barren landscape. The heroes in the Zombie and Western genres are normally either former lawmen (High NoonThe Walking Dead) or peace-loving average Joes who step up to protect/avenge their families/friends (The Outlaw Josie Wales28 Days Later). The villains are rarely the undead or restless native horde, but those drunk on power in this barren, lawless world.

Fortunately Westerns finally began to get the message that it was more than just a little bit racist to portray Native Americans as just mindless savages, their purpose only to be mown down by square-jawed Anglo-Saxons in Stetsons. Their role in the Western genre gradually began to change, leading to films like Little Big Man, Dances with Wolves and Terrence Malick's The New World. While the undead serve as excellent, morally uncomplicated cannon fodder, the Zombie genre is also proving to be very adaptable. Shaun of the Dead, Warm Bodies, and the recent M. R. Carey novel The Girl with All the Gifts are just a few variations on the theme.

Maybe old cowboys really don't ever die, they just get repackaged. So which forgotten genre will we see rise from its grave next? Erotica is back with knobs on (badum tish) thanks to 50 Shades. There's a seemingly insatiable appetite for horror on the screen and in games, although it hasn't really translated into book sales yet. I'm tentatively putting my money on story-driven space operas, with the new Star Wars movies leading the charge.


John Wordsworth is a literary agent at the Zeno Agency. He will happily look at your Zombie novel, but not your Western. (Unless it's as good as Richard Matheson's Journal of the Gun Years.) You can argue your favourite zombie, cowboy or zombie-cowboy mash-up with him on Twitter at @TheWorrierPoet.