A Tender Ballad From the Old Country: Mer Whinery’s Horror-Western Influences

Mer Whinery is the author of Muzzleland Press’ latest release, Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun, available here.

You know, I never even cared about watching or even reading a western until I got my greasy mits on that Jonah Hex comic. So when I decided to write my own take on the genre, Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun, that was where I started.

Man, I remember the first time I ever laid my eye on that gnarly Reb gunslinger with the jacked-up face. I was probably around ten or so. I was visiting a local junk store that always had a steady supply of issues of Eerie, Creepy and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines. One day, whilst thumbing through them, I stumbled across Weird Western Tales Jonah Hex Issue Number 18, August 1973. I got one gander at Hex and the big-ass werewolf leering at him from the rafters of what appeared to be some sort of barn or cabin, and was sold immediately. Other than the horror comics I mentioned I wasn’t much of a comic book fan. To this day I am not sure what attracted me to Hex, but later I would come to realize he was the gateway drug leading me into the realm of Italian westerns.

You see, the Spaghetti Westerns felt like the Jonah Hex comics. Look, I have really tried to get into the Duke’s films. Really. I feel like a damn turncoat to the American dream when I confess, without reservations, that I absogoddamnlutely cannot stomach any John Wayne Western. Or most any American western for that matter. Eastwood’s work in this country gets a pass pretty much because he took so many of the quirks and oddities of the Italian masters and injected them into his own films that they pretty much became their own thing. Peckinpah as well. The European westerns were possessed of a sensual severity, a brazen taste for the surreal and the sadistic that bordered upon the feral, which stroked a thirsty nerve in me. Not to mention their unapologetic embrace of the supernatural.

As big a nut for Sergio Leone’s work as I am, and I can proudly admit to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly being my favorite mainstream film of all time, I have to admit I find some of the lesser-known chestnuts of the genre equally as satisfying. The Great Silence and Django films of Sergio Corbucci are every bit as impressive as anything produced by Leone. The Great Silence in particular getting even higher marks in my book for having the nutsack to unleash that ending upon an unwary public. There were others as well. A Man Called Blade with its tomahawk-wielding anti-hero, the borderline gothic horror of And God Said to Cain all left an indelible impression upon me. But for sheer wotthefookery, one film stands out. That film is Lucio Fulci’s 1975 nugget, Four of the Apocalypse.

I think it was the weird-ass, John Denver/Gordon Lightfoot/hippy-strung-out-on-ludes theme song that hooked me. John Wayne, in all of his virile Americana-humping snoozefests, never encountered any of the freakish shit that goes down in this bad boy. Cannibalism, rape, peyote trips, skinning folks, and that theme song. Oh… that crayzay theme song. I didn’t catch this one until I was well into my fifth year (don’t judge) of college. I found the film at the local video store on a sort of a bootleg mix-tape of sorts that looked like someone had pointed a camcorder at their TV set and let the tape run until it was gone. I don’t even remember what the other films on the tape were, and the dubbing was so out of sync it rendered what was already a barely coherent movie damn near incomprehensible. That only added to the experience. That and the sixer of Coors Light I had polished off halfway through the viewing. I never forgot the flick, and when it rose from the grave decades later on DVD I snatched it up without thinking twice. Fulci’s flick has aged pretty well in my opinion and is still a gnarly ride. Well worth your ducats.

Oddly, while I was writing the book I found myself actually gravitating away from the Western genre for inspiration. Ultimately I ended up absorbing far more influence from the Italian crime films, or poliziotteschi, as they are called. True, these movies were mostly recycled riffs on the whole “pissed off and burned-out office of the law who is just done with all of the horseshit decides to just blow holes in folks with large caliber weapons” trope, ripping the Dirty Harry films in particular. But like the westerns, the poliziotteschi cranked everything up to thirteen-and-a-half. The nihilism so thick you could slice it, lightly braise it, and serve it with couscous and a finely aged Merlot. Two films were especially significant, Ruggero Deodato’s Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man and Umberto Lenzi’s Violent Naples. Deodato’s movie especially stuck with me with it’s immensly unlikable protagonists and were instrumental in the sculpting of the Coffin Mills Haints. I wanted that same sense of chaos and lust for violence I found in those films to be imbued in my protagonists. I think I captured it very, very well indeed. I’ve always been a sucker for the anti-hero, even if he toe-drags the dark side more often than not.

For the horror elements I returned to my old faves, the gutsplatter olympics of 70s and 80s gore films, again, mostly of Italian stock. I’ve always been a straight up sucker for the really really hardcore shitfests. You know the one’s I’m talking about. Really stinky awful turds like Night of the Zombies and City of the Walking Dead and, a perennial favorite, Burial Ground, Nights of Terror. That shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who has read any of my work, especially my first short fiction collection The Little Dixie Horror Show. But it might be surprising to learn I was also impacted, quite profoundly, by the old Hammer Studio films as well. Especially for soaking myself up in some genuine Gothic ambience.

The Coffin Mills Haints, the dubious protagonists of Coffin, were created long before the book was even a twitch in my brain stem. I had actually mentioned them, in passing, in a short story of mine from my second collection of short fiction, Phantasmagoria Blues. It wasn’t much more than a blurb, but I had already formed and fully made flesh the profane trio in my head. Never before in all of my creative exploits have I managed to create such a vivid, painstakingly realized fistful of bloodthirsty sonsabitches. I knew it was a bit of a dice roll selling them as “heroes”, but I knew they were worth it. Each member of the clan contains a little more of my DNA than I would care to admit, even that infernal Princess of Hell, Sugar Bava.

It was all a bit like a carnival ride, writing Trade Yer Coffin for A Gun. The best sort of carnival ride. You know the kind I’m talking about. The threadbare midway spookhouse you stumble across toward the end of the evening when you’re good and ripped and slightly out of sorts. Manned by some greasy creature who looks like he’s been in and out of the joint for Christ-knows-what, settling into that ramshackle fiberglass mine cart and allowing yourself to be delivered into the mouth of the Unknown. It become a Stygian journey. A candy-coated stroll through the Abyss.

Kind of sad to see it all end in a way. But in Little Dixie these sorts of things never really go away. We kind of like to hang on to our folk heroes and tall tales. Legends are passed down from mother to daughter, grandfather to grandson, and whispered over for decades on. Perhaps the Coffin Mills Haints will rise again in some form or another. Just keep lighting a candle for them at the window and singing a song to keep you safe.

The song momma used to sing.

A tender ballad from the old country.

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