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.

Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun by Mer Whinery now available in Kindle and paperback

front 2A frontier town in peril!
The savagery of the hungry damned!
An unholy trio their only salvation!
Southeastern Oklahoma of the 1880s:
Little Dixie to some. Hell to others…

In the chaotic years following the end of the Civil War, Little Dixie is a brutal no-man’s land where life and death are dictated not just by gangs of lawless thugs, but by far more sinister things as well. Shadowy beings that walk the line in the dirt separating Jesus from the Devil, writing their names in blood, terror, and human suffering.

Such is the woeful condition of Coffin Mills, a town cursed by a history of dark arts and shameful secrets. Something wicked has been stealing the town’s children, something not of this world, or even the next.

Salvation arrives in the form of a trio of mysterious gunslingers known throughout the South as the Haints, a legendary band of bounty hunters specializing in tracking prey of a supernatural variety. They kill monsters, plain and simple.

Haunted by a violent past that will either deliver or destroy them, will they emancipate Coffin Mills from its otherworldly predator, or will all be lost to something far worse than even eternal damnation?

Available on Amazon

A few signed copies left in our Storenvy store

Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun – signed copies available

Trade Yer Gun aGrab yourself a SIGNED copy of Muzzleland Press’ latest release—the debut novel of southern-friend spooky short story writer extraordinaire, Mer Whinery!

Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun is Louis L’Amour meets Lucio Fulci in a dust-caked cavalcade of gore and grit. The book barrels forth like a blood-sotted tumbleweed in a high wind. Blood as in the red stuff —buckets of it, in fact—and blood as in family. Reader, you won’t soon forget the Coffin Mills Haints.” – Matthew M. Bartlett, author of Creeping Waves and The Stay-Awake Men


Trade your dollars for an old-west horrorshow here!

Little Dixie’s Callin’ You Home – A Review of Phantasmagoria Blues by Mer Whinery

Published by Literati Press; Book Available for Order Here

Review by Matthew M. Bartlett

Crows know death.

It’s almost like they can smell it. Something in their nerves gets a hum going. The hive mind melts together and the murder starts to form in the sky, swirling in sooty spirals…

– Mer Whinery, “The Little Red Tent at the Edge of the Woods”

I’m as provincial as they come. Give me New England, with its dense woods, its diffident baristas, its progressive bumper stickers, its snooty colleges, its coffeehouses and even, God help us all, its Vermont hippies. I don’t even mind the cold.

The South? It might as well be another planet. In the early 90s, I took a trip to Florida. Along the way I stopped somewhere in Georgia and found an ancient, leaning, and unpainted ramshackle house, whose owners sold hot dogs out of their kitchen window. The dog I got was the most unnatural, terrifying shade of pink I’ve ever encountered. I ate it anyway.

I think it changed me, and not for the better.

But you know what? I really like Mer Whinery’s dark and haunted South. I’d pay good money to take in an exploitation flick at the Red Hand movie theater. To spend a sticky night in the Tarantula Arms Motel in the staticky blue glow of a television with a dangling antenna. To put on a lighted helmet and trespass at Bloody Ben’s Pit. C’mon, readers, meet me at The Git’N Split. We’ll get some Dr. Peppers and drive around the dark, weird towns of Coffin Mills and Black Knot. (Note to self: ask the author if I can get a subscription to the Black Knot Daily Redeemer.)


Phantasmagoria Blues, the second collection from Oklahoma horror writer Mer Whinery, consists of seven stories that explore the haunted shadows of Oklahoma and Texas, and the damned and damaged souls that dwell in those shadows. Whinery deftly inhabits and breathes life into a bereft husband and father, a lovelorn teenage girl with a very unhealthy crush, a scummy projectionist, and a broken, cigarette-chewing repo man obsessed with a creepy photograph he finds in a dank old house.

The collection starts off ambitiously with “The Loved Ones,” a post-monster-invasion science fiction tale of a man who has lost his wife and two kids, and the replacements with whom—with which—he’s provided. It starts off by dispensing in a few paragraphs with its premise, but the info dump quickly pivots into a compulsively readable and tense story with a well-executed twist that some might have predicted—though I didn’t. Whinery won me over quickly.

The centerpiece of the collection, a-darker-than-dark little masterpiece, is “The Projectionist,” whose protagonist, the deeply unpleasant Newt McAlester, after suffering a grievous injury via a malfunctioning movie projector, is given a sketchy new assignment: He must arrive at the theater at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings, sequester himself in the booth, run the projector without peeking at the film and, especially, never, ever look down at the audience below. He must wear earplugs. He must stay until precisely 7 a.m., and not a moment before. And he has to keep the whole thing a secret.

The narrative starts off fairly predictably—of course McAlester’s curiosity gets the better of him—but it spins off into such grotesque and ornery insanity I felt myself grinning in admiration. And what an ending! Here Whinery proves himself an audacious storyteller with a flair for the grotesque.

I also really dug “Hungry Boy,” despite Whinery’s abject disclaimer that precedes the tale, in which he says his goal was to write “whiney-ass bullshit—like ‘Twilight.’” I haven’t read Twilight, but this story, told from the point of view of a precocious teenage girl, is smart, emotionally real, funny, and, of course, violent and grotesque. I went in not expecting much and emerged from the other end impressed.

Most of the stories in Phantasmagoria Blues were similarly surprising, similarly good, compulsively readable, and well-executed. I always kind of inwardly crumple when I encounter a zombie story, and Whinery as much as notes in his preamble to “Dead Folks” that there’s not much new to be explored in that tattered, groaning corner of the genre. I read “Dead Folks” and found little to object to, but also little to cause it to stand out. Otherwise, “The Red Tent at the Edge of the Woods” is effective and eerie, with shades of S.P. Miskowski. “Memento Mori” is a terrific tale of a lost man who finds a women who may or may not be the subject of an ancient photograph of the Posed and Photographed Dead. “The 10th Life” is a buried-treasure story with an aspect that I—an admirer of cats—particularly enjoyed.

I recommend Phantasmagoria Blues as a refreshing take on Southern horror by a writer with a unique and strong voice. It’s well written, enjoyable, dark, and nasty. If I have any minor complaints, they’re about the form, not the content. The margins aren’t right-justified—a peeve of mine—and I found the sans-serif font distracting. It’s a choice far better suited to onscreen reading. I found a smattering of minor grammatical errors and the occasional typo as well. The content, though, is more than sufficiently strong to outweigh the aesthetical issues.

I’m going to pick up a copy of Whinery’s previous collection, and I await the chance to make a return trip to his next work—to his corpse-riddled and gore-soaked savage South.

Four blackened fingers out of five

Matthew M. Bartlett is the author of Gateways to Abomination, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, the forthcoming Rangel from Dim Shores, and Creeping Waves (due out late 2015) from Muzzleland Press. His short stories have appeared in Faed, Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond, Wicked Tales, and High Strange Horror. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife Katie and their cats Phoebe, Nigel, Peach Pie, and Larry. You can visit his blog at www.matthewmbartlett.com.