Set in 1873 New Mexico, my novel, Iron Dogs, tells the story of six outlaws on the run, who find themselves trapped in an abandoned town with a nightmarish creature that seemingly can’t be killed.
A stoic leader, a loyal blacksmith, a rebellious youth, a regretful bandit, a drunk trapper, and an injured comrade, each at odds with the others and fighting for their own survival as much as for the group.
And on the other side of that coin lie merciless bounty hunters, desperate cannibals, and an unstoppable force that preys on them all at will.
An otherwise classic Western turned on its ear to present a horror story unlike any other.
Why write it in the first place?
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This is a question I’ve gotten many times from both interviewers and fans.
Westerns are dead, they might say, so it begs the question:
Why would I bother writing a Western (albeit one steeped in Horror)?
The answer, though easy, is far from simple. But I’ll do my best to communicate my thoughts here.
First of all, I don’t consider Iron Dogs as either a straight-up Western or a straight-up Horror. To me, it’s always been a Western Gothic.
A great breakdown of Gothic vs. Horror is found in this post by April A Taylor, and it captures well the critical differences between the genres.
Regardless, it was always my desire to write a work steeped in atmosphere, combining the spirit of the late 1800s American Southwest and the Victorian influences of the English and American Southeast.
Likewise, I extended that philosophy in creating a unique monster for this tale, based on several cultural and mythological influences from Slavic legends to Southwestern Native American lore. But more on that later.
As a lifelong fan of Poe, I’ve always been drawn to a great macabre atmosphere more than excessive gore or quick scares, and I wanted to capture that Poe-Esque / Lovecraftian sense of rising dread and impending doom.
Certainly, other writers have captured the Gothic aesthetic well, either in a European setting or a Southern one, but I wanted to do it in a way I hadn’t seen before. That’s where Westerns came in.
I’ve loved the Western genre since I was little, being able to recall watching classic movies like Hondo and Fistful of Dollars on late-night TV with my dad – not to mention the stream of episodic reruns like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Have Gun Will Travel.
I was immediately hooked!
There was nothing better than watching the lone gunman stand up to the bad guys with lightning-fast reflexes and a ready quip. And yet, these heroes represented more than quick gunplay and fast horses.
To me, the Western heroes were the embodiment of freedom itself.
Though these heroes typically played within the law, they were not bound by it.
There were times when they had to cross a line, but only if it meant following a strict moral code, especially when it came to helping others or ultimately doing the right thing.
That was their law, and it fascinated me. It still does.
Westerns are the ultimate representation of the American ideal – that fictionalized quest for freedom to live your life without many of the restraints imposed on so-called civilized society, yet to care for your neighbors and help those in need.
It meant respect for all people but not allowing anyone to disrespect you. And, of course, the freedom to travel where you will, when you will, always seeking the next adventure. The themes of freedom, adventure, and heroism represented this to me.
The Modern-Day Western
If you look closely enough, the Western never died. It simply evolved into the modern world.
Rewatch Kill Bill, Mad Max: Fury Road, Logan, Hell or High Water, Sicario, Escape from New York, Payback, The Expendables, Get the Gringo, No Country for Old Men, or John Wick, and you’ll find a Western at the heart of each one.
Some are more overt with the Western influences than others, but that core story of a person or group adhering to morals over laws, and seeking freedom as much as redemption, is prevalent in each one.
And thankfully, even the classic Western has never left us either, with great films such as Django Unchained, Appaloosa, Open Range, The Hateful Eight, Tombstone, 3:10 to Yuma, True Grit, and Unforgiven being made over the same past 30 or so years that we’ve been told it had vanished from the cultural consciousness.
With that in mind, I’ve always wanted to write my own Western, not bound by anything that came before, yet respectful of the past (both real and fictional).
At first, I imagined a typical scenario, much like many of the films and shows that helped shape my boyhood, but the more I thought about it, the more I kept veering into darker territory.
I knew then that I wanted to write the kind of Western, and the kind of Horror, I hadn’t seen before.
If there’s one horror trope I fall for with predictable relish, it’s that of a group banding together to fight an unstoppable foe.
Movies that feature this kind of story include The Thing, Predator, Dog Soldiers, Aliens, It, Dawn of the Dead, Descent, Outpost, Identity, and The Monster Squad.
The list goes on, at times independent of the genre but always rooted in horror, as the unstoppable force is usually presented as somehow supernatural or extraterrestrial in origin.
In short, a monster that is difficult, if not impossible, to kill.
And though the horror element is there, it’s not the monster that typically captures my attention, but the people.
The common thread is an unlikely bond, whether created or tested, in a group of either strangers or friends and how that bond is pushed to breaking by some relentless outside force.
Some relationships within the group fracture and break, while others thrive and become stronger. Unlikely allies form, and surprising betrayals occur, and it’s ultimately this tenuous balance that decides the outcome for our group of heroes.
No matter which way it goes, however, at the core of each film are great stories with universal themes.
Human stories. Love, loss, surrender, betrayal, adversity, redemption, revenge, and sometimes even triumph. A microcosm of the human experience set against an inhuman obstacle.
I wanted to bring this to the Western genre in a way that I hadn’t seen before. There are a few great Western horrors that come to mind, such as Bone Tomahawk, The Burrowers, and Dead Birds, and each ranks highly on my list.
However, none of them captures the kind of brotherhood I sought to display.
My favorite Western of all time is The Wild Bunch, a deliciously tragic tale of loyalty and greed set against the backdrop of a dying way of life.
Men who are on the decline, both physically and spiritually, but who choose friendship over profit in a final stand that is as brutal as it is cinematically beautiful to watch.
That was my starting point.
What if the Wild Bunch faced off against the supernatural equivalent of the Predator?
How would a tight-knit group of villains – and they are villains, to be sure – who have fought, stolen, and killed together, fare against a nightmare they couldn’t escape?
To make matters worse, what if they had to sacrifice one of their own just so the others could get out in one piece?
How could they make that choice? How could anyone?
The fact that they’re bad men, to begin with, seemingly makes the answer a simple one, as betrayal is almost an accepted inevitability. And yet, the journey and shared history I decided to write paints a picture of people whose last remaining humanity resides in the loyalty they share.
If that final strand is cut, then they’re no better than the creature that hunts them.
They are not simply comrades, after all, but friends – even a kind of family.
And I wanted each one to stand as a unique, three-dimensional person with goals and dreams, regrets and failings. They joke and laugh; they cry and squabble.
I needed them to feel as real as they could, not only to bring them to life in a meaningful way but to connect with the reader on an emotional level.
Who bends? Who breaks?
My goal was to keep the reader riveted and guessing throughout. And if it meant a little heartbreak and empathy along the way, then all the better.
As for the monster in question, I knew that it, too, would be a challenge.
Something unique was called for, which is a task that is increasingly difficult in what is seen as an already saturated market.
So, I turned to legends and mythologies, combining the stories of my people and those of the American Southwest. At times ambiguous, at times horrifyingly specific – but always with purpose and intent.
A creature of cancerous evil that rots the spirit as much as the flesh. Something that can only be harmed under the right conditions and at a great cost.
But can it be killed outright?
I’d love to tell you, but I’d rather you find out for yourself!
Iron Dogs Novel Synopsis
When evil dies, it doesn’t always stay dead.
Six outlaws, barely a day ahead of their pursuers, find shelter in a freshly deserted New Mexico town. With no water and one of them gravely wounded, they realize too late they’re trapped inside the lifeless remote town.
As they soon discover the grisly truth behind the disappearance of the townsfolk, the outlaws find themselves hunted by something far worse than anything they’ve faced yet – an unspeakable evil that seemingly cannot be killed.
When the malevolent creature targets them in turn, the previously tight-knit group begins unraveling past the breaking point.
Thinking it to be a Strigoi Morti, a monstrosity that can only be harmed while feeding on the living, the surviving few are faced with an agonizing choice.
Who will they sacrifice so the others may live?
Spine-chilling, poignant, and action-packed, Iron Dogs is an instant classic for Horror, Thriller, and Western fans everywhere.
The Wild Bunch
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