The Austin Chronicle

The Weird, Weird West

By Richard Whittaker, December 12, 2013, 1:15pm, Picture in Picture

Strap on your best leather chaps and fire up that home-crafted iron horse: The Weird West Fest will be celebrating the era of bespoke engineering and steampowered frontier busters this weekend in Giddings.

Steampunk is a genre that has been around for a long time and was just looking for a name. When Victorian authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells wrote it or filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès put it on the screen, it was speculative fiction. Now it's a creative form based on a history that never happened, an iron-and-brass analog era where 19th century solutions are applied to contemporary problems. It's both futuristic and anachronistic. Its roots lie in British Victoriana, but, as event organizer Jim Herbert explained, "We're in Texas, so most of the reenactor groups wear cowboy hats."

The gathering in Giddings was supposed to blast off last weekend, but there weren't enough woolen undergarments to go around to save everyone from the winter chill. So the grand excursion to a past that never happened takes place this Saturday, Dec. 14.

Herbert admitted that they "hemmed and hawed" a lot about changing the date: "We have people coming in from California, from New York, several people from Kansas. They'd made a lot of plans, but there comes a point where they may not physically be able to get here." Still, a week's delay to avoid an ice storm was less inconvenient than freezing on 290. "We've had a lot of guest and vendors approach us and say, 'Thank you. We were really afraid we weren't going to be able to make it." Now pretty much the entire announced guest list has been able to reschedule, and will be packing their crinolines and cogs for this weekend. "They have a perceived vested interest," said Herbert. "They want to do this."

In fact, there'll be even more vendors this weekend than there would have been last weekend. "We only had a few drop out, and we had twice as many approach us to replace them." He laughed. "Now we've just got to figure out where to put 'em."

Part of the appeal is the location. Unlike most conventions, which have to contend with what Herbert called "a sterile convention space, because we're in Texas, you have all these cool Old West towns, with real Old West history. In this case, we're at an actual 1880s train depot, a 1918 silent era film house, and an 1890s peanut mill. These buildings are of that period that everyone romanticizes about now."

Of course, it wouldn't be a real slipstream hoedown without the king of Texas Gothic, Joe. R. Lansdale (Bubba Ho-Tep, Zeppelins West, Jonah Hex). He will be bringing his new movie, Christmas With the Dead (which debuted in Austin at Housecore Horror), but there'll be a full day of tumbleweed weirdness on the screen, including steampunk short Nickel Children, samurai-tinged revenger Itchy the Blind Gunman and super-strange underground cult space Western The American Astronaut. Herbert said, "The film selection was based on some standards that would appeal to the steampunks." However, that wasn't so hard. There's a new breed of Weird Western plus, as he pointed out, "Most space movies actually follow a Western format."

The screen itself has a lot of history. Built in 1918, the Sterling Silent Movie House went quickly out of business when the talkies arrived. However, that turned out to be a silver screen revivalist's dream. Herbert said, "Because the theatre was then used as storage, auto garage, and lumber storage, it was kept mostly in its original condition." This weekend will be the first public event in the space for 90 years, but it may not be a one night stand. Last year saw the establishment of the Sterling Silent Movie House Restoration Committee. Along with Blue Skyes Over Autism, the cinema is one of the two organizations that will benefit from fundraising this weekend.

There's a also a slice of Southern mysticism and the occult, with North Texas Ghost Society's resident medium Morrighan Lynne. She'll be joined by the nation's most knowledgeable man about the South's own Sasquatch, the Skunk Ape, the one and only Lyle Blackburn. In a weekend obsessed with the never-was, that's actually one of the most historically accurate parts. Herbert said, "Theodore Roosevelt went on a Bigfoot hunt. Didn't say he caught anything, but it's a historic fact."

But the big guest on the plain is Western actor James Drury. A New Yorker by birth, he became synonymous with the mythic West, first as a bit player in shows like The Rifleman, Gunsmoke and Wagon Train, then as the eponymous star for nine years of The Virginian. "He's our top guest," Herbert said. "He actually moved something to make sure he could still come."

Weird West Fest goes down Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Union Station Transportation Museum, 289 W. Railroad, Giddings. More info at

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