Gunsmoke & Glamour: Author Hillary Monahan’s Western Takes on Toxic Masculinity

Hillary Monahan discusses using what's wonderful about the Western genre without succumbing to its more problematic patterns.

Imagine that it’s just after the Civil War and, in addition to all the societal changes from that fallout, the Federal Government also has to keep tabs on a potentially dangerous immigrant population: Fairies.

In Gunsmoke and Glamour, Hillary Monahan’s magic and action-filled love letter to all the things good about the Western genre, that’s what the world looks like. The Federal government employs marshals to deal with the weird magic brought about through a population of monsters, fairies, and witches that live in the Wild West (and the South).

Marshal Clayton Jensen was one of these officers—until a bad breakup with his fairy girlfriend, Cora, put him on the wrong end of a blood curse. With a little help from his best friend, Doc Irene Miller, and his ex’s sister, a cheerfully wanton and buxom fairy named Addy, Clay makes his way to the one woman who may be able to lift the curse before he succumbs to it.

Add a pet tiger, a passel of angry witches out for Clay’s blood, and a fairy woman whose fury might rightly be called hellish, and you get a sense of the delightful chaos that springs through this adventure.

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Told in chapters that alternate from a present timeline (just after Clay has been cursed) and Clay’s history with Cora, the novel managed to surprise me throughout. Billed by the publisher as “a weird western that punches toxic masculinity in the teeth,” I wasn’t expecting the hero to be the type of alpha male Clay at first appears to be.

I was expecting the vengeful Cora to be a true villain, based on the opening chapters—but, as I learned about their relationship through alternating chapters, I felt myself wondering how things had gone so wrong between the two lovers. And even though Cora was responsible for a blood curse that had Clay languishing, losing his strength and his sight (but never his will), I found myself hoping that somehow, through it all, things would end up right between them. That Monahan took me through that journey, and did it so far outside of my expectations, gave me an even greater enjoyment of the book.

Ultimately, the tale is as much about a love affair gone wrong as it is an adventure story of witches and curses. When Monahan talked with Den of Geek about the idea of the bad breakup—and the hope of reconciliation (however distant that may seem)—she acknowledged that many of her favorite stories are dysfunctional love stories.

“One of my favorite films ever is A Fish Called Wanda,” said Monahan, “which is possibly the penultimate dysfunctional love story. I wanted to write something that could be sweet, could be funny, but also touched on what being in relationships can do to a person. Sure, a lot of the circumstances are off the charts, but how many of us, in the heat of the moment, have said or done something devastating to someone we loved that set off events that spiraled out of our control?”

“Cora’s temper is not such an unfathomable thing,” continued Monahan. “How many of us ran away instead of facing what we’ve done—like Clay, in Arkansas? And how many of our friends have had to weather the fallout storm because social circles overlap? Those questions shaped a lot of Gunsmoke and Glamour. It is, bare bones, a really messed up, complicated love story that just so happens to have a lot of magic and bawdy humor—things I’m rather fond of.”

Right away, Gunsmoke and Glamour‘s core story defied my expectations for a Western in the best possible way. But the setting, as compared to the tagline, also surprised me. I went into the novel expecting “girl power”—and it is there, in spades, but it’s never the point of the narrative.

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At every step of the way, a woman is driving the action: Cora orders a curse put on Clay. One of the famous Lynch sisters, a family of witches, curses Clay. Addy decides to accompany Clay (regardless of his opinion) to New Orleans to see a witch who might be able to cure him. Doc saves Clay’s life time and again, sometimes by taking someone else’s. Because Clay is the primary point of view character, and because his mentor, a retired marshal, is also a man, it took me some time to notice that so many of the named characters in the narrative are women.

What I didn’t expect was for the world to feel so much the same as it feels in many classic Westerns. Despite the population of powerful women, attitudes toward women and ethnic minorities by the general populace feel archaic to a modern reader. Attitudes toward a trans woman like Doc Irene are particularly unaccepting. In some alternate histories, writers change history to be more accepting of women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ people. Monahan left much of history as it was, despite introducing immigrants from Faerie, and she told Den of Geek part of her reasoning…

“People far smarter have tackled alt histories with aplomb (go read Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, for one),” she wrote. “I wanted to incorporate some faerie folklore without changing too much, and so I stymied the fae with red tape. Realistically, if you have an entire magical presence descending upon a still-being-colonized America, they’re going to screw things up. Epically…. [But] I wanted to retain a lot of what I loved about westerns, and so I have the fae here, I have them in wait, but they’re still under the thumb of the government. Eventually, they’ll escape that, I think, but not today.”

Much of the novel revolves around Clay’s transformation from a strong and virile man (who has plenty of stories of the women he’s slept with) to someone who is physically ill, and who needs support just to stay on his own two feet. But, despite the loss of physical strength, he remains a strong voice, and his acceptance of his mortality requires an enormous strength of character.

Taking away the characteristics traditionally viewed as masculine, hallmarks of the Western hero, and show the parts of Clay that had value underneath. While it’s a critique of toxic masculinity, it’s not a critique of maleness.

“I didn’t do that because of any anti-male nonsense,” Monahan explained. “I did it because there’s more to men than what adventure stories typically tell us. Our portrayals of archetypical heroes often don’t explore anything deeper than what makes them look cool, and what ‘makes them look cool’ can be pretty shallow.”

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“So here we have your handsome, assured cowboy [protagonist] who has to stop worrying about his swagger to face not just death,” continued Monahan, “but a slow-creeping death. When you get down to the nitty gritty, being cool just isn’t as important as the people you surround yourself with, your memories, your feelings, etc.”

Like her deconstruction of traditionally-masculine ideas of power, Monahan also plays with the ideas of traditionally feminine power—particularly the entanglement of feminine power and sexuality—through the character of Addy. 

I’m a fat girl and I’m a flirt,” Monahan told us, “so [Addy’s] the part of me that happens after about two beers.” While Addy’s wantonness is both a source of humor and a surface level trait, there’s never a doubt that there’s more to her character than just her enjoyment of sex—or her size.

“Fat girls are usually reduced to comedic factor, either delivering the burns with her womanhood incidental a la most of Rebel Wilson’s roles or being the butt of the joke like . . . most everything else fat girls are in,” Monahan pointed out.

“I wanted to play with that and make Addy actually funny, but not due to her size,” continued Monahan. “I wanted her confident, beautiful, and yes, sexual, because fat girls are often stripped of that in fiction. She was a wishlist of what I’d like to see more of because these are qualities true to me and true to most of the fat girls I know. She’s possibly my id gone wild, to be honest.”

It’s also noteworthy that Addy’s glamour magic allows her to change her appearance so thoroughly that even Clay, who can typically see through glamour, is fooled by it—implying that she loves her natural appearance in a beautifully self-accepting way. And there’s no doubt that although she travels with a pet tiger, she’s the more dangerous of the pair.

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Monahan also focuses on inclusion through Doc Irene, a trans woman who, while facing disapproval—and sometimes violence—from strangers, is surrounded by allies and acquaintances who offer her acceptance and love.

“I’ve had trans people in my life since I was thirteen years old and I’m *cough some decades older* now,” Monahan said of the character’s genesis. “They’re part of my chosen family and a good portion of my friends circle. Doc Irene was in my book because my friends are in my life. It’s that simple. Trans people are in our world, at our jobs, eating at the restaurants we eat at. They’re living and loving and doing all the same stuff cis people do, and yet that truth continues to baffle people.”

“Clay presented an opportunity to show cis readers exactly how easy it is to just … accept people for who they are?” continued Monahan. “If the penultimate cis macho man caricature can have an honest, loving friendship with a trans woman—who saves him just as much as he saves her, if not more—we can all be so open and respectful.”

In her introduction to the novel, Monahan explains her long love of the Western genre, and her growing frustration with the problematic treatment of women and ethnic minorities that sometimes seem inherent in the genre. But rather than give up on a genre she loved, Monahan used the tropes and structure to create something new.

“All art is problematic to someone somewhere,” she said of her philosophy. “No one book encapsulates everyone’s truth. It can’t. As much as someone might see themselves represented in a piece of work, someone else won’t, and erasure can be as harmful as bad representation. Critique exists to explore these gaps—it’s necessary to refining literature.”

“So, enjoy problematic stuff, just make sure when the criticisms come in, you’re listening,” continued Monahan. “You don’t have to agree, but you should listen and respect where people are coming from and what worldly experience shapes that view, particularly if it’s not your own.”

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In Monahan’s case, it does mean that she has stopped reading Westerns published before 2000.

“So much of the early genre is saturated by toxic masculinity and the presentation of Indigenous people as complicit in their own genocide,” she explained. “Thanks but no thanks.”

Instead, she’s turned to authors like Elizabeth Bear, Lila Bowen, and Lindsay Ely, “who recognize what’s great about westerns—the exploration, the adventure, the danger and fight for survival!—without all the other trappings.”

For readers like Monahan—and like this reviewer—we’ll be adding Monahan’s name to that list.

Gunsmoke & Glamour is now available for purchase from places like Fireside Fiction, Amazon, or your local independent bookstore.

Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.

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