Billy the Kid

Tagged: Theme | Character

William H Bonney (1859-1881) – which may or may not be Billy the Kid's real name – was a thief who shot other men in the back. He was also involved in range wars, and possibly originally cast in heroic roles because he featured in situations which – in terms of the cauldron of story of the Western, which was just beginning to boil – called for a Hero: which he was not. Indeed, even before his early death he had become legendary as Billy the Kid through dime-novel Westerns about imaginary exploits: narratives it is not unlikely he attempted to imitate; this relationship between life and legend has proved to be central to the form (see also Dime-Novel SF). Billy is, in his manifestations as legendary, a significant version of the Villain, though depictions of him sometimes aspire (unconvincingly) to the higher regions where Antiheroes pitch their fate.

Much later, for a while, he became a usable Icon of confabulated transgressiveness for the Beat Generation. Homoerotic and fantasticated use is made of this iconographic Billy in Billy the Kid (coll of linked poems 1959) by Jack Spicer (1925-1965), where Billy engages in various archetypal rituals. The Beard (1965), a drama by Michael McClure (1932-    ), features an erotic dialogue between Jean Harlow (1911-1937) and Billy, as based on McClure's "Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid" (in Star coll 1970); Robert Coover's play The Kid (in A Theological Position, coll 1970) is "playful". Some echoes of this retrofitted chthonic adolescent may be detectable in Samuel R Delany's The Einstein Intersection (1967), where he appears as Kid Death (a further version, with the same soubriquet, features in Simon R Green's Deathstalker sequence of space operas). He seems not yet to have been conflated with Pan.

Billy the Kid's story is told in Jorgé Luis Borges's "The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan" in A Universal History of Infamy (coll 1935; rev 1954). He appears variously in John Jakes's Six-Gun Planet (1970); in The Ancient Child (1989) by N Scott Momaday (1934-    ); in A Captive in Time (1990) by Sarah Dreher (1937-2012); in Blood Meridian (1985 ) by Cormac McCarthy, where the Kid is complicit with a gang run by Death; and as a Clone in Rebecca Ore's complex and intriguing The Illegal Rebirth of Billy the Kid (1991). David Thomson's Silver Light (1990), which combines fiction and nonfiction, attempts to cope with the intractable "negotiations" between the Kid's story and Bonney's real life by revealing only shadows in the tale itself, which may be treated as a rumination upon the thesis that Billy the Kid created Hollywood (see Cinema) rather than vice versa.

There are many movies, of which at least one, Billy the Kid versus Dracula (1965) [for Death above and Dracula Movies here, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], is supernatural; Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire (1986), although a supernatural movie, is about not the Kid but a contemporary snooker player; Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) directed by Sam Peckinpah with a script by Rudolph Wurlitzer, is the most famous of them all but is nonfantastic. [JC]

further reading

The literature on Billy the Kid is large. The text cited below is useful.


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