Saturday, August 31, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#13

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#13. "Belly Laugh, or The Joker's Trick or Treat"

Holy narrative, Lansdale.

"Belly Laugh," the lead story in the 1990 anthology The Further Adventures of The Joker, furnishes a prime example of Champion Joe's storytelling talent.  Presented in the form of Batman's late-October journal entries, the piece takes readers inside the psyche of a superhero, revealing a man riddled with self-doubt and prone to self-deprecation in his lowest moments.  As Batman patrols the streets of Gotham, "goosenecked pedestrians" attempt to catch fleeting glimpse of him, "as if they thought by will alone their eyes could cut through the smoke-colored windshield of the Batmobile and the sight of me were truly worth something."  Batman similarly dismisses his famous nicknames--"The Caped Crusader," "The Dark Knight"--as "ridiculous" tabloid fabrications.  And when fails to prevent his adversaries' macabre crimes, he sardonically dubs himself "the great Batman, the Fool Detective."

Batman receives no confidence boost from the Joker, who mockingly addresses him as "Cowl Head" and "Bat Sap."  A recent escapee from Arkham Asylum, the Joker is bent on murderous revenge against his various persecutors, and employs a sinister chemical that reduces flesh and bone to putrescent pulp.  Following each fiendishly-clever assassination, the Joker submits a taunting tape-recorded message to Batman, filled with cryptic hints as to the identity of the next victim and the location of the villain's current hideout.

With some help along the way from a wisecracking Alfred, Batman eventually tracks the Joker to the now-derelict Gotham Theater (where Bruce Wayne's parents were killed in a back alley).  The climactic showdown transpires on Halloween, and the Joker throws a handful of tricks at his nemesis.  Ghoul-masked thugs pounce from the shadows, a gun-toting skeleton soars above the theater seats like some deadly replay of a William Castle publicity stunt (the Joker soon thereafter makes explicit reference to other Castle films such as Mr. Sardonicus and The Tingler).  Just when Batman thinks he'd gotten angered hold of his foe, he discovers he's been decoyed by a plastic replica stocked with Halloween candy and nerve gas.

Lansdale's tale provides a special treat to Batman fans, Halloween aficionados, and movie buffs alike.  Rife with cinematic references, the story intriguingly concludes with a bit of reality-challenging speculation that calls the entire Batman mythos into question.  In the end, "Belly Laugh" offers serious food for thought.  While perhaps not as well-known as other works in the Lansdale canon, it is a story that the fortunate reader does not soon forget.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#14

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#14. "Bubba Ho-Tep"

Elvis is alive (he switched identities with an impersonator named Sebastian Haff, who was the one who died on the inglorious throne) but not necessarily well, suffering from a pus-filled chancre on his genitalia.  He resides in a nursing home with John F. Kennedy, who alleges that his brain--following the failed assass-ination attempt in 1963--is "in a fruit jar in the White House, hooked up to some wires and a battery" (this black man also explains his skin color as a governmental dye-job designed to keep him hidden).
Mr. Presley and Mr. President join forces to combat a "mummy in cowboy duds" that preys on the aged, sucking the souls out of the derrieres of geriatrics.

There's only one writer who could make such a gonzo storyline work, and that is Joe R. Lansdale.

There's an indisputable kookiness inscribed into this 1994 novelette (e.g. the hieroglyphic graffiti the mummy inks on the bathroom stall in the rest home--Egyptian insights that roughly translate as "Pharaoh gobbles donkey goober" and "Cleopatra does the dirty"),
but the narrative never devolves into mere campiness.  Viewpoint-character Elvis possesses the satiric wit typical of the Lansdale narrator, but he's also a remorseful figure given to unpleasant introspection:
As he ran the channels, he hit upon an advertisement for Elvis Presley week.  It startled him.  It wasn't the first time it had happened, but at the moment it struck him hard.  It showed clips from his movies, Clambake, Roustabout, several others.  All shit movies.  Here he was complaining about loss of pride and how life had treated him, and now he realized he'd never had any pride and much of how life had treated him had been quite good, and the bulk of the bad had been his own fault.  He wished now he'd fired his manager, Colonel Parker, about the time he got into films.  The old fart had been a fool, and he had been a bigger fool for following him.  He wished too he had treated Priscilla right.  He wished he could tell his daughter he loved her.
What also checks the silliness in Bubba Ho-Tep is the sheer creepiness of its eponymous mummy.  He sports "a face like an old jack-o-lantern gone black and to rot," and is surrounded by roiling, living shadows.  His very gait is nightmarish, simultaneously giving "the impression of shambling and gliding."  With his cursed voraciousness, this ancient antagonist is not to be taken lightly.

In opposing Bubba Ho-Tep, the protagonists transcend their own mummified existences, rediscover a sense of purpose in life.  Perhaps what makes Lansdale's narrative so endearing to readers is the author's attempt to rewrite history and change the ignominious fates of two iconic, beloved Americans.  Elvis and JFK ultimately perish while vanquishing the mummy, but they die as heroic battlers, with their souls intact and their dignity restored forevermore.

Monday, August 26, 2013

You're Next (Movie Review)

You're Next (Lionsgate, 2013)

Director Adam Wingard's home-invasion/slasher hybrid lacks the harrowing suspense of The Strangers, the psychological insight of (the original) Straw Dogs, and the dark wit of the Scream movies.  Characters make a slew of dubious decisions, conveniently thinning the herd of dramatis personae (e.g. someone outside is slinging deadly arrows with a crossbow--let's try to run straight out the front door!).  On the plus side, the film features what is arguably the feistiest Final Girl in the history of the horror genre.  The script is careful to explain the heroine's uncanny survival skills--no implausible, impromptu empowerment here, thank you.  Still, her resourcefulness and unflinching brutality are so extraordinary, the Masked Killers seem woefully overmatched.  Make no mistake, this quick-moving flick is eminently watchable, but if you head to the theaters expecting greatness, you're next to be disappointed.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#15

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#15. "God of the Razor"

Humor is an undeniable hallmark of Lansdale's fiction, but anyone who thinks Champion Joe is always in a joking mood needs to consider this 1987 piece of relentless sinisterness (collected in Bumper Crop).

Lansdale establishes an ominous atmosphere from the outset, as the antique-hunting protagonist Richards ventures into an abandoned Southern home.  The place is a "Gothic" wreck, covered in "dust and darkness"; strips of fallen wallpaper hang down "like the drooping branches of weeping willows."  When Richards opens the door to the basement, he's hit with a cold blast of air laced with "a sour smell like a freezer full of ruined meet."  Partial descent of a rotted, rickety staircase reveals a pool of floodwater filled with rats and curious volleyball-esque objects (that prove to be decapitated heads).

An even greater horror looms behind Richards, who suddenly spies a stranger standing at the top of the staircase.  The young man is an apparent psychopath, sharing a tale about an occult razor blade whose ivory handle is carved with designs and symbols "used for calling up a demon."  Allegedly the metal in this weapon "goes all the way back to a sacrificial altar the Druids used," and licks up blood "like a kid sucking the sweet out of a sucker."  The cut from this blade, when non-lethal, works "like a vampire's bite," trans-forming the victim into a vicious predator.

Unfortunately for Richards, the speaker isn't simply deranged but supernaturally possessed by the eponymous demonic deity.  The young man verbally depicts, and flickeringly embodies, a monster destined to become one of Lansdale's most iconic characters:
Tall and black...not Negro...but black like obsidian rock.  Had eyes like smashed windshield glass and teeth like polished stickpins.  Was wearing a top hat with this shiny band made out of chrome razor blades.  His coat and pants were made out of human flesh, and sticking out of the pockets of his coat were gnawed fingers, like after-dinner treats.  And he had this big old turnip pocket watch dangling out of his pants pocket on a strand of gut.  The watch swung between his legs as he walked.  And that plopping sound, know what that was?  His shoes.  He had these tiny, tiny feet and they were fitted right into the mouths of these human heads.  One of the heads was a woman's and it dragged long black hair behind it when the God walked.
The God of the Razor overwhelms not just poor Richards but the reader as well.  This ebon menace is every bit as visually arresting and effortlessly terrifying as Clive Barker's Pinhead.  Lansdale's devilish figure has subsequently manifested in the novel The Nightrunners and in other short stories, but the first cut is still the deepest-chilling.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#16

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#16. "Dead Sister"

With his penchant for featuring sardonically witty narrators and for creating colorful, unforgettable monsters, Joe R. Lansdale's talents seem perfectly suited to an anthology entitled Supernatural Noir.  And indeed, "Dead Sister" (2011) proves its author a master of the
hybrid tale of hard-boiled horror.

Mud Creek, 1958.  A private eye named Taylor is hired (by an alluring dame "with eyes that would make a monk set fire to his bible") to find out who has been digging up the fresh grave of the titular sibling.  When the concerned Cathy Carter asks Taylor when he can start, he retorts, "Soon as the money hits my palm."  His services officially retained, Taylor heads out to nose around the boneyard.  Upon arrival he notes the obtrusive signage over the gate to Sweet Pine Cemetery, and deadpans: "That was just in case you thought the headstones were for show."

Naturally, Taylor soon discovers he is dealing with no ordinary case of vandalism.  The late Susan Carter's burial plot is being defiled nightly by a former grave robber turned posthumous ghoul, a figure who abducts the fresh corpse of the 18-year-old and engages in some soul-sucking coitus.  This undead necrophiliac is an utter grotesque in both behavior and appearance. Taylor describes him as coyote-eyed, with a face "white as a nun's ass"; tall and gaunt, he sports "stringy white hair" and a "long black coat that spread out around him like the wings of a roach."  When the ghoul subsequently attacks the detective, Taylor relates: "His hands were like a combination of vise and ice tongs; they bit into my flesh and took my air.  Up close, his breath was rancid as roadkill.  His teeth were black and jagged, and the flesh hung from the bones of his face like cheap curtains."  A real dreamboat, this guy.

Foiled once already, Taylor and Cathy stake out Susan's gravesite in the hopes of intercepting the ghoul's next illicit visit.  The battle spills over into a nearby sawmill, a derelict tinderbox destined to go up in flames.  In its fiery climax, the story plays out like an East Texas redux of a Universal monster movie.  "Play" is the operative word here: the narrative, despite its morbid premise, is undeniably lively.  Lansdale taps into the hard-boiled detective formula, but eschews the gloomy romanticism of a Raymond Chandler.  A rousing story recounted in an entertaining voice, "Dead Sister" does anything but leave readers cold.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#17

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#17. "Godzilla's Twelve Step Program"

This offbeat 1994 tale (collected in High Cotton) features some spot-on humor.  Structured as a dozen vignettes, the story stars the erstwhile Tokyo-terror as a "recovering monster" living in America and struggling not to backslide into rampaging behavior: "Take it one day at a time," Godzilla echoes the addict's mantra.  "It's the only way to be happy in the world.  You can't burn and kill and chew up humans and their creations without paying the price of guilt and multiple artillery wounds."

Godzilla currently works at a foundry melting down used car parts, and has to fight the constant urge to raze the entire facility.  At home he attempts to find some ersatz bliss by carving "crude human figures from bars of soap" and then squishing them beneath his feet.  When the pressures of daily living prove too much, the mutant behemoth "falls off the wagon" by stomping and incinerating a neighborhood dog house.  He "can hardly walk he's so intoxicated" from the experience of unbridled destruction, and knows he needs to contact his sponsor, Reptilicus, right away.

It's hard not to appreciate the wittiness here: Godzilla slips off into sleep listening to "Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas on the radio; King Kong (who uses a walker ever since being injured in his great fall) spends his time at the Big Monster Recreation Center playing with naked Barbie dolls.  Bus as in "Night They Missed the Horror Show," Lansdale uses a light-hearted approach as a set-up for some ultimately dark social commentary.  Federal agents exonerate Godzilla following an incendiary bender that obliterates a colored section of town.  Soon thereafter Godzilla finds himself employed as the champion of an ultra-conservative government; he's handed a map in which various areas of perceived deviance are marked for sudden demolition: "Nigger Town.  Chink Village.  White Trash Enclave.  A Clutch of Queers.  Mostly Democrats."

Realizing he's being used, Godzilla turns his wrath back against the U.S. government, which leads to a climactic showdown at the "Great Monument Building."  There Godzilla dies defiantly, damning humanity and designating himself "an equal opportunity destroyer."
The titular lizard trips up terribly while trying to work through his twelve step program, but the same certainly can't be said of
Lansdale in his absurdist anthropomorphizing of a legendary monster-movie creature.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Beelzebub Tweets

BLZ, Bub

[For previous tweets, click here.]

Deviled Egg: inception stage of Rosemary's baby.
--8:14 P.M., August 16th

Stone-faced: Sisyphus's lot in afterlife.
--8:11 P.M., August 16th

Sin Tax: the rules of dissolution.
--8:06 P.M., August 16th

Disappointment: Infernal preferment.
--8:04 P.M., August 16th

Legionnaire:  every breath I take.
--8:01 P.M., August 16th

To those who claim I'm all about darkness, I offer some luciferous definitions...
--8:00 P.M., August 16th

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#18

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#18. "Personality Problem"

This 1983 offering is representative of another tale type Lansdale does so well: the quick and quirky narrative, punctuated by an ironic twist.

The piece is structured as a dramatic monologue in which Frankenstein's Monster vents his existential angst to a psychiatrist.  A large part of the humor here stems from the Monster's sheer verbosity (he's come a long way from the days of Karloffian grunts and moans).  Furthermore, the figure comes across as a chagrined schlub, grousing:
Yeah, I know, doc.  I look terrible and don't smell any better.  But you would, too, if you stayed on the go like I do, had a peg sticking out of either side of your neck and this crazy scar across the forehead.  You'd think they might have told me to use cocoa butter on the place, after they took the stitches out, but naw, no way.  They didn't care if I had a face like a train track.  No meat of their nose.
With sardonic wit, the Monster goes on to describe his "getup" as "Early wino or late drug addict."  He admits to attracting strange stares whenever he walks down the street: "Coat's too small, pants too short.  And these boots, now they get the blue ribbon."  And with his mismatched arms and one shoulder humped higher than the higher, the Monster can forget about ever trying to get fitted for a new suit.

"Personality Problem" pleases with its presentation of a surprise narrator (who never officially names himself, but provides plenty of clues to his identity).  Readers who are fans of the classic Universal horror movies also get to indulge in a bit of nostalgia, as Lansdale's Monster recounts the various mishaps he's suffered.  He has run famously afoul of the mob many times over the years:
"They've trapped me in windmills, castles, and labs.  All sorts of places.  Some guy out there in the crowd always gets the wise idea about the fire, and there we go again--Barbecue City."

In the story's climax, the Monster's lament is cut short by the sudden smell of smoke; the beleaguered speaker is forced to realize that his personality complex ("this feeling that everybody hates me on sight") is well-founded.  His own shrink has shrunk away from him in horror, setting fire to the office and locking the patient inside.  When it comes to this Monster, anyone can turn into an Angry Villager at a moment's notice.  The misbegotten creature is perennially unloved, but that doesn't mean plenty of people don't carry a torch for him.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#19

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#19. "Big Man: A Fable"

Forty-five-year-old Tim Burke is a prototypical wretch: short, bald, under-endowed, abundantly ugly.  But when he eagerly tries an experimental pill to counteract his various inadequacies, he transforms into an impressive specimen of masculinity: "He stood now at six-two, well-hung, with a head and chest full of black hair you could have used to knit a sweater and a throw rug and maybe one mitten."  The eponymous "Big Man" (story available for online reading in the Summer 2008 issue of Subterranean Press Magazine) is born, brimming with strength and virility.

The problem is, Tim keeps growing, at an exponential rate (alas, those pesky side effects).  He progressively turns into a gargantuan grotesque, in terms of both his towering size and insatiable appetites.  After outgrowing his bed, clothes, car, and home, anything-but-tiny Tim goes on a monstrous global rampage.  The deviant behemoth drinks lakes dry, uses the Eiffel Tower as a toothpick; humans and cows serve as his handy substitutes for toilet paper.  Tim's libido also seems to increase proportionately:
"He fornicated with holes in the sides of mountains; had Kilimanjaro been a woman, she would have been pregnant ten times over."

Lansdale's narrative, however, is not just an exercise in excess, as the story offers satiric commentary on humanity's acts of wanton consumption.  Recklessly and myopically obsessed with self-gratification, the "Big Man" stands as an extreme version of every man.  He pollutes the earth and exhausts its precious resources without an ounce of regret or any sense of responsibility:
Soon the messes he made, the piles of shit he left, the urine he pooled, took their toll.  The world stunk, and he, who merely thought of himself now as Big Man, didn't give a flying fuck through a rolling doughnut about the world, or about himself.  It was all a matter of the now and not the tomorrow.
With his carnivalesque wit and affinity for grotesque imagery, Lansdale could always pass as a latter-day Rabelais.  Never, though, has the resemblance between the two writers been more evident than in this fabulously transgressive tale.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


[For the previous game of Hangmany, click here.]

Can you solve the following puzzle within 20 seconds, or are you going to choke?


__   __   I   S   __   N   __   __   R   __

MISSES: A, C, K, L, O, T

HINT: Bad chemistry in New Mexico

Correct answer appears in the Comments section of this post.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#20

It's time to launch a new Countdown here at Macabre Republic.  Over the next two months I will be covering the work of legendary East Texan raconteur Joe R. Lansdale, listing what I consider to be his twenty best works of short fiction ("short" designating a range from flash to novelette). Keep on venturing back to the Land of Red, Black, and Blue to see which of Champion Joe's tales reigns supreme.

Today, we begin with splatterpunk-era classic...

#20. "Night They Missed The Horror Show"

No, I don't suffer from some sort of numerological dyslexia that has caused me to start the Countdown at its endpoint.  For many, this 1988 masterpiece (collected in High Cotton) would come in at #1; Lansdale himself has called it his favorite of all his short stories.  The fact that it only ranks #20 here highlights the undeniably subjective nature of such listings, but also serves as a testament to the extraordinary body of work the author has produced in his career.

Various Lansdale signatures are evident in "Night": the setting in Mud Creek, Texas; loser main characters; lowbrow vernacular; comic hyperbole conveyed via outrageous similes.  Consider the following passage, in which the viewpoint character Leonard discovers a mess of canine roadkill while hanging out "bored to death" in the parking lot of the local Dairy Queen:
Not just a dead dog.  But a DEAD DOG.  The mutt had been hit by a semi at least, maybe several.  It looked as if it had rained dog.  There were pieces of that pooch all over the concrete and one leg was lying on the curbing on the opposite side, stuck up in such a way that it seemed to be waving hello.  Doctor Frankenstein with a grant from Johns Hopkins and assistance from NASA couldn't have put that sucker together again.
The story revels in sardonicism (such as when Leonard reflects upon his whoremongering: "It would certainly be nice to go with a girl that didn't pull the train or had a hole between her legs that looked like a manhole cover ought to be on it") and evinces an unmistakably earthy sensibility (e.g. "By that time the tail lights of the Impala were moving away from them rapidly, looking like two inflamed hemorrhoids in a dark asshole").  But all this grotesque humor is a setup; just when the reader thinks he has been pulled along on an irreverent joyride, Lansdale jarringly shifts gears into shocking horror.  Leonard, his sicko sidekick Farto, and the pair's unlikely companion Scott (a black youth whom Leonard and Farto rescue from a beating by a gang of white boys only because he is Mud Creek's star quarterback) haplessly happen upon a couple of deadly, ultra-racist rednecks.  Vinnie and his equally obese twin "Pork," snuff film connoisseurs interrupted while hosting an illicit viewing, gun down Scott in cold blood.  Murderers with an oddly moralistic streak, Vinnie and Pork proceed to exact grim, ironic vengeance upon Leonard and Farto after mistakenly concluding that the latter duo killed the dog whose mutilated carcass is found chained to the bumper of Leonard's car.

Over the years, Lansdale has scripted several tales of numbnut comeuppance, but none as unabashedly graphic and resonant with social subtext as "Night They Missed The Horror Show."  In title and storyline alike, the piece cleverly references Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which is being screened down at the Mud Creek drive-in, but which Leonard eschews for prejudicial reasons.  Too late, Leonard finds himself "wishing with all his heart that he had gone to the outdoor picture show to see the movie with the n---er starring in it."  Leonard and Farto might have missed a captivating zombie flick, but by night's end they certainly get to experience a horror show.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Reactions to The Killing

Closing thoughts on The Killing and it's two-hour season finale (Episode 11, "From Up Here"; Episode 12, "The Road to Hamelin"):

*It's amazing Linden wasn't wheezing during her opening-scene jog, after all the cigarettes she smoked this season.  Just saying.

*As soon as Linden slept with Skinner, I figured he had to be the killer. (Okay, I'll admit I was wrong about Reddick, but the show did make him look like a prime suspect during the finale.)

*Loved the scene with Holder and the two investigators from Internal Affairs.  His fake bomb threat was ingenious, and prompted one of the best lines of the season from a cranky Reddick: "Holder's an idiot, but he's not al Qaeda."

*The writers should be complimented for not opting for a facile,
optimistic resolution to Kallie Leeds's story (heroic rescue, return to her mom), and instead using her murder as a key part to Linden's cracking of the case.  That last glimpse of Danette, standing on the bridge counting to five (hoping to find her daughter standing there, just like when they used to play hide and seek), was quietly heartbreaking.

*Driving through mist-shrouded woods with a serial killer (a monster whose been wearing the mask of police lieutenant) toward a remote lake house--priceless American Gothicism.

*Perhaps the most harrowing aspect of the finale was when Linden asks Skinner if there are more bodies buried in the lake.  "And other places," he replies with utter nonchalance.  "No one will ever find them."  The "Seventeen and Counting" tagline used to promo Season 3 proves to be fiendishly misleading; Skinner's horrific deeds are ultimately innumerable.

*A kneeling killer goading a detective into shooting him (while a second cop desperately tries to intervene): the dark climax of Seven all over again.

*A terrific season, grim and emotionally grueling.  If I had one complaint, it was that some tangential characters (e.g. Lyric and Twitch) who didn't add all that much to the storyline received too much screen time.  But the show made for compulsive viewing over the past few months, and already has me jonesing like a relapsed Holder for Season 4.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

From the Derry Sewers to New Jersey

My Saturday night arachnid is back again, weaving another spindly deathtrap right outside my door.  The sucker looks even bigger than last time, and I have to admit: I'm scared to get close enough to try to kill It.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Happy Birthday to Blog

It's time to light some candles in the Land of Red, Black, and Blue: today Macabre Republic turns three years old!

Now let's blow those candles out and go forth into the darkness...