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.


Rick Klaw said...

Having read most of Joe's work, "Night They Missed the Horror Show" still ranks within his top five short stories and possibly among the top 20 horror short stories of all time.

It's a masterfully crafted piece of terror.


MadFoot said...

I was looking forward to your list but cannot imagine any list worth its weight in salt putting this story as Joe R's 20th best.

The raw power is perfectly offset by insane hilarity. It Disturbs while entertains.

This is the story that really put Lansdale on the map and made people into lifelong fans.

If you have this last on your list, I gotta say you got dyslexia and bad...

But to each his own self.

Joe Nazare said...

I can't deny it: Countdowns such as this one are inherently subjective. And I can easily see someone having a Top 20 list in which "Night They Missed the Horror Show" earns the #1 ranking.

I figured putting "Night" at #20 was bound to stir some people up, but that's fine. Despite the differences of opinion, we're all coming from the same place--a love for Champion Joe's amazing work.