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.  

No comments: