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.

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