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.

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