Saturday, September 28, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#5

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

#5. "White Mule, Spotted Pig"

His Ownself outdoes himself with this 2007 novella (collected in The Shadows Kith and Kin).  The familiar elements of the Lansdale tale are all present, but "White Mule, Spotted Pig" also transcends into the realm of mythic narrative.

There's earthy humor aplenty to be found here, such as the reference to an abused wife who urinates into her husband's liquor jug before taking off from home: "Cheap as the stuff was he drank," it's a wonder "he could tell the difference."  Or consider the renowned hunter Nigger Joe, reputed "to be able to track a bird across the sky, a fart across the yard."  In an inspired moment of absurdity, a mule just noted for looking "quite noble" in its hilltop pen is suddenly zapped by lightning and keels over "in a swirl of heavenly fire and a cannon shot of flying mule shit."

The stricken critter belongs to main character Frank, a hapless dimwit who always "used his brain late in the game."  Frank, though,
isn't the kind of loathsome loser who recurs in Lansdale's work--the wretched transgressor slated for grim and ironic comeuppance.  A sympathetic figure, Frank comes from a low background but possesses higher aspirations.  He strives to win the annual Camp Rapture Mule Race not out of excess pride or in pure greed for the prize money; his dream is to be able to create a finer existence for himself.  The grandest reward from the endeavor might be a boost to his sense of self-worth: "I ain't never won nothing or done nothing right in my life, and I figure this here might be my chance," Frank tells Leroy (a mule trainer notorious for once having been caught humping a goat).  "You gettin' Jesus?" Leroy poses.  "I'm gettin' tired," Frank bluntly retorts.

To win the race, Frank is going to need a speedy beast, which brings us to the titular pair of legendary animals:
Once upon a time, there was this pretty white mule with pink eyes, and the mule was fine and strong and set to the plow early on, but he didn't take to it.  Not at all.  But the odder part of the story was that the mule took up with a  farm pig, and they became friends.  There was no explaining it.  It happened now and then, a horse or mule adopting their own pet, and that was what happened with the white mule and the spotted pig.
One night the mule broke loose, kicked the pig's pen down, and he and the pig, like Jesse and Frank James, headed for the hills.  Went into the East Texas greenery and wound in amongst the trees, and were lost to the farmer.  Only to be seen after that in glimpses and in stories that might or might not be true.  Stories about how they raided corn fields and ate the corn and how the mule kicked down pens and let hogs and goats and cattle go free.
Frank is astounded when he catches his first actual glimpse of the wild duo: "He had some strange feelings inside of him that he couldn't explain.  Some sensation of having had a moment that was greater than any moment he had had before."  Further under-scoring the majesty of White Mule, Frank compares the creature to an image of Pegasus: "Well, the mule didn't look like a horse, and it didn't have wings on its back, but it certainly had the bearing of the beast on the book's cover.  Like maybe it was from somewhere else from here; like the sky had ripped apart and the mule had ridden into this world through the tear."

The scenes where Frank, Leroy, and Nigger Joe track down and then attempt to train White Mule are wonderfully entertaining, and the story features the best climactic ride this side of Sleepy Hollow.
Still, it is Frank's interaction with White Mule and Spotted Pig following the race that ultimately resonates the most.  In the end, Lansdale has scripted not just a damn good tale, but a feel-good one as well.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#6

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

#6. "Mad Dog Summer"

In his introduction to "Mad Dog Summer," Joe R. Lansdale notes of his 1999 novella: "It has been compared, mostly favorably, to To Kill a Mockingbird, and that is my favorite novel, and perhaps my favorite film.  But, the influence is overrated.  I think if you write about the 1930s and the story is told from a young person's viewpoint, and if it has to do with racism, it's then considered influenced by To Kill a Mockingbird."  The author acknowledges a debt to the precursor novel, yet asserts that the memory of his parents was the greater influence on his tale.  Still, it's hard not to read "Mad Dog Summer" as a wonderful homage to Harper Lee.

As analogues of the Finches, the narrative presents thirteen-year old Harry, his tomboy younger sister "Tom," and their heroic and colorblind father (not an attorney like Atticus, but here serving as town constable).  There is a key scene of a Halloween night party,
and (as the title foretells) summertime problems with rabid animals.  Perhaps the most overt parallel, though, is the Boo Radley stand-in that Lansdale creates, in the legendary figure of the Goat Man:
Half goat, half man, he liked to hang around what was called the swinging bridge.  I had never seen him, but sometimes at night, out possum hunting, I thought maybe I heard him, howling and whimpering down there near the cable bridge that hung bold over the river, swinging with the wind in the moonlight, the beams playing on the metal cables like fairies on ropes.
He was supposed to steal livestock and children, and though I didn't know of any children that had been eaten, some farmers claimed the Goat Man had taken their livestock, and there were some kids I knew claimed they had cousins taken off by the Goat Man, never to be seen again.
It was said he didn't go as far as the main road because Baptist preachers traveled regular there on foot and by car, making the preaching rounds, and therefore making the road holy.  It was said he didn't get out of the woods that made the Sabine bottoms.  High land was something he couldn't tolerate.  He needed the damp, thick leaf mush beneath his feet, which were hooves.
This passage demonstrates the greatest strength of "Mad Dog Summer": its narration.  Harry is a natural-voiced youth (notice how Lansdale counters Lee by assigning the narratorial role to the male sibling) whose observations are colored by innocence.  The boy is forced to come of age in a time and place marked by despicable racism and brutal violence: a serial killer (although, as Harry acknowledges, that generation had no name for, and little concept of, such a monster) has been leaving a gruesome trail of mutilated women, but the town doesn't take much interest in the crimes when the early victims are only black prostitutes.  Harry tabs the Goat Man as the killer, but any reader who recalls Boo Radley knows Lansdale's version of the dreaded grotesque is bound for climactic redemption.

With its murder-mystery plot, the novella is nothing less than gripping.  It is also incredibly moving, filled with dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking action.  One of the most resonant lines of the piece, for example, is Harry's simple declaration in regards to his father, who is devastated when an innocent black man is scapegoated and lynched: "There's no way to explain how bad it hurts to hear your father cry."

Lansdale later expanded his narrative into the Edgar-Award-winning novel The Bottoms; the book makes for an even better read, as the author is afforded the opportunity to develop his cast of characters and their milieu.  But that is not to slight the original version, as "Mad Dog Summer" is easily appreciated by anyone who cherishes To Kill a Mockingbird, or captivating storytelling, period.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#7

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

#7. "The Bleeding Shadow"

As seen earlier on the Countdown, Joe R. Lansdale knows how to write scary-good supernatural noir.  But with this 2011 story (anthologized in The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2012), the author reaches the pinnacle of hard-boiled horror.

The narrator is a Fifties-era African-American named Richard who dabbles in private eye work --unofficially, at least, because "Black people couldn't get a license to shit broken glass in this town."  Yes, Richard has the Chandleresque patois down pat, using outrageous similes to convey sardonic commentary.  Sizing up a run-down hotel, he offers: "It was nice looking if you were blind in one eye and couldn't see out the other."  No more flatteringly, he describes his quarry tracked down inside as looking "like someone had set him on fire and then beat out the flames with a two-by-four."

Richard has been hired to find a shiftless blues player named Tootie, whom his sister Alma May fears has gotten entangled in a dire predicament.  The client's concerns are based on a bizarre bit of music mailed to her by her sibling: an eldritch record (its
"grooves were dark and scabby looking, like something had gotten poured in there and dried tight") containing a song that's so unnerving it makes the music of Erich Zann sound like the angelic warble of a church choir.  Exposed to the cacophony, Richard notes: "Tootie’s voice was no longer like a voice. It was like someone dragging a razor over concrete while trying to yodel with a throat full of glass. There was something inside the music; something that squished and scuttled and honked and raved, something unsettling, like a snake in a satin glove."  Alma May says that listening to the terribly-enrapturing song is "like walking out in front of a car and the headlights in your face, and you just wanting to step out there even though it scared hell out of you and you knew it was the devil or something even worse at the wheel."  She's closer to the mark than she could ever have dared imagine, as the records (peddled by a devilish salesman) in the story function much like the puzzle box in Clive Barker's Hellraiser mythos, creating a gateway for otherworldly nemeses.

As a hotel wall transforms into "a long hallway, dark as original sin," Richard is faced with the ultimate monstrosity, a horrific hodge-podge "full of eyes and covered in sores and tentacles and legs and things I can’t even describe. It was like someone had thrown critters and fish and bugs and beaks and all manner of disease into a bowl and whipped it together with a whipping spoon."  Even more gruesome than the intruder itself is its nebulous offshoot: "A shadow came loose of the thing, fell onto the floorboards of the room, turned red and raced across the floor like a gush of blood. Insects and maggots squirmed in the bleeding shadow."  Richard's descriptions of such mind-boggling nightmares are positively sublime; in this tale of infernal racket and Satanic con-artistry, it is the protagonist's voice that proves most truly seductive.  Colorfully capturing blackness, Lansdale's detective-narrator elevates what might have been a mere rehash of Lovecraft into a tale that is a sheer delight to read.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Universal Monsters in Our Midst

It's that time of year when Frankenstein starts popping up all over the place...

If you crave even more candy, or feel a need to indulge your inner angry-villager, you can take a whack at this monster piƱata:

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Head Above?

A quick review of Monday night's pilot episode of Sleepy Hollow on Fox...

The show plays like a cross between the classic Washington Irving story and Terminator 2, as a pair of time-traveling adversaries (Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman) arrive in the titular village and attempt to prevent/precipitate apocalypse.  Much like the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, the pilot episode wrings some comedy out of its stranger-in-a-strange-land motif, such as when Ichabod (here a handsome, witty Brit) remarks upon the African-American character Abbie Mills's "emancipation," or later incredulously poses, "When did it become acceptable for ladies to wear trousers?"  And there are some definite "Hasta la vista, baby" echoes when the Horseman at one point fires away with an assault weapon against roadblocking police officers.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the episode is that none of the inhabits of Sleepy Hollow seem familiar with "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."  The name "Ichabod Crane" fails to strike any bells, and no one references Irving's narrative when the talk turns to a menacing, headless horseman.  This apparent obliviousness undercuts one of the more clever moments in the pilot, when the actual Horseman pulls up in front of a yellow traffic sign bearing his silhouette (why would the mock sign even exist in this version of Sleepy Hollow?).  Nonetheless, the downplay of the literary pre-cursor should afford the show much more freedom in developing its plot lines.

The Horseman cuts an impressively imposing figure; with his hulking frame and almost-nonchalant commitment of violence, he's reminiscent of (an albeit cranially-challenged) Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.  While his cropped-top condition traces back to a Revolutionary War battlefield, this supernatural figure is given a more complex backstory than Irving's Hessian mercenary.  Never human in the first place, Sleepy Hollow's headless nemesis is Death itself, the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  As such, he heralds the appearance of further monstrosities in future episodes of the show.

Groundwork for a complex mythos (involving warring witch covens and the secret history of the Revolutionary War) is laid in the series premiere, implicitly promising that there will be plenty of fresh story to unfold.  Even more reassuring is the stellar rating numbers the pilot had, since a mass audience means Sleepy Hollow will be given every chance to hit its full dramatic stride.  This viewer, for one, has already seen enough to keep his head turned, and will be watching the Horseman ride again next Monday night.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#8

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

#8. "The Dark Down There"

Back in the mid-80's, Joe R. Lansdale became one of the pioneers of the weird Western with the publication of Dead in the West.  He has since followed the novel with four stories featuring Reverend Jebediah Mercer, the best of which is 2010's "The Dark Down There" (collected in Deadman's Road).

An itinerant battler of supernatural evil, the Reverend stands as Lansdale's answer to Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John the Balladeer.  But Mercer is cut from much rougher cloth; he's so badass, he makes Jonah Hex seem as imposing as Jonah Hill by comparison.  He is in an undeniably ornery mood in "The Dark Down There," perhaps understandably so considering that he is attacked by a quartet of bandits at the start of the narrative.  When one of the wounded desperadoes announces his surrender, the unmerciful Mercer admits that he is "still in a riled frame of mind" and promptly shoots the man through the mouth.  The Reverend is just as ready to fire barbs as bullets; when a needled bartender in a subsequent scene warns him that a pair of obese ruffians are present to "make sure nobody gets smart in here," Mercer retorts:
"With the exception of myself, I doubt a rise in intelligence is a great worry around these parts."

Human antagonists are the least of Mercer's concern, though.  This time around he has to deal with a horde of vicious goblins haunting a local mine.  Lansdale builds suspense through the gradual intro-duction of the ominous creatures, who are first noted by Mercer as sets of eyes ("like flaming yellow darts against black wool") tracking him in the night.  The Kobolds, as they are called, have some horrific proclivities: when not imprisoning humans as mining slaves, they like to feast on their heads and feet.  Entering the mine, Mercer quickly discovers it to be overrun by the underworldly wretches, who "clung to the high walls and ceiling like lichen, scuttled across the rocks like roaches."  These figures are disgusting enough, but their queen (whom Mercer pictures as "an enormous snotty booger") is the height of grotesquerie:
At [the pile of living flesh's] triangular peak was a small, human head with yellow, darting eyes and gray hair sprouting from it, tumbling over where a human would have had shoulders.  The thing had none, just a head that tapered into a thin, short neck, and then a spreading pile of goo.  The Reverend noted something else.  There were mounded shapes at the front of the pile, not far below the neck.  Breasts, dripping what the Reverend had to believe was milk.  It trickled down the misshapen body like pus from a sore.  From time to time one of the Kobolds would approach the pile reverently, climb up no the vibrating mass of flesh, and suckle at one of the tits.
The goblin queen meets her match in Mercer's partner-in-arms, a brash giantess ironically dubbed Flower.  This is the kind of woman who refers to whiskey as "the devil's pee," and her dog as "meaner than a wolf with a stick up his ass" (a pet whom she periodically masturbates to calm him down).  Flower is as humorous as she is humongous.  When Mercer cries out that he's "hung," meaning that his leg is caught, Flower bawdily quips, "I'd have to be the judge of that at another time."  This repartee takes place during a climax in which, significantly, Flower is the one who rescues Mercer from temporary enslavement by the Kobolds.  More than just some comic sidekick, Flower proves herself to be a worthy heroine.

Admittedly, this is not the most profound piece of prose ever written (the Reverend's sermons on the bloody content of the Bible and God's unpleasant Old-Testament disposition notwithstanding).  As Lansdale establishes in his introduction to Deadman's Road:
"This is not a book of Big Thinks.  It is a book of old-fashioned, swift, exciting, and often brutal tales."  Pitting colorful heroes against exotic monsters, "The Dark Down There" certainly fits this label, but the story's greatest distinction is its dramatization of Mercer's character arc.  Ill-tempered and bitter-spirited at the outset, the Reverend is redeemed by Flower, who pulls Mercer out of the dark in more ways than one.  Blooming romance shows a new side to Mercer, a lighter and more peaceful demeanor.  As the unlikely yet engaging couple ride off into the sunset at tale's end, the reader is left eager for Lansdale to pick up their trail once more.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Feeling Lucky?

To all the non-paraskevidekatriaphobes out there in our Macabre Republic: Happy Jason Day!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Beelzebub Tweets

BLZ, Bub

[For previous tweets, click here.]

Thomas Szasz: "If you talk to God, you are praying.  If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia."  Or a lot of explaining to do.
--9:43 P.M., September 10th

"There are no atheists in foxholes."  The ultimate wartime propaganda.
--11:57 P.M., September 9th

Mae West: "Between two evils, I generally like to pick the one I never tried before."  And so now she's constantly uttering: "Come down and see me sometime."
--3:06 P.M., September 9th

"The devil made me do it."  Damned straight.
--2:29 A.M., September 7th

"Come hell or high water."  For those in the Fifth Circle, it's a both-and situation.
--5:15 A.M, September 6th

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#9

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

#9. "Booty and the Beast"

The plot of this 1995 story (collected in High Cotton) contains enough intrigue to fill a feature-length film, and as a work of horror-tinged Texan noir it recalls the Coen Brothers classic Blood Simple.
For instance, the M. Emmett Walsh character in the film compares here to the villainous Mulroy, a private detective whose caseload involved "nickel and dime divorces out of Tyler, taking pictures of people doing the naked horizontal mambo," and who turns to criminal activity in hopes of a big payday.  Mulroy is in cahoots with the aptly-named Babe, "a silver-tongued, long-legged slut with heaven between her legs."  The femme fatale attempts to use her irresistible beauty to get her mark, Standers, to reveal the location of some stashed booty--gold bars and a "decorated box that was supposed to contain a hair from the Virgin Mary's head" (treasure that Standers's father plundered from the Germans while serving in World War II).  When Babe's supple flesh fails to get Standish to come across, she brings the hard-boiled Mulroy in as muscle.

Allegiances shift like a constantly-churning kaleidoscope in Lansdale's story, and a large part of the fun here is watching all the double-dealing and backstabbing that takes place amongst a group of dishonorable thieves.  There are some cinematic deaths to behold once the inevitable bloodshed begins.  When the deadly redhead Babe shoots an unconscious Mulroy behind the ear, his signature cowboy hat dislodges "as he nodded forward.  A wad of tobacco  rolled over his lip and landed in his lap.  Blood ran down his cheek and onto his nice Western coat."  Turning the tables on Babe, Standers pushes her onto a rotten wooden floor that instantly collapses and snaps one of her legs.  He then shoots her in the face with Mulroy's gun; the impact drives her backwards, "her broken leg still in the gap in the floor.  Her other leg flew up and came down and her heel hit the floor with a slap.  Her dress hiked up and exposed her privates."  The sight of which prompts Standers to deadpan, "Not a bad way to remember you.  It's the only part of you that wasn't a cheat."

An even grimmer fate is in store for Standers, who returns to his mobile home and collapses in exhaustion.  He awakens to find his residence and his body covered with fire ants (attracted to the maple syrup Mulroy had earlier poured on him while threateningly trying to get information out of him).  Fleeing his trailer, Standers trips down the steps and breaks his neck.  Unfortunately for him, he's only paralyzed from the waist down, and has sensation in his face when the fire ants attack it:
The ants began to climb into his hair and swarm over his lips.  He batted at them with his eyelashes and blew at them with his mouth, but it didn't any good.  They swarmed him.  He tried to scream, but with his neck bent the way it was, his throat constricted somewhat, he couldn't make a good noise.  And when he opened his mouth the furious little ants swarmed in and bit his tongue, which swelled instantly.
Just when the reader thinks the carnage is complete, Lansdale adds a coda brimming with dark irony.  A bona fide Bible salesman (Mulroy only pretended to be one when first knocking on Standers's door) named Bill Longstreet finds Standers's corpse, rifles through his wallet and takes the box containing the allegedly-sacred strand of hair.  Figuring he can sell the curious squiggle to a junk store, Longstreet stops off first at a local watering hole.  Getting drunkenly back behind the wheel some time later, he drives out onto the highway and is promptly demolished by a speeding semi.  His brains are spectacularly splattered, and a Bible ends up plastered to his head like "some kind of bizarre growth Longstreet had been born with." 

The box passes on to Longstreet's widow, who thinks the follicular maguffin is only some bug leg and flushes the valuable hair right down the toilet.  She has unwittingly blown the chance at a tremendous windfall, and as Lansdale writes in the final lines, the widow hardly benefits either from the money she collects from Longstreet's life insurance policy: "She bought herself a new car and some see-through panties and used the rest to finance her lover's plans to open a used car lot in downtown Beaumont, but it didn't work out.  He used the money to finance himself and she never saw him again."  "Booty and the Beast" is a tale of grift that just keeps on giving, ranging beyond the handful of shady main characters to highlight the endless duplicity that marks the great confidence game of life.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Mob Scene: "Going to Meet the Man"

In a Universal monster movie, with old Una O'Connor hamming it up, a gathering of angry villagers could function as a bit of comic relief.  But there's zero humor to be found when the mob-scene setting shifts to an American town in the South during the Civil Rights Era.

The title story of James Baldwin's 1965 collection Going to Meet the Man features a grisly flashback scene in which a group of whites attend the lynching of a captured black man.  His execution is treated like some public holiday, as the caravan of cars traveling to the site carry baskets of food: "It was like a Fourth of July picnic."  Viewpoint character Jesse (eight years old at the time of the lynching) recalls his mother fussing to get dressed up as if for church, and his father nonchalantly sitting him upon his shoulders to provide better view of the proceedings.

What Jesse sees is a naked man chained to a tree limb and dangled
above a bonfire.  The captive's wretched screams only stoke the
crowd's bloodlust: "The cry of all the people rose to answer the dying man's cry.  He wanted death to come quickly.  They wanted to make death wait: and it was they who held death, now, on a leash which they lengthened little by little."  After the victim is unmanned by a "long, bright knife," the frenzied crowd pounces, "tearing at the body with their hands, with knives, with rocks, with stones, howling and cursing."  The vicious persecution concludes with a dousing of kerosene that reduces the man to "a black charred object on the black, charred ground." 

Presenting this harrowing event through the eyes of a child, Baldwin dramatizes a dark rite of passage and demonstrates a warping psychosexual effect.  Jesse (who considers the hanging body "the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then") grows up to be a virulently racist sheriff whose libido is a fueled by a confused mix of violent aggression and secret desire.
"Going to Meet the Man" is a deliberately discomforting read, but Baldwin's searing indictment of Deep South depravity makes for one of the most forceful and unforgettable stories in all of American literature.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#10

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

#10. "On a Dark October"

In his headnote to this 1984 piece (collected in Bumper Crop), Lansdale refers to it as a "forerunner for a better and very well-known story of mine called 'Night They Missed the Horror Show.'"
Belying such prefatory diminution, though, "On a Dark October" proves a tightly-written masterpiece of dark suspense.

Every detail is telling in this four-page short story, such as the following opening-paragraph line: "The moon was hidden behind dark clouds that occasionally flashed with lightning, and the sky rumbled as if it were a big belly that was hungry and needed filling."  In hindsight, the sentence does much more than establish a stormy atmosphere; it sets the stage for an incomplete revelation of  the story's shadow-swaddled antagonist, while simultaneously hinting at the act of monstrous feeding that takes place in the climax.

Lansdale deftly hooks the reader, who can't help but wonder why a series of fancy, late-model cars are pulling up this time of night
outside the "ugly tin" building that constitutes Bob's Garage.  Who can't help but question why each driver comes with a newspaper-wrapped tool, forming an ominous arsenal of "hammers, brake-over handles, crowbars, heavy wrenches."  And who can't help but fear for the groaning, "burlap-wrapped, rope-bound bundle" that is dragged out the back of a van and into the garage.

As the clock inside closes in on midnight and the adjacent calendar marks the date as Halloween, as the raincoat-clad men proceed to light and place candles along the ramps of the grease rack, it grows steadily apparent that some sort of latter-day Druidic rite is about to take place.  The sense of dread mounts as the delivered bundle is unwrapped to show the bound-and-gagged body  of a "frightened black youth."  One of the acolytes calls out (in uninspired litany) to the "heavy and sluggish" thing that can be heard stirring in the garage's dark recesses: "We got something for you, hear me? Just like always we're doing our part.  You do yours.  I guess that's all I have to say.  Things will be the same come next October.  In your name, I reckon."

The lurking creature never quite emerges to take center stage, but Lansdale provides an all-too-clear glimpse of the grotesquely-tenderized heap offered in sacrifice to it.  The gathered men employ their weapons in a methodical beating, and "[w]hen they finished, the thing that had been the young black man looked like a gigantic hunk of raw liver that had been chewed up and spat out."  Sounds of a savage feasting ensue as the men vacate the scene: "Tonight they would all go home to their young, attractive wives and tomorrow they would all go to their prosperous businesses and they would not think of this night again.  Until next October."

"On a Dark October" no doubt can be read as a bit of socioeconomic allegory, a critique of the callous disregard of the underclass by the privileged.  In its dramatization of dangerous pagan rites of community formation and sustenance, the story also recalls Shirley Jackson's American Gothic classic "The Lottery."  Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon, is the memorable mantra of Jackson's villagers, and Lansdale's grim citizens might similarly intone, A sacrifice in October, or the good life's over.

With this single story, Lansdale demonstrates undeniable mastery of the sinister seasonal tale.  But how about this for a teaser: as good as it is, "On a Dark October" doesn't even rank as the best of the author's Halloween-related works of short fiction.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Hessian Hangout

What better place for a legendary rider to get smashed out of his gourd than at this atmospheric tavern tucked away on E. 15th Street in Manhattan?  Bartenders beware, though: the Horseman only likes his beer one way--without any head on it.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#11

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

#11. "The Big Blow"

At fifty pages, the narrative pushes the limits of the Countdown's
"short fiction" criterion, but that's about the only drawback to this 1997 Stoker Award-winner (collected in Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories).  "The Big Blow" lands thunderously from its very first paragraph:
On an afternoon hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock, John McBride, six-foot one-and-a-half inches, 220 pounds, ham handed, built like a wild boar and of similar disposition, arrived by ferry from mainland Texas to Galveston Island, a six-gun under his coat and a razor in his shoe.
A lewd and brutish pugilist, McBride makes Jake LaMotta look like Little Miss Muffet.  He's the type of fighter who finds his sparring partners by inciting and then stomping ruffians down by the docks, and who (prior to his more official matches) loads his boxing glove with a razor blade.  McBride is hired muscle from Chicago brought in by the chagrined gentleman of the Galveston Sporting Club to administer a retaliatory battering to Jack Johnson, who defeated the Club's white champion.

Employing the real-life prizefighter Johnson as its protagonist, Lansdale's fiction confronts the history of violent American racism.
Johnson (the son of an ex-slave who was "made to fight for white mens like he was some kinda fightin' rooster") has himself been coerced to participate in degrading Battle Royales.  His upcoming bout against McBride is born of bias (the Sporting Club considers Johnson's in-ring success a besmirching of white supremacy) and does not promise to be an honorable contest (McBride stands to earn a $500 bonus if he beats Johnson to death).  Lansdale scripts an even more ignominious motive: Ronald Beems, one of the heads of the Sporting Club, wants Johnson killed off because he fears that his own secret homosexual lust will eventually lead him to proposition the black man.

A meteorological event forms the second historical backdrop to the tale: the great hurricane of September 1900 that leveled Galveston.
The notorious storm gives Lansdale ample opportunity to demonstrate his own writerly might.  He describes skies "the color of gangrene," waves that crash "like a monstrous, wet flyswatter"; the devastated city is transformed into "a wet mulch of bloated bodies--humans, dogs, mules, and horses--and mashed lumber."

The apocalyptic squall causes the epic battle between Johnson and McBride to spill out of the squared circle and into the flooded streets of Galveston.  Still, it's a surprising act of climactic collab-oration between the two combatants that proves most forceful here.  All told, "The Big Blow" is a literary TKO, a story that leaves the reader dazed with wonderment.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#12

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

#12. "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road"

The ironically prosaic title of the 1991 tale (collected in High Cotton) labels a narrative that is saturated with suspenseful action.  "Incident"--which was adapted into a standout episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror anthology series--reads like a deftly condensed version of a slasher film.

A dangerous curve along a mountain road serves as the perfect death-trap for a serial killer looking to snare victims.  Viewpoint-character Ellen crashes her car into a strategically-parked vehicle, and soon thereafter runs into a pallid attacker dubbed Moon Face.  Sporting "metal-capped teeth that matched the sparkle of his blade," and obviously "crazy as the pattern in a scratch quilt," Moon Face forms quite the frightful antagonist.  His squalid domicile in the woods appears to have taken interior-decorating inspiration from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the trail leading up to his shack is flanked by what Ellen first mistakes as scarecrows but soon realizes is a cadaver tableaux:
There were at least a dozen on either side, placed upright on poles, their feet touching the ground, their knees slightly bent.  They were all fully clothed, and in various states of deterioration.  Holes had been poked in the backs of their heads to correspond with the hollow sockets of their eyes, and the moonlight came through the holes and shined through the sockets, and Ellen noted, with a warm sort of horror, that one wore a white sun dress and pink, plastic shoes, and through its head she could see stars.  On the corpse's finger was a wedding ring, and the finger had grown thin and withered and the ring was trapped there by knuckle bone alone.
A lone female finding herself in such an environment and facing a psychotic nemesis might seem dreadfully outmatched, but Ellen is no ordinary woman.  Having only recently escaped the "survivalist insanity" of her abusive, obsessive boyfriend, Ellen seizes upon the "guerrilla techniques" that Bruce drilled into her.  Like an estrogen-fueled Rambo, she fights back against Moon Face; indeed, a large part of the enjoyment taken from the story comes from observing Ellen's clever attempts to forestall her own stalking.  Grisly physicality accompanies ingenious scheming, though.  Ellen's propensity to seize upon whatever means at hand at one point leads her to pick up and club Moon Face with the moldering corpse of a cribbed infant: "The rotting child burst into a spray of desiccated flesh and innards and she hurled the leg at Moon Face and then she was circling around the roll-away bed, trying to make the door."

Ellen proves terribly resourceful even after her climactic defeat of Moon Face.  Lansdale presents a final plot twist that dexterously knots the threads of the narrative and creates a grimly satisfying sense of comeuppance.  But at the same time the reader is forced to question whether he/she really wants to identify with a heroine like Ellen.  Her macabre machinations at story's close leads one to reconsider Moon Face's previous, demented address of her as
"Sissie," as these two figures perhaps could pass for "family" after all.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Closing In

Get ready, gourd-hoarders: the launch of the Halloween season is now only one month away!