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.


Anonymous said...

look at how much you love what you do with these posts and the entire blog. its inspiration...proud of you.

Joe Nazare said...

Thanks for the kind words: much appreciated!