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.

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