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.

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