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.

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