Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#4

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

#4. "The Folding Man"

Featuring a pair of young-adult protagonists named Jim and William, this 2010 story (collected in Bleeding Shadows) alludes to Ray Bradbury but comes at readers with something much more wicked.

Apropos of its setting on the night of October 31st, "The Folding Man" is a tricky story.  While the opening line explains that "They had come from a Halloween party, having long shed the masks they'd worn," the narrative itself is not so quick to reveal its true nature.  Initially Lansdale appears to be taking his typical dark-humorous approach, presenting a tale in which the shenanigans of a group of sardonically-viewed screw-ups end up backfiring against them (the kind of numbnut comeuppance we've encountered previously on the Countdown).  All "fired up and happy and yelling and hooting" with his friends, Jim decides to moon a passing carload of nuns, but the targets of the juvenile prank are hardly amused and react in startling fashion: "Then a funny thing happened, one of the nuns shot [Jim] the finger, and then others followed."  Obviously these are not actual Catholics, but nor are these nuns just a bunch of homely brutes in Halloween disguise.  When a drunken Harold foolishly leans out the back window to taunt the figures during the ensuing high-speed chase ("the car hummed as if it had just had an orgasm," Lansdale informs via carnivalesque simile), he has his head crushed by a swung two-by-four.  The cacophonous crack of Harold's skull is like a toll signaling the shift to a decidedly different tonality.

"The Folding Man" veers headlong into dire straits, as the spiteful nuns knock William's car right off the road.  All too belatedly, Jim realizes that they have run afoul of a vehicle out of regional lore: the predatory "black car that roams the highways and backroads of the South" and enjoys "its peak night" on Halloween.  The black car's habit-wearing passengers sport "witch-like" noses, "backs bent like long bows," and skin "white and pasty as pot stickers," but these supernatural wretches are beauty queens compared to the bogey
stowed in the trunk:
It looked like some kind of folded up lawn chair, only more awkward in shape.  The nun jerked it out and dropped it and gave it a swift kick.  The folded up thing began to unfold with a clatter and a squeak.  A perfectly rounded head rose up from it, and the head spun on what appeared to be a silver hinge.  When it quit whirling, it was upright and in place, though cocked slightly to the left.  The eyes and mouth and nostrils were merely holes.  Moonlight could be seen through them.  The head rose as coat-rack style shoulders pushed it up and a cage of chest rose under that.  The chest looked almost like an old frame on which dresses were placed to be sewn, or perhaps a cage designed to contain something you wouldn't want to get out.  With more squeaks and clatters, skeletal hips appeared, and beneath that, long, bony legs with bent back knees and big metal-framed feet.  Stick-like arms swung below its knees, clattering against its legs like tree limbs bumping against a window pane.  It stood at least seven-feet tall.
This hodge-podge horror seemingly built from "a garage sale collection of parts and pieces" is animated by a "black, winged thing" placed in its chest and by the earthly clay (shades of the Golem) spread over its armature.  There's no doubting the monster's deadliness when it catches up to William in a cemetery.  William is seized and slammed into a tree, his body snapping "so hard his neck popped and an eyeball flew out of his skull."  Repeats of this battering swing send bark flying off the tree trunks and "clothes and meat off William."   The ignominy, though, doesn't end here: the Folding Man wields his victims as weapons, whipping the limp, abused bodies like "wet towels."  And what the vicious creature does to a wrecking-yard dog is enough to send Michael Vick running to join the ASPCA.

With its unflinching brutality and grim sensibility, the story hearkens back to Lansdale's "God of the Razor."  Like that vintage work, "The Folding Man" offers an awful, jaw-dropping nemesis, but it also adds breathtaking action to the mix (the tale's central scenes dramatize the title nightmare's relentless pursuit of Jim).  Putting a brand new set of shocks in the black-car narrative, this terrifically frightful ride is well-equipped to become a Halloween legend in its own right. 

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