Sunday, October 27, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#3

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

#3. "The Shadows Kith and Kin"

This 2007 title story is a bit of a departure for Joe R. Lansdale, both tonally and stylistically.  But the end result is the same: one incredible read.

Relentlessly bleak, and choppily narrated (often stringing single, short-sentence paragraphs), "The Shadows Kith and Kin" drops us inside the mind of a Charles Whitman-type sniper.  The narrator--unemployed, living with his in-laws, married to a woman threatening to divorce him--is plagued by existential angst and feelings of emasculation.  One restless night, while sitting out on the front porch, he is approached by a faceless, "tar-covered human shape" that intones "You are almost one of us" before returning to the crowded shadows.  The narrator is visited (or so he believes) nightly thereafter by the strange shades: "More than one now.  And they flutter tight around me and I can smell them, and it is a smell like nothing I have smelled before.  It is dark and empty and mildewed and old and dead and dry."  These occult entities, defined by "an absence of being" more than an "absence of light," form "the empty congregation," a legion of failures with whom the narrator immediately senses kinship:
The sad empty folk who wander through life and walk beside you and never get so much as a glance; nerds like me who live inside their heads and imagine winning the lottery and scoring the girls and walking tall.  But instead, we stand short and bald and angry, our hands in our pockets, holding not money, but our limp balls.
Not long after encountering the shadows, the narrator (who counts shooting a gun as one of his few talents) is moved to murder his whole family.  But even as he resides in his isolated home with their moldering bodies, waiting out a freak ice storm, he knows a more spectacular act of violence is required of him before he can truly join his shadow friends.  In the story's climax, the narrator ascends the phallic clock tower on the campus of the college he dropped out of (and where he then worked as a janitor before being fired).  A
"future-stealing machine," the gunman proceeds to deliver a series of "hot lead announcements" to the unsuspecting students below:
"Telegram.  You're dead."  All the while, the narrator is cool, displaying an unnerving lack of affect.  He casually describes the assassination of an attractive coed ("The young woman falls amidst a burst of what looks like plum jelly") and compares his various victims to the minnows he once stomped to death as a child (after the bait failed to catch him any fish).

The story hints at biological (faulty brain wiring) and environ-mental (an abusive and gun-loving father) explanations for the narrator's aberrant behavior, yet maintains a strategic ambiguity as to whether a deranged psyche or an actual supernatural influence spurs the narrator's shooting spree.  Either way, the conclusion is absolutely chilling.  "The Shadows, Kith and Kin" evinces the banality of evil, as an envious and discontented loser wreaks bloody havoc on anyone unlucky enough to fall within his sights.  Lansdale, who himself attended the Austin campus of the University of Texas, hearkens back to Charles Whitman's infamous crime, yet pens a tale that (perhaps most frightening of all) is perennially timely.

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