Thursday, October 31, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#1

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

#1. "By Bizarre Hands"

A Southern Gothic shocker set on Halloween, "By Bizarre Hands" (1988; collected in High Cotton) is my easy choice for the top Joe R. Lansdale work of short fiction.

The story's viewpoint character is a spurious evangelist in the mold of Davis Grubb's Harry Powell (Night of the Hunter) and Flannery O'Connor's Manly Pointer ("Good Country People").  Preacher Judd travels to the home of the Widow Case when he learns that the woman has a mentally-challenged daughter.  Judd has "a thing for retarded girls, due to the fact that his sister had been simple-headed, and his mama always said it was a shame she was probably going to burn in hell like a pan of biscuits forgot in the oven, just on account of not having a full set of brains."  He also has "this thing for Halloween, because that was the night the Lord took his sister to hell, and he might have taken her to glory had she had any bible-learning or God sense."  Regretting his sister's perdition, the now-adult Judd has devoted himself to "baptizing and giving some God-training to female retards" (but not "boys or men or women who were half-wits").

This preacher's mission is hardly a glorious one, apropos of a story that foregrounds grotesquerie.  Judd's father ran off with a "beaver-toothed wash woman"; his Granny was killed and eaten by the family's hogs.  Facially, Widow Case resembles a "shaved weasel," but the hair on her ankles is "thick and black enough to be mistaken for thin socks at a distance."  The widow's drooling, ant-eating, knuckle-dragging daughter, meanwhile, has been incongruously christened Cinderella.  Unabashed in its political incorrectness, Lansdale's narrative finds much of its comedy in Cinderella's imbecility.  Not realizing the TV has been turned off, the girl watches "the dark screen like the White Rabbit considering a plunge down the rabbit hole."  When Judd promptly baptizes her with drops of iced tea on head, "Cinderella held out her hand as if checking for rain."  It's hard not to laugh at such lines, and even more difficult not to feel guilty for doing so.

The truest grotesque here, though, is Preacher Judd himself.  Turns out, he was the one who raped and murdered his own sister on Halloween night all those years ago, leaving her lying with "her brains smashed out and her trick or treat bag turned inside out" (after discovering the body, naked beneath a white-sheet ghost costume, the local sheriff asserts that the girl was killed "by bizarre hands").  Judd's intentions for Cinderella are no less illicit, and his offer to take her trick-or-treating is a predator's lure.  Beware of strangers without any candy.

When Widow Case finally catches wise to the situation, the fight that ensues between her and Preacher Judd takes black humor to an almost slapstick level (e.g. Judd distracts the widow by holding up his left hand and wiggling "two fingers like mule ears," then floors her with a right cross).  But just as Judd's true colors come to light, so does the story's darker impulses.  "By Bizarre Hands" exacts a tonal shift similar to the one in "Night They Missed the Horror Show": Lansdale hooks readers with humor then gut-punches them with grim horror.  There's zero mirth to be found in the scene where Judd catches up with Cinderella (who ran off while he was fighting with her mother) and repeatedly brains her with a frying pan, the sound of the fatal bludgeoning like "hitting a thick, rubber bag full of mud."  In "Night They Missed," the author ultimately offers a critical commentary on ignorant racism; here in "Hands," he tackles the human evil that parades around in holy clothing.

Preacher Judd possesses all the deluded self-righteousness of the putatively religious.  As he drives away from the scene of his latest crimes at tale's end, he glances at the moon overhead and notes its resemblance to "a happy jack-o-lantern," which the Halloween lover takes as "a sign that he had done well."  Every last paragraph in this wickedly entertaining and disturbing narrative is an indication of how well Lansdale himself has done.  A signature piece, "By Bizarre Hands" is the work of an utterly masterful short story writer.

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