Monday, August 10, 2020

The Best of Joe R Lansdale

 Joe R. Lansdale is decidedly not for everyone. His is a unique vision; equal parts redneck anti-racism, extreme horror/splatterpunk, deliberate provocation, tall tale humor, and rural noir. Sometimes supernatural, often not. I first heard of him after seeing that he wrote the novella, collected here, from which the movie Bubba Ho-Tep was faithfully adapted. If you’ve seen that movie, it’s tone will tell you pretty quickly whether you will like any of his work. I’ve previously read the first two novels in his Hap and Leonard rural noir mystery series and his western novel Paradise Sky. I enjoyed them, but I think something with Lansdale’s work clicked into place here. There are stories here that I love and stories that are too much for me. 

Racism is as much the core horror here as the zombies and other monsters. Like Flannery O’Connor, he is very free with the use of epithets, but unlike her, he is very much on the record as anti-racist. Still I wouldn’t begrudge anyone being put off by that. His racist characters talk like racists and I’d get it if someone didn’t want to read that. Likewise the ugly chauvinism of some characters. Or the extreme gore which often sits uncomfortably side by side with sex. He is a provocateur, but he is also trying to paint an honest picture of the horrors of the world and he understands the sources of that horror. How well that plays will vary from reader to reader and story to story. At any rate, a heavy content warning applies to nearly all of these.

The stories that really worked best for me are:

Godzilla’s Twelve Step Program- In which a giant lizard struggles to break his habits of rampaging. Hilarious and bloody.

Bubba Ho-Tep- An aging man claiming to be Elvis is in a nursing home with a black man who claims to be JFK. They must fight a supernatural mummy who dresses like a cowboy. It gets weirder from there. The movie is incredibly faithful to the story. This is so out there that it really works.

Mad Dog Summer- I confess to skipping the second half of this after realizing it was later expanded into the Edgar award winning novel The Bottoms, which I plan to read soon. I didn’t want spoilers, but reading the first half ensured that the novel moves further up in the queue.

The Big Blow- A masterful slow build of tension in Galveston Texas as the great hurricane of 1900 approaches. The boxer Jack Johnson fights a racist brought into town to kill him for his skill by the rich folks who run underground fights. This is one in which his approach to anti-racism works very well for me, more so than a couple of the others. Also one that I wouldn’t begrudge someone finding off putting on several levels.

Incident On and Off a Country Road- This is one of the most disturbing and satisfying extreme horror stories I’ve read. I didn’t see the ending coming, but it was there the whole time. Gruesome.

Not From Detroit- Death visits Detroit.

Fish Night- the best story of the bunch for me. A couple of can-opener salesmen get stranded in the desert and then something amazing happens.

There are stories that for one reason or another didn’t work quite as well for me. Too extreme on one vector or another, or they just didn’t click. Still in my ranking system I would put the collection at Highly Recommended with the heaviest of content warnings and the understanding that it will not work for a lot of people. It definitely makes me want to revisit the Hap and Leonard books I’ve read or at least push on and read some more now that I’ve got a better grasp of what he’s about. I’m a little less likely to track down the early splatterpunk books, but I will definitely be reading more of him.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 58/75

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