On the other hand, I do understand why the short stories of Joe R. Lansdale are considered such a big deal. In fact, I don't think I've read a bad one yet. I would count at least one of them, "Drive-in Date", to be among the best modern horror stories I've ever read. That one is really haunting, not so much in its nastiness and violence, but in its attitude. The tone, so horribly casual, is meticuously crafted, and the reader strains for some sort of nightmarish pay-off, but instead the characters just get in the car and drive home. It reminds me in some ways of Charles Willeford's masterful The Shark-Infested Custard.
And of course there are others: "Night They Missed the Horror Show", "The Fat Man and the Elephant", "By Bizarre Hands", "The Pit". Why is this man, who is at best a middle-of-the-road novelist (in my view, anyway), so skilled at the short story? If Lansdale were more of a traditional horror writer, I would say this was very sound evidence of the idea that horror fiction's natural medium is the short story, but not only is he not a traditional horror writer, he's only occasionally a horror writer at all (of the novels I've read by Lansdale, only The Nightrunners fully belongs to the horror genre). So that's not it. In any case, in the foreward to High Cotton, his best-of collection, Lansdale says:
...[S]ince I wanted to be a full-time freelance writer, I knew I had to eventually write novels. I almost regretted when the novels began to sell; my excuse to write short stories began to evaporate. By the early nineties I was writing fewer and fewer short stories. Some of the energy I had invested in them went into the novels, and into comic book and film scripts...
Short stories, and novellas, are still favorites of mine, but I have really learned to appreciate the novel. And since I get paind more for novels these days than I used to, it has allowed me to return a little more frequently to short stories...
...Now that I can get more [money] for my short stories, I also make more for the novels, so it's easy to see which one I give the time. Besides, I like doing novels as much as short stories now...
I don't know about you, but I don't believe that he likes writing novels more than short stories. He seems to be trying to convince himself that he does, but he's financially locked into writing novels, and that's what calls the shots. I don't even begrudge him this -- it's simply the attitude, an almost genetically-ingrained carry-over from the pulp era, of genre writers the world over. But the evidence is plain to me: Joe R. Lansdale is, by talent and inclination, a short story writer. The probelm is, he also has to provide for his family. I mean, for Chrissake, his novels are currently being published by Vintage/Black Lizard, which, if you don't know, is part of Random House. High Cotton was published by Golden Gryphon Press. And by the way, this is no knock against Golden Gryphon. Quite the opposite. They may not have Random House's money, but clearly they're the guys who care.
.So today, obviously, I read a couple of Lansdale stories. The first is called "By the Hair of the Head", and it is so rooted in the classic supernatural stories that one of the two characters is named Howard Machen. The other character is our unnamed narrator, a budding writer who has rented a room in Machen's lighthouse domicile so he can finish his first novel. Machen, on the other hand, is an old, beat-up guy, who used to work the lighthouse, but has since, along with the lighthouse itself, retired from duty. This mismatched pair get along fine, but initially don't talk a whole lot, until a habit forms between them of drinking brandy after dinner, which loosens Machen's tongue. Machen talks a lot about his past as a ventriloquist, and his involvement with an old magic act, as well as that act's beautiful female assistant, Marilyn. Marilyn, he says, was the real talent, but being a woman, and given the era, she had to turn the spotlight over to a man named McDonald, who was the one who actually did the tricks. The source of Marilyn's talent, it seems, was her interest in, and practice of, witchcraft.
Our narrator and Machen have several conversations about this subject, and each night the narrator believes he hears Machen speaking to what sounds like a child, a young girl, though at first he can't make out what they're saying. In the mornings, when asked about it, Machen claims that their talks have inspired him to unpack his old ventriloquist dummy, a girl dummy named Caroline, and practice. But subsequent conversations reveal a story about Marilyn giving birth to a baby girl, who passed away:
"What happened to the child?"
"She died. Some childhood disease."
"That's sad," I said, "a little girl gone and having only sipped at life."
"Gone? Oh, no. There's the soul, you know."
I wasn't much of a believer in the soul and I said so.
"Oh, but there is a soul. The body perishes but the soul lives on."
"I've seen no evidence of it."
"But I have," Machen said solemnly. "Marilyn was determined that the girl would live on, if not in her own form, than in another."
The conversations, between our narrator and Machen, and between Machen and the little girl, continue. Eventually, what Machen and the girl (the dummy?) are saying becomes easier to make out, and what the girl wants, she says, is to be free.
It's a classic ghost/witchcraft story, in short, and it's a good one. Solid, well-crafted and spooky. The setting of the lighthouse, while not thunderously original, is handled very well, adding just enough Gothic lighting and crashing waves to set a steady tone of unease, without Lansdale ever tipping his hand until he's ready to. It is, in other words, a professional, well-made story, which I mean as high praise.
The other story I read, "Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back", is something else again. One of Lansdale's most famous and re-printed stories, it is, at once, more interesting, more flawed, more ambitious, possibly less satisfying (still not sure on that one), and better written. Partly inspired, Lansdale says, by The Day of the Triffids, "Tight Little Stitches..." is about a nuclear holocaust as seen through the eyes of one of the men who has brought it about, a nuclear scientist named Paul Marder. Ostensibly, the story is told through Marder's journal, though Lansdale shows little interest in maintaining any kind of verisimilitude with this conceit. There is no "Day One", "Day Two" separation, but rather one long, essentially unbroken narrative which Marder simply says is being written in his journal (which he also occasionally, and unfortunately, refers to as "Mr. Journal").
So one morning, Marder is getting ready for work, and he accidentally walks in on his 18 year-old daughter, Rae, as she's coming out of the shower. This will be the last memory he has of his daughter, and while he claims there's nothing sexual in this, liebestod is all over this story. Later, Marder is driven to work by his wife, Mary, where he's greeted by his co-workers with frothing panic and the announcement that "the missiles are flying". Marder, his wife, and 1100 of his colleagues immediately escape into the underground bunker set up for just such an occasion, leaving Rae above-ground to perish, alone.
Life in the bunker is not ideal. Here's how Lansdale describes it:
Before long, suicides were epidemic. I considered it myself from time to time. People slashed their throats, drank acid, took pills. It was not unusual to come out of your cubicle in the morning and find people dangling from pipes and rafters like ripe fruit.
There were also the murders. Most of them performed by a crazed group who lived in the deeper recesses of the unit and called themselves the Shit Faces. From time to time they smeared dung on themselves and ran amok, clubbing men, women, and children born down under, to death. It was rumored they ate human flesh.
If I didn't know for a fact that I'm the same guy who wrote the opening paragraphs of this post, about Lansdale's weaknesses as a novelist, I'd say that I'd like to read a novel about life in that bunker.
Paul's wife, Mary, was something of an artist in her earlier life, and underground she takes it up again, as a tattooist. A lot of people want to avail themselves of her skills, but her husband holds out, until he has a sex-death dream about his daughter. He goes to Mary -- who now hates him, and blames him for their daughter's death -- and asks her to tattoo an image of Rae caught in a mushroom cloud on his back. Mary agrees, because at least it will cause him pain.
I feel like Mary is supposed to be the audience stand-in, the one who expresses our outrage over nuclear proliferation and whatnot, but I have to say: You married him, sister. What, did you think he was a milkman? Further, that tattoo is maybe a bit too much, symbolically speaking. That's a recurring problem in the story, in fact, and I believe that Lansdale took the seriousness of his story a little too seriously, if you get me. I think symbolism is generally a mug's game anyway, at least easily decoded symbolism is, and Lansdale would have been better off pulling way back. I would say he should have pulled all the way back, but given the story's title, that tattoo was finding it's way in, come hell or high water.
Eventually, a small group of survivors, including Marder and his wife, venture above ground to see what's become of the world twenty years after the bomb landed. What they find is blasted planet, free of all humanity and populated with lumbering, mutated wildlife. There is some wonderfully surreal imagery in these passages, describing blackened ocean floors and hideous, slithering whales. There's also a new type of flower, and it is here that I'll ask you to remember that Lansdale was inspired by The Day of the Triffids.
"Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back" is certainly an overwrought story, but in a way that manages to highlight Lansdale's talent. He means it, and he can write it. If he betrays a flaw here, it's that he maybe needs to realize that he doesn't need to write it all. As flaws go, that's an excusable one. In Lansdale's case, what may end up being a less excusable flaw is letting his novels dry up his short fiction completely. Which reminds me that The Nightrunners, his horror novel about which I expressed such disappointment earlier, began its life as a short story, called "The God of the Razor". I haven't read it, because I figured doing so would be redundant at this point. But now I'm not so sure.