December 19, 2010

THE SHADOWS, KITH AND KIN

by Joe R. Lansdale
283 pages, Subterranean Press

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

In a previous review I looked at “Dead in the West”, an early novel by Texan author Joe R. Lansdale. Though a bit rough around the edges, Lansdale’s tale of a zombie outbreak in the Old West is one of my personal favourite books and it was for this reason that I picked up a copy of this 2007 collection of short stories. “The Shadows, Kith and Kin” collects eight of Lansdale’s short stories, two of which feature the Reverend Jebidiah Rains, the gun-toting, God-hating preacher of the aforementioned novel. The broad variety of stories on offer in this collection is testament to Lansdale’s skill as a writer. Each one display’s the writer’s customary pitch black humour and razor-sharp dialogue that makes other writers seem anaemic in comparison.

The titular story is an eerie look into the twisted mind of a gunman planning a massacre much like the one at The University of Texas in 1966. The central character communes with dark spirits in the form of shadows and the short, clipped prose helps to reinforce how batshit crazy he is.

“The Long Dead Day” is the shortest story of the collection but also the one with the most emotional force behind it. Set in a world overrun by zombies, the narrator gives a heartrending account of how his wife and daughter meet a grisly end. “Alone” is a collaboration with Melissa Mia Hall and is a more traditional science fiction tale that emphasises the importance of love and companionship, even in a world turned upside-down by catastrophic events.

By far the oddest tale in the collection is “Bill, the Little Steam Shovel”. Clearly influenced by children’s stories of anthropomorphic machinery, it is the story of an earnest, horny young digger who dreams of tearing down forests and sticking his dipstick into the tailpipe of a beautiful girl digger called Maudie. Troubled by disturbing dreams, Bill receives rudimentary psychotherapy from another steam shovel only to discover that his subconscious mind is actually recalling events from his past life as a waffle iron. All this is made even stranger by lashings of toilet humour, bad language and illustrations that make you feel as though you’ve picked up the most inappropriate children’s story ever written.

“Deadman’s Road” and “Gentleman’s Hotel” are the two atmospheric stories featuring the gunslinging Reverend Rains and make great reading for those familiar with the character. Action packed, absurdly violent and full of ridiculous similes (who else but Lansdale could describe the moonlight as “weak as a sick baby’s grip”?!), the stories are pure visceral entertainment akin to a comic book or a B-movie.

“White Mule, Spotted Pig” is an earthy, grubby tale set at the turn of the twentieth century. A pair of rednecks resolve to enter a mule race in order to win the cash prize and improve their lot in life. The only problem being the fact that their racing mule has recently met an untimely death in a lightning storm. Undeterred, the due decide to trap the legendary wild white mule of the local woods and its spotted pig friend. The longest story in the collection, “White Mule, Spotted Pig” is also the funniest though readers with a refined sense of humour may find it a little coarse in places.

The highlight of the collection is “The Events Concerning a Nude Fold-Out Found in a Harlequin Romance”. Closest in both tone and content to one of Lansdale’s Hap Collins and Leonard Pine novels the story is a leftfield detective tale narrated by a down on his luck divorcee named Plebin Cook. Plebin is a likeable loser who gives Lansdale the opportunity to show that he’s not only got a great ear for dialogue but also a keen eye for the minute observations that help characterisation. Accompanied by his teenage daughter and his monstrously ugly and foul-mouthed boss, Plebin finds himself investigating a possible serial killer with a taste for trashy romance novels.

I really can't praise this collection of stories enough. Lansdale is one of those writers who can bring his personal stamp to whatever genre he chooses to tackle. The term “cult novelist” is frequently bandied about, normally at writers whose work is so oblique or inaccessible that relatively few readers can make sense of it. Lansdale is the real deal. Too crude to enjoy mainstream success, he has a dedicated following nonetheless. Though he touches on familiar topics, Lansdale's writing is indelibly marked with his unmistakeable tone that brings the stories – kicking, spitting and screaming – to life.

Hereward L. M. Proops

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