Selected Stories of Joe R. Lansdale
Golden Gryphon Press, 2000
Joe R. Lansdale is one of the greats. There aren’t many folks who have ten Stokers, and his haul includes a lifetime achievement award. ‘Nuf said.
What makes Lansdale’s work special to me, though, is that he loves to write short stories. Oh, he writes novels, too, of course. Lots of them, and damn good ones. But as he makes clear in his foreword to this 2000 collection, the short story form is a favorite of his. And when I read a collection like High Cotton, I can really feel the love. No matter how dark and disturbing the material gets (and it gets plenty dark), the dominant vibe for me is that here’s a guy doing what he loves to do. The result is a book that ought to be on everyone’s reading list, even twenty years after its initial appearance.
The range of material here is impressive, and it presents a strong selection of the kind of work that made Lansdale famous. For horror fans, the stories that will probably jump out first are tense, violent, haunting ones—stories like “The Steel Valentine” and “Incident on and off a Mountain Road” and the unforgettable “Night They Missed the Horror Show.” This is Lansdale at his unnerving best. Each story presents believable characters who find themselves in the middle of class-A clusterfucks after their lives take some frightfully quick turns. The road out, if there is one, usually leads through some serious brutality and bloodshed. Lansdale goes full-throttle on these, and the results are memorably gut-wrenching and horrific.
Beyond that, the collection contains a wonderful variety of work. There’s the strangely sweet and evocative encounter with death that goes by the title of “Not from Detroit.” And there’s the fascinating alternative history “Trains not Taken,” which packs a lot of world-building into a tight space. Then there are deliciously weird, funny yarns like “Mr. Weed Eater” and “Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland” that don’t fit into any particular category but are unmistakably Lansdale.
It’s been a long time since I last read High Cotton. Turning it over again this time, a couple of the other stories really jumped out at me in different ways. I remembered the disturbing, hungry flower creatures in “Tight Little Stitches on a Dead Man’s Back,” but the paralyzing sense of guilt and pain the permeates the story really struck home this time (probably because I’ve raised a child of my own since the last time I read it). And “Steppin’ Out, Summer, ‘68” was simply a hell of a lot funnier than I remembered. I’m sometimes standoffish about mixing horror and comedy, but Lansdale just reminded me that if you do it right it works well. That’s the fun thing about taking time to re-read an old favorite: when the stories are this good, they show you something new each time around.