[unnecessarily self-indulgent joke about the practice of spoiler warnings intended to somehow stave off the necessity of simply relinquishing to the practice of a vanilla spoiler warning, a simple, plain, unflourished spoiler warning that would be functional but that would, from an aesthetic standpoint, not be dissimilar to the submission to death]
JOE R. LANSDALE
I don’t know much about Joe R. Lansdale, but I know that he oozes the culture of Texas. Maybe not a real, genuine Texas that could be seen and felt—I’ve never been there and couldn’t say—but definitely the Texas of the films, the Texas of sweat and work and racism and Chainsaw Massacres. The Texas of the Drive-In, and the Drive-In is where Lansdale belongs. If Joe Bob Briggs was the voice of the Drive-In, I think Lansdale must have been its poet, capturing in words perfectly the atmosphere that unfortunately I only witness from a different time and place.
I picked up this collection, By Bizarre Hands, not knowing much about Lansdale apart from the fact that he’s been assigned to the same group of eighties writers that Poppy Z. Brite and Clive Barker are also said to be members of, the ‘splatterpunk’ movement. If reading this collection has given me a better grasp of that movement, it’s to say that I think we can see there a group of horror writers who are intimately familiar with horror cinema of the time, ‘trashy’ films like Slumber Party Massacre and Return of the Living Dead, and they have transcribed that trash aesthetic into words. Looking back, I think we can identify then as antecedents not only Stephen King but Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch. Splatterpunk also seems to me to be the moment when horror shook off its gothic heritage to incorporate influences like William S. Burroughs and Henry Miller and Baudelaire, fully acknowledging the crossbreeding of crime noir and the western and science fiction in the pages of pulp. And Lansdale’s pulp sensibilities borrow effortlessly from other discursive traditions. While there are only a couple stories (“The Fat Man and the Elephant” and “Trains Not Taken”) that I don’t feel comfortable calling horror, there is only one (“Down by the Sea Near the Great Big Rock”) that seems to really be a ‘purebred’ horror story in the same sense as M.R. James or most Stephen King.
Now if you can’t tell already, I like Lansdale a lot. His first story grabbed me with a great concept and quick delivery, and while I was less impressed with a lot of the second half of the collection, the evil grin never faded from my face the whole time I was reading. Lansdale is great at describing action so that it becomes about visceral bodies in pain, rather than the sort of sensationalism you get from R.E. Howard, and many of the strongest stories in this collection rested in that unpleasant place where crime noir intersects with horror: stories about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things. Lansdale writes about a lot of unpleasant people, and he doesn’t shy away from showing their vulgarity, sexism, and racism. However, it never feels exploitive: rather, this seems closer to muckraking journalism, revealing the darkness that is already there so that the reader may judge it for themselves. At the heart of Lansdale’s writing seems to be a preoccupation with masculinity. Most of his stories are about the ways that masculinity can go wrong, that it can hurt you or make you hurt other people, or at least ignore the pain of others. This is another reason that Texas, long one of America’s cultural icons of undo machismo (again, I have no idea if the actual place is anything like this), works perfectly as the target of his examination.
Since his stories have such variance, and I’ve already clearly recommended them, I want to be a little slim on this segment of the review this time, and just show you one of his quick little looks at the cult of masculinity.
The story begins with three hunters and three dogs in the field. One of the hunters, Freddie Clover, is a fifteen-year-old excited to be asked to the first hunt. “However, Freddie did not really want to see a duck, let alone shoot one. He had never killed anything but a sparrow with his BB gun and that had made him sick. But he was nine then. Now he was ready to be a man. His father had told him so.” Right in the first two paragraphs we have the whole set-up: traditional male bonding, father-to-son, rite of passage, etc. “In Mud Creek the hunt made the man.”
Manhood is defined by killing—notably not by any acts of courage, personal accomplishment, etc. It’s the participation in the act of the kill that matters. We get the attributes of a man that Freddie looks forward to: a man “talked deep, walked sure, had whiskers bristling on his chin and could take up with the assurance of not being laughed at, cussing, smoking and watching women’s butts as a matter of course.” Lansdale’s examination of masculinity is always of something that needs to subject women to exist. It would be a horrible reiteration of sexist paradigms if the text didn’t so clearly mock those paradigms.
We learn that before the hunt, Freddie was the typical nerd, complete with pimples and THOR comics (note that the comic Freddie reads is specifically an aspirational model of manhood). Then, back in the hunt, Freddie sees a duck and prepares to shoot, but his father stops him.
“‘Huh?’ said Freddie.
‘It’s not the ducks that do it,’ Clyde said.”
Then through the underbrush they reach a clearing. “In the center of the clearing was a gigantic duck decoy. … The back of it was scooped out, gravy-bowl-like, and there was a pole in the center of the indention; tied to the pole was a skinny man. … There was a ridiculous, wooden duck bill held to his head by thick elastic straps. Stuck to his butt was a duster of duck feathers. There was a sign around his neck that read DUCK.”
Despite the man’s efforts to scream, Freddie’s father says, “He ain’t nobody to anybody we know. Be a man.” With a little more encouragement and harassment, Freddie fires and kills the man. Shortly after, they shoot at the ducks that gather and walk back. On the way back, the boy is referred to as Fred, his father “clapped him manfully on the back” and they laugh together.
“As the men walked away from there, talking deep, walking sure, whiskers bristling on all their chins, they promised that tonight they would get Fred a woman.”
This story is short—four pages in paperback—and has not a word to spare as Lansdale clearly shows us a version of masculinity that is predicated on domination of others. The tribalism of Clyde saying “He ain’t nobody to anybody we know” is a common refrain in horror film and literature concerned with the backwoods, but unlike the usual film version where we see through the eyes of a victim, usually liberal and urban in origin, all we get here is the ‘backwoods’ perspective. (I’m reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, which, incidentally, is a book that any fan of movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes should read.) When Lansdale does give us a victim protagonist, he’s rarely much further than the villains from the realm of violent masculinity, or is doomed to death, or both. There is no redemptive reclamation of the phallus here; invariably might makes victory, and right doesn’t enter into the equation. I appreciate the candor of this approach, the willingness to show what is more unpleasant, because it identifies the problem as not being about power—Jamie Lee Curtis’ ability to physically overpower Michael Myers, or stab him with a knife at least—as about ethics. We can see that just because a party is victorious does not mean they earned their victory.
Final verdict? Well, this was definitely my favorite reading so far. The only drawback is Lansdale’s purple prose which is sometimes overused, and the painfully naive approach to alternate history and nuclear apocalypse in a few stories—something, however, that fits nicely with the drive-in aesthetic. I give “Duck Hunt” a 9/10, and overall a big recommendation on the collection. It’s a little gory, and there’s very heavy usage of racial slurs, but if you can get past that you’ll find a unique and vital voice of contemporary horror. I will definitely be reading more Lansdale in the future.
Next week, we get to see horror as classic American literature: it’s Ambrose Bierce!
[No, my fingers aren’t that greasy, it’s just a very smooth finish cover.]
All quotations from By Bizarre Hands, copyright Joe R. Lansdale 1989.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.