Tag Archives: Joe R. Lansdale

By Bizarre Hands

If you’re looking for tales of unflinching tension, grisly violence, and/or deeply disturbing horror, all told in a mesmerizing voice, then you need to pick up a copy of Joe R. Lansdale’s first short story collection, By Bizarre Hands. Originally published in 1989 by Avon, most of the sixteen stories in this collection were previously published in various anthologies and magazines, although two of them are exclusive to this book. That same year, it would go on to be nominated for a Stoker for Best Fiction Collection.

There are a number of nasty, gritty tales contained in these pages. “The Pit” and “The Steel Valentine” contain suspense and violence that swiftly escalates into action-packed finales that, upon finishing them, you’d think you’d just read novels. The title story, along with “Boys Will Be Boys” (later absorbed into Lansdale’s 1987 novel The Nightrunners) and “I Tell You It’s Love,” spend so much intimate time in the depraved minds of their deeply disturbed characters that you need to give your soul a shower afterwards. And “Night They Missed the Horror Show,” a 1988 winner for the since-discontinued Stoker Award for Best Short Fiction category, is such an unrelentingly grim story that it might just obliterate one’s faith in humanity.

Not all of these stories are dark reflections of twisted souls. A pioneer in the bizarro subgenre, Lansdale pens a few tales here that furrow the brow and raise the WTF? meter to the max. “Fish Night” is every bit as mythical in feeling as the tale that one of its characters tells. “The Fat Man and the Elephant” is a straight-faced story of a man seeking a sort of god in the confines of a dying elephant’s stench. And “Tight Little Stitches In a Dead Man’s Back,” besides arguably having one of the best short story titles EVER, is a disturbing recollection of the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse and the journey that a couple take as they mourn the loss of their daughter. If I said any more, I would be spoiling it. Just make sure you have memory bleach ready, because you won’t be able to un-see some of this tale’s squirm-inducing images.

Also worth noting are two period pieces. “The Windstorm Passes” is a Dustbowl-era tale that is a spiritual precursor to his 2000 novel, The Bottoms (reviewed here). And “Trains Not Taken” is perhaps the most unusual story in the whole collection, being a bittersweet alternate history tale of unhappy love and unfulfilled dreams set against the backdrop of a Japanese-colonized Wild West.

Landsale’s particularly American prose is less of a product of his background than it is a key element of his style. It’s often quick, to-the-point and on-the-nose storytelling, yet he knows how to incorporate and build suspense. He doesn’t ever shy from describing anything grim or nasty; he doesn’t just “go there” in his stories—he’s practically built his home “there.”

Although the printed editions of this book are long discontinued, they’re fortunately not too hard to find; and, for those so inclined, By Bizarre Hands is also available as an e-book. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy now—and just know that after you read its dark tales, you will never be the same.

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There Was Darkness In My Youth: A Duality Review

Growing up, I remember darkness. All right, that’s a lie; I actually had a pretty awesome childhood, with a few truly bad parts before high school. But having read two novels back-to-back recently in which their respective narrators recall coming of age through eerie and mysterious times, I sure feel like I’ve just emerged from a dark past. These novels were Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms and John Mantooth’s The Year of the Storm.

In The Bottoms, Harry Crane is recalling his childhood in Depression-era Texas. Now a retired old man, he views the twilight of his life with bitter acceptance and has come to value his youth with a humble nostalgia—even as he describes the twisted events of his adolescence in the 1930’s Texas countryside. Women were being gruesomely murdered, and he and his younger sister Tom (Thomasina) caught glimpses of an eerie entity known as the Goat Man in the woods nearby.

In The Year of the Storm, Danny recalls being fourteen when a major storm hit rural Alabama, during which his mother and autistic sister vanished. Almost a year later, a strange man named Walter Pike shows up, who claims to know where they’ve gone. The narrative is split with Walter as he recalls his teen encounters and a strange, bullied boy named Seth Sykes and the mysterious secrets that Seth harbored.

Both novels nicely explore the idea of discovering magic in the mundane, as well as the presence of magic as opposed to the mundane—and how sometimes, it really doesn’t matter one way or another of just what was “really” going on. What matters is that these character did go through their respective adventures and what they took from it all—a sense of finding themselves in the midst of the wild (and at times terrifying) events.

There was so much more than creeping menace and bewildering mystery that got to me in these novels. Lansdale and Mantooth nicely captured the heartbreaking sense of the relative if fragile innocence of childhood and how abruptly and unfairly it can be wrested away by forces and events beyond one’s control. And I’m not just talking about the narrator’s own journeys—I’m talking about nine-year-old Tom having to witness everything from racism and abuse to grisly murder, and teenaged Seth Sykes getting vilified by the ugliness of homophobia and bullying. There is a lot of darkness to be found in these tales, and not nearly all of it stems from the supernatural.

Comparisons of these books are often made to other novels and stories, from Stephen King’s novella The Body (and its 1986 film adaptation, Stand By Me) and Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life, and on up through recent titles such as Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter—but to me, that’s part of the charm of tales such as these. Everybody starts out somewhere; everybody has an innocent adolescence that hardens and thickens into maturity. Many an author (and director, and musician, and other artist) has to capture that sense of coming into her or his own. It’s a time-honored tradition for a person to recall darkness in her or his youth, and in tales such as these, it can be argued that that darkness can be the catalyst to one’s maturity.

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Hot in December

A thriller is supposed to thrill. It’s supposed to keep you flipping those pages. Make you ask, “What’s going to happen next?” Joe R. Landsdale’s Hot in December does all that. In spades. At 100 pages, the novella moves like a speeding bullet through the warm East Texas night.

Tom Chan has a dilemma. He’s witnessed a fatal hit-and-run and he wants to testify against the scum who turned his next-door neighbor into roadkill. Problem is, the driver’s a vindictive gangster who doesn’t believe in due process. Nonetheless, Tom doesn’t back down. But he’s not going to trust the cops to save his bacon. So he enlists two old war buddies, Cason and Booger—the type of ass-kicking, whacked-out characters readers have come to expect in a Lansdale story—to help him deal with the lowlife and his goons. What ensues is a tension-filled battle of wits and brawn leading to a bloody showdown between the good guys and the bad guys.

Hot in December has all the ingredients of a great Joe Lansdale story: break-neck plotting; honest, raw dialogue; colorful characters; and those amazing metaphors that only Joe can whip up. The story dovetails nicely with his Hap and Leonard stories (in fact the duo even gets a mention) and is sure to please any fans of that series as well as any fans of honest-to-goodness thrillers.

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Back Roads & Frontal Lobes

Nothing thrills me more than discovering new authors. New to me, to be precise.

Brady Allen intrigues me with his unapologetic attitude and willingness to stand tall and stalwart while brandishing his opinions with honest intellect. This is a trait one sees very little these days, when it is all too fashionable to lay with the herd and suckle at the teat of popular opinion. This made me wonder about his literary output, so I reached out and got a copy of his collection.

Back Roads & Frontal Lobes is as amazing a collection as it is puzzling. Not a single tale here is what it appears to be. Most flirt with horror but are more about the human condition and attitudes of characters. There are shades of noir and bizarro, but the stories are most often darkly surreal and more terrifyingly realistic than should be allowed. This collection is a unique stampede of unease, stamping and snorting discomfort. I mean that complimentary, of course.

Opening with “Slow Mary,” Allen gives us a strange tale of road kill and revenge. But it was actually the second tale, “Not Over Easy,” that won my dark heart. That story follows its bizarre protagonist through a series of troubling and odd scenarios to a conclusion that is just as puzzling as the opening. “Devil and Dairy Cow” is a hallucinatory tale of a girl, a teacher, and a rainy recess where the shit hit the diabolical fan.

In the title story, a man on the lam makes a stop in Death City and finds he likes it. “The Last Mystical Vendor” has exactly what you need even if everything you know tells you otherwise. And in “The Taste of a Heart,” a motel room is the stage for an exceedingly sinister game between a man and a woman.

“Six Miles to Earth” is a highway roadshow; Tarantino by way of Russ Meyer. “Burger” is a nasty side-road monster mash. “Ballad of Mac Johnstone” concerns the courtship between an aging bluesman and death. “Road Kill (A Love Story)” brings us to a man who feels compelled to remove dead animals from the roadside and the chain of unfortunate events that come about because of it. And “Praying” exposes the insectile ways we have.

Of all of the stories, however, “Rounding Third” was the one that smacked me in the face and then continued to do so. A tragic and all-too-real slice of reality. If it doesn’t make you cry—God help you.

If early Joe R. Lansdale left you gobsmacked, then you MUST read this cat! Allen is versatile and fearless. He doesn’t give much of a damn if you get what he’s doing or not. He’s writing to get it out and if it happens to bring enjoyment to someone, cool. If not, oh well, he’s doing it anyway. And I’m glad for that!

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Come Together

Image created by Guy FrancisWe are all aware of the publishing sea change that has been occurring over the past several years. Through e-books and POD publishing, authors have been bypassing the traditional publishing houses in droves, even when the traditional publishers were willing to put their books out.

The logic is irrefutable. A self published book allows an author to make more money on less books sold while retaining all of the creative control. Provided the numbers are good (that puts the burden on the author to promote and distribute their own books, no easy task), why wouldn’t you go this route? It only makes sense, especially when book readers are abandoning the brick and mortar stores for the Internet. It’s leveled the playing field considerably.

The days of big-name writers looking down their collective noses at so-called “vanity presses” is essentially over. Those authors are self-publishing as well, if only to keep formerly out of print works available to their fans.

While this revolution is undoubtedly a good thing in many ways, it has its downside, most notably the lack of quality. When anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can publish their own books, the inevitable result is a market glutted with thousands of titles that are not worth reading at all. Poor layout, poor artwork, and just plain poor writing is abundant.

Like them or not, the traditional print publishers all had standards, whether low or high, and all of them used editors. Very few authors, no matter how talented, can put out a really good book in the absence of a good editor, a fact which almost every published author will attest to.

It’s even difficult to put complete faith in online reviews anymore, as the recent Todd Rutherford scandal illustrated. How do you know that those glowing five-star reviews were not bought, either in cash or in the nefarious review-trading parasitism that is all too common in the small press? I’ve read bad books that have a string of great reviews, and I’ll bet you have too. So how do we sort through the massive amounts of bad books and find the good ones?


The book you’re looking for is right THERE!

One possible solution is author collectives. These are loose organizations of authors and publishers who are all about maintaining standards of quality, not helping out friends. Ideally, if a book isn’t good, it doesn’t get the recommendation of the collective. Of course “good” is still a subjective term. That aforementioned parasitism can infect a collective as surely as an individual review. I’m wary of any organization where all that is required to get in is to pay a fee.

Even if you find a reliable collective, there is no guarantee that you will like all of the books it recommends, but it still sounds like a far more reliable method for choosing your next beach read than random chance or counting five star reviews.

But big-name writers are getting in on these. I was first made aware of this phenomenon through Killer Thrillers, an author collective that includes David Morrell, one of my all time favorite authors (and a fellow New Mexican). If you haven’t read him, you should. And although I’m not well read in the thriller genre, if Morrell recommends them, I can too.

Awesome Indies is another site I ran across that looks interesting, although I’m not familiar with any of the authors listed. It’s arranged by category, which is convenient, but sadly there is only one horror book listed. I checked out the preview of it, and while we haven’t stumbled upon a new Joe R. Lansdale, it’s pretty good. I’ve certainly read far worse.

I searched around some, but could not find a collective that is specifically horror oriented. If anyone knows of one, please point it out. If one does not exist, perhaps it’s time to start one, but I’m only interested if it’s going to reward good writing. We don’t need another parasitic clique of the sort that the small press is infamous for.

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Psychos and the Appalachian Undead

Some staff news, ya’ll! Cue banjo!

This coming October, if not sooner, Apex Publications is set to release Appalachian Undead, a new anthology dedicated to the walking dead. I contributed a quirky tale called “Long Days to Come.”


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The brilliant artwork was created by Cortney Skinner. Quite a lineup, too: Elizabeth Massie, Jonathan Maberry, Tim Waggoner, S. Clayton Rhodes*, Maurice Broaddus, Bev Vincent, Tim Lebbon, Steve Rasnic Tem, John Skipp* & Dori Miller, and Gary A. Braunbeck, to name a few more than a few.

If you’d like to check out the full table of contents, click here.

You can also pre-order via the above link (and get 5% off if you tweet the link), but before you do, check out this groovy contest they’re running for those who do pre-order.

As always from Apex Publications, you can expect quality.

Not to be outdone, Mercedes and John each have stories—“Murder for Beginners” and “Intruder,” respectively—in Psychos: Serial Killers, Depraved Madmen, and the Criminally Insane, the latest slab—and I do mean slab; these things are massive—in an ongoing series edited by the inimitable John Skipp which has thus far included Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead, Werewolves and Shapeshifters: Encounters with the Beasts Within, and Demons: Encounters with the Devil and His Minions, Fallen Angels, and the Possessed.


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Psychos is due out in September via Black Dog & Leventhal, and features new and classic fiction from the likes of Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Jack Ketchum, Joe R. Lansdale, Lawerence Block, Neil Gaiman, Leslianne Wilder*, Violet LeVoit, Weston Ochse*, Kathe Koja, and many more.

If you order now, Amazon has it for $10.07. That’s 608 pages for $10! No-brainer.

We hope you’ll buy both!

* Shock Totem alumni.

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