Review: ‘Black Hat Jack’ by Joe R. Lansdale

Black_Hat_Jack_by_Joe_R_Lansdale_Limited_Edition_CoverAmerica’s frontier days were a ripe time for the art and tradition of storytelling. As people began to push the boundaries further west they discovered a great many new things to see and people to meet. In the absence of things like iPhones, digital cameras and the Internet, word-of-mouth ruled the day as a means of communicating what was happening in the west to the rest of the nation. There were also newspapers and dime novels, but nothing traveled quite as far and as fast as the spoken word.

More often than not, these accounts were shaped to varying degrees by the teller of the tale. Said storyteller might have been at the event in question, for example, but perhaps sought to beef up his role in what transpired. Or maybe he wasn’t there, but liked the idea of having people think he was. Out of such distortions many of our Western myths and legends were born, and many of those exaggerations live good lives as “the truth” to this day.

The idea of tall tales living on as accepted truth is something Joe Lansdale is well aware of, and he touches on it often in his new novella from Subterranean Press, Black Hat Jack. It’s the story of the famous “Second Battle of Adobe Walls,” in which a group of buffalo hunters were beset by hundreds of angry Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa warriors. Lansdale tells us in his “Author’s Note” that the battle really did take place, as did many of the individual acts that he relates in the book. But he also admits that he has embellished the story in much the same way many of the battle’s participants likely did themselves in the years that followed the actual event.

The book is named after a man known as Black Hat Jack, and he plays a prominent role in what transpires, but it’s narrated by Nat Love, a character based on a real African-American cowboy. Lansdale’s Nat has earned the nickname “Deadwood Dick,” a name that was first used as a character name in a series of actual dime novels published in the late 1800s and later adopted by several men, including the real Nat Love. Lansdale’s Nat asserts that he’s writing down his “real version” of events as a means of correcting misinformation perpetuated in the dime novels of his day, but freely admits that stretching the truth is a tradition among frontiersmen like himself.

That’s just one example of the way Lansdale gleefully twists truth and legend together, simultaneously commenting on, and participating in, the practice of myth making. While it’s fun to try and see where those lines blur in hindsight, you’ll be too busy reveling in Lansdale’s gifts as a storyteller to think on it too much while you’re reading the book. The battle itself is a breathless mix of action, tension and Lansdale’s trademark brand of humor. That section is followed by a bittersweet coda that illustrates the author’s remarkable range, a sadly matter-of-fact reminder that not all heroes get a hero’s reward.

In addition to the fact that Black Hat Jack will be shipping any day now from Subterranean Press, there’s more good news: this is not the first time Lansdale has written about Nat Love. You can find two stories featuring “Deadwood Dick” (“Soldierin'” and “Hide and Horns”) in his massive short story collection Bleeding Shadows. Even better news: he’s reportedly working on, or recently completed, a novel featuring the character. So, if you like Black Hat Jack, there’s more to look forward to.

In the meantime we have Black Hat Jack, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the Western genre or not – this is a story made for lovers of good storytelling. With each and every new release, Lansdale cements his legacy as a master craftsman…and that, my friends, is no exaggeration.

Review: ‘Brainquake’ by Samuel Fuller

BQBeing a bagman for an organized crime outfit would require, one would assume, nerves of steel. When you’re delivering money for the mob, you don’t want to be late, you don’t want to be light, and you damn sure don’t want to drop a package off at the wrong address. So, you may not have to be the smartest guy to be the bagman, but you want to be reliable, quick on your feet, and steady under pressure.

Paul is all of those things, except when he isn’t. Sometimes Paul has attacks – he calls them brainquakes – during which everything in his field of vision turns pink. During these attacks hallucinations mix with reality, but Paul can’t tell which is which. His reactions are swift and sometimes violent. It would be a tough situation for anyone to deal with, but it’s especially brutal for Paul, who is surrounded by the kind of people looking for any kind of weakness they can exploit.

In Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake (out this month from Hard Case Crime and Titan Books), Paul finds himself at the center of a converging group of intriguing characters, each with his or her own agenda. All of the ingredients for an engaging piece of crime fiction are present: a recently widowed mob wife; ten million dollars of missing mob money; a sadistic hitman who poses as a priest and crucifies his victims; a driven, determined police detective; and a mentally distressed bagman with strong moral center. Fuller expertly winds these threads around and around one another until the tension becomes nearly unbearable.

The novel moves at a fast clip. The emphasis is more on plot than on character, but Fuller manages to flesh out each of the main players to varying degrees. There are several standout scenes in the book – one involving a bomb in a baby carriage comes to mind, as well as another dealing with some urgent battlefield-type surgery while trying to extract some important information from a witness. Fuller’s storytelling style is lean and uncluttered, and his pacing is rapid without feeling rushed.

The author is best known as a film director, with titles like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss and The Big Red One to his credit. He also wrote a number of novels, with Brainquake being the last one. It’s been something of a “lost novel” for Fuller fans – he published it during a self-imposed exile in France, where he retreated after a dispute over one of his films, and before now it wasn’t available in English. Kudos to Hard Case Crime‘s Charles Ardai for once again going to great lengths to uncover a valuable piece of crime fiction and sharing it with the world.

 

Re-Reading King: ‘Carrie’

'Carrie' (First Edition)

‘Carrie’ (Doubleday Hardcover, 1974) (First Edition)

Carrie by Stephen King

Doubleday | April 1974

I’m not sure when I’d last read Carrie before taking it up again for this project. My memories of it weren’t the fondest. Carrie wasn’t the first King book I read – that was Pet Sematary. I read Carrie somewhere in the white-hot period that immediately followed my initial discovery of King, when I spent months devouring everything I could find with his name on it.

Carrie made the least favorable impression on me then, but I forgave it because I knew it was his first novel and because the movie kicked my ass. Everybody talks about the last scene – Carrie’s hand coming up from the rubble of her house to grab Sue Snell – and that’s a good one, but the one
that makes me hide my eyes is the scene where Carrie has just come home from the prom, and she’s going into her bathroom. She turns on the light, and in a sliver of brightness behind her bathroom door we see her mom, in hiding, butcher knife in hand and all reason drained out of her eyes.

So yeah, it was the rare instance where the adaptation of a King novel made a better impression on me than the novel itself. Now that I think of it, that first reading my have been my only reading of Carrie. At any rate, I’ve now read it again, and I can honestly say I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

The things that bothered me then still bother me now. The newspaper clippings, for example. I enjoy most of the “excerpts” King plants throughout the book – the transcripts from hearings, pages from academic papers, etc. But there are a couple of supposed newspaper articles in there that take me right out of the story because of how badly King botches the “voice” of such articles. While he’s got the air of self-importance down pat when mimicking academic papers and book-length studies of the Carrie White phenomenon, those articles miss the mark completely.

There’s some clunky dialogue in there, too; places where I see quotation marks but what I’m reading feels like narrative rather than someone talking. While King has never, in my opinion, quite got the hang of writing faux newspaper articles, he’s gotten much, much better at making his characters talk the way people actually talk.

Carrie is full of touches that would become earmarks of his early run of novels; little habits and traits that he doesn’t indulge in quite so much these days, many of which I miss. Those little parenthetical asides he used to like so much, for example – like when Miss Desjardin is trying to calm a hysterical Carrie at the beginning of the novel, and softball bats are falling to the ground and a light explodes, and we get:

(the whole damn place is falling apart)

I miss those.

There’s lots of King’s special brand of foreshadowing, too, such as when King refers to Ruth Gogan as one of Carrie’s “surviving classmates” not even 10 pages into the book. Less-than-subtle hints about bad things coming are a King specialty. Also, his habit of having characters who love kitsch

(plastic fantastic)

like the four-foot-tall plaster crucifix Margaret White special ordered from St. Louis. It’s the kind of thing only the deranged would put in their home, and instead of an object of awe, it comes across as something to fear. On Carrie’s dresser there sits a plastic Jesus that glows in the dark, and that’s equally awful (and equally terrifying).

'Carrie' (Doubleday Hardover, 1990) (Reading Copy)

‘Carrie’
(Doubleday Hardover, 1990)
(Reading Copy)

Finally, there’s King’s habit of drawing connective tissue between his works, such as when an Amoco station owned by one Teddy Duchamp blows up as Carrie is making her way back home. Is it the same Teddy from “The Body,” or at least a relative? It seems I remember Teddy coming to a bad end (I’ll see when I get to Different Seasons), so it’s probably not the same guy. But as we know now, crossover is a big part King’s body of work.

Carrie is a lean book – King was still largely a short story writer at that point, and originally thought of Carrie as a short story before padding it out to novel length. He was still a few books away from the epic-length novels that would become (one of) his signatures.

It’s not yet STEPHEN KING, but in retrospect there’s no denying that distinct voice, even in its earliest form. Yes, King has honed and refined over the years, but he’s done so without burying the raw materials and gifts he was blessed with from the start. That you can look back after four decades and nearly 60 books and still find plenty of the voice that wrote Carrie in Mr. Mercedes is amazing.

Carrie crawled into my head and stayed with me even when I wasn’t reading it. There are a few other authors whose work does that, but no one with the consistency and urgency of King. It’s why I’m still a fan all these years later, and why I’m so excited to undertake this personal little project.

Next stop: ‘Salem’s Lot.

Re-reading King: The Index

Review: ‘Buster Voodoo’ by Mason James Cole

large_BusterVoodoo_EbookCoverDixon Green comes from a spiritual family, but not in the traditional sense. A resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, Dixon spent his childhood watching people visit his mother for things like love potions and charms of protection. To Dixon, things like that are part of everyday life, the way Mass or Communion might be for others.

That side of Dixon’s childhood may have been fairly innocuous, but there were some dark swirls thrown into the mix. Take Empty House, for instance, which was pretty much like every haunted house you can find in almost any old neighborhood, except this one was actually haunted. Dixon found that out for himself one day when he went into the house and saw terrible things, visions of a violent past playing out before him. Empty House, they said, was where all the children who’d lately gone missing in Dixon’s part of New Orleans wound up. Empty House, they said, was where Buster Voodoo took them.

Dixon knew some of those missing kids, but only in passing – until the day his sister Marie became one of them.

Buster Voodoo is the monster of Dixon Green’s childhood. Another monster, this one we all know as Hurricane Katrina, comes along in Dixon’s waning years, offering more suffering heaped upon years of fear and anger and regret. Author Mason James Cole brings both of these forces to chilling life in this, his second novel (his first, Pray to Stay Dead, has been re-released by Buster Voodoo publisher Permuted Press). It’s a book that manages to be both vivid and pitch black at the same time; alive with colorful characters and places, and crawling with impending dread.

The book jumps nimbly back-and-forth between Dixon’s past present. Dixon and his sister did manage to temporarily escape Buster Voodoo, but they didn’t exactly live happily ever after. Dixon is wiling away his days as a janitor in a run-down New Orleans amusement park, and Marie is a guest of a facility for the mentally challenged. Even now, in these places, their childhood demon is never far from them.

Hurricane Katrina arrives midway through the book, and for a while it feels like you’ve wandered into a different story, one in which supernatural concerns are swept away by the real-life horror that storm wrought on New Orleans. It’s a horror that Cole, himself a New Orleans resident, knows firsthand, and you can rest assured he’s not using it here for cheap scares or easy atmosphere. It’s tricky business to present real-life horror side-by-side with made-up horror, but Cole pulls it off. Buster Voodoo is a terrifying creation, but what he is and the things he does pale in the face of Katrina’s fury.

There’s a very human heart at the center of Buster Voodoo, and despite all the praise I could heap on Cole’s ability to write tense, nail-biting scenes of horror, it’s that self-same heart that I feel is his best achievement. Cheap shocks thrown at cardboard cutouts don’t stick with you; bad things happening to characters you’ve grown to care about are harder to shake. Buster Voodoo is rich with atmosphere and emotion, and will leave you with plenty to ponder once the last page has been turned.

Re-Reading King: The How and the Why

OldKingsThe How and the Why

I’ve been thinking of doing this for a while now. Been wanting to do it. Hell, I’ve been needing to do it. But other obligations have made it so that I didn’t feel like I could commit to doing it.

Those obligations are gone now. So, I’m going to do it. I’m going to re-read Stephen King.

I don’t know how long it will take. I don’t have a timetable in mind. I’m going to take my time. I’m going to meander. As King has so often tried to teach us – in The Colorado Kid, for example, and perhaps in the entire Dark Tower series – sometimes it’s better to concentrate on the journey, and quit worrying so much about the final destination.* The only thing I have resembling a plan is to start with his first book, Carrie, and read them in order of publication.**

I want to do this because Stephen King is my favorite author. Without him, there would be no October Country. There wouldn’t be the couple of hundred book reviews I’ve written and published, because I may not be as avid a reader if it wasn’t for his books. The ten short stories I’ve published so far wouldn’t exist; nor would the novels I’ve started and stopped and finished and abandoned over time.

I also want to do this because there’s a surprisingly large portion of his catalog that I’ve only read once. That seems unacceptable considering he’s my favorite author. There are plenty that I’ve read multiple times – Pet Sematary and The Shining and Bag of Bones and even the mammoth It – but there are so many more that I’ve only touched once, and I can’t wait to revisit them. Will Duma Key still be as good as I think it is? Is Rose Madder really that bad? Will Bag of Bones still be my favorite when it’s all said and done?

We’ll see.

I’ve debated on whether to write about these, whether or not they really belonged here on October Country. And the answer is: of course they do. This blog is a map – an incomplete one, perhaps, but a map nonetheless – of my reading. My writeups won’t be traditional reviews. They may not make a lot of sense outside of my own personal context. I don’t know if anyone will read them. I hope people do read them, and I’d love for each post to have tons of comments from people sharing their own thoughts and feelings on the book. But this may be too personal a project to elicit much response. This is mostly me trying to get my arms around my feelings about this one writer’s huge body of work.

Hell, it’s mostly me just reading a bunch of books I like and grooving on them. You’re more than welcome to come along for the ride if you so wish.

Now, as King himself said in his foreward to Night Shift:

There’s something I want to show you, something I want you to touch. It’s in a room not too far from here – in fact, it’s almost as close as the next page.

Shall we go?

Re-Reading King: The Index

* It’s a good lesson, too, because if King’s works have a weak point, it’s often the ending.

** I’ll break away from this when it comes to any new releases. Revival is coming out in November 2014, and seeing how I’m starting this in August 2014, I seriously doubt I’ll be caught up to it by November. I also don’t know how the Dark Tower series is going to fit into this. The next time I read those, I want to read them back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. So I don’t know if I’ll do this when I reach The Gunslinger in its place in the timeline, or just tackle those somewhere else down the road. When I know, you’ll know.

Review: ‘Down’ by Nate Southard

DownCover

For me, the hardest books to review are the ones that don’t elicit a passionate response, whether it’s “I loved it” or “I hated it.”
It’s even more difficult when the author in question has written other books that I really enjoyed. Such is the case with Nate Southard, a man whose hard-bitten prose I’ve enjoyed in the past, but whose latest short novel Down left me underwhelmed.

Down, released earlier this year by Sinister Grin Press, follows the travails of the rock band The Frequency Brothers. The band is in the midst of its latest tour and is poised on the edge of superstardom – which, if you’ve read any Rolling Stone article on any band on the edge of superstardom, you know means they are dealing with plenty of inner turmoil. There is drug use and infidelity and insecurity a-plenty, and the pressure is mostly felt by their long-suffering but capable manager, Potter. Potter also has issues at home, and he’s looking forward to this small break in their tour schedule to give him time to deal with his family.

It’s all rock-and-roll business as usual, until their plane goes down.

The crash is a harrowing experience that Southard skillfully juxtaposes with glimpses of the band as they take the stage for their last show, a sold-out gig in Austin, Texas. It’s a breathless first chapter that’s brimming with promise; unfortunately, once the plane is violently grounded, the story is grounded, too.

Southard is trying to put new twists on some old tropes in Down, and I’ll give him props for that all day long. There are some good ideas here, but what seems to be lacking is focus. There’s some kind of savage creature roaming the woods in which the band’s plane crash landed, and it’s picking off survivors one by one. That’s a story we’ve all heard a thousand times, but Southard manages to wring plenty of suspense and shock out of the premise. It’s only when some of the other elements come into play – a mysterious pit filled with human remains; weird, unearthly symbols carved into trees; the slow transformation of some of the survivors – that things get a bit muddy for me.

Southard is a strong enough writer to keep me entertained even when the I’m lukewarm on the plot. (Exhibit A: the line “…nausea kept grabbing him in a slick, wet fist….” which is such a perfect description of that feeling.) Down was not a chore to finish, as so many books are, but I don’t think it’s on par with much of what the author has already produced, and will produce in the future. I don’t know that I’ll ever revisit Down, but the next time something with Southard’s name appears I won’t hesitate to pick it up.

Review: ‘Beware the Dark’ #2 (Special Tom Piccirilli Issue)

Beware-the-Dark-Tom-PicarilliRegular readers of Tom Piccirilli‘s work (of which there aren’t near enough, in my humble opinion) are likely aware of the accomplished author’s ongoing battle with brain cancer (complicated recently by a stroke). Piccirilli is a writer’s writer and has the reputation around the horror community of being a helluva good guy. I haven’t met the man myself, but that reputation is backed up by the deluge of support he received from writers, publishers and fans when news of his illness first spread.

Paul Fry, founder of Short, Scary Tales Publications, was largely unaware of Piccirilli’s work, but when he saw the support the writer was receiving he decided to check it out. He was evidently impressed
with what he saw, as he’s devoted the second issue of his magazine Beware the Dark to Piccirilli – an issue highlighted by three new stories and a nonfiction piece by Piccirilli himself.

Piccirilli’s stories (“At the Mercy of Angry Angels,” “Waste of the Good Stuff” and “How Some of Us Sleep”) work together as a good overview of the themes that run through most of his work; independently, they work as damn fine stories. “Sleep” is particularly powerful, turning a story of astral projection into a touching tale about family, love and sacrifice.

It’s Piccirilli’s nonfiction piece that truly stands out, however. “Meet the Black” is an essay he wrote before – and after – his brain surgery, and it’s as open and honest and raw a look at a man confronting his own mortality and legacy as you’re ever likely to see.

Fry fills out the issue with several tributes to Piccirilli and his work from authors like Jack Ketchum and Norman Partridge. There’s plenty of non-Piccirilli work as well, including an interview with Joe Lansdale, fiction by Edward Lee, T.T. Zuma and Eric Red, and illustrations by Keith Minnion, Alex McVey and others. There’s also the first in a series of columns by Ray Garton called “Writers You Should Be Reading” – I wrote a similar column (by which I mean a column exactly like this, with the same title!) for the late, lamented FEARnet, and I look forward to seeing how my tastes and choices match up with Garton’s.

All in all, Beware the Dark #2 is a darkly beautiful package. It’s not overly-designed (a real problem with some genre publications, particularly horror publications), the copy is presented in clean, easy-to-read fashion, and the contents are well worth the twelve bucks it costs in the U.S.