Review: ‘Hap and Leonard’ by Joe R. Lansdale

hapandleonardHap and Leonard by Joe R. Lansdale
Tachyon Publications (March 2016)

After nine novels and a number of short stories and novellas, sitting down with a new Hap and Leonard book is less like reading and more like meeting up with a couple of buddies to have a drink and swap some stories. That’s just about the highest compliment I know how to pay author Joe R. Lansdale, who has created a set of timeless characters who seem to live and breathe outside of his own considerable imagination.
Continue reading

Advertisements

Review: ‘Fender Lizards’ by Joe R. Lansdale

Fender Lizards by Joe R. Lansdale
Subterranean Press (November 2015)

Fender_Lizards_by_Joe_R._LansdaleYou might not expect a guy who writes unflinching horror to also write rawly accurate coming-of-age stories.

You might not expect a guy who writes convincingly about a duo of hard-hitting, blue collar do-gooders to also write convincingly about a small-town girl looking for direction in a directionless life.

If that’s the case, you might not be familiar with Joe R. Lansdale.

Lansdale writes about all of the above, and more. But this isn’t a career retrospective of one of my favorite writers, it’s a review. The book we’re looking at is the one I mentioned about the small-town girl looking for direction in a directionless life. It’s called Fender Lizards, it was recently released by Subterranean Press, and it’s damn good.

Dorothy “Dot” Sherman is a seventeen-year-old Fender Lizard, which is to say she’s a roller-skating waitress at a local diner called the Dairy Bob. Her father took off years ago – a classic case of “gone to get a pack of cigarettes and never came back” – and she’s living in a small trailer with a fairly large group of people. Her family has added a new member, an uncle she never knew she had named Elbert. Elbert has parked his van in their front yard and is living out of it, trying to connect with his brother’s family.

In fact, it seems like everyone in Fender Lizards trying to make some kind of connection – some with other people, and some with life itself. Elbert’s sudden appearance is just one of a handful of sparks jolting Lansdale’s richly-drawn cast out characters out of their stupors. There’s also a new suitor for Dot; an escape from an abusive husband for Dot’s sister, Raylynn; and a travelling roller derby for Dot and her fellow Lizards from the Dairy Bob. Lansdale lays out these various threads and developments just as natural as you please, and it’s a delight watching these people all realize that there really is something out there for each of them to strive for.

I could go on for days about Lansdale’s natural storytelling ability, in particular his exceptional ear for dialogue. But perhaps his most amazing achievement in this particular book is his ability to write a teenage girl that is not only recognizable as a vintage Lansdale character, but is also recognizable as, well, a teenage girl. Dot is not a caricature; she is a fully realized person, a young woman with a bit of a short fuse and a sassy mouth; a girl who can get her feelings hurt, who can be a bit jaded sometimes, but who hasn’t completely lost the ability to dream of something different, something better. There’s hope in her, and it’s something she shares with everyone around her.

Fender Lizards is a relatively short novel, and Lansdale doesn’t attempt to put a neat bow around everything, which is refreshing. We come into Dot’s life at a certain point and we leave at a certain point, and at that point some things have changed and some things are still up in the air. I’d like to know more, and perhaps Lansdale will revisit Dot and her friends and family one day; but if not, I’m happy with the time I got to spend with them. I think you will be, too.

Review: ‘The Lost Level’ by Brian Keene

The Lost Level by Brian Keene
Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00020]Apex Publications (January 19, 2015)

Brian Keene, writer of many interconnected novels, creator of vast mythologies, seems to have found the series he was born to write.

The Lost Level, the first in what I hope will be many tales of inter-dimensional castaway Aaron Pace (and, apparently, I’m going to get my wish), is a love letter to pulp adventurists like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. Pace is a dabbler in magic and the occult, and his studies lead him to a method to open doors to other dimensions. As his confidence increases, his exploration of these other dimensions becomes more frequent, until one day he steps through a door that vanishes behind him. Stranded in a strange land with no way to get home, Pace has no choice but to journey onward, trying to learn about this new place, and to discover his own place in it.

When we first meet Pace he’s already been in the “Lost Level” – a place he’d heard whispers of before finding it firsthand – for some time. He’s writing his adventures down, and the tale he tells here is of his first frightening days roaming the land. There’s a lot to tell: his first encounters with bands of dangerous humanoid lizards; his partnering up with the beautiful Kasheena and the fierce, intelligent Bloop; and crossing paths with deadly vegetation, slugs, robots, dinosaurs and more.

If it sounds like Pace’s new home is a crazy-quilt mashup of comic book creatures and pulp novel landscapes, well, that’s because it is. This “Lost Level,” as Pace comes to understand it, is a place where things from all the other dimensions wash up like so much garbage on a beach. For its inhabitants, its a hostile and inescapable trap. For Keene, however, The Lost Level is a rich playground in which childlike fantasies can be brought to life with the skill and precision of a talented artist.

Keene is one of the hardest working writers in the business, and he often comes across in blog posts and in social media as a guy carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. That’s why it’s so great to behold the sense of pure wonder and playfulness and just plain fun that flows through this book. It’s like peeking in a kid’s bedroom while he sits on the floor weaving elaborate stories that involve every toy in his toybox. You know he’s having a damn good time, and you’re right there enjoying it with him.

As a bonus, The Lost Level ties heavily into Keene’s over-arching mythos, The Labyrinth; as such, long-time readers of his work are going to be delighted at the amount of stuff from his other stories that bleeds over into this book. It’s done in such a way that casual readers won’t be lost, so if you haven’t read the Clickers series or Dead Sea or any of his other stuff, worry not. If you’ve read those books, and more, well – there’s plenty for you to look forward to.

The Lost Level perfectly straddles that fine line that separates an “anything goes” mentality from sheer overindulgence. It’s a book chock full of pulp references and great set pieces, but it never strays too far from the characters at its heart. This is far and away my favorite thing that Keene has written thus far, and I can’t wait to see where he takes the story from here.

2014: The Year in Reading

Cover design2014 was another in a long line of good reading years for yours truly. It wasn’t exactly full of surprises; if you compare this year’s list of favorites to that of previous years, you’ll see a lot of duplication: Ace Atkins, Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, and Robert McCammon are among the most common denominators. Atkins, King and Lansdale together dominate this year’s list, contributing two books each. That’s not something that will necessarily change in the coming year: Atkins will be bringing new entries in his Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser series; King has a new novel (a follow-up to this year’s Mr. Mercedes) on deck, as well as a new short story collection; and Lansdale has a new Hap and Leonard book on the horizon. Factor in Clive Barker’s Pinhead/Harry D’Amour novel The Scarlet Gospels and I can damn near give you my top ten for 2015 right here and now.

All of these familiar faces may make it seem like I’m in a rut, but that’s far from the truth. I found several new authors in 2014 that I’m going to be watching closely in the future, Nick Cutter chief among them. His debut novel The Troop was narrowly edged out of this year’s top ten; I was lucky enough to get an early copy of his second novel, The Deep (which comes out on January 13) and that one made the cut – I’ll be posting a review early next week that explains why. I was also deeply impressed by Jedidiah Ayres and Mark Morris and several others that I’ll be reading from here on out.

ForsakenCoverOne thing I’ve always struggled with is ranking these year-end lists in any kind of order. Traditionally I’ve gone numbers one through ten, but this year I abandoned that concept. It’s just too hard to pick one favorite out of this group. So, this year’s list is ordered alphabetically by author, and as I look back on it now I see ten books that I’ll happily revisit in the future.

Here are the books that sunk their hooks deep in my brain in 2014. I hope you’ll take a moment to share your own favorites in the comments – I’m always looking for suggestions for something good to read!

Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
The Deep by Nick Cutter
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Revival by Stephen King
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris

And here, if you’re interested, is the complete list of what I read this year:

pwoodUndisputed by Chris Jericho
And the Night Growled Back by Aaron Dries
Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece by Jason Bailey
Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road by Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, J.F. Gonzalez, Wrath James White, Nate Southard, Shane McKenzie, Ryan Harding and Bryan Smith
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The Way of All Flesh by Tim Waggoner
Horror Library Volume 5 edited by R.J. Cavender and Boyd E. Harris
Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
Dust Devils by Jonathan Janz
Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon
The Troop by Nick Cutter
Wonderland by Ace Atkins
City of Devils by Justin Robinson
The End is Nigh edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
Joe Ledger: Special Ops by Jonathan Maberry
Rose of Sharon and Other Stories by Gary A. Braunbeck
The First One You Expect by Adam Cesare
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
BorderlineThe King of the Weeds by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
The Quick
by Lauren Owen
A Place for Sinners by Aaron Dries
Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
Borderline by Lawrence Block
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty
Deep Like the River by Tim Waggoner
Piercing the Darkness edited by Craig Cook
Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale
Carrie by Stephen King
Down by Nate Southard
Brainquake by Samuel Fuller
Scream Along With Me edited by Alfred Hitchcock
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumDisease by M.F. Wahl
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Fangoria: Cover to Cover edited by Anthony Timpone
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Jackpot by David Bernstein, Kristopher Rufty, Shane McKenzie and Adam Cesare
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
Revival by Stephen King
Dark Screams Volume One edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Exponential by Adam Cesare
The Deep by Nick Cutter

Review: ‘Prisoner 489’ by Joe R. Lansdale

Cover designJoe R. Lansdale spins another tall tale in Prisoner 489, a straight-up horror story about an island graveyard and an executed prisoner who ain’t quite dead. It’s part of the Black Labyrinth series of novellas from Dark Regions Press, and is up for preorder now in a variety of states ranging from ebook to deluxe, leather-bound, foil-stamped, signed-and-numbered editions.

If you’re not familiar with Lansdale’s work at this point, I both pity you and envy you. The pity is there because, damn, you’ve missed some good stuff. The envy is there because, damn, you’ve got some good stuff to look forward to, ranging from horror to the crime-and-misadventure stories of the Hap and Leonard series to his coming-of-age masterpiece Edge of Dark Water. But you can (and should) investigate those another time – right now, let’s talk about Prisoner 489.

Let’s say there was an island, upon which was built a maximum security prison designed to hold the worst of the worst. These are the people for whom parole is not an option; they have been thrown into the deepest, darkest pit imaginable, and will only emerge from the prison feet first, as they say. They’re so bad that, even dead, they’re not allowed anywhere near anything resembling civilazation. So next to this island there’s a smaller island, home to a graveyard where the bodies are unceremoniously buried, their plots marked only by a number. As our story unfolds, Prisoner 489 comes to the island for his eternal rest.

The body of 489 is received by a small crew of two current prisoners and one former prisoner. Bernard has already worked off his time but chose to stay on because he really has nowhere else to go. His co-workers, Toggle and Wilson, are finishing up their sentences on the island, which up until today wasn’t too bad for a work release program.

By the time the man they know as Kettle shuttles 489’s corpse to their island, the guys are on edge. It’s their tradition to watch the prison across the water on execution nights; when the lights dim, they know the job is done. But this night is different. The lights dimmed, and dimmed again, and then two times more. When Kettle arrives he comes bearing a metal coffin wrapped in chains, and he’s eager to share stories about the man inside it, how it took all that juice to kill him, and how they finally had to finish the job by wrapping a plastic bag around the criminal’s head.

Once the coffin is in the ground, their bellies are full of liquor, and Kettle has boarded his boat back to the prison, the guys settle in for the night. There’s a storm bearing down on them, but something else out in the darkness doesn’t sit right with Bernard. He’ll find out what that is soon enough.

What comes next, I’ll leave Mr. Lansdale to tell. He does a magnificent job, as the second half of the book is an exercise in tension, humor, and outright horror. Lansdale’s storytelling is a joy to behold; his voice is so natural, so fluid that it’s like you’re hearing the story straight from his mouth rather than reading it on the page. Prisoner 489 is Lansdale at his finest, which is pretty much what you can expect any time he puts out something new. Highly recommended.

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: ‘Piercing the Darkness’ edited by Craig Cook

PTDCOverDuring his final semester at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Craig Cook took part in a service project working with some underprivileged students. While helping the kids work on their own short stories, he discovered in them a real thirst for the kind of knowledge that can only come through reading. In himself, he discovered an intense desire to help them, and others like them, have access to the knowledge they craved.

This desire led him to put together Piercing the Darkness, a fully loaded anthology benefiting the Children’s Literacy Initiative. With the weight of such a worthy cause behind him, Cook has assembled a stunning lineup of talent, with many of them contributing brand-new stories. 400 pages from the cream of the horror crop for less than twenty bucks, with all proceeds going to help create a new generation of readers? That’s what we call a”no-brainer” in these parts, my friends.

Still, it wouldn’t be a proper review if I didn’t talk about a few of the stories. The difficulty here was in picking the ones to rave about. Do I talk about “Husband of Kellie” by T.T. Zuma, a zombie story with a wicked punch of an ending? Do I mention Kealan Patrick Burke’s “Haven,” a quietly devastating tale of a man who returns to his childhood home to be reunited with the part of him that never left? I definetely can’t leave out “Searching” by Monica J. O’Rourke, a short piece about a young girl convinced that her real dad is a prince coming to rescue her, not the uninterested jerk that she lives with. (And do I tell how that one nearly brought me to tears?) How much do I say about the stories by Brian Keene and Joe Lansdale and Christopher Golden and Gary Braunbeck and Jonathan Maberry and Jack Ketchum – or do I need to say anything at all, since (for me, at least) their names alone are all that needs to be said?

I think the best way to approach this review, probably, is to keep it short and sweet. So, I’ll just say this: I believe in the cause Craig Cook is trying to help, and I believe in the gift these writers have in telling compelling, thought-provoking, and at times out-right terrifying stories. So yes, I believe Piercing the Darkness is a book that’s well worth your time and your money.