Back when such titles were fashionable, this collection would have been titled, simply, The Best of Joe R. Lansdale; for this it certainly and deliberately is. "High Cotton" is a metaphor denoting the best of the authorial crop; the subtitle "Selected Stories" makes the project overt; and the tales assembled in this volume are clever and visceral, moral and terrifying, collectively a master class in suspenseful violent storytelling. It is impossible not to find outrage and provocation in High Cotton; for, story by story, piece by piece, it anatomises with knowledgeable intimacy the horror perpetually latent in the twisted social landscape of Lansdale's home region, the Southwest; and the fact that this horror so often is purely psychological, the exhalation of human and not supernatural depravity, simply confirms the sinister accuracy of Lansdale's vision. This is a book of unrestrained murderous power.
An experienced and prolific veteran of the Western, Crime, and Horror fields, Lansdale unites in his fictions the geographical specificity of the first with the grittiness of the second and the bloodthirstiness of the third. The strongest entries in High Cotton are accounts of lawless Texan doings that, without a word of explicit prompting on the author's part, indict the inhumanity induced by the deprivation, parochialism, incestuousness, racism, and sheer perversity afflicting the state's poor whites. "The Pit" features a small Southern town whose citizens' Klu Klux Klanery, allied with the frenzies of gambling and religious fundamentalism, has elaborated into a revival of gladiatorial sports. "Booty and the Beast" is a vivid schematic of Social Darwinism, in which every individual preys mercilessly on everyone else, and Fate condemns all. The youthful rite-of-passage loutishness of "Night They Missed the Horror Show" makes an especially searing transition to pure terror, as the racist attitudes casually held by its initial protagonists are given ultimate flesh; "My Dead Dog, Bobby" (one of many deceased canines in High Cotton) treats with high ghoulish humour the South's habitual skeletons in the family closet; and "Mister Weed-Eater" considers with stark relish how harsh the lot of innocence must be in a moral wasteland. Self-delusion receives a similar sly comeuppance in "The Fat Man and the Elephant"; "Steppin' Out, Summer '68" makes of urban-legend concatenations of incident a wrenching diagram of the cyclical character of sheer stupidity; and "Drive-In Date" gives such psychological impoverishment a remarkably savage twist. These are all bravura stories, probing, scathing, revelatory, models of Horror at its most penetratingly, most vilely, moral.
When Lansdale perhaps less significantly explores the ironies of individual psychosis, he remains sure-footed. Murderers are viewed from strikingly unusual perspectives in "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" (is anyone not a murderer?), in "Dog, Cat, and Baby" (an hilarious essay in ailurophobia), in "By Bizarre Hands" (never trust a preacher), and "The Phone Woman" (anyone can be tempted). "The Steel Valentine" is too sanguinarily smug for its own good, and "The Job" is unexpectedly pointless; but even these less successful episodes are tautly paced and very compelling. For sheer narrative skill, whatever the particular thematic force of the story he is telling, Lansdale has few equals.
And he has a gift for the more straightforward or traditional supernatural Horror tale. "Not From Detroit" involves a visit by a more than usually fair and fallible Death to an old couple; "Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back" is one of the more memorable post-holocaust SF Horror stories (although its attempt to summarise the bitter guilt of a weapons scientist in his own narrative of attacks by carnivorous roses is perhaps not logical enough in its symbolism); and "By the Hair of the Head" is an effective equation of voodoo with the exigencies of solitude. Lansdale ransacks the cliches of monster movies to rich surreal effect in "Godzilla's Twelve Step Program" and "Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland"; he even demonstrates a dab hand at alternate history in the chilling inversions of "Letter From the South, Two Moons West of Nacogdoches" and in the unexpectedly gentle and reflective "Trains Not Taken". Lansdale is a very versatile writer, and High Cotton perfectly showcases his exemplary range.
Read this book. High Cotton is a salvo of nightmares to shock us awake.
(Order from: Golden Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road, Urbana, IL 61802, USA, or visit www.goldengryphon.com)
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© Nick Gevers 30 September 2000