Review originally published at Tor Nightfire:
Moon Lake by Joe Lansdale is this year’s summer read. I hesitate to mention that I burned through several chapters in my backyard hammock because it sounds cliche, but I really did and it was magical.
Lansdale’s storytelling voice feels like coming home and sleeping in your own bed. It’s welcoming, comfortable, and familiar. The main character, Daniel Russell, captures reader’s hearts immediately at age thirteen when the story begins. A sudden and life-threatening trauma leaves Daniel an orphan, and he is temporarily placed with an African American family who takes him in as though he were their own kin.
The small town of Long Lincoln, Texas, in the late sixties, does not look favorably upon a young white boy assimilating so well into the home of a Black family, no matter how well they’re taking care of his needs or how happy he seems to be there. Lansdale does an excellent job exploring social issues while preserving Daniel’s naiveté as he comes of age.
I am a longtime fan of what I like to call ‘horror with heart’. Raised on the character-driven stories of Stephen King, I have developed a hunger for fictional people that I can emotionally invest in. Horror is at its best when the lives of characters you care about are at risk. In Moon Lake, readers watch Daniel process through grief, loss, first love, loneliness, betrayal, abandonment, and fear. We go through it with him. His struggle becomes our struggle. Ultimately, we want nothing more than to see Daniel get closure and find a community of people that will love him so that he can find some sense of belonging.
These basic human needs are at the core of every Lansdale story I’ve read.
Moon Lake transitions into a Southern Gothic crime-noir when grown Daniel returns to Long Lincoln after he gets a call from the local sheriff with some new information about his childhood trauma. Like any small-town horror or crime noir drama, once someone starts digging around in the past, peeling back layers and uncovering secrets, the townsfolk find out and put up their defenses. The town of Long Lincoln is a major character itself. Just like Lansdale’s famous fictional town of LaBorde, Texas, from the Hap & Leonard series, Long Lincoln is rife with ingrown systemic racism and has a long history of corruption in local government. The townies don’t take too kindly to anyone stirring up trouble or asking too many questions.
Daniel Russell teams up with some vibrant characters to assist in his urgent quest to solve a decades-old mystery, both for his own sake and for the sake of everyone else involved. There is so much to love about this story–I especially enjoy Lansdale’s sense of humor that helps lend a certain authenticity to the narrative. Life is never serious one hundred percent of the time, and horror doesn’t have to take itself so seriously. Characters, even the ones you fall in love with as a reader, do not have to be morally pure or make the best decisions–they can be flawed and a little fucked up, because honestly, if they’re not, who can relate?
It’s easy to single out specific characters and assign motives and theories to their involvement in Daniel’s mystery. At the end of every chapter, Lansdale tempts readers to keep investing, stay hungry and curious. Moon Lake seduces its audience into a smoldering, tantalizing mystery peppered with humor and heart. Don’t miss it!