Happy Birthday Joe R. Lansdale

Happy Birthday to Joe R. Lansdale. To celebrate, I’ve gathered my reviews of a few favorite Lansdale titles. We start with the first one I read,

THE BOTTOMS
I am in utter and complete awe of Lansdale’s storytelling ability. THE BOTTOMS takes place in East Texas, just after the devastating effect of the Depression in the 1930s. This was a difficult time for all Americans but nobody felt the effects harder than African Americans-especially in the deep South. KKK led lynchings and beatings were rampant.
Our story zeros in on a family living by a river-an area known as THE BOTTOMS. The father, Jacob (I love this man) is the local constable. He’s married to a strong, beautiful woman and they have two children, Harry who is like 12 or 13 and Tom (Thomasina) who is just a bit younger. The narrator is Harry and he’s telling a tale in flashback from a nursing home. I love Harry so much I could cry right now trying to explain how special he is. Lansdale wrote the most endearing and beautiful relationship between a father and son. It was so refreshing. I have read a lot of books lately where the father figure is an old, abusive, hypocritical drunk so it was such a sweet reading experience to hear Harry talk about his dad like the hero he was. In a time when segregation and racial prejudice is at an apex, Jacob-Henry’s father-teaches his family to treat people fairly and he doesn’t do this in a self-righteous preachy way, but he leads by example. This reminded me of what I loved about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. So if you enjoyed that book, you’d love this one (trust me).
Lansdale paints small-town life with exquisite and intimate details. The townies are bright and colorful. I especially loved Miss Maggie and the way she tells stories to young Harry. But this isn’t a “feel-good story” of good triumphing over evil all the time–this town is saturated in hate for African Americans and to add fuel to the flames, there’s someone out there murdering prostitutes. Our sweet kiddos, Tom and Harry stumble upon one of the first bodies and so dad, Jacob takes up an investigation. To tell you anymore would risk accidentally exposing some exciting discoveries so the rest of this review is just me urging everyone to read this book. Seriously. It’s everything you would ever want. Page-turning action, rich storytelling, dimensional characters you immediately fall in love with (Mose! Miss Maggie! Tom! Jacob! The dog, Toby! Grandma!) and a murder mystery that gets more and more intense as the story goes on. 
This book makes you wince, laugh, cry, scream out in agony, surprise, anger, shock, and then reading the last bit, you cling to every word–sad that it’s over. I’m so sad it’s over!! I will be reading this again and it will forever make every list I make of favorite coming of age stories, best-of lists and all-time favorites. I’m a sold-out Lansdale fan now. GIVE ME MORE!

EDGE OF DARK WATER

After reading THE BOTTOMS by Joe R. Lansdale, I had a sneaking suspicion he was using his stories to break my heart and after just finishing EDGE OF DARK WATER, this suspicion has been confirmed. Joe R. Lansdale is indeed trying to break my heart.
He’s coming after my soul.
He’s weaseling into my life and stealing retail space on my bookshelf.
Proof:
The thing is, I have fully surrendered. I’m allowing it. Game on. 

EDGE OF DARK WATER is the story of some kids growing up as best they can in rural Texas. The main character, Sue Ellen and her best friend Terry are out fishing with her father and uncle one day when they make a startling discovery that will change the direction of all their lives.
Sue Ellen and Terry immediately tell their friend Jinx and the three of them decide they need to get out of their small town before they end up beaten down and used up just like everyone else around them. Unfortunately, because of what they know and what they’ve seen–they will be followed on their perilous journey to California.

So I added three new child protagonists to my reader’s heart.
The quickest way to get me to fall in love is to give me some sassy-mouthed, take-no-shit, child protagonists in some kind of danger. My mom’s heart can’t help but fully invest in their story.
EDGE OF DARK WATER is no exception. This is coming of age at its finest. It doesn’t get better than this-sharing space with Lansdale’s THE BOTTOMS, King’s IT, and McCammon’s BOY’S LIFE. Comparisons to HUCKLEBERRY FINN and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are not far off-there are strong themes of poverty, classism, racism, and the sad truth of how some children are just unwanted burdens or collateral damage.
Infused into the storyline are laugh-out-loud moments that I have come to expect from Lansdale. The characters are colorful, memorable, and full of life – the things that come out of their mouths sometimes are hysterical. 
In contrast, one of the characters, Skunk, is one of the scariest motherfuckers I have ever had the displeasure of reading about. My heart raced every time he made an appearance. 
I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this book. It made my heart sing with love for these children, fall down into my stomach with fear, and then come to a state of full satisfaction at the end. Lansdale is just the goddamn best.

FREEZER BURN

One of those “can’t put down” one-sitting reads. No words wasted. This is a little like the black-and-white movie FREAKS combined with a few signature details from EAST OF EDEN. The protagonist, Bill, is not a good person-he’s ignorant and self-centered so being in his head as he narrates is sad, offensive, and frustrating but there are a few characters that balance that ugliness out. I will never forget this story. All the atmosphere of a vintagey freak show carnival, Lansdale’s character development and storytelling style (laugh-out-loud moments and some gross, cringe-worthy moments), and non-stop action/drama. It’s basically everything I’ve ever wanted from my reading experience. 

MOON LAKE

Review originally published at Tor Nightfire:
https://tornightfire.com/moon-lake-is…
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 readers’ 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 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 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 in 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 and stay hungry and curious. Moon Lake seduces its audience into a smoldering, tantalizing mystery peppered with humor and heart. Don’t miss it!

I also recommend The Thicket, The Hap & Leonard Series, Paradise Sky, and probably everything this man writes. Happy Birthday, Joe!

-Sadie Hartmann “Mother Horror”

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