High Cotton: Selected Stories of Joe R. Lansdale, Joe R. Lansdale (Golden Gryphon Press 0-9655901-2-7, $23.95, 267pp, hc) September 2000. Cover by J.K. Potter.
You may be tempted to believe you've finally made it as a writer when a publisher produces your "selected stories" volume. Selected from what? may well be the reader's question. The answer generally has to do with skimming the cream off the surface of the accumulated fiction in a prolific writer's bucket of output. Ideally the selected stories (and they're generally selected by the writer) should both represent the best of the best, and suggest in their aggregate effect the span of the artist's own abilities. It probably won't come as a shock to most readers that High Cotton: Selected Stories of Joe R. Lansdale mirrors the author with fairness, candor, and eclecticism.
As the author explains in the introduction, "high cotton" is an old Southern idiom suggesting that the crop is pretty darned good. When applied to a writer such as Lansdale, the metaphor raises the bar considerably. By any reasonable measure, Joe Lansdale's a successful writer. Professionally published for more than 27 years now, recipient of a variety of awards, his books have put their stamp indelibly on a spectrum of categories ranging from horror and suspense to fantasy and western fiction. Readers have learned to identify Lansdale's distinctive Southern voice. He's a master of color and tone, detail and dialogue. But most of all, his stories are memorable for their clear-eyed morality; never sloppy or knee-jerk, but always unsparing in their dissection of what's wrong and what is right. There's no pit of trendy nihilism in Lansdale; his sensibility seems to derive from a solid American working-class upbringing, a finely tuned ethic of personal responsibility, and a balancing sense of noir that might draw an approving nod from Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson.
It isn't uncommon for Lansdale's fiction to tickle the funny bone even as he digs in with a keenly honed medical saw. The reader laughs and screams and falls dead silent. Maybe in the same paragraph. There's a lot of that sort of reaction stirred by the tales in High Cotton. Lansdale knows well the humor in horror. It's not all that uncommon for him to be compared in a positive way to the immortal Flannery O' Connor. The linkage is apt. Both writers plugged in to the modern Gothic sensibility of the rural South. Each navigated (and Lansdale still does) using an accurate moral compass with a sometimes weirdly twisted needle.
The late and lamented O' Connor produces no more new fiction. Lansdale, fortunately, still creates a wealth of prose, though his short story output has slowed, even as his novels have taken off. Every once in a while though, he creates what is arguably a modern masterpiece, many of which are in this volume. Not everything in High Cotton is for the ages, nor should it be. A healthy story collection demands some subjective reaction enter into the equation between creator and audience.
You won't love everything in this book equally. Chances are, you won't enjoy precisely all the same things I did. And vice versa. But there should be plenty of common ground to support the opinion that Joe R. Lansdale has staked out a legitimate claim to his own corner of literary history.
I may have been there for a small bit of that literary history, there meaning Nashville late in the '80s for a World Fantasy Convention. At the time, Joe R. Lansdale was definitely a star on the rise, what with people taking great notice of such early short fiction as "Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back" which had appeared a couple years earlier. Word got around the convention that Lansdale would be reading that night a new story that was something that really ought not to be missed. It was a story that would shortly appear in Dave Schow's original anthology of cinematic horror, Silver Scream.
What I noticed at the time was that Lansdale had buzz on his side. When convention-goers pick culture over the instant party gratification of publisher-supplied free food and booze, there really is something in the wind. I'd never heard Joe read aloud, so figured what the hell.
The room was packed like no convenient simile could describe. Plenty of heat was present, along with a great deal of honest curiosity on the part of the crowd. Without any fuss, Joe R. Lansdale began to read "Night They Missed the Horror Show," a profoundly ironic title if there ever was one. Lansdale's patented East Texas drawl wound around every listener and drew each back to 1968 and those halcyon days after the release of Night of the Living Dead put its mark on modern cinema. The crowd hung desperately on every word, each turn of phrase, trying to figure which startling moment should trigger a full-belly guffaw, and which an appalled shudder. Sometimes it was all wrapped up in one. Becalmed halfway between the political radicalism of the '60s and the political correctness of the ' 90s, I found myself reassessing my own comfort zone even as I listened to Lansdale's prose. Honestly, I wasn't sure how to take a public performance that so candidly used the word "nigger," as well as a full variety of other linguistic indelicacies. As the story proceeded, I started looking sidelong at my neighbor, a young black guy standing at my shoulder. Clearly he got exactly what Lansdale was doing. He laughed at all the funny moments; sobered like the rest of us at the deliberately unfunny ones.
"Night They Missed the Horror Show" is about a couple of redneck East Texas teens trying to stave off summer boredom. One of them scotches the idea of seeing Night of the Living Dead because the movie's known to contain a black character in a positive and primary role. So the guys, a pair of racist, sexist, everything-ist little doofuses, do what kids have done for a long time on Friday and Saturday nights in small towns. They put their remaining resources into the gas tank and head out on a joyride. In this case, they make a few major errors and meet up with some mighty nasty people. It's a real breath-stealer. Did it to the crowd nearly fifteen years ago; still does it to me today. This one, like the seriocomic "Steppin' Out, Summer, '68" and the grimly wry "By Bizarre Hands," demonstrates how humor can be utilized to concentrate and amplify the horrific. These sorts of stories are solid demonstrations of how Billy Shakespeare hisownself intended humor and horror to work together in the same harness.
Lansdale's first big short-fiction splash, "Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back," is included. It's terrible science fiction (in the sense that most of Bradbury and Ellison is bad SF), but it's still, after nearly two decades, a powerful and affecting parable of doomed post-nuclear survival. Yeah, so the exact details are a little wonky. The story itself is a muscular and earnest hand that grips your heart. And considering all that, maybe I can be charitable and stop shaking my head at the weirdly combined resonances with everything from Level Seven to The Day of the Triffids.
Most of these pieces I'd read before. It shouldn't have, but it did startle me that stories I'd liked a little less in the past, I now appreciate considerably more. I hope that speaks more to the value of the story than to the state of my brain.
I won't treat every story. But "The Job" and "Drive-in Date" are two concentrated doses of chilliness that take the breath away. Each is a portrait of everyday evil that unfolds with nasty inevitability. "The Job" particularly is a killer—on more levels than one. Two guys—one an organized crime geek, one an ex-Elvis impersonator on the skids—are driving through a Texas port city on the way to perform a particularly ugly job. As with the more graphic "Drive-in Date," "The Job" masterfully reminds us that true evil is all too banal a mundane phenomenon.
"Roads Not Taken" and "Letter From the South, Two Moons West of Nacogdoches" are a pair of nifty historical western alternate-history accounts. The latter is epistolary and nasty; the former weaves an affecting portrait of historical personages Cody and Hickock intersecting in roles our world never envisioned.
My emotional favorite is probably "Not From Detroit." This is a contemporary fable about an elderly black couple and their encounters with the personification of Death. According to Lansdale's story note, this was a story aimed squarely at the long-dead Spielberg TV series, Amazing Stories. While the story was turned down for the series, story editor Richard Matheson gave the author a suggestion for a musical grace note at the end. It's a marvelous and absolutely appropriate addition.
As much as I admire the range and achievement of the contents of High Cotton, I still must register one concern in the What's Wrong With This Picture? test. The late Jim Turner's Golden Gryphon Press series of hardback collections, now laudably continued by his brother Gary, possesses a distinct and distinctive track record in the field. High Cotton is their eighth offering. But here's my concern: Joe Lansdale's collection deserves exposure to an audience that doesn't customarily read specialty press releases. They pay attention to, say, Pantheon or Knopf collections. That's a reality that doesn't hurt us here in the genre pond; but it has a direct impact on the careers of the writers directly involved. I think Joe Lansdale's not shy about being willing to take his chances in the broader arena of contemporary non-category fiction. He's got the chops to make it—if the larger audience has a chance to catch him. This is an old debate in SF and the other fiction genres, and I don't have any new answers. Golden Gryphon will do its best to see that High Cotton is appreciated by a substantial audience, and that's a good thing. But they're preaching to the choir.
So all I can really do is commend High Cotton on to all of you with highest marks—and hope lightning strikes from a clear sky and both author and publisher find themselves lionized Out There. It's not that I think we're all of us here an inadequate audience; but we're a finite one. And Lansdale's got growing kids to put through college.
—Edward Bryant, Locus, August 2000