Joe Lansdale is one of the more intriguing authors writing today, ranging across horror, western, thriller, pulp, and mystery—and often enough, the lines between these genres are blurred and transcended in his fiction. While he shines in his novels, often it’s his shorter works that shine even brighter… as evident by all the Bram Stoker awards he’s won for his short stories and novellas. Last I knew he’d won or been nominated for over a dozen of them, and around half were for pieces of short fiction. As a prolific writer gifted with an almost endless creativity, it feels like the short form is the ideal medium: a chance to develop some of his many wilder ideas that wouldn’t succeed or need to stand as lengthy novels. And as each collection shows, Lansdale has some pretty damn wild ideas…
The title of the title story has a beautiful, folksy, eerie ring to it—that’s pure Lansdale. “The Shadows, Kith and Kin” is also one of his best horror stories. Its protagonist is a perpetual loser, unemployed, trapped in a failing marriage, living in his in-laws’ basement. He sits and whiles away his day and watches the shadows—shadows which he has a strange affinity with, becoming more of a family to him than his human relations. To say much more might spoil the story, though I’ll point out that Lansdale’s inspiration for this deranged killer was Charles Whitman, as Lansdale had attended UofT at Austin and saw bullet holes from Whitman’s spree gouged into the brick buildings. The story builds slowly, developing its surreal tension before coming to its explosive finale.
“The Events Concerning a Nude Fold-Out Found in a Harlequin Romance” is another Pure Lansdale experience, a Bram Stoker Award-winner that’s seldom reprinted because of space constraints (it’s a 60-page novella). One of Lansdale’s prototypical five-time losers spends his time looking for a job and perusing the used bookshop across the street, though he tries to make time for his estranged daughter. After taking her to the circus—which broke down when The Great Waldo’s trained dogs began fornicating and running amok—he ends up shelving a box of Harlequin romances that Waldo sold to the used bookstore. Inside one of them he finds a nude fold-out, though someone’s drawn on the model eerily similar to how butchers mark up drawings of animals to show cuts of meat. Thinking Waldo’s a serial killer, our loser, his daughter, and the eccentric bookstore owner begin to investigate. It’s a funny and macabre story; Lansdale’s prose isn’t as distinct as in some of these other stories, but the eccentric characters are very much his own.
Fans of Lansdale’s weird western Dead in the West will be pleased by the inclusion of two more stories starring Reverend Mercer, a priest cursed to bring God’s justice (and hot .44-caliber lead) to strike down evil… though he’s been renamed to Reverend Rains here. “Deadman’s Road” sees the Reverend escort a wanted criminal and a young deputy down a track of road haunted by a ghoul, all that remains of a sadistic beekeeper. “The Gentleman’s Hotel” deals with a brothel haunted by the ghosts of its patrons, all slaughtered long ago by werewolf-zombies. Both of these stories are full of atmosphere and excitement, good successors to Dead in the West and pretty fun reads on their own.
Lansdale often has one “really weird” story in each collection; this one has two pretty offbeat tales. “White Mule, Spotted Pig” is about a redneck who pairs up with two other rednecks to win a mule race; when his mule is struck dead by a lightning bolt, he seeks out the mythical white mule of the swamp, and the spotted pig which it has befriended. The rednecks live in laughably degenerate squalor—the protagonist’s father used to stick his butt out the window and shit down the side of their shack, for example—while the mule and pig have a near-Disneyfied friendship—a friend being one thing the protagonist has never had but always wanted. He’s desperate to take the mule-race winnings and abandon his miserable past for civilization, but to do so he’ll need to catch the mule, break it, and win the race. It’s a odd and bawdy tale yet also moving and full of heart, kind of an underdog sports-team film starring rednecks and mule shit.
The second “really weird” story is damn weird: “Bill, the Little Steam Shovel,” which takes all of those children’s stories with anthropomorphized vehicles and drives that concept into the red-light district. Bill’s the little steam shovel who dreams of many things: the day when his Dave will drive him out to do work, of building nice things like malls and parking lots for the other Daves, and of sticking his dipstick up the tailpipe of the nice lady steam shovel. Not that a nice shovel should dream of such uncouth things, but Bill’s lonely and tired of getting picked on by the bigger shovels. Take all of Lansdale’s distinct prose, his offbeat sense of humor, and his strong grasp of storytelling, turn them all to eleven, and this is what you’ll get.
Not all of the stories are runaway successes. “The Long, Dead Day” is a short-short, featuring a family trying to survive the zombipocalypse in their isolated fort. It captures a lot of darkness, but the emotional impact wasn’t as strong as Lansdale intended. Chalk that up to the limitations of the short-short format. “Alone,” co-authored with Melissa Mia Hall, is a gritty post-apocalyptic tale of aliens that morphs into youthful romance; while the characters are interesting, the entire setup felt more and more forced as the story continued, and it ends on a buttery high note too saccharine for me. Between the forced plot and jarring disconnect between authorial styles, this one didn’t convince me.
The Shadows, Kith and Kin has an excellent number of hits—including two of Lansdale’s hands-down best horror stories, “The Shadows, Kith and Kin” and “Nude Fold-Out…”—making it sure to please Lansdale devotees. That said, I’m not entirely sure it’s the best place for a newcomer to start. Novels like The Bottoms (combination coming-of-age novel and thriller) or best-of collections like Bumper Crop (you bought that when I tweeted it was a $1 #ebookdeal, right?) may be better introductions, skipping some of the more outrageous and oddball stories and offering more mainstream accessibility. But if you’ve already read some of Lansdale and thought “dag, I want to see what he can really do,” then this collection becomes necessary.
Title: The Shadows, Kith and Kin
Author: Joe R. Lansdale
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Release Date: 2012
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $2.99 (part of the 20-book Haunting of Horrors 2 bundle, which is a remarkable deal)
ISBN/ASIN: 1596060816 / B009VN3COS
First published: 2007