High Cotton

by Joe R. Lansdale

Published by Golden Gryphon

267 pages, 2000

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The Fantastic, the Imaginative and the Weird

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


I used to own a science fiction bookstore. It sold other types of books, but that's what it was known as. I always preferred to call it "a bookshop devoted to the fantastic, the imaginative and the weird," which probably says more about me than about the shop. One day, I decided to rack all the fiction new releases -- SF, fantasy, horror, crime and so on -- together, alphabetically by author but not segregated by genre. Beyond the fact that I'm not overly fond of genre categorizations, I'd noticed that a number of authors were publishing in several genres or were writing across the boundaries of various genres. I wanted, before limiting any title to a single market category in the backlist section, to give all my customers the chance to see it. My customers hated it. They complained incessantly about how hard it was now for them to find the books that they liked. Sigh. I gave in and resegregated the new releases.

One of the writers who had helped motivate my ill-fated action was Joe Lansdale -- an author with a heart of science fiction (even though very little of his output technically falls under that umbrella) best known for his horror, crime fiction and westerns. In his introduction to High Cotton, Lansdale writes:

I thought that I would be a science fiction writer. I read all the time, and not just science fiction, but there was a time in my life where science fiction -- and keep in mind I lumped fantasy, horror, science fantasy, weird adventure, ghost stories, anything odd, under that label -- was my main source of reading matter.

I should amend here that Lansdale's science fiction heart is of a very dark variety, darker by far than most science fiction hearts. Take, for example, some the stories collected in High Cotton, a retrospective collection prepared for Golden Gryphon, a press specializing in science fiction story collections.

Sure, there are a couple of out-and-out SF pieces among the 21 stories of this book. "Tight Little Stitches In a Dead Man's Back" is an after-the-bomb tale. "Godzilla's Twelve Step Program" and "Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland" are exactly what their titles proclaim (and filled with uproariously funny moments of absurd literal-mindedness). There are two alternate history stories. And there are also a couple of supernatural fantasy stories ("Not From Detroit" and "By the Hair of the Head"). The other 14 tales have no overt SF or fantasy elements, but they are set in a weird world, a macabre and scary place where the stupid and the vicious murder with gleeful pleasure and/or blasé insouciance. There, strangers are captured and forced to kill each other in spectator combat, hopelessly stupid bigots get drunk and abusive, patrons of drive-in theaters rape the corpses of young girls they've murdered, serial killers recreate pastoral scenes with the rotting bodies of their victims, middle-class husbands kill would-be suicides for sexual thrills and preachers do too many horrible things to be catalogued here. It's a scary world to which no sane person would want to travel. It's called Texas, and it's the homeland of Joe Lansdale. Most writers bring their world to life, Lansdale brings his to death.

It would be too easy to say that Lansdale hates Texas. After all, he fills it with the most idiotic and vicious characters you would never want to meet. Yet, despite all his obvious disgust for the bigotry, misogyny and stupidity that has inspired his stories, Lansdale clearly loves Texas. Through these stories the author works out his own strange love/hate relationship with the environment that spawned him and his wild imagination.

The journey is filled with Lansdale's peculiar brand of humor and horror. It's not always easy to tell one from the other. That ambiguity gives these stories a vibrant edge. Readers never know when absurdity will turn into brutality, or fright into slapstick, when laughs will become screams. Joe Lansdale focuses his inquisitive science-fiction mind on the real world and transforms it into a landscape that is both surreal and all too real, much like J.G. Ballard in his novel Crash or David Lynch in his film Blue Velvet. Science fiction? Maybe. Maybe not. But definitely fantastic, imaginative and weird. | October 2000


Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.