See, here’s why I read Joe R. Lansdale; in Driving to Geronimo’s Grave (2018), there is a short story called “Wrestling with Jesus.” The story is about wrestling and male bonding. It’s violent. It’s gross and vulgar. The plot involves two men gambling over a woman. There are two women characters; one is weak and venial and the other is evil and manipulative. It has foul language. It’s funny. Generally, only “it’s funny” would even remotely attract me to a story like this, but “Wrestling with Jesus,” which follows the relationship of a lonely teenage boy and an octogenarian wrestler, is probably my favorite of this 2018 story collection.
Marvin, the teen boy in the story, is a target for bullies in his new neighborhood, where his mother has moved them after the sudden death of his father. Marvin can’t fight, and he is resigned to being a permanent victim until X-Man, an eighty-plus wrestler, rescues him from the bullies and offers to teach him to fight. The reason, X-Man says, is because he has to get into fighting trim for a bout with Jesus. Every five years, on Christmas Eve, Jesus (not the son of God, just a guy,) and X-Man wrestle for the favor of a once-beautiful, enigmatic woman named Felina. Marvin’s mother has a new boyfriend whom Marvin dislikes, and when he tells his mother that it’s either him or the boyfriend, she chooses the boyfriend. Meanwhile, X-Man tells Marvin the story of Felina. She was beautiful and sexually wild, and he couldn’t get enough of her. While he was winning his bouts, she never left his side, but once he lost to Jesus, he lost Felina. At one point, X-Man tells Marvin that Felina took a lock of his hair and wrapped it up in a pipe cleaner, and he is sure that she is a witch who has put a spell on him, and probably Jesus too. The climax of the story is the famous bout, which will turn out to be X-Man’s last match.
I loved this story, partly because the “male bonding” is generational. X-Man is a father-figure to Marvin, and the most important thing he teaches Marvin is to trust himself. At the end of the story, even though X-Man has taught Marvin fighting and wrestling moves, Marvin uses his brain to help his friend. Moments in the story, like a Thanksgiving dinner of turkey lunch-meat sandwiches with mustard, warmed my heart. While Felina is evil, she is a powerful character who drives the plot (and there is also a folkloric element to her, as there is through the entire story). And the final moments of the wrestling match made me cry, “Oh, no!” while simultaneously laughing out loud. And that, really, is why I read Lansdale.
Driving to Geronimo’s Grave has six stories and each comes with an afterword, or actually “after-notes,” by the author. Many of them focus on the genesis of the story. Some range rather far afield. They’re all interesting.
In the title story, Lansdale perfectly depicts the southwest Dust Bowl era, as teenager Chauncey and his tomboy rapscallion sister Terri drive to Oklahoma to pick up the body of a dead uncle. Terri is a wonderfully-realized character captured nearly entirely through her dialogue.
“You robbed a dead man for sleeping in your chicken coop?” Terri said. “Why didn’t you just take his shoes too?”
Mr. Wentworth cleared his throat. “Well, they was the same size as mine, and he didn’t need them.”
Wentworth lifted a foot and showed us a brown brogan…
“‘Damn,” Terri said, looking down at the shoes on Mr. Wentworth’s feet. “You did take his shoes.”
The story is dust-bowl atmospheric and filled with memorable dialogue. The entire set-up is perfectly picaresque; the concept of a teenage boy who doesn’t even know how to get to Oklahoma driving there to pick up the untended dead body of a relative he barely remembers is just ridiculous, and that’s part of what works here. The other thing that makes this story work is Terri. Honestly, the plot depends on a coincidence so large that I found it implausible, but I still enjoyed it.
In the after-notes, Landale says that his parents grew up during the Great Depression and he grew up hearing stories about it. His values: to be frugal, to re-use things, come from his parents, even if he does poke gentle fun at the drawers filled with rubber bands, string, paperclips and paper.
“Robo Rapid” has the flavor of a Pulp Age science fiction story with Lansdale’s unique stamp. In a post-apocalyptic world, a girl sets out across a hostile desert to rescue her brother and sister from murderous robots. The robots are huge war machines (think “Transformers”), originally programmed and piloted by humans, until the robots killed their pilots. They became ascendant, but they did not reverse their programming, so they still raid and kill humans. Lansdale conjures a vivid and scary desert world, and Sheann is brave young woman who finds an unlikely ally. The crazy visuals of this tale, concretely realized, elevate it beyond pulp.
Landsale says that the title “Robo Rapid” popped into his head several years before he had a story to go with it. It came together with an idea for an anthology based on the artwork of Dave McKean.
“In the Mad Mountains,” as you can probably tell from the title, is Lansdale’s take on eldritch horror, Lovecraft-style. The story opens with a shipwreck in the dead of night, of an ocean liner that has struck an iceberg. We readers think we know where we are. We are wrong. One lifeboat full of survivors makes it to a frozen wasteland, littered with preserved wrecks of other ships from many eras, and even the occasional airplane. From there, the story grows creepier and more compellingly Lovecraftian, as two classic Lansdale characters try to survive in an eerie, alien world. It is not a pastiche of Lovecraft, although I’m sure Lansdale could do that if he wanted. It’s a Lansdale story told in the style of gothic horror.
I thought Landale ranged far afield in his after-notes for this one. After noting in detail all the reasons he wasn’t a Lovecraft fan particularly, he talks about the influence Lovecraft exerted on the field. Then he talked about his difficulties with the removal of Lovecraft’s bust from the World Fantasy Award. He contrasts that move with the removal of Civil-Rights-era Confederate statues, which he agrees need to come down, but makes the argument that Lovecraft was “a man of his time,” not unlike Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, both of whom were obviously racist. Lansdale expresses his opinion clearly, and while I don’t agree with him (REH and Burroughs were never the “face” of a prestigious writing award), I appreciated the chance to read his thoughts on the matter.
“The Projectionist” is a mournful bit of crime drama, told from the point of view of a lonely projectionist in a 1950s small-town movie theater. He’s been there since his twenties, a reliable loner, who has developed a crush on Sally, a new “usherette” the theater owner has hired. The projectionist’s only other real friend is Bert, the retired projectionist who mentored him. One day, two thugs show up to shake down the theater owner. Sally is fearful and asks the projectionist to walk her home. The projectionist grows more worried about the threat to the theater, and contacts Bert. Bert says that the thugs are part of a gang of five, known to be moving in on the theater’s neighborhood. Bert’s past, and the projectionist’s for that matter, are not as simple as the reader might have thought, but the two men decide to deal with the problem. The story has a heartbreaking simplicity that shines through its noirish structure.
Lansdale says the story came from a Lawrence Block suggestion for an anthology based on the work of artist Edward Hopper. Lansdale found a painting of an usherette and it inspired the story. If it’s the Hopper painting I think it is, I don’t completely see how it inspired “The Projectionist,” but I’m glad it did.
“Everything Sparkles in Hell” is an old-fashioned story in which Men Survive the Wilderness. In this case, the wilderness is embodied in the form of an angry, vengeful mama grizzly bear. Nat Love is a Black US Marshal in post-Civil War Arkansas. This time the men he’s pursuing have led him far out of his jurisdiction, and he’d deep in the Rocky Mountains in winter. When one of the trio of thieves and murderers he’s chasing splits off from the others, the outlaw kills a random bear cub. The mother bear kills him but now she is taking revenge on any human she can find. Nat and his partner Choctaw, a tracker, want to find and bring back the remaining two outlaws without becoming bear food themselves. Part of the pleasure of this story is simply that it’s “competence porn.” Nat is very, very good at what he does. Choctaw is brilliant at tracking. The men use guns, muscle, nerve and strategy to find and capture the outlaws without getting at-risk civilians hurt (at which they’re moderately successful), and without getting eaten by the bear. On the way back, though, they discover that the grizzly is still there, and she is not done. Vivid action makes “Everything Sparkles in Hell” a real page-turner.
In this, the final story of the book, Lansdale uses his after-notes to provide some information about cowboys. Roughly one-third of the western “cowpokes” were African-American, Native American or Mexican, a fact that Hollywood, decades later, chose to whitewash. “Nat Love” is based on an actual Black marshal, who wrote a melodramatic “autobiography” in the early twentieth century. His book seems largely accurate with some scenes intensified for the pulp readers back east. Lansdale was captivated by this historical person and began writing stories based on him. He completed a western novel about a black marshal in the 1980s but couldn’t sell it because publishers said, “Black people don’t read and white people don’t read books about black people.” Think about that. Lansdale didn’t sell the book until the aughts.
Nat Love is a great character with a great narrative voice and he’s a good choice to round out the collection. If you like quirky, mostly male characters, crime or noirish stories with the occasional fantasy-horror or science fiction story as a change of pace, pick up Driving to Geronimo’s Grave.