Heath Lowrance

Four Elmore Leonard Westerns

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Sep 162014


Surprisingly funny Western that takes place mostly within the walls of Yuma prison in the early part of the 20th century. Harold is the only black inmate at the soon-to-be-closed Yuma, and Raymond is the only Indian, which makes them the targets of derision. Shelby, a prisoner with connections, makes their lives hell, until the new warden, Mr. Manly, takes a special interest in the pair and decides to elevate their confidence in the hopes he can bring them to Jesus. Harold and Raymond eventually form a bond, based on their desire to be like the warriors of their ancestry. When Shelby and his cohorts plan an escape, Manly relies on the misfits to bring the fugitives to justice.

I loved how the central characters were nothing like your standard Western heroes-- like pretty much every character in the book, they aren't too bright and they aren't too heroic. But there's something very likable about both of them. 

There's a scene about mid-way through FORTY LASHES LESS ONE that was pure Leonard humor, where Warden Manly is trying to explain some finer points of the Bible to the boys, who are clearly not getting it. It's presented in the sort of dead-pan way that Leonard would later become famous for, and reminded me once again why his dialogue is so enviable.

The very last paragraph made me laugh out loud.


I believe this is Leonard's second novel, written in the early '50's, and as such doesn't really display the trademark humor and terrific dialogue we know him for. For all that, though, it's still very well-written, spare and lean, befitting the Arizona setting.

A group of Randado's prominent citizens, manipulated by rich cattle baron Phil Sundeen, lynch a pair of rustlers without waiting on due process of law. When the young, green deputy sheriff, Kirby Frye, gets wind of it, he sets out to serve warrants to the men involved-- only to be humiliated and run out of town. But Frye isn't about to let the law be subverted; he gathers himself, along with a loose handful of allies, and sets out to bring Sundeen and his lackies to justice. 

It's a fairly standard Western scenario, especially in the last fourth, with Frye on the trail of the fleeing Sundeen, but still manages to play out in the end in unexpected ways. Frye is an interesting character, torn between youthful impetuousness and level-headed responsibility, and Sundeen is a nicely sleazy villain. The other characters all straddle lines somewhere between the two, but their main crime seems to be cowardice.

So... THE LAW AT RANDADO is a typical Western, elevated by a fast-pace and superior writing.


Bren Early and Dana Moon are occasional partners and uneasy friends who have been through more than their share of harrowing adventures together over the years. But it looks like fate may land them on opposite sides of a land war-- Moon has taken the job of Indian Affairs agent, tasked with protecting the interests of the residents of Rincon Mountain, and Early is in the employ of a powerful mining company that wants the native's off the mountain. 

Tensions build as newsmen from around the country flock, anticipating an epic showdown between the two gunmen friends, and things are complicated further by the arrival of Phil Sundeen, a rustler who Early and Moon left for dead some years earlier. For Sundeen, the land war is the perfect opportunity for some revenge.

As noted above, I read THE LAW AT RANDADO right before GUNSIGHTS; RANDADO is a very early Leonard and the villain in it is Phil Sundeen. GUNSIGHTS is Leonard's last western, written about 25 years later, and marks the return of Sundeen. The events of RANDADO aren't mentioned in GUNSIGHTS, but I thought it was an interesting choice to bring the sleazy bastard back for another appearance. 

Dana Moon and Bren Early are both terrific characters, and not really typical of Leonard in that they are both rather taciturn. They are a lot alike in some ways, but over the course of the novel Leonard fleshes out their particular character traits, highlights the huge differences between them-- Moon is grounded and knows what he wants out of life, Early is rudderless and a bit in love with Death and Glory. And the supporting characters, especially Sundeen's conflicted man Ruben Vega, are all terrific. 

Moon and Early would have been terrific series characters. Oh well. Great book.


This was actually the first Elmore Leonard Western I read, some months ago, and it's easily one of his best novels, Western or not.

Valdez is a lawman who gets zero respect, hired basically to do thankless grunt work. He's not taken seriously by the town's governing bodies (or anyone else, really), and when they need someone to roust a black man with an Indian wife, holed up in a cabin, they tag Valdez to do it. Valdez is forced to kill the man-- who turns out to be innocent of the crime he's been accused of. While no one else is particularly troubled by this, guilt eats away at Valdez and he tries to take up a collection for the black man's widow. And he won't allow himself to be dismissed. This leads to a violent public humiliation (one of the set-pieces of the book, a scene that's more than a little Biblical in Valdez's "crucifixion"), and being run out of town.

But his enemies have made a huge mistake, because there is only so much Valdez will endure before striking back. When he returns, he brings all Hell with him.

I thought it was interesting how it took the well-being of someone else (the Indian widow) for Valdez to stand up. He's a quietly heroic character, selfless, humble, and ultimately committed to doing the right thing. That he's the butt of the joke for so long is in keeping with some of Leonard's other work-- the two central characters in FORTY LASHES LESS ONE are similar, in that they are targets of derision who ultimately find their self-respect and prove themselves.

Like I said, this was my first Leonard Western, and one I often recommend as an ideal starting place for anyone who hasn't read a Western before. It's lean and fast-paced, with great dialogue and believable characters.


More Elmore Leonard Westerns coming soon.

The Joe R. Lansdale Binge of Summer ’14

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Aug 302014
I spent all of July and the beginning of August on a Joe R. Lansdale rampage. I read a selection of his books-- some I had read previously, years ago, and others were new to me-- and I'm happy to tell you Lansdale is every bit as terrific as I remembered. It was about 25 years ago, I guess, I first discovered him. I was working in an independent book store at the time, and THE DRIVE-IN caught my eye; even then, I was enraptured with what you might call "trash culture"; that is, B-movies, surf and garage punk, cheesy Americana, etc, and THE DRIVE-IN looked right up my alley.

Oh yes, it definitely was. THE DRIVE-IN threw me for a loop and quickly became one my very favorite books, and Joe Lansdale became one of my very favorite writers. I sought out all of his available books at the time, read them in a near-frenzy of fan-worship, preached the Lansdale gospel to everyone I knew.

But over the years I sort of lost track of him a little. He released book after book, becoming steadily more popular, but I had moved on and shifted my obsession to the great paperback original writers of the '50's and early '60's.

That was pretty stupid of me. When I finally caught up to him, I was very happy to discover that Lansdale had only gotten better and better in the intervening years. He really is a remarkably original voice, and even though his work is closer to mainstream now than it ever was, he is still fearless, still wry and crude, still a writer's writer.

I read a total of 13 Lansdale's in a row on this binge, which took me about halfway through the ones I have on my shelf. Maybe next July I'll tackle the rest...

Here are my notes on the Great Summer Lansdale Binge, in no real order:


When a burglar breaks into his home, husband and father Richard Dane is forced to shoot him down. Dane isn't a violent man, and the event is traumatic for him-- but when the burglar's father, Ben Russel, comes seeking revenge, Dane finds himself confronting the darkest parts of his own heart. 

That set-up in really only the starting point of this highly unpredictable novel. Bizarre circumstances push Dane and Russel into the role of allies, and their journey leads them to discover a very dark and very disturbing conspiracy that changes both men forever. 

I first read this one some twenty years ago. It was among the first two or three that turned me into a serious Lansdale fan and one I've been itching to re-read for some time. It stands up very well, even though Lansdale has definitely gotten better and his voice more distinctive since. Terrific book.


This first of what would become a series about Hap Collins and Leonard Pine is just a terrific book, and I loved it as much on this second reading as I had waaay back in 1990. When Hap's ex, Trudy, shows up, Hap and Leonard get drawn into a search for hidden money. Trudy has hooked up with some old '60's radicals who have big plans for the cash. Things go south, of course, and the last half of SAVAGE SEASON is riddled with tension and double-crosses that come at a lightning pace. There's a huge, amazingly suspenseful action sequence at the climax that just blew me away. Vintage Lansdale.


While SAVAGE SEASON, the first appearance of Hap and Leonard, was kind of a "caper" novel, this one is more a straight-up mystery. Well, as "straight-up" as you could expect from Lansdale, anyway... and if you know Lansdale, you know he doesn't really do "straight-up". 

Leonard's uncle dies, leaving Leonard a house, lots of money, and a dead boy hidden under the floorboards, along with an assortment of moldering kiddie porn mags. This unsavory discovery sets Leonard and Hap on a quest to clear Leonard's uncle's name and nab the real killer. Along the way, they uncover more victims, and since all the victims are wayward black boys, the police aren't much help. 

At its heart, this is a novel about the politics of race in E. Texas, and Lansdale doesn't flinch when it comes to that subject. It's a solid mystery novel, too, even if the bad guy(s) are somewhat telegraphed. But what really makes MUCHO MOJO shine, just like all the other books in this series, is the terrific relationship between Hap and Leonard; a straight white guy and a gay black guy with a friendship that is as deep and strong as any you'll ever read about. Their banter is witty and affectionate and feels very real. While the other relationships in the novel-- especially Hap's doomed romance with Florida-- maybe fall a little flat, all is forgiven when Hap and Leonard are on the page together. 


Joe Lansdale's first published novel, from 1981, was released in the early days of the serial killer craze that gripped the reading and movie-watching public in the '80's, the zeitgeist that culminated in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, but kept hobbling along after that until most of us were sick unto death of serial killer stories. 

The story is simple: a depraved killer, The Houston Hacker, goes around slicing up women, and a detective, Marvin Hanson, pursues him. There are a couple of twists and turns near the end as Lansdale keeps us guessing who the killer is. Hanson's family is put in danger when the Hacker decides he's getting too close. That's about it.

It's hard to make any sort of judgment about it all these years later, because all the tropes we're so familiar with now probably weren't so overdone then. And being a huge fan of Lansdale, it's kinda hard for me to be harsh about this one. But compared to the work Champion Joe would do later, ACT OF LOVE is, honestly, not great. There's very little of the writer he would become evident here; none of those eccentric character tics, none of that exceptional dialogue or black humor. In fact, ACT OF LOVE is pretty much a humorless book, and the violence is unrestrained and almost immaturely graphic, to no real purpose. I don't know. Maybe I'm judging too harshly, as right before this one I read THE BOTTOMS, which is Lansdale at his very finest. Maybe it's not fair to compare a writer to himself 25 years ago. 

But regardless, the Lansdale we have now is, without question, one of the finest and most original writers working. Unless you're a hardcore fan or a completest, though, I'd suggest skipping ACT OF LOVE.


After a mysterious childhood illness, Harry Wilkes is left with a strange condition-- loud noises cause visions of past horrors to come to him in crippling clarity. Now in college, he has shut himself off from the world and turned to boozing to numb the vision's power. When he meets Tad, an older alcoholic, they work together to find their "centers", until Harry's childhood friend/crush Kayla shows up begging Harry's help in finding her father's murderer. And the results could end up killing them all.

This is an exceptionally strong novel, even for Lansdale. The characters are fully realized in all their flaws and weaknesses, and the subject of alcoholism is treated with remarkable insight and realism. A terrific thriller.


This volume contains two short novels, "Zeppelins West" and "Flaming London"; in the first, Buffalo Bill Cody's travelling Wild West Show winds up in Imperial Japan on a secret mission, where Cody (who, by the way, is just a head in a Mason jar), Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, and Sitting Bull rescue the Frankenstein Monster from an evil shogun. Then, with the Japanese in pursuit, they crash in the ocean, are rescued by Captain Bemo (standing in for Captain Nemo), and taken to the Island of Dr. Momo (standing in for Dr. Moreau). And that's just the beginning. You might get the impression that this is a seriously goofy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, romp, and you'd be right. It's wildly anarchic and over-the-top.

The second volume,"Flaming London", continues the bizarre fun, as Ned the Seal (introduced as a minor character in the first one but taking more center stage here) teams up with Mark Twain and Jules Verne to battle invading Martians a la War of the Worlds. Along the way, they encounter a giant steam man, a talking Martian ape, pirates lost in time, and the Flying Dutchman.

So, yeah. Crazy stuff. Lansdale without a filter, basically. The first novel has a nice, flying by the seat of your pants feeling, as if Lansdale is making it up as he goes and is having a helluva good time. The second one is more cohesive, and maybe a bit more satisfying in the long run. But both of them are well worth reading.


DEADMAN'S ROAD contains all of Lansdale's tales of the Rev Jebidiah Mercer, the gunslinger preacher who wanders the West destroying supernatural evil wherever he finds it. The bulk of the volume is taken up by the short novel DEAD IN THE WEST, in which the tormented Reverend arrives in Mud Creek, Texas, the target of a vengeful Indian curse and hordes of flesh-eating zombies. In the other stories, Reverend Mercer has his head on a little straighter (which isn't saying much, the guy's a mess) and vanquishes werewolves, goblins, and demonic bees.

All the stories are fun and profane in the best Lansdale tradition. Not too many writers can balance grim against funny, horrifying against goofy, the way Joe Lansdale can, and the result of that is a handful of stories that only HE could have written.


I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is probably Lansdale's most fully realized novel that I've read so far. It is entirely gripping, with terrific and believable characters, pitch-perfect pacing, and, in the last fourth, almost unbearable suspense. 

Like several of his other more "serious" novels (please note I use serious in quotation marks) THE BOTTOMS takes place in Depression-era East Texas. Young Harry and his little sister Tom find the mutilated corpse of a black woman, and as horrifying as it is, it's only the beginning in a string of murders that ultimately lead to the lynching of an innocent black man for the crime. Harry's father, who acts as a part time constable, has his hands full trying to find the murderer while keeping the KKK from taking further steps in the black community. 

More than a few times, THE BOTTOMS made me think of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; the comparison is inevitable. The narrator is a young person who's father is often the sole voice of reason in a town stained by ugly institutionalized racism. There's even aBoo Radley of sorts, near the end. And speaking of that ending... the last chapter is just flat-out terrifying.


The third Hap and Leonard book, and the strongest so far. At the request of their cop friend Hanson, the boys head off to Grovetown, Texas, in search of Hanson's girlfriend (and Hap's ex) Florida. What they find is a kind of throwback town, full of Jim Crow types. No sir, they don't like "coloreds" in Grovetown. Trying to get a bead on where Florida has vanished to, Hap and Leonard find themselves in pretty serious straits, asking questions that are making some of Grovetown's more illustrious citizens nervous-- and a little past the halfway mark in THE TWO-BEAR MAMBO, our heroes get a pretty shocking reminder of their own mortality with a pretty brutal beat-down. Of course, it takes a whole mob of folks to do it, but it's enough to make the boys start second-guessing themselves. 

Reading this one, it dawned on me finally that I've really developed an emotional attachment to Hap and Leonard. It's hard not to like them, right from the first book, but in this one it really hit home; there were a few moments when I found myself worried about them, which was ridiculous, as I know full well there are more books in the series after this one, and yet... I got so caught up in events I wasn't even thinking about that.

Anyway, the last fourth of THE TWO-BEAR MAMBO goes dark, as Hap and Leonard find it in themselves to get back on the horse and finish what they started, despite their fear and new-found insecurity. And the climax, set during a raging rain storm and the threat of the entire town flooding with them in it, is a nail biter. Great stuff. 


A collection of Lansdale's most popular stories. Very good stuff, and a reminder of what an original voice he was, right from the very beginning of his career. Most of these stories are pretty brutal and pretty graphic. Others, like "Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland" are surprisingly whimsical, even if they DO have that twisted Lansdale touch.

Favorites include the aforementioned "Bob the Dinosaur", the truly disturbing "By Bizarre Hands", the black comedy "Night They Missed the Horror Show", the action-packed and scary "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road", the Alfred Hitchcock-esque "The Steel Valentine", and the tragic-funny "Godzilla's Twelve-Step Program".


Bill is a loser in the classic mold, a shiftless fella without much brains or ambition. He's been living off his mother's social security checks, but when she dies (and her corpse starts stinking the place up) the pipeline dries up and Bill comes up with a scheme to rob a fireworks stand across the street from his house. The "heist" goes south in a hurry, and Bill has to take it on the lam through a dangerous swamp. He winds up joining a travelling freak show, making friends with a dog boy, and falling hard for the freak show owner's sexy young wife... and of course, the wife has a plan to do away with her husband...

If you've read any old Gold Medal paperback originals from guys like Charles Williams or Day Keene or Robert Edmund Alter, or even if you've read James M. Cain, you already know this story backwards and forwards. But Lansdale does the Lansdale thing with it, making it hysterically funny at times, dark, profane, a little vile on occasion, but compellingly readable. There are lots of surprises along the way, some truly memorable characters and scenes, and seeing the way Bill changes (in some ways he becomes a better person, and in other ways, well... not so much) is fascinating.

Also, I should note, the whole opening segment involving the botched robbery and Bill's escape through the swamp is one of the funniest things I've ever read in my life. It was disturbing too, but I couldn't help but laugh out loud a few times.


This one starts with one of the funnier sequences in the Hap and Leonard series, as the boys are attacked out of nowhere by a rabid squirrel; it's a seemingly random beginning that actually becomes relevant at the end. But even if it wasn't, it works as a purely comic scene.

The whole book is pretty funny, really. There's more emphasis on comedy than in the previous books, and that's probably why I like it maybe just a little less. But a LOT happens in this one-- Leonard's boyfriend Raul disappears, Leonard is accused of murder (surprisingly, he's cleared pretty quickly)and the boys investigate a ring of black market gay-bashing video makers. There are lots of quirky characters and quirky scenes, but BAD CHILI maybe doesn't hold together as a whole as well as previous Hap and Leonard novels.

I'm being nit-picky, of course. Even a lesser Hap & Leonard novel is well-worth reading. Some bonus's are the surprise appearance of Jim Bob Luke, from COLD IN JULY, and a really thrilling climax that takes place during a tornado. Poor Hap keeps getting caught in the middle of natural disasters. And of course, the easy camaraderie between Hap & Leonard is a pure joy.


Depression-era E Texas: during a violent storm, Sunset Jones kills her husband, the constable, as he attempts to rape her. Much to Camp Rapture's dismay, she inherits his job and finds herself in the middle of a double murder investigation that implicates some of the town's highest officials. And Sunset's life, as well as the lives of her daughter and her friends, is in serious danger.

That summary doesn't do it justice. This is Lansdale at his best. SUNSET & SAWDUST is a suspenseful, darkly comic thriller with all of the great, wry touches Champion Joe is known for. And Sunset is just a terrific character. In this age when too many creators think a "strong female character" is basically just a man in drag, Lansdale gives us a believable and engaging heroine who is strong BECAUSE she's a woman, not in spite of it. You'll definitely root for her.

The Music Behind the Stories

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Jun 142014

The wonderful Kate Laity posted something yesterday-- a list on Youtube of songs that had inspired stories from her. I thought that was a terrific idea and immediately decided to steal it.

I don't actually listen to music while writing. I find it distracting, because I tend to want to concentrate on the music, listen to it. It's an activity in and of itself to me. But music still plays an enormous role in my creative life, and there's always a soundtrack playing in my head that fits the story perfectly.

Here are some songs that played roles in various novels and stories of mine.

"Red Right Hand", by Nick Cave. I supposed this one is pretty obvious, if you've read my novel THE BASTARD HAND.

"You don't have no money? He'll get you some
You don't have no car? He'll get you one
You don't have no self-respect, you feel like an insect,
Well, don't you worry buddy, here he comes
He's a god, he's a man, he's a ghost, he's a guru
You're one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by his Red Right Hand."

In fact, the working title of TBH was RED RIGHT HAND. So there you go.

A lot of other music in my head went into that one, as well, a lot of old gospel, some RL Burnside, some Junior Kimbrough.

My short story collection, DIG TEN GRAVES, has a more diverse mental soundtrack, of course, but a lot of the head-music that went into it was more... discordant and disturbing. A lot of Velvet Underground. A lot of Thin White Rope (I've said before that, more than any other band, Thin White Rope captures what the inside of my head sounds like. Two in particular were the Velvet's "Sister Ray" and TWR's "Astronomy".

CITY OF HERETICS? Tom Waits. Especially his release "Alice". That album really captured the seedy, sad desperation I was trying for with my second novel.

And Hawthorne... well, again, Thin White Rope had a big influence. The creepy, discordant lyricism of songs like "Lithium" and "Sack Full of Silver" felt like Hawthorne's world to me. But the primary song that suited Hawthorne, to me, came from the unlikely source of The Pixies. The song "Silver" could be Hawthorne's theme, really, if a film was ever made about him.

Double Date

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Jun 122014

Frank and Earle were best friends, and one night Earl called Frank up late and said, "Frank, I need your help, bro. There's this girl I've been trying to get to go out with me for weeks, and she finally said yes. But the thing is, she'll only do a double date, with her best friend. Can you help me out?"

Frank said, "No way, man. You want me to be this other girl's date? I don't think so."

"Don't be a dick. Come on. Please? I'll owe you a big one."

So Frank relented. He showered and dressed and met Earle downtown in front of a fancy restaurant. A few minutes later, the girls, Emily and Sophie, showed up.

Both of them were stunning, and Frank's irritation about the situation quickly vanished.

Inside, they ordered the most expensive stuff on the menu. Earle was his usual charming self, but Frank was awkward and shy, which was his usual condition. His "date" was Sophie, and it was painfully apparent she had zero interest in him. She was, however, very attentive to Earle, just as Earle's date Emily was.

Halfway through dinner, while Frank fumbled with the conversational ball, Sophie interrupted him, saying, "You know what? Emily? Let's switch men."

Emily said, "What?"

Sophie said, "This one,"-- gesturing to Frank, "isn't working for me. He's boring as fuck. And not very good-looking. Why should you have the good one?"

"No way," Emily said. "I'm not switching. Why would I do that?"

"Because. You owe me."

Whatever it was Emily owed Sophie, it was obviously big enough to have an impact, because Emily frowned angrily and snapped, "Fine." The two women stood up and traded seats. Sophie gazed adoringly at Earle, who seemed completely okay with this new development. Emily glared at Frank.

Later that night, when Earle and Frank walked the girls to the entrance of their apartment building, Sophie said, "Why don't you come up for a night cap, Earle? I'm sure Emily doesn't mind. Do you, Emily?"

Emily said, "Nope. Not at all."

So without even a glance at Frank, the three of them headed inside and let the door close right in Frank's face.

The next day, Earle called Frank on the phone. "Dude," he said. "That was the best date ever."

Frank said, "Yeah. It was fucking great, man. Time of my fucking life. Drop dead."

DIG TEN GRAVES not dead yet

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May 272014

Hey, just wanted to let you kind, decent, depraved folks know that my short story collection, DIG TEN GRAVES, went on sale for .99 cents on Kindle over the holiday weekend. It's been 2.99 for a couple of years now. I've honestly been amazed at how the price change, and the word of mouth of my friends out there in social media, have caused it to really start moving. I believe I'll keep it at this price for a few more days. If you haven't already picked it up, I hope you consider doing so.

EXILES: An Outsider’s Anthology

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May 242014

EXILES: An Outsider's Anthology

This is available in good ole' U.S. of A. as of today. I wrote the intro, which is calculated to depress the shit out of you right from the get-go. 'cause that's what I do, partner.

Edited by His Satanic Majesty, otherwise known as Paul Brazill, and featuring an absolutely top-notch collection of small-press literary/pulp/something-else-entirely genius writers. Here's the line-up:



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May 232014

She only ever loved monsters. It made the boy wonder about himself; if she was capable of loving only evil men, what did that make him? Was he evil, deep in his heart? He didn’t feel evil. But then, he didn’t feel virtuous either. Not a good boy, not a bad boy. Not a real boy at all.

But maybe that was the point. Maybe the men his mother loved weren’t real either. Maybe they were illusions, just like him, and it was their very intangibility that drew his mother to them.

“Your sister’s father,” she said to him as he lay in bed, sick with the flu, eight years old, “was a wicked man. From the day we were married, he beat me. He broke my nose twice, and my collarbone. He could hit, he could hit hard. Knocked the sense right outta me. And he hated you, because you were a reminder that I’d been with other men before him. He kept all this hatred hidden, you understand, until after we were married.”

His mother’s face is blurry above him. His head is throbbing, and he feels as if he’s lying under a sheet of fire.

“When I got pregnant with your sister, I finally realized I had to get away from him.” And the boy wonders, vaguely and in the grips of his fever, why did you wait? Wasn’t my safety, his hatred of me, enough to make you leave? 

Mom says, “One day, before I got pregnant with your sister, I came home from work and you were gone. His sister was supposed to be looking after you. She told me he’d come and taken you. Taken you away. Oh, you can imagine, I was in hysterics, until he called two days later and told me that if I wanted you back to come to this old abandoned house. So I went, naturally.”

Where were the police, the boy wants to ask, but he’s too weak with the flu. Why did you go by yourself? Couldn’t you see what was going to happen?

“I went,” Mom says. “And when I got there he had you all tied up. He beat me up and then left us both there. I’ll never forget it. He was laughing.

“To this day, I don’t know what he put you through, but for months afterward I know you’d scream bloody murder every time you saw a toilet, and the sight of someone’s teeth, grinning, just made you cry your head off.”

“So after that, I took you and your little sister away. We were in Chattanooga at the time, you know. I took the two of you and just started walking. And then you’ll never guess what happened… a man pulled over and that man drove us all the way to Michigan. He was like an angel from heaven, that man. He wouldn’t accept any sort of money or thanks. He just drove us plumb to Michigan.”

The boy is confused. He says, “But my sister…” He is interrupted by a coughing fit. When he recovers, he manages to croak, “She was born up here, right? In Michigan?”

“That’s right,” his mother says. “When I say I took you and your sister, I mean to say that I took you in my arms and her in my belly.” She laughs. “We made it to Michigan, somehow, even though your sister kept trying climb under the man’s feet while he was driving. We made it, and moved in with your aunt.”

The boy, wracked with fever as he is, can only turn his face away from his mother, look at the bare wall, and feel hot tears scalding his cheeks. He is horribly confused and frustrated. He is angry with himself because he can’t make any sense out of what his mother is saying. If only he wasn’t sick, maybe it would all make more sense.
She leans over the bed and kisses his forehead with cool lips. “Get better, my angel. I love you so, so much.”


He doesn’t have any memory of any of the things his mother mentioned, about his two days as a captive of a cruel man. But because he now knows the story, images of his own making are forever planted firmly in his head.
He can see a dirty toilet, and he can feel a strong hand gripping him by the back of the neck and pushing his face into the water. He can feel the cold porcelain pressed hard against his cheek and can taste the rank water, and he can feel the panicked sensation of drowning.

He can also see teeth, grown unnaturally large in his imagination. They grin and chatter like one of those wind-up monkeys with the cymbals. They come at him out of the night in his dreams and gnaw at his face and neck and chest.

Is it true? Did it really happen the way she said? Well, why would she lie?

But then again, regardless of the truth of it, why… why would she tell him these things?

He would realize, years later, that his mother didn’t mean to hurt him. She was lost in the maelstrom of her own pain and fear, and the boy, the boy that she loved, was her only anchor. He had to share in her fear. He had to be the one to inherit her misery, otherwise she would be all alone. As alone as everyone else in the world.

Because in all her years, the one thing his mother never learned, the lesson that almost no one ever learns: There is nothing we say or do, there is nothing we long for or fear, there is nothing we love or hate, that is real.
Because we are alone, no matter how much of our misery we spread around. We are not free.

Notorious Head Case: Two

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May 192014

His mother’s life is a complicated tangle of inconsistencies, and her bonds with the boy are sailor’s knots that he doesn’t have the skills to untie. She tells him stories of her life that are sometimes contradictory and confusing, and always leave him uneasy and scared.

“Calhoun, Tennessee is where I grew up,” she says one day in her lilting Southern accent, as he and his younger half-sister sit at the kitchen table, eating biscuits and gravy. “We didn’t have any money. My daddy worked at the saw mill there, and Jesus Christ, he could be a mean sonofabitch.”

The boy and sister laugh at Mom’s rough language. It always makes them laugh. Mom is so pretty, still, even after all the horrible events of her life. It would be nice to say that the awful events were behind her now, but her life would be plagued, always and forever, with awful events. Her story of misery never ends, and eventually, yes, it takes its toll on her looks as it must for everybody. But that day, she is pretty, beautiful even, with her slender elfin face and clear green eyes and loads and loads of full blonde hair piled on her head.

“My mamma, your Mama Rock (they call their grandmother Mama Rock, for a reason the boy never really knew) had the most amazing singing voice. She sang on the radio, you know, down in Dickson. She could yodel just the old-timey singers. And she was beautiful. Too beautiful. My daddy was awful jealous of her, and it turns out with goddamn good reason.”

Mom then tells them how Mama Rock cheated on her husband with every man in town, and eventually left the family with some man called Danson. The boy knows this is true, because sometimes Mama Rock is visited by a son in her upstairs apartment, and the son’s last name isn’t the same as the rest of the family’s—it’s Danson.
Mom tells how Mama Rock left the family and no one saw her for years and Mom was left to take care of her father and her two younger brothers. She tells how her father lost his arm in an accident at the sawmill, or sometimes he loses his leg instead—or maybe the boy remembers it incorrectly.

“I had to drop out of school, but I didn’t mind, really, I hated school, I always got picked on by the other girls,” she says, and the boy is mortified, wondering how, in a just world, anyone could pick on his mother. “I had to get up every morning at four-thirty to make breakfast for everyone, and if I didn’t have it ready in time, well look out, ‘cuz Daddy would beat me within an inch of my life, and I’d just cry and cry and cry—“

And the boy doesn’t stop to wonder why his mother is telling him all this, why she’s sharing the nightmare of her life with her children, who are only seven and five at the time, why she is bequeathing all her misery to the next generation.

“Daddy used to say to me, you’re a little slut, just like your mama, and he wouldn’t let me go out on dates. I got a job outside the house when I was sixteen, I was a carhop at a drive-in restaurant, I’d roll up to cars on my roller skates and take orders. But when I’d come home late from work Daddy’d be waiting up for me and he’d accuse me of sleeping around with any man I came across and he’d grab me with one hand and beat the high holy hell outta me with the other.”

And how he managed to do that, missing an arm or a leg, the boy never thought to ask.

He didn’t think his mother was lying. He didn’t think it was that simple. For reasons he didn’t fully understand himself, he knew that memory was a tricky thing and the truth of someone’s experiences was completely subjective. 

No, his mother was not lying.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but he was a good man. He was just hurt, is all. Your Mama Rock broke his heart, and he could never trust anyone ever again, especially a woman. I was nineteen or so when he died, and my baby brothers were put up for adoption. I was growed-up, though, so no adoption for me. I had to work. I got a job as a go-go dancer.”

When the boy and his half-sister ask what a go-go dancer is, Mom grins and says, “I danced in a cage. You know, like on Hulapalooza? I had the white go-go boots and I danced to, oh, such great songs. I was really good at it.”

She met a man there, a man named Martin, and was married in no time. She had two sons by Martin, two brothers to the boy that he didn’t really know, would never really know, aside from a handful of visits many years later.

“He was a bastard,” Mom says. “He used to beat the shit outta me, far worse than my daddy ever did. After Edward was born (Edward was her second son, Tommy the first), I decided I couldn’t go on like that and I left him. He managed to… he managed to convince the court that I was an unfit mother. He…” And here Mom would start crying, and the boy and his half-sister would stop eating and stare at her in horror. “He got my babies taken from me, he got custody of them. I hated it, but… well, I realized that I couldn’t take care of them myself. I didn’t have any money, cuz he wouldn’t pay alimony.”

“What’s alimony?” the boy asks.

“It’s what the man is supposed to pay the woman, after they get divorced. He wouldn’t give me none, and so he 
got the babies and I had nothing. It was Christmas when I realized I had to let him have them. I was so broke, I had to feed them macaroni and cheese for their Christmas dinner.”

It another version of the story, told many years later, the characters of Tommy and Edward were replaced with the boy and his sister.

Melton was the first of a succession of evil men who seemed bent on nothing less than destroying her. She’d been divorced from him less than two years and was working in a diner in Huntsville, Alabama when she met a new man, the man who would be the boy’s father. “Oh my sweet God, he was the most handsome man I’ve ever seen in my life, to this day…”

And the boy’s half-sister would say, “What about my daddy? Wasn’t he hand-some?”

“Yes, he was, but he was nothing compared to your brother’s daddy. He looked just like Clint Eastwood. He looked so much like him that, when he came into the diner I was working at, he had everyone believing that’s who he was. Clint Eastwood, right there in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for no good reason. I knew he wasn’t, of course, but I didn’t care. He was so handsome and such a smooth-talker…”

In another version of the story, it wasn’t Clint Eastwood his father looked like, but Chuck Conners, the guy who played “The Rifleman” on TV.

“We got married in the fall of 1965, and before long I got pregnant with you.” She tousles the boy’s white-blond hair. “And then the sonofabitch left. Soon as he found out I was pregnant. He just lit out, and I never saw him again, except in the courtroom when the marriage was annulled.”

The boy was born in January of 1966, and he tries to do the math of the length of a typical pregnancy from gestation to birth, but it doesn’t seem to jibe with them being married in the fall of the previous year. He decides that it really doesn’t matter. 

After that, his mother met McAmity, his half-sister’s father, and the already dark story of his mother’s strange life got darker still, and became a horror story that involved the boy as well.

Notorious Head Case: One

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May 122014
There’s something strange today.
He can’t pinpoint it, but something doesn’t feel right. Something bad is nudging its way into the boy’s world.
It’s the porch. No, it doesn’t look different; it’s still long and narrow, paint flaking off its wood and nails popping up like little metal moles all over. It still stretches the length of the old house, across the front, along the side and into the unexplored regions in the back. Its shadows still shift and flutter in corners every time the cold sun disappears behind the clouds. It’s the same porch the boy has known for the three years he’s lived there.
But something isn’t right. Something’s changed.
He feels it as a sort of electricity, like bundled wires humming from underground, and his eye—his one good eye—is drawn to the rear of the house, where the porch winds away into darkness. He’s never ventured to the back of the house. Why? Because the sight of the porch melting away into that unknown territory always fills him with a vague, stomach-knotting dread. He’s always felt that there was… something. Something back there, not meant for him to see.
But today, this morning, that something is insinuating its way toward him, stretching out invisible tendrils along the porch, snagging the boy’s mind. That something has grown tired of waiting.
That something wants him.
He stands in the light, staring at a point in the shadows at the far end of the porch, stands there holding his battered Batman action figure in one slender hand. He is almost six years old. He is not a good boy or a bad boy. He is only a collection of protons and neutrons, chemicals interacting with each other, electrical charges firing off in his brain unceasingly. His body is alive with millions of bacteria that feed off him, and will one day die within hours of him.
Even at almost six years old, the boy knows all of these things about himself. No one ever told him, but he knows. He’s not even a real boy.
The thing that calls to him from the unexplored back of the porch also knows these things. It’s already whispering in the boy’s brain, saying things like remember, remember, you will die and cold fear is all there is, in the end and there are things eating you alive.
It urges him to move, to place one bare foot in front of the other and come. The boy doesn’t resist. He drops Batman to the porch steps and begins to walk, slowly, into the shadows.
That is the boy’s earliest memory. There is more after that, of course, but even as an adult he cannot say definitively what is true and what isn’t. When he thinks of the afternoon when he was almost six and he ventured into the uncharted jungles of the back porch, he thinks of it as a non-linear patchwork of impressions—sometimes contradicting each other.
He learns at an early age to have no faith in memory, and therefore no faith in reality. If a false memory can feel as real as a “true” one, what good is reality?
There were significant events before his encounter with the shadows, of course, and he was there for them; yet he only knows them second-hand. How he lost his right eye, for instance. He doesn’t remember it. He was too young.
His mother is the bard of uneasy stories and misery. She will tell him many tales over the years. This is how she described the accident that took away most of the vision in his right eye:
“You were three years old,” she says. “I had to work two jobs, you know, so the girl from down the street was babysitting you. I could hardly afford even that, but what was I going to do, leave my baby all alone? I would never do that, my babies are my whole life.
“So you were three, and you were playing in the front yard. You were by the fence, which if I was home I never would’ve let you get that close to the road. Stupid kids are always roaring up and down that road, drinking and being punks. They get away with it because it’s a dirt road and the police don’t patrol it the way they should. So you were by the fence, and you found a broken Co-Cola bottle that one of those punks had thrown right into our yard.
“You picked it up and you were playing with it, although for the life of me I can’t figure out why you thought a broken glass bottle was something worth playing with. Your babysitter was sitting on the porch, I dunno, studying her geography homework or something, and she saw you. She yelled for you to put it down but either you couldn’t hear her or were just ignoring her. So she got up and ran over to you and went to hit the bottle out of your hand. So she says.
“Well, she says you jerked your hand away at the last second and her palm hit the bottle right on the edge and instead of hitting it away from you she hit it right into your face.”
His mother would inevitably tear up a little at about this point of the story. His mother cried a great deal, over the years.
“She hit it right into your face,” his mother said. “And the broken edge got you right in the eye. It cut the muscle that helps hold your eye in place, which is why your eye drifts to the right now. And it cut the iris too, so that your pupil sorta bleeds out into it.”
The boy listens to the story and marvels that he can’t recall one single thing his mother is saying. How could something so traumatic happen to a person and still be completely absent in the person’s head?
His mother’s story continues. Somehow, after the babysitter (who must have been wracked with the most monstrous guilt imaginable, the boy thinks, and he can’t help feel horribly sorry for her) accidently causes his disfigurement, his mother somehow appears on the scene and the boy is taken to the hospital, where, due to his mother’s lack of insurance, the boy is made to wait for an hour or two hours or even three depending on when the story is being told. He’s in shock, and almost bleeds to death before the doctors finally get to him.
The boy does remember, very vaguely, a day shortly after that, wearing an eye patch, like a pirate. He remembers stumbling up the hall in their decrepit, drafty old house, marveling at the fact that he had forgotten how to walk. His balance was shot. He doesn’t recall being troubled by it. He stumbled up the hall and fell into the wall, and, sitting on the floor, he started laughing. He looked up to see his mother looking down at him, and was stunned when she broke into sudden tears and ran away.
And so the porch, almost three years later.
He doesn’t resist the lure of whatever is calling to him, even though every cell and micro-organism in his body is rebelling, trying to pull him in the other direction.
The house juts up against a hill in the back, overgrown with weeds as tall as the boy, peppered with rusty old bits of detritus, like an old washing machine, part of a car (the kind the boy had seen before in old black and white movies), and a monstrously huge television set with the glass face of it busted out like the smashed face of a defeated robot-monster. The boy can see all of these things quite easily from the side of the porch. And it’s all that trash that makes his mother say Stay in the front, don’t go in back, Old Sam hasn’t cleaned anything up back there in years, it’s dangerous back there, you hear me?
And now he’s doing something he’s never done before. He is deliberately doing what his mother told him not to. It’s dangerous back there, you hear me? Yes, he knows that, he knows it’s dangerous. He knows that even better than his mother does.
He passes Old Sam’s door. Old Sam owns the house. Once upon a time, the place was a mansion, a palace. But one day a long time ago someone came and put walls up inside the house, and instead of one big house it was now five small ones. At one end of the house the boy lives with his mother and his half-sister, and Old Sam lives in a smaller apartment directly behind them. At the other end of the house, another woman lives with her teenage son and daughter (is the daughter the one who babysat him three years earlier? The boy doesn’t know) and above that apartment are two much smaller ones. The boy’s grandmother lives in one of the small upstairs apartments.
Old Sam’s door is the farthest the boy has ever ventured before. On two or three occasions he would accompany his mother to Old Sam’s to pay rent, which the man would sternly accept without inviting them in or offering any kind words. He would immediately close the door in their faces after mother handed over the cash. The boy was more than a little afraid of Old Sam.
But this time he wasn’t thinking of Old Sam. He was moving on, past the landlord’s door, one bare foot in front of the other, moving into the shadows.
Cold fear is all there is, in the end, the thing said from the darkness. And yes, yes, the boy thought, that is true, there is only cold fear.
Years later, his memory of what he saw would change in his mind. The details would shift like fault lines, threatening to collapse out from under him. The way the man moved, sometimes as sinuously as a snake, other times stiff, like a corpse, and the things he said would always be indistinct, as if he had spoken only in the boy’s head.
But the over-riding image of it always remained the same. The boy rounded the corner, heart pounding in his frail chest, and there was the man in the spider webs.
He wore a long black coat and a Victorian top hat, and he was thin and lanky and covered with dust. Spider webs hung like tattered lace curtains over the entire length of the porch, and the man was a part of them—his arms and legs were attached by them, like the limbs of a marionette.
The boy stopped, staring. The man raised his head—or rather, the webs lifted his head up—and a blank, featureless face gazed emptily back at the boy. It was a mask. White and smooth as an eggshell, with only two small holes for eyes. The boy could see that the eyes were blue.
The spider web man cocked his head, and the webs raised up one of his hands in something like a wave.
“Hello, boy,” the man said, his voice muffled by the mask.
The boy wanted to run, but found he couldn’t move.
“I said hello, boy,” the man said, and the boy was unable to respond.
The man’s head jiggled in an up and down movement that was something like a nod. “You are afraid, and cannot speak,” he said. “You are wise to be afraid.”
The webs shifted, and the man took a step toward the boy. The boy’s mouth opened to scream, but there was no sound. It was as if the man had reached down his throat and stolen his voice.
Closer, the boy could smell the musk of age and rot that permeated the air around the man in black. “You are wise,” the man said again. “But it is not of me that you should be afraid. It is of what I have to give you.”
He reached out one long, spindly hand, and the boy could see the spiders running up and down the man’s wrists, over his fingers and in and out of his sleeve.
The fingers touched the boy on the forehead, and a bolt of ice shot through the boy’s brain, freezing, and all those electrical impulses stopped all at once and the boy saw into the man’s mind, he saw an infinite blackness, he heard rust and dank dripping water and the sad lonely creaking of old steel, like an abandoned factory at midnight. It was cold, the cold of space.
“I am the Lost Man,” the black-clothed marionette said. “And my emptiness is boundless and without hope. Do you feel it?”
The boy did, he did feel it, an awful, unforgiving expanse of nothing so total that his heart ached from it. He still couldn’t move, but tears were rolling down his pale face, and he whispered, “Please… I don’t want to know. Please.”
“You can’t go back,” the Lost Man said. “Once you’ve seen it, you can’t go back, boy.”
“There is only cold fear, in the end,” the Lost Man said. “There are things eating you alive.”
“I don’t want to be the Lost Man,” the boy said. “I want to be free.”
“You are alone,” the Lost Man said, and his muffled voice sounded almost kindly just then. “You are alone, and you cannot be free.”
The Lost Man tells him other things as well, things that tear the boy’s heart to pieces.
But none of the words the Lost Man whispers to him will have any meaning, not until years later.
What his mother told him:
“I don’t know what got into you. You just came screaming and wailing into the house, hysterical. You ran into your room and threw yourself into bed and wouldn’t stop crying and carrying on all afternoon. I couldn’t get you to stop sobbing long enough to tell me what was wrong. ‘Bout scared the shit outta me. I almost called the doctor but after awhile you fell asleep and slept all afternoon and through the night. When you woke up the next morning, you seemed fine, as if nothing had happened.”
And that was fairly accurate. It really was as if nothing had happened, because the next day he couldn’t remember the Lost Man. He wouldn’t remember the Lost Man for many, many years.

Why autobiography is a lie

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May 112014
I could never write an autobiography because if I did, 90% of it would be complete bullshit. It's memory, man. As in, I have a lousy one. I don't understand how anyone could possibly remember events from a week ago, let alone from childhood. It doesn't help, in my case, that I spent a great part of my later teen years and early twenties completely whacked out of my mind on various illicit substances-- not the sort of thing that lends itself to perfect recall. I shudder to think of all the brain cells I snuffed out.

But in place of actual memories, I've managed to create my own private mythology, based loosely on reality. I've sort of filled in the blank spots with speculation that may or may not be true. My eye, for instance; when I was about three, I had a bad accident that damaged my right eye. I have no memory at all of the event, but I've created a story about it based on what I've heard from my Mom and various other sources and my re-imagining of it has become so clear in my head that it's almost exactly like a memory. 

So that makes me sort of wonder about the significance of actual memory. If something "untrue" can be as vivid in your mind as something "true", then what good is "true"? Like most writers, I live mostly inside my head anyway, yeah? Another example: dreams. Ever have a dream so vivid that you remember it years later? You remember it just as well, if not better, than something that actually happened? 

If memory is only a chemical reaction in your brain, a response to some sort of stimuli, then who's to say that there's any real difference between the "actual" and the "dream"?

So yeah. My autobiography would be equal parts real and unreal, and both parts would be equally valid. Because your life in your head is just as significant as the one outside. Maybe even more so.