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Spotlight on: Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories by Joe R. Lansdale

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Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories by Joe R. Lansdale Joe R. Lansdale, Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories

As a fan of Joe R. Lansdale, I look forward to each new release with relish. Sometimes, however, these releases are difficult for a man of modest means to acquire, especially when several of Lansdale's works are published by small press publisher Subterranean Press. The original hardback release, for example, had a rather hefty price tag: $40 retail (Amazon and other sellers often offer a discount, but even that is usually not enough). Luckily, Golden Gryphon has come out with a paperback edition thrifty enough for any wallet.

Even so, Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories turns out to be a bit of a mixed bag. Although I like Lansdale's short work, in general it's more uneven than his novels. The same occurs here: Two of the four short pieces fall short of ideal, while all four novellas are worthy of celebration.

"The Mule Rustlers" is all about taking fictional revenge on whomever stole Lansdale's own mule years ago. It has a lot of the same great features of other Lansdale fiction, but the unfair ending leaves a bad taste. "Screwup," on the other hand, is pure fun to read. A loser gets in over his head and spends the rest of the time just digging himself deeper while trying to get out of trouble. There's not much in the way of backstory or character development, just one event after another leading up to an ironic, but entirely appropriate, ending, but you won't care. (This is the second story Lansdale has written with his wife, Karen. The first, "A Change of Lifestyle," is available in Bumper Crop.)

"Veil's Visit" was written with Andrew Vachss, a practicing lawyer as well as a writer, who wanted the opportunity to fictionally "defend" Leonard Pine (of Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series of novels) of a crime he committed in more than one of those books. It's short and has an obvious agenda, but until the next Hap and Leonard novel comes along, it's do. Later, Lansdale remembers his mother, and how she influenced his life, in "O'Reta, Snapshot Memories." Like the title says, it's not a linear narrative, but the author fills the prose with such genuine emotion that it's easy to get swept up in it.

"Way Down There" combines cartoons with comic books, Jules Verne with Edgar Rice Burroughs, all with that inimitable Lansdale stamp. A special group of friends go to Hell to rescue Satan (it makes sense in the story) and learn a lot about the underworld along the way. It even includes references for further reading, assuming you've got the right kind of library.

I tried to read some Philip Jose Farmer once and just couldn't get into it. But Lansdale calls him his "outright favorite" (though he does admit to Farmer's unevenness) and wrote "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down" in tribute. It's a sci-fi Western, complete with metal men, talking ape folk, and rips in the space-time continuum, right alongside crusty, meat-eating, livestock-screwing people of the land. Throw in astronauts, torture, and a hearty dose of cannibalism, and you got a wild ride that surprises at every turn. (Once you've read both this and Zeppelins West, you're ready for Flaming London, but not before.) After this recommendation, I may just have to give Farmer another try.

"The Big Blow" just may be a perfect story. Set during the Galveston hurricane of 1900, it offers action, sex, violence, cleansing, redemption, and a small dose of history, as it happens to typically Lansdalean characters. Centering around a boxing match between John McBride and "Lil" Arthur Johnson (later to be called Jack), it's a real action piece, its 56 pages flying past like roundhouse punches. The characters and setting feel impressively realistic, and the plot is entirely believable. I had read it once before, when it came around in rotation on the Free Stories section of the author's website, and it's even better the second time around. I could imagine visiting "The Big Blow" yet again, and I'm not much for re-reading.

The title novella is the last piece in Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories. Fans of Lansdale's Edgar Allan Poe Award–winning The Bottoms may recognize it as the inspiration for that novel. It was originally written to order for publication in Al Sarrantonio's Bram Stoker Award–winning 999 anthology, but Lansdale felt that this story of a young boy's search for a serial killer in the Sabine River Bottoms of East Texas during the Great Depression deserved to be expanded.

A warning: if you have any intention of reading The Bottoms, skip "Mad Dog Summer." They're the same story with the same solution. That said, the novella is an ideal way for fans of the novel to revisit the experience without the same time commitment. I wholeheartedly recommend Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories to fans of the "champion mojo storyteller." It's also a fine place to start for the newcomer, as it gives a look at the author's ability to span genres without losing his own special touch that keeps his readers coming back time and time again.

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