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Spotlight on: The Shadows, Kith and Kin by Joe R. Lansdale

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The Shadows, Kith and Kin by Joe R. Lansdale Joe R. Lansdale, The Shadows, Kith and Kin

As good as his novels are, author Joe R. Lansdale's talents shine best in his shorter works. A collection like The Shadows, Kith and Kin from Subterranean Press offers the casual reader a terrific introduction to the breadth and depth of his range, including a chance to read a rarely reprinted gem. The title story is a psychological portrait of a clock-tower shooter (patterned on Charles Whitman) that was especially affecting when read in the weeks following the Virgina Tech shootings.

Fans of Reverend Jebidiah Rains, who so ably defeated the zombies in the Old West of Dead in the West (though his last name was Mercer in that book), will be glad to see him return in full form in two stories in The Shadows, Kith and Kin. "Deadman's Road" has him confronting a ghoul, and "The Gentleman's Hotel" involves werewolves. I hope Lansdale chooses to continue this character's series, as Reverend Jebidiah brings out the best of the author's darkness and humor. ("The Long Dead Day," a highly effective short piece not featuring that character, approaches a similar subject from a very different angle.)

Also featured in The Shadows, Kith and Kin is a classic Lansdale story that, due to its being almost sixty pages, has been seldom reprinted, despite having won the Bram Stoker Award for long fiction (then "novelette") for 1992. "The Events Concerning a Nude Fold-Out Found in a Harlequin Romance" follows a man, his daughter, and his new employer as they make themselves into private investigators -- he very reluctantly -- when he finds a marked-up centerfold in a used romance novel and attempts to discover its significance. This story is a fascinating look at the two sides of its author's career. It is grounded in strange, rural characters and their quirky behaviors -- Lansdale's signature motif -- while it also offers a somewhat prescient view of the more mainstream crime novels (such as The Bottoms and Lost Echoes) that would dominate his twenty-first century output.

Another long tale, "White Mule, Spotted Pig," is like an underdog sports movie filtered through Lansdale's skewed lens with an almost fairy tale-like structure. This one really sneaked up on me. I had no idea what to expect, and the story delivers a completely involving and unexpectedly moving read under the guise of a front-porch rocking-chair story like your crazy old grandpa used to tell.

Another surprise came in the form of "Bill, the Little Steam Shovel." For those fans asking, "Where is the really weird story Lansdale puts in every collection?" -- this is it. It starts out like it is going to be a story for children, complete with anthropomorphic construction vehicles and accompanying illustrations (not in my advance copy) by cover artist Mark A. Nelson. But it soon takes a sharp left into uncharted territory. Without giving too much away, I'll just mention that Bill is a horny, pubescent steam shovel who has to deal with the common teenage problem of ... nocturnal emissions. It would be shocking, but Lansdale keeps the tone so light, and he makes the characters so real, that the reader goes along with it willingly.

I put off reading "Alone," written with Melissa Mia Hall, because I have been highly disappointed by the only other works of Hall's I have read (from Doom City and Retro Pulp Tales). This one is only slightly better. Though it begins with Lansdale's intriguing post-apocalyptic premise, it eventually morphs into a young-love story. Hall makes the characters interesting, but many of their actions feel unrealistic, and the ending is pure treacle.

Newcomers would likely be better off beginning with one of the author's "favorites" collections, High Cotton or Bumper Crop, but those seeking a little something different from Champion Joe will be quite satisfied with the selection available in The Shadows, Kith and Kin.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission.

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