An elderly man sits in a nursing home, with plenty of time to remember and relive his boyhood in an area of East Texas known as The Bottoms. Even poorer and less developed than the rest of the country during the Great Depression of the '30s, this marshy scrub woodland and its people seem almost of another century. Harry Crane's father is a man of some substance in the community. In addition to his hardscrabble farm, he owns the local barbershop and is the town constable. But Harry and his sister Tom live almost wild and unschooled. When not needed on the farm or around the house, they roam freely through the vast Bottoms. The area is infested with snakes, ticks, chiggers, vicious wild boar, and even the occasional panther. Harry and Tom also like to scare each other with stories of the Goatman, a half-human monster rumored to steal livestock and children.
A real horror comes to the children one day when they find the mutilated body of a woman. Their father begins an official investigation, which quickly is hindered by the fact that the woman was black. The racial divide of this time and place is absolute and is enforced viciously by the Klan. Even as a lawman, Harry's father finds it risky to ask anything about a situation that might cut across racial lines. He is forced to let it go and hope the killer was only a transient who has left the area. The world of the Bottoms goes on through the seasons, and the elderly Harry laments in memory how now the place has been paved over in suburban sprawl. As rough, poor and dangerous as it was, he deeply regrets that the land of his youth is now gone forever.
Lansdale creates many colorful and vivid characters to people the Bottoms. He shows how the seemingly divided racial lines crisscross through families and across generations. It soon becomes apparent that there is indeed a serial killer haunting the Bottoms, but as long as his victims are black, even decent people seem helpless. The roads are unpaved mud washes, there is little organized quick communication, and so gossip and fear are all that spread with any effectiveness. It is hard for a child such as Harry to know when what he hears is real or just the local propensity for "yarning."
THE BOTTOMS tells a great yarn of a vanished place and time. The characters often seem so alien to our world and yet they all are so human. You can feel the children's terror and also experience the frustration of good people trying to live with an evil system. One of the best things a book can do is to capture and save a piece of the world that has been lost. There may be strip malls now where the young Harry Crane used to roam and grew up all too quickly, but Joe R. Lansdale has preserved his world for us.