I first read a Joe R. Lansdale story in an anthology entitled NIGHT
VISIONS. It was one of a series of volumes published by a wonderful
and sadly defunct company named Dark Harvest. Dark Harvest, as
might be gathered from its name, published horror literature, and
was so reliable that one could pick up any title it issued and be
I'd never heard of Lansdale before NIGHT VISIONS, and after reading
his stories in that volume I never have never forgotten him.
Lansdale's work effortlessly cuts across genres; while he tends to
find himself classified in the western, horror, and suspense
genres, his work and his talent are too big and too strong to be
confined to any one area. He writes like an angel with the mindset
of Hieronymus Bosch. If there were a soundtrack to his novels, it
would be ZZ Top fronted by Trent Reznor, with The Sons of the
Pioneers on vocals. While Lansdale's work is set in this world,
he's definitely writing about the part of the town where the buses
run few and far between, if at all.
SUNSET AND SAWDUST combines all of the finest elements of
Lansdale's talents, making the Depression era East Texas towns of
Camp Rapture and Holiday the setting for a dark morality tale with
Biblical overtones. The story begins with Sunset Jones killing her
husband Pete in self-defense in the midst of a devastating
windstorm. The late departed Pete was the constable of Camp Rapture
and the son of Marilyn Jones, three-quarter owner of the sawmill
which is the lifeblood of the town.
No one is more surprised than Sunset when her mother-in-law proves
to be unexpectedly understanding of Sunset's actions, and sees to
it that Sunset succeeds Pete as town constable. Sunset, to
everyone's surprise, actually takes her duties seriously, and while
there are those who are extremely uncomfortable having a woman
filling the duties of the office, she manages to acquire a grudging
respect from the citizens, particularly after she assists law
enforcement in Holiday to defuse a particularly violent situation.
The bizarre discovery of the bodies of a woman and a newly born
baby on the property of the only black landowner in the area,
however, lead Sunshine into an investigation that individuals in
both towns would rather not see completed.
Lansdale is known for creating frightening but realistic
characters, and he is at the top of his game here, introducing the
unlikely pair of McBride and Two as well as the enigmatic
Hillbilly. Another of Lansdale's stylistic trademarks, colorful
metaphors and turns of phrase, are in good supply here, peppered
throughout the narrative like the Burma Shave highway signposts of
old. The outcome of the apocalyptic ending is, as usually the case
with Lansdale, impossible to predict; it seems at times as if
Lansdale himself is surprised at the denouement. This, perhaps, is
at it should be.
After more than twenty years of writing, and at a point in his
career where a less enterprising writer could happily phone in an
annual novel, Lansdale continues to challenge and to surpass
himself. This is a work by an American treasure who has yet to
receive his full and rightful due.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011
Sunset and Sawdust