Joe R. Lansdale, perhaps more than any other contemporary author, is adept at blurring and crossing the genres where his books find their homes. He is highly regarded by aficionados of mysteries, horror novels, westerns old and new, and thrillers. Any number of his novels, including his latest, has feet set firmly in all of those genres. So it is that while EDGE OF DARK WATER has been compared favorably to THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, it reads like a mashup of that classic with James Dickey’s DELIVERANCE and, yes, the Friday the 13th film franchise, with the veneer of a classic murder mystery thrown in for good measure.
"[W]hile EDGE OF DARK WATER has been compared favorably to THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, it reads like a mashup of that classic with James Dickey’s DELIVERANCE and, yes, the Friday the 13th film franchise, with the veneer of a classic murder mystery thrown in for good measure."
The fact that this is a coming-of-age story links it to Mark Twain’s well-known work, as does the impoverished rural setting that serves as a backdrop for both books. But the protagonist and narrator is a teenage girl named Sue Ellen, living in a poorer-than-dirt-poor section of Texas in the early 1930s. When she is not tending to her drug-addled mother or fending off the clumsy advances of her less than useless “Daddy,” Sue Ellen meets with her friends. They are an extremely divergent group and includes Terry, a troubled and conflicted boy; Jinx, a black girl who in that time and place is an unlikely best friend for Sue Ellen; and May Lynn, an uncommonly beautiful and strong-willed girl who dreams of leaving the poverty of Texas behind for the glamour of Hollywood.
Everything changes when May Lynn is found submerged in a watery grave. Her remaining friends decide to cremate her and take her ashes to Hollywood so that at least part of her dream will be realized. Such an undertaking is far outside the financial means of the trio, but from beyond the grave, May Lynn directs them to a stash that by Depression-era standards is a fortune. Sue Ellen, her friends and the unexpected company of her mother, set off on a journey that is fraught with danger. The money that is to finance their expedition is not theirs, and May Lynn’s father, with Sue Ellen’s “uncle” in tow, want it very badly.
The intrepid group of travelers is also pursued by a legendary bogeyman who is nicknamed “Skunk,” a creature that is the stuff of living nightmares and is seemingly unstoppable. The result is a journey that is harrowing, terrifying, revelatory, and ultimately almost certainly doomed to failure. Lansdale does not always do happy endings, and indeed, all does not end well for everyone. And for that, it is a better book and one of Lansdale’s best.
EDGE OF DARK WATER is a historical parable as well as a cautionary tale of quiet strength and honor that resonates long after the last page is read. Lansdale’s ear for dialogue remains pitch- and letter-perfect, and his characters are so real in their strengths and failings as to seem to leap off the pages. This is particularly true of Skunk, a homicidal hermit who is almost certainly based on a real-world character. I hope to be wrong, but fear I am right. In any event, he comes alive on the pages of EDGE OF DARK WATER, a dark and violent --- yet funny --- tale that is not to be missed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 29, 2012