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An East Texas Gothic: Joe R. Lansdale’s Moon Lake

While a boy in 1968, Daniel Russell’s father drives him out to Moon Lake to look over a submerged Texas town, makes a few rationalizations about why he cannot live anymore, and then drives the car into the lake, killing himself and almost doing the same for his son. There are traumatic experiences and there are traumatic experiences, and this is a bad one. Daniel’s mother ran off some time back and his aunt is touring Europe off a dead husband’s oil money, so Daniel gets to stay for a while with the friendly Candles family, the Black folks who dragged him out of the lake. That family becomes closer to Daniel than his own kin ever would be, and his stay with them is brief but meaningful. Try as they might, the local law in New Long Lincoln cannot locate the car or his father’s body. But they keep trying.

Thirteen years later, after young Daniel has become a college grad, a published novelist, and a decent journalist at a failing newspaper, the call comes in: the authorities have finally found the Russell car. Inside are the remains of his father and a surprise in the trunk: the bones of another person. The police expect it’s Daniel’s mother, but he knows different. These bones belong to someone else. They are missing a signature element from his mom, a star embedded in one of her incisors.

As it turns out, there are other cars under that lake, which have human remains in the trunks. The towns of Long Lincoln and New Long Lincoln are tethered by more than a name, a lake, and an overlapping citizenry. They are bound up in mystery, one which has touched Daniel’s young life and will shape his future. It’s also one that touches the history of the town itself, as Daniel’s father explained to him on the night of his suicide:

“Once upon a time, the town down there had people in it. They had jobs and they had homes, and then it was decided by someone that the town should be moved and renamed and that the old town would become a lake. There was a great dam then, so broad at the top you could walk across it. It had a high spillway, and it was pretty up there, and there was water that came from the spillway and ran through the center of town as a creek, rolled by a post office, gas stations, a school, a general store, and so much more. There were trees on either side of the creek and they made much of the town shady, and on the outskirts of the town on both sides there were houses. I lived in one of those houses. I was raised there. Did I already say that?”

“Yes, sir.”

If he heard my reply, I couldn’t tell.

“Money was paid, and the town was evacuated. A new town was built in a different location. But there were some down there that didn’t leave. Can you believe that? They waited there thinking that if they stayed, the water wouldn’t be released. But it was. Gone in a flash, and the remains, along with the bones of those who didn’t leave are lying down there at the bottom of the wet. I was born there. I grew up there. I met your mother there.”

A theme was developing.

“Danny, I feel like there isn’t any true light or warmth in the universe anymore. You should never have to feel that way. Do you understand?”

I didn’t.

“‘The moon is up. The water is high. Dark souls walk the earth and cry.’ An old poem. I know what it means now.”

Dad shifted the car into drive and inched us forward slightly with a gentle tap on the gas. I was glad we were finally moving on.

“I want you to know how much I love you,” he said.

Before I could say “I love you, too,” he punched his foot down hard on the gas, and the car leaped and the bridge shook. He jerked the wheel to the right, and the great big Buick, give payments owed, smashed through the rotting railing and sailed out into space like a rocket ship.

Moon Lake, 9-10

The gothic, the grotesque, and the gritty come together in Joe R. Lansdale’s latest novel, Moon Lake.

Joe R. Lansdale can spin one hell of a gripping yarn. His best books are white knuckle rides into crime, suspense, and terror leavened with a darkly comic worldview, an understanding of the human condition, and a keen storyteller’s awareness of things like character, pace, plot, and twists. Like novelist Donald E. Westlake, he doesn’t write bad books. Sure, he might write some books that grip the reader harder than others, but there is a level of quality that he does not seem to dip below, which is surprising given the number of books, stories, and comics he produces each year. This latest work, Moon Lake is a terrific read, funny, profane, humane, and bone-chilling in all the right places.

As well, the author is also no stranger to a solidly written action sequence. He knows that readers feel strongest for action that puts characters we like in danger, and the finale of this piece involves a doozy of a situation. However, getting there, Daniel faces a few violent incidents, including run ins with a couple of thugs who share a liking for greasepaint or burnt cork disguises. Each of these situations is nasty, including fights that turn mean on a dime. Consider this little exchange:

The short man stepped in quickly. I dropped the books and pulled my hands up and tucked in my elbows as he hit me with a low left hook just above my hip. The shot caught me on my belt and clipped the bottom of my elbow, striking what is sometimes referred to as the funny bone, but it didn’t feel that funny.

I fell to one knee as if to propose, and the tall one kicked me in the chest, a kind of stomping kick. I rolled over on the grass and managed to get up when I would rather have stayed down.

They came swiftly toward me. I hit the little guy with a same-hand high-low combination, a left jab to the nose and a left hook to the ribs, finished with a right cross to his chin. It was his turn to go down.

The lanky guy tried to kick me again, this time a football kick, but I was ready for him. I scooped my arm under his ankle and lifted him high enough that when he fell he cracked his head on the sidewalk. His hat rolled off but the clown hair stayed on.

The short white-faced guy was tough. He was getting up. Oddly, his hat was still on, though the brim was up in front. He raised his hands and advanced, bobbing a little. I had dusted some of the white paint off his nose, and I could see that beneath it, his skin was black.

I put my hands up, but out of the corner of my eye I saw clown-hair was getting up too. It was about to be messy at the circus, and most likely I was going to be the mess.

Moon Lake, 133-134

Regular readers of this site’s reviews know I cut any book that makes me laugh at least once some slack in terms of plotting, sentence level attention to language, and characterization. Joe R. Lansdale’s works make me chortle pretty regularly, but his works seldom need the slack I’m willing to offer. His dialogue is funny, his descriptions are choice, and his (often scatological) similes are a hoot. Moon Lake has quite a few examples of the author’s quirky bawdiness. He’s not afraid to let his characters be clever, as when the newspaper owner/editor Christine Humbert hears about Daniel’s run in with the two thugs and muses about New Long Lincoln’s progress:

“But novel or no novel, you came here because of what your father did. It’s a well-known event in this town. Story has been floating around, no pun intended, for years. Fact that you lived with a black family for a few months is curious to people. There are old-time racists here who think you doing that, a white child, would be the equivalent of your living with wild animals, like Tarzan being raised by apes. They might even think black would rub off on you.”

“Those sons of bitches can kiss my ass,” I said. “The Candleses are wonderful people. Better than my family ever was.”

“Not everyone here is a bonafide racist, but there are a lot who prefer to go along to get along. Chandler said one of your attackers was white, one black. It’s nice to see even here in East Texas we can have racial cooperation, a lack of prejudice among thugs.”

Moon Lake, 141

That exchange incorporates a pun, a sobering observation about small minds, and then a lighter touch to leaven the mix.

As one might surmise from this passage, Lansdale once more brings us a candid appraisal of racial issues in East Texas (a curious hybrid of the United States’ South and the Southwest regions). The author has never been afraid to offer sober and sobering views of characters and situations steeped in racism. Some of his finest work grapples with such topics, and its found in Moon Lake as well. Daniel is pulled out of the river by a black girl (Ronnie) and her father. He stays with their family for some time, finding all the closeness and affection that has been absent from his own life all these years. He possesses a more progressive view on race than many of the other citizens in town. As with the author’s previous book from this publisher, More Better Deals, such issues are woven into the subject matter both on the surface and underneath in the subtext. Lansdale is a solid writer with quite a few opinions about the world we live in, and his gift is sharing these opinions in ways that are both illuminating, informed, and interesting.

This time out, the author also includes a possible supernatural menace in the form of a cult with a creosote fetish. The melding of weirdness and crime is a delight, and though the novel never once slips over into full on hardcore supernatural horror, it does a fine job of walking the “is this stuff for real or isn’t it?” line that I enjoy so much. This adds yet another layer to the material, making it all the richer. Lansdale wisely builds upon the southern gothic tradition to make something unique: an East Texas Gothic. Some of his previous works (e.g., The Bottoms and The Boar) have moved in this direction before, but I believe this is the first time the author himself placed that sobriquet under the novel’s name on its title page.

Moon Lake includes a few nods to previous entries in Lansdale’s back catalogue. A storm in the finale might suggest his epic tale of boxing and hurricanes in The Big Blow or his climactic ending to The Two Bear Mojo. There’s an underwater hallucination that recalls a similar situation in Savage Season. Two sentences (“I dream of dark water.” Pages 5, 337) call out to a previous period piece East Texas suspenser, Edge of Dark Water. The protagonist is a journalist cut from similar cloth to the narrator/protagonist of Leather Maiden. These nods to the author’s own work are fun little Easter eggs at best, and neat little nuggets for the author’s regular readers to spot. Not a one of them is essential to the story itself.

I get the sense that this novel came about as a kind of spiritual sequel to Leather Maiden. Both books grapple with a man returning home to dig up trouble and report on what he’s seen. Where that earlier book took an emotionally, alcoholic, big city failure coming back home to his East Texas roots and discovering mystery, Moon Lake finds an emotionally damaged man coming back to the small town that defined both the best and worst events in his life and discovering himself embroiled in mystery.

Although both books involve mysteries, Lansdale’s fiction is seldom about the mystery itself. Instead, the books concern themselves with the effects mystery has upon its characters. Whodunits are all about guessing the killer. Here, we get much more attention on the people who are impacted by the mystery, the corrupt town authorities, the little people who get their fingers mashed when they ask too many questions, and the valiant hero who has to watch what’s going on while also keeping an eye out, watching his own ass as well as the lives of his loved ones. It’s a subtle difference, and one that cozy mystery afficionados should well understand before they crack open a Lansdale crime novel such as this one and find themselves up to their necks in rough and tumble material.

Although it is not a gentle read, Moon Lake is nevertheless a solid thriller from a master storyteller. At turns heartwarming, violent, comic, and heartbreaking, the novel is the latest milestone in a career that has a surprising number of high notes. If this novel does well enough, I suspect it might also kick off another series, this time exploring the exploits of a journalist and his small-town friends and foes. I’d welcome that.

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Moon Lake is available in eBook, hardcover, and audiobook editions.

Next week, we will read something a little different. Last month saw the release of Ramsey Campbell’s latest novel, Somebody’s Voice, which tells the story of a crime novelist ghostwriting a memoir of an abuse survivor and finding his world and sanity threatened. That novel is available from Flame Press Publishing in eBook, paperback, and hardcover editions.

WORKS CITED

Lansdale, Joe R. Moon Lake. Mulholland Books: 2021.

“An East Texas Gothic: Joe R. Lansdale’s Moon Lake” is copyright © 2021 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes and cover image taken from the Mulholland Books hardcover edition, released in June 2021.

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