"Champion Mojo storyteller" Joe Lansdale has slowly, over the span of twenty years, made quite a name for himself without ever really becoming a bestselling author. He has recently reached the current peak of his steadily increasing level of fame due to two events: winning the Edgar Allan Poe award for his novel, The Bottoms, and the recent release of the film Bubba Ho-Tep, based on a short story he wrote about an ancient mummy confronted by a seventy-year-old Elvis and J.F.K. He's certainly an acquired taste, but one that was an easy acquisition for me when I read his omnibus novel The Drive-In, about one summer evening when an alien comet buzzes a Texas drive-in theater and causes all sorts of havoc too disgusting to relate here. It was horror mixed with humor, and I loved it. So, I immediately set out to find more about this genre-mixing writer (my favorite kind). I read the first novel of his Hap and Leonard series, Savage Season, and it was good, but it wasn't exactly what I was looking for.
Short stories are always a good way to experiment with a new writer. Luckily, that's how Lansdale started out making his living. There are several short story collections available of his early work but, the way he puts it in the introduction to High Cotton--and in reference to the southern-fried title--"this is the best cotton I've grown in the short form." When an author thinks the book you're holding contains his best stuff, that's the one you ought to try.
Each story has a short introduction written by Lansdale, explaining its inspiration, history, or lack thereof. I always find it fascinating for an author to write about their works; another favorite of mine, F. Paul Wilson, follows the same tack in his collection, The Barrens and Others.
High Cotton is certainly not bound to be a mainstream success, but for people who like the sort of gruesomely funny tales with a southern mentality that Joe Lansdale comes up with, it will be just your cup of sweet tea. It contains many stories that are as disturbing as they are funny: the basic premise is horrifying, but Lansdale manages to find the humor underneath it which, in turn, often enhances the horror of the situation. The one I think epitomizes this best is "The Drive-In Date" (also published in play format in The Best of Cemetery Dance, Volume Two), which concerns a couple of "good ole boys" and their rather unconventional date at the drive-in. The usual amount of laughter, food, and sex is contained within, with one important difference. This one still gives me the creeps -- while making me laugh. Stories like this require that you reexamine your own comfort threshold.
"The Pit" starts off the collection. This combination of dogfighting, boxing, and crazy backwoods snake handlers is one that he feels deserves more attention, and it certainly packs a punch. You'll think twice about making that wrong turn onto a back road when you finish with this one. Following "The Pit" is a simple little story that shows Lansdale's sentimental side. In "Not from Detroit," a man fights Death so that neither he nor his wife has to be alone. This story is so surprisingly sweet, that it is the first I've read of his that almost made me cry. But things return to normal, Lansdalewise, in "Booty and the Beast," which includes fire ants, a plastic syrup bear, and a "[pubic] hair from the Virgin Mary."
Sometimes, the humor is the main aspect of the story, as in "Godzilla's Twelve-Step Program," which follows our hero, Godzilla, as he goes through the daily grind of fighting his addiction to burning down buildings with his fiery breath. Even his job as an ingot melter doesn't seem to do the trick. What could have been a one-joke premise leading to a punchline is fleshed out by the author's imagination into a character study.
As you can see, Lansdale has many talents, but he is at his absolute best when he follows the exploits of a bunch of useless good-for-nothings who get themselves into a heap of trouble just by being stupid. This occurs first (and funniest) in High Cotton in the form of "Steppin' Out, Summer, '68" as Buddy, Wilson, and Jake go out in pursuit of a little horizontal recreation and--through a seeming innocuous, if increasingly ignorant, series of events--one of them ends up in the mouth of an alligator. It is one of the author's personal favorites, and any story that can make me laugh out loud in public instantly becomes one of mine.
Ending the collection is the story that Lansdale calls his "signature story" and the first one to really get him noticed (winning the Bram Stoker award in the process), "The Night They Missed the Horror Show." After skipping the night's showing of Night of the Living Dead (after discovering that a black man is the hero), Leonard and Farto do a couple of stupid--if generally harmless--things in the name of fighting boredom. But when they run into the wrong people, these events spiral into a night of pure terror. Lansdale is in particularly good form here, making the characters sympathetic by having their "punishment" be far above and beyond anything that would have suited their "crimes" of ignorance. It is really an ideal closer for High Cotton.
But all the stories in here are worth reading and Golden Gryphon Press has done a wonderful job packaging the collection. The cover illustration by J.K. Potter is very effective at getting across the contents--even though it appears that Potter himself didn't get past the first page of the first story. High Cotton is bound to become the definitive collection of Joe R. Lansdale's short fiction by itself, and it makes an excellent companion piece to the more recent Bumper Crop, which includes some of his and his fans' personal favorites, if not his most memorable work. Together, Lansdale ("hisownself") calls these two "the definitive volumes of my short work." As a fellow reviewer once said about Lansdale's work, "Read it and vomit. It's brilliant."