Joe R. Lansdale is a fantastic writer known for his rip-roaring East Texas noir, bizarre horror tales, and fiction that doesn’t comfortably fit on any niche known to publishing. He’s also an accomplished martial artist and operates a dojo in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Lansdale has penned several novels and short stories, and garnered awards in multiple fields, including six Bram Stoker Awards in horror and the Edgar Award in mystery for his novel, The Bottoms. His on-going mystery series about Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, two blue-collar amateur detectives, is a favorite on mystery shelves and with his fans.
Lately Lansdale has concentrated on movie projects and some of the strange fiction he’s known for. His short story, “Bubba Ho-Tep” was produced as a movie with the same name and featured an ageing Elvis Presley and invalided John F. Kennedy whose skin tone had been changed to a black man to protect him. Presley and Kennedy unite to track down an Egyptian monster on the loose in the senior citizen’s home where they live. Lansdale’s 1950s mystery, A Fine Dark Line will be coming to theaters soon.
In addition, Lansdale has written several comic books and cartoon episodes starring Batman and Superman. His two runs on perennial Western “hero” Jonah Hex were nominated for awards and can be found in the graphic novels, Two-Gun Mojo, Riders of the Worm and Such, and Shadows West.
This year Lansdale returned to mainstream fiction with Lost Echoes. The plot revolves around Harry Wilkes, who develops the disconcerting ability of “hearing” trapped sounds that carry full-blown and bloody images of murders, rapes, vicious beatings, and traffic accidents.
As a child, Harry suffered an ear infection that almost rendered him deaf. When the infection finally cleared up, he started “hearing” the noises that rocket him back in time to the various violent episodes he experiences. This section is actually a little quiet and tame for a Lansdale novel, but it builds up Harry’s character and makes him real to the readers.
During this time Harry becomes friends with Kayla and forges a relationship that will come back to, literally, haunt him. Kayla’s dad, a policeman, supposedly committed suicide and she’s never been able to accept that.
Kayla and Harry get separated while they’re kids. In the meantime, Harry grows up and starts college. He also starts drinking to dull the psychic impressions that he receives everywhere he goes. Harry learns to keep his life small so he doesn’t have these unexpected, unpleasant, and unnerving surprises. He lives in a house where he’s covered the walls with egg cartons to soundproof it as much as he can. He’s made a map of the city that allows him to avoid streets with traffic accidents and buildings with murders or violence trapped within them.
Lansdale excels at writing the common person, sharing that trait with Stephen King. Both of them can take the ordinary and make it terrifying, unusual, and still keep it firmly rooted in the familiar. Harry and Kayla are perfectly understandable throughout the novel. They’re people that most readers have gotten to know. Except for the whole psychic thing.
The book takes a casual approach to the story until Harry meets Tad Peters. Tad is old enough to be Harry’s father and eventually takes on that role. Like Harry, Tad has also become an alcoholic. Tad is racked with grief and guilt over the death of his wife and son. After watching Tad nearly get rolled outside a bar and seeing the man take out three would-be robbers, Harry gets fascinated by martial arts.
While taking Tad home, Harry learns more about the man and his misery. The kindred souls are drawn together and soon decide to try to stay away from the alcohol. It is in the scenes like these, where two people are talking and getting to know each other, where they’re finding out their commonalities, that Lansdale’s gifts as a writer really stand out. Lansdale knows people and likes them. Watching Tad and Harry work through their reluctance to take on a friend is great stuff. The dialogue totally rocks. Lansdale also throws in some martial arts philosophy along the way.
Watching them get cleaned up and resist temptation is good. The dialogue crackles and the pages almost turn themselves. Harry finally tells Tad about his “problem” and, even though Tad finds it hard to believe at first, Tad helps him try to find an explanation for it.
But it’s when Kayla Jones reappears in Harry’s life that things get really complicated and the plot’s testosterone level jets into the stratosphere. Kayla has gone on to become a police officer, following in her father’s footsteps. Her father may not have been a good men, but he was her daddy and she loved him and doesn’t want people to continue to think he committed suicide.
She asks Harry to use his gift to investigate her father’s death. She was the one who found him hanging from a garage rafter and dressed in women’s underwear. (Lansdale loves going for the bizarre and twisted.) Harry is reluctant at first, but knows he can’t refuse Kayla. After a failed romantic interlude, Harry discovers that his feelings for Kayla have never gone away, and hers for him haven’t either.
Lansdale’s writing excels during these very human parts. The dialogue moves the story smoothly along. It’s easy to imagine the scenes playing out in a television show or movie. Not only that, but the twisted sense of humor Lansdale brings to his characters makes them charming and sometimes offensive at the same time. The dinner conversation between Tad and Harry’s leech of a friend, Joey, is absolutely hilarious. Yet, once you meet Lansdale you realize that this is exactly how he would handle a similar situation.
The cat-and-mouse chase that propels the last third of the novel is great. The suspense builds with each passing scene, and there are enough twists and turns to keep seasoned readers with the story way past bedtime.
If you haven’t read Lansdale before, I’d recommend any of the Hap and Leonard novels, preferably starting at the beginning with Savage Season, or the stand-alones, Cold In July, The Bottoms, or A Fine Dark Line to get a taste of his take on mystery/suspense. One of my favorite novels he ever wrote is The Magic Wagon, which is something of a weird western/horror pulp with some real irony and soul-searching.