Something roams the wild places down by the Sabine River, something mysterious, something murderous in Joe R. Landale’s novel The Bottoms. The book, a fictional memoir, is a joy to read, by turns suspenseful and horrific, wry and at times melancholic. It’s a well-crafted piece by an accomplished master every bit deserving of the Edgar Award it won in 2000.
In The Bottoms, Harry Collins recounts events that happened to him during his Depression-era boyhood in East Texas after he discovered the body of a woman murdered by a serial killer. One by one, more bodies are found, each bound and mutilated. Harry’s father is the constable to the area which allows him privileged access to information about the killer. Woven into this coming of age tale are local legends about a Goat Man who’s sold his soul, the curious wonders of sexuality as well as the dizzying terror of entrenched racial hatred.
The book is clearly the work of a craftsman. On every page there are one or two sentences that are simply and elegantly phrased. The pacing of the narrative is smooth and I was able to relax as I read, knowing that there would be no surface irritations to disturb the ride. If anything, the ride was a bit too smooth for my tastes, as if all the rough edges had been sanded flat even if some mysteries remain unsolved. This observation is hardly a criticism since the tone and scope perfectly fit the conceit that these are the well-considered reflections of a man late in life.
My only quibble really was a slight touch of what I’d call white-man’s-burden-ism. I’m a Yankee and we suffer from our own forms of entrenched racism so I don’t presume to speak from some morally superior position. I’m just left extremely curious about what the black community depicted in the novel would have done to protect itself from a serial killer. Lansdale does an admirable job of providing plausible insights into this world and granted, since Harry’s father is constable, the novel is weighted toward official (i.e. white) justice. Still, I’m left curious even though I realize that this curiosity is probably an unfair expectation to put on any memoir.
The Bottoms is well worth reading, especially if you enjoy tales of sex murders, satannic Goat men and hooded night riders. It deals rather intelligently with that time of life when we realize we’re living in a world of wonders and horrors and that people we respect sometimes respond to that world in less than respectable ways. Take it to the beach with you instead of that other cookie-cutter mystery novel.
(Female, 80′s) This was my Mom’s nightmare the other night. She’s just getting over some health problems so that’s what she thought it was about but it’s still a nightmare.
Mom was in jail, actually in a prison far far away from her home. Day after day went by in this horrible place but finally she was told that she would be released and sent home. What they didn’t tell her but what she knew somehow anyway was that she’d be sent home in a box, in a coffin, that’s she’d be dead.
Mom said she woke up in physical pain at least partly brought on by the nightmare.
(Male, 40′s) I wrenched my back the other day shoveling snow so I had the worst night of sleep ever. Every time I rolled over, the pain woke me up and as it happened, I always seemed to be in the middle of nightmare.
One of the nightmares involved a game, sort of. There were at least a couple dozen of us, all adults who were playing hide and seek. Sort of. There was a cluster of little buildings, like cottages, I guess, tiny one or two room living spaces with white cotton curtains on the windows. It was night time, fully dark and it seemed like summer, at least there wasn’t snow on the ground. Some of the people were monsters. I would almost call them zombies but they didn’t move particularly slow or strangely. But if they grabbed you, you died. The people who were hiding were very scared. There was a woman with very white blond hair who was particularly scared. She couldn’t seem to move even though it was not a good strategy to stay in one place. I stayed away from the monsters for most of the night. I was trying to make it over to a nearby barn that had a tall concrete silo. For some reason, I thought I’d be safe there. As I crawled out of a window, I was spotted simultaneously by three monsters. I said “Aha, I still have three bullets left.” I made my hand into the shape of a gun (?) and fired at each of the monsters (??) Each one of them stopped and looked down at their chest to see if I had really shot them. They were starting to realize that it was all just a big bluff when I woke up.
Another dream also seemed to involve a barn though in stead of a hay mow, it had bookshelves, like a library with a huge gambrel roof. There was a dragon who was devouring the nearby town. Like in the last dream, I was trying to hide though it seemed easier to hide from a dragon than human sized monsters. Just when I thought I was perfectly safe, the dragon smashed through the stained glass windows … didn’t I mention? The “barn” also had huge stained glass windows like a medieval monastery or something… The dragon smashed through the window and spoke to me and the other people who were hiding with me. Someone yelled “Don’t run. He’ll have to kill you if you run.” as if it was part of the dragon’s code of honor, or something. I didn’t run but I also didn’t jump out of my hiding place either. The dragon was clearly going to burn down the barn if we didn’t surrender to be eaten. I decided to take my chances in the fire when I woke up.
There was another nightmare in there too, I think about a ghost but I can’t remember it very well.
(Female, 40′s) I was shopping in this dream. But I was shopping in the weirdest place I’d ever seen. This “shopping district” was a winding darn alley that looked like a cross between a horror movie set and a Dickens novel. There was a dark and damp, curving pedestrian pathway between these irregularly shaped stores, sitting close together. I swear there were gas lamps.
I went into a shoe store and spent some time trying on shoes. It was like Payless– a self-serve place. I was in the back of the store trying on boots when a man came up behind me and knocked me down, so I was sprawled on my stomach with my arms and legs sticking out. Very graceful. He knelt on my back with one knee and held something sharp against my back. He said, “Don’t move or I’ll have to hurt you.” I said, “Go ahead, you can take all my money.” “Of course I can,” he replied.
I thought about pushing him up and knocking him off my back. And beating him up. I was pretty sure I could do that. But I was worried about the lone clerk in the store, up by the front counter. She might get hurt. So I didn’t do anything. The robber was getting heavy. I kept thinking about what I should do. Then I woke up.
(Female, 40′s) This was a dream in two acts.
In the first part of the dream, I was with my natal family in a restaurant for breakfast. We were all very hungry. We sat at a big table in comfy captain’s chairs– my parents, my grown siblings, and I — and ordered breakfast for all of us. Something distracted me and I left the table for a few minutes. When I returned, the table was covered with the remains of a breakfast feast: big baskets, now almost empty of their contents. They were almost Easter-basket sized containers of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, biscuits, and pancakes. My family were still eating like they were starving, but they had nearly emptied the baskets of food. I had to ask and ask for things to be passed to me; they seemed entirely unaware that I had not had anything to eat.
In the second part, I went outside. I was walking down the street, and I ran into one of my old aunts, who I hadn’t seen in a long while. I asked her how she was doing, and she said, “Pretty well, all things considered. Well, I have to see a doctor about this…” She lifted up her shirt and showed me a long, shallow crack in her skin, that ran along the side of her torso– almost like a gash, but just in her skin. “I really don’t know what to make of it,” she explained. Then I noticed that the wound was leaking a very thick white substance, that reminded me of Elmer’s glue. “Wow, I don’t have any idea either,” I said. What the hell was that stuff? White blood cells? Something alien? She coughed and a lot of the white goo oozed out of her. “Yeah, you better see a doctor soon,” I assured her.
(Male, 50′s) In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that I bought a motorcycle a couple years back in the midst of mid-life crisis and that within the last week as it came time to winterize the thing, I’d been angry with myself that another season had passed and I hadn’t really gotten out on it.
I was with my wife and a female friend and we were crossing a parking lot, heading into a bar when this group of about a dozen motorcycle riders over took us. I started defending the women who were able to get away. This didn’t particularly make the hooligans mad. They just started messing with me instead.
This was a relatively outlandish group of motorcyclists really. Their bikes were all American made and chopped like very classic examples of the style. And by classic I mean original 40′s and 50′s era chopped bikes, simple, basic, with a few bits of chromed flair. And the guys themselves were straight out of a time capsule too, or at least they looked like they were trying to be. They had greased hair with big curls on the top. I bet there’s a word for that. They didn’t wear the bomber style jackets but rather something that looked more like a suit coat jacket that was made out of riding quality leather. They were a riding club – The Rockets – which actually, as I remember it now used to be a local band I really enjoyed back in the 70′s.
The Rockets pushed me around with a detached, ironic sort of torture, like a cat playing with a mouse, that bats it around between its paws. One of them had a package of metal “rockets” that sort of looked like those toys from back in the day that you could put a “cap” in and then toss up in the air and when it landed the cap would go off with a loud pop. Anyway, one of the gang members had a package of these, still on the cardboard like he’d bought it at a retro boutique or something. He took them off the card one by one and shoved them in my mouth til I was choking. I think this was some kind of a test of something to see if I’d choke or vomit. All the while they were laughing and joking while I was trying to keep from suffocating.
(Male 20′s) I was in a museum that had living exhibits as well as skeletons and stuffed models. What was weird right off was that I didn’t recognize many of the creatures. It wasn’t just that there was, say, a strangely colored bird but rather there were things that I couldn’t tell was a bird or a… well, I couldn’t tell what they were.
In one of the cages, and by cage I mean in this case a room the size of a ballroom with glass walls probably thirty feet high, there was a “Snape.” Yes, yes, laugh all you want. I realized the Harry Potter reference when I woke up too. But the creature here was maybe thirty five feet long, covered with dappled light and dark green fur — yup, FUR — and a head that looked a bit like a blunt hammer and a bit like a boot. It may have had very thin wiry black legs too but it was hard to see as it moved through the jungle undergrowth of its cage. I was extremely curious to see this creature closer so I pushed up against the glass so hard that some how I pushed my way through the glass. I was inside the cage. A great consternation arose in the crowd outside since the snape was extremely dangerous. Once it started to devour you, there was no escape from a very painful process that lasted for hours and hours. They were organizing some kind of rescue plan for me. All I had to do was stay alive and stay away from the snape until help could arrive. But I wanted to see the snape better. I could hear it circling around me. Once I got a very good view of it as it climbed along the glass wall but it ran away with great speed. I suspected that I was done for.
(Male, 50′s) This nightmare woke me up out of a sound sleep. I swear I was screaming, or at least trying to scream. When I woke up, I could have sworn I had just heard myself yelling out in a small, muffled voice.
In the dream, I’m at home with my wife and my daughter who must be home for the holidays or something. It’s night time and we’re getting ready to head off to bed. We’re all sitting on the couch in the living room, laughing, having a good time. Then there’s a knock on the front door. It’s really late, like the middle of the night and my wife and daughter don’t think we should answer the door. But I thought that someone must be in trouble to knock at the door so late. So I get up and I flip on the porch light to look out and see who was there. And damned if the porch light is out. So I open the door and there’s no one there. I speak out like I’m a tough guy or something and I say “OK step out where I can see you.”
And this huge man steps out of the shadows and with one or two strides, steps into the house. He’s broad and tall, like he’s just been scaled up in all dimensions. He’s got one of those cliched “bad guy” mustaches from the 40′s and he’s we’re a fedora and a trench coat like a black and white movie. He steps easily into the house and reaches out and wraps his hand cleanly around my throat. While he’s grabbing my throat, he lifts me off the ground effortlessly, with a smile. I try to yell, to scream and of course, I’m being choked so not much actual sound comes out.
I woke up trying to scream.
The creepy-good publishers at Horror Library – er, strike that, reverse it – those publishers of creepy goods at Horror Library are sponsoring a contest to keep the chill on this winter.
It’s easy to enter, simply write a post at their blog but you’ll have to do it quickly because the contest ends December 14th.
(Male, 40′s) It’s clear where this dream comes from, at least parts of it. My mom has cancer and just came home from the hospital with an IV that needs to be changed twice a day. She’s frail and thin, a nightmare in her own right, more like a skeleton or a zombie than the vibrant and energetic woman of her younger days. Her hair is wispy and thin.
Regardless, the nightmare starts like this: Mom and I have traveled far north to a city on the banks of a Great Lake. The beach isn’t made of sand but rather is black grit. There are also moderately large outcroppings of white quartz crystal. Mom is able to walk and we’re walking along the beach, though she needs my arm for support. There is a deep dark forest of ever greens — cedars, I believe, just like we had along one side of the house where I grew up. We reached this boardwalk which made walking much easier. It lead to a train station and we took a subway to a hospital. I got Mom situated in a hospital room but it was a strange feel to the room. She shared the room with two other people. One was asleep or anesthetized. The other was a small child whose mother was complaining loudly that there was a Bible in the room. I told her to shut the f*** up and she seemed equally horrified by cursing as she was by the presence of a Bible. But she quieted down enough for me to get to work.
I was to perform surgery on Mom. It was all that her insurance would pay for, I gather. She sat down in something that looked like a dentist’s chair. It had trays filled with shiny scalpels. I gather there was a tumor somewhere in Mom’s abdomen that was so close to the surface it was supposed to be a simple task. This would be outpatient surgery, though my sense is that was the only kind of surgery performed at this do-it-yourself clinic. I opened a little moist towelette, like the kind you get at fast food fried chicken places and swabbed down Mom’s belly. I gather that was supposed to sterilize the area. I didn’t feel any growth beneath the surface, just soft, almost gooey, formless skin. I picked up a scalpel and I tried to make myself make an incision but I didn’t know where I was supposed to be cutting or what I was supposed to be looking for. I told Mom to wait there and I’d ask at the desk.
The nurses’ desk at the end of the hall had a couple nurses entering information into computers and chatting amiably amongst themselves. They were dismissive of my concerns. “Go ahead. You’ll do fine. We’re right here if you need us.” Though it didn’t seem they’d be much help. They didn’t encourage me in the least. I returned to Mother’s room, or at least what I thought was Mother’s room but she wasn’t there. There were no patients in that room. I tried to make my way back to the nurses’ desk but I couldn’t find that either. (As I’m writing this down, I realize of course that in the nightmare, I “lost” my mother.) I tried retracing my footsteps all the way back to the train station. There was someone just ahead of me, ducking around corners, moving too quickly for me to get a good look at, but I knew that this person would be able to help me. I was never able to catch up with him.