Joe R. Lansdale, Bumper Crop (Golden Gryphon Press, 2004)

"Champion Mojo storyteller" Joe Lansdale is a writer whose work is unlikely to be forgotten once introduced into the reader's ken. His signature combination of humor and often over-the-top horror tends to make even the most jaded fiction reader rethink his or her comfort level. He is at his best when showing the hidden evil in everyday folks and the way that a seemingly simple turn of events can snowball into surprisingly complex terror, all while rarely leaving the confines of East Texas. Lansdale's voice is like no other and whatever he writes — and he has written mystery, suspense, horror, adventure, and western fiction — holds that unmistakable stamp.

Golden Gryphon's previous Lansdale release, 2000's High Cotton, was a selection of the author's best short fiction. Bumper Crop intentionally does not aspire to those heights, being a selection of tales that, though not his best (and many fall under the realm of "disappointing"), are particularly memorable for one reason or another. (Five of them were originally published in Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, a personal favorite of this reviewer and a publication that disappeared all too quickly — especially considering that I had just renewed my subscription at that time.) Lansdale explains the titles of these disparate collections in his introduction to Bumper Crop:

In Southern terminology, High Cotton is when the cotton is growing well and growing high. Bumper Crop refers to when your crops give an added splurge, usually referring to vegetables, not cotton, but it's kind of a surprise crop. An added treat.

He goes on to further differentiate between the two collections, calling High Cotton "Southern Gothic, though not exclusively" and explaining that "this one is much more of the twist and surprise and ain't that damn weird school" ("Billie Sue" definitely falls under the latter category). Given its purpose and scope, a collection of this sort is destined to be uneven: even the author's introductions often consist of little more than faint praise for his own work combined with surprise that his hard-to-categorize fiction is sometimes rejected by the magazine at which he aimed it. ("Walks," his attempt to get published in either Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, fails because it gives itself away too early.)

But, just like the perusal of a garage sale, from the dross often surfaces some previously unsung gems. The opener, "God of the Razor" (one of two entries taken, in part, from Lansdale's novel The Nightrunners during its struggle towards publication), happens not to be one of them but, just as an example, its view that serial killers pass on their occupation to the next person like vampires is original, and Lansdale's use of paragraphs of dialogue to tell the backstory gives the claustrophobic surroundings an immediacy that heightens the terror. It's not his best work — and is about mid-range for Bumper Crop — but is definitely what the author would refer to as "catchy"; it sticks in the memory like a tenacious pop hook.

There are details like that in every story here that make them worth reading, if not necessarily candidates for immortality. Most of the selections are very short, often written with merely the germ of an idea — a punchline of sorts. Often clever with a twist, stories like "The Dump," "Chompers," and "Personality Problem" exemplify the simplest form of this. However, Lansdale has the ability to stretch these one-note ideas into workable stories, as shown by "Listen," about an "invisible" man; "Down by the Sea;" and "Bar Talk," an odd vignette that teaches against talking to strangers in bars. Generally, the quality of the stories increase along with the copyright date and one of the best is also the most recent. "Fire Dog" was published in a 2003 Golden Gryphon anthology, The Silver Gryphon. The idea that the local firefighters' unit would replace their dalmatian with a human applicant could only have come from Lansdale's fevered imagination.

The best are few but worth mentioning for that reason. "Bestsellers Guaranteed," a bitter writer's idea of how "the other side" get published is bound to strike a chord with any frustrated pen pusher, and "Master of Misery" utilizes Lansdale's vast martial arts knowledge (he operates a Nagodoches, Texas, dojo teaching his own personally designed system — called Shen Chuan, Martial Science) in a brutal fighting tale.

Some of the stranger ones are the product of what Lansdale calls "popcorn dreams" — the result of eating too much of his wife's formula of the popular snack before retiring. "The Fat Man" is an example of how this frenzied source can lead to a story with a scattered focus.

His previously-mentioned trademark pitch black storytelling is represented here, as well, in the form of "On a Dark October," which finds awful things going on at night in a service station garage; "Duck Hunt," in which a boy "becomes a man;" and "I Tell You It's Love," where the definition of that emotion is stretched beyond most people's breaking points.

Unfortunately, to this reviewer, who has come to expect nothing but the best from Joe R. Lansdale, a preponderence of this Bumper Crop falls into the category of "disappointment." This doesn't mean that they are not still great fun to read, only that this volume does not contain his best work. For a fan, however, this won't matter, as Bumper Crop is far more interesting as a portrait of a writer's growth. From his (many) attempts at copying the style of Ray Bradbury ("Fish Night," "Last of the Hopeful," "The Man Who Dreamed"), through his eventual discovery of his own voice and his collaborations with friends and family ("Pilots," "A Change of Lifestyle," "The Companion"), to creating stories that would eventually win the author five Bram Stoker awards among others, this collection follows the quirky path taken by one Joe R. Lansdale ("hisownself") in the development of his craft.


[Craig Clarke]

Drive into The Orbit, Lansdale's home page, to see what's playing,
and pick up one of his Totally Free Stories while you're there;
a different one is posted every Thursday.