Title: Edge of Dark Water
Author: Joe R. Lansdale
Published: 25 March 2012
Publisher: Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown
Genre: adventure, thriller, drama
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Sixteen-year-old Sue Ellen lives in a small town in the old American South, a place characterised by poverty, racism and domestic abuse. One day she and her friend Terry find the body of another friend – May Lynn Baxter – at the bottom of the Sabine river. She’s clearly been there for a while, weighted down by a Singer sewing machine ties around her ankles. Sue Ellen’s father and uncle want to push the body back into the water and forget about it, but she and Terry convince them to call the police. When Constable Sy reluctantly drags his bulk over to the scene, he asks why they didn’t just push May Lynn back in. Everyone could just have assumed she’d followed her dream and run away to Hollywood. No one wants to go to the trouble of finding out what happened to her and no one is obliged to bother. She had no family except a drunken father who probably hasn’t even noticed she’s missing.
To honour May Lynn, Terry suggests that he, Sue Ellen and their friend Jinx burn the body and take the ashes to Hollywood. The journey will also give them the chance to escape their miserable home town and the dead-end lives they’re living there. It’s a daunting endeavour and they have almost no money, but then May Lynn’s diary leads them to buried treasure – a stash of stolen money from a bank robbery. With the money and a stolen raft, the trio head down the Sabine river, joined by Sue Ellen’s mother, who’s decided that she no longer wants to spend her days being either beaten by her husband or passed out drunk in bed.
But in making their escape, the three friends have made enemies. Constable Sy and Sue Ellen’s Uncle Gene are after them. May Lynn’s father wants the money and sends a man known as Skunk to track them down. Skunk is the stuff of nightmares, a psychopath who lives alone in the woods and can be hired to hunt people down. He finds pleasure in causing pain and death, and he chops off the hands of his victims to take back to his employers as proof. No one ever gets away from him.
It only took a few pages for me to decide that I liked this book. It’s told with rich Southern wit, bringing a very dark humour to the harsh realities of life in the American South and the dangers of the journey that the main characters embark on. Sue Ellen makes for an excellent narrator who picks up on those little details that make a good story great, like how she takes a thick piece of wood to bed at night, in case her father tries to come into her room, or how the wire around May Lynn’s ankles was tied in a bow. She also has personal qualities that immediately made me like her:
I’d already been doing women’s work for as long as I could remember. I just wasn’t no good at it. And if you’ve ever done any of it, you know it ain’t any fun at all. I liked doing what the boys and men did. What my daddy did. Which, when you got right down to it, didn’t seem like all that much, just fishing and trapping for skins to sell, shooting squirrels out of trees, and bragging about it like he’d done killed tigers.
I didn’t like that Mama thought she deserved that ass-whipping. She thought a man was the one ran things and had the say. She said it was in the Bible. That put me off reading it right away.
Accompanying Sue Ellen is a strong cast of characters. My favourite is Jinx, a black girl who seems to have been strengthened rather than crushed by the racism of the society she lives in – a particularly ugly prejudice that his novel frequently exposes. Unlike the other characters, Jinx has a relatively happy home life, with a loving, hard-working parents. She’s reluctant to leave them, but knows that if she stays she’s “gonna end up wiping white baby asses and doing laundry and cooking meals for peckerwoods the rest of my life”. According the Sue Ellen, Jinx has “a sweet face, but her eyes seemed older, like she was someone’s ancient grandma stuffed inside a kid”. She’s highly opinionated and never hesitates to share her thoughts, like when she tells a Reverend what bullshit she thinks religion is. Jinx is so sassy that she refuses to hold her tongue even when there’s a gun in her face. Terry, although he’s white, has to deal with prejudice as well, because there’s a rumour that he’s a “sissy” (gay). We also learn a bit about May Lynn, who possessed an angelic sort of beauty, but is by no means glorified just because she’s dead. We learn about her flaws as well, such as how she could be manipulative and self-centred.
I like the antagonists too. They’re all utterly loathsome men who enjoy violence and cruelty, but they’re good characters in that Lansdale really makes you feel the threat that they pose. The most dangerous of course, is Skunk. That man is creepy. The kind of creepy that makes you wonder what that noise upstairs is and double check that the doors are locked. This isn’t what I’d call a horror novel, but Skunk undoubtedly brings that element to it. He’s like a myth – some people don’t believe he exists, while the stories about him have surreal, disturbing details. We don’t actually ‘see’ very much of him, but for most of the journey he exists as a sinister presence, watching, chasing and preparing to attack. When he does attack, the results are always gruesome.
In terms of plot, the journey and the river serve traditional literary purposes as life-changing forces for the main characters. Initially I thought this would be a mystery novel (who killed May Lynn?), but it’s not. It’s more of a dark adventure and character drama with a touch of horror. My only complaints are that there are times when the narrative drags, but mostly I just enjoyed Lansdale’s storytelling. It’s well-written, detailed and has emotionally engaging characters. I’ve heard several times that this is a new direction for Lansdale, who typically writes horror and mystery novels. If he brings this kind of quality and disturbing atmosphere to those genres, I’d very much like to read more of his work.