Wednesdays: Razorback by Ursula Vernon

I’ve decided that Wednesdays will be dedicated to short fiction.

On Sunday I had the displeasure of spending seven hours at a small community market trying to sell books and jewellery and making no money whatsoever. The day would have been a total failure but it presented me with one of those increasingly rare occasions where I have nothing to do but read. I had expected as much, so: Kindle, short stories.

Apex-Magazine-80

My favourite was ‘Razorback’ by Ursula Vernon, in issue 80 of Apex Magazine. It’s a retelling of a folk story known as Rawhead and Bloody Bones. An odd thing about this piece of folklore is that it has two very different incarnations in the UK and the American South. The story originated in Great Britain, where Rawhead / Tommy Rawhead / Rawhead and Bloody Bones is a bogeyman with a scalped head who is used to frighten children.

Somehow, when the story migrated to the American South, Rawhead became a razorback hog befriended by an old witch. When Rawhead is killed by a hunter, the witch is devastated at the loss of her only friend, and brings him back to life as a bloody-boned skeleton with a skinned head to take revenge. Ursula Vernon recommends reading S.E. Schlosser’s version of the tale, which is a proper piece of folkloric horror that borrows from Little Red Riding Hood: “[W]hat have you got those big eyes fer?’ the hunter asks, when the undead Rawhead comes for him, and the boar replies, ‘To see your grave’.

Vernon’s version, based on the American tale, is more heartfelt tragedy than horror. It’s not as gory and, like most retellings, ‘Razorback’ brings a sense of humanity and realism to the folklore, which Vernon does it particularly well. Rawhead is an unexpectedly charming, polite boar, as the witch Sal finds out, since she has the capacity to hear him speak:

“I see your momma raised you to be respectful,” said Sal, rocking.
Have to be ma’am. If you aren’t, she rolls over on you and squashes you flat.
“Huh!” Sal rocked harder. “Not a bad notion. Know a few people who couldn’t used a good squashing back in the day.
It does make you think before you speak, ma’am. He rolled a beady little boar eye up at her. You cook good cornbread, ma’am. Can I stay with you a little while?

When Rawhead is killed, Sal is not merely an angry and vengeful witch – she’s a lonely woman in mourning for a dear friend. The resulting story is not straightforward: things don’t go as planned and because she’s not accustomed to using violence or black magic, none of it comes easily to her, regardless of her determination. The horror elements are there, but the story is touching rather than creepy; one of those wonderful pieces of fiction about animal–human friendships. Readers who dislike or are wary of horror won’t have a problem with ‘Razorback’.

I also like Vernon’s take on witches, which I’ve also seen in her other fiction: they’re rock solid, independent, knowledgeable women who provide valuable but often taboo community services (like abortions) and are frowned upon as a result.

People want a witch when they need one, but they don’t much like them. It was a little too easy, when you saw Sal go by, to remember all she knew about you. […] She was a good witch and a decent person, but decent people aren’t always easy to live with.

“Razorback’ is accompanied by an in-depth author interview by Andrea Johnson (the Little Red Reviewer), so you can get a bit more insight into the story, which I always like to do. The edition also features a novelette by Ursula Vernon, titled ‘The Tomato Thief’. It’s also about a witch, so yes please.

Review of Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

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
Rating: 7/10

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.

Buy a copy of Edge of Dark Water at The Book Depository

Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman

Title: Those Across the River
Author: Christopher Buehlman
Published: September 2011 by Ace Books, a division of Penguin USA
Genre:
horror
Source: Review copy received from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 7/10

It’s the summer of 1935 and Frank Nichols and his fiancée Eudora move into a house in Whitbrow, a parochial, rural town in the American south. Frank inherited the house from his aunt, who warned him to sell it because “there is bad blood here, and it is against you”. Frank would have heeded her warning, but after ruining his career as a history professor and spending months unemployed, living with Eudora in his brother’s house, the inheritance looks like a good opportunity rather than the disaster you know it’s going to be.

Living off his inheritance money and Eudora’s salary as a school teacher, Frank decides to spend his time writing a book about his great-grandfather, Lucien Savoyard, an army General who tortured and killed his slaves for sport until they “revolted and murdered him, as well as his wife and overseers. And the dogs they used to chase them with. And the horses. They chopped them all up and put them in a common pit and burned them.” The remains of Savoyard’s plantation lie across the river that runs alongside Whitbrow, but none of the townspeople are willing to take help Frank find it. There are stories about evil things across the river, and no one wants to find out if they’re true.

Dark family secrets, the stain of evil, an unknown threat beyond a border that no one will cross (except the protagonist), a terrible danger in a small, isolated town – there’s nothing particularly new here, or about “those across the river” when you find out what they are, but none of that stopped this from being a very scary book. It takes a while to get going, but once strange and disturbing things start happening and the gruesome deaths began, it creeped the hell out of me. There is something very primal about the horror that Buehlman evokes – a threat of ugly, filthy violence driven by base desires and indiscriminate hatred. It’s terrifying in its blunt savagery.

The town of Whitbrow, where most of the novel is set, provides a nice set-up for the horrors to come. It’s the kind of quiet small town that I find inherently unsettling because of its religious fervour, lack of education and unabashed racism. For the most part the residents are friendly, but when a black man or vagrant walks into town, the tension is palpable. Even Frank, our supposedly sophisticated history professor, struggles to stop himself using the word “nigger” at times. Other men spit the word out very readily.

The backwardness of the town bothers Frank at first. When he goes to the general store and can’t find any wine, he’s told that “We in Morgan County here. All we drink is the blood of the Redeemer.” Another resident, Martin Cranmer, avoids his neighbours because he can’t stand how dull and provincial they are:

No offense, but most of the God-fearing folk around here have trouble reading a can of soup. I mean, they’ll whip your biscuits in a game of checkers at the general store, and most of them can quote Genesis and Exodus alright, but chess is right out. The most political they ever got was when half of them wrote letters to Sears and Roebuck when they switched the catalog to glossy paper.” “Why did they care?”
Because they had to go back to wiping their asses with corn.”

Buehlman does a skilful job of portraying the town and its people, particularly that unique Southern humour and manner of speaking. It’s a good thing that he does it so well, since the first half or so is devoted to setting up the characters and the location without moving the plot forward very much. You might find this slow-going at times but it’s worth it to feel the rush when the pace picks up and the horror hits you at full force. When I switched off the lights and went to bed after a few hours spent reading this I made a terrible cliché of myself by jumping at my own shadow.

Sadly, the ending is a bit of a let down because it doesn’t quite live up to the preceding parts, but by then I had to admit that the novel had already done its job by scaring the hell out of me. On the whole, it’s a good, quick horror read, well-written and solidly constructed. It can get pretty gory at times, but not gratuitously so, and it doesn’t rely on gore alone to be scary. Recommended.

Buy Those Across the River
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