Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Nightrunners by Joe R. Lansdale (1987)

The Nightrunners by Joe R. Lansdale (1987): One of the prolific Lansdale's first novels (third by my count, if you are counting) is a gas-guzzling monster of horror. It fits comfortably into the splatterpunk sub-genre of horror, though it's also simply a gory, tightly plotted piece of supernatural horror. Its closest genre antecedent is Stephen King's early, flawed, but compelling novella "Sometimes They Come Back."

For all his goriness, Lansdale knows when to show and when not to show: a rape scene central to the novel never appears in its entirety, but the emotional horror of the rape victim is described throughout, and quite sensitively. But this is also a novel of revenge: the rape victim will stop being a victim before it's all over, or die trying.

The horrible gang of teens who act as antagonists throughout the novel are both natural terrors and supernaturally guided horrors. Through the 'present-day' events of the novel and the lengthy flashback sequence in the middle of the narrative, we see dead-end, lower-income teens turn into vicious rapists, killers, and necrophiliacs. But they're also increasingly in thrall to Lansdale's recurring supernatural entity The God of the Razor, who feeds on bloodshed and terror offered up to him.

The Nightrunners follows the gang's pursuit of the rape victim and her husband, trying to pull themselves and their marriage back together months after the rape. The novel takes shots at right-wing bigots and left-wing apologists for criminals along the way -- it's an equal-opportunity scream of outrage.

There are dire economic, social, and familial reasons for the way the teens turned out, but they are still responsible for their actions. Or at least the non-psychotic ones are. Their leader and his lieutenant appear to be sadistic sociopaths from the beginning. Some of the rest of the gang is dead inside; the others, to their cost, just went along for the ride.

Everything builds to a climactic siege that's gratifyingly messy and, at points, almost slapstick in its portrayal of the occasional clumsiness of desperate people. Despite their supernatural backing, the teens aren't the hyper-competent, indestructible killers of so many slasher movies. There's a fog of violence to the last thirty pages or so, a realistic portrayal (in its supernatural, blood-soaked way) of the manner in which the plans of both protagonists and antagonists can go astray. It's like that old chestnut about warfare: no battle-plan survives intact the first moment of engagement with the enemy.

There's an admirable ruthlessness towards characters here, bolstered by Lansdale's already solid grasp of characterization. The scenes of real-world violence can be jarringly sudden. The scenes of supernatural congress with The God of the Razor work nicely as well (which is to say, not nicely at all) -- it's a god of violence that seems almost plausible in a religious sense, and eclectically imagined in a visual sense. A couple of years after this novel, Lansdale would pit the God of the Razor against Batman in a prose anthology. Batman would prevail there. Here, there's only ordinary people faced with extraordinary cruelty. Who or what will prevail here? Recommended.

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