By Joe R. Lansdale (Subterranean Press; 2007)
An essential volume for Joe Lansdale fans, this is a 20th anniversary hardcover reprinting of Lansdale’s splat happy 1987 classic THE NIGHTRUNNERS. Also on hand are six short stories inspired by the novel, a newly written introduction and several lurid illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne.
The intro describes the publication history of THE NIGHTRUNNERS, written back in the early eighties as one of its author’s first three novels (ACT OF LOVE and DEAD IN THE WEST were the others). It took several years for it to find print, during which Lansdale published a handful of short stories inspired by THE NIGHTRUNNERS and its personage the God of the Razor.
Said god is a scary top hat-wearing figure with spiky teeth and severed heads in place of shoes. The only thing is the GotR doesn’t have much to do in THE NIGHTRUNNERS, which seems appropriately placed among the short stories in this book, as it often feels more like an anthology than a proper novel. Its various chapters are for the most part self-contained, and one called “Boys Will Be Boys” was actually published as a stand-alone story.
But Lansdale’s talent is fully on display, and even if the novel is a bit of a hodge-podge, it’s still a page-burner. It’s the story of Becky, a pretty young schoolteacher gang-raped by a pack of teenage scumbags. These “Nightrunners” are controlled by the psychotic Clyde, who in turn is (possibly) under the influence of the God of the Razor.
The supernatural elements are dimly worked-out, and ultimately play a small part. The novel works best as an exercise in nasty, ruthless suspense (despite a few too many supporting characters and subplots that frequently compromise the forward momentum), with Clyde getting caught and hanging himself in his prison cell, thus passing on leadership duties to his second-in-command Brian. He in turn launches an all-out attack on the traumatized Becky and her wimpy psychiatrist husband Monty, who’s about to get a point-blank lesson in naked aggression.
This is tough stuff. Unusually graphic in its descriptions and unrelenting in its grim trajectory, it’s one of Lansdale’s meanest works (no small claim, that!). There’s also a good dose of the outrageous Southern-fried humor at which this author excels–a short chapter told from the point of view of a dog walker gave me some of the best laughs I’ve had in some time–but it never overshadows the novel’s core of encroaching darkness.
As for the short stories, one of them, “Not from Detroit”, was an outgrowth of an excised chapter from THE NIGHTRUNNERS. It’s a macabre but ultimately tender piece about an elderly couple’s confrontation with death, in the form of a dude in a souped-up car who drives by their home late at night. Two of the others, “The Shaggy House” and “Janet Finds the Razor”, were inspired by elements from the novel; I found “The Shaggy House” fun, a bit like that animated movie MONSTER HOUSE, only shorter and sweeter.
There’s also the essential “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road”, one of Lansdale’s most outrageous stories (although with little-to-nothing to do with THE NIGHTRUNNERS or the God of the Razor). It has a survival-trained woman going up against a freak known as Moon Face; she ends up warding him off with projectiles shot from her panties and the corpse of a dead baby!
“God of the Razor” and “King of Shadows” helpfully fill us in on the particulars of the GotR. In the former tale we learn that this God spreads aggression like a contagion, while the latter, about a put upon boy’s hideous revenge, reveals that the GotR hails from another dimension reachable by a magic blood-stained razor.
Good book overall. It probably won’t appeal to non-Lansdale fans, but is essential to one’s understanding of THE NIGHTRUNNERS and its place in its author’s cannon, it being among his most flawed novels, but also his most vital ones.