Dead on the Bones: Pulp on Fire by Joe R. Lansdale
Subterranean Press (December 2016)
296 pages; $40.00 hardcover
Reviewed by Blu Gilliand
“I was living in a pulp writer fury, a storm of imagination.”
That’s how author Joe R. Lansdale describes his early years, that delicate time when a steady diet of television shows, comic books and Edgar Rice Burroughs novels cemented his desire to become a writer. Dead on the Bones: Pulp on Fire is full of stories in which Lansdale seeks to honor those early influences that have given him—and, in turn, his readers—so much.
Given the passion Lansdale expresses for the work of Burroughs, I can only imagine how exciting it must have been for him to get permission from the Burroughs estate to write the Tarzan story “Tarzan and the Land That Time Forgot.” I haven’t read enough Burroughs to say with authority whether or not Lansdale got the tone just right, but I can say he wrote a rollicking good adventure that finds Tarzan and a couple of companions from the underground world of Pellucidar stranded on a bizarre lost continent full of Sabre Tooth Tigers, flying creatures and hostile warriors. He also invokes Burroughs, along with Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, in “Under the Warrior Star,” in which a man is sent to live on a strange new world in a strange new universe created by Earth-bound scientists—a world that echoes the lost and savage lands that Burroughs and Howard loved to inhabit.
“The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning” (Winner: Best Story Title of Dead on the Bones) is a classic horror mixtape featuring elements of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein blended with Lovecraft and Poe. It’s told in a more lean, straightforward manner than any of those writers would ever be able to muster, but still bears their influence in each and every word.
Lansdale is on my Mount Rushmore of writers, so it’s no surprise that the story in the collection that hews closest to his usual storytelling style, “Dead on the Bones,” is my favorite. It’s about a magical night in the river bottoms, where folks gather to eat and gossip and wait on the Conjure Man. The Conjure Man is coming to raise an opponent from the dead to fight a young boy’s “uncle” (as in, the man who replaced his daddy in his momma’s bed), only the opponent who gets conjured isn’t the one Uncle Johnny expects. It’s pure Lansdale from word one, the perfect exhibition of the influences he’s here to honor and the style he’s carved out on his own.
That signature style is toned down throughout the other stories, but Lansdale’s way with words can’t help but slip through in some places, such as when he describes a creature on Mars as being able to “…squeeze through tight places, like oatmeal through a colander.” The overall different approach to these stories doesn’t make the collection any less of a read, but keep in mind that it’s less a representation of where Lansdale is, and more of a map showing how he got there.
Lansdale is a gift to this and future generations of readers and writers. Dead on the Bones: Pulp on Fire is his gift to those who came before him and paved the way for him; for those writers who opened his eyes to the exciting adventures and strange creatures lurking in his own imagination, and showed him how to set them free. Highly recommended.