I first heard of Joe R. Lansdale when I was working at Barnes & Noble. My manager at the time had ordered the latest Lansdale book and I was taken in by the cover. To be honest, I don’t remember which book it was, but I filed the name in the back of my head for future reference. At that time, the vast majority of Lansdale’s works were out of print and hard to find. So, whenever I hit the used bookstores, I kept my eye open for a copy of Savage Season (the first in the Hap and Leonard series), which my manager said would be a great place to start reading Lansdale. I eventually tracked down the first two books in the series and devoured them rapidly. The mix of humor, characterization, and compelling crime plots hooked me right away. Then, around 2009, the floodgates opened and Lansdale’s books began to be reprinted in a myriad of formats, a trend that is still going strong, and that has led to my current obsession. Finding myself a devoted fan for many years, I naturally jumped at the chance to kickstart a new Lansdale novella being put out by Dark Regions Press as part of their Black Labyrinth series (a planned series of 10 horror novellas by today’s top writers).
This story, being the second in the series, is entitled Prisoner 489, and concerns a rather odd trio of caretakers: Toggle, the gravedigger; Wilson, the young gardener; and Bernard, their supervisor. These three men are caretakers of a small island which is home to a prison graveyard. The prison, supposedly run by the United Nations, is located on a much larger neighboring island and serves as an internment camp to an ambiguous group of criminals who are deemed “different”. A few times a year, our trio receives a freshly executed inmate via boat and buries them in a grave marked only by a numeric designation on its epitaph. One night, they receive a corpse packaged unlike any they have seen before. Instead of arriving in a flimsy pine box, this particular stiff is in a metal coffin, chained and padlocked shut. Along with this unwelcome deviation, comes an unsettling story from the boat captain, Kettle. While thoroughly unsettled by the rumors surrounding this now thankfully deceased individual, the men set about burying their latest guest and calling it a night. Of course, if that was all that happened, there wouldn’t be much of a story here, and as you can imagine, it’s not long before all hell, and something else, breaks loose.
This story is divided into two simple parts: the events before the “turn”, and after. Before the supernatural element comes into play, we have a nice character piece, punctuated by two creepy, atmospheric passages. The first involves the electric lights on the island. When a prisoner is executed at the neighboring prison, the lights on the island will noticeably dim, due to the power usage of the electric chair. This has become an expected event on the island, as it signals the arrival of a new corpse to be buried. However, in this case, the lights dim twice, then go out all together several times. Our characters are unsettled by this, never having remembered so much juice and so many attempts being needed ever before. The second creepy moment involves Kettle, the boatman, telling of the rumors he’s heard about this particular prisoner. These two passages do an excellent job of unsettling the reader and building anticipation for the inevitable events to come. The second part of the book stands in rather stark contrast to the first. Most of the creepy element is replaced by white knuckle action. Thankfully, Lansdale is highly capable at both suspense and action, so the tonal shift isn’t as jarring as it might have been in lesser hands. While some readers may be disappointed in such a shifting of gears, the second act is still punctuated by the occasional macabre moment.
Altogether, I’m quite happy with this story. While I might have preferred that the action be downplayed in favor of the more macabre elements, good writing is good writing. Lansdale never fails to entertain and impress and this novella is no exception. If you’re interested in picking up a copy, you can purchase the paperback directly from the publisher here, or in either paperback or e-book formats from the usual retailers.