Joe R. Lansdale’s “Night They Missed the Horror Show”

Short stories are weird things. It seems funny that something as mathematic as word count could irrevocably alter what a tale could do, but I’m a guy who believes that novels do things that novellas can’t, that novellas afford opportunities that novels don’t, and that short stories are snarling little beasts all their own.

Those reading this entry will either already be familiar with Lansdale and this vicious pearl of a story, or they’ll never have heard of either. For the latter crew, here’s a picture of Joe R. Lansdale, otherwise known as His Ownself:

His Ownself Himself

And here are a few facts you should know about him:

1. I love Stephen King above all authors, and there are few writers who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with him. Joe R. Lansdale does.

2. Joe R. Lansdale can be as funny, as scary, as insightful, and as moving as any writer alive or dead.

3. If you haven’t yet read Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard books, you haven’t yet lived.

And…

4. No writer does so much while making it look so effortless.

Springboarding off this last thought, Lansdale poses a tough challenge for me as a writer. There are writers whose styles I like to absorb subconsciously to season my own stuff (I’m not talking about plagiarism, of course; I’m talking about feel, rhythm, cadence, and the occasional addition to my word bank).

Dunking Like Lansdale Writes

Lansdale is one I can’t absorb. Oh, I can learn from him, alright—of course I learn from him—but his style is so unique and so awesome that I have to actively prevent myself from trying to mimic his tendencies. To put it a little more plainly, it’d be like watching old videos of Michael Jordan dunking, rushing out to the driveway in my old hightop Nikes, and attempting a double-pump slam from the free throw line.

I’d hurt myself. Badly.

And any author attempting to write like Lansdale would be wise to heed this warning: You can’t write like Joe. You try, you’ll end up with a concussion.

So what about “Night They Missed the Horror Show”?

Like the missing “The,” every single omission (and addition) to this story is by design. The premise seems simple enough: a group of boys skip the drive-in movie (Night of the Living Dead, and yes, typing that made me grin) and encounter something much, much worse. I can’t tell you what they find, but what I can tell you is that no one else could’ve told this tale like Lansdale. Heck, no one else could have thought of this tale, much less executed it.

One of the Places You Can Find This Gem

In the dedication for this tale, Lansdale dubs it “a story that doesn’t flinch.”

And good gravy is that true. This story not only refuses to flinch, it stares with unblinking intensity at an evil so mundane, so casual that it’s far more unnerving than most werewolves or vampires could ever hope to be. It’s the kind of story that someone without a brain might look at and be deeply offended by. “But…but…there are racist words! And the violence…I can’t imagine what anyone could ever see in such a ghastly story!”

I’ve got news for someone like that:

This story ain’t for you.

The Michael Jordan of Horror (or at least the Magic Johnson)

So for the rest of you, those of you who realize that an author can fully inhabit a POV character without being anything like that POV character (His Ownself is, by all accounts, a caring, generous, loving man—the kind of person who enriches your life by being in it), for those of you who value great writing, and for all of you just love a great yarn—read or re-read “Night They Missed the Horror Show.”

It’ll show you just how vicious and nasty a short story can be (in a way that only a short story can be). It’ll also show you why Joe R. Lansdale is a national treasure whose books should be read by everybody everywhere.

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9 thoughts on “Joe R. Lansdale’s “Night They Missed the Horror Show”

  1. The only thing better than a Lansdale story is hearing him read it himself, live and in person. He’s one of the best in the biz at it. His southern drawl really makes his stories come alive.

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  2. Without a doubt, Joe’s stories (and especially his Hap and Leonard novels) should be considered required reading for anyone who hopes to become a writer…and should be twice for those of us who already do so. He makes it look so simple, but I have yet to read anyone else who can create the menace and the humor he does in one sentence, let alone keep that remarkable set of plates spinning in the air for an entire novel. I haven’t read one mediocre work from the man yet. As a writer of dark fiction myself, Joe is a creative inspiration.

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  3. Word, Nickolas. I can’t read his stuff without a) being swept right along with it, and b) going back later to study it and marvel. And I love what you said about the menace and humor he creates in a single sentence. You said it better than I did. He’s possessed of an incredible natural gift for storytelling, yet his devotion to learning and improving his craft shows in every sentence. Inspiring is exactly what Joe R. is.

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  4. I just read this story for the first time in Cemetery Dances’ THE HORROR HALL OF FAME:THE STOKER WINNERS. Definitely one of my favorites among a host of great stories.

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  5. Night They Missed the Horror Show can also be found in Joe’s book, High Cotton. Mr. Lansdale has a unique ability to take an ordinary situation and churn out a tale so compellingly real you can imagine it happening in your own neighborhood.

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    1. Good call, Thomas. I somehow snagged a signed copy of High Cotton, which is one of the few signed copies I have of anything. And I agree with your comments about Lansdale. He’s a master.

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