Blood, Guts and Brains

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“Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet” first came to my attention thanks to “States of Terror” editor/publisher Matt Lewis. Considering I wrote a story about the Florida skunk ape for volume two of that collection, I was instantly intrigued to hear about Adam Howe’s “Damn Dirty Apes,” the first of three novellas in this book. It’s a twisted, pulpy Southern gothic adventure tale peopled with backwoods pornographers, ape-centric biker gangs, cryptid-hunting eccentrics, and a damaged-but-unbroken ex-prizefighter at the center of it all. It caroms from grim brutality to cartoonish otherworldly violence while rarely pausing for breath, and there’s a strong sense that Howe’s introducing one of those gruffly likable protagonist who could keep on having these kinds of reluctant adventures for years to come (and since there’s a sequel novel on the way, I may not be too far off in that guess).

The shortest of the three, “Gator Bait,” is a horror noir that’s equal parts James M. Cain and Stephen King in its Prohibition-era tale of a piano-playing ladies’ man forced to go on the lam after getting the drop on a cuckold bent on ending his adulterous days. Of course, stumbling into a new gig at a swampy roadside honkytonk run by a dangerous bootlegger with a gorgeous battered wife can only lead one way for the hapless ivory-tickler, no matter how often he claims to have sworn off the dames. Especially if the alligator in the pond out back has a say in the matter.

Throughout both of these Southern-fried tales, so steeped in the language and specifics of 20th-century hardboiled Americana, it’s easy to forget that Howe’s a Brit by birth. The stories read quick, funny and fun, with that enviable combination of smart satisfying wordplay and evocative imagery, yet with nary a wasted or extraneous word.

But the one that really grabbed me by the nards and wouldn’t let go is the one that gives the book its title. Unlike the other two tales, which are occasionally crude or violent but essentially accessible, “Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet” is one I would not recommend to the even vaguely squeamish. Easily the best horror movie I’ve read in ages, the less I say about its hardcore horror conceit the better, as I don’t want to spoil the immensely satisfying twists and turns it takes with its simple but brilliant “dammit why didn’t I think a that?!” premise.

Suffice to say, fans of old school pulp with a postmodern twist, over-the-top action-adventure lovers, and sick fucks who enjoy stories with as much brains as blood and guts will all find something to love inside Howe’s twisted little worlds.

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Rednecks & Pigskin

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Growing up Texan, I’m pretty sure I was meant to be a football fan. My father is, my sister is, my brother was. Legendary Dallas Cowboys QB Roger Staubach attended the same church as my family when I was a kid. My neice is married to the son of another legendary NFL-er who played for my home team, the long-gone Houston Oilers.

But for whatever reason, the football bug never bit. In fact, between my own little league baseball and soccer experiences, which left a bad taste in my mouth for the spirit of competition, and a general interest in geekier pursuits, I’ve never cared for sports at all. Except, of course, in the realm of fiction. From the foul-mouthed kids of the original “Bad News Bears” to the debauched troubled souls of “North Dallas Forty” to the soft-hearted lug of “Rocky” I could always relate to the underdog/outsider metaphor of one team, or individual, fighting long odds just to survive, much less win.

Amidst the “Breaking Bads” and “Sopranos” and “Mad Men,” and somewhat overshadowed by them, I’m of the opinion that “Friday Night Lights” is one of the greatest TV dramas in history, its depiction of a small Texas town that lives and dies by the success of its high school football team providing a backdrop for stories about marginalized human beings, righteousness and wrongheadedness, and one of the most dead-honest portrayals of a healthy happy but sometimes bumpy marriage since, I dunno, Dan and Roseanne, I guess. It’s much more of an optimistic, feel-good show than those I just mentioned above, but it comes about that optimism honestly, and with genuine respect for its small-town Southern characters and their humanity. In other words, it’s not “Seventh Heaven,” or “Coach” or even “The White Shadow.”

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“Southern Bastards,” Jasons Aaron & Latour’s epic graphic ongoing is about a small town just as mired in its obsession with the ritual significance of what happens on that high school football field week in and week out, but very much the anti-“Friday Night Lights” in every conceivable way. If Coach Eric Taylor was a kind of patron saint of tough love mentorship, “Bastards” Coach Euless Boss is the devil incarnate. Here’s a man who’s clawed his way up from an abject life to a position of power and authority that he not only realizes to its fullest extent, but will never let go of as long as there’s life left in him. If his surname’s not already a clue, Euless functions not only as the head coach of the Runnin’ Rebs, but as the town mob boss as well, maintaining a tight-fisted reign over his ruthless, toothless goons, most of whom seem to be former students who’ve gone on to something less than glory off the field.

Coach Boss’ mandated order of things is challenged when Earl Tubb, aging son of the town’s long-gone legendary sheriff, returns home to settle some family business. The two crusty sons-of-bitches run afoul of each other pretty quick, especially once Earl picks up the old family war club off the mantle and starts beating the hell out of Boss’ thugs. However, as much as “Southern Bastards” ain’t “Friday Night Lights,” it ain’t “Walking Tall” either, and things don’t turn out quite the way we’ve been led to expect from a century of cowboy movies.

The genius of the storytelling–and really, this is the mark of a lot of great storytelling, especially in the Age of the Anti-hero–is that the Jasons create a thoroughly loathsome villain in Volume 1, then sucker-punch you with a sympathetic tale of Euless’ origins in Volume 2, forcing you to understand him a little, even if he is a man most likely beyond all hope of redemption. Watching him fight against all odds to impress his own less-than-worthless father and get some sense of familial respect (love’s too much to ask for ’round these parts), becoming a football player with no natural talent through sheer force of will, you see the bumps, bruises, and breaks that formed the literal and metaphorical scar tissue that’s made his hide so dense.

Volume 3 switches gears again and spins a series of single-issue tales about the various townspeople, from the black ex-football star sheriff who’s been looking the other way for too long to the proselytizing super-Christian who believes any soul is worthy and capable of saving to the sociopathic redneck who happily, viciously proves him wrong.

Since the end of the first story arc, Aaron and Latour have been teasing the arrival of Earl Tubb’s Middle East-war vet daughter, who promises to be the fuse that ignites the powder keg of small town insanity, bigotry, rage and vengeance at the core of Euless Boss, his town, and this incredible story.