Written by: Wayne C. Rogers
Joe Lansdale has said he thinks Edge of Dark Water is probably his best novel to date. I can’t say it is or isn’t. You see, I’m prejudiced. I’ve long held The Bottoms by Lansdale to be the best novel I’ve ever read. It’s certainly Joe’s #1 book to date. There were so many wonderful things in the novel that spoke to my heart as a human being that I couldn’t see it being replaced. Edge of Dark Water, however, is trying its best to push The Bottoms from its high perch, and it just might succeed.
What’s the Edge of Dark Water about?
Joe Hill (author of Horns and The Heart-Shaped Box) called it a cross between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Deliverance. He wasn’t far wrong.
When Mae Lyn, the prettiest girl in the county, is found dead in the Sabine River with a Singer sewing machine tied around her ankles, her three closest friends—maybe her only friends—decide to dig up her body, burn it, and take the ashes to Hollywood. This is where Mae Lyn always dreamed of going, hoping she would one day become famous. Her friends—Sue Ellen, Jinx and Terry—all have their different personalities. Sue Ellen, though pretty, is basically a tomboy. Jinx is black and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, even if it gets her into trouble. Remember, this is taking place during the Great Depression. Terry is a handsome young fellow, but everybody considers him to be a sissy. In the South, during the Depression, being a sissy is considered worse than being black. Still, these kids love each other as close friends do, even if they sometimes get on each other’s nerves.
Now, if each of these kids came from a great, loving home or had something to look forward to in their life, the idea of taking Mae Lyn’s ashes to California wouldn’t have grown wings and taken flight so quickly. All of them have little reason to stay and everything to gain by heading out west. To add to the situation, the three kids discover a cache of hidden money stolen from a bank by Mae Lyn’s dead brother. It’s only a thousand dollars, but a lot of people would kill you for a lot less during this era when even ten dollars was a lot of money.
Stealing a raft, the kids make their way down the river, but with folks after them for the bank’s money. No one really cares about the children, but the money is something else entirely. The Shunk, a merciless killer and a legend, is hired to track the kids down and bring back the stolen loot. The thing is Shunk loves to kill in the most hideous ways. He always chops the hands off of his victims and keeps them as souvenirs tied around his neck. The kids don’t believe in him at first, but they soon will.
While the kids make their way down the river to the nearest town, they encounter all sorts of strange and death-defying adventures. It doesn’t hurt that they have an unexpected travelling companion with them. In fact, it eventually proves to be a blessing as time passes by.
There’s also the matter of who murdered Mae Lyn.
That question isn’t stared at or mulled over much on the river trip. But when the killer is finally revealed, I think you’ll be just as surprised as I was. It’s not easy to surprise me anymore, but Joe Lansdale still has that solid punch to the gut that can knock the wind out of you.
Edge of Dark Water covers many themes that deal with the plight of humanity: love, hate, racism, parenting, child abuse, murder, friendship, and evil of the worse kind. Mr. Lansdale doesn’t beat you over the head with it, but demonstrates how fragile life and friendship can be. The author clearly portrays life as it was during the thirties. In some ways, much hasn’t changed. People are still people with their good points and their bad ones. Seldom is anything black or white, but rather shades of grey because human beings are complex creatures. Mr. Lansdale understands this and is able to give the reader an underlying view of what makes people tick. This is hard job for any writer, but Mr. Lansdale manages to do it in spades.
This is also pure storytelling at its best. Not every writer can tell a good yarn. Joe Lansdale happens to be a master at storytelling after thirty years of learning his craft. He knows how to weave a good, heart-wrenching tale, creating fully developed characters in such a way that you either love them or hate them, or maybe both at the same time. Heck, you might not even know which emotion is kicking in or being tugged on. I guarantee, however, you’ll get a good look at the dark side of humanity few other authors are able to tap into. This writer creates a picture of evil as if he’s gone up against it during his lifetime and barely survived.
Last, allow me to add that Joe Lansdale is an author who knows how to deliver on his promise. What do I mean? Whenever you buy a novel, the author is promising you’ll get your money’s worth from it. Not every author is able to keep this promise, but Joe always does. This is why I always look forward to a new book by him. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Go out and get yourself a copy of Edge of Dark Water. After you finish reading it, you’ll want to put it on the bookshelf beside Joe R. Lansdale’s other great novels, The Bottoms, A Fine Dark Line, Sunset and Sawdust, and the Hap/Leonard series. This is one of the top writers in the world today and if you haven’t read his fiction, then shame on you.