Review: Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

11641612Title: Edge of Dark Water

Author: Joe R. Lansdale

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Mulholland Books / Hachette Audio

Format: Audio Book

I first came across this book when I was perusing the Goodreads Choice Awards for 2012. It was listed as one of the top horror novels, but what I discovered in reading this novel was something quite different than I expected.

Having not previously read anything by Joe Lansdale, I was expecting a more traditional novel. The publisher describes the book as “Mark Twain meets classic Stephen King,”  which led me to think of perhaps a supernatural occurrence along the Mississippi. What Lansdale delivered; however, is something much deeper.

The comparison to Mark Twain is made primarily because of the themes shared with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It takes place in depression-era east Texas, dealing with subject matters such as racism and abuse. Like Huckleberry Finn, the narrator of the novel is young — a sixteen-year-old named Sue Ellen — and it tells a coming-of-age story as she undergoes a brooding rite of passage to start a new life. Also, like Twain, Lansdale has a keen sense of dialect, employing an uneducated sense of southern speech in his dialog.

The comparison to Stephen King is a bit odd to me and I almost prefer a comparison to Cormac McCarthy. The novel’s setting, strong antagonist, and the adroit dealing with the deepest of human emotions leads me to draw this connection. Thankfully, Lansdale does not fear punctuation.

The plot is not what makes this novel extraordinary. It’s quite simple, actually. A girl is found dead in a lake and Sue Ellen, who lives with an abusive stepfather with no real chance for life on her own, decides to follow her friend’s dream by bringing her ashes to Hollywood. Accompanying her on her journey are her alcoholic mother and two friends, Jinx and Terry. When they come upon some stolen money, the worst of rural civilization comes to get their piece of it. Their most dangerous foe, Skunk, a bogeyman whose reputation precedes him, is also after them and the money alone won’t be enough to satisfy his evil ways.

What makes Edge of Dark Water a beautiful novel is much more than the plot. The writing is excellent, depicting the drawl and sensibilities of the south with such a flavor that the reader gets completely enveloped in the protagonists’ travels. Sue Ellen has a combination of sass and southern charm as she tries to respect her alcoholic mother’s choices, but make the right decisions as well.

Lansdale also handles many difficult themes with style. Alcoholism, racism, domestic violence, and societal norms are interwoven into the narrative, making a southern gothic tale much richer on many levels. These struggles are ones that the reader can identify with, adding a lot of depth to the characters.

Ultimately, there is nothing tangible for me to criticize, but I must admit there were many times while listening to the novel during my commute that I had to focus to stay in the story. I don’t know if that is more of a reflection on me than on the novel itself, but the literary sense of the narrative at times left me skimming the surface instead of fully immersing me in Lansdale’s world.

Overall, Edge of Dark Water is a rewarding novel with interesting characters, deep and emotional themes, providing quite a satisfying journey for the reader. For those who like smart writing in the style of someone like Cormac McCarthy or William Faulkner, I think Joe Lansdale may be a worthy read.

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