My friends, mark down August 16, 2023, on your calendar, app, post-it note, written it in lipstick on your medicine cabinet mirror, or however you keep track of such things—that’s when Things Get Ugly: The Best Crime Stories of Joe R. Lansdale releases. You’ll want to take the day off, settle into a comfortable chair (or onto a barstool, you do you) with a tumbler of good scotch within reach, and prepare yourself to get lost in one of the best collections of crime fiction I’ve ever read.
There are 19 stories here, each one a poisonous gem, and before I call out a few individual stories, some general thoughts:
• Because Lansdale is so versatile, and so prolific, it’s easy to forget just how good he is in the various genres he calls home. He is, without a doubt, a master of crime fiction.
• The title Things Get Ugly is extremely apt—These are dark, dark stories that explore the ugly side of life, the sordid alleys of human existence. Believe me when I tell you that these are harrowing tales teeming with revenge, murder, and all manner of appalling behavior. There aren’t really any heroes here, just criminals of different shades and degrees.
• Having said that, the profane, laugh-out-loud humor Lansdale is famous for is very much in evidence. Gallows humor, but still humor.
• Because I’ve read my fair share of Lansdale, I was afraid I’d find that I had read many of the included stories. Happily, that was not the case. These stories are drawn from throughout Lansdale’s long career, and most were new to me. And the ones I had read before, I still found myself diving right in, like visiting old, much-loved but ne’er-do-well friends.
• Although the Hap and Leonard novels and stories certainly fall into the category of crime fiction, those two gentlemen do not make an appearance here. They have their own much-deserved story collections (Hap and Leonard, Born for Trouble, Blood and Lemonade, Of Mice and Minestrone). If you haven’t read them, why the hell not? Get on that.
On to some of the stories. I’m not going to mention all of them (every one hits hard and strong), but here are a few of my favorites:
Driving to Geronimo’s Grave
Yes, this one involves a rotting corpse, but it’s one of the lighter stories in the collection, and it’s damn funny while still keeping the tension ratcheted up.
I can’t even begin to describe Mr. Bear. No, seriously. There’s an anthropomorphized bear with some terrible habits. Bad, bad things happen.
The Shadows, Kith and Kin
This one drags you kicking and screaming into the mind of a killer. Left me feeling very unsettled.
I Tell You It’s Love
Lansdale plays with pulp fiction tropes throughout this collection, and I Tell You It’s Love is one of the pulpiest. Short, sordid, and brutal.
Boys Will Be Boys
A portrait in acid of two teenage boys on the road to hell. Deeply disquieting, it feels like something Andrew Vachss would have appreciated.
Possibly the most disturbing story in the collection, and that’s saying something. You’ve been warned.
Incident On and Off a Mountain Road
I’ve saved my favorite for last. This is a stone cold classic, literally one of the best pieces of crime fiction ever written, with a twist you won’t see coming. Worth the price of the book all by itself.
Like I said, these are some of my favorites, but they’re all excellent, and your list of favorites may be completely different. As an added bonus, there’s an introduction by S.A. Cosby, one of today’s best crime writers.
Things Get Ugly: The Best Crime Stories of Joe R. Lansdale is available for pre-order now. Don’t miss out on this one.