Nightrunners by Joe R.; Dean Koontz (Introduction) Lansdale (1987-06-02)
WARNING FOR SLIGHT SPOILERS
It’s Galveston, Texas, in the mid-1980s, and modern-minded, well-heeled couple, Becky and Montgomery Jones, should be living the dream. Professional academics, they both have good quality of life, a steady income, are a well-matched, physically handsome pair and, as lovebirds since their college days, they care for each other deeply. It should be a match made in Heaven, but in actual fact their blissful life has been ruined by a dreadful incident approximately four months prior to this narrative, when their house was broken into while Monty was away, and Becky savagely raped by a former student of hers, Clyde Edson, who wasn’t just a juvenile delinquent but a fledgling serial killer already known locally as the ‘Rapist Ripper’.
Edson was later apprehended and committed suicide while remanded in jail, but of course Becky’s recovery from such an ordeal was never going to rely solely on the hand of justice. The deep psychological wounds have destroyed her pleasant suburban existence. She now lives in fear of the night, endures harrowing nightmares and bizarre premonitions, is completely unable to enjoy sex, and has ambivalent feelings about her husband because of his previous political stance; before this event, Montgomery Jones was a liberal through and through – he believed in tackling the causes of crime rather than cracking down on it, he looked to rehabilitation rather than punishment, he didn’t regard Galveston’s underage hoodlums as thugs and predators so much as disadvantaged kids who need a helping hand rather than a good smack around the head.
All of this has changed now, of course – except that it’s too late.
Even though Monty wasn’t present at the time of the rape and could have done nothing to prevent it, he now regards his former ‘enlightened’ attitude as a kind of moral cowardice, and is inwardly repelled by his previous pretence of intellectual superiority when in reality he suspects that he has always been unnerved by the prospect of taking a tough stand. He particularly agonises about an incident from his childhood, when he was too frightened to intervene as a local bully force-fed his kid-brother a dog turd. What’s even worse from Monty’s point of view is that he suspects Becky thinks this about him too, even if she won’t say it. Just being in his wife’s melancholy presence now unmans him.
It looks as if their relationship, once so strong, has fatally fractured … until late that October, when in a desperate effort to patch things up, Monty takes Becky out to a friend’s cabin, so they can get some peace and quiet. It’s an idyllic, pine-clad location in the East Texas wilderness, and the crisp autumn weather is beautiful. For the first time in a while, the couple begin to relax again in each other’s company, even though there is still much lost ground to make up.
However, this hesitation to resume their former status is actually the least of their problems.
Because unbeknown to the Joneses, several members of Clyde Edson’s gang – all of them complicit in the Rapist Ripper murders – eluded capture, including his psychopathic second-in-command, Brian Blackwood, and their reign of Hell is far from over.
Blackwood still remains in awe of his deceased ex-leader, viewing him as a kind of Nietzchean superman – primarily because he never let human sentiment hamper him when he was out to get whatever he wanted. Despite this, Blackwood has no initial motivation to go back and finish off Becky Jones, their last victim … until, one feverish midnight, when he receives a nightmarish visitation from his former friend, now reduced to the status of demonic ventriloquist dummy seated on the knee of the satanic ‘God of the Razor’, an horrific being who literally wears a coat made from flayed human flesh and shoes made out of guillotined human heads (and who will go on to appear several times more in Lansdale’s work).
Whether this is a genuine supernatural event or simply a figment of Blackwood’s deranged mind is basically irrelevant, as Edson demands a continuation of their previous crime: a full-scale attack on Becky Jones, culminating – after the gang have sexually defiled her for as long as they care to – in the removal of her heart. If anyone gets in the way, like her husband of course, he/they can also be dispatched.
Impressed by this, and by the promise of dominion in a hellish afterlife – and if ever his enthusiasm for this flags, egged on aggressively by Edson’s damned soul, which now seems to possess him – Blackwood gets the gang back together and they go on the prowl in their distinctive black ’66 Chevy, seeking out the Joneses and slaughtering anyone who even threatens to hinder their progress. They are so bent on this mission, and so ruthless with anyone who might have information for them (strewing carnage every which way), that it isn’t long before they learn about the isolated cabin where the injured couple are trying to recuperate …
It probably isn’t going too far to say that The Nightrunners put Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale on the map. This is a very early novel of his, originally written in 1982 as Night of the Goblins, but since then he’s become a literary landmark in his own right in the overlapping fields of horror, crime, Rural Noir, Southern Gothic etc.
It isn’t a particularly long novel, and nor is it likely to educate or edify you if you’re looking for something highbrow. In truth, this is a long way from Lansdale’s best work; he himself has repeatedly reminded folk that it’s an early effort and has voiced surprise that it continues to draw positive reviews. But what I will say is that, even now, three decades after first publication, it’s one headlong thrust of a narrative and a hell of a page-turner.
It’s also brutal and nasty … and I mean excessively so. Okay, there thankfully isn’t much here in the way of torture-porn. But this is visceral violent crime fiction at its most unforgiving.
The antagonists are beyond the pale in terms of amoral, purposeless depravity, and their main targets almost impossibly innocent and genteel. Other tougher, worldlier characters are introduced on the side of right – streetwise cop, Ted Olsen, and gang-members with a conscience, Jimmy and Angela – but from the very beginning you just know that this southern-fried fury ride is only going to end in one final and massive confrontation between the civilisation-softened Joneses and the walking bunch of disenfranchised aberrations which is all that remains of Clyde Edson’s murder gang.
It’s a dark and horrible atmosphere; I’ll make no bones about that. Even early in the book, when it’s mainly about the Joneses trying to restore their equilibrium in a place that seems beyond danger, the reader’s sense of growing dread is palpable – Blackwood and his boys have commenced the hunt for their prey equipped with nothing more than animal cunning and naked bloodlust, but draw steadily nearer to them with the turn of each page.
I don’t want to say too much more, certainly not about the explosive finale, which you obviously won’t need me to tell you is not going to end well for any members of our ensemble cast, either the good or the evil. But suffice to say that it hasn’t been likened to the ultra-violent British movie, Straw Dogs, for nothing.
The message of The Nightrunners isn’t an especially complex one. Lansdale isn’t setting out to explore a moral conundrum here. Quite the opposite, in fact. Montgomery Jones’ earlier self – the guy who tried to rationalise the cause and effect of societal breakdown in modern-day America – is soon jettisoned in favour of the raw, frightened and somewhat more dangerous animal he becomes later in the book; and though there are hints that some of these problems are the result of small-town boredom (kids like Jimmy with nothing to do but hang around pool rooms all day) and failure to compromise by those who are supposedly older and wiser (Angela’s mother kicking her out for having pre-marital sex, and thus driving her daughter into the enclave of the gang), the real corruption here is attributed fairly and squarely to an unknowable supernatural force, the Razor God, and though this may be a metaphor for insanity, it is clearly a power beyond Blackwood’s ability to resist and one for which no-one involved can really carry the blame.
The Nightrunners won’t be to everyone’s taste – but it cuts to the quick. With the best intentions in the world, we probably like to believe that violence is not and can never be the only answer to our problems … but, like it or not, there are always going to be occasions when it’s an option, and perhaps, if we are being pushed hard enough at the time, an option we’ll even find desirable.