First published back in March of 2012, US author Joe R Lansdale’s novel ‘Edge Of Dark Water’ followed on from an impressive line of cult and genre-exploring novels that collectively show the incredible versatility of this particularly talented and underrated author.

DLS Synopsis:
During the Great Depression of the 1930's, within the miniscule out-of-the-way community that live along a small stretch of the Sabine River deep in the backwoods of East Texas, teenaged Sue Ellen Wilson passes her days with the handful of youngsters she calls her friends.  Her life is far from an easy or in any way a desirable one.  Her mother has practically given up on life, seeing her narrow world through the blur of an alcoholic’s eyes.   Her father, Daddy Don Wilson, is a no good layabout.  He too is more than partial to the ways of alcohol.  Further still he regularly beats his wife and has been known to sneak into young Sue Ellen’s room at night to appease his lustful drunken desires.  As such, Sue Ellen has taken to sleeping with one eye open whilst clutching a sturdy log in bed beside her.

But everyone’s lives within that out-and-back spot along the river will change on the day that Sue Ellen and her good friend Terry Thomas are out fishing along the river.  The very same day when they dredge up the bloated corpse of Sue Ellen’s best friend May Lynn Baxter.  The once beautiful girl, who had dreams of becoming a Hollywood Star, is now nothing more than a rotting corpse, bound with wire and weighted down with an old Singer sewing machine.

Upon their gruesome discovery, Sue Ellen and Terry alert what consists of the local police force – the fat and utterly uncaring Constable Sy Higgins.  Not much is made of the discovery, or indeed the obviously suspicious circumstances that surround the poor girl’s death.   But Terry has other plans.  He wants to dig up May Lynn’s corpse, cremate it, and then head off to Hollywood where they can scatter the ashes.  He feels that this is what the young aspiring actress, who never got her chance in life, would have wanted.

But whilst Sue Ellen, Terry and their close friend Jinx Smith are discussing such a wholly unlawful task, they accidentally discover a secret diary that May Lynn had been keeping.  A diary that tells of a stash of money that her now equally dead brother had robbed from a bank and subsequently hidden nearby.  And accompanying the diary is a scrappily sketched out map – no doubt leading to the hidden money.  The trio’s plans have just taken on a fortunate new twist.

But it all comes crashing down on them when May Lynn’s father, Cletus Baxter, finds out that the trio have the money.  And he doesn’t take it well at all.  When they escape from Cletus and Don Wilson’s greedy grasp, they head off down the Sabine River on an old abandoned raft with Sue Ellen’s mother in tow, hoping to reach the town of Gladewater to catch a bus on to California.  But Cletus has other ideas.  And when soon as he realises that the trio have gone off with the money, he puts a bounty on each of their heads with the local nutjob-cum-hitman for hire – Skunk.  An out-and-back man who has become something verging on a legend in the area.  A dirty and remorseless man, who lives off the land, and kills more for pleasure than for the work.

The runaway’s escape down the Sabine River has suddenly become one fraught with danger.  For Skunk will not rest until he has done what he was hired to do.  He will never give in and will never quit.  Running scared, their lives are now in the very shadow of death...

DLS Review:
Written in the first-person-perspective of our principal protagonist, Sue Ellen Wilson, the delivery of the entire tale is given in a thick East Texas twang, which sets the atmosphere, mood and locale of the storyline off almost instantly.  This is as out-of-the-way backwoods territory as they come.  With inherent racial prejudices and ingrained homophobic tendencies at the core of community’s lifestyles, the setting is rich with highly emotive themes and ripe potential for strong character interplay.

And it’s with the characters and their character development where the novel really excels.  Lansdale has made the storyline particularly character driven, with the story of the runaways journey more engaged with their individual emotional states than with the dangers that surround them along the way.

The mysterious backwoods hitman-for-hire Skunk is one of the most intriguing of characters included in the novel.  Initially only loosely sketched out, Lansdale has successfully created someone that is more terrifying and seemingly inhuman than the actual sum of his parts.  Skunk is relentless and uncompromising.  The slaughter left in his wake is downright nail-biting.  The brief glimpses of the filthy killer are enough to send shivers down your spin.  In creating Skunk, Lansdale has well and truly created nothing short of the devil incarnate.

The novel does delve into some pretty darn gritty moments, with scenes that submerge the reader into vividly visceral images of the grotesque.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t in any way shape or form a pulpy or gore-drenched splatterpunk novel.  It’s not blood for blood’s sake.  It’s simply a factor of the gritty realism drawn from the constantly dangerous predicament that the runaways are now in.  And at times it does feel just that little too real and that little too revolting for comfort.

The dialogue is utterly superb throughout.  Lansdale has created what seems like real people, with the most honest and true personalities put to paper.  You feel that you can believe in them.  You feel you know each and every one of them.  And in that, the reader feels compelled to follow their journey, as if standing alongside the terrified runaways.

However, the novel does begin to feel just that little over-padded at times.  The meandering storyline occasionally skirts a touch too far from the eventual goal, with the elaborate weirdness of the plot just furthering the feeling of not-quite-having-a-solid-direction.  Further still, Lansdale somewhat missed the opportunity to really take advantage of the surrounding environment.  Although the river does take a particularly strong (and symbolic) position within the novel, the surrounding hostile landscape doesn’t really find itself having much more than the odd brief mention in the tale.

Pace is also a slightly off kilter issue with the tale.  The storyline does push on through peaks and troughs, with the pace never really kicking in when things feel like they need to start heating up.  But Lansdale hides much of this with his compelling ‘dirt & spit’ prose.  So much can just be carried along with the enjoyment of a well written novel.  And Lansdale is certainly a master of such delivery.

And so, all in all, there’s much to like along with much to keep the reader utterly compelled through the length of the novel.  But it does still stutter and stagger sometimes, briefly plunging into the territory of over-padding and possibly over-exploratory meandering.  But it’s a darn good read nonetheless.

The novel runs for a total of 292 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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