The Bottoms by Joe Lansdale is a murder mystery/thriller set in 1933 and 1934, Depression-era East Texas near the Sabine River in a town called Marvel Creek and nearby Pearl Creek.
5 out of 10 stars. If this novel had been neatly tied up and completed after the first 200 pages, I would’ve enjoyed it. Instead the serial killer in the story takes an even darker and more twisted turn and rapes a nine year old girl at the very end. That ruined it for me. Not only was it completely out of character, it was grotesque and unnecessarily brutal. The protagonist, 11 year-old Harry, can’t bring himself to kill the murderer, even when he catches him in the process of raping his 9 year-old sister. Afterward, he let’s the killer go and then is upset because the killer hit the family dog on the head. He seems to care very little that this evil man tortured and raped his baby sister. I checked out 9 Joe Lansdale novels from the library and after I’m done writing this, I’m taking them all back. I’m done with Lansdale. All of his novels end with horrifyingly brutal rape, torture, and murder of little girls. I have no intention of supporting a novelist who glorifies pedophilia.
I don’t like giving away the entire details of a novel, but in the case of novels which include graphic sex and violence toward children, I make an exception. SPOILERS AHEAD!
The last name of the protagonist is given twice in this novel, first as Collins, then as Cane. Since I prefer Collins, I’ll assume that was the intended last name.
Harry Collins is 11 years old. He and his younger sister Tom, short for Thomasina, live in a shack near the Sabine River. His father Jacob is the town constable and owns a barber shop where he cuts hair. He taught himself and when another barber named Cecil came to town, Jacob gave him a chair in his shop so he’d be part of the same establishment, not the competition. In that respect and only a few others, Jacob is reasonably intelligent, but not exactly brilliant. Harry’s mother is May Lynn who Jacob met through his best friend Red Woodrow. It broke their friendship and made Red into a very bitter and violent man. The novel takes place during the Depression when families wore clothes made of flour sacks and had no running water or electricity. Snakes and diseases took more life than crime and so there were few constables. Mostly they married and buried people.
As the novel opens Harry and Tom are out squirrel hunting with their dog Toby when a dead branch falls on him and breaks his back. They carry him home crying and Jacob tells them they have to kill him. So Harry and Tom take Toby into the woods in a wheelbarrow, along with the shotgun. Toby is the best squirrel hunting dog in the county and before they can shoot him, he smells a squirrel and points his nose in the direction the squirrel is headed, so they chase after it. This goes on for hours and they kill six squirrels for dinner. At a time when people have no money to buy food and weather is wreaking havoc with crops, that’s a big deal. Harry decides he can’t shoot Toby, so they start back home with the squirrels. The problem is they’re lost. Harry heads back the way he thinks their farm is and they run into a bramble patch that leads them to the Sabine River. The only way across is the Swinging Bridge which is said to be haunted by the Goat Man. The only light is from the moon and the Swinging Bridge is a dilapidated old bridge with missing planks swinging back and forth with the slightest provocation. They can feel someone following them, but they don’t see anyone. As Harry starts down the muddy bank toward the Swinging Bridge, he comes across a dead body, a colored woman naked and cut up wrapped in barbed wire. They climb back up to the bridge and start across. Harry carries Toby; Tom carries the shotgun. Someone is watching them, following them, and as they are on the bridge, they get a glimpse of him. With two large horns, it appears to be the Goat Man. Terrified, they almost fall in the river, but make it to the other side and home. No one believes them that they saw the Goat Man.
Harry takes his father back to the river to the spot where he found the body. As the town constable, no one expects him to investigate the woman’s murder because she’s colored. But he does. He is not racist like the majority of Texas. No white doctors will see her, so he takes her body all the way to Pearl Creek which is a colored town, all the way to Dr. Tinn, the best doctor in the county who happens to be black. There are several clues that this woman is one of many, the victim of a serial killer. The killer tied her in a ritualistic fashion with a special kind of knot, twisting her limbs so her ankles meet her neck. He also cut off her clitoris and cut her breasts, then tucked a piece of paper inside of her. Whatever was on the paper has washed away. Now it’s blank. Dr. Tinn does not recognize the woman so they get Reverend Bails. He recognizes her immediately. She’s a prostitute named Jelda May Sykes. When he hears she was raped, tortured, stabbed, and then strangled, he’s horrified. But he knows very little about her life. Dr. Tinn does determine that the killer had sex with the body after death. So he’s also a necrophiliac.
At about the same time, Harry overhears his parents talking that night about something Jacob’s assistant barber Cecil told Jacob. When Cecil was in WWI, he saw a soldier having sex with dying German soldiers on the battlefield. He got a thrill out of it. May is sure Cecil made it up, but Jacob believes him. And there’s your first clue. The next day when they go to town to Jacob’s barbershop, Cecil is all over Tom like white on rice. He practically ignores Harry. Harry seems resigned to this favoritism, but mentions offhandedly how much Cecil touches Tom. Your second clue.
Before long Red Woodrow pulls Jacob aside and threatens him, telling him he’d better stop investigating the crime or the KKK will be paying him a visit. Jacob ignores him and goes on to talk to the newspaper man, Cal Fields. Cal says this is the third murder in 18 months. All three women were killed in the same way.
Months pass and no further clues come. Harry spends more time in Pearl Creek talking to Miss Maggie, an old colored woman who is 102 and the best cook around. She knows everyone and has lots of gossip. He’s hoping to get some clues. Then one night the Goat Man appears in their cornfield watching the house.
A storm comes bringing with it a terrible tornado that decimates a part of the countryside. Old Man Chandler is in his outhouse doing his business when the tornado picks him up and dumps him in another part of the county. But while he was in that tornado he saw a naked colored woman. Jacob thinks he’s telling the truth because every time he tells the story, it’s the same. He never embellishes. It’s the same each time. So he starts hunting around, looking for bodies by the river. A family having a picnic finds it in a tree in their yard. No one ever thought to look up and everyone thinks the tornado deposited it there. The body is decayed and dark, so everyone assumes the victim was a colored prostitute. Later, it turns out she was white. Mose, an old colored man who lives alone by the river, finds her purse and takes the money out of it. He mentions this to Jacob who brings him in for questioning. This proves to be a fatal mistake for Mose. He did nothing, knows nothing, saw nothing. But Jacob detains him, taking him to Bill Smoote’s farm to hide him, so he can investigate and see if it’s possible Mose did anything. He knows better. Smoote is none too bright and has a young boy help him put chain irons on Mose’s ankle. That boy tells. Jacob mentions to Cecil about Mose at Smoote’s farm and he also tells everyone. Jacob gets Mose and takes him back to his river shack. That night the KKK come and burn a cross on their lawn. Jacob comes out with a gun, recognizes the voices and calls them out by name. He forces them to take down the cross and forces the leader, the general store owner Ben Groon, to come inside and talk. May gives him a slice of cake, made from supplies purchased in his store. And then Jacob takes him all over their property showing him there is no one hiding there, no prisoners. He leaves, contented, but that won’t save Mose. Cecil has secretly told the Klan, aka the Nation family, and they get a posse together to go hang him. A car with a busted taillight comes and posts a warning on their door, then runs. Jacob rushes to Mose’s shack with Harry trailing behind him. He holds the posse at gunpoint, but they beat him and kick him and there are about 30 of them and one of him. Harry gets beaten and kicked too, until they are both unconscious. The last thing Harry sees is Mose hanging on the tree above him. They hung him and cut his genitals.
For the next 9 months, Jacob becomes a drunk. He feels guilty and he should. He was careless with another man’s life and now that man is dead. May’s mother arrives and decides to stay. Grandma is a human tornado. She helps Harry investigate the crimes. They talk to Miss Maggie and to Dr. Tinn. They snoop and go back to Mose’s shack where they encounter the Goat Man. What they discover is that the Nation boys raped two colored girls and no one did anything. They also discover that Red was Maggie’s son. After a couple of more visits, they learn that not only was Red Maggie’s son, but his father was not the white Mr. Woodrow. He was Mose. They drive over to Red’s house and there’s parked a car with a busted taillight, the same car that warned them about Mose being lynched. Red does not know he’s colored. He thinks because his skin is white, that he’s white. But Mose is part white. That’s where it comes from.
With his father drunk all the time, and his grandmother busy because she’s started dating Ben Groon, Harry takes to riding over to Pearl Creek to talk to Miss Maggie about Red. He sees the car with the busted taillight parked out front. Red’s car. So he waits. After the car leaves, he knocks on the door. Miss Maggie doesn’t answer, so he goes inside. She’s lying on her bed, dead, but still warm. Her neck is strangled in the same manner as the victims. So Harry thinks Red killed her. He did, but he’s not the serial killer. The next day Red’s car is found at the Bottoms near the Sabine River. Red is nowhere to be found.
Weeks pass and eventually their neighbor finds a body in the sewage pile behind their outhouse on the edge of the river. It’s Louise Canerton, a beautiful white widow who loaned Harry books to read. She’s been raped and tortured like the others and her hand is missing. Jacob is overcome with anger. Now that he knows without a doubt that Mose was innocent, he takes an ax handle and goes to the Nations house to teach them a lesson. He beats them to within an inch of their lives. They’re the head of the klan and they killed Mose. They eventually find Louise’s car in the river and other clues that point to one of her boyfriends. She was dating two men, Dr. Taylor, a young white doctor in town, and Cecil.
Here’s where the story gets even more twisted, so much so that it turned my stomach. The fourth of July comes and everyone has a great time at the town picnic. They go home and Harry’s parents run off in the car to have loud sex in the woods. While they are gone and everyone else is sleeping, the killer comes and knocks out their dog and kidnaps 9 year-old Tom. He takes her out to the cave on the side of the river and rapes her, tying her so she can’t move and her limbs are breaking, the same way he did the other women. Back home, the Goat Man comes and warns Harry, leading him to Tom and the killer. The Goat Man turns out to be Mose’s long lost mentally retarded son who everyone thought was dead. Harry stands there watching Cecil rape his sister and doesn’t shoot him. :0 Cecil sees him, stops, and puts on his pants. They circle around poor Tom who is crying and gagged, and still tied. Harry eventually cuts her loose while holding the shotgun on Cecil. Still doesn’t shoot him. Tom tells him she’ll shoot him. But she doesn’t either. They run for it and he chases them. He catches up and almost kills them, dropping them in the Sabine River. It’s the Goat Man who saves them, attacking Cecil and killing him. But Cecil kills him as well. All four of them go over the waterfalls and Harry is just barely able to drag Tom from the roaring river. They find both men dead the next day.
The Goat Man had a habit of finding things in the river and hanging them from Mose’s shack, like little offerings. That’s how Mose got the woman’s purse. They find Louise’s hand hanging there and from it’s fingertips is Dr. Taylor’s necklace. She’d dumped Cecil and was dating Dr. Taylor. She wore his necklace around her neck. That’s what set Cecil off. He cut off her hand and killed her. He confessed this to Harry that night he raped Tom. He also told him the man he talked about raping the German soldiers was him.
Weeks later, quite by accident, someone comes across a tarred and feathered body underneath the spot where they found Red’s car. Carved in his chest is the word NIGGER. So here’s the theory on that, which is never proved or disproved in the novel. No resolution there. Red found out Mose was his father and tried to stop the lynching, but failed. So to stop Miss Maggie from ever telling anyone that he was black, he killed her. Some think the KKK caught him and killed him. Others think he did it to himself. He had tattooed all the names of the women he had sex with on his arms along with the dates he’d done the deed. The KKK couldn’t stand the thought of a black man having sex with all those white women, so they killed him. I prefer to think the KKK killed him. He was the one person they went after who actually deserved to die and was a murderer.
5 out of 10 stars. Like the previous novel I read, Lansdale doesn’t really answer all the questions which makes for a sloppy plot. Much of the book was unedited or not edited properly. I found words missing, names misspelled, names changed, and other glaring errors that made it hard to read. There is an abundance of depravity in this novel, all with adults. But raping a 9 year old girl at the end? Wth?
Reviewed by Devin.