Today we celebrate the publication of THE THICKET, the newest novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Edgar Award winner and eight-time Bram Stoker recipient. Ron Rash says THE THICKET “earns a place on the same shelf as Charles Portis’s True Grit and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses;” Michael Koryta calls it “Nuanced, compelling, darkly humorous, and remarkably vivid;” the Houston Chronicle says THE THICKET “reads like a dark version of The Adventure of Tom Sawyer and feels like a Coen brothers movie” and is “the perfect mix of light and dark, with plenty of humor mixed in.”
Start reading Joe’s newest below, then pick up a copy at your local bookstore or by visiting your favorite e-tailer! THE THICKET is now available in bookstores everywhere.
I didn’t suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry, that I’d soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us, or that I’d take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that’s exactly how it was.
It was the pox got it all started. It had run through the country like a runaway mule and had been especially unkind to the close-by town of Hinge Gate. It showed up there as a bumpy, oozing death, and killed so many it was called an epidemic. Two of the ones that died were our Ma and Pa, and neither of them had ever been sick a day in their lives. I on the other hand was sickly all my early life, up until the time I got my health, and Lula had been kind of scrawny her whole time, but neither of us took it. I was by this time a healthy sixteen year old, and she was fourteen, and right on the verge of her bloom. That ole pox passed us by as if it was blind in one eye. It crept up on Ma and Pa, fevered them up, covered them in blisters, and made it so when they tried to breathe, it sounded like a busted squeeze box. The worse thing was we had to sit and watch them die, and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it. We couldn’t even touch them for fear of coming down with it.
Pox ran all through the town like it was looking for money. Dead people were piled up outside houses, loaded in wagons, buried quickly. In some cases they were burned when nobody knew who they were, as there were folks that traveled through town and got it and died without leaving information on their names or where they were going. Sheriff Gaston finally had to put signs out on the roads coming in that said nobody could leave and spread it, and nobody could come in for fear of getting it.
There was people who burned smoke pots around their houses and inside, thinking that would keep the pox out, but that didn’t help, it just made it smoky and caused the ones who had it to have a harder time breathing than before.
We lived out on the edge of town, and I always figured it was the tinker who brought it around, carried it to our place like it was one of the wares in his wagon. I think when my Pa shook hands with him and bought a skillet that was the end of it. He and Ma came down with it right away, though that tinker didn’t have a spot of it on him that I could see.
Right away, I rode into town on the mule and fetched the doctor. He came out, seen right off saving them was like trying to bring to life an oil painting. Wasn’t a thing he could do, though he gave them a couple pills to take just so as to look like he was trying. A few days later Ma and Pa got real bad, and I rode into town to see I could get the doctor back out. Doctor had died himself of it, and was already buried, and someone had left a burning smoke pot on his grave. I knew that because I seen it out there in the cemetery when I was riding in, and then seen it again going out, knowing then whose grave it was. I guess someone thought that smoke would keep it from spreading from the dead body. Hard to know what people were really thinking, because that pox had not only killed a good bunch of folks, it had scared the living and taken their reason, and mine wasn’t all that good either.
When I got back home they were both dead, and there was Lula out in the yard crying, a strangled chicken still flopping in one hand because she was setting about making dinner, even with them dead in the house. Me and Lula had been living out under a tree to stay out of the way of getting the pox, and we cooked out there and ate out there. Grandpa would come in and check on Ma and Pa cause he couldn’t catch it. He’d had it and lived through it when he was younger and he couldn’t get it anymore. He caught it way up among the Cheyenne near the Wind River range, which was nowhere close to where we were in East Texas. He got it the same way the Cheyenne did, some infected blankets given to them by white folks as a kind of joke. He was a missionary and had lived up there with them. Both he and Grandma had it and lived, and then some years later Grandma was run over by a frightened cow near Gilmer, Texas, while she was trying to calm it down for milking. The pox couldn’t kill her, but a cow that didn’t want to be milked, had.
I barely remember Grandma. I guess I must have been about five when that cow done her in. Lula was two years old. Grandpa, according to family story, shot the cow and ate it. I guess he considered that was getting even, having a steak made of the murderer. I never heard him speak sadly of the death of Grandma or the cow, but he and Grandma seemed to have gotten along fine, and up until that day, neither he nor the cow had experienced a minute’s trouble I‘ve been told.
On the day Ma and Pa died, I went in and looked at them, but didn’t stand too close and didn’t touch nothing. They looked horrible, all pocked over and bloody where they had scratched and those little odd blisters with the dents in the middle had broken open and bled. I rode our tired old mule over to Grandpa, who lived down from us a little ways, and he put on his dusty suit coat and hat, rode back beside me driving his wagon. He brought with him some sacks of lime he had for his garden, and a couple of pine boxes he had already built, being pretty certain what was coming. He had also packed some bags and put them in the wagon too, but at the time I didn’t know what that was about, and was too stunned to ask. If a pig had flown by with a deck of cards in its teeth it wouldn’t have fazed me.
Me and Grandpa dug graves for Ma and Pa. Because Grandpa couldn’t get the pox he rolled them onto fresh sheets, dragged them out of the house, lifted them into those coffins and poured lime on them. I helped him lower the coffins down in the holes with rope. He said when we were covering them up he felt the lime would hold back the disease so it wouldn’t spread from their bodies and give it to others. I don’t know. I figure six feet of dirt helped quite a bit.
We got them buried and he preached some words over them with the Bible in his hand, but I couldn’t tell you what section he preached from. I was too stunned to tell, and Lula looked as if her mind had gone to a place no one could find; she hadn’t said anything since I found her with the dead chicken, which we had ended up tossing in a ditch. When he finished up with the preaching, he set fire to the house and put us in the wagon and started us out, my old mule tied on a rope line behind the wagon.
“Where are we going?” I said, looking back at our blazing home. Its was all I knew to say. Lula was all huddled up and not talking at all. Anyone didn’t know her they’d have thought she was a pretty mute.
“Well, Jack,” Grandpa said, without so much as looking over his shoulder, “we’re not going back to that burning house, that’s for sure. You’re going on up to Kansas to stay with your Aunt Tessle.”
“I don’t even know I’ve met her,” Lula said, this being something that brought her out of her stupor and gave her a tongue. She said it so suddenly, and unexpectedly, I hopped a little, and I think Grandpa did too.
“I barely remember her,” I said.
“Be that as it is, you’re going to live with her,” Grandpa said. “She don’t know it yet, but I figured it might be best not to give her time to recollect on it. We’ll spring a surprise on her. And considering I‘m planning on staying as well, though I’ll come a little later, so as not to overwhelm the situation, it’ll be a surprise. Never cared for Tessle actually, as she always seemed to be Mama’s favorite, but tragedy makes strange bed fellows.”
“You sure that’s the best way?” I said. “Just showing up?”
“It might not be the best way,” he said, “but it’ll be our way. I’ll tell you two another thing. I saw this coming, and I have sold off all my livestock, except these two mules, and you have your Pa’s mule, and you now have contracts for both pieces of land, your fathers and mine. They are in the bank at Sylvester. I didn’t put them in your home town bank, because I figured with all the pox going on there was just too much confusion. I have set it all up with a lawyer named Cowton Little. He is to sell the property for a fair price, and give you two the money, minus his commission, of course. I have no idea how long this will take, but mine is prime real estate when the town grows out, and it will. Your folks’ land is good land too, soon as the pox passes and there’s no consideration on how they died, it too will be prime. You understanding all this?”
We both said we were understood, though Lula seemed to have drifted away again, like a baloon. She was flighty enough under normal circumstances, always wondering about the shape of clouds and asking about why things were green or some such, and never taking “god made it that way” as an answer. She was always looking for some greater truth, like there was one. Grandpa used to say she always had to figure that if there was a hole in the ground something was in it, and for a reason, and it had a history, even if she couldn’t see it. She never could accept a hole might be empty and if something was in it, it might not have thought on why or how it got there at all. “Beware a woman that wants reasons for everything,” he said.
Grandpa reached inside his coat jacket and pulled out a paper, said, this here is all the paper work you’ll need on the matter of the property. I go up to Kansas I won’t be coming back, and you might not either, but you can do your dealings with the lawyer by mail, you need to.”
I took the papers he gave me, folded them up, stuck them down deep into the pocket of my overalls.
“You mind those papers, now,” Grandpa said.
“I will,” I said.
“They are in both your names, but if one of you was to get killed or die, then it’ll go to the other. You both get killed, well, I guess if I’m still alive it will go back to me, and if we’re all dead, I guess Tessle owns everything, though I thought about giving it to one of the churches in town, but they’re all Baptist and they’re going to hell. I thought maybe I could start a Methodist church on my land, but that ain’t gonna happen now. Even if I wasn’t leaving, I haven’t got the energy for it. I left you as the executor, though, Jack. Lula gets a piece of any part or all of the land you sell, but it‘s yours to make the deal because you‘re the oldest and a man, or will be one.”
Now, it may seem I was taking all this damn well, the death of my parents, but I assure you I was not. I had sort of seen it coming for a few days, and there had been so much death about I guess I had embraced the whole thing better than I might had I just got up and found them dead without any sign of sickness. We had even laid aside clothes early on, and kept them at Grandpa’s, just in case they didn’t pull through. They were something that might be clean of the pox and out of the house. I realized now those clean clothes were still in those bags he had packed for us, along with other things we might need. He had just rolled them up in the sheets and put them down. That sounds cold, but Grandpa was a practical man.
Still, down deep in my bones, and I’m sure it was the same with Lula, and even Grandpa for that matter, I was trying to get my heart and head wrapped around the idea that they had been taken so brutally and so quickly from us. It was like I was too dry to cry. I wanted to, but couldn’t. Lula was the same way. That’s how we Parker’s were. We took what came the way it came. Least it was that way on the surface. You scratched us a little though, you could find some jelly there pretty quick. We were the kind that found it hard to cry, but once we got started you best be ready for high water and the loading of animals two by two.
So, there we sat in that butt-rattling wagon, as stunned as if a stone had been dropped on our heads. Pa’s mule was tied to the rear of it. Lula was in the wagon bed, and I was up beside Grandpa, him clucking to his mules, and being rather pleasant with them, which was different from what I was used to. Pa always cussed them and called them names and such. He didn’t mean nothing by it. He was good to those mules. That kind of talk was just his way and the mules understood it and dismissed it, being a whole lot smarter than horses. Two horses put together haven’t got the brains of one old mule, and bad language can make them nervous.
“Way I figure it,” Grandpa said, “I can leave out for a few days to get you to the train over at Tyler, and then you can go on up to Kansas. I’ll give you some directions on how to find Tessle, but it wouldn’t hurt when you got there if you asked about for her house, cause I don’t remember where she lives all that well. I can come on by wagon, as there’s some places I want to see along the way. I figure this is my last trip anywhere. Besides, I don’t want to buy three tickets.”
I was surprised he wanted to buy two. Daddy always said Grandpa was so tight that when he blinked the skin on his pecker rolled back. Grandma was always wanting some little thing or another, Mother said, and he wouldn’t want to buy it. He kept everything he had up to snuff so not much needed replacing; he had tools he had bought used that looked better than new ones, cause of the way he kept them. He figured you wanted to buy something, and if you couldn’t use it for something practical, or eat it, then you didn’t need it. And that included new sun hats and dresses Grandma wanted. I guess with Ma and Pa dead, and him realizing he might have to put up with us all the way to Kansas, maybe it was worth two train tickets just to have peace and quiet and the pleasure of his own company.
“Don’t you think you ought to write her a letter,” I said, still thinking on Tessle. “Let her know we’re coming?”
“By the time I write and mail it and it gets there, you two could have the pox. No, sir. You and your sister are leaving out of here today.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“They were just fine a few days back,” Lula said. It had popped out of her like a seed squeezed from a pomegranate.
“That’s how it works,” Grandpa said. Sitting by him on the wagon seat, I felt him tremble a bit, which was the only sign he’d given yet that the whole thing had got to him in any way. I reckon a man who has buried a number of children, preached some funerals, butchered animals for food from the time, seen death among the Cheyenne, and survived the pox, gets a bit firm in his thinking about dying; and then there’s that whole thing about Grandma being killed by a cow. He was a religious man and always had the view he’d see everybody again in heaven. It was a firm and solid thing with him and it comforted him under all circumstances, and he had taught me that was the way to deal with the world, and to not go and think too much on my own cause it might lead to other ideas that might be right, but unpleasant.
Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than a dozen novels, including Edge of Dark Water, the Edgar Award-winning The Bottoms, Sunset and Stardust, and Leather Maiden. He has received nine Bram Stoker Awards, the American Mystery Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature. He lives with his family in Nacogdoches, Texas. Visit him at JoeRLansdale.com