The first thing that intrigued me about Moon Lake was the namesake setting. “Moon Lake” was created by flooding the fictional East Texas town of Long Lincoln, and the plot revolves around what happens when the lake dries up during a severe drought and past crimes are revealed. I had a backlog of other titles to read, but Joe R. Lansdale’s latest tugged at me personally. My family’s ancestral lands (on my mother’s side) supposedly lie under Lake Whitney, and I’ve often wondered about it and have been trying to find out more about how the whole thing came to pass, so Moon Lake was catapulted over several books I’d been waiting to get to longer, and I devoured it in two sittings.
The story opens with 13-year-old Danny Russell’s single-parent father attempting to kill them both by driving off a bridge that spans Moon Lake. Danny is rescued by a young black “mermaid” and her father, who were fishing at the time. Danny stays with his rescuers until the authorities figure out what to do with him and then goes to live with an aunt. After an extended drought 10 years later, Danny comes back to New Long Lincoln to identify his father’s remains.
The young black “mermaid,” Ronnie, is now a police officer, and the two discover some murders and a series of strange grave robberies. They quickly find themselves embroiled in an investigation of a long-running conspiracy that established the hierarchy that rules the town and become targets of the oligarchs that the conspiracy empowered. The “truth” that one of the oligarchs imparts to Danny and Ronnie toward the end of the tale isn’t necessarily mind-blowing because one suspects it could be heard from any number of the extremely wealthy folks who we see in the news and throughout the political spectrum today, but it’s still shocking to see even a fictional version just come out and say it: “There’s those who would like you to believe that the ones who haven’t made it, who haven’t made their way to the top of the food chain and accrued power and money, didn’t because they didn’t have the breaks, didn’t have the opportunity. That’s bullshit. We are here and have been here and have run things and controlled things because we are the best of the best. Some people are just born better. Some people, they come from inferior stock. You can take your sympathy and your Social Security and your Medicare and your welfare and shove it up your ass. Let those who can, rule. And let those who can’t, manage as best they will. I’ve got nothing against throwing a bone to them now and again, but they live off the bones and the scraps while we live off the meat, the hearts, and the lungs of the universe.”
Lansdale is the closest thing the Lone Star State has to a Stephen King or a James Patterson, but he’s probably more original than either. The thing I like most about his work is that his prose often comes at you like a traditional Norman Rockwell painting, initially extolling the simple pleasures and general decency of folks in Texas, Southern comforts, soul food, and people who say what they mean and love each other without hesitation or therapy. Texans recognize themselves and, pardon the Moon Lake pun, Lansdale reels us in, but beneath the Rockwell is an Orwell. And between the twain is, well, a Twain. Lansdale is even Chaucerian in his way, but the Orwell typically holds court between the lines. In the excerpt above, however, Orwell drops traditional Rockwell with a wicked Shen Chuan strike to his throat and then stands over him as he tries to remember how to breathe. It chillingly and vividly unpacks one version of the “boot” that Orwell described as “stamping on a human face — forever” in his classic 1984. And this is language that decent folks in places like Texas could really stand to process.
Moon Lake has Gothic intrigue, down-home humor, clever dialogue, romance, and characters most of us can relate to, but it’s also an incisive reflection of the times. Lansdale is a dog guy, but he’s clearly got some cat in him. His seemingly endless supply of captivating characters almost invariably find themselves pulling at the strings of the fabric of our culture, often unravelling the strands that gird some of our illusions and inequities. That’s why I scarfed Moon Lake right up and was ready for a second helping. Lansdale is entertaining as hell, but his work also matters.
Fort Worth writer E.R. Bills is the author of Pendulum Grim (2019) and Texas Oblivion: Mysterious Disappearances, Escapes and Cover-Ups (2021).
By Joe R. Lansdale