By Anthony Perconti
Grand Guignol- A Review of Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Pit”
I first encountered the works of Joe R. Lansdale in the early 1990’s, with the Vertigo miniseries, Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo. Being a lifelong fan of comic books and Westerns, not to mention being a great admirer of the line work of Timothy Truman, Two Gun Mojo was an easy sell for me-it was love at first sight. This miniseries was the perfect combination of gritty artwork, coupled with a script that was chock full of deadpan humor, alliterative similes, southern patois and a heavy dose of action. Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention the reanimated corpse of Wild Bill Hickock. My next encounter with Lansdale came roughly a year later when I picked up a second-hand copy of The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction, edited by Ed Gorman. Lansdale’s contribution, “The Pit”, was unlike anything I’d encountered up to that point, especially between the covers of a crime fiction anthology. There is no private detective, no tarnished knight, walking the mean streets, in search of justice, with “The Pit”. Yet this short story is as brutal and visceral as any piece of hardboiled fiction that I’ve ever encountered. I would go so far as to say “The Pit” dips it’s toe in the horror genre as well. Not the supernatural or cosmic type, but rather the type that explores the human propensity towards violence, both physical and societal, against their fellow human beings.
While driving through Big Thicket country, Harry’s truck breaks down outside the burg of Morganstown. Instead of the locals giving him a helpful ride to the nearest mechanic, they imprison and force him into half a year of hard manual labor and physical conditioning. Just like that. An African American man named Big George, is Harry’s co-prisoner. As the months drag on, the two men form a friendship, built around the surreal (and grueling) situation that they find themselves in. “The outside. It was strange how much he and Big George used that term. The outside. As if they were enclosed in some small, bubble like cosmos that perched on the edge of the world they had known; a cosmos invisible to the outsiders, a spectral place with new mathematics and nebulous laws of mind and physics.” Lansdale conveys Harry’s continual disbelief at this accrual of circumstances that have led up to the present moment. Because as grueling as those six months of backbreaking labor were, it pales in comparison to what’s in store.
The time of the main event is finally at hand. Once the undercard match has petered out ( in an absolutely horrific scene involving two terriers), Harry is to fight the reigning champion (and his friend), Big George. On its face, “The Pit” is a fairly straightforward yarn: a story of man versus man. Literary predecessors such as Jack London, Ernest Hemmingway and Robert E. Howard cranked out such tales by the score, working in the “boxing stories” subgenre. But Lansdale puts a shocking novel spin on the form. The titular pit is a bloody killing ground. A gladiatorial backwoods arena for man and animal alike. Within its confines no mercy is shown and certainly none is given. The only way out of the pit is to kill your opponent-friendship be damned. “Harry brought cupped hands down on George’s neck, knocked him to his knees. Harry used the opportunity to knock out one of the big man’s teeth with the toe of his shoe. He was about to kick him again when George reached up and clutched the crotch of Harry’s khakis, taking a crushing grip on Harry’s testicles. “Got you by the balls”, George growled.” And these are some of the tamer passages, mind you. It is no wonder that some of his earlier works were associated with the Splatterpunk horror genre. Although “The Pit” is graphic in its portrayal of violence, it is not the story’s only aim. Lansdale explores some heady themes within these sixteen pages.
In addition to being perfectly fine with capturing outsiders and having them fight and die for their personal amusement, the redneck denizens of Morganstown are extremely racist. It utterly galls them that an African American man has remained undefeated for so long a period of time. George takes absolute pride in this fact: he revels in it. He may be a prisoner (and a verbally abused one at that), but for every (one can assume, white) combatant that he kills in the pit, it only drives this point home further. Every victory is a raised middle finger in the faces of his racist captors: the ultimate ‘fuck you’. “George appeared unfazed. He looked like a statue. He knew who he was and what he was. The Champion of the Pit.” Lansdale even peppers in some existential pathos (a la Phillip Roth) as Harry comes to the depressing realization that he is to die without having achieved anything of significance in his life (this sadly includes his marriage, offspring and job as well). Lansdale is a master at exploring the darker and problematic facets of the human condition. He is absolutely unflinching in his examination of humanity and its tendency towards tribalism, racism and violence. Or as Ramsey Campbell states (with regards to “The Pit”) in his Afterword to By Bizarre Hands: “Lansdale probes the psychology of its characters far more deeply. Its relentlessness extends to the depiction of violence and racism (a recurring Lansdale theme), which is certainly confrontational, but never gratuitous.” That is not to say that he comes off preachy or heavy handed. Lansdale is a master storyteller first and foremost: his messages are deftly woven into the plot. This tale is meant to elicit an emotional response in the reader. In fact, several emotions simultaneously. At least this was the case for this particular reader.
Individuals that are looking for a comfort read, will not find it within the pages of “The Pit”. This potent mixture of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass by way of Flannery O’Connor is at times shocking, disturbing and occasionally, morbidly funny (in a strictly gallows humor sense). Lansdale plumbs the depths of the human condition and sadly, we are found wanting. “The Pit” is a classic (albeit unconventional) of the hardboiled school of crime fiction and a jet-black piece of noir that is just as relevant today (especially considering the current state of racial inequity in America in 2021), as the day that it was written.Trigger warnings abound with this one. “The Pit” includes episodes of racial epithets, strong language, descriptions of graphic physical and sexual violence and animal cruelty-caveat emptor.
The PseudoPod Podcast produced an audio recording of Lansdale’s “The Pit” (episode #344). If this is a compelling listen, I would heartily recommend checking out his short story collection, By Bizarre Hands. This collection contains “The Pit”, along with other early Lansdale classics. By Bizarre Hands contains a wide variety of genre fiction including horror, crime fiction, sci-fi, historical fantasy, alternate history and nonfiction along with mixtures and permutations of all of the above.
Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo
The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction
By Bizarre Hands
Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys well-crafted and engaging stories across a variety of genres and mediums. His articles have appeared in several online venues and can be found on Twitter @AnthonyPerconti