A nifty exercise in old school horror by the inimitable Joe R. Lansdale. He’s been concentrating more on westerns and thrillers lately, but proves in this novella that he still knows how to bring the scary stuff. Furthermore, the wonderfully profane, hard-bitten prose style that distinguishes Lansdale’s finest work is very much in evidence here.
The setting is certainly among Lansdale’s most memorable: a tiny island adjacent to a much larger one containing a (possibly haunted) prison housing “the bad of the bad,” who leave only “by illness, old age, or electricity.” Evoked by Lansdale with ominous, almost gothic grandeur, this smaller island is where Bernard, a grizzled ex-con, looks after The Lot, a graveyard where executed prisoners are buried. The Lot currently holds 488 cadavers. The 489th is on the way, but from the start it’s clear to Bernard, and also his assistants Wilson and Toggle, that this burial will be different from all the others.
Prisoner 489, it seems, was a mighty unique individual: a truly imposing personage, he weighed in at 400 pounds yet according to Kettle, the guard charged with delivering the corpse to Bernard, said prisoner was never once seen eating anything. Nor did this character ever talk, although he did apparently let out quite a scream when he was executed--which apparently took an unprecedented four tries. The prisoner is buried as scheduled, but doesn’t stay interred for very long.
I’ll leave Prisoner 489’s background and identity for readers to discover on their own, as the revelation of that identity--which won’t be unfamiliar to longtime horror buffs--provides the story’s most jaw-dropping surprise. That Lansdale is able to maintain the gritty atmosphere even after this folkloric personage overtakes the narrative is another of the book’s marvels.
The succession of calamities that close out the story, with Bernard and his cohorts attempting to come to terms with and fight back against the menace confronting them, are well evoked, if a bit perfunctory. I say the book’s 90 page length is too short--it could have easily continued on for much longer!