By Joe R. Lansdale
“Different” is an adjective that applies to much of Joe Lansdale’s fiction. So asserting that Freezer Burn is different is perhaps not too daring. But Freezer Burn is different from other Lansdale stories. Lansdale’s favored ground is coming-of-age story, his protagonists are innocents who experience the bitter truth of life in a tragic world. That goes double for Hap Collins, he’s a perpetual innocent.
But in Freezer Burn, Lansdale puts a true low-life front and center. Bill Roberts is a cockroach, a sorry excuse for a human being. After a botched robbery, carried out with a great deal of bloodshed by scumbags even stupider than himself, Roberts escapes through the swamps. He takes refuge with a travelling freak show. It is not a post-modern, ironic freak show, but an old-fashioned collection of deformed outcasts.
The show boasts Conrad the Dog-Boy, U.S. Grant the bearded lady, assorted Pinheads, Siamese Twins, Pickled Punks, and the Ice Man. The Ice Man might be a frozen relic of prehistoric times or he might be the Savior. Presiding over it all is Frost, a world-weary showman with a wife that is too young and too beautiful.
Here Roberts finds himself in a curious quandary, he can carry on in his accustomed bubble of loathsome egotism, arrogant and selfish, or he can accept the shelter granted to him by the freaks and in accord them the respect and affection he receives from them.
More so than other Lansdale tales, Freezer Burn fits into the classic pattern of serie noir. Roberts inhabits a world that can be heaven or hell, entirely as he makes it. The upward road is a rocky one, and the higher one climbs the greater the temptations become. The life of the show-folks is a hard-scrabble one where facing down rednecks spoiling for a fight is all in a day’s work, sex may sometimes be bartered, and even cub scouts strut with macho attitude.
For memorable, gripping, noir fiction, Freezer Burn cannot be beat.