You’ve survived another week! Have a Freaky Friday and relax knowing that whatever book I’m talking about was probably published a couple of decades ago and can’t hurt you anymore.
Hugh Zachary has referred to himself as “the most published, underpaid, and unknown writer in the U.S.” He’s written 50 books under the names Zach Hughes, Peter Kanto, and Pablo Zane, ranging from science fiction and horror to romance and The Beachcomber’s Handbook of Seafood Cookery. And in 1981 he wrote Bloodrush, which is one of those books that’s ostensibly a procedural mystery but that’s dripping with so much blood and gore and weirdness that it crosses the line into straight-up horror. It’s a cheap novel, printed on cheap paper, with a cover that looks like it’s been assigned by random lottery. I mean, what animal is that with its bright red fangs? A weasel? A lion? A badger? Whatever it is, I guarantee that it doesn’t appear in this book.
What does appear in this book is a lot of blunt, racially-charged language, because this book is about black people. And black supremacy. And black people going crazy because of racism. And killer cults of black nationalists. And it’s papered in wall-to-wall use of the n-word. And it’s written by a white guy. So here’s my question: is Bloodrush totally racist?
I phrased that question wrong. Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another, and at no point does Bloodrush advocate white supremacy, nor does it put forward the idea that people should discriminate based on their race. Nor is it predicated on a deep-rooted fear of other races or racial mixing, like some of Lovecraft’s fiction. A better question would be: is Bloodrush racially offensive? That’s an easy one: yes, totally. Maybe when it was written people could read sentences like “Three Cents knows he’s a n—-r and one thing they got going for them these days is that they can be proud of it… They do things a few years ago they wouldn’t have done because black wasn’t beautiful and all n—-rs can sing and dance,” and not pass out, but that time isn’t 2016. Heck, that time wasn’t even really 1981, when this book was written. Bloodrush is a country book and it’s written the way folks in the middle of nowhere spoke and thought in 1981 and that means that today it’s so racially insensitive on a sentence-by-sentence, and a conceptual, level that just having it in my house makes me feel weird.
But is it any good?
Agatha Christie’s books have an anti-Semitic streak running through them, but readers are willing to overlook it because there’s more value to her stories than her views on Judaism. Hugh Zachary is no Agatha Christie, but is what he has to offer worth putting up with the trampling of one’s racial sensibilities to read it? That’s something I’m not so sure about, but I think there’s a case to be made.
Set in the sleepy backwater of Earlysburg, South Carolina, Bloodrush is listed as part of Zachary’s “Sheriff Jugg Watson series”, but seeing that the series only consists of two books, both published in 1981, and that Jugg Watson isn’t really the main character, I think that information might be wrong. The hero of this novel, and the guy who shares POV duty with Watson, is Lance Carver, a black brick mason’s assistant who gets promoted to Deputy Sheriff after the body of Classinia Frink shows up dead on an old Confederate embankment and Sheriff Watson offers him a steady job.
After that, it’s one baroque murder after another as Carver grows into his new duties. A local character named Walkin’ Billy shows up with his legs sawed off, castrated, and his penis shoved into his mouth. Someone steps in a disembowled dog. A calf shows up, beaten to death and filled with human semen. A lawyer is tortured to death. Then, half the children in town go missing all at once. Things gets personal for Deputy Carver when Laconius Iboe returns to town; Iboe is an old friend of his who is now a college educated black nationalist coming back to uplift the race. Oh, and to have an affair with Carver’s estranged wife, Glenda.
Other writers have remarked that for all of Zachary’s pulp tendencies, he’s not a bad writer, someone closer to Michael McDowell than Al Dempsey, and Bloodrush feels like proto-Elmore Leonard or George V. Higgins with its scenes stripped down to dialogue and minimal description, and Zachary’s ironic touch, as in this moment as Carver ponders Jugg Watson’s job offer after the body of Classinia is discovered:
“Classinia hadn’t deserved that. No matter what she’d done she hadn’t deserved that. She had been a drunk and a whore but she was, after all, a human being with the problems which pile up on all human beings. She’d made a couple of bad choices in her life but that didn’t give someone the right to leave her dead on a 110 year old gun emplacement with the last ounce of her human dignity stinking in the morning sun and flies crawling on her. He was not an idealist, but it would be satisfying to be of some help in finding out who had done that to Classinia.”
The overuse of the n-word turns out to be a plot device, as Carver starts working for Watson and forbids its use, prompting Watson to give the “I’ve been around a long time, it’s just a word I use,” argument. “None of us too old to learn,” Carver says. He objects to being called boy, but when that proves too much for Watson he returns the favor by calling him Sheriff Honkey, shortened to Sheriff Honk. Even a running joke about a newly-arrived Yankee lawyer who can’t understand the dialect of his black helper while on a dove hunt is deployed to paint the lawyer as an outsider, not to paint the kid as stupid.
Straightforward about race to the point of discomfort, Bloodrush is a book about an old white sheriff and his new black deputy working together in the heart of South Carolina, and Carver takes center stage when Laconius turns out to be the prime suspect in the murders. It turns out that the cow full of semen and the murders of Classinia and castration of Walkin’ Billy were tactics used by the Mau Mau, those boogeymen of colonial Africa, and Zachary is careful to deliver their real story. Things go back to being uncomfortable when the bad guy is revealed to be a white guy turned violent black supremacist when he discovers he’s one quarter black. The mere thought that he’s a member of an oppressed minority makes him so angry that he’s raising an army of child soldiers to start a race war. Spoiler alert: the war happens.
No one could write this book today without being accused, rightly, of being insensitive to the point of assholism, but with the distance of 35 years, Bloodrush feels like a record of a time and place that don’t exist anymore. And Zachary is a good enough writer that no matter how many cows get filled with semen and beaten to death you feel like he’s as interested in preserving that time and the place as he is in describing the next murder. By the time you reach the end, there’s a sadness coming off these pages, a sense that when black life doesn’t matter not a whole lot else matters, either. To be honest, I wish there had been a Sheriff Jugg Watson series, because I could do with more of this duo, drinking Purple Jesus and trying to be decent human beings in a time and a place when that wasn’t always easy.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his most recent novel is Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea, while My Best Friend’s Exorcism (which is like Beaches meets The Exorcist) will be out from Quirk Books on May 17th.