Texas bluebonnets on a railroad.

Texas science fiction author Neal Barrett, Jr. died Sunday.

Tonight’s music video is Johnny Cash performing “Don’t Go Near the Water,” then joined by Burl Ives & friends on the “Johnny Horizon” song. Today’s Democracy Now! with its heavy coverage of the West Virginia coal chemical spill included another version of this Cash song.

My friend Rick Klaw drew my attention to the death of Texas author Neal Barrett, Jr. Rick writes:

Sadly, there’s a good chance that many of you have never heard of this literary wunderkind. Neal wrote damn near everything from science fiction to fantasy to mysteries to romance to westerns and young adult. He worked in a variety of media, producing traditional books, screenplays, comics, and even Texas historical markers (Neal used to joke that they were damn heavy to carry around and show people).

Just about any of his nearly 30 books stand head and shoulders above most of the pablum that makes up popular fiction. Two books and two collection make for the near perfect entry into the unusual worlds of Neal Barrett, Jr.

  • The Hereafter Gang: Perhaps the finest book of Neal’s oeuvre and the best novel that almost no one has ever heard of.  A bizarre masterpiece that teaches us that heaven is in Oklahoma.
  • Through Darkest America: By time this beautiful apocalyptic sci-fi/westen had come out, Neal had written some 20 novels under his own name. That didn’t stop it from being included as part of the Isaac Asimov Presents line that featured new writers.
  • Slightly Off Center: Eleven Extraordinarily Exhilarating Tales: Neal’s first short story collection serves as a fantastic introduction into the varied and unusual mind of a genius.
  • Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr.: From the title, it’s self-evident. If you don’t like this collection, then Barrett isn’t for you.

… Beyond being a superior craftsmen, Neal served as a friend and mentor to many a new writer. His influence and guidance crossed many generations of Texas fantasists. Joe R. Lansdale, Lewis Shiner, and Howard Waldrop would not have become the writers they are without Neal’s stewardship. For that matter. without Neal’s patience, I doubt I’d be the writer and editor I am today. In those early days, he was available for questions, tips, and always a humorous ‘true’ tale of dubious origins (not to mention his impact on Lansdale and Shiner and their effect on my literary career). While we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, my respect for Neal Barrett, Jr. never wavered.

Barrett’s entire novelette “Perpetuity Blues” is available online courtesy of Infinity Plus. It opens:

On Maggie’s seventh birthday, she found the courage to ask Mother what had happened to her father.

‘Your father disappeared under strange circumstances,’ said Mother.

‘Sorghumdances?’ said Maggie.

‘Circumstances,’ said Mother, who had taught remedial English before marriage and was taking a stab at it again. ‘Circumstances: a condition or fact attending an event or having some bearing upon it.’

‘I see,’ said Maggie. She didn’t, but knew it wasn’t safe to ask twice. What happened was Daddy got up after supper one night and put on his cardigan with the patches on the sleeves and walked to the 7-Eleven for catfood and bread. Eight months later, he hadn’t shown up or called or written a card. Strange circumstances didn’t seem like a satisfactory answer.

Mother died Thursday afternoon. Maggie found her watching reruns of Rawhide and Bonanza. Maggie left South Houston and went to live with Aunt Grace and Uncle Ned in Marble Creek.

Go read the whole thing. I’ll wait here for you.

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Photo by Randall Chancellor released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.