JIM THOMPSON – Savage Night. Lion #155, paperback original, 1953. Reprinted several times, including Black Lizard Books, softcover, 1985, 1991.

   When a good friend described Jim Thompson as “over-rated” to me not too long ago, it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually read anything by Thompson in a quarter century. So I picked up his most nightmarish novel, Savage Night to have another look at it.

   Damn, it’s good.

   Night is the chilling story of a freakishly petite and young-looking hitman pressured into that preordained failure, the One Last Job. Charlie “Little” Bigger lands in a small town for a tough job that turns into a paranoid hell, then into a surreal spin where neither he nor the reader quite knows what’s going on we just realize something pretty awful is happening here, and when I applied the adjective nightmarish, it was with a full appreciation that Savage Night could stand right up there with the scariest of traditional “horror stories.”

   It also benefits from the kind of writing we look for most in two-bit novels: efficient prose that goes beyond prosaic efficiency to achieve a quality completely unlooked-for in pulp fiction:


   Bigger sees a puritanical old woman and “I couldn’t figure why some dairy hadn’t hired her to sour their cream for them. ” A self important character gets a compliment and “swelled up like a poisoned pup.” And then there’s the short sequence where Thompson’s narrator enters a house:

    I pushed the sagging gate open. I climbed the rickety steps to the porch and rang the bell… I turned and glanced around the bare yard — too goddamned lazy to plant a little grass. I looked at the paint-peeled fence with half the pickets knocked off….

   Now that passage should be taught in every Creative Writing course in the Free World: a quickly-carried couple of sentences that (a) move the story along, (b) describe the setting, (c) tell us something about the guy who lives there, and (d) tell us something about the narrator at the same time.

   Amazing. This is the sort of writing that gave Thompson his belated reputation, and it serves very well for a tough, fast story that still scares me.