Prisoner 489

July 1, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

Cover designPrisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale


Prisoner 489 is a book I picked up a few months back when I went on an e-book spree. Lansdale has had a few misses with me over time, but for the most part, his fiction is a hit with me. His prose style and dialogue alone are enough to carry me through his stories.

This story, though, is missing a lot of that character. It’s told in the third person, and is mostly action, so there’s not a lot of opportunity to experience Lansdale’s style. When the main characters do talk to each other, they sound almost normal, which isn’t what I’ve come to expect from Lansdale’s stories. Give me the Texas mojo weirdness that I’ve come to expect from him, or at least the strong characters and storytelling genius of his non-mojo stories like Sunset and Sawdust or A Fine Dark Line.

Prisoner 489 is about a handful of ex-prisoners who live on an island and serve as the burial detail for executed prisoners from the prison on an adjacent island. They only have to handle about three bodies a year, meaning that their existence is pretty dull, but as ex-prisoners, it’s their duty to do the work for a few years before earning their freedom. The prison isn’t a normal prison by any means — it holds criminals who are more special than the everyday, mortal prisoners one would find in other prisons — so when they’re confronted with a massive body that refuses to die, they take it (more or less) in stride.

The story is one of their survival against something that’s effectively unkillable, but has targeted them as its next victims. It starts off as rather ordinary, but Lansdale drops hints to suggest that this isn’t a normal burial, so it’s not entirely a surprise when the body doesn’t stay buried. He could have built up the suspense about what it is they’re fighting, but he makes the reveal pretty early in the story. I see why he did it — knowing what it is is key in fighting and defeating it — but without the suspense of what it is carrying the story, it winds up feeling dull and banal. Worse, it feels restrained.

I find that Lansdale does his best work when he writes his mystery-thrillers, and not horror. He has a couple of classic horror novels that I feel like I should re-read (The Nightrunners and The Drive-In come to mind), but his fiction set in the real world feels much more effective and mature. Prisoner 489 is, unfortunately, a horror novella, and is forgettable. I wouldn’t recommend this, even to fans of Lansdale, as it’s not representative of what he can do when he’s running at full speed. I can see where he might have been thinking of writing a series of these books using the premise of the prison, but if that’s the case, I wish he had started somewhere more interesting.


  1. Lilyn G. (Sci-Fi & Scary) said,

    Hm I’d been eyeing some of his work.

    • Isaac said,

      His crime novels are fantastic. I’d recommend Sunset and Sawdust; so far, it’s my favorite of his books.

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