Random Reviews: “Night of the Cooters” by Howard Waldrop

Random Reviews: “Night of the Cooters” by Howard Waldrop

Omni cover
Omni, April 1987

Throughout 2022, I’ll be reviewing short stories. Some of these may be classics, others forgotten. The two things that all will have in common is that they are part of my personal collection and they will be selected through a randomization process.  What works and authors I look at will be entirely selected by a roll of the dice.

“Night of the Cooters,” originally appeared in the April 1987 issue of Omni, edited by Ellen Datlow. Howard Waldrop has explained that he was inspired to write the story while on a fishing trip with Chad Oliver shortly before LoneStarCon I, the 1985 NASFIC, and proceeded to write the story between his arrival at the convention and his scheduled reading the next day.

Set in the small Texas town of Pachuco City in 1898, Waldrop focuses his story on Sheriff Bert Lindley, who simply wants to keep the peace in his town.  A typical day includes him having to serve summonses, talk to two young boys who stole peaches from the wrong orchard, and try to cope with the horrendous Texas heat.  Lindley knows everyone in town and their stories and knows how to get his job done.

Until a meteorite falls at the Atkinson place and everybody began to head over to take a look to see the oddity.  After taking accounting of the various cows that were killed by the meteorite, Lindley left some of his men to keep watch on it and make sure nobody did anything stupid while Leo Smith, who was home from college, reached out to professors at the University to see if they wanted to take a look.

Of course, what landed wasn’t an ordinary meteorite. It was one of the Martian invasion ships from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.  While Wells described the canisters that landed around Horsell Common, Waldrop has three of the canisters land in Texas. The small town Texans, of course, have a very different way of dealing with the Martians than the Londoners do.

In some ways, “Night of the Cooters” is a tall tale, Texas style, with the Texans being able to handle their own problems in their own inimitable Texas way. At the same time, Waldrop’s decision to center the story of a no-nonsense sheriff who views the invasion as just another issue he needs to take care of in order to maintain the peace in his small town humanizes the story. Lindley and his deputies know what they need to do to take care of the invaders, even if they aren’t fully aware of the situation they find themselves in.

The reader, of course, has plenty of knowledge that the characters do not have.  Between Wells’ original 1898 novel, Orson Welles’ 1938 radio dramatization, the 1953 and 2005 films based on the book, and the various television adaptations, The War of the Worlds and its tripodal Martian invaders have entered the general social conscience.  Even if readers haven’t read the original material, they would have some idea about what the Martians landing on Earth under these circumstances means. Waldrop is able to play on those expectations in the story.

Night of the Cooters Montage
Night of the Cooters has been reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Fifth Annual Collection, Best New SF 2, Night of the Cooters, Invaders!, War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, The Campfire Collection, This Is My Funniest, and ClarkesWorld, among other places.

“Night of the Cooters” was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1988, losing the award to Lawrence Watt-Evans’ “Why I Left Harry’s All Night Hamburgers” in a field that also included works by Kate Wilhelm, Pat Cadigan, Karen Joy Fowler, and Lisa Goldstein. When Kevin J. Anderson was editing his anthology War of the Wars: Global Dispatches, in which each original story was meant to tell the story of a nineteenth century author in the face of Wells’ invasion, he elected to reprint Waldrop’s story as one that met the theme of the anthology, if not the letter.

Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is an eighteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology is Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.

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Thomas Parker

Waldrop is definitely a neglected guy. I know he was primarily a short story writer, but Them Bones is one of the best sf novels of its era.

Eugene R.

I remember seeing Mr. Waldrop on a panel with Barry Malzberg, who intoned in his lugubrious manner, “I’m Barry Malzberg, and I was dumb enough to think I could make a living writing science fiction.” Which Mr. Waldrop proceeded to top by saying, “I’m Howard Waldrop, and I’m dumb enough to think I could make a living writing science fiction short stories.” Even Mr. Malzberg laughed.

Steve A Oerkfitz

One of my favorite short story writers. The Sherrif in Night of the Cooters is based on the actor Slim Pickens. Waldrop’s The Ugly Chickens is a story I usually reread once a year.

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