by Jon Abrams
An overview of Joe R. Lansdale’s writing career is difficult to distill into a single essay, since this right here is one of the best, boldest, most prolific and relentlessly creative American authors of the last few decades. There isn’t a lot in Lansdale’s back catalogue which one could or should quickly skim over. Some of the high points are that much higher than others, but having enjoyed a good majority of Lansdale’s work, I’ve yet to encounter any pieces that are any less than tremendously entertaining. Many more are visceral gut-punches, whose impact lingers in the heart and the mind.
Joe R. Lansdale’s writing swaggers back and forth through a variety of genres, format, and media, blending elements and tones in unconventional ways, but never losing sight of the importance of story and character. His characters feel authentic, his environments are believable, and his plots are gripping. He’s a great storyteller in the most classic American tradition; one gets the sense that if mankind never got around to technology, Lansdale would be roaming the country, regaling campfire crowds.
By the time you’re done reading this piece, I’d wager you will come away with the very accurate inclination that there’s nothing Joe Lansdale cannot write. Lansdale has written novels, short stories, comic books, screenplays, Westerns, crime novels, horror stories, mysteries, capers, picaresques, coming-of-age tales, period pieces, comedies, thrillers, superheroes, vintage pulp characters, television, animation, fantasy, nightmares, parable, and even a little non-fiction. The one exception, the one thing he cannot write, will not write, is bullshit.
Here is a truth teller. His venue happens to be stories. You get the sense that this is the rare author who means every word he writes, no matter the genre, whether he’s kidding around, or he’s experimenting, or whether – look out – he’s getting serious. When Lansdale means to scare you, he will do. When he’s is making a sociopolitical point or observation through his characters, it is spoken plainly, with common sense and inarguable logic. When he turns his talent to literary art, he’s surely capable, but he ain’t gonna ever bore you either.
In a foreword to Lansdale’s novel Act of Love, his friend and fellow author Andrew Vachss writes, “Reading Joe’s work, I’m reminded of nothing so much as a fine pit bull. No posturing. No threat-displays. Ready to pay what it costs. Not the biggest… but sure he’s the best. Dead game. And driven by love. Read Joe Lansdale and see it for yourself. Feel it. You can always tell when a virgin’s writing a sex scene. You can spot the kinetic impossibility of the violence when the writer hasn’t been in a fight. You’ll never see this in Joe’s work – it’s not there. He knows ‘hard’ isn’t the same as ‘heartless.’ Read Joe Lansdale and see the true writer’s gift… he’s felt it, and he’ll let you in on the feeling.”
What follows is a beginner’s guide to many of the most essential works of Joe Lansdale’s career, now in its fourth decade with much more greatness no doubt to come. If I left something out, it’s either because I haven’t read it personally or because I’m trying to be reasonable as far as word count goes. Again, I urge you to seek out all the Lansdale you can track down, whether it’s listed here or not. Speaking from experience, you’ll not ever be disappointed.
ACT OF LOVE (1981)
Lansdale’s first novel is an update of the Jack The Ripper mythos, concerning the search for “The Houston Hacker.” The textbook definition of underrated, Act if Love predated the absolute saturation of the market with serial killer stories. For a first novel, almost everything that makes Lansdale unique is already present: The mystery is genuinely surprising, the horror is genuinely chilling. And the treatment of the story’s protagonist is bold, proving that the author is unafraid to engage in issues of race.
Here’s the opening description of homicide detective Marvin Hanson: “He was black as the pit and ugly as an ape.” On one hand, this is a provocative sentence. On the other, it’ll give you an image of the guy pretty fast. Look, Lansdale doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. I can promise you he has affection for the character. Hanson is the book’s hero, and he’s gone on to be a supporting character in Lansdale’s stories for years. But this is a daring way for a white Southern author to introduce a black character. It’s direct. It doesn’t dance around the sensitivity of the topic. Lansdale confronts the topic of Hanson’s race at the top, in a way that allows the reader’s own preconceptions and interpretations to swirl around, and in the meantime he gets on with telling the story. There’s a legitimacy to this approach. Lansdale knows something about racism and he knows a lot about the way people really talk. Right at the top of his career, he refused to be timid about engaging in honest conversation about both.
DEAD IN THE WEST (1986)
Lansdale has three distinct modes as a novelist: As the writer of thrillers and “weird crime” novels, an author of finely wrought East Texas literature, and somewhere in between, as a modern-day pulp novelist. This slim volume is the first evidence of the latter mode. It’s a Western, starring a character named the Reverend Jedediah Mercer, a heavy-drinking, gun-slinging preacher who does battle with zombies. It’s a B-movie homage, yet mixed in with all the delirious carnage is some very real attention to detail, whether it be the Western setting or the protagonist’s religion or the clash between that religion and the beliefs of the Native American characters encountered in the story. Dead in the West is decidedly a lark, but even Lansdale’s larks are crafted with thought. His “B-movies” have resonance.
THE NIGHTRUNNERS (1987)
East Texas noir, with a hint of the supernatural: That’s Lansdale’s wheelhouse, and The Nightrunners is vintage Lansdale. It concerns a carful of thrill-killing teenagers who murder several unfortunate souls along a stretch of highway until they run into a young married couple who prove more of a challenge. Becky and Monty Jones are working through some major trauma – she was raped and he was unable to protect her. Most writers would stick to writing from Monty’s perspective, and Lansdale does that, but he also broadens the novel’s narrative voice in order to write from Becky’s perspective as well. Joe Lansdale is clearly a man who loves women and who hates men who would abuse them. It’s kind of a leitmotif in his work. On this matter, there’s not a lot of impartiality. Personally, that’s a leitmotif I happen to respond to very much. Let other novelists give shading and depth to life’s villains if that’s what they’re interested in – I like Lansdale because he knows that sometimes, not often but sometimes, life is black and white, and bad people are just rotten. Now, there is a long noir tradition of murderous teenagers, which Lansdale well knows, but his use of murderous teenagers as antagonists at this moment in pop culture history was certainly against the grain. (The 1980s were a time of innocuous teens.) And even if it hadn’t been, Lansdale has the stones to go darker than almost any other writer would. These teens are motivated by their own malice, but they end up getting the attention of a murderous deity known as The God of the Razor, a malevolent force that would recur throughout Lansdale’s work. This isn’t the main focus of the novel; The God of ohe Razor only aids and abets what the villains are already up to. But it’s an interesting notion, a broader interest in the philosophy of evil, one that certainly makes Lansdale a kindred spirit to contemporaries such as F. Paul Wilson.
“BELLY LAUGH, OR THE JOKER’S TRICK OR TREAT”
These short stories, from two anthologies called The Further Adventures of Batman and The Further Adventures of The Joker, respectively, are where I first encountered the work of Joe R. Lansdale. When Tim Burton’s Batman movie was released in 1989, there was a huge marketing push for the character in pop culture. These anthologies welcomed a variety of writers to create stories involving Batman and his villains (the book about The Joker clearly focused on that guy), and boldly, Lansdale used the opportunity to put Batman against his own concept, The God of the Razor! Both of these stories stood out to me in their respective collections: They were the most stylistically innovative by far, and frankly, more violent than any of the others. They were scary! I loved that. The best Joker stories are the ones that make him scary. Lansdale got that. He gets comic books. He went on to write three episodes of Batman: The Animated Series in the 1990s. He also wrote several comics, but I’ll get to that in a minute. First, I’d like to point out the comic-related moment that sparked me to remember how much I liked his Batman stories and to go check out his novels. Lansdale wrote the foreword to the first collection of Preacher comics (a great series, maybe my favorite ever, that has many parallels to Lansdale’s work). Here’s a line from that foreword: “[Preacher is as] scary as a psychopathic greased gerbil with a miner's hat and a flashlight and your bare asshole in sight.” Irresistible!
The “Hap & Leonard” Novels, including:
SAVAGE SEASON (1990)
MUCHO MOJO (1994)
THE TWO-BEAR MAMBO (1995)
DEVIL RED (2011)
Jumping ahead for a moment, it’s impossible to get much further in a career-spanning retrospective without addressing the matter of Lansdale’s longest-running creation: The series of “weird crime” thrillers starring the eminently charming East Texas layabouts, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. These are unconventional mysteries starring very unconventional quote-unquote detectives. Hap and Leonard are good-hearted, cranky, and frequently under-employed best buddies who work any available odd jobs to make ends meet. Their best talent, for better or worse, is for violence, so they’re most often called upon for low-level strong-arming or collections work. It might be noted that Hap is white and straight and Leonard is black and gay. But in true Lansdale fashion, Leonard Pine is unlike any black gay man anywhere else in popular culture. He’s a veteran with a chip on his shoulder, proudly out in an area of the country where being that way leads to a lot of trouble. Leonard is one of the most unrepentant shitkickers in literature. He’s even tougher than Hap. The series is written from Hap’s point of view, but Hap looks at, treats, and refers to Leonard as his brother. There’s no judgment between them, although there’s no shortage of barrages from bad people of the words “faggot” and “nigger” – it’s just that throwing those words at Leonard is going to get you punched in the teeth, as you well deserve.
The Hap & Leonard stories aren’t usually Lansdale’s deepest, most resonant work, but I eat ‘em up, as do plenty of fans (there aren’t nearly enough of us.) My first was Mucho Mojo, where Leonard’s beloved Uncle Chester dies, and Leonard finds a skeleton under Chester’s floorboards. The evidence suggests the skeleton was connected to a child pornography ring, so Leonard recruits Hap to help him clear Chester’s name. The search leads to some terrible people, and as usual, the guys are in over their heads. All of the Hap & Leonards are one-and-doners, but if you read the entire series, you get the sense of living life with these guys, “growing up” with them. Marvin Hanson (remember him?) shows up in these books as a friend to the two inveterate troublemakers – sometimes he helps them out, sometimes he’s the one asking for their help. The subject of race is a frequent specter, whether Hap is getting in a relationship with a beautiful black lady lawyer or whether the guys are fighting off deadly white supremacists. The most recent mass-produced Hap & Leonard novel, Devil Red, was one of the strongest yet, because it’s the first one where reading it, I felt as if one of the guys could die. They get banged up badly throughout the series, but they usually pull through. But they’re older now, and their enemies are getting meaner, and so the stakes have risen. These books are a great gateway into the Lansdale oeuvre.
BY BIZARRE HANDS (1989)
Lansdale is one of the most prolific practitioners of the short story form – if you pick up a horror anthology and you’re lucky, you’ll see his name. By Bizarre Hands (a great, evocative title as always) is his first collection of short stories, featuring signature tales “The Pit,” “Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back,” “Night They Missed the Horror Show,” and “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks.” Again, Lansdale doesn’t need supernatural elements to scare you – “The Pit,” for example, is a nightmarish inversion of the more idyllic Hap & Leonard friendship: Two men, one white and one black, are captured by a demonic preacher and his hateful flock, and forced, under threat of being mauled by dogs, to fight in a hand-to-hand brawl to the death. The ugly history of Southern racism hangs over the tale like an unveiled threat. On a lighter note, this collection also includes “Hell Through a Windshield,” Lansdale’s non-fiction tribute to the drive-in movie theaters he loves so much.
COLD IN JULY (1989)
Cold in July is another stand-alone novel about a man named Richard Dane who shoots a home invader dead in self-defense, and is stalked by the intruder’s father, only for both men to discover there are far darker matters afoot. They must team up, grudgingly, to get some answers. This story features an appearance by a recurring character from the Hap & Leonard books, Jim Bob Luke, an amiable but deadly only-in-Texas kind of fella. Excitingly, Cold in July is now shooting as a film adaptation from up-and-coming horror director Jim Mickle (Mulberry Street, Stake Land, We Are What We Are). Dexter’s Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, and Sam Shepard plays the burglar’s dad, with Don Johnson as Jim Bob. Could be great!
THE DRIVE-IN (1988 & 1989)
Now this one is probably unfilmable. Apparently some considered trying, but the movie never came to pass. Maybe that’s for the best. How do you film a nightmare? The story constituted by the title The Drive-In is a collection of short novels, two of them published in the late 1980s and one published, as many hard-to-find Lansdale stories are, in a limited edition in 2005. The Drive-In is a phantasmagorical horror epic of blood and popcorn. It’s truly scary, blackly funny, and kind of amazing. At a drive-in theater in Texas, people gather to watch a bill including The Evil Dead, Night of the Living Dead, The Toolbox Murders, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A comet hurtles out of the night sky, headed straight for them. The comet smiles – smiles! – and disappears. Everything seems normal for a moment, and then everyone realizes that beyond the parking lot of the drive-in, there is only darkness. To attempt to leave ends in impossible death. Somehow, everyone is trapped in the drive-in. Life descends into a medley of sugar-crazed madness, murder, and bedevilment by an insane creature going by the name of The Popcorn King. You’ve never read anything like this. It’s a full-tilt unrestrained Joe R. Lansdale imagination bomb. It doesn’t need to be made into a movie precisely because it works so well as a surreal piece of movie-soaked genre fiction. Nothing anyone could put on a screen would equal the deranged images your own brain will conjure up as you read it.
WRITER OF THE PURPLE RAGE (1994)
This is another short-story collection, arguably even weirder and more diverse than those collected in By Bizarre Hands. For example, a story called “The Diaper” is about a baby’s diaper that is possessed by aliens, and one called “Godzilla’s Twelve-Step Program” finds the famous movie monster struggling to wean off the urge to scorch and step on major cities. “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” is a superlative piece of horror fiction, concerning a young woman who is stalked by a terrifying killer – the reversals in this one are incredible. Genre director Don Coscarelli ably adapted it to screen for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series. Coscarelli also adapted another story from this collection, which is probably the most well-known item made from a Lansdale story to date. “Bubba Ho-Tep” introduces us to an elderly Elvis Presley who never died and is living out his disappointing life in a Texas retirement home. He teams up with a friend, a black man believing himself to be John F. Kennedy, in order to battle an ancient Egyptian mummy who has returned to feed off souls in the home. The movie starred Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis and was well-received, but if you liked that, you’ll love the story it came from.
JONAH HEX: TWO-GUN MOJO (1993)
JONAH HEX: RIDERS OF THE WORM AND SUCH (1995)
PIGEONS FROM HELL (2008)
Lansdale is generally so busy writing novels and short stories that his work in other media is comparably small (although the operative word is “comparably” – his extracurricular resume alone is longer than many professional screenwriters and comic book writers.) Lansdale is generous with genuflection towards the writers who influenced him: Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip José Farmer. This comes up often in interviews and dedications, but it comes out also in the form of work-for-hire jobs he takes. Lansdale grew up on pulps and comics, which is why he’s written characters like Batman and The Lone Ranger. The DC Western character Jonah Hex, a badly-scarred gunfighter who battles weird foes, has been a natural fit for the author of stories like Dead in the West. Lansdale’s Jonah Hex stories, done with artist Tim Truman, are highly enjoyable if you can find them. Likewise, Lansdale’s relatively recent adaptation to comics of Howard’s short horror story “Pigeons from Hell” is worth seeking out. Artist Nathan Fox has a swirling, kinetic, extra-inky style that well fits Lansdale’s treatment of the tale of an old, haunted plantation mansion.
FREEZER BURN (1999)
Freezer Burn is somewhat hard to find at the moment, but it’s a fun one, showing off as it does Lansdale’s affinity for carnivals and freak shows. It’s about a thief on the run who hides out in a travelling circus sideshow, and the chaos that ensues. It’s not a major work, more of a B-side, because right after this, Lansdale’s already-formidable talent took a kind of a level-up.
THE BOTTOMS (2000)
The Bottoms is considered by many fans to be Lansdale’s best work to date. I’m not ready to commit to such pronouncements, but I would certainly point to this as his most universal, mainstream, and critically amenable piece yet. Longtime readers of Lansdale were well aware of his ability to create vivid characters, to write peerlessly believable and witty dialogue, to write descriptive prose so evocative it makes a reader feel as if they’re looking at a photograph, to write chilling scenes of horror and suspense, and to engage thoughtfully in matters concerning history, race, relationships, and family. This is maybe the first book where he managed all of those talents at once. In The Bottoms, set in East Texas during the Great Depression, a black woman’s body is found mutilated and bound to a tree. A local urban legend known as The Goat Man is suspected. The young boy who found the body sets out to find the killer. The book won the Edgar Award and was feted by the New York Times, and rightly so. Comparisons to Mark Twain, while impossibly weighted, still don’t feel entirely out of the question. I couldn’t name many other writers who so consistently blend humor, common sense, and social relevance in their work. The Bottoms is one of the best examples of Lansdale’s estimable talent.
A FINE DARK LINE (2002)
If A Fine Dark Line feels like a lesser work, that’s only because it came so soon after the breakthrough of The Bottoms. It’s still pretty terrific, if maybe somewhat similar to the previous tale. A Fine Dark Line moves the setting to the 1950s, still and always in East Texas, and again, the murder of women is the central mystery. A thirteen-year-old boy and a much older black man are the unlikely pair of detectives on the case. This time the evocations of Twain’s name were right there on the dust jacket. It’s a great story – again, it only suffers by proximity. The emotional component is just as effective, if not more so. But that’s a constant in Lansdale’s storytelling.
SUNSET & SAWDUST (2004)
Returning to the Depression era, this time Lansdale creates a protagonist that could easily power her own series. Sunset Jones shoots her abusive husband dead and in so doing takes over his job as town law. She sets about solving a murder even as a tornado heads towards town. Sunset & Sawdust feels like a classic American tall tale, only with more modern psychology woven in. And like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, Sunset Jones has an animal companion, Ben the dog, the writing of whom proves that Lansdale can write dogs just as well as he can write women and men.
LOST ECHOES (2007)
In another unusual standalone novel, Lansdale’s longtime personal interest in the martial arts is integrated into a compelling thriller plot, where a young man who has turned to alcohol to drown out the horrible clairvoyant visions he experiences is mentored by an older man whose self-defense skills help him harness his abilities. Again, this feels like an origin story for a series of novels that never came, which only shows that Joe Lansdale can create compelling protagonists with unnatural ease. I’d love to read more Harry Wilkes stories, just as I’d love to read more Sunset Jones stories. The disappointment I feel over having been so far deprived is only a testament to the talent of the writer.
LEATHER MAIDEN (2008)
Another standalone story, another remarkable protagonist, but at least in this case the main character, Cason Statler, has become a supporting character in the most recent Hap & Leonard stories. Cason is a veteran of the Iraq War who returns to his East Texas hometown and finds a lot of trouble even before he gets a job at the local paper and gets into a cold-case murder. Cason is also unusually handsome, which is a humorous point of contention for Hap Collins in Devil Red. But in Leather Maiden, Cason has his own case to solve, mostly alone, although he does get some help from a destructive ally named Booger. (You may be thinking back to 1980s movies with that name, but the way the character plays reminded me more of the wildcard Mouse in the Walter Mosley “Easy Rawlins” stories.) Leather Maiden is the Lansdale book I’ve handed out to friends most frequently recently – it feels current and lively even as, like so many Lansdale stories, it’s equally concerned with the sins of the past.
ALL THE EARTH, THROWN TO THE SKY (2011)
The iconoclastic Lansdale doesn’t seem to make many concessions to the marketplace, but an arguable exception is this, his first young adult novel. He wouldn’t be caught dead writing some “vampire romance” malarkey, though, so what he turned out was far more original and exciting than the standard young adult fare. Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky (again, please marvel at the title) centers around a trio of orphans who encounter carnies, thieves, hoboes, gangsters, and con men. It has all of the joys of a traditional Lansdale story, minus some of the naughtiness and the language.
EDGE OF DARK WATER (2012)
This novel was written for adults but has been recognized as being just as acceptable for young people – at this point, Lansdale’s wide releases are seeing him settle into a niche as the chronicler of period pieces with youthful protagonists confronting seemingly insurmountable adult dangers. Once again set during the Great Depression in East Texas, Edge of Dark Water focuses on a group of teenagers who find the dead body of a beautiful friend who had Hollywood dreams. Eager to escape their own lives, they decide to make the cross-country trip to bring her ashes west. Unfortunately – recalling The Goat Man from The Bottoms– the teens are stalked by an odious character named Skunk. Again, the Mark Twain comparisons are there if the reader wants to make them, but personally in this particular case I see a lot more Charles Portis and True Grit, both in the sparkling vernacular and in the fierce female protagonist. Either way, Lansdale is going to come off favorably in the likening.
THE THICKET (2013)
Lansdale’s latest novel, released only a couple weeks ago, works some familiar turf. It’s a period piece set in the early 1900s, at a time when a smallpox epidemic ravaged the area. An orphaned boy and his sister are beset by venal bank robbers, who abduct the girl, leaving the boy to assemble an unlikely team of bounty hunters to help rescue her.
At this point, the mainstream finally seems to be giving Joe Lansdale his due. He’s ripe for a discovery. I see no reason why he shouldn’t be as widely read as a Stephen King. Humorously, considering what I said about Edge of Dark Water, the dust jacket of this latest novel compares The Thicket to Portis’ True Grit. James Sallis, the noir writer who wrote Drive, interestingly invokes the name of Ambrose Bierce, the sharp-witted 19th-century satirist, in the context of Joe Lansdale. Now that’s intriguing. Lansdale is more progressive than Bierce, whose work due to its time had a couple views Lansdale would never espouse, but Bierce’s phenomenal ability to distill cutting satirical thoughts into sparse sentences is most definitely a trait shared by Lansdale’s style.
Rarely is an exemplar of literary craft so immensely readable as Joe R. Lansdale. His short stories are tasty morsels, his full-length novels are zippy and zesty. Yet I think I’ve learned more about the craft of writing from reading Lansdale than from any other more widely-known or heavily-lauded author. On his Facebook page, Lansdale has recently taken to dropping storytelling tips and theories. He has suggested that he may yet write an entire book on the craft of storytelling. In a way, he’s already done that, a hundred times over, just by writing such efficient, engaging novels every time out. Joe R. Lansdale may not be American genre fiction’s best-kept secret much longer. At that point, he’ll just be known as one of American genre fiction’s best.
Jon Abrams is a New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac who wrote the current cover story, about aging action heroes, for Paracinema magazine, and is writing a daily column about horror movies on Daily Grindhouse. Jon’s complete work and credits can be found at his site, Demon’s Resume. You can contact him on Twitter as @jonnyabomb.