1024 X 768
Spotlight on: Joe R. Lansdale
Joe R. Lansdale, The Shadows, Kith and Kin
As good as his novels are, author Joe R. Lansdale's talents shine best in his shorter works. A collection like The Shadows, Kith and Kin from Subterranean Press offers the casual reader a terrific introduction to the breadth and depth of his range, including a chance to read a rarely reprinted gem. The title story is a psychological portrait of a clock-tower shooter (patterned on Charles Whitman) that was especially affecting when read in the weeks following the Virgina Tech shootings.
Fans of Reverend Jebidiah Rains, who so ably defeated the zombies in the Old West of Dead in the West (though his last name was Mercer in that book), will be glad to see him return in full form in two stories in The Shadows, Kith and Kin. "Deadman's Road" has him confronting a ghoul, and "The Gentleman's Hotel" involves werewolves. I hope Lansdale chooses to continue this character's series, as Reverend Jebidiah brings out the best of the author's darkness and humor. ("The Long Dead Day," a highly effective short piece not featuring that character, approaches a similar subject from a very different angle.)
Also featured in The Shadows, Kith and Kin is a classic Lansdale story that, due to its being almost sixty pages, has been seldom reprinted, despite having won the Bram Stoker Award for long fiction (then "novelette") for 1992. "The Events Concerning a Nude Fold-Out Found in a Harlequin Romance" follows a man, his daughter, and his new employer as they make themselves into private investigators -- he very reluctantly -- when he finds a marked-up centerfold in a used romance novel and attempts to discover its significance. This story is a fascinating look at the two sides of its author's career. It is grounded in strange, rural characters and their quirky behaviors -- Lansdale's signature motif -- while it also offers a somewhat prescient view of the more mainstream crime novels (such as The Bottoms and Lost Echoes) that would dominate his twenty-first century output.
Another long tale, "White Mule, Spotted Pig," is like an underdog sports movie filtered through Lansdale's skewed lens with an almost fairy tale-like structure. This one really sneaked up on me. I had no idea what to expect, and the story delivers a completely involving and unexpectedly moving read under the guise of a front-porch rocking-chair story like your crazy old grandpa used to tell.
Another surprise came in the form of "Bill, the Little Steam Shovel." For those fans asking, "Where is the really weird story Lansdale puts in every collection?" -- this is it. It starts out like it is going to be a story for children, complete with anthropomorphic construction vehicles and accompanying illustrations (not in my advance copy) by cover artist Mark A. Nelson. But it soon takes a sharp left into uncharted territory. Without giving too much away, I'll just mention that Bill is a horny, pubescent steam shovel who has to deal with the common teenage problem of ... nocturnal emissions. It would be shocking, but Lansdale keeps the tone so light, and he makes the characters so real, that the reader goes along with it willingly.
I put off reading "Alone," written with Melissa Mia Hall, because I have been highly disappointed by the only other works of Hall's I have read (from Doom City and Retro Pulp Tales). This one is only slightly better. Though it begins with Lansdale's intriguing post-apocalyptic premise, it eventually morphs into a young-love story. Hall makes the characters interesting, but many of their actions feel unrealistic, and the ending is pure treacle.
Newcomers would likely be better off beginning with one of the author's "favorites" collections, High Cotton or Bumper Crop, but those seeking a little something different from Champion Joe will be quite satisfied with the selection available in The Shadows, Kith and Kin.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission.
Joe R. Lansdale, Lost Echoes
Joe R. Lansdale has the enviable ability to write in any genre he chooses and produce a novel that only he could have written. This has gained him a rabid following among those who seek his particular brand of darkly humorous front-porch storytelling. For years, he was known only in horror circles (he has won six Bram Stoker Awards at this writing), but the new century has seen his name rise in the crime genre.
This rise is due somewhat to his Hap Collins–Leonard Pine series of dark adventures, but also because of his standalone crime novels, including 2000's Edgar Allan Poe Award–winning The Bottoms and the more recent titles A Fine Dark Line and Sunset and Sawdust. Lost Echoes is his latest, and it showcases an author who is not afraid to delve deep within himself in the name of producing powerful fiction.
Harry Wilkes has the gift, but he calls it his curse. When violent events occur, the memories of those events become locked in the sounds associated with them. When those sounds are recreated, Harry can see those memories. This unrequested ability has turned him into an alcoholic at age 20, because it's the only thing that blocks out the sounds.
When they were kids, Harry and his friends Kayla and Joey were inseparable. Then Kayla moved away, and now Harry only has sad, bitter Joey left. So they drink, and they drink, and one night, after yet another bout of drinking, they spy a man, who they thought was as drunk as they were, soundly defeat three muggers with ease and fluidity, whereupon he passes out cold.
This man is Tad, and he's about to change Harry's life through giving up booze (which also means giving up Joey) and devoting himself to the study of martial arts, both physically and philosophically. Things are greatly improving with Harry, and then Kayla comes back to town and wants Harry to use his skills to solve the murder of her father. Whether she really wants to know the answer isn't even up for discussion once Harry decides that he doesn't want to go back into the darkness.
Every new Joe R. Lansdale novel is cause for celebration. Lost Echoes may be more so, because it is very likely the best thing he has ever written. Lansdale has taken a character with a slightly supernatural condition, stuck him inside a crime thriller, and added some special touches that could only have come from deep within Lansdale's own psyche. (The martial-arts angle is no mere conceit: Lansdale operates his own studio teaching the style he invented: Shen Chuan Martial Science.) As a result, he has somehow produced a story that is both his most accessible and very likely his most personal. It should boost Lansdale to the popular success he has so richly deserved for a long time now.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission.
Joe R. Lansdale (editor), Retro Pulp Tales
There's a phrase that goes something like "Everything old is new again." That is certainly true of pulp fiction. Readers, once content with a prettily-worded book they could brag about to their friends, are now wanting to get back to the basics of storytelling -- fun tales of adventure. "Compelling stories, that's what people want," writes editor Joe R. Lansdale in his introduction to Retro Pulp Tales. "Writers have begun to realize that a good story well told is what works."
Pulp represents storytelling in its purest form, without all the pretentious "meaning" getting in the way of action and plot. And the numbers show that it is making a comeback, with Hard Case Crime novels and the two Thrilling Tales and Astonishing Stories anthologies from McSweeney's flying off the shelves.
But what is "pulp"? Technically speaking, it does not describe the contents of the tales as much as the cheap quality of paper they were printed on -- not refined or glossy, in fact barely suitable for holding ink. "The pulps" could contain anything from Westerns to men's adventure and war stories (both ground and air combat) to science-fiction, fantasy, or horror. Authors like Louis L'Amour, Max Brand, Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, and many other famous names all got their start in the pulps, where characters like Doc Savage and the Shadow were also born and thrived. Plot-driven fiction full of excitement. Simply put, pulp fiction was plot-driven and full of excitement -- the kind of thing you didn't want your mother catching you reading when you were ten.
Editor Joe R. Lansdale (whose own work is highly pulp-influenced) attempts to recapture the tone and style of the pulps in Retro Pulp Tales. In it, he collects a dozen authors attempting to replicate the style of the stories that filled so many of their own formative hours. Each is preceded by an essay detailing the inspiration behind the story, how jacked they are to be a part of the anthology, and what they set out to achieve.
Lansdale's guidelines for Retro Pulp Tales were basic: "Write a story in the vein of the old pulps ... that takes place before 1960, and with the restrictions of those times." And I must say that the twelve authors included have done a fantastic job of following the rules (for the most part) while staying true to their own personal styles. I only wish Lansdale "hisownself" had weighed in with one.
James Reasoner starts the whole thing off with "Devil Wings Over France: A Dead-Stick Malloy Story" (which implies that there either have been or will be further Dead-Stick Malloy stories). In it, Dave Malloy (called "Dead-Stick" for his skill at landing planes whose engines have failed), while in the midst of a dogfight, is attacked by a swarm of bats and injured by one. Soon, others begin to show symptoms of what the medical officer calls rabies ... but rabies doesn't cause the lengthening of the sufferer's canine teeth. Reasoner combines aviation with the undead to the detriment of both; neither aspect was illustrated fully, though the story was entertaining enough as a whole.
Chet Williamson impresses with a tale put together "From the Back Pages." A tightly drawn piece, it is best read with little foreknowledge, so I will just say that Williamson uses the format of the pulps' letter columns to paint his fiction with a disturbing coat of realism. Al Sarrantonio dips into Ray Bradbury territory with "Summer," asking the question, "What if glorious summer never ended?" Well, for one thing, it would get hotter, and hotter ... and hotter ... so be careful what you wish for.
Dark fantasist Tim Lebbon digs up a giant in "The Body Lies." Excavating his basement for a spiral staircase, a man discovers ceramic pots that turn out to be the humongous teeth of a long-buried giant whom he has awakened (if somebody took a shovel to one of your teeth, you'd wake up, too) and whom he now has to feed. Finding a giant "sleeping beneath suburbia" is a fascinating concept that deserves more attention and "The Body Lies" feels like just the beginning of a rip-roaring yarn. I wanted more (and at the rate authors these days are turning short works into longer ones, it's a definite possibility).
I really liked Alex Irvine's "New Game in Town" until its jarring, supernatural twist at the end (probably an attempt to cement its pulp factor). Irvine's tale of billiards-to-the-death, involving a straightforward (if slightly crooked) cop, a Jewish gangster, and a midwestern farmboy, has the tone, the suspenseful plot, and the black-and-white characters down pat -- the oddball finale just kind of took the shine off.
Gary Phillips relates what happens during the "Incident on Hill 19," when a mixed-race group of GIs are sent on a reconnaisance mission. Phillips makes race relations too big a part of his tale, and tends to divide his characters into two camps: the ones who hate blacks, and the ones who treat everyone equally. Otherwise, there's not a lot of individual definition, and the story leads to the kind of conclusion that marred "New Game in Town," though the military detail is quite good. Also focusing on race, Bill Crider combines slavery with alien abduction in "'Zekiel Saw the Wheel" and still manages to produce one of the more detailed and realistic stories in the anthology by showing complete respect to all of his characters.
Stephen Gallagher's "The Box" is a simple tale of depth, both aquatic and emotional. It offers up just the right amount of backstory to go with its present telling of mysterious occurrences among students in a helicopter-ditching safety course, and how your past accompanies you wherever you go. A well-told story is enhanced by its weighty subject, told in a matter-of-fact manner that makes it all the more powerful.
All decent stories, but F. Paul Wilson's "Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong" was the first one I read that I felt truly captured the essence of what Lansdale was looking for, and what Retro Pulp Tales was really about. (But what else can you expect from the creator of Repairman Jack (a Shadow-like figure himself and the best example of the pulp mentality operating in the modern day)?
"Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong" is a fully realized throwback to the heyday of the "yellow-peril" tale (similar to one he recently published in the Dark Delicacies anthology), featuring Chinese tongsters and a search for a missing girl. The fast-paced plot carries Detective Brannigan (attempting to redeem his reputation via this thankless investigation) through event after event until the final earth-shaking explosion. The appearance of a mysterious and powerful older gentleman adds to the texture of the story, which could easily be expanded to novel length (too bad no one would publish anything like that nowadays). Hatchets and bullets fly, and it felt like Wilson was channeling the king of the pulps, Shadow creator Walter Gibson.
For "Clubland Heroes," Kim Newman dips into his cast of characters connected with his "version of Conan Doyle's Diogenes Club I developed ... for my Anno Dracula novels." Catriona Kaye and Edwin Winthrop recur throughout Newman's work and here they come into contact with a sextet of superhero-types who call themselves The Splendid Six when the heroic half-dozen's next-door neighbor -- a litigious, disagreeable sort named Peeter Blame -- is found dead.
Pulling from the pulps on his side of the pond, Newman offers a tale unlike anything else in Retro Pulp Tales: a very British sort of mystery involving a preponderence of quirky characters and that typically dry English humor. And he manages to keep the pace up over thirty-six pages, nearly twice the length of any other offering. In terms of entertainment (and in spite of a pretty lame solution to the murder), "Clubland Heroes" is right up there with "Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong," though they are likely to find disparate audiences. And so the two most perfectly pulpy pieces in this package hail from opposite sides of the Atlantic.
The final tale (and the one that inspired Timothy Truman's appropriately dramatic cover illustration) is "Carrion," Norman Partridge's attempt to write a story "that Robert E. Howard would enjoy" and "a little bit about the man himself." Unfortunately, his combination of walking dead, voracious buzzards, and a breathing house, featuring two protagonists who don't speak each other's language, doesn't really cohere into a form that fits together well. Its strange chronology only confuses things further.
So, that one wasn't so good -- but I knew I didn't like Partridge's fiction after I read Mr Fox and Other Feral Tales. Still, there's only one story in Retro Pulp Tales that I would call a complete misfire: Melissa Mia Hall's true-confessions tale of virginity lost to a space alien, "Alien Love at Zero Break." Hall tries to channel Gidget while giving her a Moondoggie from outer space, but has trouble both keeping up the pace and getting the reader to care about her characters.
Considering the odds of success for an anthology of twelve brand-new stories, previously untested by anyone except their editor, Retro Pulp Tales actually turns out to be quite a solid read. Two really great tales mixed with nine quite good ones, and only one real dud? That's a much higher percentage of quality than I was expecting, and indeed higher than many of the anthologies I've read recently (in fact, I can't think of one I've ever read that matches it). Despite not weighing in with his own short take on the pulps (plenty can be found in his own short story collections, like High Cotton and Bumper Crop, Joe Lansdale still managed to tickle me pink with Retro Pulp Tales, proving that he not only knows how to write a good pulp-inspired tale, but he also knows how to pick 'em.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.
Joe R. Lansdale, Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories
As a fan of Joe R. Lansdale, I look forward to each new release with relish. Sometimes, however, these releases are difficult for a man of modest means to acquire, especially when several of Lansdale's works are published by small press publisher Subterranean Press. The original hardback release, for example, had a rather hefty price tag: $40 retail (Amazon and other sellers often offer a discount, but even that is usually not enough). Luckily, Golden Gryphon has come out with a paperback edition thrifty enough for any wallet.
Even so, Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories turns out to be a bit of a mixed bag. Although I like Lansdale's short work, in general it's more uneven than his novels. The same occurs here: Two of the four short pieces fall short of ideal, while all four novellas are worthy of celebration.
"The Mule Rustlers" is all about taking fictional revenge on whomever stole Lansdale's own mule years ago. It has a lot of the same great features of other Lansdale fiction, but the unfair ending leaves a bad taste. "Screwup," on the other hand, is pure fun to read. A loser gets in over his head and spends the rest of the time just digging himself deeper while trying to get out of trouble. There's not much in the way of backstory or character development, just one event after another leading up to an ironic, but entirely appropriate, ending, but you won't care. (This is the second story Lansdale has written with his wife, Karen. The first, "A Change of Lifestyle," is available in Bumper Crop.)
"Veil's Visit" was written with Andrew Vachss, a practicing lawyer as well as a writer, who wanted the opportunity to fictionally "defend" Leonard Pine (of Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series of novels) of a crime he committed in more than one of those books. It's short and has an obvious agenda, but until the next Hap and Leonard novel comes along, it's do. Later, Lansdale remembers his mother, and how she influenced his life, in "O'Reta, Snapshot Memories." Like the title says, it's not a linear narrative, but the author fills the prose with such genuine emotion that it's easy to get swept up in it.
"Way Down There" combines cartoons with comic books, Jules Verne with Edgar Rice Burroughs, all with that inimitable Lansdale stamp. A special group of friends go to Hell to rescue Satan (it makes sense in the story) and learn a lot about the underworld along the way. It even includes references for further reading, assuming you've got the right kind of library.
I tried to read some Philip Jose Farmer once and just couldn't get into it. But Lansdale calls him his "outright favorite" (though he does admit to Farmer's unevenness) and wrote "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down" in tribute. It's a sci-fi Western, complete with metal men, talking ape folk, and rips in the space-time continuum, right alongside crusty, meat-eating, livestock-screwing people of the land. Throw in astronauts, torture, and a hearty dose of cannibalism, and you got a wild ride that surprises at every turn. (Once you've read both this and Zeppelins West, you're ready for Flaming London, but not before.) After this recommendation, I may just have to give Farmer another try.
"The Big Blow" just may be a perfect story. Set during the Galveston hurricane of 1900, it offers action, sex, violence, cleansing, redemption, and a small dose of history, as it happens to typically Lansdalean characters. Centering around a boxing match between John McBride and "Lil" Arthur Johnson (later to be called Jack), it's a real action piece, its 56 pages flying past like roundhouse punches. The characters and setting feel impressively realistic, and the plot is entirely believable. I had read it once before, when it came around in rotation on the Free Stories section of the author's website, and it's even better the second time around. I could imagine visiting "The Big Blow" yet again, and I'm not much for re-reading.
The title novella is the last piece in Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories. Fans of Lansdale's Edgar Allan Poe Award–winning The Bottoms may recognize it as the inspiration for that novel. It was originally written to order for publication in Al Sarrantonio's Bram Stoker Award–winning 999 anthology, but Lansdale felt that this story of a young boy's search for a serial killer in the Sabine River Bottoms of East Texas during the Great Depression deserved to be expanded.
A warning: if you have any intention of reading The Bottoms, skip "Mad Dog Summer." They're the same story with the same solution. That said, the novella is an ideal way for fans of the novel to revisit the experience without the same time commitment. I wholeheartedly recommend Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories to fans of the "champion mojo storyteller." It's also a fine place to start for the newcomer, as it gives a look at the author's ability to span genres without losing his own special touch that keeps his readers coming back time and time again.
Joe R. Lansdale, Flaming London
Ned the talking seal is back, having survived the shark attack that took the lives most of his friends from Joe R. Lansdale's weird Western, Zeppelins West. And he's ready for a new adventure -- again inspired by the works of H.G. Wells and Philip Jose Farmer.
Despite its title, Flaming London is not about the drag queen subculture in England's capital city. Instead, Mark Twain and Jules Verne accompany Ned the seal in attempting to escape the attack of tentacled invaders from Mars. As the events that inspired Wells to write The War of the Worlds, unfold in real time, our heroes are assisted by Phileas Fogg's valet, Passepartout, as well as Beadle, John Feather, and Steam from Lansdale's Farmer-inspired novella "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down" (from Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories). Wells also shows up for the obligatory celebrity cameo.
I'm glad to say that Flaming London is a vast improvement over its predecessor, Zeppelins West. Where the first book seemed to lack a focus of direction, this one is at least anchored by its unconventional narrator, a seal who can read and write but not talk -- and who is a big fan of dime novels.
Readers who have read both Zeppelins West and "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down" will most be able to appreciate their references in Flaming London, but Lansdale fans in general will enjoy his ability to combine classic literature with wonderful characterization and his own brand of often-crass humor.
I recommend Flaming London, unreservedly to fans of the "champion mojo storyteller." It may possibly be a good place to start for the newcomer, as it gives a look at the author's ability to span genres without losing his own special touch that keeps his readers coming back time and time again. But that $40 price tag for a signed hardback makes it less open to experimentation (Amazon and other sellers often offer a discount, but even that is usually not enough).
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.
Joe R. Lansdale, Zeppelins West
As a fan of Joe R. Lansdale, I look forward to each new release with relish. Sometimes, however, these releases are difficult for a man of modest means to acquire, especially when several of Lansdale's works are published by small press publisher Subterranean Press. For a standard hardback release (especially the unsigned second edition), Zeppelins West has a rather high price tag: $40 retail (Amazon and other sellers often offer a discount, but even that is usually not enough).
So imagine my surprise when I came across this signed limited edition in the library! I couldn't have been more excited, literarily speaking. Zeppelins West turns out to be a bit of a mixed bag, however, as his attempts to replicate some of the more out-there fiction of his personal favorite Philip Jose Farmer (also seen in "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down," as published in Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories, which contains some similar elements).
Zeppelins West stars Buffalo Bill Cody, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickok, and Annie Oakley -- sort of. They're nothing like you remember them, with Hickok and Oakley in a relationship and Cody's decapitated head being kept alive in a jar filled with "activated [pig] urine" (shades of Donovan's Brain).
Also featured are the Tin Man, Frankenstein's Monster, and Captain "Bemo" of the "Naughty Lass," all gathered on the island of Doctor "Momo," a vivisectionist with grand aspirations. (As the doctor's name suggests, the main plot is unabashedly borrowed from H.G. Wells' classic novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau.) His creations include a literate seal named Ned (such a fascinating character, Lansdale made him the hero of the sequel, Flaming London), a hunchback named Jack, several monkey men and other beast men, and his one "success," Catherine, a lovely lass made from a local species of wildcat. All of these characters are vividly drawn by artist Mark A. Nelson in individual portraits that spice the text.
The adventures all these folks get involved in would take far too long to describe, and I'm not sure I could make much sense out of it all, anyway. But, following Wells' outline, Lansdale lets his pen run free, being faithful to history and literature, or veering wildly from them, as his story requires. My favorite part was the conversation between the Tin Man and Frankenstein's monster; their revisionist histories are an example of how Lansdale's imagination can soar when focused. The rest of Zeppelins West is a hodgepodge of terrific storytelling, sensitive characterization, and borrowed storylines that, as often as not, seem to not quite reach the heights of which Lansdale is capable.
I got lucky in being able to read Zeppelins West, but I can only recommend it to fans of the "champion mojo storyteller." It is not a place to start for the newcomer, though it gives a look at the author's ability to span genres without losing his own special touch that keeps his readers coming back time and time again.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.
Joe R. Lansdale, Dead in the West
"Champion mojo storyteller" Joe R. Lansdale crosses genres yet again with in this, to my knowledge, the first "Zombie Western." Lansdale wrote Dead in the West back in 1986 as a tribute to the kind of entertainment he grew up enjoying, like EC Comics and cross-genre B-movies like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (both real movies, I assure you).
You know ... pulp.
Despite his recent mainstream popularity, Joe Lansdale has always been a pulp writer. His short stories (including those in Bumper Crop and High Cotton) are an example of this, as are his novels like the Drive-In duo (with a third soon to come). He seems entirely comfortable mixing one genre with another while taking both to their respective extremes. Dead in the West is yet another example of this.
Reverend Jebidiah Mercer is a man of God ... sort of. He hasn't exactly been following the straight and narrow path lately, spending a good portion of his collection on whisky. But arriving in Mud Creek changes things a bit. After an unmistakable sign from above, in addition to some soul searching on his own, the Reverend decides to get back on the right track, with the next Saturday, when he'll be hosting a tent revival, being the ideal starting point -- if he can resist the temptations coming his way.
And wouldn't you know it: that's the week that the dead start rising from their graves! What's a man supposed to do? Kick some undead hind-tail, that's what!
Dead in the West takes no time in getting started; the first death occurs on page four. From there on, we are treated to a thorough character study in combination with a thrill ride. Why the dead chose _this week_ to resurrect themselves, and what kind of unsavory temptations may get in the way of the Reverend's redemption, are just two of the questions answered in this exciting short novel with more than its fair share of cowboys smashing brains.
This cross of author Louis L'Amour and film director George A. Romero does justice to both. It is a full-blooded Western at the same time as a fully-bloody zombie thriller. Yet, Dead in the West remains purely a Lansdalean effort, with the same level of horror, humor, and down-home realism that has made him so popular among other writers as well as his rabid cult of fans (yours truly included -- in fact, Lansdale's ability to frighten and amuse simultaneously is one reason I go back to his work over and over).
Zombies are hot again, and with Romero's long-awaited continuation of his zombie film saga, Land of the Dead, on the horizon, Night Shade Books couldn't have chosen a better time to re-release Dead in the West. Those whose hunger for everything zombie is whetted by the film should pick up this book and achieve even greater satisfaction.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.
Joe R. Lansdale, The Boar
Inspired by the more adult subject matter covered in the Young Adult novels by authors like Gary Paulsen and Robert Cormier, a young Joe R. Lansdale set out to write his own YA entry, using his particular style while telling a simple, straightforward story; The Boar was the result. Unfortunately, it proved to be impossible to sell until recently, when fans are clamoring for all of the Lansdale they can get their hands on. It first saw print in a limited Subterranean Press edition. Now Night Shade Books has given it the release it deserves with an affordable trade hardcover printing, hopefully allowing more people to read this terrific little book.
Unfortunately, it proved to be impossible to sell until recently, when fans are clamoring for all of the Lansdale they can get their hands on. It first saw print in a limited Subterranean Press edition. Now Night Shade Books has given it the release it deserves with a more affordable trade hardcover printing, hopefully allowing more people to read this terrific little book.
The story follows the coming of age of 15-year-old Richard Harold Dale ("Ricky" to his friend Abraham, with whom he shares this adventure) during the summer of 1933. When Ricky's father goes off to make money for the family the only way he can (by wrestling at fairs, just like Lansdale's own father), Ricky is left man of the house. Out hunting, he runs across the legendary boar that terrorizes the Sabine River Bottoms: Old Satan, the Devil Boar with a hoofprint the size of a man's hand (a helpful representation is embossed on the cover of the book proper).
After the boar kills Ricky's dog and attacks his family -- including his pregnant mother -- he vows to take his family's protection into his own hands and kill Old Satan once and for all (even though local sage Uncle Pharaoh says he's crazy to try). But first, he'll need some training and something larger than a .22....
The American South -- as depicted in The Boar, at least -- is a place where stubbornness doesn't get you smacked, and where adults respect the ambitions of teenagers (he tells his father he wants to be a writer and nothing whatsoever is said about "something to fall back on"). But then again, this isn't your typical Lansdale novel; he is best known for portraying the much darker side of humanity in his extreme horror stories (see The Drive-In, High Cotton, and Bumper Crop for examples).
You'll find no such over-the-top evil characters here (unless you count a boar called Old Satan, that is); only a young boy on a quest to call himself a man, and kill himself a boar. Lansdale makes the characters individuals and, although the plot, in retrospect, definitely rides the line of believability, I never doubted it for a moment. The Boar also has that unmistakable Lansdale voice coming through the page, that down-home delivery that makes his skill with dialect effortlessly ring true without becoming parodic, and has made his public readings so popular.
Night Shade has produced a beautiful volume for this edition of The Boar, including several moody, almost photographic illustrations from Alex McVey. This is an ideal choice for readers wanting an exciting nostalgic experience, and for fans of Lansdale's Edgar Award–winning The Bottoms to revisit the time and place of that novel. Here's hoping that this Young Adult entry introduces a new generation to the "champion mojo storytelling" of Joe R. Lansdale.
Joe R. Lansdale, High Cotton: Selected Stories of Joe R. Lansdale
"Champion Mojo storyteller" Joe Lansdale has slowly, over the span of twenty years, made quite a name for himself without ever really becoming a bestselling author. He has recently reached the current peak of his steadily increasing level of fame due to two events: winning the Edgar Allan Poe award for his novel, The Bottoms, and the recent release of the film Bubba Ho-Tep, based on a short story he wrote about an ancient mummy confronted by a seventy-year-old Elvis and J.F.K. He's certainly an acquired taste, but one that was an easy acquisition for me when I read his omnibus novel The Drive-In, about one summer evening when an alien comet buzzes a Texas drive-in theater and causes all sorts of havoc too disgusting to relate here. It was horror mixed with humor, and I loved it. So, I immediately set out to find more about this genre-mixing writer (my favorite kind). I read the first novel of his Hap and Leonard series, Savage Season (reviewed below), and it was good, but it wasn't exactly what I was looking for.
Short stories are always a good way to experiment with a new writer. Luckily, that's how Lansdale started out making his living. There are several short story collections available of his early work but, the way he puts it in the introduction to High Cotton--and in reference to the southern-fried title--"this is the best cotton I've grown in the short form." When an author thinks the book you're holding contains his best stuff, that's the one you ought to try.
Each story has a short introduction written by Lansdale, explaining its inspiration, history, or lack thereof. I always find it fascinating for an author to write about their works; another favorite of mine, F. Paul Wilson, follows the same tack in his collection, The Barrens and Others.
High Cotton is certainly not bound to be a mainstream success, but for people who like the sort of gruesomely funny tales with a southern mentality that Joe Lansdale comes up with, it will be just your cup of sweet tea. It contains many stories that are as disturbing as they are funny: the basic premise is horrifying, but Lansdale manages to find the humor underneath it which, in turn, often enhances the horror of the situation. The one I think epitomizes this best is "The Drive-In Date" (also published in play format in The Best of Cemetery Dance, Volume Two), which concerns a couple of "good ole boys" and their rather unconventional date at the drive-in. The usual amount of laughter, food, and sex is contained within, with one important difference. This one still gives me the creeps -- while making me laugh. Stories like this require that you reexamine your own comfort threshold.
"The Pit" starts off the collection. This combination of dogfighting, boxing, and crazy backwoods snake handlers is one that he feels deserves more attention, and it certainly packs a punch. You'll think twice about making that wrong turn onto a back road when you finish with this one. Following "The Pit" is a simple little story that shows Lansdale's sentimental side. In "Not from Detroit," a man fights Death so that neither he nor his wife has to be alone. This story is so surprisingly sweet, that it is the first I've read of his that almost made me cry. But things return to normal, Lansdalewise, in "Booty and the Beast," which includes fire ants, a plastic syrup bear, and a "[pubic] hair from the Virgin Mary."
Sometimes, the humor is the main aspect of the story, as in "Godzilla's Twelve-Step Program," which follows our hero, Godzilla, as he goes through the daily grind of fighting his addiction to burning down buildings with his fiery breath. Even his job as an ingot melter doesn't seem to do the trick. What could have been a one-joke premise leading to a punchline is fleshed out by the author's imagination into a character study.
As you can see, Lansdale has many talents, but he is at his absolute best when he follows the exploits of a bunch of useless good-for-nothings who get themselves into a heap of trouble just by being stupid. This occurs first (and funniest) in High Cotton in the form of "Steppin' Out, Summer, '68" as Buddy, Wilson, and Jake go out in pursuit of a little horizontal recreation and--through a seeming innocuous, if increasingly ignorant, series of events--one of them ends up in the mouth of an alligator. It is one of the author's personal favorites, and any story that can make me laugh out loud in public instantly becomes one of mine.
Ending the collection is the story that Lansdale calls his "signature story" and the first one to really get him noticed (winning the Bram Stoker award in the process), "The Night They Missed the Horror Show." After skipping the night's showing of Night of the Living Dead (after discovering that a black man is the hero), Leonard and Farto do a couple of stupid--if generally harmless--things in the name of fighting boredom. But when they run into the wrong people, these events spiral into a night of pure terror. Lansdale is in particularly good form here, making the characters sympathetic by having their "punishment" be far above and beyond anything that would have suited their "crimes" of ignorance. It is really an ideal closer for High Cotton.
But all the stories in here are worth reading and Golden Gryphon Press has done a wonderful job packaging the collection. The cover illustration by J.K. Potter is very effective at getting across the contents--even though it appears that Potter himself didn't get past the first page of the first story. High Cotton is bound to become the definitive collection of Joe R. Lansdale's short fiction by itself, and it makes an excellent companion piece to the more recent Bumper Crop, which includes some of his and his fans' personal favorites, if not his most memorable work. Together, Lansdale ("hisownself") calls these two "the definitive volumes of my short work." As a fellow reviewer once said about Lansdale's work, "Read it and vomit. It's brilliant."
Joe R. Lansdale, Bumper Crop
"Champion Mojo storyteller" Joe Lansdale is a writer whose work is unlikely to be forgotten once introduced into the reader's ken. His signature combination of humor and often over-the-top horror tends to make even the most jaded fiction reader rethink his or her comfort level. He is at his best when showing the hidden evil in everyday folks and the way that a seemingly simple turn of events can snowball into surprisingly complex terror, all while rarely leaving the confines of East Texas. Lansdale's voice is like no other and whatever he writes -- and he has written mystery, suspense, horror, adventure, and western fiction -- holds that unmistakable stamp.
Golden Gryphon's previous Lansdale release, 2000's High Cotton, was a selection of the author's best short fiction. Bumper Crop intentionally does not aspire to those heights, being a selection of tales that, though not his best, are particularly memorable for one reason or another. (Five of them were originally published in Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, a personal favorite of this reviewer and a publication that disappeared all too quickly -- especially considering that I had just renewed my subscription at that time.) Lansdale explains the titles of these disparate collections in his introduction to Bumper Crop:
In Southern terminology, High Cotton is when the cotton is growing well and growing high. Bumper Crop refers to when your crops give an added splurge, usually referring to vegetables, not cotton, but it's kind of a surprise crop. An added treat.He goes on to further differentiate between the two collections, calling High Cotton "Southern Gothic, though not exclusively" and explaining that "this one is much more of the twist and surprise and ain't that damn weird school" ("Billie Sue" definitely falls under the latter category). Given its purpose and scope, a collection of this sort is destined to be uneven: even the author's introductions often consist of little more than faint praise for his own work combined with surprise that his hard-to-categorize fiction is sometimes rejected by the magazine at which he aimed it. ("Walks," his attempt to get published in either Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, fails because it gives itself away too early.)
But, just like the perusal of a garage sale, from the dross often surfaces some previously unsung gems. The opener, "God of the Razor" (one of two entries taken, in part, from Lansdale's novel The Nightrunners during its struggle towards publication), happens not to be one of them but, just as an example, its view that serial killers pass on their occupation to the next person like vampires is original, and Lansdale's use of paragraphs of dialogue to tell the backstory gives the claustrophobic surroundings an immediacy that heightens the terror. It's not his best work -- and is about mid-range for Bumper Crop -- but is definitely what the author would refer to as "catchy"; it sticks in the memory like a tenacious pop hook.
There are details like that in every story here that make them worth reading, if not necessarily candidates for immortality. Most of the selections are very short, often written with merely the germ of an idea -- a punchline of sorts. Often clever with a twist, stories like "The Dump," "Chompers," and "Personality Problem" exemplify the simplest form of this. However, Lansdale has the ability to stretch these one-note ideas into workable stories, as shown by "Listen," about an "invisible" man; "Down by the Sea;" and "Bar Talk," an odd vignette that teaches against talking to strangers in bars. Generally, the quality of the stories increase along with the copyright date and one of the best is also the most recent. "Fire Dog" was published in a 2003 Golden Gryphon anthology, The Silver Gryphon. The idea that the local firefighters' unit would replace their dalmatian with a human applicant could only have come from Lansdale's fevered imagination.
The best are few but worth mentioning for that reason. "Bestsellers Guaranteed," a bitter writer's idea of how "the other side" get published is bound to strike a chord with any frustrated pen pusher, and "Master of Misery" utilizes Lansdale's vast martial arts knowledge (he operates a Nagodoches, Texas, dojo teaching his own personally designed system -- called Shen Chuan, Martial Science) in a brutal fighting tale.
Some of the stranger ones are the product of what Lansdale calls "popcorn dreams" -- the result of eating too much of his wife's formula of the popular snack before retiring. "The Fat Man" is an example of how this frenzied source can lead to a story with a scattered focus.
His previously-mentioned trademark pitch black storytelling is represented here, as well, in the form of "On a Dark October," which finds awful things going on at night in a service station garage; "Duck Hunt," in which a boy "becomes a man;" and "I Tell You It's Love," where the definition of that emotion is stretched beyond most people's breaking points.
Unfortunately, to this reviewer, who has come to expect nothing but the best from Joe R. Lansdale, a preponderence of this Bumper Crop falls into the category of "disappointment." This doesn't mean that they are not still great fun to read, only that this volume does not contain his best work. For a fan, however, this won't matter, as Bumper Crop is far more interesting as a portrait of a writer's growth. From his (many) attempts at copying the style of Ray Bradbury ("Fish Night," "Last of the Hopeful," "The Man Who Dreamed"), through his eventual discovery of his own voice and his collaborations with friends and family ("Pilots," "A Change of Lifestyle," "The Companion"), to creating stories that would eventually win the author five Bram Stoker awards among others, this collection follows the quirky path taken by one Joe R. Lansdale ("hisownself") in the development of his craft.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.
Joe R. Lansdale, The Bottoms
Author Joe R. Lansdale is a cult figure due to his extreme way of looking at the world around him, specifically that corner known as East Texas. Not everyone can tolerate his depiction of the often unnecessarily violent behaviors of normal people (and not everyone gets to, as most of his output is released with small specialty presses). His ability to jump from one genre to another with apparent ease (he has written horror, mystery, suspense, and westerns, just to skim the surface) makes instant fans of his readers, who know that they will never get bored because he "always writes the same thing" like many authors. Novels like The Drive-In, along with his series starring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, and his short story collections High Cotton and Bumper Crop show his vast range of expertise, and his six Bram Stoker awards (given by the Horror Writers of America) are a testament to the admiration of his fellow writers.
A lot of Lansdale's work has a streak of dark humor running through it; you know when you read it you'll have a good time. The Bottoms has a lot of the same qualities of his other work, but is a more serious telling. Released by Mysterious Press, this is more of what people usually expect when they pick up a mystery novel, but still with the signature Lansdale stamp. Racism is a subject that never seems to get old, and it hangs heavily over the proceedings.
From his room in a rest home, old Harry Collins tells the story of a period of his childhood in the 1930s. While he and his sister Tom (short for Thomasina and tomboy) are out on an unpleasant task -- that of putting down their sick dog, Toby -- they come across a dead black woman, naked and tied to a tree with barbed wire. Their father, Jacob, is the local Constable, so he is saddled with the investigation of the apparent murder. Of course, the kids think it was done by the Goat Man, a mysterious half-goat, half-man creature (he has horns but walks on two legs) that lives in the woods.
Jacob's identification of the dead woman (who turns out to be a local prostitute) takes him into the black part of town, where he is confronted by townspeople, both black and white, who don't want him involved in "colored folks' business." Nobody cares about a dead black whore, they say, especially if she was killed by one of her own. Things heat up, however, when the body count increases; and when a white woman is killed, they are string up the first black man presented as a suspect. Jacob quickly learns that it's not easy to conduct a murder investigation when people are more interested in lynching than justice.
Meanwhile, Harry is doing some learning of his own, and The Bottoms is, primarily, his coming-of-age story. Just on the cusp of teenhood, Harry is growing up quickly, having been confronted with his first dead person along with the heavy race relations going on around him. Old Harry's voice comes through often to tell what was gleaned from some of these experiences. His views soon mirror his father's, who, even though his actions are sometimes flawed, believes in the equality of all people. In his characterizations, Lansdale makes sure his racists are despicable, even as he gives them other sensitive qualities like endowing one with the power of reason to see the error of his ways.
Although lacking the sense of extreme fun of his other novels, The Bottoms is still full of Lansdale's crackerjack wit, and his characters inevitably come out with creative metaphors for given situations, especially Harry's Grandma, who is chock full of folksy homilies. It is likely one of his best works and its receipt of the Edgar Allan Poe award is entirely justified. For beginners to the Lansdale canon, it is a way to get their feet wet before diving in, and for existing fans, it offers yet another angle of Lansdale's abilities. Writers with the talent of Lansdale are few and far between and this reviewer looks forward to each new offering.
Jack, Bob, Randy, and Willard, a group of teenagers from Texas, settle in one weekend night at The Orbit for an all-night showing of five drive-in "classics": I Dismember Mama, The Evil Dead, Night of the Living Dead, The Toolbox Murders, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What lies ahead of them is much different than the typical night of junk food, beer, and "higher partying and sex education."
Halfway through The Toolbox Murders, a huge red comet hurtles toward the drive-in and, at the last moment, up and away again, leaving the crowd of four thousand cars surrounded by total blackness. One family drives into the darkness with no sound, but when a local cowboy reaches his arm into it, he comes back without it and is quickly dissolved into a pile of goo, denim, and leather.
It is then that everyone realizes that they are trapped in a glorified parking lot with only popcorn, candy, and soda for sustenance, and in a land of no sun where time is immeasurable. It won't be long before they turn to each other for their food source. And when the Popcorn King takes over, the worst is just beginning.
Author Joe R. Lansdale uses his life's experience growing up at several drive-in theaters throughout Texas (and the bad movies that he watched there), to create what is essentially a "drive-in novel" filled with sex, violence, very little plot, and a hell of a lot of fun. The Drive-In is a horror novel for the Roger Corman crowd, a Troma film for the literate, that was nevertheless nominated for both the Bram Stoker and World Fantasy Awards.
It makes little linear sense but carries you along with the sheer momentum of its joy of existence; a series of events with no other purpose than to entertain on the most basic level. And Lansdale doesn't hold back on the gruesome descriptions, making the goings-on as easily visualized as if they were flickering on one of The Orbit's six tremendous screens.
Like any moderately successful Z-grade movie, The Drive-In surely would rate a sequel, especially one with the unmistakable title The Drive-In 2. 2 takes up where its predecessor left off. Those who escaped the terrors of The Orbit find their world dramatically changed. It looks the same but the Tyrannosaurus Rex tips them off early on. That, and the marvelous gas mileage they're getting from their beat-up truck. They go through four driver changes and only use up a quarter tank.
Driving along, they meet up with Grace, a martial artist who accompanies them on their travels and provides plenty of fodder for their sexual fantasies while she bathes nude (with loving description) in the local bodies of water. But it's not all blue skies and breasts for our heroes, as they soon discover that the world they've been left with is not for all takers.
Lansdale mixes his usual dark humor with some moments of thoughtfulness as he examines all sides of an apocalyptic afterworld. The Drive-In 2 is more serious in tone than its predecessor but still makes for a relatively light read. I mean, where else are you going to find references to Sleepy LaBeef and a locale affectionately known as Shit Town?
Reading these two back-to-back is easy going, as the latter follows right off the former, making them feel as if they were really one book with two parts. It was an excellent idea to place them both in a "double-feature omnibus" because, although it costs less to get them together than apart, until this release they were both out-of-print anyway, and where can you get two books in one anymore -- especially for less than a mainstream paperback release? Save the price of a video rental and get this instead.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.
Joe R. Lansdale, Savage Season
At less than 200 pages, Savage Season does not overstay its welcome. In fact, this was nearly the perfect length for this mostly plot-driven story. The first in the increasingly popular "Hap and Leonard" series, Hap Collins and his friend Leonard Pine (whom we are told, through the constant ribbing shared by the two pals, is a gay black man) are asked by Hap's ex-wife Trudy to help her find the money from a bank robbery committed by someone her current husband knew. From then on, however, of course, everything goes wrong.
There are no gray areas in Savage Season, everyone is either good or bad, and there are some very bad people here. Some of the scenes are particularly gruesome, but Lansdale's writing carries one through. The author seems to take a certain pleasure, in fact, in seeing just how bad he can make some of the characters. (This, I would find out later, is a Lansdale trademark.) The characterizations save this one from being common-grade pulp. I would probably pursue Hap and Leonard through other adventures. Although at this writing I haven't--but only because it didn't have the horror motif that I look for in Lansdale's work--I will no doubt one day pick up another of the novels in this series.
Joe R. Lansdale, Mucho Mojo
Novels in the mystery and suspense genres often get a bad rap, with aspirations to something other than the typical being overlooked, or at most touted as "transcending the genre." The second entry in Joe R. Lansdale's series starring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, Mucho Mojo, is a book just like that.
When Leonard's uncle Chester dies, he inherits the old homeplace. This causes complex feelings in Leonard since Chester had disowned Leonard on learning that Leonard was gay. While he and Hap are fixing up the place, they discover a large wooden box in which is found a child's skeleton and a stash of child porn magazines. Despite the obvious circumstantial evidence, Hap urges Leonard to look into alternative explanations. Meanwhile, they meet up the drug dealers across the street, a local preacher with questionable motives, and the lovable MeMaw, Leonard's neighbor who always has time (and an open invitation) for a glass of tea, and Hap gets involved with a beautiful black lawyer named Florida Grange.
In addition to the plot involving the secret murders of several of a small town's black children, Mucho Mojo investigates such heavy subjects as relationships -- whether black-white, man-woman, gay-straight, adult-child, young-old -- and racism. And all the while Lansdale delivers a cracker of a crime novel, with a terrific ending, that continues the story of the main characters as begun in Savage Season.
Joe R. Lansdale, The Two-Bear Mambo
Hap and Leonard just can't seem to keep themselves out of trouble. At the beginning of The Two-Bear Mambo, Leonard is yet again setting fire to the drug dealers' house next door. Their friend Lt. Hanson has to take them in just because, but when Hap's ex-girlfriend -- and Hanson's current squeeze -- Florida Grange goes missing, Hanson agrees to drop the charges if Hap and Leonard will go look for her in Grovetown, a burg in East Texas known for its violent Klan members, and where Florida was last seen.
The Two-Bear Mambo is so far the most unflinching in its portrayal of Southern racism. Grovetown is even worse than I could have imagined and Lansdale does not look away for a moment. Leonard is the obvious target, but Hap's association with him brings him into the fray of violence as well. And as for Florida: well, no one as yet has admitted to even seeing her...
My white Southern guilt was intensified while reading The Two-Bear Mambo; the characters, their ideas, and their violence are all-too familiar from my upbringing. So much so that I could barely even bring myself to read it in public, afraid of what the people around me -- seeing the N-word on nearly every page -- would think I was reading (as if the barely euphemistic title weren't embarrassing enough).
But the trademark Lansdale humor abounds in sarcastic remarks and in the first-person narration of Hap -- whose difference from the author himself seems to be getting less and less. Lansdale has said that he is very comfortable with the voice of Hap and the easy-going prose makes that obvious. Despite my emotional reaction to the book, I look forward to continuing the adventures of Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. I'm glad they can't keep away from trouble; if they did, I'd be reading some other book that isn't nearly as fun.
(Email me and let me know what you think.)