The Ascent of Joe Lansdale

After three-plus decades toiling in semi-obscurity, the prolific Nacogdoches-based horror fiction author is having a moment.
Tue April 10, 2012 9:25 pm
Karen Lansdale

The novelist Joe R. Lansdale, of Nacogdoches, has never been one of those authors determined to cultivate a reputation as a “serious” artist. He is much too busy writing: crime fiction and sci-fi fantasy, pulp tributes and young adult novels, comic books and horror stories.

Since publishing his first book, Act of Love,  in 1980, Lansdale’s output has averaged more than one new volume each year. In 2011 alone, he released a young-adult thriller called All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky , and a novella, Hyenas, part of a long-running series featuring mismatched buddies Hap and Leonard solving crime in East Texas. That was in addition to editing two anthologies of short fiction.

“Sometimes if I don’t write for a day or two, I get backed up—it’s like constipation,” Lansdale said during a recent telephone interview. The sixty-year-old was calling from his rental car, in Arizona, where he had a bit of downtime in between book signings for his newest novel, Edge of Dark Water, which was published last month.

Yet even if Lansdale never intended for it to happen, an increasing number of tastemakers are discovering him. A long-in-development adaptation of Lansdale’s 2000 novella The Big Blow, about Jack Johnson, a black boxer from Galveston, picked up steam in February, when the director Oren Moverman ( The Messenger ) told an interviewer that he is considering it as his next project. The actor and filmmaker Bill Paxton is attached to direct a movie version of Lansdale’s book The Bottoms. And just last week, Lansdale was honored with a Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Horror Writers Association, placing him in the company of such past winners as Thomas Harris, Stephen King, and Ray Bradbury.

“Joe is an expert at mashing up genres, and at the same time he’s got this folksy attitude and voice,” said Don Coscarelli, a film director whose Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) is based on a novella by Lansdale about Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy fighting a mummy. Coscarelli added that the author’s influence can be seen in some contemporary works, including Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel that has been turned into one of this summer’s most anticipated Hollywood blockbusters.

The Depression-era Edge of Dark Water follows a teenage girl, her two best friends and her drug-addled mother, who find some stolen money and take to a raft on the river in the hopes of escaping their dead-end small town. Along the way, they must outwit a series of violent oddballs, including a foul-smelling mercenary killer named Skunk.

It is Lansdale’s first novel with Mulholland Books, a suspense fiction imprint that Little, Brown & Company launched last year. It comes festooned with gushy blurbs from literary A-listers, like Daniel Woodrell ( Winter’s Bone ), and bestseller list staples, like Dan Simmons ( The Terror ). Reviewing the book for the New York Times, Marilyn Stasio wrote that Edge of Dark Water was “as funny and frightening as anything that could have been dreamed up by the Brothers Grimm — or Mark Twain.”

Lansdale, who wrote the book last year, said he drew on his memories of growing up in Gladewater, a small town near where most of Edge of Dark Water takes place.

“I don’t plot, and I don’t plan,” he said. “I like to be surprised like the reader.”

Yet the author’s modesty belies his book’s ambitious, quietly grieving portrait of racism in Texas in the 1930s. One memorable section chronicles the guilt of a preacher who falsely accuses a young black man of theft, which leads to the man being castrated and burned to death.

So why is Lansdale finally having a moment, after three-plus-decades toiling in semi-obscurity?

One possibility is that his current popularity is part of a larger cultural trend that has also benefited writers like Elmore Leonard, Ross Macdonald, and George Pelecanos.

“Where literary writers are turning more and more to crime fiction, using suspense and darkness in their stories, mystery writers and crime writers have become more and more embraced by the literary community,” said Otto Penzler, the series editor of The Best American Mystery Stories.

Indeed, Lansdale is often compared to a number of authors who specialize in bloody, neo-Gothic thrillers, loosely termed “country noir,” among them Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock ( The Devil All the Time ), Tom Franklin ( Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter ) and the late William Gay ( Twilight). After being ignored by critics and readers alike, these writers have found a measure of mainstream embrace over the past decade.

Lansdale has his own theories about the attention, most of them involving longevity. “People who grew up on my books are now able to get the point across to others that they’re worth reading,” he said.

But he emphasized that he does not dwell on the public’s perception of him. Lately he’s been trying to get more film projects off the ground, including an upcoming independent horror movie called Christmas With the Dead that just finished shooting. It is based on one of Lansdale’s short stories, and his son, Keith Lansdale, wrote the screenplay. He is also at work on another novel.

“I think I built my reputation by not worrying about it,” he said.

A version of this column appears in the  New York Times  as part of the  Texas Report.

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