JOE R. LANSDALE IS SO PROLIFIC it’s scary. For some 25 years the Nacogdoches writer has steadily turned out thrillers, mysteries, westerns, science fiction, histories, kids’ books, cartoon teleplays, and the texts for dozens of comic books. But his best-known efforts are what’s really terrifying, because the 45-year-old has built his reputation on horror stories. Lansdale is the Stephen King of Texas. He has won four Bram Stoker awards from the Horror Writers of America, the equivalent of the mystery writer’s Edgar, for his work, which deals with bizarre and horrific themes like rape, torture, bestiality, sexual mutilation, cannibalism, necrophilia, and (always) death. Admirers have called him a “renegade nightmare king” and “a gleeful pulp god” with “a wicked streak the size of the Rio Grande.” The introduction to Atomic Chili: The Illustrated Joe R. Lansdale, a best-of collection recently published by Austin’s Mojo Press, recommends his work only to persons “of strong moral an’ gastro-intestinal constitution.” Lansdale’s rawly distinctive voice even wowed a critic from the New York Times.
The New York Times ? Yes, indeed. But the Times review, which concluded that he had talent “in bushel baskets,” actually referred to part of Lansdale’s non-horror work: his series of suspense-mystery novels published by Mysterious Press. Just as he is approaching a place in the pantheon of horror writing (a notion, he says, that “makes me chuckle”), he’s leaving the genre behind. It’s not the kind of move you would expect from an established writer, but then Lansdale has never followed a predictable path. “As soon as I get successful,” he jokes, “I screw up my career.” Though the suspense series’ first installment, 1992’s Savage Season, was largely overlooked, the next two, 1994’s Mucho Mojo and 1995’s The Two-Bear Mambo, set him on the path to mainstream success. Fans of his spookier works might cry “Horrors!” but audiences outside the hardcore horror scene, which is still largely underground, deserve to enjoy his sharply honed style as well. As if to prove a recent comment by soft-core horrormeister Dean Koontz that “the only thing more certain than Lansdale’s eventual fame is tomorrow’s sunrise,” The Two-Bear Mambo has attracted interest from several movie directors, including Blue Velvet ’s David Lynch.
Despite all the attention, Lansdale still enjoys relative anonymity in pine-ringed Nacogdoches (population: 32,260). He’s a lifelong resident of East Texas, and the experiences of his hard-knocks, blue-collar upbringing propel his writing with nonstop profanity, hypnotic Southern Gothic imagery, and the brutal rural equivalent of street smarts. Add the polish of experience, and the result is a slash-and-burn regionalism that at once repels and charms.
Born in Gladewater, Lansdale grew up there and in tiny Mount Enterprise. His father, who had ridden the rails and earned cash as a carnival fighter during the Great Depression, passed on a strong work ethic to his son. Though his parents weren’t well educated, they encouraged Joe’s early interest in reading and writing even when his extended family, as he recalls, “were always calling me”—he assumes a redneckian drawl—“‘You, with your nose in a book thar.’ I used to just sit down and read the dictionary, and I read the Bible and Shakespeare from cover to cover.” He also devoured western comics like The Lone Ranger, followed superhero adventures like Superman and Batman, and raced through Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan pulps. (Fittingly, Lansdale has since helped perpetuate those enduring serials with Tarzan novellas, Lone Ranger comics, and Batman and Superman cartoon teleplays.) Another influence was horror movies, like The Diary of a Mad man and Mr. Sardonicus, which he watched faithfully at Gladewater’s “sticky-floored, roach-infested” Cozy Theater throughout the fifties and sixties. However cheesy such flicks may be, Lansdale once wrote, they “tapped into the most basic childhood fears, the ones that age does not diminish.”
Lansdale was already tinkering with fiction in his mid-teens. While still in high school he began working as a garbageman. After graduation, in the tradition of Jack London, Bret Harte, and many other American writers, he moved on to whatever job caught his fancy or kept him fed—working as, among other things, a bouncer, a custodian, a goat farmer, a rose-field laborer, and an assembler at an aluminum chair factory—but he always continued writing on the side. He fit in sporadic semesters of college at three schools; it was during a stint at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches that he met Karen Morton, whom he married in 1973. An occasional collaborator, she supported his decision in 1981 to write fiction full-time. “I was a house dad,” says Lansdale. “Once, my wife was working as a dispatcher at the fire department, and I was staying home and writing while baby-sitting my son, who hardly ever slept. So I wrote in twenty-minute patches. Some of that early stuff is just dreadful. I got a thousand rejects.”
But he persisted, cranking out formula plots and doggedly submitting them to magazines and book publishers. In 1981 he sold his first novel, a nerve-jangling police thriller called Act of Love, but quickly homed in on the burgeoning horror industry. “Stephen King’s first few books had exploded in popularity,” he says, “and suddenly there was an acknowledged horror genre. And it was a paying genre too.” The subject piqued his Poe-like imagination, although he speculates that some ideas sprang from a less fanciful source: “When the bank account got lower than a snake, we would rent a cheap video and my wife would make a huge batch of popcorn. Every time I ate that popcorn I had wild, whacked-out dreams. I don’t know—maybe it was the grease.” His writing achieved an element of self-preservation as well: “If I was working on an idea, I dreamed it all the time. But once I wrote it down, it lost its grip on me.” He went on to win legions of fans with short stories like “Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back,” which combines the themes of tattooing as sadism and roses as predators,