Irregular Joe

Nacogdoches’ Joe R. Lansdale has won loyal fans with his twisted horror stories. So why has he quit writing them? The answer is a mystery.

March 1997By Comments

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, and “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks,” which pays sick tribute to Amarillo’s Cadillac Ranch. Eventually word spread among editors that he was a seasoned and reliable contributor. (In fact, he hooked up with his current agent, Jimmy Vines of New York, after Vines wrote him a fan letter.) In time he began receiving offers for screenplays, teleplays, and much more. “There’s tons of stuff I don’t do,” he says. “Either I don’t want to or I don’t have the time.”

Since then, Lansdale says, “I’ve been lucky. Most of my reviews are good.” But that is in part because most of his reviews over the past fifteen years have come from critics-cum-fans at horror and fantasy publications who, like most of his readers, aren’t offended by grim little pieces that showcase sexual mutilation or disembowelment (and with stark illustrations, they are doubly graphic). “Sometimes people say, ‘I don’t read your books,’ and I always reply, ‘Fine, I don’t make you.’” But he acknowledges, “I don’t think my kids”—ten-year-old daughter Kasey and fourteen-year-old son Keith—“are ready to read my work.” (No kidding. Most adults aren’t.) The alleged offensiveness of one Lovecraft-meets-L’Amour series of comic books, Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such, has even sparked a lawsuit. Johnny and Edgar Winter, the blues-musician brothers from Beaumont, are suing publisher DC Comics, Lansdale, and his illustrators for defamation and emotional distress because three installments of the comic featured two “half-human, half-worm” albino villains named Johnny and Edgar Autumn. The contracts of Lansdale and his illustrators indemnify DC Comics, but libel insurance and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a New York group that champions free speech, came to the rescue. Lansdale pooh-poohs the suit: “It’s a satire of public figures who played on their own weirdness first.”

Satire or no, Lansdale repeatedly tests the bounds of taste. His constant language tartare—an example of which decency prevents mentioning—occasionally undermines his plot and dialogue, to put it mildly. He also liberally uses the n-word. “I write what I hear,” he says. “This is East Texas, after all. Occasionally I get a letter from some guy saying ‘Yeah, I hate them too.’ For someone to identify with those characters instead of condemning them is awful, but you can’t walk around and be everybody’s Cliffs Notes.” Lansdale clearly deplores racism, as many of his characters reveal, but he also enjoys political incorrectness. For a horror writer, the desire to shock readers is a necessity.

Even Lansdale’s suspense novels, written for more-general audiences, still feature crude talk and ghastly vignettes aplenty; in Mucho Mojo, a New York Times Notable Book of 1994, one reviewer found “something to offend me on every page.” The two main characters are rowdy best friends Hap Collins, white and heterosexual, and Leonard Pine, black and gay, whose past misdeeds lure them into nasty little messes. The eerie rural locale steeps the story in Southern-fried atmosphere, à la To Kill a Mockingbird (Lansdale’s favorite book), and the author’s martial-arts expertise—he’s a black belt with 31 years of experience—adds fluidity and plausibility to the inevitable fisticuffs.

Which may explain why the third Hap and Leonard adventure, The Two-Bear Mambo, earned Lansdale a pretty penny. Though he won’t name a figure, he estimates he earned “more money from it than I made in the previous five years.” The book was optioned first for David Lynch by Propaganda Films; that option has now expired, but negotiations continue with other production companies. But it wasn’t Lansdale’s first brush with Hollywood: The movie rights to Dead in the West, a grisly comic, have been picked up by Dark Horse Entertainment, whose films include The Mask, and those for Cold in July, a Cape Fear—style set piece, have been sold several times (each time to John Irvin, who directed Widow’s Peak and The Dogs of War). “I don’t know if it’ll ever get made,” he says of Cold in July. “First they Yankee’d it up, then they California’d the thing. And the Texas setting is what makes it work—to my mind.”

It’s hard to believe that a filmmaker would strip out any of the powerful regionalism of Lansdale’s novels. He animates his writing with dead-on details of deep east Texas: stale peanut patties, beloved bird dogs, kamikaze mosquitoes, naked-lady mud flaps on a pickup truck. His use of Texas metaphor and hyperbole adds a layer of black humor to even his god-awfullest scenarios (“The river was darker than the shit from Satan’s bowels”). There’s a healthy dose of spoofery in his comics, especially the westernized ones; Dead in the West and Jonah Hex, for example, are frequently set in the 1870’s in fictional Mud Creek, Texas, “a regular paradise—if you were a maggot.” Says the author: “I love and respect the West—you can’t live in Texas and not do that. But I’m taking stories with Western settings a step further.”

Today, as always, Lansdale pursues his career at home in Nacogdoches, where he applies his standard rule of writing: “Put ass to chair in front of typewriter.” He works five or six hours a day, one project at a time, then teaches at night at his martial-arts studio, which he bought with his Two-Bear Mambo windfall. Bad Chili, the fourth Hap and Leonard book, is due out in August, and he has still another in the works. Other projects-to-come include a thriller, Freezer Burn; a young adult novel set in the Depression; and a “big western that’s been taking shape in my head for some time.” But he hasn’t ruled out a return to the horror genre either. “I still have good ideas,” he says, “and bad dreams.”

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