I spent all of July and the beginning of August on a Joe R. Lansdale rampage. I read a selection of his books-- some I had read previously, years ago, and others were new to me-- and I'm happy to tell you Lansdale is every bit as terrific as I remembered. It was about 25 years ago, I guess, I first discovered him. I was working in an independent book store at the time, and THE DRIVE-IN caught my eye; even then, I was enraptured with what you might call "trash culture"; that is, B-movies, surf and garage punk, cheesy Americana, etc, and THE DRIVE-IN looked right up my alley.
Oh yes, it definitely was. THE DRIVE-IN threw me for a loop and quickly became one my very favorite books, and Joe Lansdale became one of my very favorite writers. I sought out all of his available books at the time, read them in a near-frenzy of fan-worship, preached the Lansdale gospel to everyone I knew.
But over the years I sort of lost track of him a little. He released book after book, becoming steadily more popular, but I had moved on and shifted my obsession to the great paperback original writers of the '50's and early '60's.
That was pretty stupid of me. When I finally caught up to him, I was very happy to discover that Lansdale had only gotten better and better in the intervening years. He really is a remarkably original voice, and even though his work is closer to mainstream now than it ever was, he is still fearless, still wry and crude, still a writer's writer.
I read a total of 13 Lansdale's in a row on this binge, which took me about halfway through the ones I have on my shelf. Maybe next July I'll tackle the rest...
Here are my notes on the Great Summer Lansdale Binge, in no real order:
COLD IN JULY
When a burglar breaks into his home, husband and father Richard Dane is forced to shoot him down. Dane isn't a violent man, and the event is traumatic for him-- but when the burglar's father, Ben Russel, comes seeking revenge, Dane finds himself confronting the darkest parts of his own heart.
That set-up in really only the starting point of this highly unpredictable novel. Bizarre circumstances push Dane and Russel into the role of allies, and their journey leads them to discover a very dark and very disturbing conspiracy that changes both men forever.
I first read this one some twenty years ago. It was among the first two or three that turned me into a serious Lansdale fan and one I've been itching to re-read for some time. It stands up very well, even though Lansdale has definitely gotten better and his voice more distinctive since. Terrific book.
This first of what would become a series about Hap Collins and Leonard Pine is just a terrific book, and I loved it as much on this second reading as I had waaay back in 1990. When Hap's ex, Trudy, shows up, Hap and Leonard get drawn into a search for hidden money. Trudy has hooked up with some old '60's radicals who have big plans for the cash. Things go south, of course, and the last half of SAVAGE SEASON is riddled with tension and double-crosses that come at a lightning pace. There's a huge, amazingly suspenseful action sequence at the climax that just blew me away. Vintage Lansdale.
While SAVAGE SEASON, the first appearance of Hap and Leonard, was kind of a "caper" novel, this one is more a straight-up mystery. Well, as "straight-up" as you could expect from Lansdale, anyway... and if you know Lansdale, you know he doesn't really do "straight-up".
Leonard's uncle dies, leaving Leonard a house, lots of money, and a dead boy hidden under the floorboards, along with an assortment of moldering kiddie porn mags. This unsavory discovery sets Leonard and Hap on a quest to clear Leonard's uncle's name and nab the real killer. Along the way, they uncover more victims, and since all the victims are wayward black boys, the police aren't much help.
At its heart, this is a novel about the politics of race in E. Texas, and Lansdale doesn't flinch when it comes to that subject. It's a solid mystery novel, too, even if the bad guy(s) are somewhat telegraphed. But what really makes MUCHO MOJO shine, just like all the other books in this series, is the terrific relationship between Hap and Leonard; a straight white guy and a gay black guy with a friendship that is as deep and strong as any you'll ever read about. Their banter is witty and affectionate and feels very real. While the other relationships in the novel-- especially Hap's doomed romance with Florida-- maybe fall a little flat, all is forgiven when Hap and Leonard are on the page together.
ACT OF LOVE
Joe Lansdale's first published novel, from 1981, was released in the early days of the serial killer craze that gripped the reading and movie-watching public in the '80's, the zeitgeist that culminated in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, but kept hobbling along after that until most of us were sick unto death of serial killer stories.
The story is simple: a depraved killer, The Houston Hacker, goes around slicing up women, and a detective, Marvin Hanson, pursues him. There are a couple of twists and turns near the end as Lansdale keeps us guessing who the killer is. Hanson's family is put in danger when the Hacker decides he's getting too close. That's about it.
It's hard to make any sort of judgment about it all these years later, because all the tropes we're so familiar with now probably weren't so overdone then. And being a huge fan of Lansdale, it's kinda hard for me to be harsh about this one. But compared to the work Champion Joe would do later, ACT OF LOVE is, honestly, not great. There's very little of the writer he would become evident here; none of those eccentric character tics, none of that exceptional dialogue or black humor. In fact, ACT OF LOVE is pretty much a humorless book, and the violence is unrestrained and almost immaturely graphic, to no real purpose. I don't know. Maybe I'm judging too harshly, as right before this one I read THE BOTTOMS, which is Lansdale at his very finest. Maybe it's not fair to compare a writer to himself 25 years ago.
But regardless, the Lansdale we have now is, without question, one of the finest and most original writers working. Unless you're a hardcore fan or a completest, though, I'd suggest skipping ACT OF LOVE.
After a mysterious childhood illness, Harry Wilkes is left with a strange condition-- loud noises cause visions of past horrors to come to him in crippling clarity. Now in college, he has shut himself off from the world and turned to boozing to numb the vision's power. When he meets Tad, an older alcoholic, they work together to find their "centers", until Harry's childhood friend/crush Kayla shows up begging Harry's help in finding her father's murderer. And the results could end up killing them all.
This is an exceptionally strong novel, even for Lansdale. The characters are fully realized in all their flaws and weaknesses, and the subject of alcoholism is treated with remarkable insight and realism. A terrific thriller.
This volume contains two short novels, "Zeppelins West" and "Flaming London"; in the first, Buffalo Bill Cody's travelling Wild West Show winds up in Imperial Japan on a secret mission, where Cody (who, by the way, is just a head in a Mason jar), Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, and Sitting Bull rescue the Frankenstein Monster from an evil shogun. Then, with the Japanese in pursuit, they crash in the ocean, are rescued by Captain Bemo (standing in for Captain Nemo), and taken to the Island of Dr. Momo (standing in for Dr. Moreau). And that's just the beginning. You might get the impression that this is a seriously goofy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, romp, and you'd be right. It's wildly anarchic and over-the-top.
The second volume,"Flaming London", continues the bizarre fun, as Ned the Seal (introduced as a minor character in the first one but taking more center stage here) teams up with Mark Twain and Jules Verne to battle invading Martians a la War of the Worlds. Along the way, they encounter a giant steam man, a talking Martian ape, pirates lost in time, and the Flying Dutchman.
So, yeah. Crazy stuff. Lansdale without a filter, basically. The first novel has a nice, flying by the seat of your pants feeling, as if Lansdale is making it up as he goes and is having a helluva good time. The second one is more cohesive, and maybe a bit more satisfying in the long run. But both of them are well worth reading.
DEADMAN'S ROAD contains all of Lansdale's tales of the Rev Jebidiah Mercer, the gunslinger preacher who wanders the West destroying supernatural evil wherever he finds it. The bulk of the volume is taken up by the short novel DEAD IN THE WEST, in which the tormented Reverend arrives in Mud Creek, Texas, the target of a vengeful Indian curse and hordes of flesh-eating zombies. In the other stories, Reverend Mercer has his head on a little straighter (which isn't saying much, the guy's a mess) and vanquishes werewolves, goblins, and demonic bees.
All the stories are fun and profane in the best Lansdale tradition. Not too many writers can balance grim against funny, horrifying against goofy, the way Joe Lansdale can, and the result of that is a handful of stories that only HE could have written.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is probably Lansdale's most fully realized novel that I've read so far. It is entirely gripping, with terrific and believable characters, pitch-perfect pacing, and, in the last fourth, almost unbearable suspense.
Like several of his other more "serious" novels (please note I use serious in quotation marks) THE BOTTOMS takes place in Depression-era East Texas. Young Harry and his little sister Tom find the mutilated corpse of a black woman, and as horrifying as it is, it's only the beginning in a string of murders that ultimately lead to the lynching of an innocent black man for the crime. Harry's father, who acts as a part time constable, has his hands full trying to find the murderer while keeping the KKK from taking further steps in the black community.
More than a few times, THE BOTTOMS made me think of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; the comparison is inevitable. The narrator is a young person who's father is often the sole voice of reason in a town stained by ugly institutionalized racism. There's even aBoo Radley of sorts, near the end. And speaking of that ending... the last chapter is just flat-out terrifying.
THE TWO-BEAR MAMBO
The third Hap and Leonard book, and the strongest so far. At the request of their cop friend Hanson, the boys head off to Grovetown, Texas, in search of Hanson's girlfriend (and Hap's ex) Florida. What they find is a kind of throwback town, full of Jim Crow types. No sir, they don't like "coloreds" in Grovetown. Trying to get a bead on where Florida has vanished to, Hap and Leonard find themselves in pretty serious straits, asking questions that are making some of Grovetown's more illustrious citizens nervous-- and a little past the halfway mark in THE TWO-BEAR MAMBO, our heroes get a pretty shocking reminder of their own mortality with a pretty brutal beat-down. Of course, it takes a whole mob of folks to do it, but it's enough to make the boys start second-guessing themselves.
Reading this one, it dawned on me finally that I've really developed an emotional attachment to Hap and Leonard. It's hard not to like them, right from the first book, but in this one it really hit home; there were a few moments when I found myself worried about them, which was ridiculous, as I know full well there are more books in the series after this one, and yet... I got so caught up in events I wasn't even thinking about that.
Anyway, the last fourth of THE TWO-BEAR MAMBO goes dark, as Hap and Leonard find it in themselves to get back on the horse and finish what they started, despite their fear and new-found insecurity. And the climax, set during a raging rain storm and the threat of the entire town flooding with them in it, is a nail biter. Great stuff.
A collection of Lansdale's most popular stories. Very good stuff, and a reminder of what an original voice he was, right from the very beginning of his career. Most of these stories are pretty brutal and pretty graphic. Others, like "Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland" are surprisingly whimsical, even if they DO have that twisted Lansdale touch.
Favorites include the aforementioned "Bob the Dinosaur", the truly disturbing "By Bizarre Hands", the black comedy "Night They Missed the Horror Show", the action-packed and scary "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road", the Alfred Hitchcock-esque "The Steel Valentine", and the tragic-funny "Godzilla's Twelve-Step Program".
Bill is a loser in the classic mold, a shiftless fella without much brains or ambition. He's been living off his mother's social security checks, but when she dies (and her corpse starts stinking the place up) the pipeline dries up and Bill comes up with a scheme to rob a fireworks stand across the street from his house. The "heist" goes south in a hurry, and Bill has to take it on the lam through a dangerous swamp. He winds up joining a travelling freak show, making friends with a dog boy, and falling hard for the freak show owner's sexy young wife... and of course, the wife has a plan to do away with her husband...
If you've read any old Gold Medal paperback originals from guys like Charles Williams or Day Keene or Robert Edmund Alter, or even if you've read James M. Cain, you already know this story backwards and forwards. But Lansdale does the Lansdale thing with it, making it hysterically funny at times, dark, profane, a little vile on occasion, but compellingly readable. There are lots of surprises along the way, some truly memorable characters and scenes, and seeing the way Bill changes (in some ways he becomes a better person, and in other ways, well... not so much) is fascinating.
Also, I should note, the whole opening segment involving the botched robbery and Bill's escape through the swamp is one of the funniest things I've ever read in my life. It was disturbing too, but I couldn't help but laugh out loud a few times.
This one starts with one of the funnier sequences in the Hap and Leonard series, as the boys are attacked out of nowhere by a rabid squirrel; it's a seemingly random beginning that actually becomes relevant at the end. But even if it wasn't, it works as a purely comic scene.
The whole book is pretty funny, really. There's more emphasis on comedy than in the previous books, and that's probably why I like it maybe just a little less. But a LOT happens in this one-- Leonard's boyfriend Raul disappears, Leonard is accused of murder (surprisingly, he's cleared pretty quickly)and the boys investigate a ring of black market gay-bashing video makers. There are lots of quirky characters and quirky scenes, but BAD CHILI maybe doesn't hold together as a whole as well as previous Hap and Leonard novels.
I'm being nit-picky, of course. Even a lesser Hap & Leonard novel is well-worth reading. Some bonus's are the surprise appearance of Jim Bob Luke, from COLD IN JULY, and a really thrilling climax that takes place during a tornado. Poor Hap keeps getting caught in the middle of natural disasters. And of course, the easy camaraderie between Hap & Leonard is a pure joy.
SUNSET AND SAWDUST
Depression-era E Texas: during a violent storm, Sunset Jones kills her husband, the constable, as he attempts to rape her. Much to Camp Rapture's dismay, she inherits his job and finds herself in the middle of a double murder investigation that implicates some of the town's highest officials. And Sunset's life, as well as the lives of her daughter and her friends, is in serious danger.
That summary doesn't do it justice. This is Lansdale at his best. SUNSET & SAWDUST is a suspenseful, darkly comic thriller with all of the great, wry touches Champion Joe is known for. And Sunset is just a terrific character. In this age when too many creators think a "strong female character" is basically just a man in drag, Lansdale gives us a believable and engaging heroine who is strong BECAUSE she's a woman, not in spite of it. You'll definitely root for her.