Series Note: This is one of a series of 10 posts looking at my favourite authors writing today. Not just the writers I like; I’m talking the ones I pre-order anything new that they release and spend unhealthy amounts of time and money searching out back catalogue books that have been written under pseudonyms or via more non-conventional routes. To this end I make two points upfront, neither with apology.
- These suckers are going to run long – and I mean long. These are the authors that make me love reading, and inspire my own writing, so you bet these posts will go on some…
- These are not going to be literary criticisms of their works: I’m not equipped enough to do so, and as I said, these are my favourite living authors: so this might get very fan boy….
Joe R. Lansdale
I first came across Joe R. Lansdale’s work in a small Bargain Books in Oxford while looking for something new to read one work lunchtime back in around 1993. It wasn’t so much the cover of 1989’s By Bizarre Hands that caught my attention: – it was the back cover blurb: ‘The genre’s most interesting stylist…with a healthy sense of black humour and moral outrage’ (New York Times), it was the ‘About the Author’ paragraph explaining Lansdale had written 5 novels and a ‘vast number of short stories’, and it was Lewis Shiner’s persuasive introduction which described how publishers were too scared and/ or confused to publish Lansdale’s work. All of this seemed very interesting to me as a short story lover who had been looking for something different for a while (see my post on Great Short Stories for my thoughts on the market at that time…) I shelled out the £4.99 cover price and started my relationship with Joe R. Lansdale.
25 years on, Joe R. Lansdale has written a lot more than 5 novels – The bibliography in Miracles Ain’t What They Used To Be (2016) lists over 44 novels, as well as over 300 shorts, comics, adaptations, screenplays and anthologies. I haven’t read every one of those works: writing such a range of works for so many publishers and occasionally under pseudonyms such as Ray Slater, Brad Simmons and Jack Buchanan, and with some print runs in very limited quantities which are occasionally very expensive to buy new and ridiculously expensive to buy second-hand…) makes it a difficult task. But I’ve read a lot –
Now that’s not my entire collection, but it gives a flavor of the amount, if not necessarily the range, of books Lansdale has written. While his Wikipedia entry describes him as a writer of the ‘splatterpunk’ movement, I think that’s an overly reductive term. Yes, some of his writing is graphic, gory and violent – whether it be in modern-day Texas, the Great Depression, the American frontier, or a prehistoric jungle by way of a comet-stricken Drive In…are you starting to get the picture? Joe R. Lansdale is not a writer you can pigeonhole…
He does have re-occurring themes: abuse (to children, to women, to animals), and a strong stance against intolerance of a wide variety (racism in particular is a common factor: and one memorable amateur review I read described him as a racist writer – which is missing the point of his writing at an impressively stupid level) but pigeonhole? Not easy.
Given the length and breadth of Lansdale’s writing this piece can only begin to scratch the surface – and it will concentrate on the man’s writing, not his personal life or history: although I get the impression if you read his books you know the man to some small degree – and not just through his commonly used locale of East Texas (Stephen King has his Castle Rock universe, Joe R. Lansdale has Laborde), but through characters and situations which (and this is part guess-work/part glimpses gained from Lansdale interviews) have featured in his and his family tree history. If Hap Collins, the protagonist in Lansdale’s most popular series, isn’t Batman (which incidentally Lansdale has also written) to his Bruce Wayne, then he definitely shares many of the author’s beliefs and values.
And so, to the books…
Hap and Leonard (ten novels, four novellas, and three short story collections at the time of writing) have become Lansdale’s most familiar work: Hap Collins, a forty something white working-class ex-Vietnam war protester and Leonard Pine, a gay, black Vietnam vet who just can’t avoid getting into scrapes – often at Leonard’s making. The first Hap and Leonard novel ‘Savage Season’ sees the two getting roped into a nefarious treasure hunt by Hap’s ex-wife and her gang of misfit miscreants. Since that auspicious debut the pair have featured in a wide range of adventures with an ever-increasing cast of supporting characters, many of whom have appeared in other Lansdale novels – adding to the ‘universe’ feel of his work, and providing the long-term fans with great fun in the cross referencing. For the longest time, back in the days when IMDB had message boards, fans would argue who should play the duo in a movie version (for the record, my suggestion back in the day was Kevin Costner and Wesley Snipes if I recall…) before finally in 2016 Sundance TV produced the first season, based on Saveage Season. Hap was played by James Purefoy, Leonard by Michael Kenneth Williams:
both, to be fair, better than my original choices. The series came about as close to capturing the novels feel as possible on ‘mainstream’ TV (– are the execs quite ready for the conversation Hap and Leonard have in Mucho Mojo, the second novel in the series, about the black man with AIDS who jacks off into the honkie folks’ mayonnaise (oh, and he’s ugly too)?) as written in the book? Maybe not. But I actually barked with laughter on a first reading of it.
Although the show received incredibly positive reviews from fans and critics alike (“This season, Mucho Mojo is doing something pretty fantastic–you should care enough to watch”- Collider), was the highest rating for Sundance TV, and had the complete devotion of all cast and crew involved, it was cancelled after 3 seasons. Whether this was because of the difficulty in getting to see it in the US (coming from the UK, we had easy access via Amazon Prime), or, as suggested by some, that it didn’t fit with the politics of the time is open for discussion. In an ideal world, when shows such as Lucifer, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Designated Survivor, and other lesser pieces are getting a reprieve from cancellation by take up from Netflix, Amazon and others , Hap and Leonard will find a reprieve somewhere, somehow.
But back to the books.
As funny and coarse as Hap and Leonard might be (and believe me at times it is both), don’t think for a moment that the books are mere smut comedies, or are salacious written throwaways: they’re not – and the growth of cast members means that as the book series progresses and certain characters we have come to know and care about, either via one novel or throughout the series come to harm, we genuinely care for them (and this is a no spoiler article, don’t worry).
As much as Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch resulted in me ‘paying homage’ to their work in my early schoolboy short story writing, Hap and Leonard was the major influence in the first novel I wrote – in spirit and intention, if not in quality…
And what about the writing?
Well, you don’t get to be an Edgar Best Crime Novel, Inkpot Lifetime Achievement, ten times Bram Stoker including a Lifetime Achievement, and Grandmaster of Horror award winner if you can’t put a few lines of words together in a pretty decent way…
As I said in the beginning of this article, with a library as big as Lansdale’s it’s simply impossible to cover everything. If this was a longer piece I’d wax lyrical about novels like ‘Cold in July’ – an apparent Cape Fear style revenge story for all of the first couple of chapters, before it goes in a very different, and a very ‘Lansdale’ direction (made into a pretty fine movie by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, with great turns from Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and in particular Don Johnson as Jim Bob Luke – one of those previously mentioned types who appear across the Lansdale universe.
Or I’d talk more about The Thicket – a turn-of-the-century crime novel which sees Jack Parker, a young boy forced to enlist a bounty hunting dwarf, a grave-digger son of a slave, and a sharp shooting female gun-for-hire to help him rescue his kidnapped sister…
Or maybe concentrate on the short stories – and any one of my many favourites – My Dead Dog Bobby; Dog, Cat, and Baby; Down By the Sea Near the Great Big Rock; Night They Missed the Horror Show; Bubba Ho-Tep (although I mentioned that elsewhere on this blog…), I’d like to talk about some of the stories in the collection The Good, The Bad and the Indifferent – but that’s currently going for £485 second hand on Amazon…, so instead I might have talked about the story or the play version of the short By Bizarre Hands – the one that got me started on all this.
But if I’m going to write about one more piece of work I’m going to write a little bit about The Bottoms – the book that won the Edgar Best Crime Novel back in 2001. And when I write about it, it is with one tinge of sadness.
I’m a sharing person – as I’ve said elsewhere in posts the fact a book or a movie or a piece of music is not in my collection it doesn’t mean I don’t like it – in some cases it’s because I like it too much. I like to share: and in some ways perhaps that’s why I write. To share. Of all the things I’ve bought, lent and rebought, I’d say the three pieces of art I’ve shared, never to be seen again, and therefore bought again (and again), would be Glenn Gould’s The Goldberg Variations, Lawrence Block’s writer’s manual Telling Lies For Fun and Profit, and Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms.
The Bottoms is set in East Texas during the Great Depression. A young boy finds the mutilated body of a black woman, and along with his younger sister set out to find out who the murderer is. What follows is a coming-of-age story encompassing family, race and prejudice in various forms, all wrapped up in a mystery thriller of the very highest order. Aaaaand…I’m not going to write much more about the plot than that.
I’ve leant or recommended The Bottoms to over a dozen people – and that’s personally recommended it, rather than a review like this – and I have glowed in the adopted praise in their enjoyment of it…so I guess there’s another one to add to the three things I already thought I owed Joe R. Lansdale…
The tinge of sadness? As mentioned in my post on underrated thrillers, The Bottoms was being prepared for filming – co-produced by Lansdale, and to be directed by Bill Paxton. With Paxton’s tragic death in 2017, we lost a much under-rated actor, and a director who had potential to do great things after his sorely underseen debut Frailty.
I think The Bottoms would have been to Joe Lansdale what Shawshank Redemption was for Stephen King, and made a lot more people aware of his work.
And, as this night is getting late, I’ll bring this epic to a close…
Oh, the three things?
First, and most obviously, there’s the stories – always the stories.
Second, are the ‘finds by association’ when you follow an author: you know the sort – a comparison on back cover blurb to others (typically in Lansdale’s case the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crewes, Walter Tevis, and Harper Lee), but there’s also the new introductions you can get through the author’s own influences or passions: so it was through reading Joe R. Lansdale I found Andrew Vachss, Neal Barrett Jr. and the music of Kasey Lansdale (and indeed the writing – Terror Is Our Business: Dana Roberts’ Casebook of Horrors the collaboration between Joe and his daughter has recently arrived, and is my last unread book in my collection…)
And thirdly – the support. Joe R. Lansdale, along with Lawrence Block, has been both inspirational to a new writer (and there’s certainly influences in some of my stories in Basement Tales) and supportive: answering questions with patience and enthusiasm.
You can find more of Joe R. Lansdale’s work on his official website here
I hope you’ve enjoyed this extended post: I know it’s longer than the usual, but hopefully you found something of interest within. If you did, please feel free to share, and, as always, follow the blog for more free fiction, reviews, resource suggestions for writers and more. I’m aiming to get the next in this series out for next Monday, but there’ll be plenty of new stuff in between. And if you’re looking for something new to read that isn’t Joe R. Lansdale…well, you know…