Poe Boy

East Texas author Joe Lansdale rises to the top of a bloody literary heap

NACOGDOCHES--Joe R. Lansdale's days of busting his butt at the nearby aluminum-chair factory or toiling in the brain-baking heat of East Texas rose fields are far in the distance now, faded memories he resurrects only to assign to an occasional character in one of his novels or short stories. Gone is the high-minded fantasy of his idealist younger days, that of tilling the rich, black soil of his heartland behind an old mule too stubborn to even plow a straight row. Truck farming, he learned quickly, just wasn't his thing. The last time he drew a paycheck as a garbage man or worked full time as a janitor was back in the '70s.

Truth is, the only real passion he ever embraced was for the written word.

Son of an illiterate father whose careers ranged from shade-tree mechanic to carnival prizefighter ("He's always been my hero," Lansdale says) and a mother who sold encyclopedias door-to-door, Lansdale was one of those kids who could hear creative muses even as they were being muted by the sounds of a hardscrabble upbringing. Determined that he would one day be a writer, at age 9 he was already attempting poorly disguised knock-offs of the stories his mom read him from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.

Joe Lansdale's experiences as an East Texas working stiff provide fodder for his award-winning novels.
Joe Lansdale's experiences as an East Texas working stiff provide fodder for his award-winning novels.

Fast-forward, now, to a recent night in the crowded banquet room of New York City's Sheraton Hotel. Lansdale, dressed in suit and tie, nearing his 50th birthday, is seated next to wife Karen as the Mystery Writers of America are passing out Edgar Allan Poe Awards to the most celebrated of their ever-popular genre. And finally the announcement they've anxiously awaited is made: Best Mystery Novel of the Year...The Bottoms by Joe Lansdale.

Until the high praise for his latest work, a coming-of-age mystery-thriller many reviewers have called an East Texas version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lansdale had spent the last 20 years as a well-kept secret to all but a sizable cult following of his sometimes wacky and often politically incorrect brand of fiction. As a reviewer once noted, "in a Lansdale book there is something to offend you on every page." And if he couldn't offend, he simply scared the crap out of you with horror tales that spared no detail of body mutilations, cannibalism, necrophilia, foul language and strange sex. While Stephen King's creatures were going bump in the night, Lansdale's were exploding like pipe bombs.

Which is to say that throughout much of his career, Lansdale has been an acquired taste. He was either, as best-selling horror novelist Dean Koontz said, "certain to achieve fame," or a prolific but not-to-be-taken-seriously master of pulp fiction. His body of work runs the gamut--from westerns (Texas Night Riders, under the pen name Ray Slater) and war adventure (Mountain Massacre, as Jack Buchanan), to wicked humor (The Drive-In), scripts for action adventure comic books (Jonah Hex, Lone Ranger) and Saturday morning cartoons (Batman). When the beginning of a forgotten Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novel was discovered a few years back, guess who was signed on to complete The Lost Adventure? Yet until the mid-'90s, it was the spooky stuff upon which his steadily growing reputation was built. Most of the more than 200 short stories he's written had titles like "My Dead Dog, Bobby" and "Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back." And it was because of them that the fan clubs began springing up; collectors paid high prices for first editions of his early works; publishers in Japan, Italy, France and England were bidding for foreign rights; and fellow writers were singing high praise. Four times, he received the Horror Writers of America's Bram Stoker Award.

So, what does Lansdale do? He makes a sharp career turn and begins writing mysteries. "Every time I've ever gotten close to being successful," he says, "I've found some way to screw it up."

Not this time. Creating an unlikely Piney Woods buddy team of Hap Collins (white and heterosexual) and Leonard Pine (black and gay), he produced a string of well received mysteries with titles like Mucho Mojo, Bad Chili, The Two-Bear Mambo and Rumble Tumble. Suddenly, the Gladewater native was flirting with the literary Big Time. The New York Times named Mucho Mojo one of the Notable Books of 1994 and producer David Lynch snapped up the movie rights to The Two-Bear Mambo. His Italian publisher was inviting him to come on over for a promotional tour and the Japanese publisher of his novels flew in for the Edgar ceremonies.

And still the guy who started his full-time writing career as a stay-at-home dad while his wife worked the day shift as the fire department dispatcher wasn't satisfied.

The "horror writer" once described as "the Texas Stephen King" had apparently evolved into a best-selling "mystery writer." Not so, says Lansdale. "I've never liked the publishing world's determination to pigeonhole every writer into a genre. I don't want people reading my books just because they're horror or mysteries. I want them to read them because they're Joe Lansdale books."

With 15 novels and a dozen short story collections to his credit, it was time, he says, to take a shot at going mainstream. Result: The Bottoms, his award-winning novel that evolved from a short story he'd written years earlier on the gothic East Texas legend of a "Goat Man" who occasionally appeared from deep in the woods to murder and create mayhem.

"Joe's finally ready to break out, big," says Alvin-based author and college professor Bill Crider. "I've known him for over 20 years and saw the ability and the ambition way back when. It's just taken a while for the reading public to catch up to him. If the publishing industry had a Billboard Top 100, he'd now be on it--with a bullet."

"It was time," Lansdale says, "to see if I could stretch things a bit." So he's stepped back from the routine of machine-gun output and is focusing his attention on his next mainstream effort that is tentatively titled Sunset and Sawdust, which has the East Texas sawmill industry as its backdrop.

What, no more creepy-crawler stuff? No more off-the-wall comic book writing? No more Hap and Leonard crime-solving frolics?

"Well..." Lansdale says, "there are a few things still in the works." Like Captains Outrageous, another in his mystery series, due out next year. And Mad Dog Summer, a collection of short stories that's ready for publication. And Zeppelin West, a fantasy now finished. And, oh yeah, did he mention that the movie version of his novella, Bubba Hotel, starring Ossie Davis, will be coming to a theater near you soon? Or that the paperback edition of The Bottoms is on the way?

Not shy, he is quick to admit that he'd like nothing more than to climb past some of the brand-name writers onto the Times' bestseller list. "That's greed and ego talking," he admits. "The simple fact is, the more people who buy your books, the more are likely to read you. That's what I'd like to see happen."

But, whether it does or not, it still beats all to hell assembling aluminum furniture.

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