The Splatterpunk Files

The Young Turks at Horror's Cutting Edge
PART SIX: Splatterpunk Today: The Faces of the New Flesh - Joe R. Lansdale

(Text originally published in Nova Express, Volume 4 Issue 1, Summer 1988)

by Lawrence Person

[NOTE: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author. In fact, they are the opinions of the author as of 1988. HE may not even agree with himself these days. It is presented here in the context of its time.]

Joe R. Lansdale

And now we leave the streets of darkest Manhattan to travel down south-way down south, the wilds of East Texas where our own Joe R. Lansdale plies his trade.

Joe Lansdale Despite his misgivings about the moniker, Joe Lansdale was splatterpunk before splatterpunk was cool. He wrote The Nightrunnersin the late seventies, only to find that no publisher (respectable or not) would touch with a ten foot pole. It was finally brought out by Dark Harvest just last year, putting Lansdale in the unenviable position of being the splatterpunk counterpart of K.W. Jeter. Though Jeter's Dr. Adder anticipated the cyberpunk movement by almost a decade, it was only after Gibson and Sterling had staked out the territory that it finally hit the booksellers shelves. Likewise, it was only after Barker had rocketed to prominence that The Nightrunners(which was finished before Barker even started to write horror) made it out of the gate.

The Nightrunnersis unquestionably Lansdale's most unrelentingly intense and violent novel. It tells the story of a young couple, Becky and Monty, who escape Galveston for a therapeutic vacation at a cabin in rural east Texas to help her recover from a vicious gang rape. However, this outing proves anything but relaxing when Becky discovers that she is in telepathic rapport with her rapists. Though Clyde, their leader, killed himself in jail shortly after being apprehended, he directs and speaks to them through now pack leader Brian, dwelling in his head like an unholy guardian angel. For both Clyde and Brian are guided by an entity called The God of the Razor, the god of knives and razors and all sharp things. And what this god wants, above all, is blood. So, even as Becky and Monty try to forget the incident, her tormentors are swiftly and relentlessly tracking them down, coming back to finish the job....

coverThough obviously an early work, Lansdale packs a great deal of intensity and imagination into this short, brutal novel. The God of the Razor is a truly strange, hideous deity, a creature with silver stick pin teeth, razor blade finger nails and two guillotined heads for shoes. At the God's urging his followers set out on a bloody and vengeful killing spree that is shocking even by modern standards. Its a taut novel, and one that keeps you on the edge of your seat for its short duration, as Lansdale writes (with the possible exception of Richard Christian Matheson, who hasn't put out a novel yet) the leanest prose of all the splatterpunks. However, the novel's greatest strength (its intensely violent and graphic nature) may also be its greatest liability. Though many splatterpunk novels feature blood and vengeance, this is the only one that is solely about blood and vengeance. If that doesn't interest you, you're not going to like this novel. Well done, and a good snapshot of Lansdale's growing talent, but not a work for everyone.

Lansdale's next "semi-novel," Dead in the West, is an entertaining little shot-em-up zombie western novella that follows in the tradition to such "classic" B-movies as Dracula Meets Billy the Kid. Set in Lansdale's imaginary East Texas town of Mud Creek (Lansdale's answer to King's Castle Rock, the scene of The Magic Wagon, his fantasy-tinged western, and numerous short stories), Dead in the Westtells the story of an itinerant, gun-slinging preacher who arrives in town the same day as an empty stagecoach. Unbeknownst to the townsfolk, the people on the coach have been killed and re-animated by a demon inhabiting the dead body of a wrongfully hung Indian medicine man. At the end of his rope, his faith, and his whisky, the preacher gets a new lease on life when he is given a heavenly sign and falls in love with the daughter of the town's doctor. However, the preacher soon has more than love to worry about as a number of town killings are discovered, killings that leave their victims walking zombies with the rising of the moon. And soon the preacher and the few living townsmen left are forced to make their stand against the Indian's undead hoard.

coverAs you might expect, Dead in the Westis not the deepest horror novel ever to be published. Though it does some gruesome flashback descriptions of the rape of the Indian's mulatto wife (Lansdale's stories frequently contain strong (yet subtle) messages against racism), this is, for the most part, pretty light and entertaining fare, even if the preacher is the only one left alive at its conclusion.

However, despite many a reader's reaction, the same cannot be said of his latest novel, The Drive-In. Subtitled A B-Movie with Blood and Popcorn, Made in Texas, a good deal of The Drive-In is exactly that. One typical Friday night a gang of Texas teenagers, including black introvert special effects aficionado Randy, tough but nice cool guy Willard, cynical Bob, and our Everyman-like narrator, Jack, go out to The Orbit drive in to take part in the usual Friday All-Night horror show, where six different splatter films all run simultaneously. However, it proves to be anything but a typical night when a red comet sweeps past and leaves the Orbit in some sort of black, isolated void. Thus trapped, the staff and patrons of the Orbit try at first to act as if nothing has happened. The movies go on showing, pop corn, candy, and hot dogs are dispensed on a regular basis (counted by the changing of movie reels, since all of their watches have stopped), and, for a while, everyone tries to Make Do.

However, after a while food runs low, tempers run high, and the Orbit descends into an nightmarish anarchic state of blood and violence. As bad as things are, they become even worse when their friends Randy and Willard (both of whom had jointly whacked out, the former riding on the shoulders of the later as both wandered around naked) are fused together by a bolt of lightning from the void and transformed into a creature calling itself the Popcorn King. This aptly named monster drives the denizens of the Orbit to new heights of depravity, offering food to those willing to bring it dead bodies for its own consumption. After that, things really start to get desperate...

cover On the surface The Drive-In is very much like a B-movie, complete with a bizarrely contrived situation, wacky characters, an offbeat sense of humor, and cinematic sensibilities that are lifted straight from the columns of Joe Bob Briggs (the last section of the book --The Orbit Must Die -- is subtitled "Death and Destruction and School Bus-Fu"). On another level, however, this is a much darker story, a Donner Party or Lord of the Flies- type tale about how quickly civilized men and women (at least by East Texas standards) descend into animal savagery. Before the story is over the cast of characters have committed murder, cannibalism, and have even killed and eaten a baby (raw, no less). After killing the Popcorn King, our heroes find themselves crucified by the drive-in's survivors -- literally crucified, nails and all. And the amazing thing is that it succeeds on both levels. All in all, another quick read from this up and coming Texas member of the splat pack.

(Word is that Bantam has twisted his arm to do a sequel, which we've heard Lansdale is going to call The Drive-In II (Not Just Another One of Them Sequels.)

I think it only fair to point out that Lansdale himself is not terribly fond of the splatterpunk label. In a letter Joe states, "I don't consider myself a Splatterpunk and didn't know about the [Twilight Zone] article until I saw it. I'm Joe Lansdale and I'm not part of any movement. I like publicity for my fiction, of course, but I ain't no splatterpunk and dislike the label. I like to be thought of as my own movement." Despite this warning, I do think it is fair to say that Lansdale shares at least some of the splatterpunks' concerns with explicit themes.

Joe Lansdale's talents are many. He is the soul of brevity, getting the job done with the least possible words, writing a prose so lean that you can almost see the bones. He is also a master of character, displaying his wacky cast of down-home Texas types with verve and humor. Add to that a keen ear for language, a resulting skill at dialogue, and what you've got yourself here is a might fine writer. Although I wonder how Mud Creek keeps going on through disaster after disaster, I have no doubts about Lansdale future. It's going to be bright.

to Part Seven: Splatterpunk Today: The Faces of the New Flesh - Richard Christian Matheson, David J. Schow, Robert R. McCammon, and Others
to The Splatterpunk Files Index

Photo Credits:
Joe R. Lansdale (1980s) by Karen Lansdale
Bantam edition of The Nightrunners
Space and Time edition of Dead in the West
Bantam edition of The Drive-In