Dead Trees: The Drive-In by Joe R. Lansdale

The year was 1988. I had been a serious horror reader for years and things were really starting to get interesting. We had it all then. Big names, legends, were still publishing: Robert Bloch, Ray Russell, Manly Wade Wellman, Hugh B. Cave, and others. Newer writers like Dennis Etchison, Richard Christian Matheson, Ramsey Campbell, and Michael McDowell were getting into high gear. Writers were migrating from the SF field. And there was a new, streetwise style of horror breaking barriers, from writers like John Skipp, Craig Spector, David J. Schow, Ray Garton. It was a heyday, and it seemed like every new author on the scene I heard about was well worth my time and money.

So when I read a triple review by the great Stanley Wiater in Fangoria magazine about a writer named Joe R. Lansdale, I took notice. The reviewed works in question were Act of Love, The Nightrunners, and Dead in the West.

It wasn’t so easy to find books in those days. No Amazon. No Abebooks. No Ebay, no digital databases. You looked in bookstores, searched the used shops, and maybe if you were lucky you could find a catalogue of stuff you wanted to order.

Plus, Lansdale was a tough nut to pigeonhole. His books could be found in any given spot in a store. Maybe one would end up in the Mystery/Suspense section. That’s where you were likely to find his first novel, Act of Love. Or maybe he would end up in the Western area. That’s where you probably would have found The Magic Wagon.  Joe wrote horror fiction, and might be there near all the Stephen King books.

Joe published in the small presses back then, as he does today, but it was difficult to find that stuff for guys like me. There were no real specialty shops in my area.

This kind of schizophrenic publishing might be career suicide for some writers and, my guess is, it was a hard climb at some points, but Joe’s refusal to stay in one genre worked in his favor. Dedicated Lansdale readers, a group of which I put myself squarely in, are delighted by the diversity in his work.

So, yeah, I took note of the name Joe. R. Lansdale, but nothing came of it for a while. That is until I bought an issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone magazine that had a big, full-page ad for a new book by Joe. My eyes practically came unglued when I saw the title and the cover. A book written specifically for someone exactly like me. The book was The Drive-In.

I went to the mall on Friday night and I headed straight for the science fiction section, which is where I expected to find The Drive-In. And luck was with me that evening, because there it was, lying in wait for my eager hands.

We had dinner, and did some other shopping, so it was rather late by the time I got home with my prize. I began reading The Drive-In near midnight, and I made it around halfway through before having to turn out the light. I slept, woke up earlier than I should have, and immediately finished it.

I now had a brand new favorite writer.

Some of my favorite Lansdale material deals with youth and growing up. Some of his most outrageous fiction is borderline Bizarro, with incredibly insane situations. The Drive-In combines these two elements, and throws in a wonderfully nostalgic fondness for outdoor cinema. Kind of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise mixed with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by way of Joe Bob Briggs. Maybe even a little William Burroughs on the side.

The story begins with small group of nerdy teens. The type that most readers would have felt comfortable with. They and an older and rougher guy go to the All-Night Horror Show at The Orbit Drive-In. Think of it: Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Toolbox Murders, The Evil Dead, and I Dismember Mama all on the same gigantic screen. Okay, I know the latter movie sucks. I Dismember Mama is a great title, but it’s boring as piss. I’d have went with I Drink Your Blood instead. But we took what we could get at the drive-In, and were happy to have it.

The boys are enjoying the show. The audience is a diverse mix of humanity. Then a grinning comet flies over them , and the horrors are no longer merely on the screen. Suddenly they are trapped in the drive-in, as a corrosive and impenetrable barrier surrounds the perimeter of the theater. You step outside, or reach into it, you dissolve more effectively than Muriatic Acid can do.

Things aren’t too bad. At first. They have food, even if it is among the unhealthiest imaginable. But that supply begins to drain, people start to lose their minds, and chaos ensues. Cannibalism and wholesale murder goes on. But it gets worse than that. A hell of a lot worse.

I won’t give any more of The Orbit’s surprises away, but Joe stretches his fertile imagination in The Drive-In. You’ve never read anything quite like it.

And if it is still shocking and surprising today, imagine how we felt reading it back in 1988.

Now here we are in the year 2018. Thirty years after the Bantam Books paperback publication of The Drive-In. I think it was a pivotal time in Joe’s career. The book got publicity and nice distribution. It put Joe on the map for a lot of people.

I came home last Friday afternoon. Pretty worn out from another twelve-hour day at work. I wanted to read, but not something too literary. It felt like a good time to re-read a beloved classic. I keep a shelf of treasured books by my bed. Titles that helped me fall in love with this crazy stuff in the first place. My eyes rested on the British Kinnell hardcover of The Drive-In, and I knew it was the right book. And just like thirty years ago, I read until I could keep my eyes open no longer, and I finished The Drive-In first thing on Saturday morning.

When I read The Drive-In back then, I called Joe R. Lansdale my favorite writer. Yes, after just one book. I was telling people he was one of the best writers alive. Now I look back at what he has accomplished over the years. The wonderful Hap and Leonard series. Heartrending suspense novels. Young Adult titles that will appeal to all ages. Modern pulp fiction. Westerns. Wild, indescribable stories. Comics, movies, essays. Joe has never limited himself, and he has never, ever underestimated his readers.

For all the amazing work Joe has given his readers, I think The Drive-In is one of his best. There are two sequels, and while I like them very much, they didn’t hit me as hard as The Drive-In. It is sorely in need of a new hardcover edition, but The Drive-In is available in electronic form. If you have not read it, you simply have to amend that. And if you have read The Drive-In, especially if it has been a long time ago, isn’t it time to do so again?

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of TerrorSir Graves Ghastly PresentsThe Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon LoverThe Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at horrordrivein@yandex.com, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

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