When Joe Lansdale speaks, you listen. A fearless writer and natural storyteller who moves effortlessly between genres, Lansdale has made a career out of doing what he wants. He counts Stephen King, Joe Hill, and Dean Koontz among some of his most vocal fans, and has been steadily earning a large and devoted following since his first novel, Act of Love, was published in 1981. Since then, hardly a year has gone by without a new Lansdale book on the market, sometimes more than one. He has now written nearly 50 novels, dozens of novellas, and hundreds of short stories.
I meet Joe for this interview in downtown Portland, Oregon—a city he hasn’t visited in 17 years. I ask if he thinks the city has changed at all since he was here last. Dressed in dark jeans and a black leather jacket, Joe squints up at the buildings, says, “I don’t really remember it all that well. What do you think?”
I tell him the city feels much different to me, hostile in a way it never used to. While waiting for Joe to arrive at the coffee shop where we met, I watched eight people walk by in various altered states. Three were ranting out loud about things that only made sense to them.
Some of the homeless have set up tents right on the sidewalk, blocking foot traffic. Trash cans overflow into the streets. Hardly anyone makes eye contact. Most people walk by with earbuds in, or phones held up. It wasn’t always this way.
Inside the coffee shop, Joe orders a hot cocoa and we take a seat by the window. Today is the release day for his newest Hap and Leonard novel The Elephant of Surprise, which sees the liberal white Hap and the black, gay and conservative Leonard tangle with a mob boss. But Joe and I weren’t meeting to discuss those characters. We were there to discuss horror.
Although Joe hasn’t written a straight “horror” novel in some time, many of his recent short stories flirt with, and often descend into, the dark and supernatural. These days, his novels are a hybrid of Twain-esque humor, labyrinthine murder mysteries, and Lansdale’s unique voice and compassionate eye for the people who live and die in East Texas. But some of Lansdale’s early work was bloody gonzo weirdness that earned him the status of “splatterpunk” pioneer, a label he rejects. Lansdale does not like to be put in a box.
(Interview conducted by Tyler Jones)
CEMETERY DANCE: Horror is a tricky term. It can mean so many different things, so what does it mean to you?
JOE LANSDALE: Pleasant discomfort. Because wherever you’re reading, or listening to it, you know you’re okay. The people who don’t feel the pleasantness of it just feel the discomfort, the people who don’t get horror. In the ’80s, crime novels became so dark that they veered into territory that previously belonged to horror, and gradually the two genres blended together into something called “dark suspense,” something which killed the horror novel, at least as far as publishers were concerned, for a time. I’ve always been more interested in the short-form. I’ve only written a couple horror novels. The Nightrunners, Dead in the West, a weird western, and then The Drive-In. I don’t know what that is. It’s kind of horror, kind of satire, kind of science fiction. Weird fiction.
With a little bit of trippy thrown in for good measure.
Yeah, with a little bit of that too. It’s kind of like a drug trip. I remember people asking me, “What were you on when you wrote that?” Um, iced tea. That’s just my imagination. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that horror is in the eye of the beholder. So much of it depends on what you think of as horrific. I love old ghost stories, just adore ‘em, but I don’t believe in the supernatural. I don’t believe in life after death.
Were you raised religious?
I was raised as a Baptist. My dad, I don’t know that he had an opinion one way or the other. My mother was a Baptist, but she was, strange enough, a liberal Baptist. And my father was not liberal at all, he was very conservative and we didn’t always see eye to eye, but they are both my heroes. I was one of those people that was fortunate in that I had a very good home life, but a lot of the things around me were dark. I grew up poor and a lot of people around us were struggling. It certainly affected how you saw life. I saw a lot of people growing up in Gladewater, Texas that were just mean motherfuckers. You had to be on your on toes, and as you got into your teenage years you really became aware of that. The river bottoms, you became aware of what was going on down there. You became aware of a sort of dark side, a Dixie mafia before it was organized. A lot of people who had nefarious ideas, which could include you if you weren’t particularly careful.
Tell me about your connection to the Horror Writer’s Association.
In the ’80s, Robert McCammon came up with this idea for H.O.W., the Horror Occult Writers league. He didn’t want to do it though, so my wife took it over. So she actually is the founder of what originally became the Horror Writers Association. It was me, Dean Koontz, and Robert McCammon, and none of us wanted there to be awards. It’s funny, me saying that, I’ve got ten of them plus the Lifetime Achievement Award.
You mentioned disagreeing with your dad, but still admiring him even though you didn’t see eye to eye with him.
Absolutely, my dad is my hero.
Which in this day and age is a foreign concept, to disagree with someone ideologically and still be friends.
You can’t do it hardly anymore. It’s become so fractured that no one anymore can understand that you can believe differently. Now I believe there are certain types of differences that are so extreme that I cannot say, “Oh okay.” You know, there is a line. But you should be able to religiously and politically discuss things with people. I mean, they’ve always said don’t talk religion and don’t talk politics. And there’s a reason for that. But I do think that there used to be a way to do that. Another reason too is that politics usually has fractured areas, but they didn’t have fissures completely through everything. And that’s what’s changed. And fear, fear has done it. I had good friends, I don’t know if they were liberal, but I would say that they were moderate, after 9/11 they just went completely over the side. These guys resisted Vietnam, so does that mean you were really a coward, or were you really resisting? I wasn’t no coward. I refused to go Canada, I dropped out of college to be drafted. I stood up for something I believed. And you don’t have to believe the same way I do, that’s okay. My brother stood up for what he believed and he went to Vietnam. He retired a Captain in the military. And I’m proud of him, but I don’t agree with him on that particular thing. I’m not anti-military, I’m anti that war. I do think that if I’m not a soldier, if I haven’t signed up to be one, I do get to choose which ones that I want to believe in.
It seems that we need Hap and Leonard now more than ever.
We do. Hap and Leonard are based on people that I was around who you could argue with, and you could even turn it into humor. You know, we used humor a lot when you had differences. And growing up, you better have humor because if some people did misunderstand what you were doing and just thought you were being an asshole, you could get into a fistfight. And you didn’t want that. In these books there are crime elements, some mystery, (The Elephant of Surprise) is more of a straight thriller, and the social issues are there. Sometimes they’re subtle, sometimes it’s really blunt. But they’re always secondary.
Secondary to the story?
Secondary to the greater story.
You’ve written a lot of other books in between the Hap and Leonard novels, so whenever a new Hap and Leonard comes out, I think, “This is because Joe wanted to do this book, not because he had to.”
Some of the other writers I know, they have tremendous financial success, but they’re caught in a loop. Early on, I didn’t do everything right, but I did do some, and I was careful about that. When I started writing novels, from Act of Love to just two novels later my abilities jumped tremendously. I was growing as a writer, just like you do, and I think I grew from writing a lot of things. I had a lot of interests, and I was seeing a lot of writers that I admired who were on a loop. They had the same characters all the time, or they wrote the same plotline, kind of. And I just thought, I didn’t want to do that. Now there are certain aspects that I think all writers return to. They cannot get away from it because it’s hardwired. But you can build a chassis around the car a little different every time out, even if you’ve got a similar engine driving it. For me, I was more frightened of becoming a bestseller that was caught in the bestseller loop. If you do it and you’re happy with it, if you want to write Bob and Jim go to Hell every year, then that’s fine. But I don’t. My goal was to be what I wanted to be when I was a child, and that was to be a writer, and to write all the kinds of stories that made me happy and I had fun with. And I’m still doing it.
And there seems to be a certain truth, or integrity to what you write.
Yeah, what’s true to me. You’re your own goddamn muse, you’re not waiting for something from the outside, especially if you’re an atheist like me. Somebody says to me, “God should be your muse,” and I say, “Well, that motherfucker needs to show up.” I found I show up more than he does. I just feel like you’ve got to teach yourself to do that. And then some people say, “Oh, you won’t do art.” Fuck you. I know people who have written four novels in their life, there’s no art about it. There’s a limitation in both directions. There’s the guy that just won’t get off their ass, and then there’s the people that are just hacking it out to put one word in front of the other. I want a voice, I want a balance, I want a style. I want to sound like somebody that’s me. A lot of people can handle words, but a lot of people don’t love words. And it doesn’t mean you have to have a giant vocabulary, which I do not, I believe in writing in a way that seems simple but is really much more complex. Because you have to be really clever to do that and leave some sort of echo. There are a lot of people who can put words down but it leaves no echo, just goes in one eye and out the other. A lot of bestsellers are like that.
When do you feel that your voice and your abilities clicked?
1983. Yeah, 1983. I’d been writing a few good stories around then. I’d written one called “Fish Night” which they just did for Love, Death, and Robots (on Netflix). They did two of mine, they did one of my horror stories too. But I had not found my voice yet. And I had a story some years before that by a writer named Ardath Mayhar, a lady. I read it in an Alfred Hitchcock anthology and it was an East Texas story. She was from East Texas. Something went click. But I still didn’t make that move yet. I was still trying to write for New York or Los Angeles, or something, because that’s what you saw. So I moved to Nagadoches and the first person I met there was Ardath Mayhar. She lived there, and I didn’t know that at the time. And she became like an aunt to me, we became really dear friends. She wrote hundreds of stories, and she’s unfortunately pretty much forgotten. She shouldn’t be, but she is. But that was what put the seed there. Then I started reading a lot of southern writers, because I never read just horror by itself, or crime by itself. I read a lot of new-wave and southern writers that were maybe not as well known that had this niche market. And it just began to soak in. When Flannery O’Connor talks about those people, I grew up with those people. And when Carson McCullers does “The Ballad of the Sad Café” it’s not weird to me at all. So I began to write stories like “The Pit”, “By Bizarre Hands”, “The Night They Missed the Horror Show”, and “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert”. And I was saying, how would I say this if I was just telling you this story? Now, that’s easy to say, but it’s hard to arrive at that point. And that’s what I tried to do, to write what sounds true to me.
And you’ve been doing that ever since, writing what’s true to you?
The few times I’ve gotten outside of it and experimented, sometimes it went really well, and sometimes I say, “Nah, shouldn’t have done that one.” It’s just another one. It’s going to be a good story, but it’s not going to be a great story. But that’s another thing too, there’s a difference between the guy who just wants to be the artist, and I certainly want to be that, and at my best I think I am. But I’m a professional writer. I make a living at this. I can show up and I can write anything I’m interested in. When someone asks me, “Would you like to write for this anthology?” I think, do I like to do this, how long is it, how much does it pay, will I be satisfied when I do it? Now when you talk pay, people say, “You don’t mention pay.” Yes, you do. Hemingway cashed his checks, so did Fitzgerald. You’ve got to have this passion, and look at it as a challenge to say, “How can I do this in a way that’s me?” So, as a professional writer I can build a chair, or I can build a cathedral. It just depends. But if I build a chair, it’s a damn good chair.
What’s one book or story you’ve written that gave you the creeps while you wrote it?
The Nightrunners. It’s a creepy book. It really is a disturbing book. It’s one of those where there’s nobody to really admire. There are people to be interested in. James Cain once said something about, “The boon of the American novel is the sympathetic character.” I certainly like a sympathetic character, but I don’t carry that with me and think you have to have one. You’ve got have someone that you believe in, that you’re interested in. But you don’t have to like ‘em. But on some level you kind of understand them. And James Cain was the master. I’ve always been interested in novels about people that don’t want to rob Fort Knox, they want to knock over the beauty parlor. Because those are the guys I knew while growing up.
What do you think is one of the most underrated or under-read horror novel?
There’s one by a writer who is quite famous for other novels. It’s not so much horror as it is ghost story. It’s on the edge, it doesn’t quite get horrific but it chills me. Portrait of Jennie by Robert Nathan, who was Jack Finney’s favorite writer, and Finney was Richard Matheson’s favorite writer. So you’ve got a chain.
Joe Lansdale finds himself caught in a horror film. How does he die?
Now how does Joe Lansdale survive?
When we leave the coffee shop and walk outside into the sunshine, Joe takes a look around at the street. “Maybe the city has gotten worse,” he says. Then he looks up at the sunlight glimmering off the buildings, smiles, and says, “Sure is beautiful though.”
And this is exactly what I think when I read a Joe Lansdale novel. There is a lot of ugliness, a lot of violence and hostility. But it sure is beautiful.
Tyler Jones is a horror writer whose fiction has appeared in the Chuck Palahniuk-edited anthology Burnt Tongues, the Literary Taxidermy anthology One Thing Was Certain, and online at Coffin Bell. His interviews/articles have appeared in Gallows Hill Magazine, and forthcoming in Dark Moon Digest. The film rights to his short story “F For Fake” sold to a Sundance Award-winning producer. He lives in Portland, Oregon.