Paul Tomlinson: Let’s start with drive-ins. There’s a piece in your By Bizarre Hands collection…
Joe R. Lansdale: ‘Hell Through a Windshield.’ That was the inspiration for the novel Drive-In. It was a pop-corn dream. When I eat too much popcorn, I have weird dreams – and that’s where most of my stories and novels come from.
JRL: It’s true! My wife Karen fixes us a big bag of popcorn – we get a grocery bag about this tall off the floor and we fill that dude up and eat it. I sleep badly at night, and I wake up next morning and I have my next story lined up.
That article, ‘Hell Through a Windshield,’ was true experiences, combined with a pop-corn dream. The last part of it, you will remember, is about a dream – I had the popcorn that night, it all came together and became what you read in that article.
Most of the stuff that I mentioned in that happened to me, over a period of time, when I was growing up and going to drive-ins.
I’ve had both good times and bad times at the drive-in. ‘Hell Through a Windshield’ was like the ultimate bad time. That’s when I’ve gone to drive-ins and see the fist-fights and people punch each other in the mouth, and things of that nature. And people taking a punch at me!
I also thought about people enjoying themselves and having a really good time, and what would happen to basically your average people if they were trapped in there together.
I think it was influenced by a lot of English disaster novels, actually: Wyndham in particular.
PT: It’s almost a ‘pop culture’ version of The Lord of the Flies…
JRL: I feel that that must have been there too. I wasn’t consciously aware of it. Someone also said it reminded them of Luis Buñuel’s film The Exterminating Angel – which I didn’t know about until after I wrote the book – about people trapped in a house. So the idea’s not necessarily new, but I was putting it into a culture I was aware of, I guess.
PT: Does the fact that the people trapped in the drive-in turn to violence mean that you have a pessimistic view of humanity?
JRL: I think everybody’s a savage inside. I don’t know that I have a pessimistic view, but I think that novel represents a pessimistic side. But I think that I have an optimistic viewpoint overall.
For the most part, people when they really know me, are amazed that I write such dog dreadful stuff, because I’m like the ultimate optimist. So I don’t know why I do that – unless it’s just a trait of my personality. I’m highly optimistic – I tend to see the good in everybody, to the point of getting myself screwed on a regular basis.
But I think that everyone has this savage inside them.
PT: You also have a macabre sense of humour…
JRL: Yeah, I can see humour in just about anything – that is, dark humour. It’s funny though, because I can read or write about the most dreadful things, but the news disturbs me. The news really disturbs me. If I read in the paper about something like child abuse, it makes me sick, really sick to my stomach. I’m very much that way. I think it’s because, to me, books and movies, no matter how realistic they try to be, actually balk at something like that. Whereas, the news is the raw facts.
I try to write like the raw facts, make it feel that way, but I still – to me, Drive-In was a very symbolic book. I don’t want to get into a big discussion on its symbolism, or everyone’ll say: I’m not reading that son-of-a-bitch! But that’s what it was for me.
PT: Is Drive-In a defence of horror movies, or an attack on them? Do you think they’re bad for people?
JRL: I don’t think they’re bad for people, at all. But I think that movies represent people. I don’t think people see movies and become what they are, I think movies sort of become what people are.
I think horror movies are things that appeal to our baser instincts. And I don’t think that’s bad. But I think in a situation like in Drive-In, where that’s your only input, and where you don’t have any other outside – let’s say ‘catalyst’ – then that could result in something like that.
I don’t believe that watching horror movies makes people nuts. But I think there are some people that are looking for a method of operation to begin with, and you can certainly find that by watching Toolbox Murders. But it’s not The Toolbox Murders that does it.
PT: In Drive-In and the sequel, there’s a feeling that people become the victims of their entertainments. Like the thing where soap-opera characters are more real and important to people than their own families…
JRL: Yeah, I think that’s true. Here are people who, in a sense, don’t have a life outside of those imaginary situations. It’s because they are people that they don’t have to interact with. And things are solved simply. Things are good or bad, you don’t have those moments that are simply tedious or boring, like we do in real life.
PT: The crime is always solved within an hour…
JRL: That’s right. With most TV you can look at your watch and know when it’s about over. Or you know who the guest star is. Or you know who did it. Whatever.
PT: Let’s move sideways a little bit and talk about Westerns. Does your interest in the genre come from growing up in Texas?
JRL: Partly. I grew up on the films. My father was a big Western film fan, and I watched them with him. The first Western novels I read were just dreadful. And I was stupid enough to think they were all that way. As time went on, I realised that a good Western novel was just like a good horror novel or a good science fiction novel, or a good mainstream novel. Some are bad and some are good – and the good appeal to me.
I think there’s an appeal to me there because – my father, for example, was born in 1909; and my grandmother travelled in covered wagons and all that. It’s amazing, here I am in 1990, and my grandmother died in the Eighties, and she was born in the 1880s – she died in her late 90s. So I have a real definite connection to the West. And my people are very much Western people – they’re good old Western stock. My father’s great uncles fought in the Civil War.
I grew up with all that – I grew up with all the stories, all the legends, and everywhere you look in Texas there are references to the West.
Now, the part where I live, in East Texas, it’s not like people normally think of as the west: nothing but trees, lakes and rivers. It looks more like Arkansas. It’s sort of a cross between the Southern Gothic and the cowboy culture, with a little Cajun and Black culture thrown in.
PT: You grew up on John Wayne and all of that?
JRL: My father was a very John Wayne type of guy, to tell the truth. Where I grew up, the people believed in solving their own problems. I don’t mean necessarily with a six-gun, I mean they were self-reliant and very strong-willed, very confident sort of people. And they weren’t depending on the government to do it for them, and they weren’t depending on other people to do it for them. And that strength is still there.
PT: My favourite of your books so far is Nightrunners – That’s the one that really disturbed me…
JRL: It disturbs me a little bit too. In 1980 I wrote a book called Act of Love which was pretty nasty for its time. This was before Clive Barker, you know? I think I write a lot better now, I’ve learned a lot, but the but has a raw sort of energy. And the publisher was really upset with it. They said: Man, nobody will read this kind of fiction. Nobody does this kind of thing. You just can’t mix genres like this.
Finally it sold in ’81. To follow it, I wrote Nightrunners. I wrote a proposal for Nightrunners – fifty pages – and nobody would touch it. The publisher said it was like a bad Clockwork Orange or something – I forget what they said, but it wasn’t flattering! And I had a hard time selling it, so I never finished writing it until ’82. And then I couldn’t sell it again.
Five years later, it sold. I began writing that as far back as ’80, finished it in ’82. Some of the rejection letters I got were so upset with the book they stuttered! They said: No, no, you shouldn’t write this. You should write a Mary Higgins Clark. I said: This is what I do.
Finally, when it sold, I felt redeemed, because it did rather well. It’s got a reasonably good reputation.
PT: For me, Nightrunners is a much better book – though the last six or eight chapters of Act of Love grab you…
JRL: You know, those were written in one day, the last seventy pages. I worked on that book for six months – and you’ve got to keep in mind that this was my first attempt to really write – I had written a western under a pen-name and some other novels, some ghosted novels – but that was the first book I wrote that was mine and had my name on it. I worked on it really, really hard, and towards the end there, I realised that I was working too hard – and I just sort of relaxed and in one day – one really long day – I wrote those seventy pages and I couldn’t stop. And everybody says: That last part of the novel, it gets me.
PT: It’s like a movie – you’re looking at your watch during some of the build-up, but in the last twenty minutes…
JRL: Movies have been an influence on my fiction. Not as much as books, really. I figure everything you see or hear is valid experience for you as a writer.
PT: Nightrunners has this thing about society breeding psychopaths – sociopathic supermen – that is something Dean R. Koontz wrote about – was it in Face of Fear?
JRL: He probably did. I’ve read Dean Koontz, and Face of Fear is my favourite Koontz novel. That era is when I really enjoyed Koontz’ books, especially because they were crime and I lean a little bit more towards that direction. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t have some influence.
But I think it’s also something that Karen, my wife, and I both have come to terms with: she has a degree in criminaology, and reading her books on criminology had a lot to do with Act of Love and Nightrunners.
PT: Nightrunners disturbs me in some way that I can’t really explain…
JRL: It is incredibly disturbing. It’s not something I like to think. And I’m not trying to lay it down that this is what I generally believe, but it’s one of those things that crosses my mind enough to think that there genuinely might be something to it. It’s almost like I believe when the guy in the book’s talking about sharks – and that these people represent ‘social sharks.’
PT: You’re not a traditional vampires and werewolves horror writer – but in Dead in the West and elsewhere you’ve written about zombies. Are zombies a contemporary monster, do you think?
JRL: I think they’ve become that. They’re not a contemporary idea, of course, they’ve been around for a long time. I think Romero made them a contemporary sort of monster. It’s the aimless masses, I think, that has a lot to do with it. And I think it has a lot to do with people that are bored! In many ways, that’s zombies to me. People that have no idea how to live life. Or how to enjoy life, and get very little out of it. And don’t want anyone else to get anything out of it either.
PT: People who don’t think about things or question things, and just sit in front of the TV…
PT: You attach those kinds of people…
JRL: I certainly do. I tend to give the mindless mass media folks a little run for their money, as well as religion, which is another one of the things I tend to kick in the ass a little bit.
I don’t lean towards supernatural horror that much. Obviously zombies can be that, but they seem to me more readily symbolic. I think it’s true that vampires and werewolves can be, but they’ve been used so much. It’s not that I wouldn’t be interested in doing a vampire or werewolf novel – but I don’t tend to lean that way. And I find that when I use zombies, I tend to rationalise them in some way or another.
Dead in the West is more – I think it’s the most classic horror novel I’ve ever written. It was an early novel for one thing. And it’s a hoot. It was intended to be a film, and in fact may well be, because I’ve done a screenplay and it has been optioned.
But usually I like to – like the God of the Razor in Nightrunners, I wrote that so that, at least in my mind, you never know whether the God in the Razor exists or not. You see, people draw the wrong conclusions – they say: Oh yeah, he definitely exists. And other people say: Well, I thought he was just in this guy’s mind, even the voices. And that’s how I intended it to be – to let you doubt a little bit. I enjoy it when people have different opinions.
But since then, I’ve used the God in the Razor as a literal character in a story called ‘God of the Razor,’ and he actually exists in that. And he’s going to be in a four-part comic book. But for me, I use him as some representation of man’s weaknesses and problems.
PT: Some people argue that the best contemporary horror fiction comes from confronting horror rather than trying to escape it…
JRL: Yeah, that’s true. I think that’s a real wise thing to say. But once in a while I like to have a little run for your money, you know? Just a little fun. Dead in the West is like that – it has some things to say about racism, I think, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a heavy, thematic book. It’s mainly a low-budget, B-movie on paper. And that’s what I wanted to do with it.
But I do agree with you. And that’s one of the things that I think is very different about the horror fiction of the seventies and the eighties, and looks to be the nineties, is that it has been – especially in the eighties – much more confrontational of what we think about, the structure of society, and it’s not as escapist.
I’m not, strictly speaking, a horror writer. I’m certainly not ashamed of being one; I always hate it when people say: Gee, I’m not that, and they just don’t want to be in that class. I’m very proud of horror. But I think it’s an unfair classification for me in that The Magic Wagon, for instance, is very, very different. I thought that Nightrunners was a suspense novel, but I would say it had a lot of horror elements.
I think psychopaths are the werewolves of our time. The psychopath with the knife is practically a genre within itself. I think Thomas Harris’ The Red Dragon – I mean, the stuff had been there, I was doing it, Robert Bloch did it before me, other people did it… But I think when The Red Dragon came along, that that novel was so good and had so much impact, and was so available to the mass of readers as a bestseller, that it opened a whole new gate of horror fiction.
PT: Some movies just substitute the psychopath for the monster…
JRL: In Halloween you’re still looking at a supernatural creature. With The Red Dragon, and even my own Act of Love and things like that, you were seeing a sort of combination of Robert Bloch’s sort of thing with a more 70s-80s-90s version.
One of the differences, I think, with Act of Love and the response I got from the publishers was that, first of all, it was in the vein of the psycho-killer novel of Bloch, but then I had written a police procedural, and I’d been very, very graphic about the scenes. Because I always felt that it cheapens it if you make death kind of mild. And so with something like this, I was very much on the victim’s side, and I wanted that to come through in the book.
PT: I don’t intend this as a criticism, but in you stories there is a lot of violence and nasty things going on…
JRL: Oh, it’s not a criticism.
PT: And you seem to have a lot of fun writing it.
JRL: Yes, I do! I think there’s a combination of reasons for that. In Act of Love I wasn’t actually having a good time writing that – because in that case I was doing a lot of reading about psychopaths and what they do, and I was trying to present it as well as I could and as realistically as I could. I think I’m a better writer now and could do it better, and I think I could do a little better with understating it – but on the other hand, I can’t claim that as a new writer I didn’t know: I knew exactly what I was doing.
The thing is, I think, that the writing in the biopsies is so over the top that it’s out of reality.
PT: It’s kind of comic book, Evil Dead territory…
JRL: Yeah. It’s very much like a B-movie. I’m attracted to violence. That doesn’t mean that I’d enjoy hurting somebody or seeing them hurt. But I think that we all have this attraction to violence, some more than others, and it’s something I’ve explored in my fiction a lot.
PT: In Nightrunners there seems to be less overt violence, but what is implied is much more effective…
JRL: That’s the thing about Nightrunners and other things of mine: they’re not nearly as graphic as people remember them. When they go back and re-read them, they’re awfully surprised. I’ve had people do that. They say: You didn’t really describe that as much as I thought you did, but it’s the way you set it up, I did the description myself.
PT: I think one of the things that bothered me most about Nightrunners was the way we got to know the kids in the black car – some of their thoughts and experiences are things you can identify with, even though you know there’s something wrong there, it has its own kind of logic…
JRL: The whole point with fiction is that no matter how bad a villain or whatever is, no one is all bad. And everybody has to reason. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to agree with their reasons. I think what I tried to do there was rationalise what they did from their point of view. What they did, at least as they saw it, was very logical and very proper.
PT: It’s scary to think that someone can have a chain of logic that ends with those kinds of actions.
JRL: Lots of people do. The thing that lots of people assume, incorrectly, is that most everyone thinks alike. They don’t. And everything that people do, even to the cruellest people you can imagine, they have their reasons. They don’t see themselves as evil at all. There are people who think of themselves as evil and disturbed, but most people figure that what they do is valid, is justified.
I tried to take the viewpoints of the characters in the book and rationalise what they do – that’s the trick, I think. You try to see it from all sides.
And one of the things I find real disturbing sometimes, is that I can see it from all sides. And think that’s what makes me realise that everything that is bad in this world, even the most horrible thing, is in every one of us. And everything that is good too. I don’t care how noble you are, you have that other side. The difference is, where that line – the major part of your personality – leads to. Because all of us have those occasional moments of jealousy, anger, all the negative things. You, me, all of us. But what makes the difference is how we deal with them, how we balance them. And some people balance them in another direction.
Originally published in the fanzine Other Times