Horror & Dark Fantasy



Interview: Joe R. Lansdale

Few writers can authentically claim to be their own distinct genre, but there’s no question that Joe R. Lansdale is a category unto himself. He’s written award-winning horror, mystery, suspense, westerns, graphic novels and comics, media tie-ins, screenplays, and mainstream literature, yet each new work fits recognizably into the East Texas-slang-filled, fast-paced, fluid storytelling style that defines the Joe R. Lansdale genre. His most recent works include the novel The Thicket (which critics have compared to some of Mark Twain’s books), and the feature film Christmas With the Dead, which Lansdale’s son Keith adapted from Joe’s short story of the same name (Lansdale also served as producer on the film). Lansdale’s novel Cold in July has also recently been adapted into a movie starring Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, and Sam Shepard.

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You were a full-time writer by 1981, and about 1989 was when your work suddenly seemed to be everywhere.

I feel like 1986 was a big turning point for me, because The Magic Wagon came out that year from Doubleday and got reviewed in the New York Times, so it kind of got that train going. At the same time, Dead in the West came out, so I also had the small press thing going on. And then “Tight Little Stitches” came out and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award, so that was a big year. It sort of built momentum toward 1989, which is when Cold in July came out.

For many of us, our introduction to your work probably came via the story “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks” from the seminal anthology The Book of the Dead.

Right. I’d been selling short fiction in the seventies and eighties, and probably by about 1983 I’d started writing my stuff, in the sense that I’d sort of gotten out of the vein of the apprenticeship of writing like other people. I mean, you’re always influenced by other people, but from that point on my momentum was growing, and I think by 1986 somebody had started to take notice and the novels helped give that notice. By 1989 I was starting to get film options, and Cold in July came out, and that book was my second film option—I’d gotten Dead in the West before that.

So your career was kind of like a series of little plateaus.

Yeah, it’s funny, when you look back on it. 1973 is when I started, and I was selling nonfiction exclusively—in fact, I wrote nothing but nonfiction.

It was farm reports, wasn’t it?

Farm articles. I wrote an article with my mom, under her name, and sold it first crack out of the box, and then I sold every nonfiction article that I wrote, and I thought, “Well, this is easy.” But I wanted to write fiction—that was what I’d always wanted to do—and that took me a couple of years. I was working in the rose fields, and my wife was working in a meat-packing plant, and she told me to take three months off and just write. So I wrote a story a day, because I didn’t know you couldn’t do that. I wrote roughly ninety stories in ninety days. And over the next three years I got about a thousand rejections, because there used to be ten or twenty markets you could submit every story to.

And all this was on the old typewriter, not even using a word processor!

That’s right! It was a manual, too. I’d had those big old Underwoods, which were terrible. My wife had this little Montgomery Ward’s typewriter, and it was easy to use. I used that until I could afford an electric typewriter.

But anyway, that was a big turning point for me. Then in 1981, when I started selling. Then came 1983, when I realized that I didn’t really want to write the stuff I’d been doing—I was doing ghostwriting work, and suddenly I realized I didn’t want to do that. By 1986 I was doing my stuff, and it just kept rolling.

The real turning point for me was probably “Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back,” which I wrote in 1986, and was followed by “The Night They Missed the Horror Show,” which David Schow bought for the movie-themed anthology Silver Scream, and then after that was “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks.” I had a bunch of stories I’d written that I couldn’t sell because everyone thought they were too odd, and then all of a sudden “The Pit” sold, and that had been rejected by everybody! Now it’s been reprinted and it’s being reprinted again next year. My wife always said that Kasey was born in 1986, and we knew it was going to cost money!

You were (and still are) frequently grouped with the 1980s “splatterpunk” trend. Were you comfortable with that label?

I hated it. I’m gonna kill David Schow for it! I think a lot of people were just trying to look for a humorous way to identify what they were doing, but as soon as they did that, I said, “Man, you’re gonna rue the day you did this, because it’s gonna box you in.” And I was afraid it would box me in, because they would keep sayin’ it—it still pops up now and again. But I just refused to accept it. There were two or three stories of mine that fit very well there and that’s fine, but I always thought the attitude was different. So when I started writing other stuff, for ninety percent of the readers I didn’t stick in that box. Of course there’s that ten percent of the readers who, any time you change and move on they say, “What happened to that one?” and you say, “Well, I wrote that one already!” Been there, done that.

Horror was booming in the 1980s, but that boom turned into an explosion that decimated much of the market. In one interview, you said, “Horror failed to mutate when it was most necessary. There was just too much of it. It’s kind of like if you saw a ghost every day—after a while, who gives a shit?” Did you make a conscious decision then to move away from the genre more into mystery?

Well, you know, the truth of the matter is that by 1981 I’d sold a crime novel already called Act of Love, so my first novel was a crime novel, and my first short story sales were all crime stories, mainly to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. But I was also writing for Twilight Zone Magazine, so my interests were always broad. I think I started out to be a science fiction writer, but I wasn’t having any luck with it. So I all of a sudden discovered crime and mystery—I’d grown up with it, but I’d never thought about writing it, and when I did I just became a nut for it. Then that kind of segued into one of my other childhood interests, which was horror.

Some of it was planned, but I don’t want to make myself sound smarter than I really am. I did a lot of stuff just because I wanted to do it! But I did think horror was filled to the brim, and I was tired of it. I feel like if I sit down to write something that’s mechanical, I don’t want to do it. And if I feel like everybody’s expecting the “boo,” I don’t want to do it. I came back to it later, of course.

Well, you never really left. Even the first Hap and Leonard novel was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award.

Savage Season was a nomination that I almost asked them to remove because I couldn’t understand why it was there. It’s a crime novel, very clearly.

In a 1997 interview, you said, “You’re starting to see more horror films again as well, and I think that you’re starting to see a trend back to that sort of thing. It’s almost a fifties, B-movie sensibility. It’s really coming back, though. Not that it ever really left.” Did horror come back to stay then? Or has it mutated since?

I don’t think anything ever really disappears. It has different levels and different degrees. Horror is still here, but it’s not like it was in the eighties. I think what happened in the eighties was you had an insane moment when you had . . . well, I think a lot of people forget this: They forget that people like me and David Schow and a lot of others came along and we hit horror at a time when it was changing, and we were changing it. For better or worse, we were the vehicles of that change. It cycles in and cycles out. I think it’s now cycled back to more traditional things. Like in the films, there are a lot of ghost stories and monsters. It goes through cycles until it gets tiring. I borrowed the tools and furniture from it for other things.

I agree 100% with the idea that Joe R. Lansdale stories are their own genre, because they are so recognizably your work, regardless of whether they’re horror, mystery, graphic novels, whatever. Are you ever conscious of genre when you sit down to write?

Well, I’m conscious of it when somebody says, “I’ve got an anthology and I’m doing stories about Jack the Ripper.” Even then I can go mystery or I can go horror. Internally, I don’t worry too much about it. I know I’ve got a basic idea, and I might think, “Okay, it’s going to be horrific . . . but to what level, what angle, what degree, what method of attack . . .” And then some of the stories I’ll write for anthologies like that will later get reprinted in crime or mystery anthologies or different things.

You’ve mentioned before that you have a particular fondness for novellas.

It’s my favorite form.

Is it the best form for horror?

I think novellas and short stories are the best form for horror. There are some really good horror novels, but for me horror novels usually play out at about forty or fifty pages. There are exceptions, of course.

When you wrote Savage Season in 1990, did you expect to carry on the saga of Hap and Leonard for so long?

No! I wrote Savage Season because I was very much a big fan of the Gold Medal novels. So Cold in July and Savage Season are in many respects my Gold Medal novels. Aspects of that continued throughout the series, along with the noir. But I really think that Savage Season is the most Gold Medal novel. And Cold in July is the most Gold Medal of the non-Hap and Leonard novels. Or maybe Waltz in Shadows.

For some reason, I’m always surprised when I see the word “quirky” applied to your work, as it often is with the Hap and Leonard books in particular; I think “quirky” implies “arch” to me, whereas your style seems to honestly reflect a particular place.

I don’t like that label; I don’t think they’re “quirky”. I think they’re different in some ways, but I also think they’re some of the most traditional stuff I do. I guess it’s because of what I do they apply that word quirky; it’s like they apply that word “cult”. But I’m a pretty big cult now!

Did you hear a lot of that East Texas patois growing up?

Oh, absolutely. People give me a lot of credit that I don’t deserve because a lot of that’s just . . . y’know, ignorance has been a great boon for me. I’m not terribly educated—I’ve got a high school education and a couple of years of college, but I don’t have degrees and stuff like that. Most of my stuff I learned from doing. I never took a writing class or anything like that; I just wrote. Some of the benefits for me have been not knowing the proper way to do certain things.

Your latest novel, The Thicket, is not obviously a horror novel, but it does open with gruesome disease deaths, a violent murder, and an act-of-God storm, and leaves the reader with that sense of unease that great horror should provoke.

Yes. I think that goes back to that constant blending of genres. I grew up on all those things, a mish-mash. I grew up on comics, which mish-mashed everything anyway. I used to watch, in the 1950s and 1960s, a lot of old movies and serials they brought to TV. I used to watch all the Flash Gordon serials and the old Tarzan films, and all that stuff just sort of ran together. And then I was reading, too. My parents never said, “This is bad for you,” so I was reading everything from Burroughs to Hemingway (Edgar Rice Burroughs, not William S.—that was later!). So you read all these things, you don’t think, “Oh this one’s good for me and this one isn’t.” I just read.

Is the definition of horror sometimes narrower than it should be?

It depends on the definition. For some people if you expand it, it’s no longer horror. But for me, horror aspects are in a large percentage of what I write; horror is certainly an engine behind a lot of my stuff. Horror and mystery. I have one unpublished novel (that will be published) called Fender Lizards. It has no horror, no mystery, no science fiction whatsoever, but there’s something about the way it’s written . . . it almost feels like a mystery without the mystery. The tone and the attitude and the feeling come across in the prose.

You’ve written a lot of work in other writers’ universes—Jonas Hex graphic novels, Batman animated series scripts, and Tarzan novels. Is it ever difficult to slip into someone else’s world?

Sometimes it is. It used to not be as much; I did some of those things just because I loved them and I wanted to do them. But I’ve been turning down things like that because as time’s gone on I’ve thought, I don’t really want to leave some things behind that are somebody else’s. Especially since I don’t get any more money out of it, so my family’s not going to get any more money out of it, either. So my take on it is that if something comes along that I just really have to do or want to do, or I’m just really driven to touch some childhood dream like Batman or Tarzan, then I’m going to do it. But those are becoming smaller and smaller; I’ve done most of them.

I really enjoy your Facebook and Twitter posts, and you’ve obviously embraced these new forms of social media. How important is that direct connection to your readers?

I like to stay connected with things like that. I don’t really enjoy doing it all that much because I’d rather write, but I know it’s a part of the business now. I also have a lot of people wanting to know things, and I can cover a lot of ground that way instead of writing fifty letters or a thousand emails. I do that and I’m done. And I can promote my books. Publishing has changed so much that it’s harder and harder for even publishers to promote books, or at least to promote them well. The competition has changed, it’s very different, so I feel like that’s my way of doing it. And I always remember all these things that people will teach you about writing, that work for some people, but they don’t work for everybody. A lot of it’s just like cliché—you know, “this is this, and that is that”—and I probably do that, too. I’m just saying my way is one way, I’m not saying it’s the way.

You recently talked on Facebook about writers who complain about loneliness and other aspects of the craft, and you noted, “If you want to be miserable writing, that’s your choice.” Why do you think some writers describe it as some painful, soul-sapping drudge?

I’m sure there are some people out there who are just miserable . . .

They’d be miserable if they were plumbers.

Right. But I think also it’s a pose for a lot of people, because they think they’re doing something that doesn’t require that they dig a ditch or fix a car. I think because it’s intangible. When you take a job, you get paid when you first start out whether you know what you’re doing or not, but in writing you’re not necessarily getting paid when you’re starting out, so are you a writer or are you not a writer? So I think a lot of it too is insecurity, that feeling that it’s like, “Look, I’m really working, this really is important and it’s really hard.” And it’s not that it isn’t hard sometimes—it is. I’m not saying it isn’t hard work; I beat my head against the wall sometimes thinking, I just can’t get that right. But that’s not the same thing as saying I’m miserable doing it. It may be a hard thing to do, but I enjoy doing it. And I feel lucky, because I’ve never wanted to do anything else. It’s not the same for everybody, but I feel like I just got the best break in the world.

One recent tip you offered was, “Actually start out with Once upon a time and continue.” Have you done that?

Yeah, I’ve done it. I even have one story that begins, “Once upon a time.” I’ve done it several times. I just type “Once upon a time,” and then I’m into it.

You’ve probably written more screenplays than most of your readers realize, and you’ve even taught screenwriting. Is that a form that you enjoy?

Yeah . . . when I’m in the mood for it. It’s a nice break. I find it easier than novels and short stories, but not as satisfying. My son and I are working on one together right now that I hope to direct, if we can raise the money.

I was wondering if you’d ever thought about directing . . .

I never really wanted to direct. I just want more control. I’m sort of producing some of the films that are coming out. It’s sort of a title that comes with a check, but that’s about it.

David Lynch was attached to a film adaptation of The Two-Bear Mambo at one point, wasn’t he?

Yeah, he was. It was always a vague thing, and I don’t remember much about it. He also had The Big Blow for two or three years. Then Ridley Scott picked it up, and I did the screenplay, but they never made it. They had it optioned for several years, and then they finally bought the film rights outright.

[Joe’s son, Keith Lansdale, joins us.]

Christmas With the Dead started as one of your dad’s short stories, then you adapted it into a screenplay. That must have been an interesting experience.

Keith: Yeah, it was a lot of fun, actually! He was trying to find somebody to write it, and I was like, “Well, I could give it a go.” I had no experience whatsoever doing screenplays, but I figured if I had any questions I had somebody I could go to. I was willing to take that leap. And I thought that the original story was a fun idea, anyway—a guy who’s just tired of the apocalypse.

He gave me advice. “There is no dog,” he said. “And your sister’s going to play a part, and we have a guy who’s going to be the co-star . . .” so it was like being given a bunch of puzzle pieces and you’re not quite sure how they fit together. I still had a lot of room to do something with the original idea.

Joe: I told him he had to take the dog out, because we couldn’t afford it. And it had to have more scenes so it could be longer—otherwise it would have been a twenty minute film. That’s about it; then I just turned him loose on it.

Keith, was it ever intimidating?

Keith: Well, yeah, of course. I don’t know if I was “intimidated,” though. I know I was getting into something I’d never done before, but I wasn’t nervous about it. I felt pretty okay with it, actually.

So you had your very first screenplay produced! That doesn’t happen for a lot of writers.

Keith: That’s true. It was kind of handy to have him as the producer, because I knew that meant it would get made somehow.

Joe: When he complained, Lee (the director) and I would tell him, “You’re getting treated nicer than anyone in Hollywood, because they don’t even let the writer on the set a lot of the time!” I did get to go on the set of other things, but usually they don’t.

Were you on the set for this, Keith?

Keith: A little bit here and there. It was unfortunate that it was in the hottest part of the summer, and of course you can’t run the air conditioner when they’re shooting. I’d stay as long as I could stand it, then I’d say, “I’ve gotta go home.”

Joe: It was so hot we just left Lee and them there and we went to Italy. It was so hot the makeup would melt as fast as they’d put it on. It was one of the hottest summers on record. In Texas, you know you’re going to have hot summers, but this one was just unrelenting. They were filming at three in the morning, and it was still eighty-five.

So it was all shot on location?

Keith: It was all shot right there in Nacogdoches, except for one scene that was shot in Lufkin, which is right down the road from Nacogdoches.

Joe, as producer, were you ever conscious of reining in Keith as the screenwriter?

Joe: Not really. It’s like he and I have the same brain, it’s actually pretty amazing. What I did was just help him with the format. But he was fine with the storyline. I’d have an idea, but he was already doing it, so that was funny.

Keith, do you plan to continue screenwriting?

Keith: Yeah. Sure thing. He mentioned the one we’re doing together—that’s been a lot of fun. There’s a lot of kind of going back and forth. Sometimes I find myself arguing about little minute details that I know are not going to matter, but it’s just when you’re in the minute and you’re thinking, “It’s got to be exactly this way!” If something really comes up, I can say, “You’re probably right because you’ve been doing this a long time,” but I’m definitely getting my words in there. No question.

Joe: And I encourage that, too. He’s written comic books—he wrote for Antarctic Press—and I think that helps. The framing of comics owes something to film and vice versa.

Keith: And it’s more visual than just a regular novel.

So, Joe, can you tell us anything about this project?

Joe: “Fried-pie noir” is what I call it. It’s about a guy who’s a fried-pie king. Or just a pie king. We haven’t decided if it’s fried pies or just pies. But the problem lies with the pies, or the ownership of the pie recipe, and that’s about all we can say. It’s kind of noir, it’s kind of funny, it’s kind of western. It’s got characters with names like Birdhouse Willie.

You don’t often collaborate . . .

Joe: No. I actually collaborate with my children best. Kasey and I did a story together that’s coming out in Dark Duets, edited by Christopher Golden. She and I are doing another story together. The kids wrote stories together back when they were eight and twelve—one was published by Random House. The kids have been around it all the time—people who are writers or directors used to come to the house, people were always there.

What else is coming up for you?

Joe: Well, besides this screenplay Keith and I are working on, I’m working on a new novel. And Cold in July has been filmed and is coming out next year. They’re editing it now, and what I’ve seen of it looks great. It’s got Michael C. Hall and Don Johnson and Sam Shepard and Vinessa Shaw . . . it’s going to be really, really good. What I saw just impressed the hell out of me.

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and 150 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert. Her recent releases include Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction from Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852-1923 (co-edited with Leslie S. Klinger) and Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances; her latest short stories appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2020, Speculative Los Angeles, and Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other  Spectacles. Forthcoming in 2021 is the collection Night Terrors & Other Tales. Lisa lives in Los Angeles and online at lisamorton.com.