Back of the Book

Darkness Rising


Brad Tyer

East Texas scares the hell out of me.

I’ve got a picture of myself at maybe 8 with my dad and his dad and his dad standing in front of a little plot of corn carved out of a bigger plot of pines. Papaw and I are wearing overalls that no amount of hindsight can make ironic and the whole scene screams dirt farmer to the point of panic attack.

It looks like a good place to get gone from.

That was outside of Alto, not far from Crockett and the Caddoan Indian burial mounds. We drove past those mounds, going to visit grandparents on Lake Tyler, near Whitehouse, for years. I don’t recall that we ever stopped to read the interpretive sign, but we knew there must be ghosts there.

My grandfather introduced me to haints, those ectoplasmic fogs in the middle distance, unidentifiable and mysterious. They were usually out in the woods, sometimes at the far edge of a field.

Hain’t headlights, I reckon.

Hain’t no fire, neither.

It should be said that we didn’t actually talk like that.

Could’ve been swamp gas, though I never was sure if that was supposed to be some sort of quasi-scientific explanation for haints, or a distinct mystery all its own.

The swamps were always gassy.

Haints only came out after dark.

Joe R. Lansdale writes in that dark.

He likes to write in a dark room, for one thing. By the monitor-light of his computer, about three hours a day, early.

He writes in and of East Texas, which is shadowed with pine trees and mottled with blackwater bottomlands that suck the light underground.

That out-of-the-way vantage, and a stylistic preference for what some people still insist on dismissing as genre fiction (Lansdale specializes in mystery, horror and crime) has kept him off a lot of general readers’ radars. Outside certain circles, you rarely hear his name listed in the regional pantheons. University of Texas Press’ publication this month of the anthology Sanctified and Chicken Fried: The Portable Joe R. Lansdale, part of Texas State University’s Southwestern Writers Collection Series, should give some of his less categorizable work a fresh hearing.

But Lansdale would be a specialty taste in any region. He writes about hearts of sexual, racial and violent darkness, in deft dialogue appropriate to the voices of grifters, kidnappers, reporters and thieves. A fair portion is also fall-down funny. Given an appreciation of dark humor, obviously.

He was born in Gladewater, close to Gilmer, between Tyler and Longview, and excepting a few youthful excursions he’s lived in East Texas all his life, the last 33 years of it in Nacogdoches.

You can tell by the way he talks. There’s a rolling openness to his i’s and ah’s. It’s a friendly sound, inviting like quicksand. It’s a voice that likes to tell stories.

Texas’ mythic fiction, from McMurtry to McCarthy, has with few obvious exceptions oriented toward the West, all those wide desert plains and open skies and smattered mountains, where a chief attribute of the landscape is that you can usually see a close approximation of forever.

There are the horses. There are the vistas. The violence takes place on a grand scale, in full view of God.

West Texas looks beautiful at first, Lansdale agrees, but then “it just bores me.”

East Texas—no offense to East Texans (hi Granny!)—is by comparison a land of pigs and pestilence and petty crime (my words, not Lansdale’s), deprived of grandeur by isolation and ingrown in its instincts. You know, as a symbol.

In the thicket, you can’t see what’s up ahead of you. You can’t see what might be tracking you through the forest. And you can’t see your way out. The far horizon is right in front of your eyes. It can get claustrophobic fast.

And there be snakes. Lots of poisonous ones. Swarms of angry cottonmouths patrol Lansdale’s trusty Sabine River. Ever watch someone do the snake dance in midair over a water moccasin? That’s fear made visible, and good fun as long as it’s not you doing the dancing.

It’s a landscape built for suspense, which is a fair-enough stab at defining the far-flung territories upon which Lansdale has made his mark: crime, mystery, horror, sci-fi. And it’s a mental geography expansive enough to accommodate the odd-shaped boxes that presume to hold “Bubby Ho-Tep,” Lansdale’s played-straight story about undead codgers JFK and Elvis teaming up in their East Texas nursing home to battle a soul-sucking Egyptian mummy, or “The Big Blow,” a race fable set during the great Galveston hurricane of 1900, and a strangely magisterial story seemingly unmoored from genre.

Lansdale has won the British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Edgar Award, the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature, and seven Bram Stoker Awards. Who knows what half those even are, but the breadth is the point. He’s even written a few westerns. His stabs at literary fiction—just another genre, after all—are well reviewed by The New York Times. His hardbacks, including the 2008 slasher Leather Maiden, are published by Knopf.

The first two titles in his “Hap and Leonard” mystery series were just reissued by Vintage’s canonical Black Lizard imprint. “Bubby Ho-Tep” and “The Big Blow,” among other early Lansdale shorts, are about to re-see light in Sanctified and Chicken Fried.

He’s big in Italy. They take their noir black over there.

Without ever having wandered far from East Texas, Joe Lansdale has put himself all over the map.

Biologically, East Texas amounts to one of the Earth’s densest habitat overlaps. Bears and alligators and turkeys and deer live there, among the Spanish moss and orchids and flytraps and ferns. Thousands upon thousands of living things you’ll never hear the names of.

Culturally, the East Texas Piney Woods are the easternmost border of the capital-W West, and the westernmost outpost of the South. Whites from Tennessee, Mexicans from the Valley, Cajuns from across the Sabine and blacks from all over mingle there amid the mud and the vines and the snakes. A lot of them are poor, and poor can take a turn for the desperate. A lot of people are looking to make a deal.

Lansdale carries the crossroads thing like his own personal mojo.

He says genre doesn’t mean much to him, dislikes hearing his audience referred to as “cult,” and seems justly proud to call himself “kind of schizophrenic” as a writer. He’s comfortable with the intersections, to the mash-up manor born.

His dad couldn’t read, and Joe learned the skill from DC Comics. He’s a collector of pulp magazines and sci-fi (Texas A&M has his archive), and a chronic patron of public libraries. He claims Edgar Allan Poe as an influence, describes Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove as the Great American Novel, and says Flannery O’Connor is his favorite author.

He published one of his first stories at 21, under the name of his co-writer, his mom, in Farm Journal.

“I am not a snob,” he says, and that sounds right.

He likes writers first and foremost for their voice. Ray Bradbury, genre notwithstanding, has voice, he says.

He’s been married to his wife, Karen, for 31 years.

His daughter is an aspiring country singer and his son is a small-town newspaper reporter. Lansdale owns and teaches at Lansdale’s Self-Defense Systems Dojo in Nacogdoches. He’s a decorated martial artist, and his signature teaching is, naturally, a blended style.

Talking at a table in Nacogdoches’ clean, well-lighted Java Jack’s Coffee House—his suggestion—he seems entirely too normal to be so enthralled by evil.

Lansdale doesn’t blink when I ask him about haints. Turns out he’s working on a comic book by that name. Of course he is.

I don’t ask him about Jasper, which is just shorthand for a different sort of darkness. I don’t have to. Everybody feels the same disgust and fear about what happened in Jasper. East Texans just feel it more acutely.

Lansdale deploys the word “nigger,” as dialog, mouthed by black and white characters alike, in everything I’ve read. The word is part of his characters’ world. The repetition takes some of the sting out of the word. I’m a poor judge of whether that’s ultimately a good or a bad thing.

In “Night They Missed the Horror Show,” reissued in Sanctified and Chicken Fried, what happens to the black football player and his friends is almost literally unspeakable. What happens to a stray dog is probably worse, if only for forcing you to say, in comparison, it was just a dog. Lansdale dedicates it “For Lew Shiner, a story that doesn’t flinch.” He is not kidding.

Then there’s Hap and Leonard, a white East Texas redneck with women problems and his gay black Vietnam vet buddy-sparring partner. Savage Season (1990) ends in a biracial bloodbath of video-game proportions. I think there’s a Nazi in there somewhere, too.

The discovery of a black woman’s naked corpse kicks off the plot of The Bottoms (2000). A pretty blond girl gets skinned in Leather Maiden (2008).

Dark stuff. Lots of bodies.

I had a dream once, a fear dream, that my father and grandfather were trying to kill a black man by running him over with a boat on Lake Tyler. The discomfort wasn’t that I could or couldn’t stop them, but that I knew about it at all. The terribleness of the secret. I woke up relieved it hadn’t really happened and guilty to have dreamt it, and I’ve remembered it going on 30 years.

Either of my forefathers would be rightly appalled at the unfounded and unjust suggestion, but they sometimes talked privately in a way we all knew they wouldn’t talk publicly, and I knew enough to let that scare me.

There’s plenty to be scared of in East Texas. Some of those little red clay spurs don’t end until you’ve gone way too far down the wrong road.

There are probably snakes down there.

Or Joe R. Lansdale, typing in the dark, imagining some awful new way you might soon meet your end.