by Joe R. Lansdale
464 pages, Underland Press
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
There's a strong possibility that you won't like Joe R. Lansdale's “The Drive-In” series of novels. It's not that they are badly written, far from it. Though written relatively early in his career, they display a tremendous sense of flair with vivid, in-your-face descriptive language and the familiar razor-sharp, foul-mouthed dialogue we've come to expect from Nacodoches' most famous son. It is hard to fault a writer as technically accomplished as Lansdale. No, the real reason that you probably won't like “The Drive-In” novels is that they are totally and utterly f*cked-up.
The basic premise of the books is that one night at an East Texas drive-in movie theatre a strange supernatural force descends and traps the moviegoers inside. Those who try to escape into the strange black force field that surrounds them dissolve instantly and very messily. Forced to exist on a diet of popcorn and fizzy drinks from the concession stand, the patrons of the drive-in begin to suffer from hypoglycaemia and turn to cannibalism and other atrocities. When they finally manage to leave the drive-in, the world outside has utterly changed. Dinosaurs prowl wild jungles, gigantic cat-fish named Tim swim fathomless oceans and ghostly visions of B-movies haunt the night skies. Once outside the supernatural prison of the drive-in, one would expect the patrons to give up their savage, cannibalistic ways but many have developed a taste for it and the stomach-churning atrocities continue unabated. Like Philip Jose Farmer's brilliant “Riverworld” series, “The Drive-In” novels follow a motley group of protagonists as they try to make sense of the world in which they find themselves and attempt to discover who (or what) is the guiding force behind it all.
To go into any more detail regarding the books is an exercise in futility. It wouldn't serve to make any more sense of the violent, anarchic world and would probably only deter more readers from taking a chance on it. The books occupy an uncomfortable position between horror, media satire and outright fantasy. Lansdale himself confesses that the books were written on the hoof and so the narrative twists and turns with little rhyme or reason behind it other than the whims of the author. Doubtless there will be some readers who will struggle to accept this rather random form of storytelling but there will be others who will relish the opportunity to go on a wild ride through Lansdale's twisted imagination.
“The Drive-In” books are three separate novels and whilst the first two aren't too difficult to come by on ebay, the third book in the series was released in a very limited edition format and so many Lansdale fans won't have read it. However, the good people at Underland Press have reprinted all three books in one handy volume so that readers can now fully appreciate the full-tilt insanity of the trilogy without spending hours trawling the internet for the final installment. Each novel features a brand new introduction from Lansdale in which he explores their creation and initial reception. The whole collection features a very witty introduction from director Don Coscarelli as he recounts an evening spent with the Lansdale family, sampling their lard-coated popcorn and classic schlock-horror “Killer Klowns from Outer Space.” The book also features concept art from “The Drive-In” movie that Coscarelli at one time intended to make. Alas, that was not to be, although Coscarelli later went on to direct the adaptation of Lansdale's hilarious Elvis versus Mummy in a retirement home tale, “Bubba Ho-Tep.”
“The Drive-In” novels aren't for everyone. The humour is as black as night and there's a truly staggering quantity of blood and guts flying around. Whilst Lansdale might claim that the savagery of the book is a frank commentary on the inherently brutal nature of man, the more squeamish readers out there won't be able to see past the fact that the cannibals in the stories are feasting on the uncooked flesh of babies.
Yes, you read that correctly... there's a lot of baby-eating in these stories.
Lansdale has written more accessible books and if you are familiar with his recent works (such as the truly dazzling “Vanilla Ride”) it is clear to see how much more refined his plotting and characterisation has grown. However, fans of horror B-movies and anarchic humour will get a kick out of this collection and are strongly advised to seek it out. Just remember to bring a sick-bag.
Hereward L.M. Proops