Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Taking risks by Mark Troy

Last week I wrote about Joe R. Lansdale on my other blog, The Hawaiian Eye. I said that he led a workshop I attended years earlier and from that experience I was able to produce a published novel, Pilikia Is My Business, and numerous short stories.

The essence of Lansdale's message to me was, "Great writers take risks." He should know. He has a cult following because he is not afraid to take risks with his writing, be it horror, science fiction, western, or mystery.

Here's the beginning of Two-Bear Mambo, the third book in his Hap Collins and Leonard Pine mystery series.

"When I got over to Leonard's Christmas Eve night, he had the Kentucky Head Hunters turned way up over at his place, and they were singing "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," and Leonard, in a kind of Christmas celebration, was once again setting fire to the house next door."

The characters in Lansdale's books are always doing something outrageous and Joe is willing to take the risk of letting them do it. In this case we find that this is the third time Leonard has set fire to the house, which is actually a crack house, and Leonard, being a hard-headed conservative, can't stand drug dealers. We also learn that Leonard's male lover is watching. Yep, Leonard's conservative and homosexual and black. His best buddy, Hap, the narrator is white, heterosexual, and a bleeding-heart liberal. Both men can take care of themselves. You want them on your side in a fight.

Other writers pair up partners of different ethnicity, some even pair up partners with different sexual orientations, but only Lansdale pairs up partners who are so different from each other. In the hands of other writers, these kind of partnerships seem intended to show that society is moving forward and becoming more tolerant. Not Lansdale. His stories are set in East Texas, which is not any less tolerant than other parts of the country, but whose intolerance is more visible, like a scar on the forehead. Lansdale isn't afraid to turn away from racism, homophobia and other intolerances.

Don't think that the Hap and Leonard stories are just two-fisted buddy adventures salted with profanity. Take Mucho Mojo, for example. In this story Leonard and Hap discover a body while renovating a house left to Leonard by his uncle. They also find baffling clues to the murderer left by the uncle who was suffering from the later stages of Alzheimer's. It's not only a great action story; it's a compelling mystery and a commentary on the disease and it's effects on the victim's loved ones.

Then there's Bubba Ho-tep. Bubba Ho-tep is a horror novella that first appeared in the collection of Lansdale stories, Writer of the Purple Rage. It was later made into a movie starring Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. The movie played mainly in art house theaters.

Bubba Ho-tep claims to tell the true story of Elvis Presley (played by Campbell in the movie) who did not die on a toilet in 1977. Instead, he had traded identities with an impersonator because he was tired of the stardom. It was the impersonator who died and the real Elvis, through a series of events, ends up in a nursing home in East Texas. Lansdale is so convincing that this reader, a confirmed skeptic of all things conspiracy, is ready to believe that Elvis is still alive. Elvis's best friend in the home is John F. Kennedy. Yep, he's still alive, too, and, because I'm ready to believe the Elvis story, I'm also ready to believe the JFK story. Kennedy is played by Ossie Davis in the movie, and, if you wonder about that, you'd better read the story.

All would be okay at the nursing home except for an Egyptian mummy which had been stolen from a museum, ended up in a river, and came back to life. The mummy now preys on the residents of the nursing home, sucking their souls. This is where you know you are not reading a schlock horror story. The monster is not chasing half-dressed, nubile coeds, but the elderly and the infirm. Why? Because, 1. the elderly are slow and can be easily caught; 2. They are weak and their souls are easy to take; 3. The supply of elderly is continuously replenished; 4. Nobody cares how they died or that they are gone. This is not a story about monsters, but about ourselves. It's about friendship, growing old, and mistreatment of the elderly. Lansdale doesn't preach, however. Instead, he tells the story in his own outrageous way, which includes a climactic battle between the mummy and the old men on motorized wheelchairs.

Lansdale is a writer's writer. He takes risks with his characters, setting, plot and themes. If you are a fan, you already know that, but if you haven't tried one of his stories, pick one up and see how a master does it.

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Morgan Mandel said...

Sounds like he's got a great imagination. How does he ever come up with such characters and plots!

Morgan Mandel

Jean Henry Mead said...

Joe certainly does take risks and is over the top in many instances, but readers seem to like it or he wouldn't be selling as many books as he does. Quirky seems to be "in."