Friday, May 20, 2022

Texas Night Riders and Other Drive-In Books: Early Pulp of Champion Mojo Storyteller Joe R. Lansdale

I've touched on, more than once, that Joe R. Lansdale is a corner stone in want has made me the reader (and writer) that I am today. Probably, much to his chagrin if he ever caught word. It's an odd relationship reader/writer, it's all a once more personal and less personal of a connection than say being struck by a movie star. You spend a lot of time inside someone else's head when you read a book, but you don't see them, you don't know how they move or what they sound like. After middle school's worth of reading Alexandre Dumas, James Bond and The Saint novels, I had switched my recreation time to horror flicks and vintage muscle cars. The bloodier and the faster the better. 

Somewhere down the two-lane blacktop, I got wind of "Bubba Ho-Tep" which put together of two of my favorite horror-guys, Bruce Campbell and the director Don Coscarelli and it was taken from a short story by a fella named Joe R. Lansdale. An old Elvis fighting a mummy in an East Texas nursing home? Hell, I was sold. My local library had a copy of "Writer of the Purple Rage" that the novella was contained in and boy-howdy I was hooked. Soon, I read most of his stuff I could lay my hands on. Some of them in by dashboard light in my hot rod 1968 Plymouth Fury coupe. I must have been out on the highway avoiding The God of the Razor and staying out of weird Drive-In's. 

Lansdale was the first writer I encountered that seemed to understand life in the small-town/country way with a vernacular to match to boot. I knew guys and gals in flesh in blood like the ones in Lansdale's words. When I read a Hap and Leonard novel, I imagine my late-father as Hap, he was cut from the same country-boy/hippie cloth. An ass-kicker too, 'natch. I guess Lansdale taught me that writing can sound like anything, that it doesn't have to come from the pen of an English ex-spy or some other stuffed-shirt. And he wrote all the things I liked, mystery, horror, sci-fi you name it and it all sound exactly like Joe R. Lansdale talking to you, spinning yarns making you laugh and then turning it on its head and making a shiver run up your spine.

"Texas Night Riders" came out in 1983 from Leisure books with Lansdale writing under the name Ray Slater and it's an all-out tale of western revenge in under 200 pages. Before this he wrote a porn novel called "Molly's Sexual Follies" as Mark Simmons (with Brad W. Foster) and his shattering novel "Act of Love," which is one helluva book. Then came out with a one-two punch of "The Magic Wagon" and "The Nightrunners." Whew. Anywho, "Texas Night Riders" might seem like a typical western. Farmer Jubil Rains used to be a solider in the Confederate army and now is living peacefully with his wife and see where I am going with this, right? 'ol Jubil has his son murdered before his eyes by three bandits and plugged buried alive in the coffin of his recently deceased wife. Well, Jubil does what most cowboy heroes would do and straps on his six-guns and heads out with revenge on his mind. Along the way he comes across the baddies now leading a pack of the titular Texas Night Riders, masked riders out to push people off of their land. Jubil takes up with big time farmer, Brennan and his men in order to kill the nasty Thorton who ran his son through with a saber.

Jubil is a fairly conventual western-type hero, a quiet man out for personal revenge. Lansdale's leads are usually more colorful and interesting characters, but this after all was written for a Leisure pulp-paperback and Lansdale gave them a pulp-paperback hero. He's certainly not a bad character, he's just Clint Eastwood on the page. Thinking about it, what more do you need? This is still clearly a Lansdale novel; his quirks and themes seep in through the mud and the blood. The farmer's daughter, Mattie is a tough lady, like a lot of Lansdale's ladies, who can handle the action with aplomb. While all the side characters are stock players, Lansdale makes them tough, funny and wild in their own ways. And the action is all Lansdale, brutal and wild and at times reaching his early "splatterpunk" levels of gore. There's a hint of horror in the mix, early on the town drunk refers to Jubil as a zombie, all dead inside but walking. There's a bit of "The Night of the Living Dead" as the Night Riders siege a walled-up farm in the dead of night. It's not a book that is going to be amongst the best of Lansdale's work, but it's a fascinating look into the foundation of the writer he became and what was always in there. 

A couple of years later Lansdale returned to the western, albeit with a less traditional tale with "Dead in the West," starring a rascal of a preacher-man named Jebediah Mercer who lands himself in Mud Creek, TX to try to get some soul saving done. It's a good thing he's a pistol-packin' preacher cause soon the dead start to rise, and he's got to stand up and fight. "Dead in the West" is a wonderful little book, seriously little, the only drawback is that there's ain't much of it and you want more of it. It seems like it's ripped out of the pages of "Weird Tales," a fever dream about putting Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Roy Rogers and George A. Romero in a blender then spill it out over a typewriter. Little tips of the cowboy hat to "The Necronomicon" and such put you in the right mindset. The voice is (as always) pure Lansdale. It's funny, it's profane, its gross and blood. So, you know...pure Lansdale and boy howdy how I had fun with this one.

Then a few little years later Lansdale took the western vibe into the apocalyptic future filled with zombies in "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with the Dead Folk." It's a novella which is its only downfall, there should be more of it, there should be a near endless supply of stories in this world. I read this many, many years ago and in rereading it (and knowing more and more about Men's Adventure fiction) now it makes me long for a Lansdale M.A. series penned in the 80's about this bounty hunter named Wayne and his '57 Chevy wandering the new terrifying west. It's a place of (somewhat) domesticated Zombies, lawless border towns, the vague aftermath of the "Chevrolet/Cadillac war" and all measure of scoundrel. If you're not aware Lansdale did contribute to the "M.I.A. Hunter" series with always excellent Stephen Mertz but if Lansdale had had his own series product the Post-Apocalyptic Men's Adventure genre would have been the one, he was most suited for, even over an action series or an adult Western. Sigh. If only. A reader can dream. The novella itself is top-shelf, naughty, vulgar, non-stop action fun piled to the brim with exuberance and wild little touches. Shit. There need to be more of it.

There's no other writer like Joe R. Lansdale. I'd imagine there's folks that wouldn't dig what he is putting down. There are always wrong people in the world. In digging further in his back log I'm stuck by the ferocity of his work. Not just what he puts on the page, then emotion behind it. They read like something he HAD to put down on paper. The young and hungry author syndrome. Lansdale has kept the spark throughout the years, though he's gotten a bit more respectable and written some books that a truly brilliant, easily better then pretty much whatever the "big literary" books are (I'm looking at you, "The Bottoms" and "The Ticket") but he always never lost his spark of weirdness, thank God.   

Thursday, May 12, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: "Crab's Moon" by Guy N. Smith


After reading my last Guy N. Smith I couldn't resist more. I usually try to break up my reading/reviewing to not clutter it up with the same author otherwise this might turn into a Michael Avallone blog. I'm getting on a major horror kick (it usually happens as summer approaches) and my thirst for monster mayhem was unquenchable as now I'm both writing a monster novel and in the very, very, very, early stages of a possible low-budget feature length horror film being made from a script I wrote. I'm also opening a vintage toy and bookstore, so my time is limited for reading and I know that when I pick up one of Smith's book the fat is trimmed, and the pace is cranked to eleven making for a pleasant coupla hours of blood, guts and killer animals.

So, Guy's legendary Crabs series. I mean who wouldn't dip their toe back in the world of cow-sized killer crabs first? The Crabs series is what Smith is most known for, seven books spanning from 1976 to 2019 plus a few chap books, some short stories and even a graphic novel. Oh, and an "unofficial" movie adaptation "Island Claws" written by The Creature from the Black Lagoon himself, Ricou Browning. That's a helluva run. They are unfortunately, like a lot of groovy horror novels, hard to come by. I lucked into a few of the Dell editions over the years and then paid a lot for some of the others. "Crabs: The Human Sacrifice" still lurks out there on the shores of bookshop shelves for me to find. The crab with the knife really whets my appetite. I really should have done my research since "Crab's Moon" is a semi-prequel/direct-sequel to the first "Night of the Crabs." It takes place during the first invasion of the crabs, but just in a different place. The problem is I only just got "Night of the Crabs" and haven't cracked it yet. It was a bone-head move, I thought I was going to save #1 for a special reading occasion I guess. 

Anyway, I read "Crab's Moon." The Guy N. Smith hallmarks are there, sex, violence, and gore as we bounce around between a few groups of generally unlikeable people trapped on an amusement park island that the military is defending from big 'ol crabs. There are terrible millionaires you hate, love triangles, distrust of authority, big guns plus explosions, one-night stands, dirty hippies, and delicious crab meat. It's a fast and fun read, but since the hero of "Night of the Crabs" ya know sorta wins that book, this one is a little anti-climatic. It's still fun enough to read, it'd be fun to read it back-to-back with #1. Now, these are pure-pulp and crammed with some terrible people which makes it delightful when bad things happen to them, don't go in expecting a hero or a heroine to love. Women especially have a rough go in these books, women characters are generally only there for sex and then to die. That's just a warning if it would bother you. Smith is playing with tropes and that there is some big-time low-brow horror tropes. 

Guy N. Smith is just one of my go-to guys. Should probably be one of YOURS too.

Friday, May 6, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: Feast of the Swamp Goblin by Lewis Stone

I can honestly say this is the first book I have directly read as a result of scrolling Instagram. I'm fairly sure that I was looking (and drooling) over some Guy N. Smith covers (he's popping up a lot lately for me) and saw the title "Feast of the Swamp Goblin" all in a gooey-looking font and after finding out it was a short work of pure-pulpy-horror I knew I had to give it a try. I hadn't ever heard of Lewis Stone before but, I mean "Feast of the Swamp Goblin, c'mon. That's a book screaming to be read. 

The novel is subtitled "A Horror B-Book" and that's what it is: a B-horror-movie on the printed page, or a direct-to-video-monster movie between two covers. It's a classic set-up. A group of college students go out into the woods to have some fun (i.e., booze and sexy sex) to blow off steam...unfortunately Swamp Goblin. There's a nerd, a slightly-more-cool nerd, a jerk-ass jock-type and his annoyed girlfriend plus a Ripley-woman. To top-that-off you have a grizzled hunter who is well, hunting the Swamp Goblin for his own reasons. These are all stock characters; Stone gives you enough to care a little about them and at least most of them are nicer than a lot of the assholes that seem to get killed in old horror novels. There's plenty of gore and the monster-attack scenes are well spaced within the book, not too long but not a constant barrage either. 

Speaking of Guy N. Smith, the nerd character is reading Smith "The Slime Beast," which Swamp Goblin seems to share a lot of D.N.A. with. It's a nice little touch. Stone writes in a clean, unpretentious style and keeps the pace up. All things that I look for in a book. It's a short book, more like a novella so if you like old school 70s/80s paperback horror or monster movies give it a go. It got me to order Stone's other Horror-B-Book, "The Campbell Lake Summer Camp Massacre," which seems like a nice and fun slasher tale. I rarely read any "new" books, so this was a nice change of pace. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

Me, Ralph Dennis and Hardman #8: The Deadly Cotton Heart

They're like an old bar-friends at this point, familiar on the surface but the details of past encounters are lost. That's the Hardman novels now. It's a wonderful thing, I almost get to read them again for the first time. Ralph Dennis's Hardman books were a turning point for me in a lot of ways. They made me realize that there might be good shit (real good shit) in those old paperbacks with numbers on the covers. They clued me in to detective novels in settings that weren't New York or L.A. And they taught me a lot about clean, tough writing with hard-bitten action that moves swiftly, makes sense but isn't too showy. They're all gems. Dennis should have been a major mystery writer after knocking out twelve of 'em in the FOUR YEARS. That's some damned fine writing to be squeezed out between beers in that short of a time span.

Jim Hardman and Hump Evans. Yeah, it's a bit funny when you say it out loud. I can see why some folk might have past them up, not quite Pepperoni Hero level of goofy names but it's just shy of it. The awesome action-packed covers were a bit of a lie too. Hardman wasn't a squared jawed man of action, but a pudgy ex-cop who I suspect looked a lot like Ralph Dennis. Hump was pitch perfect on the covers though. There was action but it's not an "Executioner" or a "Death Merchant." It's a dark alley in a Men's Adventure world. Spillane but a bit less of a fever dream. Hammett in leisure suits. What the Hardman books really are, and they are the closest thing to a pulp-version of the work of James Crumley. C.W. Sugrue and Milo Milodragovitch would throw back massive amounts of booze with Hardman and Hump. 

I've said before I came to mystery fiction via Joe R. Lansdale, Lansdale does an intro for Brash Books reprints (doing the Book God's work), and he says that there's a little bit of Hardman and Hump in my good buddies Hap and Leonard. I've known plenty of beer-drinkers and hell raisers. See, I'm a Kansas guy. That ain't the south, we're kind of a different breed up here. John Brown, flat-fields, western scenery and all that. But you grow up in a small town in Kansas you know guys like Hap and Hardman. Hell, my dad was like Hap in a lot of ways: an overgrown hippie country boy, I guess I didn't fall too far from the tree. You don't often get authentic take in crime fiction about a guy who you've sat next to on a bar stool and drank the heart of a fine spring day. 

Back then I had been on the hunt for the Hardman books for a while, tipped off by the always useful Thrilling Detective Website, but even back then they were hard to come by. Now it's nearly impossible. I found myself in Jacksonville, Florida in a fine Hawaiian shirt bumming my way around a conference on sports broadcasting that I had no business being there for. But the ride was mostly free and so was a lot of my time. I stumbled around town, rode a monorail and found myself in a book shop. At the end of the trip, I left with a nearly overflowing suitcase full of books. A lot of them were by Ralph Dennis. I scored most of the series in one foul swoop and read three or four of them that weekend in a hotel bar or a conference hall while fleecing cocktail shrimp. They seemed like the book I had wanted to write since I started liking private eye fiction (I've written a couple, I'll get around to getting it printed this year, hopefully) and there it had been done for years. 

"The Deadly Cotton Heart" was read in that lost-booky weekend. Luckily that was many moons ago and most of it was lost in my brain, so it was a nearly new book for me. Boasting one of the best titles in the series "Cotton Heart" is a strong entry in a very strong and consistent series. Jim is asked to play the part of an out-of-town-killer for a police sting operation. He doesn't want to, and he's got the right idea cause that's where the trouble starts. The sting goes wrong, puts Hump and Jim in the hot-seat and sets them off looking for a missing wife. They head on down to Tennesse to get into more trouble with a road-side madam, local police, racists, and an old murder. It's a pleasant twisty little action/mystery the way they don't make 'em anymore. 

It's nice to know I got all of the Hardman's to re-read again and again. They were getting hard to come by, but the always excellent Brash Books re-released them not too long ago in handsome paperbacks and eBooks. Ralph Dennis was sadly under-appreciated in his own time, but luckily nowadays he's getting the love he deserved, thanks to Lee Goldberg and Brash Books. Hardman and Hump are companions for my writing life, I often think of Ralph Dennis's clean, hardboiled writing when I'm doing my typing and I try to learn something.