“PRISONER 489” & The Growing ‘Cult’ of Joe R. LansdaleBooks/Art/Culture,Features/Interviews,News Trevor Parker
For years, Joe R. Lansdale embodied the very definition of ‘cult’ author, adored by a fervent but fringe audience first introduced to his writing through its membership in the explicit Splatterpunk movement—a literary scene in which horror writers competed to push the envelope of gore, amorality, and taboo sexuality until it burst.
Since Splatterpunk quickly petered out due to repetitive shock for shock’s sake, Lansdale has concentrated more on crime and mystery fiction, attracting a new generation of fans and creating the revered (and acerbically hilarious) pair of accidental detectives, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Beyond the occasional short story with a supernatural theme, Lansdale hasn’t been much active in the genre of late. That status is set to change via a stomp back into what Lansdale describes as “old-school horror” with PRISONER 489, a novella to be published this autumn in several editions from Black Labyrinth Press.
In trying to tease PRISONER’s plot, Lansdale says, “I don’t want to give too much away, but the idea is ‘monster on the loose’ in a way, and it’s got some mystery elements to it. It’s about an island where they imprison people with unusual abilities—the worst of the worst, the people that you couldn’t even put in Sing Sing or any modern prison. They’re just too much for that. So it’s a special prison on an island, where (the inmates) are confined, and sometimes executed. When they’re executed, there’s another island where they’re buried. PRISONER 489 is about the four hundred and eighty-ninth execution; about the body being brought over to the burial island, and then things go bad. It has a kind of tie to cinema, with the way it’s written and in the way it’s paced and established.”
Asked if he feels that this new PRISONER may appease fans of his earlier, scarier work, Lansdale replies, “Yeah, I think so, though my older work is so varied I wouldn’t know which one they’re talking about,” he laughs. “I don’t really know that I’ve ever had a singular way of looking at things, it’s just sometimes people hone in on one particular story or novel, and that becomes their gold standard for what I do, although that standard is probably inaccurate.”
One of those early efforts is 1980’s ACT OF LOVE, Lansdale’s popular but grimly disturbing first novel concerning the police pursuit of a sexually-deviant serial killer. Lansdale was recently quoted as saying he’s not overly fond of the book, but clarifies that his stance has nothing to do with LOVE’s rough content: “It’s just because it was my first novel and I wrote it so many years ago. I think I could do it better, could write it better. The subject matter is what it is, and I think the graphic aspect of the novel was correct. I do think that I was too graphic in some spots, but not because ‘graphic’ itself is bad, but just because I made some bad choices. So to me, we’re talking purely about experience and learning how to do something better. I’ve felt a little more congenial toward it over the last couple of days, because I’ve had to re-read some of it and checking it over for another thing I’m doing with it, and I thought, eh, you know what? First novel, not bad.”
PRISONER 489 gathered its stake through an online Kickstarter fundraising campaign, a first for Lansdale. It’s a financing method whose cachet is ever increasing in the publishing world, especially as the state of the print medium sits in what seems like an endless flux. Lansdale, a veteran presence in publishing, is unsure of how this crowdfunding trend might ultimately affect the business. “I don’t know that [Kickstarter] is the future,” he says. “I think the future of the publishing industry is going to be varied—small presses are going to become more and more prominent, and I believe that Kickstarter is going to be a part of that. Now just to make this clear, I didn’t actually do the Kickstarter, the publisher did, so I’m not as experienced with Kickstarter as they would be. They did get the money and had luck with that. I really believe that as time goes on, Kickstarter and that whole thing might fade. There might be too many things that people try to get financed that never happen or don’t happen to their liking. I do think that publishing is going to extend into a lot of different areas. Amazon is going to control a large part, and that’s going to open the doors for a lot of smaller publishing houses, and many of the larger publishing houses are going to become smaller. People will probably do more self-publishing, which is not always a good thing, but certainly an option.”
One positive aspect of Amazon’s marketplace domination, at least where Lansdale’s longtime readers are concerned, is the proliferation of e-books. Whereas before, completists would often be forced into complicated quests to procure copies of rare and out-of-print Lansdale titles, today those same titles are readily and inexpensively available online at the mere click of a mouse button. It turns out that Lansdale does have a few reservations about the Amazon phenomenon. “If you own a lot of your own properties,” he says, “which I do—I own some of them in total—what happens then is that I could put e-books out through specific companies, or I could do it entirely myself if I wanted to bother with it, which I don’t. Now, not only do the publishers not give you a lot, but they keep the e-book rights in perpetuity. They can always say a title is in print as long as they sell one e-book, or something like that. The independent e-books are forcing the publishers to change that. So in that way, Amazon is doing a good thing, but in other ways… I really like Amazon, but the problem is that anytime you have a business thriving to the point where it’s becoming a monopoly, that’s not a good thing. You need a lot of outlets.”
The flipside to today’s easy availability of Lansdale’s work is the collectibles market, where exclusive and pricey limited editions of his books are sought after and prized almost to the point of fetishization. “Well, there are collectors out there, so therefore there are people who’d want those books,” Lansdale says. “Subterranean Press will do a collectible edition, in the sense that it’s signed and unique, and then they’ll do a trade run. Then I’ll turn around and sell [the title] in paperback or e-book, or whatever. So there are variants for a variety of different readers. I have nothing against collectibles. How well they’re priced is not up to me. I try to work with people that I think are doing quality work. When Subterranean does a book and it costs forty dollars or sixty dollars, people complain, but they’re probably people like me who don’t buy to collect. I buy to read. On the other hand, there are plenty of collectors who recognize that this [edition] isn’t just the story, it’s also the containment, the thing that holds the story, and it’s unique in its own way. When people do shoddy work and overprice it, that’s always bad, but I have nothing against collectibles. I own a few of them, and I collect a handful of particular writers, but to me a signature by a writer on a trade edition is just as good as one on the limited. It may not be worth as much as a collectible, but like I say, I read, and I’m not an autograph seeker per se. So I say, what’s the complaint? Don’t buy ‘em [laughs]! And at least with my books, if you wait, they’re going to come out in another version anyway. I do have some books that were only done as a limited; books that were so unique that to have put them out in a trade edition would have been foolish, because they weren’t for that market. I had one with some old stories of mine and some autobiographical material in between called THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE INDIFFERENT. I think they only published five hundred copies, but it’s not the sort of book that a wider, mainstream audience would be interested in. And for there to be that limited number and for it to be done as well as it was, it had to be more expensive. But that one was for the collectors, and if you’re not a collector, don’t spend that money.”
In addition to releasing books, this year was a banner one for the prolific Lansdale’s profile as screenwriter, having written the screenplay for the well-received SON OF BATMAN animated film. “You know, I’ve written and sold seventeen screenplays,” Lansdale says on the topic, “they just haven’t been filmed. I’ve sold to Ridley Scott, John Irvin… to a number of well-known directors and companies over the years. I did three BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES episodes, a SUPERMAN, a little eleven-minute JONAH HEX that was in D.C. SHOWCASE, so I’ve had a number of animated things actually ‘filmed’, so to speak. A lot of the other [scripts] were sold for good money and looked like they were going to be filmed, but just with how the ‘Cinema Gods’ work, they weren’t. I’ve always been involved in film, so that’s nothing new, but I’ve been trying to work a little bit more in producing and screenwriting, and I’ve even thought about maybe directing. I’ve got a lot of interests, and I always have had. I just keep going and doing the things I most enjoy doing, which primarily is writing.”
Lansdale does have some bad news to deliver on the long-anticipated adaptation of his DRIVE-IN trilogy that was set to be the feature directorial debut of FX savant Greg Nicotero. “That’s no longer happening,” he says. “Greg got involved with THE WALKING DEAD, and THE DRIVE-IN sort of fell by the wayside. Though it’s funny that you mention THE DRIVE-IN, because it looks like that one may be back on the docket, so to speak. I can’t say more than that, so I’ll wait and let Fangoria know more once we know. It may not be with Greg, who I love very much and wish was involved, but sometimes these things change and go different ways.” Lansdale’s forecast is far sunnier in regard to the proposed movie version of THE BOTTOMS, based on his Edgar-award winning novel of depression-era race relations set amid assorted bayou nastiness. THE BOTTOMS will mark the return of Bill Paxton to the director’s chair after 2001’s twisting vigilante thriller FRAILTY. “[THE BOTTOMS] is happening,” Lansdale says. “We’re trying to establish an actor, and it should be filmed next year. Bill is currently in Durango shooting a film, so when he gets through with that, we’ll get more involved with it. But it looks good; it’s got its production money and a great script by Brent Hanley, who wrote FRAILTY.”
So now with THE BOTTOMS looking imminent, a proposed Hap and Leonard television series barreling toward fruition (“If nobody blows a gasket, I think next fall you’ll see that on T.V. on the Sundance channel,” says Lansdale), and Jim Mickle’s adaptation of COLD IN JULY already released and basking in critical adulation, could this be the year that the mainstream finally catches up with the rowdy, rollicking charms of Lansdale’s world? He laughs and says, “In some ways, I feel like the mainstream caught up with me earlier than that. It goes back to THE BOTTOMS in 2000, because that was a novel that had a sort of wider acceptance and got quite a bit of attention. The other side of it is that I’m selling well enough here and overseas. I’ve got too many readers and I’m making too much money to just be a cult, if that makes sense. It’s always been happening, it’s just gotten a little bigger over these last couple of years. I think film, rightly or wrongly, will a lot of times lead people to your work who might not otherwise know about it.”