The Complete Drive-In: Three Novels of Anarchy, Aliens, & the Popcorn King.
Joe R. Lansdale
Underland Press, 2010
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
I first encountered the utterly outré world of the Drive-In through the original Bantam/Spectra paperback, purchased shortly after publication in 1988. Even though the subtitle—“A ‘B’ Movie with Blood and Popcorn, Made in Texas”—gave fair warning of what was to follow, the novel nevertheless surprised and stunned me. I’d heard the term gonzo before, but this was the first time I’d read gonzo horror, in which anything could—and eventually did—happen. I remember thinking that the Popcorn King had to rank among the most bizarre, most frightening creations I had yet read. And I remember reminding myself to check for a sequel when it came out, since the final pages of The Drive-In made it clear that whatever controlled Drive-in World was not finished with Jack, Bob, Crier, and Sam.
Then, as so often happens, life intruded. Teaching. Writing. Family. Etc.
I am not certain that I even noted when the sequel was published.
Then, earlier this year, I had the opportunity to become re-acquainted with Joe Lansdale at the World Horror Convention 2012 and decided after returning home to check out the Drive-In books for Kindle.
I’m glad I did.
The three individual volumes blend nicely to create a larger meta-fiction, a narrative about memory and reality, while managing to maintain the anything-goes attitude of the first. What begins as a seemingly random story of horror and dissolution ultimately becomes much, much more.
The first volume, The Drive-In (A B-Movie with Blood and Popcorn, Made in Texas), begins with a fairly conventional SF trope: a relatively small group of people are isolated, placed under increasing pressures by an unknown outside force, and finally reveal the true nature of humanity. That the isolation entails a dusk-to-dawn horror feature at The Orbit Drive-In; that the pressures stem from hunger, thirst, and madness; and that the outside pressure may or may not be from bulbous-eyes aliens in the process of making a low-budget cosmic horror flik—all of these elements blend to create scenes almost unendurably graphic, exploitative, and…well…and compelling. Throw in the mutated Popcorn King, and what at first seemed conventional becomes increasingly and distinctly unconventional.
The second book, Drive-In II, centers on a journey from The Orbit and toward whatever awaits at the end of the highway the survivors of book one follow. The road is rutted and rough, with grass growing in the cracks and jungle hedging in on both sides; the camper Jack and the others drive seems not to use gas at the normal rate; and they are surrounded by oddities…including dinosaurs. Instead of a concentrated view of an isolated group in a restricted environment, Lansdale gives us a smaller group traveling through a progressively more hostile landscape, searching for answers and resolution. They meet with Grace, who, as befits her name, provides a measure of salvation for the men, physically, morally, and sexually. And—with the Popcorn in the first book—the novel climaxes with the revelation of another monstrous aberration in Drive-In World, Popalong Cassidy.
The third book—perhaps reflecting the years between its composition and that of the earlier ones—has a slightly different tone. Jack, Grace, and several others tire of life at the end of the highway and, using a school bus they have re-designed to meet their purposes, set out to find…whatever is out there, whatever is controlling Drive-In World. The part played by the Popcorn King in the first book and Popalong Cassidy in the second is more or less taken by Ed, the gigantic catfish that swallows the troupe of explorers, bus and all. Their immediate quest is to escape alive; their ultimate quest is to reach the steps that apparently lead from Drive-In World to…somewhere else.
All three books are linked by the presence of the narrator, Jack, although other characters come, take part in the adventures, and (usually) die. They are linked by the sense that more is happening than can be accounted for by observation and experience—especially when Jack’s dreams of alien producers and directors become more and more vivid. They are linked by a landscape that begins minimal—the parking area for The Orbit itself (an evocative name, that)—and gradually expands to include the highway; various way stations where, horrible as the places may be, the characters can rest and recoup; and finally the ‘outer world’ itself, the place where reality reveals itself at last. Perhaps.
The Complete Drive-In is not for the timid, the tender-hearted, the queasy, or the judgmental. Language is obsessively harsh…as befits the situations and the settings. Characters seem engrossed to a pathological level with genitalia, both male and female; and sex becomes almost as commonplace as breathing. Cannibalism (it is all right to eat children, apparently, but only if they are cooked?), crucifixion, suicide, rape, murder—all become almost hackneyed experiences in the precarious existence of Drive-In World.
And, just as characters—and readers—begin to feel comfortable with the situation as is, Lansdale jerks that complacency away, twists, reverses, complicates, and generally exacerbates evil, heartlessness, mindlessness, and self-centeredness and raises the stakes to where they become unbearable…until everyone becomes used to the new status quo, and the process begins again.
But readers interested in razor-sharp satire on all things human—actions, morals, values, religion, media (especially film and television), expectations, and assumptions—may find The Complete Drive-In both fascinating and thought-provoking.
And when you sit down to read…don’t forget the popcorn!