JOE R. LANSDALE, prolific writer of novels and short stories and champion martial artist, is one of East Texas’ most interesting characters. He grew up in Gladewater and is kin to the Upshur County Lansdales. So when he turned up twice on the program of the East Texas Historical Association meeting in Tyler last month, I made sure I was there.
“East Texas Made Me Do It: How I Became a Writer” was the Lansdale topic in a session on Literary East Texas. The author of 30 novels and 200 short stories as well as editor of several anthologies in the horror, mystery, science fiction and westerns genres said that he had no choice but to become a writer.
“I came from a family of story tellers,” he explained. He said his dad, a mechanic, couldn’t read or write, but his mother made up stories. A series of small events “ruined” him, he thinks, looking back.
THE FAMILY lived in “genteel poverty” in a house overlooking a drive-in movie theater and a honky-tonk, he recalled. He got to watch cartoons and the movies free, and the honky-tonk produced a fist fight or knifing every Saturday night.
Also vivid in his memory is a tornado that sent the family to a storm cellar occupied by a water moccasin. The sky turned green just like in The Wizard of Oz, he remembers. No doubt because of his early experiences, weather has always been important in Lansdale’s fiction. His dad bought him a puppy when he was a child, and this also shows up in his work.
“People were closer to dogs then,” he remarked.
Joe Lansdale has tried living in other places — Austin was too dry and dusty, Berlin was too weird — but now he is back in East Texas as writer in residence at Stephen F. Austin State University and operator of a martial arts studio in Nacogdoches.
HE WAS accompanied by his beautiful blonde daughter, Kelly, at 21 a singer-songwriter who has already toured Europe, and was selling her CD while her dad sold autographed copies of his most recent novels.
When I asked which one he recommended for me, he handed me The Bottoms, a Texas Gothic suspense novel set in the Sabine bottoms between Greggton and Big Sandy.
The story is told by Harry Crane who, at 80, remembers 1934 when he discovered the mutilated body of a black woman bound to a tree next to the Sabine with barbed wire.
A key role is played by the “swinging bridge” which those of us who were in high school in the 1930s and ‘40s well remember. (And maybe later generations do as well. I don’t know when it disappeared or even if it may still be there.) It was a daring adventure to make a nighttime visit to that bridge which, if I recall correctly, was located between Gladewater and Greggton.
THE BOTTOMS was a fascinating read for this Upshur County native, but Joe Lansdale is such a gifted story teller, with “a folklorist’s eye for telling detail and a front-porch raconteur’s sense of pace,” according to a New York Times reviewer, that it would hold the attention of any English-speaking person.
Nature/weather metaphors abound, as in these paragraphs, describing the aftermath of a rain that flooded the Sabine and left “mud heaped up in hard crust, like scabs healing all over the earth”:
“At night the dark sack that held the skies was burst open and the stars fled from it and glowed like frightened animal eyes all across the black velvet heavens. “The river ceased to roar, murmured instead, like a man sleeping contentedly, his belly full of cornbread and beans.”
The suspense builds and the climax is suitably surprising. Racial tension is entwined through the novel, and, according to interviews Joe Lansdale has given, this is an inseparable part of his view of East Texas.
In an interview carried on the website slushpile.net, one question includes this statement: “Racial attitudes in the South are better than in the North. How do you approach your stories so that you are telling the truth about the South, with all of its shortcomings, without just fueling more negative stereotypes about southerners?” Lansdale replied:
“No matter how much you show a full rounded South, readers latch on one aspect. It’s so deeply ingrained in history but more so in films and books and comics. It’s the same way with the look of the region. I try and describe East Texas, which is wooded and full of water, and is humid and then the publishers put a West Texas cover on the book and talk about the barren wastelands. It’s nothing like that. Some stereotypes are bigger than Texas, no matter what you do.”
IN A SECOND session, Lansdale took part in a roundtable discussion about “The World Gone to Hell in a Handbasket, or Tyler Junior College, Civil Liberties, and the Federal Courts: Dr. Harry Jenkins and the Infamous Hair Case of 1970, Lansdale vs TJC.”
Along with Cassie Bayliss and Jason Walter of Tyler, Lansdale recalled the time when he was an 18-year-old TJC freshman, a long-haired late ‘60s hippy who was told in the registration line, “go get a haircut.”
College authorities saw it as a social issue, Lansdale recalled, and he might have capitulated, but he found a flyer under his car windshield wiper that said, “Don’t cut your hair.” So he went to a lawyer’s office and explained that he was a married adult and wanted to take his case to court.
TESTIMONY brought out the college’s view: long hair made you dumber and distracted other students. The administration was uncomfortable with change, and had to be in control, as Lansdale remembers those days. People hated him and he felt ostracized because of his hair, he said.
”They thought they knew what you thought.”
The American Civil Liberties Union became involved and defended Lansdale in the U. S. District Court presided over by Judge William Wayne Justice. The federal court ruled in Lansdale’s favor and the college appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court.
Using as precedent an earlier case that upheld the right of a San Jacinto College (Pasadena) student to wear long hair, the Fifth Circuit upheld Judge Justice. The U. S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, so Joe Lansdale’s civil liberties were preserved but he emerged “a wounded optimist,” he said.