The Drive-In by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
With a new Hap & Leonard book out and the TV series based on their adventures coming soon it seems like Lansdale Fever is sweeping Goodreads these days. I blame Dan for infecting me with this particular strain of the virus.
I’d read the first two parts of The Drive-In saga way back in the ‘90s when I first discovered the Champion Mojo Storyteller, but I’d forgotten most of the story and never even gotten around to checking out the third installment. Then Dan spread his contagion all over the place, and I found myself rediscovering the gruesomeness of the Popcorn King all over again. Thanks a lot, Dan!
During the late ‘80s in Texas four young men head out to the local drive-in where they plan to spend the night watching a horror movie marathon. In the middle of their films a comet with a smile roars by, and the entire drive-in is suddenly surrounded by an inky darkness that dissolves anyone who tries to leave. With no other options the trapped patrons watch the movies over and over in an endless night as the food starts to run out. That’s when things get even weirder and more horrible.
This is a very short book, and that’s a good thing because I don’t think spinning the concept out much longer than 150 pages would actually work. (Although I’m sure Stephen King would have taken a 700 or 800 page swing at it if he would have thought of this idea first.) What really sells it is that Lansdale quickly provides the details that ground things in reality among the most mundane circumstances of people going to the movies before unleashing the batshit craziness. Then he uses the most terrible of creatures, human beings, to set the stage for the real horror show which becomes a gory supernatural B-movie spectacle.
Lansdale mainly uses two characters to represent different points of view. Our narrator Jack holds the desperately hopeful belief that there is some inherent goodness and meaning in humanity’s existence, but the counterpoint is his buddy Bob who operates under the basic assumptions that people are just bastard covered bastards with bastard filling and that believing in anything other than yourself is a waste of time. This is pretty much the same dynamic that defines the soft-hearted Hap and the pragmatic Leonard so you can almost see Jack and Bob as an early trial run at those two characters.
The part that really got to me this time was that period before things really go sideways when everyone is just stuck watching the movies over and over again while living off concession stand hotdogs and popcorn. While drive-ins were pretty much dead in my area by the time I was a teenager I’ve attended some movie marathons, and I think Lansdale really nailed that weird dreamy limbo state that sets in if you spend hour after hour staring at a screen in a theater as you shove popcorn or candy into your mouth.
Like most things Lansdale it’s got some funny stuff mixed in with some sharp edges that unsuspecting readers might cut themselves on. Overall, it’s weird and gory in ways that are different than most horror stories you’d read, but it’s also got an ugliness to it that definitely cuts into the fun factor you might expect from something this bizarre.
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