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Random Review Friday: The Drive-In by Joe Lansdale

For this week's random review, author Craig Brownlie brings his complete review of THE DRIVE-IN trilogy by Joe Lansdale.



The Complete Drive-In: The Drive-In / The Drive-In 2 / The Drive-In 3 by Joe R. Lansdale

Reviewed by Craig Brownlie


The Drive-In books are post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare fuel. They read like 70s psychedelic science fiction. The Drive-In stories feel like a collaboration between Arthur Byron Cover and Philip José Farmer rejected by the first Dangerous Visions because it might cross a line.


Last month, I wrote about authors’ voices. At the time, I had halfway finished The Complete Drive-In, after a couple of decades reading other Lansdale works. Of course, I could have brought in Lansdale’s distinctive way with a tale. Of course, it would be grand sitting around the bar listening to a story from such a source.


This month, I choose to pivot away from storytelling specifically. Joe R. Lansdale has been described as a genre unto himself. The Drive-In trilogy is a prime example. Let’s agree to disagree and agree that Lansdale is such a rare creature.


Let me start by bringing up Dorothy Sayers, she of Lord Peter Wimsey fame. All the kids are reading her. Well, they used to, because her Wimsey short stories have the goods to chill the hearts of Boys’ Own readers.


Sayers’ first short mystery involves a horrific method of murder and she never really lets up with the ghosts and the wicked. This is something more than M.R. James writing stories to read aloud to boys stuck at school over Christmas break, ratcheting the suspense until the lads’ teeth have cracked from all the gnashing. Rather, she puts the ghastly front and center.


No one thinks of her as writing anything but mysteries. For that matter, Patricia Cornwell, and Reginald Hill and so many others are happy to club people to death and chase them around dark buildings with serial killers. Yet, they write mysteries, not horror.


Bear with me, I’m going to make a sharp turn.


My point is not that genre is a figment of marketing (which it is inside stores), but rather that it is much more interesting to consider the way these stories play out in our minds. Why the hell is it a mystery when Sayers chops a guy and it’s horror when Lansdale does it? Does it matter if one author dips a victim in acid and the other in cooking oil? Why does one get a series on the BBC and the other on SundanceTV?


We are happy enough to permit certain stories to go over the top and we just jolly along as readers. Our fairy tales for children are chockablock with terrible things perpetrated by awful antagonists. Somehow, our brains go, “Hey, that’s a lovely story for my child’s bedtime.”


But then I read something like Lansdale’s Drive-in books and I really have to wonder. Why would I persevere after a lifetime of consumption of so many dismemberments, defenestration’s, disintegrations, etc., enough to make Michael Myers claw his eyes out?


I wonder because I need the writer to have a reason for eating the baby.




The Drive-In is a trilogy about a bunch of people who go out to a multi-screen outdoor cinema and find themselves trapped within its grounds. Cosmic reasons are on offer for the changed world now inhabited by the protagonists, but the series becomes a meditation on what we become when stripped of all reason for living.


The Drive-In is an old man yelling at clouds. This is not necessarily a negative. A remarkable amount of excellent art comes from someone pissed off about something.


The Drive-In is a series of books about a character in search of his author. It’s Luigi Pirandello directed by Dario Argento. (As a side note, go ahead and bring up photos of those two. Separated at birth? Grandfather and grandson?)


The Drive-In is a philosophical tragedy about the price we pay for consuming modern entertainment. Ultimately, our vision of the world is colored by the stories we tell ourselves. If those stories are all film and TV, then we have no right to complain when our point of view is reduced to what can be seen through a lens controlled by an unseen hand.


We have to talk about Sophocles. What genre is Oedipus Rex? Go read it. I can wait.


Yes, some shit went down there. There are sequels. Next, try Antigone. It’s the fun one about burial. The Oresteia by Aeschylus is another good place to wonder about genre because directors like their buckets of blood fresh for that romp. How about the torture scenes in James Bond novels? What is the minimum count for testicle thwacking for a book to reach horrific? How many limbs does his American comrade need to lose? (This was one of JFK’s favorite books?) Is Alien horror? Science fiction? Science fiction horror? At what point do we stop playing Mad Libs?


Genre is bullshit and we all know it. We read specific books for dozens of reasons. We persevere word after word because the story and its telling do something for us. Lansdale works for me because he is unique. I choose to read his creations when I have hundreds of other ways to spend my time. (which is a very meta repudiation of The Drive-In’s condemnation of how people spend out spare time as well as a full endorsement of the theme.)


I realize that I have been all over the place here, but sometimes books and thinking and life do that to us. Art matters because life is complicated. If I could give you thirty simple words about The Drive-In, then I would be doing a disservice to it because sometimes art is complicated, especially our reactions to individual works.


Joe. R. Lansdale is definitely a genre unto himself. So is The Drive-In. The Drive-In 3 is yet again a different kettle of fish from the prior volumes. Just because Armand Rosamilia, Wiley Young, and Joe. R. Lansdale all find their writing in the horror section of the local bookstore does not mean anything more than you might be able to locate their work among a flood of travel guides, picture books, and crossword puzzles.


Did I like the trilogy? I enjoyed the final volume the best because it felt like a new take on dystopia. This is not a knock on the first two volumes, but they are older. And they have impacted a lot of readers (just as they were influenced by what came before). Some of those readers are writers. Nobody absorbs and regurgitates quite like an artist. Or a Popcorn King. Read the collection. You’ll understand then.


Highly recommended for entertainment, rational argument, and personal investment





Craig's Bio:

Find Craig on the usual social media and who knows where else? He's been busy submitting stories and books. His collection Thick As A Brick comes out on Godless on January 30. In the meantime, read his stories in Haunts Magazine (Nightshade Publications), Unspeakable Horrors 3: Dark Rainbow Rising, Jersey Devil Press, Lovecraftiana, Stranger With Friction, and Demons & Death Drops. Or talk to him at a convention. He hopes to be at Scares that Cares Authorcon III and IV in 2024.

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