A Reader’s Guide to Joe Lansdale

Wondering where you should start with the work of Joe Lansdale? We've got some suggestions that will get you hooked.

Joe Lansdale. His name might not resonate across the pop culture landscape as loudly as Stephen King’s immortal moniker, but it damn well should.

Champion Joe, as his loving fans call him, is one of the most original voices in contemporary fiction. Skating through genres as skillfully as an old time Texas farmer cuts through wheat, Lansdale is at home in any literary environment with decade’s worth of cutting edge and compelling fiction under his gun belt.

You might be familiar with Lansdale through his awesome work on the Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series. Remember that kickass episode of Batman when Jonah Hex met a youthful Ra’s Al Ghul in the Old West? Yeah, that was Joe Lansdale. Lansdale also penned two Jonah Hex series for Vertigo (Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo in 1993 and Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such in 1995). Both series are a must read for any comic book or dark western fan. Also, remember Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), the film where Bruce Campbell played an aged and not dead Elvis Presley and fought a mummy that preyed on the elderly? Yeah, that insanity was based on a Joe Lansdale short story.

So as you can see, whether you knew it or not, Lansdale is one of the most daring and original voices in genre fiction and you need to start reading him right now. So get your ass over to Amazon, (or your favorite independent bookseller, because support small businesses whenever and wherever you can) and scoop up some bona fide Texas storytelling.

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Of course, this being a Den of vast literary tastes (as well as stunning levels of debauchery and iniquity), we have taken it upon ourselves to provide a recommended Lansdale reading list. So read on, pardner, and learn you something about the best damn author you might not have cottoned to yet- Joe Lansdale, hisownself.

Dead in the West (1986)

You like zombies, right? Who doesn’t these days?

But years before The Walking Dead slammed ornery walkers into a rural Southern setting, Joe Lansdale did it in Dead in the West. This horror western features a recently murdered Indian medicine man whose vengeance raises a whole passel of angry dead Indians. Standing in their way is recurring Lansdale hero Reverend Jebediah Mercer who is the only thing between a peaceful town and undead Western Zombie vengeance.

It is just as chaotic and unflinching as it sounds and let me tell you, Mercer makes Rick Grimes look like Rick Astley.

The Nightrunners (1987)

This one is cut from the same cloth as Silence of the Lambs and Henry: Portrait of a Serial KillerNightrunners starts out as a spicy crime thriller, a revenge tale with humanity and consequences, but a deft supernatural twist will leave the reader amazed and gasping either for mercy or for more.

In this period of Lansdale’s storied career, he was in full on horror mode, but Nightrunners proved that Lansdale could be comfortable in any genre and even more comfortable when he smashes genres together to create something truly unique…even for the most hardened reader of dark fiction.

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The Drive-In: A “B” Movie with Blood and Popcorn, Made in Texas (1988)

This is probably Lansdale’s purest horror novel.

After a mysterious comet passes overhead, a large crowd is trapped within a Texas drive-in movie theatre. This one echoes Stephen King’s The Mist for the sheer claustrophobic madness that ensues. Without proper nutrition, many of the moviegoers soon go bad as the drive-in becomes a dark reflection of civilization all while Tobe Hooper films play on the giant screen that now serves as an object of religious reverence to this newly isolated civilization.  

What happens when a group of people only have movie snacks to eat? I’ll tell you what, things get ugly.

This is pure southern fried horror crafted in Lansdale’s deft hand, a loving tribute to the horror genre and a tale of pure salty, sticky madness. There were a couple of sequels to The Drive-In and they all are great examples of what happens when Champion Joe goes really, really dark.

By Bizarre Hands (1989)

Starting with 1989’s By Bizarre Hands, Lansdale established a tradition of skillfully told short stories in the pulp tradition of Poe, Bloch, Howard, and Lovecraft, but all with a Dixie fried sensibility. In fact, he shines even brighter in short form fiction as Mr. Lansdale gets in, gets out, and leaves his reader gasping for more. Some notable short stories include “Incident On and Off a Mountain Rode,” the aforementioned “Bubba Ho-Tep,” “Night They Missed the Horror Show,” “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks,” “Godzilla’s Twelve Step Program,” and “Tight Little Stitches In A Dead Man’s Back.”

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As of this writing, Lansdale has published 27 anthologies of different shapes, sizes, and formats and each one would do O. Henry proud. Each one is like having a master tale spinner telling you the scariest story you ever done heard while mixing you a tall glass of sweet tea and polishing a shotgun under the hot Texas sun.

Savage Season (1990)

Starting with 1990’s Savage Season, Lansdale blessed the world with his two most compelling and revered heroes- Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. One of the reasons we are featuring this article  is that the Sundance Channel will soon air Hap and Leonard, a TV show featuring Lansdale’s most famous pair of characters. Hap Collins will be played by James Purefoy, the hombre who played that varmint serial killer Joe Carroll on The Following, while Leonard Pine will be played by Michael Kenneth Williams, the brilliant actor who brought Chalky White to life in Boardwalk Empire.

For those not in the know, Hap is one of Lansdale’s most compelling protagonists, a man who always does the right thing despite the consequences and who sometimes ignores common sense in order to help those who desperately need it. He is also an unflinching martial artist who will kick your head off if you’re being a douche.

Leonard Pine is an ex-Navy seal who is even more brutally kickass than Hap. In the many Hap and Leonard novels, this pair of bosom chums get into all sorts of trouble as they try to clean up their little area of Texas and stand by each other in a brutal and unfair world. Hap and Leonard have an old type of honor and the humor and intensity of this series will appeal to fans of Preacher or Justified. The Hap and Leonard stories are tales of two good men and two great friends who just want to drink a few beers, eat a few cookies, and lay the smackdown on any asswipe that steps up to this pair of very unlikely heroes.

The Big Blow (1990)

This bad boy starts like this- “On a day hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock…” and it gets better from there.

The Big Blow is about real life boxing legend Jack Johnson and what happens when the future world champion falls afoul of a couple of white sports club owners. Johnson must face racist, dirty fighting rapscallion John McBride in the fight of the century…during a hurricane. The book is a throwback to the old sporting man boxing pulp stories from Robert E. Howard and really has to be experienced. John McBride is one of the nastiest antagonists you will ever see and the fight between he and Johnson is one of the greatest and most brutal literary clashes you can possibly imagine.

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The Bottoms (2000)

Perhaps Lansdale’s finest novel, The Bottoms is a coming of age story wrapped in a gripping murder mystery. Set in East Texas and revolving around the murder of a black woman during the Depression Era, The Bottoms is not only a fully realized, classic mystery but one that also examines the brutal history of racism in the South and the bond between the young narrator and his morally upright father.

The Bottoms reads like a modern day To Kill a Mockingbird with the relationship of father and child at the center of one of the best mystery tales you will ever read. Plus, there’s a cryptozoic creature called the Goat Man who may or may not have committed the murder. So yeah, there’s that.

Zeppelins West (2001)

The first part of the Ned the Seal series and yeah you read that right, Zeppelins West is a genre mash up for the ages. It’s like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen without all that dang fluffery. This yarn of yarns sees Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Captain Bemo (and his ship the Naughty Lass named such cause it was a bitch to build), Buffalo Bill Cody (he’s exactly like the traditional portrayal of Buffalo Bill Cody excepting his head is kept alive in a jar of pig urine), the Tin Man from Oz, and Frankenstein’s Monster form a team of adventurers and get into all sorts of unbelievable scrapes. Rounding out the team is Ned the Seal, a fez wearing seal who is as brave as he is adorable.

There have been three of these unspeakably awesome books published so far with the fourth, The Sky Done Ripped, expected at some point. This a genre bending romp seasoned with that old Lansdale hickory BBQ sauce and no reader will soon forget it. The Tin Man and Frankenstein, I tell you!

A Fine Dark Line (2002)

Seriously, one only needs to look at The Bottoms, The Thicket, and A Fine Dark Line, to know that Lansdale has mastered the coming of age novel.

Like many of Lansdale’s works, this one takes place in the South during the Great Depression. In this stirring mystery, a young boy named Stanley Mitchell finds a mysterious box that contains troubled love letters that eventually lead him into a web of murder and violence. Along with Stanley, we have Buster Smith, an alcoholic projectionist who is one of Lansdale’s most startlingly rich characters.

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This book is Lansdale at his finest, a potent and deftly executed Southern coming of age tale that proves that Lansdale can do it all.

Sunset and Sawdust (2004)

Pete Jones was a local constable in an old time Texas town who thought it was okay to abuse his wife. When Sunset Jones had enough of Pete’s crap, she blew his fool head off, picked up his badge and gun and became the first female law officer in Camp Rapture, Texas.

Sunset is arguably Lansdale’s strongest protagonist but this novel is also filled with unforgettable villains, heroes, Klan members, and con men. Soon, Sunset and her new crew of lawmen must face down the racist regime of her town and prove herself worthy of the badge she so proudly wears. Sunset and Sawdust  is an unflinching look at 1930s life in a small Texas town and the woman who tamed it.

The Thicket (2013)

Jack Parker already suffered through his fair share of tragedy. His grandfather was killed in a farming accident and his parents succumbed to smallpox. All Jack has left is his sister Lula who he swore to always care for after his parents died. When Lula is kidnapped by bandits, Jack must team with a very unlikely band of heroes to get Lula back. Along the way, he becomes a man and Joe Lansdale delivers another Texas fried triumph.

Jack’s pards consist of a gravedigger named Eustace, a prostitute named Jimmy Sue, and a bounty hunting dwarf named Shorty. And yes, Peter Dinklage is connected to a film adaptation of The Thicket. I’m hoping Lansdale centers a new book series around Shorty, because man, is that little kneecapper awesome.

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Paradise Sky (2015)

This here’s the story of the famed black gunfighter Deadwood Dick and how he rose to prominence in the Old West. Fans of HBO’s Deadwood take note: Dick passes through the famed Western town and runs into many of its more famous residence including Al Swearengen, Wild Bill Hickok, and Charlie Utter.

Deadwood Dick is one of Lansdale’s finest characters, a cool as ice Western archetype who has delicious complexities and complex motivations. This one has the usual Lansdale chaos but also serves as a meditation on race, marginalization, and the price of violence. This is Lansdale’s most recent novel, proving that hisownself keeps getting better with each successive yarn.

Now listen, there’s also Lansdale’s first novel, the hardboiled page turner Act of Love (1981), Lansdale’s two Batman novels Batman: Captured by the Engines (1991) and Batman: Terror on the High Skies (1992), his Lone Ranger & Tonto (1993) comic series for Topps Comics, the comic series Conan and the Songs of the Dead (2005) from Dark Horse, one of Lansdale’s forays into young adult fiction Edge of Dark Water (2012), the wonderfully odd pulp novella The Ape Man’s Brother (2013), and Lansdale’s first Deadwood Dick story in Black Hat Jack (2014). All these are worthy of consumption by the discerning bookworm.

So get to reading, pardner.