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REVIEW: The Complete Drive-In by Joe R. Lansdale

REVIEW SUMMARY: The Complete Drive-in is a literary equivalent of watching Horror B-movies.

OVERALL RATING: (see below for individual ratings)

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An omnibus (consisting of Lansdale’s books The Drive In, The Drive-In 2, and The Drive-In: The Bus Tour) which is an homage to SciFi B-movies.

PROS: Lansdale’s voice is inviting and his no-nonsense delivery refreshing; the weirdness of the plot is oddly alluring at times.
CONS: As the series progresses, the homage to the absurd steps over the line into absurdity itself; characters, most likely in keeping with their B-movie templates, are not very well-drawn.
BOTTOM LINE: Lansdale’s winning prose serves as friendly tour guide down this highway of the utterly bizarre.

The Complete Drive-In is an omnibus of Joe R. Lansdale’s homage to B-movies. It contains the 1988 novel whose full title is The Drive-In: A “B” Movie with Blood and Popcorn, Made in Texas; 1989’s The Drive-In 2: Not Just One of Them Sequels; and the more recent The Drive-In: The Bus Tour from 2005, previously available only in limited edition. The omnibus also comes with a new introduction written by Don Coscarelli, who adapted Lansdale’s short story “Bubba Ho-Tep” into the Bruce Campbell/Ossie Davis film in 2002. Coscarelli informs us that Lansdale is no stranger to B-movies. It was his love for them, in fact, that spawned this series of novels.

This affinity for B-movies is evident in the book’s plot and execution. The story begins with a quartet of friends in Texas out for a fun night at the local multi-screen Drive-In theater, the Orbit. It’s not too long before things take a turn towards the strange when a passing comet seals off the theater with a wall of black goop that destroys anything that touches it. The Drive-In shows how the situation dissolves into localized post-apocalyptic anarchy, cannibalism, and the flat-out bizarre as the moviegoers become trapped and eventually conform to the whims of a new mutant known as The Popcorn King. In The Drive-In 2, survivors find themselves on a new world and are ruled by Popalong Cassidy, a psychotic with god-like powers and a television head. In The Bus Tour a group explores their new world even further and finally discovers the source of their strange predicament.

Obviously, the Drive-In books are written with weirdness built in from the ground up. This is not evident at first; the start of the series actually reads like an innocent coming-of-age story. But when that comet passes by, the author’s gloves come off and the story morphs into a well-imagined schlock horror story. This approach fits in line perfectly with B-movies themselves, of course, and the book makes as little effort to explain itself as its silver screen counterparts. In these books, weird things — like two characters being fused into the eyeball-infested mutation known as The Popcorn King — just happen and you take them as-is, all par for the course. The prevailing theory in the book – that Jack and his friends are unwitting actors in a low budget movie being made by alien “Directors” with tentacles that have eyes on them – will have to suffice for an explanation, at least until the very end of the third book, when things become somewhat clearer, though no less bizarre. And like a campy movie, if you spend any amount of time asking questions or looking for plot holes, you won’t be satisfied. The idea is to enjoy the ride.

That task gets more difficult as the books progress. The Drive-In eventually revolves around The Popcorn King, while The Drive-In 2 had as its antagonist Popalong Cassidy, an unhinged man who turned to television westerns for companionship and whose origins lend proof to the theory that the characters are indeed part of some bizarre, otherworldly movie set. But The Bus Tour, which is essentially a “road story” involving a respite inside a giant whale, lacks any significant antagonist thus making it a bit harder to become involved in the plight of the characters. Plus, the characters themselves (again like their B-movie counterparts) are not very well-drawn. This is surely intentional in keeping with the B-movie theme, but by the end of this 3-book journey, the absence of any significant character depth makes their plight less interesting which, in turn, makes more obvious that the homage to B-movie absurdity has overstepped the line into absurdity itself.

But all three books benefit from Lansdale’s down-to-Earth voice. That he’s a storyteller comes across in the easygoing delivery. Given the precariousness of the suspension of disbelief required for these stories, it was surprising to see how his writing style, so refreshing and so thoroughly engaging, made it work. Even through the parts that were hardest to swallow, Lansdale’s prose simply made it easier to do so, as if he were your sure-and-steady tour guide down this highway of the utterly bizarre.

Individual Ratings:

The Drive-In

The Drive-In 2

The Drive-In: The Bus Tour

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

3 Comments on REVIEW: The Complete Drive-In by Joe R. Lansdale

  1. brainshades // May 18, 2010 at 9:11 am //

    You got this one pretty much dead-on… the first book was a gem, and the second a bit too much of a good thing.  The third novel doesn’t bear mentioning in the company of the first two, or first one, and Joe would’ve been better off just leaving this sequence of stories and characters alone.

  2. The Drive-In is one of my all-time favourite books…but the sequels leave a LOT to be desired. Nonetheless, this is a must-have for any afficionado of ’70s drive-in horror flicks.

  3. I’ve not read the second and third, but the first was fantastic. It’s Lansdale, I’ll have to read it.

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