from The Best of Joe R. Lansdale
Even among horror fans, Texas novelist and short-story writer Joe R. Lansdale is something of a cult figure. He is arguably best known for the film adaptation of his short story “Bubba Ho-Tep,” directed by Don Coscarelli, who is himself best known for creating Phantasm and its sequels. “Bubba Ho-Tep” finds an aged Elvis Presley (or a delusional Elvis impersonator) consigned to a rest home in East Texas. One of the other residents, a black man named Jack McLaughlin, is “convinced he [is] John F. Kennedy, and that his brain [is] in the White House running on batteries.” Together, Elvis and Kennedy do battle with a vampiric Egyptian mummy who is devouring the souls of the residents.
This is clearly a gonzo scenario, made even more outlandish in the film version by the casting of Bruce Campbell as Elvis and Ossie Davis as JFK. It’s high-octane, humorous, and gleefully vulgar. (One of the mummy’s graffitied hieroglyphs translates to “Eat the dog dick of Anubis, you ass wipe.”)
It’s also Lansdale for dilettantes.
There is much to enjoy about stories such as “Bubba Ho-Tep,” “Godzilla’s Twelve-Step Program,” and their ilk, but “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” is representative of the other Joe R. Lansdale – the nastier, uglier, more visceral storyteller. It’s a testament to Coscarelli’s range and depth of affinity for the author’s output that he also adapted the latter story, this time for Mick Garris’s cable television anthology series Masters of Horror. The adaptation, while relatively faithful to the source material, inevitably dilutes it – in part by casting Phantasm‘s Angus Scrimm in a superfluous comic-relief role that is not in the story, and in part simply by rendering the narrative in visuals that are inevitably less potent than what Lansdale is able to conjure in his reader’s imagination.
“Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” should come with a litany of trigger warnings. There is domestic abuse, rape, child murder, and graphic violence. But at its heart, it’s a survival story, with a woman at the centre.
The woman, Ellen, is first found driving on an apparently deserted mountain road at night. Rounding a curve too quickly, she crashes her car into an abandoned Chevy. When she gets out to inspect the other car, she discovers the interior is covered in blood. Flagging down the person she assumes to be the car’s owner, she encounters instead a demented mountain man with steel-plated teeth and an affinity for murdering interlopers, gouging out their eyes, and posing their corpses in and around his shack of a dwelling.
The scenario seems at first clichéd: one part stalk-and-slash thriller, one part Grand Guignol nightmare. What elevates Lansdale’s tale is its backstory. Ellen is married to an abusive man who buys into a particularly American strain of survivalist paranoia: he is so convinced the U.S. is poised to descend into anarchy as a result of nuclear war, or race riots, or some other insurrection, that he has outfitted himself and his wife with the kind of wilderness training he feels is necessary to survive the impending apocalypse. It is this very training that ironically assists Ellen in her pitched battle against her anonymous aggressor. (The killer is never named, and Ellen comes to refer to him only as “Moon Face.”)
The antecedents are obvious – “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” contains elements of rape-revenge movies such as Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave; the killer’s corpse-strewn abode is reminiscent of Tobe Hooper’s seminal 1974 horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and the backwoods survival trope is right out of Deliverance. (The 1991 story also anticipates many elements that would become central to The Walking Dead.) But Lansdale is a strong – and surprisingly subtle – craftsman, and it is in the mixing of these generic elements that he creates something startlingly original and coruscating.
Absent the giggling, dancing Angus Scrimm character from the television adaptation, there is not much to laugh at in the original story, which is lean and tight and unsparing of its reader’s sensibilities. The story operates on Poe’s principle of the single effect, whereby every narrative element should tilt toward one specific mood or emotion; in this case, the single effect is one of abject terror.
The terror is not without its catharsis, and Ellen proves her mettle, not once but twice, in the course of the story. She bests both Moon Face and her brutalizing husband, and does so by using the techniques and tactics she unwittingly gleaned from the latter. Ellen is, in Forster’s conception, the story’s only “round” character: neither Moon Face nor Bruce, Ellen’s husband, is given a personality or emotional depth. Moon Face in particular is more reminiscent of masked killers like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees from Hollywood slasher films than he is a convincingly delineated human being.
This, too, is absolutely intentional. Lansdale recognizes that the monster is much more frightening if it appears devoid of any psychological explication or empathetic rationale. Moreover, by rendering Ellen as the only fully fleshed out character in the narrative, Lansdale has ensured the reader’s identification with her. Her catharsis is our catharsis; her vindication is our vindication. Lansdale is remorseless in dragging his character through the bowels of East Texas hell, and equally remorseless in his treatment of his reader. We are all the more grateful when we emerge – bloodied and bruised, but intact – on the other side.