Interview: Joe R. Lansdale, author of “Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back”

Interview by Erin Stocks

Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than three hundred short stories and forty novels. His work has been awarded with the Edgar, nine Bram Stokers, The British Fantasy Award, The Herodotus, and many others. He is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters, The Texas Literary Hall of Fame, and is Writer in Residence at Stephen F. Austin State University. He has received the Grandmaster Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Horror Writers Association, and is a Grandmaster and Founder of Shen Chuan, Martial Science. His work has been filmed several times. Among these films are Bubba Hotep, Cold in July, Christmas with the Dead, and Incident On and Off a Mountain Road. Forthcoming are films of The Bottoms, directed by Bill Paxton, and The Thicket, starring Peter Dinklage. The Sundance Channel has plans to create a series from his Hap and Leonard novels.

Where did the idea for this story come from?

I think there are way too many places for me to know for sure, but I did grow up in the fifties and sixties, when the fear of The Bomb was at its height. I also grew up on numerous science fiction and monster stories about creatures created by radiation and so on. I knew that I wasn’t actually writing science fiction so much as I was writing science fantasy, as far as the idea of the immediately-created bomb creatures, instead of an evolution altered by radiation that might lead to some kind of monstrous change. But it was a trope of the old films and a lot of the science fiction written at that time, so I used that idea as the back-beat of the story. I’m sure other things, like Day of the Triffids, the novel and the early film, were influences. As well as the films Night of the Living Dead and Panic in Year Zero had something to do with it.

Marder asks Mary to start tattooing him that day after Mary accuses him of killing their daughter, Rae, and he admits it. Given the pain through the needles, his experience brings to mind paying penance. What do you think he was trying to achieve?

It was like flagellation. That was the idea. That he was punishing himself with the tattoos, and Mary was doing the punishing. She blamed him for Rae’s death, and he blamed himself.

I will never look at roses the same way again after reading this story. They’re more triffid-like—or carnivorous—than flower. What’s your take on their existence?

For the story I decided they were an evolutionary twist caused by the nukes, but underneath it all, I saw it as symbolic of humanity’s punishment for its own stupidity. Again, I knew it was bad science, and I’m not a scientist, but I also knew, symbolically, it was a good story. Something beautiful turned ugly and dangerous.

Marder and others survive for over twenty years Down Under before they risk going Topside. It’s likely those twenty years did drive him mad, which he considers. What would you imagine they did down there, for that long?

Down below I suppose there was a slow dissolve of humanity. As long as there’s leisure and free time and plenty to eat and drink, a certain amount of comfort, humans are all right. Take all of that away, put them all in one place, it might become more difficult.

A good bit of your writing falls into the horror genre. For the science fiction buff, what works of yours would you recommend?

I think, for me, science fiction is more in attitude than in actual science. But here goes: short fiction, “Steam Man of the Prairie” and “The Dark Rider Get Down”, “In the Cold Dark Time”, “Letter from the South”, “Two Moons West of Nacogodoches”, “Fish Night”, “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks”; possibly the novel, The Drive In, and its sequels, Zeppelins West, Flaming London. There are others, but with a slight twist of the head, they could be seen as horror or fantasy or whimsy. I really think of all my work as Lansdale story. I’m not worried about labels.