Funny thing about life: No matter how bad it gets, most folks still prefer it to the alternative. In fact, the worse life is, the harder people cling to it, and the more they’re willing to do to save themselves. The world of Joe R. Lansdale’s Drive-In is harsh and merciless, and the only heroes are the people with enough luck to avoid compromising themselves completely. The Complete Drive-In collects all three of Joe R. Lansdale’s thrilling, bleak books about a Friday-night horror-movie marathon that turns into the real thing. Here, a happy ending just means living long enough to die horribly tomorrow, and cannibalism isn’t so much a disgusting descent into depravity as it is exploring all options.
The festivities get started with The Drive-In, the story of Jack and his friends Bob, Willard, and Randy, and the trip they take to the All Night Horror Show at the Orbit, a drive-in movie theater with six screens full of murder, mayhem, and madness. One special Friday, a comet comes out of the sky, grins at the crowd, and takes the rest of the outside world away. Without an exit, the Orbit’s audience turns into a small country of starving psychotics, and whoever’s running the show keeps throwing in plot twists to keep life interesting. Twists like the Popcorn King, a crazed despot of made of twisted flesh, lightning, and concession-stand treats. Lansdale followed the original novel with The Drive-In: Not Just One Of Them Sequels and The Drive-In: The Bus Tour. In both, things continue to go downhill.
It’s no surprise that Lansdale’s story loses some steam by the end. Given how much power he’s able to wring out of the premise’s stark simplicity, the real wonder is that the sequels work as well as they do. In his introduction to the first novel, Lansdale talks about how little he enjoyed telling this particular story, and it’s easy to see why: The view of humanity here is pessimistic, arguing that such niceties as compassion and not-eating-babies are thrown out the window as soon as regular meals and fresh water turn into memories. And yet The Complete Drive-In is a blast to read, for all its accumulated miseries. It’s a rocket-ship ride through the heart of darkness, full of junk-food thrills and doom, and not to be missed.