Written by: Vitina Molgaard
Starting out this review with a quote from Mr. Lansdale’s prologue seems a fitting genesis for this trip to the drive-in, so I say to you, “Yes, Sir, Brethren, there was something special about The Orbit all right. It was romantic. It was outlaw. It was crazy. And in the end, it was deadly.”
It’s Friday evening, our most prevalent personality in this tale, Jack, is ready and roaring to get things going…tonight is after all, that special evening when The Orbit Drive In showcases “The All-Night Horror Show”. This is the time when all of life’s traditional routines fly out the window, when the world slips away and a certain freedom (and madness) rides the breeze. Rules are no longer a part of reality. But Jack still has time on his hands (before the show begins), so he and a few friends meet up, and we find ourselves on the outskirts of town in a rundown old bar where the owner has a tendency to overlook the fact that Jack and his buddies are still minors.
The conditions of the establishment aren’t really as relevant as the fact that beer can be purchased and consumed by under-agers, and there are a few here who factor into the story in a major way. In this institution we come to meet Randy, a small framed black youth (you know, the token black dude of the ensemble) that often finds himself filling out the role of the picked on outcast. Bob, a healthy young man, joins up with the group shortly after we meet Willard, a not so likeable person of questionable character and morals. Due to problems that stem from Willard’s behavior all four are ejected from the premises. Bar be gone, it’s off for a night of entertainment at the drive-in.
Now… The Orbit… try to picture this drive in: six individual screens – each screening a different feature – six stories tall; with enough parking spaces for four thousand cars. Get the idea? We’re talking about a massive recreational area that lures hordes of those hungry for a little stimulation.
The show’s packed bumper-to-bumper. There’s a tangible level of tension developing between Jack and his crew, and for some reason Randy and Willard have suddenly become very close to each other, enough so that it triggers a bit of unease between Jack and Bob. After making their way inside the drive in, and a trip to the snack bar, the crew settles in to watch the movies and the array of people around them. Like so many drive ins, the consumers often provide as much as entertainment as the featured films themselves. People wander about…loud conversations erupt sporadically, and of course some sexual conduct ensues; couples get frisky, fogging up the windows. You know what they say: if the boat’s a rockin’, don’t come a knockin‘.
It’s an average Friday night at The Orbit, until a red glow blossoms in the sky, an apparent comet carving a bright path through the blackness. Lively blue and white arcs of light hit The Orbit’s globe…and life as it’s known by the average changes in the blink of an eye. Panic transpires and the snack bar becomes the area of inquiry: what in the name of the higher powers is happening? Why has the parking lot slipped into a complete and utter darkness? Is it safe to remain at The Orbit? Many decide it best to book and ditch the curious scene, but it takes only one person’s attempt to show them why that won’t work…
Here’s where the true terror launches… days and nights pass, and time can no longer be accurately monitored. The food is snack bar fare only, at least until death enters the circle, at which point, meat is meat. Cannibalism, now there’s an idea to really chew on…ouch (sorry couldn’t resist). No longer is there much of anything civil about the civilization trapped within this unending nightmare. Children are eating their younger siblings, parents eating their children; it’s a gruesome circus-like cycle of outlandish savagery. Beheadings, mutilation, rampant rage, and mutation, it’s all a part of the fun at The Orbit.
The unbelievable display of ultra-violence directly affects Willard and Randy who are experiencing some unexpected changes, becoming some… thing (this is a significant sequence in the story that absolutely must be read to be believed) that’s been labeled, The Popcorn King.
All the mass absurdity leads to hungry, confused people transitioning to something darker, the humans becoming the monsters. It’s a scenario that while not exactly plausible, is relatable. Humans are survivors, and deep down, creatures of instinct. Stick yourself in the confines of a horror story: what would you do to survive: anything, everything?
Joe R. Lansdale is an excellent writer. One I have only recently become aware of, courtesy of my son, who I believe you know of, since you are reading this on Matt’s Horror site. I am grateful for his recommendation. Take time out to read this book as well as the following two Drive In installments. After the first segment of this ludicrously genius franchise, I fully plan on doing so.
The Drive In is a novel that really… goes places. This one frightens and thoroughly shocks the senses. It may be a story too vile or outlandish for some, but there’s a humorous touch to this tale that should keep things enjoyable while expanding readers’ perspectives.