Darkness on the Edge of Town
Joe R. Lansdale is the toast of Italy, a hot property in Hollywood, and an inspiration to a generation of horror and thriller writers everywhere. And he owes it all to Nacogdoches.
Let’s clear up one thing before we begin: Joe R. Lansdale—author of more than 45 novels and 400 short stories, essays, comic books, and screenplays, ranging in genre from historical fiction to grind-house pulp—is a hell of a nice guy, maybe the nicest in East Texas. An avuncular 64-year-old with piercing blue eyes, a Matterhorn nose, and a slightly crooked grin, Lansdale is a big-hearted pillar of the Nacogdoches community, a still-smitten husband to his wife of four decades, and a proud-as-pie dad of two children. Lansdale rescues stray dogs. He has been known to house kids in need. He runs a local martial arts school at a loss. He offers advice to aspiring writers—on his Facebook page, in emails, in person. When he walks into any of his familiar haunts—the Starbucks on North Street, the Japanese restaurant Nijiya, the General Mercantile and Oldtime String Shop—he addresses employees by name, inquires about their lives, and leaves pretty much everyone smiling.
Tim Bryant, a Nacogdoches crime writer who studied screenwriting under Lansdale, swears that his former professor is the “friendliest, most down-to-earth” man that he’s ever known. This comes as a surprise to some, Bryant attests. “A lot of people think he must be the craziest, darkest, most twisted person.”
That’s because Lansdale is not only the nicest guy in East Texas, he’s also the man who wrote this: “Ellen stooped and grabbed the dead child by the ankle and struck Moon Face with it as if it were a club. Once in the face, once in the midsection. The rotting child burst into a spray of desiccated flesh and innards.” And this: “As they roared along, parts of the dog, like crumbs from a flaky loaf of bread, came off. A tooth here. Some hair there. A string of guts. A dew claw. And some unidentifiable pink stuff. The metal-studded collar and chain threw up sparks now and then like fiery crickets. Finally they hit seventy-five and the dog was swinging wider and wider on the chain.” And, just last year, this: “In the next instant Uncle Bob was dangling by a rope from a tree and had been set on fire by lighting his pants leg with a kitchen match. That was done after a nice churchgoing lady had opened his fly, sawed off his manhood with a pocketknife, and tossed it to a dog.”
When I first met Lansdale, I had a hard time fathoming where he found such darkness. It was a mid-November afternoon, and Lansdale was sitting with his family at their favorite Starbucks. They were a picture of suburban bliss: sipping lattes, making plans for dinner, and reminding one another not to forget the “puppaccino” for Lansdale’s one-year-old pit bull, Nicholas. (“He knows when we’ve been to Starbucks and expects it!” Lansdale laughed.) His daughter, Kasey, a 29-year-old country singer, was on her way to teach a yoga class, but she would soon be moving to Los Angeles. You could tell. She was wearing full makeup, movie-star shades, platform heels, and a pink T-shirt emblazoned with the words “La Di Da.” (A bracelet with tiny skulls on it was the only accessory that betrayed the macabre sensibility she had inherited from her dad.) Her brother, Keith, a 33-year-old 911 dispatcher and screenwriter with a laid-back surfer vibe, simply looked exhausted. He’d woken up from a nap after his graveyard shift and had stumbled into Starbucks to power up before another night fielding emergency calls. Their mother, Karen—the poised, flaxen-haired matriarch, who manages the business end of Lansdale’s creative pursuits—sat smiling at her husband and children. She injected the occasional quip as they bantered back and forth about film festivals in Italy, blues festivals in Norway, Kasey’s impending move, and the family’s decades-long collaborations.
“We did our first story together when they were kids,” Lansdale said happily. “Keith was twelve and Kasey was eight. It was for Random House, Great Writers & Kids Write Spooky Stories. Kasey wrote this hanging scene and it was really good, but they said we had to take it out. It was too intense for other eight-year-olds.”
I’d come to Nacogdoches to spend a few days with Lansdale, because after decades as an object of fan-boy adulation, he looked to be on the brink of the kind of above-the-title celebrity that rarely accrues to a writer, much less one who has spent his life behind the Pine Curtain. Starting in the late eighties, Lansdale made his reputation by leaping across genres (western, horror, crime, sci-fi), bounding through tones (from campy to bleak to tender and back again), and skewering bigots, Bible-thumpers, and plain old hypocrites along the way. That fearlessness had done more than earn Lansdale fans; as Steven L. Davis, the curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University, once wrote, it had established him as “the unabashed conscience of East Texas.” But even as he’s won an ardent following with works like Bubba Ho-Tep (in which JFK and Elvis, both still very much alive, battle a reanimated mummy in their nursing home), the Southern-fried noir Cold in July, and, especially, his sublime Hap and Leonard series, Lansdale’s stories and novels have remained niche products, his readers members of a devoted and select cadre.
Lately, though, Lansdale’s writing has attracted a broader audience. His recent novels Edge of Dark Water, The Thicket, and Paradise Sky—all published by Little, Brown’s Mulholland Books imprint—have balanced his penchant for absurdity and visceral horror with a style that’s a little more accessible, albeit still happily in-your-face. After decades of false starts, Cold in July was finally made into a movie, and Hollywood is pursuing other adaptations, with Bill Paxton planning to direct a screen version of Lansdale’s coming-of-age fable The Bottoms and Peter Dinklage’s production company developing a project based on The Thicket. And Hap and Leonard, Lansdale’s crime-fighting odd couple (Hap: white, liberal, straight; Leonard: black, Republican, gay), will soon swagger into the big time. Over the next two months, Lansdale will release a complete collection of Hap and Leonard short stories as well as the ninth Hap and Leonard novel, Honky Tonk Samurai. But the really big occasion arrives on March 2, when Sundance TV will air the first episode of its Hap and Leonard series, starring the classically trained English actor James Purefoy as Hap and Michael Kenneth Williams, best known for his work as Omar Little on HBO’s The Wire, as Leonard. (Christina Hendricks of Mad Men plays Hap’s bad-news ex-wife.)
So life should have been grand at the moment when I met Lansdale. But no matter how joyful things look, he never loses sight of the ghoulish lingering nearby. One afternoon, he decided to take me on a tour of Nacogdoches in his Prius (Lansdale has written enough dystopian stories to be a committed environmentalist). The weather was mild and sunny. His two favorite women, Karen and Kasey, were riding with us.
Cruising down North Street, we passed by Stephen F. Austin State University, the site of Lansdale’s own American dream story. In the seventies, he worked there as a janitor. In the aughts, he became the English department’s writer-in-residence. “And you still don’t have a degree!” Karen said.
“But I got ’sperience,” Lansdale drawled.
Then, a few blocks south, we drove by a seemingly nondescript corner. “Hey, is that where the two sisters burned to death because they were wearing their nightclothes?” Lansdale asked his wife and daughter. They nodded. “You ever hear about that?” he said, glancing at me, before recounting the shocking and perhaps apocryphal tale of two women who refused to leave their fire-engulfed house because the clothes they had on were immodest.
When we got to Main Street, we parked and strolled over to Lansdale’s brick on Nacogdoches’s unofficial Texas walk of fame, where he shares real estate with Buddy Holly, Tommy Lee Jones, and Molly Ivins. Lansdale was proud to point this out, but he was far more eager to take me inside the city’s visitors center to show me a grainy black and white photo memorializing the site’s past.
“They had the last public hanging in East Texas right here,” Lansdale yelped, pointing to the image of a black man named James Buchanan ascending to the gallows in 1902. “They said, ‘We can give you a trial and then we’ll hang you, or we can hang you now.’ And he said, ‘Just hang me.’ He probably hadn’t done the murder, but he was black.”
Later, as Lansdale and I were driving back to his house on the outskirts of town, another “puppacino” in tow, I told him that I was beginning to understand where he gets his stories. “You can go through my books and pick out things that happened here or they happened in Gladewater or they happened in Tyler or they happened in Starrville,” Lansdale said. “A lot of friends I went to school with were criminals. Like, one of my best friends growing up, he went to prison for locking his wife in a closet or something, and he died in prison. I have so many friends who died in prison, were killed, committed suicide. It’s a big list.”
Back at the house, Lansdale was greeted by a barking Nicholas. Hundred-foot-tall pines, oaks, and maples swayed in a soft breeze, and soon we were tramping down to his pond, the trunks of bone-white trees sticking up from the water like the ruins of a postdiluvian city. It was the kind of marshy landscape that appears often in Lansdale’s work, a place where Hap and Leonard might discover a sunken van with a corpse inside, or where young Harry Collins and his sister, Thomasina, would go searching for the Goat Man in The Bottoms.
“This is where you watch for snakes,” Lansdale said as we climbed over some logs. “Right here it’s mostly copperheads, and around the water you tend to get water moccasins. But in East Texas, there’s every kind of poisonous snake there is.”
Lansdale has been scampering around creeks and woods like this since he was boy growing up in the towns of Mount Enterprise and Gladewater. His father, Alceebe (he went by Bud), was a shade-tree mechanic—a wrench man who couldn’t afford his own garage so he literally worked under a tree—and his mother, O’Reta, held a string of sales jobs, peddling World Book Encyclopedias and flower arrangements. Lansdale’s only sibling, John, is seventeen years his senior, so the younger Lansdale grew up more or less an only child. For entertainment, he had the swampy river bottoms, a place where a boy, his dog, and his imagination could run wild. Early on, his family couldn’t afford a television set, so when Lansdale was at home, he would stare through a window at a neighboring drive-in theater, watching the images of Warner Bros. cartoons while his mother improvised her own version of the dialogue. “We were poor, but we never thought of ourselves that way,” Lansdale says. “We thought of ourselves as broke, and that’s a different psychology.”
What the family did have were stories. Lansdale’s father had never learned to read or write, but as a young man he had lived an outsized, itinerant lifestyle, and with his baritone voice he would unspool absorbing yarns about his days as a boxer and a wrestler during the Great Depression, when he’d hop freight trains to fight at fairs across the country. Lansdale’s mother didn’t have such outlandish tales, but she was in possession of something even more valuable: books. “She loved writers and she loved reading, and she instilled that in me very early,” Lansdale says. “More like installed it in me.”
From the moment he could read, Lansdale was devouring any text on which he could train his eyes: comic books and Hardy Boys mysteries as well as the works of Shakespeare, Twain, Kipling, and Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. He kept a copy of The Iliad under his pillow at night because he had read that Alexander the Great had done so. He imagined a life beyond the Piney Woods, inspired by the exploits of Batman, although he conceived of a more literary variety of heroism.
“I think there are some people for whom words are like food,” Lansdale says. “I tried to draw and write comics when I was four. By the time I was nine, I had written my first story—about my dog, of course.”
Lansdale figured out early on that he wanted to be a writer, but he didn’t know anyone who held such a profession and didn’t have a clue how to become one. He was a blue-collar kid from hard-luck towns, and he partially fit that profile. At sixteen he went to work part-time for the “street department,” cutting grass and putting in shifts on a garbage truck. At seventeen, now living in Starrville, he got an after-school job on the assembly line at an aluminum chair factory, and after graduating from high school, he went to work building mobile homes.
College was an intermittent pursuit. Lansdale spent a year at Tyler Junior College, then went to the University of Texas at Austin before dropping out in the middle of his second semester. After leaving UT, he joined a friend in Berkeley, California, where he found employment as a bodyguard for a used-clothing salesman. “He kept having these unsavory people come by, and I thought, ‘Man, are used clothes that popular?’” Lansdale remembers. “It turned out he was selling drugs on the side. I quit when I found out.”
Lansdale returned to East Texas after a few months (“Berkeley wasn’t for me,” he says), enrolled at Stephen F. Austin, and not long after met Karen in an anthropology class. In 1973, just after their wedding, the couple moved from Nacogdoches to join his parents in Starrville. They had dreams of living off the land, and they raised goats, hogs, and chickens while laboring in the Tyler rose fields. Lansdale liked the work—he rubbed shoulders with people of every race, and he got to be outdoors—but he had other ambitions. He sold some nonfiction pieces to Countryside Magazine, and he kept a journal about his and Karen’s farming experience, imagining that they might one day turn his notes into their own version of the back-to-nature classic Living the Good Life. But it wasn’t enough. “All this time I’m thinking, ‘I gotta write, I’m about to explode,’” Lansdale says.
The problem was that Lansdale, by his own estimation, wasn’t a very good writer, and he didn’t really have the time to improve. But he was determined to succeed, and Karen supported her husband’s dream. In the fall of 1974 Lansdale was working in the rose fields, but the weather was icy and cold and the work schedule erratic. “My wife said, ‘Just take three months off and write—it’s what you want to do, just do it,’” Lansdale says. For the next ninety days, he wrote from morning until night, producing a story a day. Many were short: 3 to 4 pages. Others were shockingly long for a day’s work: 25 pages or more. At the end of the three months, Lansdale had nearly 1,000 pages of text. “They were some of the worst stories ever written; I was just flushing out all the crap,” he says. “But I learned to type real good.”
The dream at that point was to get published—anywhere. Lansdale couldn’t spell, he didn’t know grammar, and editors rejected his stories by the bundle. In 1975 the couple moved back to Nacogdoches, and he went to work as a janitor at Stephen F. Austin. In 1976 he finally made his fiction debut, landing a detective story, “The Full Count,” in a pulp outlet called Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. More followed, mostly in Mike Shayne, although it was hardly a living and it wasn’t his endgame.
“We were both really eager to get published any way we could—horror, sci-fi, detective, western, you name it,” Lansdale’s longtime friend, the novelist Lewis Shiner, told me. “But we always saw markets like Mike Shayne as milestones to get past. The short-term goal was to be making a full-time living at writing, but the longer-term goal for both of us was to make a real impact.”
In 1980 Lansdale took a big step toward that first goal, selling his first two novels: Texas Night Riders, a western that he wrote in eleven days under the pen name Ray Slater, and Act of Love, the tale of a Houston serial killer. Soon after, he quit his janitorial job to write full-time.
The publishing world did not, at first, reward his audacity. For the next several years, as his writerly voice grew darker, more personal, and more satirical, he sold only a few short stories and couldn’t get another book deal. It took until 1986 for Lansdale to have his first real breakthrough, with the publication of his horror serial Dead in the West, his postapocalyptic short story “Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back,” and his western The Magic Wagon, which got a hardback release from Doubleday and Lansdale’s first notice in the New York Times. (The reviewer praised Lansdale’s “subtle discussion of racism and the myths people create for themselves” while also noting the “expected emphasis on nose picking and wind breaking and cow piles.”)
Over the next three years, Lansdale followed up on his nascent success with a prolific run that won him a substantial cult audience. The short story “Night They Missed the Horror Show,” a pitch-black comedy of entrenched racism and good-ol’-boy goobers, won Lansdale his first Bram Stoker Award. The Drive-In, a novella about a horror-movie screening that descends into a cannibalistic melee, established Lansdale as a figurehead—somewhat unwillingly—of what critics dubbed the “splatterpunk” genre. Cold in July—a twisty noir that begins with the shooting of a home intruder and ends with FBI informants, the Dixie Mafia, and snuff films—marked a new level of plot and character sophistication and was quickly optioned by Hollywood.
Still, Lansdale was always one step short of crossover success, a little too vulgar, a little too bleak, his humor a little too politically incorrect—or maybe he was just always a little bit unlucky. “The only thing more certain than Lansdale’s eventual fame is tomorrow’s sunrise,” the best-selling horror writer Dean Koontz wrote in 1989. “I suspect, however, that he is going to be one of those writers who takes a long time to build, who has to find his own readership with little assistance from his publishers.”
Koontz’s words proved prophetic. Over the past three decades, Lansdale has battled his way through the book industry. He has run through a string of genre publishers—lowbrow outlets like Zebra and Leisure Books—many of which, in his opinion, didn’t do nearly enough to promote his work. (“They had their eye on some other people, or they didn’t care, or they just wanted me to be a mass producer.”) He has fired more agents than he can count—some sleazy, some lazy, some who just didn’t believe in him. (“I had one who said, ‘Ahh, you’re all over with.’ The only thing he wanted me to do was ghostwriting.”) He has chased down money from deadbeats. (He once pretended to be Norman Mailer to get the top editor of an unscrupulous publishing house to take his phone call.) Despite all of that, he was always on the verge of becoming the Next Big Thing.
In 1994 the Dallas Morning News celebrated the publication of Mucho Mojo, the second and best-loved of Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard novels, by writing, “If you haven’t heard of him, chances are getting better that you will. . . . [Mucho Mojo] may be his ‘breakthrough’ book.” In 1997, soon after he had resurrected the Jonah Hex franchise for DC Comics, written episodes for Batman: The Animated Series, and published the Mucho Mojo follow-ups The Two Bear Mambo and Bad Chili, the Austin Chronicle wondered if Lansdale wasn’t the “most famous unknown writer working today.” Seven years later, on the eve of Lansdale’s debut for “Tiffany publisher” Knopf—his first major-league book contract—the Houston Chronicle judged that Lansdale “stands poised for a big breakout.” Eight years after that, in 2012, with rumors of movie adaptations of Lansdale’s work swirling around, this magazine wondered, “Why is Lansdale finally having a moment, after three-plus decades toiling in semi-obscurity?”
It’s 2016. Here we are again. Lansdale is still most revered by the kinds of passionate genre fans who read websites like Macabre Republic and Apex Magazine. He is still influential to younger genre writers like Tim Bryant, Stephen Graham Jones, and Joe Hill. (Hill, whose father is Stephen King, got hooked on Lansdale as a teenager after reading The Drive-In. “My own story ideas were goofy and gory and silly and it would’ve been natural to keep them to myself,” Hill wrote to me in an email. “Lansdale suggested another possibility: he seemed to be saying you could stick your crazy right in people’s faces.”) Lansdale is still significantly less well-known than contemporaries like Koontz and his old friend George R.R. Martin, the author of the Game of Thrones series. And his most intense fan base can be found in Italy, which he visits often. (“I think the humor translates well,” Lansdale’s sometime interpreter Seba Pezzani told me. “We get the Southern humor and his larger-than-life view on life itself.”) But the vast cultural reach of a television series, the possibility of more screen adaptations, and the strong reception for his latest major novel, Paradise Sky—an exuberant imagining of the life of the African American cowboy Nat Love, which Lansdale believes is the best thing he’s ever written—makes this “breakout moment” feel a little different.
Lansdale, though, remains unapologetically eclectic, happy to mix prestige with pulp. The epic Paradise Sky wasn’t his only work published last year. He also wrote the young-adult novel Fender Lizards, co-created the comic book series The Steam Man, and, with Keith, dashed off a story about the cartoon heroine Vampirella. (What you’d expect: big boobs, blood lust, bad attitude.)
“I always felt that Ray Bradbury was kind of a role model for me, because he said, ‘Leap off the cliff and build your wings on the way down,’” Lansdale says. “That’s kind of what I’ve done my entire career. I’ve been told time after time, by editors and other writers, ‘Don’t do that, it’ll ruin your career,’ or ‘What are you doing? Stop writing that Batman novel. You’re getting recognition, this is the dumbest thing.’ But I like Batman. Sometimes I want to write the Batman novel.”
On my first night in Nacogdoches, Lansdale and I drove to the south side and pulled off Stallings Drive at the sight of an illuminated sign that read “Lansdale Self-defense Systems.” Next to it stood a one-story metal-framed building, little more than a garage with Sheetrock walls. We parked and stepped through a side door to the sound of thwacking flesh and foam.
Two men circled each other covered in sweat. They traded strikes, grappled for position, then one would toss the other to the floor. Behind them, a painting of a cobra stared down from the wall, the emblem for Lansdale’s own form of martial arts, which he calls Shen Chuan, Chinese for “Spirit Fist.” The master stood watching. “Not bad, not bad,” Lansdale said. “But we’re working on perfection here!”
The men, 35-year-old Terry Lee and 23-year-old Daniel Sherrer, continued to rehearse their moves. Sherrer, the less experienced of the two, was struggling to get the hang of a combination that would immobilize his opponent. His face scrunched up in frustration. “You’re too hard on yourself, kid,” Lansdale said, a verbal backslap. “Learn to mess up happily!”
Lansdale has practiced martial arts since he was a boy, and for the past three decades he has been teaching Shen Chuan, first as an unofficial melding of arts like hapkido, kenpo, and jujitsu and since 1996 as an established school unto itself. For much of his adulthood, Lansdale fought in sanctioned matches (he is an inductee in both the U.S. and International Martial Arts halls of fame), but he has gone into semiretirement, no longer competing and relinquishing most of his teaching duties to longtime students.
At first glance, Lansdale doesn’t look like a guy who could beat you up. He’s got a pot belly. His shoulders are slightly hunched. And with his Batman watch and black-and-pink “Nacogdilla!!!” T-shirt, he seems more like a comic-book guy than like the kind of crime-fighting ninja that comic-book guys dream about being. But when Lansdale stepped onto the mat, he transformed as surely as Bruce Wayne.
As Sherrer watched, Lansdale demonstrated a series of moves on Lee. First, Lansdale backed Lee across the mat, his hands moving in a blur of strikes. Having gained an opening, he grabbed Lee’s left wrist and twisted it to the inside. The joint seemed just a few millimeters away from snapping. Lansdale paused and looked toward Sherrer.
“This bone on top of the wrist presses against an artery,” Lansdale said. Then he took a deep breath, deploying a technique he calls “ghost hands.” He didn’t appear to move at all, but as Lansdale sucked in air, the younger man dropped to the floor and tapped his hands in submission. It’s all about subtle shifts in weight, Lansdale explained. “I’ve been doing this for fifty-three years and I still go, ‘That’s weird.’”
A few minutes later, Lansdale was palming Lee’s face, demonstrating another technique for bringing an opponent tumbling to the ground. Lansdale moved his hand from over Lee’s mouth to his forehead. “You don’t want to put your hand there or he’ll bite the hell out of it,” Lansdale said, addressing Sherrer. “And they will bite you. I would.”
Under the tutelage of his father, Lansdale first learned the rudiments of martial arts when he was eleven, and he’s been fighting ever since. Originally, he learned because he wanted to defend himself against bullies. He was a bookish kid who questioned authority, which wasn’t always easy in the East Texas of the fifties and sixties. There were plenty of people who wanted to know what the hell his problem was, and sometimes they tried to get him to conform to their own ideas, school-yard-style.
But Lansdale wasn’t simply looking to defend himself; he wanted to learn to fight for the same reason his hero Batman did: he saw injustice everywhere he looked, and he wanted to play a part in making it right. He saw the sting and violence of racism. He saw the oppression of poverty. He saw the difficult lives of anyone who was a little different.
“I would just see all kinds of cruelty and stupidity,” Lansdale says. “If I could take you back in time to the fifties and walk you around to some of the places where I grew up, you’d be trying to get back in your time machine. It wasn’t all sock hops—matter of fact, I never saw a sock hop. When I was growing up, it was a lot of thuggish bullshit.”
By the early seventies, Lansdale was an avowed atheist and a liberal with long, shaggy hair. When he’d walk down the street, he’d be greeted with taunts of “Hey, baby, you give head?” One afternoon while he was working on a construction site, Lansdale finally struck back. The foreman had been “jacking me for weeks,” Lansdale remembers. “And one day he grabbed me, and then he pulled his other hand back.” Lansdale realized that he was about to get his lights punched out. He delivered the first blow instead. “I put him in the hospital. I felt bad about it, but he was going to hit me.”
Lansdale kept fighting back. At Tyler Junior College, administrators told him he had to cut his hair. He not only refused but, with two other students, brought a federal lawsuit against the school. They won. When he was drafted by the Army, in 1971, he sought to take a stand. He wouldn’t go, he said, but he would also refuse to register as a conscientious objector, because, he said, he would have fought in a just war. He also refused to flee. “When I was at the draft board, one of the Marines told me, ‘This thing is terrible. Go to Canada.’ I said, ‘I’m not running. Because once I run, I’m going to keep running.’” Lansdale says he was ready to go to federal prison, but a psychiatrist gave him a 1-Y, a general deferment. “I think they threw me a bone,” he says. “The war was winding down, and they knew I was sincere.”
Not running became the defining feature of Lansdale’s life. In East Texas he is very much a native son, but he’s also deeply skeptical of religion, loathes gun culture, and is a social progressive. Jim Mickle, who directed the film adaptation of Cold in July and co-created the Hap and Leonard television series, told me that when he visited Lansdale in Nacogdoches he felt that “the whole family seemed like they were from another planet.” There are lots of people who grow up in places that don’t match their personalities, ambitions, and views. If they can, most of them leave.
But Lansdale never did. “I know Joe’s not entirely happy with the culture here, but I think it’s been really great that he’s stayed,” John McDermott, a colleague of Lansdale’s in the Stephen F. Austin English department, told me. “He’s sort of the opposite of Willa Cather. Willa Cather moved to New York so she could write about Nebraska. Joe stayed here so he could write about here.”
When Lansdale was starting his career as a writer, his work lacked a distinctive regional style; he might as well have been from New York or Nebraska. “I was trying to write to market,” he says. “And what I found is, that’s exactly what doesn’t work for me. Then I started thinking about the way my dad talked, and I said, ‘You know, the people that I know don’t talk like the way I’m writing.’”
Lansdale began to experiment with a more vernacular voice, and he embraced the contradictions and humor of his native soil. His stories—once set in largely anonymous locations—began to take place in fictionalized East Texas towns like LaBorde and Mud Creek, and landmarks like the Sabine, the bottoms, and the area’s drive-in theaters almost became characters themselves. His language, once timid, got caked in dirt and ash and attitude, sounding like the last gasps of an oral tradition. Elaborate and bizarre metaphors and similes started cropping up all over his prose. “The sound of the wind in the bottle tree came to me, like the faraway hooting of ghostly owls,” he writes in Mucho Mojo. “Evil waddled about like a duck looking for a spot to squat,” he writes in Bubba Ho-Tep.
Once Lansdale found his voice, his work became awfully strong stuff. His personal motto is “Write like everyone you know is dead.” In other words, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks, don’t hold back, write the truth. For Lansdale, that meant confronting East Texas’s real-life horrors in impolite ways, particularly when it came to its grim racial history, a history that, as the 1998 execution-by-dragging of James Byrd Jr. made clear, has a disturbing tendency to come hurtling back into the present.
Lansdale’s favorite weapons for skewering racism are satire and explicit violence, and deploying them can be a risky gambit, an easy way to get denounced and misinterpreted. Lansdale has faced his share of both. He has received letters from racists that read, “I hate them too.” Editors, especially early on, recoiled at work that was so raw, failing to appreciate his social aims. “They’d say, ‘If you drop a happy ending on it, we’ll take it,’” he remembers. “I said, ‘Nah.’ So it was a battle.”
One group that hasn’t been sure of what to make of Lansdale is Hollywood. Since the late eighties, his novels, stories, and screenplays have been frequently optioned, and directors like Ridley Scott and David Lynch have been attached to his projects. But it wasn’t until the horror filmmaker Don Coscarelli adapted Bubba Ho-Tep into a delightfully campy B movie in 2003 that one of Lansdale’s stories actually made it to the screen, and since then, adaptations have been few and far between. Mickle and the screenwriter Nick Damici secured the rights to Cold in July in 2006, but it took them seven years to get it made. “A lot of people were a little afraid of the tone,” Mickle says. “It was a little darker than felt safe.”
Cold in July—which stars Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepherd, and Don Johnson—debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, earned generally good reviews in limited release, and paved the way for Mickle and Damici to take on Hap and Leonard. If Cold in July seemed tonally difficult—with its stark violence and heavy Oedipal themes comingling with the likes of a preening, red Cadillac–driving bounty hunter named Jim Bob Luke—then the Hap and Leonard books present an even more challenging mash-up.
The first Hap and Leonard novel, 1990’s Savage Season, which serves as the basis for most of the TV show’s first six episodes, begins with a classic noir setup: a femme fatale from Hap’s past turns up at his house and offers him a job that’s too good to be true. But before long, Lansdale has taken us far from Sam Spade territory and into the hideout of a hippie goon squad that speaks primarily in peace-and-love platitudes. Then Lansdale throws in some guns, and a story that has been cruising along as an adult Hardy Boys mystery (they’re after sunken treasure) darkens into a blood-soaked face-off that’s as violent as anything envisioned by Sam Peckinpah or Quentin Tarantino.
The action is secondary, though. In both the books and the TV series, the heart of Hap and Leonard is their banter. The boys bond over seventies-era tough-guy cinema and Hank Williams records. They counsel each other on relationship troubles. And they spar verbally over more-weighty matters: the welfare state, the myth of the self-made man, and the nature of morality. (Hap: “I guess there’s part of me thinks somewhere along the line everyone could have been saved.” Leonard: “Evil’s real, man. Same as good.”) The conversations are Lansdale at his most naked. You can hear him arguing both sides, trying to tease out the secret order of the world around him.
“East Texas is an odd, complex thing,” Lansdale says. “I love it, but I’m not blind to the things that I see here as warped. My dad was the biggest racist ever, yet I saw him do the kindest things for people, both black and white. He’s my hero in spite of his faults. In East Texas there’s a kindness and a violence that’s like a two-edged sword. You can find the kindest, most hospitable people here—and they’ll shoot you over what I might think of as a mere slight.”
The last afternoon that I was in Nacogdoches, I went back to see Lansdale at his house. The sun, as he writes in Honky Tonk Samurai, “was beginning its slide to the west, like a fried egg on a tilted Teflon skillet,” and Lansdale stood over his stove, reading glasses perched on top of his head, cooking chicken biryani in a wok. “It’s an East Texas variation,” Lansdale said. “We make it with squirrel. You ever eaten squirrel?”
I told him I had not.
“People say it tastes like chicken. It does not taste like chicken. It tastes a whole lot like squirrel.” Lansdale laughed. “Used to eat a lot of it when I was a kid. I don’t know if I would have the taste for wild meat now.”
Lansdale was joking about the squirrel. The biryani was made with pre-cut chicken slices that he’d purchased at Walmart. But he rarely misses a chance to play up his roots as an “ignorant country boy,” especially when he’s talking about how he’s simultaneously traveled very far from them and remained very close to them.
As Lansdale finished cooking the biryani, Kasey arrived at the house with her friend Adam Lamar, an extravagantly bearded guitarist and illustrator with whom she has toured. Lansdale doesn’t play music, but he’s a lifelong fan of country and the blues, and he’s an enthusiastic booster of Kasey’s career. (In Honky Tonk Samurai, Hap and Leonard become Kasey Lansdale fans.) After dinner, Kasey sat cross-legged in the living room, Lamar perched in front of the fireplace beside her.
“Fame and fortune is a funny thing. It can take you down, make you lose your way,” Kasey belted. They were lyrics of a song she had written based on her father’s 2012 novel Edge of Dark Water, about a small-town girl who dreamed of Hollywood stardom only to end up as a corpse floating in the Sabine. Lansdale watched transfixed while his daughter’s eyes rolled back as if channeling a spirit.
“It can lift you up higher than the moon,” Kasey continued. “If you sell your soul, all your dreams will come true.”
It was both a creepy and an ironic song to sing at such a moment. In January Kasey would make her own jump at stardom with her move to Los Angeles, and in less than two weeks Lansdale would be traveling to the resort town of Courmayeur, in the Italian Alps, to accept the Raymond Chandler Award for lifetime achievement in crime writing. But he wouldn’t be away from Nacogdoches for long, which seems to suit him just fine.
A few hours earlier Lansdale and I had been sitting in his kitchen, and I’d asked him if he’d ever considered moving. He has lots of buddies in the movie and book-publishing worlds, and no doubt he’d find plenty of kindred spirits in Venice Beach or Park Slope. I figured it was a question he got a lot. But Lansdale looked genuinely perplexed, as if the idea had never crossed his mind.
“When I went to Berkeley, I might as well have been on the moon. They had the same kind of racists, but they were more disguised—I couldn’t see them coming,” Lansdale said. “Here, I can see those sumbitches coming.”