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.)