Cult fans have long prized the writer's blackly neo-gothic thrillers—and now, with a new TV show based on his most beloved characters, the Texan is poised to become a much bigger name.
Credit: James Minchin/SundanceTV

Back in 1990, Joe R. Lansdale published a thriller called Savage Season about two well-meaning pals — the white, straight Hap Collins and the black, gay Leonard Pine — who attempt to retrieve a fortune in stolen money from the bottom of an East Texas river. Lansdale had no plans to return to the characters, and the reception that greeted Savage Season did not encourage him to make any. “It disappeared into the morass,” he says. “It was just totally lost.”

A quarter century on, both Savage Season and its trouble-attracting heroes have very much been found. The ninth Hap and Leonard novel, Honky Tonk Samurai, arrived on shelves Feb. 2, and a collection of short stories and novellas, Hap and Leonard, was published March 1. And Wednesday, SundanceTV is debuting Hap and Leonard, based largely on Savage Season, starring James Purefoy (The Following) as Hap, Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire) as Leonard, and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) as Hap’s ex Trudy. The show is created by writer-director Jim Mickle and actor-writer Nick Damici, who previously collaborated on another Lansdale adaptation, 2014’s Michael C. Hall-starring big screen thriller Cold in July. “I’m a co-executive producer,” chuckles Lansdale, 64. “That means I get to say anything I want, and they get to do anything they want. [But] I like the way it’s so close to the book. I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Lansdale admits he based Hap Collins on himself, and the pair certainly share a good deal in common, including a working-class East Texas background. “We were poor,” he says. “My father, he couldn’t read or write. In his youth, he hoboed, stole his way on the train and went to different towns, and boxed and wrestled, and made money doing that.” Lasndale initially dreamed up Leonard as a more traditional sparring partner for Hap. Then, “as I was writing it, Leonard revealed he was gay,” says the novelist. “I was as surprised as everybody else. But I knew: This is right! T>here were a lot of bad things happening to gays in Texas at that time, a lot of homophobia and people in the law enforcement thinking, Yeah, that’s justified, they’re not the same as us. That character grew out of a certain anger I had.”

Credit: Karen Lansdale

When Lansdale was growing up, his imagination was fired by the books of Robert Bloch and Raymond Chandler. While trying to make his way as a writer, he held an array of low-paying jobs — many of which appear on Hap’s résumé, too. “I worked in rose fields, and I worked in potato fields,” he says. “I did some bouncing. I was a janitor for years at the university where I am now writer-in-residence [Stephen F. Austin -State University, in Nacogdoches, Tex.]. I never got a degree, I just started writing.” Like Collins, Lansdale also refused to fight in the Vietnam War, although — unlike his fictional hero — he was spared jail time for his stance after a psychiatrist found him unfit for service. “I think because it was near the winding-down of the war, they may have thrown me a bone,” he says. “They may have thought I was crazy. All I know is, I went home.”

Following the failure of that first Hap and Leonard book, Lansdale began writing a novel that didn’t feature the duo. The problem? “Hap just would not quit talking to me,” Lansdale says. “I had been working on another book, and it wasn’t working as well as I had hoped. It was called Mucho Mojo. I stole the title and said, ‘I’m just going to let Hap talk to me.’ And he did.” Published in 1994, Mucho Mojo ended up on the New York Times’ Notable Books of the Year list.

“I’ve heard him referred to as the Texas Stephen King and a dark Mark Twain,” says director Don Coscarelli, who adapted Lansdale’s horror novella Bubba Ho-Tep into a 2002 movie starring Bruce Campbell as an Egyptian-mummy-battling Elvis. “But his work is unique. Most of us are happy to take the safe path. Not Joe!” Though Lansdale has yet to achieve King-like sales figures, he has a devoted fan base, including actor-director Bill Paxton, who has spent years developing a movie version of his novel, The Bottoms. “He’s one of the great American writers,” says the Aliens and Titanic star. “His Hap and Leonard series is incredible.”

Lansdale’s latest Hap and Leonard adventure, Honky Tonk Samurai, finds the heroes newly established as private investigators. Like much of the author’s work, the book veers into horror territory; those who prefer their crime thrillers sans severed testicles might be advised to look elsewhere. Lansdale says people are frequently surprised by how many of the more outré elements of his tales are based on East Texas reality. “People say, ‘Oh, that was too far-out, you made that up!’ That’s the real stuff,” he explains. “It’s amazing how often that happens.”

Lansdale is already at work on the next Hap and Leonard tale, Rusty Puppy, which will be published next year. “I love them, I love them,” he says of the pair. “I’ve written other books that I love just as much, but there are no characters that I like better than these two.”

Hap and Leonard premieres Wednesday on SundanceTV at 10 pm, EST. You can see a trailer for the show, below.

Hap and Leonard
  • TV Show