A Message to the Next Generation
Alan Beatts and Jude Feldman are badasses. Alan is a former private investigator, bodyguard, firearms instructor, and motorcycle repairman. Jude is a former welder and computer micro-assembly technician. They also run Borderlands Books in San Francisco, a name inspired in part by William Hope Hodgson’s horror-fantasy-science fiction classic House on the Borderland.
I was introduced to them by Richard Laymon back in 1999. I first visited Borderlands Books in 2001, right after they’d moved to San Francisco’s Mission District. Indeed, when I visited, they were still remodeling the place. I signed there later on that year with Gene O’Neill, Mike Oliveri, Michael T. Huyck, Geoff Cooper, and Gak. And I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve signed there—or shopped there—since. At least twice with J.F. Gonzalez, once with a large group from the World Horror Convention, once with my ex-wife, once with Nick Mamatas, once with Mary SanGiovanni, and so on. Basically, anytime I’m in San Francisco, I stop at Borderlands.
I haven’t stayed as in touch with them as much as I’d like over the years. They’ve been busy adding on a café, and I’ve been busy cranking out books, but I’ve always considered them dear friends. Alan has always been a source of inspiration to me, and in the early days, his advice and counsel were what I counted on the most. It’s not hyperbole to say I wouldn’t be where I am today without Alan’s guidance.
Signing there again on this tour felt like coming home, especially after the Albuquerque debacle. I spent the early part of the day in the city, having lunch with Gene O’Neill, Michael Bailey, and Nick Mamatas, followed by a walking tour of the Mission District (which has changed shockingly since my last visit, due to the overwhelming creep of gentrification—something I’ll talk about at length in next week’s column). Then we headed over to the store, where I spent money on books (in addition to the latest horror, science-fiction, and fantasy novels, Borderlands has a fantastic collection of Arkham House, Gnome Press, Ash Tree, Fedogan and Bremer, and other out-of-print titles) and then hung out in the café with Nick, Michael, and Gene.
When it was time for my signing, I was pleased to see a full house. My voice was shot by that point—the victim of a month on the road and too much bourbon and too many great conversations and cigars and laughter—so I opted to do a Q&A rather than a reading. The crowd asked great questions and we sold a lot of books. It was a fun, uplifting, and positive ending to the first leg of this tour.
“He’s padding the column,” someone is shouting right now. “Get to the gentrification rant, Keene!”
I will. Next week. And no, I’m not padding the column. I bring up Alan and Jude and their store and their place in this industry because I’m about to drop a big old truth bomb on you, and I don’t want that wisdom to get lost amid a discussion of how Mamatas and I, fleeing from the crush of eighty-dollar hipster haircuts and a competing cacophony of cafés blasting world music out into the streets, descended into the city’s subway system on a stairwell fashioned from bloody hypodermic needles. That’s next week’s column.
While catching up with Alan after the signing, I asked him if he ever got to read a transcript of my World Horror Grandmaster Award acceptance speech. He had not. So I told him why.
Back in the day, Alan and Jude would always host a party at the World Horror Convention. It was always the best party of the weekend, and usually attended by a crush of people—author, editors, publishers, artists, fans, and perhaps one or two HVAC salesmen who just happened to be staying in the hotel, as well. During the party, he would get everyone’s attention and have them look around the room and find one person that they did not know. Then he’d invite everyone to go introduce themselves to that person.
To illustrate why that was important then and why it is still important now, here is a partial transcript of my Grandmaster Award acceptance speech (edited here for space constraints—you can find the full speech in my book Trigger Warnings).
I stand before you today expressing two things you probably didn’t expect from me—humbleness and humility.
It’s impossible to not be humble when you consider the previous winners of this award. Before writing this speech, I went back and perused the list, just to freshen my memory. Previous winners are (in order) Robert Bloch, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Charles Grant, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Jack Williamson, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Garton, Joe Lansdale, Robert McCammon, Tanith Lee, James Herbert, Jack Ketchum, T.E.D. Klein, and Dan Simmons.
And now me.
You know what that’s like? It’s like you go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony and you’re looking at all of the previous winners—The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, George Clinton and the Parliament, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, NWA, Guns N’ Roses… and then you find out tonight’s honoree is Justin Bieber.
My name is Brian Keene and I am the Justin Bieber of the horror genre.
It’s impossible to accept this award without humbleness and humility. I feel those things very deeply today. And those aren’t the only things I feel. In the months leading up to this, it’s been a struggle for me to feel that I was worthy of this honor, and to feel like I belonged to the canon of authors who received it before me.
I remember the very first World Horror Convention I ever attended. This was back in 1999, when the Internet was still relatively new and most of us were still sending submissions via snail mail with the required Self Addressed Stamped Envelope. Before attending that convention, the only author I’d ever met in person was Joe Lansdale, who I met during a signing he and Tim Truman were doing at a local comic book store. And that meeting didn’t count because my conversation with him was limited to, “Holy shit. You’re Joe fucking Lansdale” and “Could you make that out to Brian,” and finally, “Holy shit. You’re Joe fucking Lansdale.”
So, prior to World Horror Convention, most of my interactions with my peers had been conducted solely online, using Windows 3.0 and a very primitive chat room that took approximately twenty minutes to refresh every time you typed a response. On the airport shuttle, I met Gak, an artist whose name I recognized because we’d been appearing in the same fanzines together, and whose art, years later, is now indelibly inked across much of my back in the form of a large tattoo.
When we got to the hotel, Gak disappeared. My room wasn’t ready yet, and I found myself standing in the lobby, not sure what to do next. There was a guy dressed all in black sprawled across one of the sofas in the lobby. He looked like the love child of Rob Zombie and Blue Oyster Cult’s Buck Dharma. There’s no one else around. And then this guy, maybe sensing that I’m lost or unsure, calls me over and shows me something he’d just bought in the dealer’s room. To this day, I can’t tell you what the item was, because it quickly dawned on me that the guy was John Shirley. He’s trying to show it to me and have an intelligent conversation with me about it, and meanwhile, I’m standing there with my mouth clamped shut because I know if I open it, I’m going to shout things like “Dude, you wrote A Splendid Chaos! You’re John fucking Shirley!”
Most of the weekend was like that. I quickly discovered just how open and welcoming this community of ours is, and in moments—be it having dinner with Brian Hodge and Yvonne Navarro, or socializing at a party with folks like Neil Gaiman or getting high with Ramsey Campbell —I repeatedly resisted the urge to shout at them about who they were and what they’d written and then melt down into a quivering puddle of fanboy goo.
It is fair to say that particular WHC changed the course of my life. It was at that con that I also met most of the peers I’d been talking with online. We all quickly became friends—and in the decade and a half that have followed, they remain some of the best friends I have ever had in life. Indeed, one of them (Mary) eventually went from being one of my best friends to the woman I love.
But it also changed the course of my life for another reason. Before attending that convention, I’d approached writing as a pastime—a hobby. I’d write things occasionally and send them out to zines, and sometimes they’d get published and more often they got rejected. Coming home from that first WHC, I was driven to write. Compelled to write. It changed my entire outlook and approach to this vocation. I began writing every evening, no matter how tired I was at the end of the day. The publication versus rejection ratio changed. I became more involved with our community. I finally began to view myself as a writer, rather than as a blue collar guy who worked a succession of various jobs and wrote occasionally on weekends.
I’d always dreamed of writing for a living. Attending that first WHC was what finally gave me the gumption to actually strive towards it.
At my second World Horror Convention, Richard Laymon introduced me to his editor, Don D’Auria, and told him about a little zombie novel I was working on. Don talked about that in the introduction to this event. At my third World Horror Convention, Jack Ketchum sat down with me at the hotel bar and went over the contract for that zombie novel with a red pen and taught me everything I’d ever need to know about negotiating a publishing contract. I still have that red-penned original at home, and I still have the receipt for the bottle of scotch I bought him in return.
I’ve been coming to World Horror ever since. It’s done a lot for me, and I hope I’ve done a lot for it.
World Horror is not a fan convention. It’s a professional gathering —a trade show for those of us who are involved in dark fiction and publishing. But it’s also a family reunion. Like any family, we don’t always get along the rest of the year. But the drama seems to fall by the wayside when the family gathers here. As horror writers, we’re used to having to defend ourselves from attacks. Writers from other genres belittle us, the media often excoriates us, our friends and family and agents wonder aloud when we’re going to write something serious—we’re used to having our backs against the wall. It has been my experience that when that happens, our family —our tribe—invariably bands together and stands firm. We have each other’s backs.
As a full time writer, I can’t count on retirement or a 401K or health insurance or even a steady paycheck. But I can always count on you, my tribe, and I’d like to think I’ve shown that you can always count on me. Trends change, publishers go under, and readers can be fickle, but at the end of the day, we still have each other, and we still have this wonderful genre for which we all share a deep and abiding love and appreciation.
You are among friends. You are among family. Horror writers have always been welcoming of anyone, regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. Indeed, we’ve often been the first to do so. You will never find a more welcoming, friendly, and good-humored group than the people in this tribe.
And even though I still don’t think I deserve it, the people of this tribe have decided that I should receive this award, and thus I do so with great humility and humbleness and honor.
In closing, I’d like to do one thing. Bookseller Alan Beatts used to throw an awesome party every year at WHC. During the party, he would get everyone’s attention and have them look around the room and find one person that they did not know. Then he’d invite everyone to go introduce themselves to that person. I’d like to ask you to do that now.
As Robert DeNiro says in Brazil, “we’re all in this together.”
Look around this ballroom. Find someone you don’t know, and go welcome them to the family.
These days, I’m usually the one throwing the party at World Horror on Saturday night, and I always stop the festivities at some point in the evening and have everyone introduce themselves to each other. But I didn’t start that tradition.
Alan Beatts started it.
It is my sincere hope that someone else will continue the tradition when I’m gone.
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.