Welcome to End of the Road, a nine-month weekly column in which I talk about my ongoing cross-country promotional tour for my new novels Pressure and The Complex. If you’re just joining us, a quick recap—everything was going swimmingly and our hero was triumphant until he received a dire warning from what is either a) the spirit of his deceased best friend, or b) his subconscious tricking him into thinking it is the spirit of his deceased best friend. Since that warning, things have gone from swimmingly to terribly awry. Our hero—having consumed two bottles of bourbon after learning that a) a major signing has been cancelled, and b) he is now orphaned at his mainstream publisher (who published one of the books he is currently out on the road promoting)—is currently passed out in a hotel room in Chattanooga. We now rejoin the column, already in progress…
When my alarm went off, I woke up happy. For thirty seconds. Then I remembered everything from the night before, and my mood quickly soured. I glanced over at the empty liquor bottles and thought about having another. I wasn’t hungover—which was troubling. I know my tolerance for bourbon has reached mythic proportions online, but I don’t give a shit who you are—you drink two bottles of Knob Creek by yourself and you should be hungover, if not dead.
This is how it starts, I thought. For musicians and writers and any other kind of artist. You put them out on the road for months at a time, away from their family and friends, sleeping in one hotel room after another, with nothing to eat than whatever chain restaurant happens to be in the next town, and then you start canceling gigs and knocking out their support system at the music label or publisher, and they inevitably turn to the free booze and drugs their fans were kind enough to supply them with at the last appearance.
Fans. The word bounced around in my head, looking for something to connect with. Then it hit me. I was supposed to meet with Jennifer, a fan from Tennessee who had been unable to make the previous night’s signing. We’d made plans to meet in the hotel lobby, where I would sign books for her and her daughter. And that was supposed to happen at nine. I squinted at the clock, then put on my glasses and squinted at it again.
“Eight forty!” I climbed out of bed, because at age forty-eight, jumping out of bed is not advisable. “This is no time to wallow in self-pity. I have a job to do. Never mind all this bad weirdness. I am a professional.”
I showered, dressed, gulped a coffee along with my daily baby aspirin and Gingko Biloba, and was in the lobby at nine. Jennifer and her daughter were waiting for me, and they were super excited. I’ve honestly never heard somebody make an actual “squee” sound, but darned if they didn’t. Their happiness and exuberance were exactly the tonic I needed. No, I didn’t have a hangover, but my soul was in turmoil and my head was full of doom and gloom. Sharing a few minutes with these two women, listening to their kind words, seeing the happiness in their expressions, and giving them my gratitude cured all my psychic ills. I signed the books and comics they’d brought from home, and presented them with a few more I’d brought down from the room. We chatted for a bit and took some selfies. Then, I bid them farewell, collected my gear, bought another coffee, and hit the road again.
“It’s all good,” I said aloud. “Everything balances out.”
Both my mood and the weather were considerably brighter as I drove across Tennessee. I sang along to the radio and tapped my fingers on the wheel and smiled at the other drivers.
Thirty minutes later, Alabama greeted me with fire.
I saw thick curling plumes of black smoke in the distance as I rolled past a sign welcoming me to “Sweet Home Alabama” and inviting me to “Share the Wonder.” In the distance, I spotted an SUV fully ablaze along the side of the road. I pulled over and was just about to offer assistance when a slew of emergency vehicles arrived on the scene, so I wheeled back out into traffic and kept going. Although I couldn’t articulate why, the car fire left me feeling apprehensive. I wasn’t in a black mood, like I’d been the night before, but I was unsettled.
My next stop was at the home of fans Alicia and Chris Stamps. Earlier in the year, filmmaker Paul Campion had run a successful Kickstarter campaign for The Naughty List, a short film based on my story “The Siqqusim Who Stole Christmas.” For their pledge, Alicia and Chris had won a visit from me. I spent a few hours with them, and that unsettled feeling vanished again. I befriended their dog, signed Alicia’s books, marveled over her substantial horror and bizarro library and her impressive Richard Laymon collection, and talked—one fan to another—about a genre we loved. Then, as evening fell, it was time to get back on the road again. I was due to sign at independent bookstore Tubby & Coo’s in New Orleans the next day. My plan was to drive to Louisiana, get a hotel room and some sleep, and be refreshed and ready for the signing.
Balance, I thought, driving across a levee in the dark. A signing got cancelled and there is disarray at my publisher, but then some very kind readers balanced me out. Then there was a fire, but again, some very kind readers balanced me out.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Tubby & Coo’s, the store where I was due to sign in twelve hours, had just caught on fire.
To be continued…
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.