Full Circle

The second to last weekend of October, I made my way up north again, this time for the Merrimack Valley Halloween Book Festival in Haverhill, Massachusetts—a mass-signing event organized by Christopher Golden and involving about twenty or thirty horror authors. Podcast co-host Dave Thomas accompanied me for this part of the tour, and we stayed at the home of author James A. Moore.

Brian, Rio Youers, Christopher Golden, and Glenn Chadbourne get ready to sign.
(Photo Copyright 2016 Tony Tremblay)

Chris and I have both been doing this for twenty years now. Jim has been doing it a little longer than us. I consider the two of them to be among my closest friends in this industry. We have things in common. We are close to the same age, and share the same cultural touchstones. All three of us are prolific (as I write this, Chris just started his 107th novel, and in the time it takes you to read this, Jim will have banged out a dozen short stories). But that’s not why I like them. I like them because they want the same things for this genre and this industry that I want. For the last twenty years, all three of us have stood up and went to bat for our fellow writers in issues of payment, rights, inclusion, diversity, and safety. We’ve done it in different ways. Chris is far more diplomatic than I am. I’m more blunt. And Jim cuts an imposing figure somewhere between us—quiet and thoughtful until it’s time for him to act, and when he does, mountains scurry out of the way. Mary’s theory is that I’m Batman, Chris is Superman, and Jim is Shazam. An editor whom I won’t name here once put it another way, when she said, “Chris will patiently negotiate peace talks. Jim will stand there and intimidate you. Brian will burn your house down.”

Twenty years I’ve known these guys—and everyone else from my generation of writers. All the folks who’ve made cameo appearances in this column over the last nine months. And one thing all of us have been doing over the last few years is mentoring the next generation of writers. You’ve met many of them in this series of columns throughout the last nine months, as well. There were others whom you didn’t meet, but whom I’ve been following and reading and keeping tabs on. I call these up-and-comers kids, and some of them—like Wile E. Young, Amber Fallon, Asher Ellis, Laura Lee Bahr, Gabino Iglesias, Adam Cesare, Josh Malerman, and Stephen Kozeniewski—are just that: kids in their twenties or early thirties. Others—like Bracken MacLeod, Errick Nunnally, Nick Cato, Jonathan Janz, and Dan Padavona—are my age, give or take a few years. It’s not a question of when they were born. It’s a marker of when they started writing, when they came into this. But I still think of them as the kids.

It struck me at the signing, watching Jim and Chris interact with this new generation of writers, just how far we’ve come, and just how much time has passed. Yes, time is a flat circle, but time is also a motherfucker, and you think crossing that circle will take twenty years, but it really happens in the blink of an eye. When we started out, we had guidance and help from Richard Laymon, Rick Hautala, Tom Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson, Charlie Grant, Ed Gorman, Edward Bryant, Ellen Datlow, Jack Ketchum, Chet Williamson, John Pelan, Ray Garton, Phil Nutman, Joe R Lansdale, John Skipp, Simon Clark, Douglas Clegg, Gene O’Neill, David J. Schow, and so many more.

You look at that list, and half of them aren’t with us anymore.

They helped authors like Jim and Chris and myself, and all the other writers that make up our “generation”—the writers that have appeared in this column, the old friends I saw out there on the road, and the ones I didn’t get to see but who were never far from my mind: Tim Waggoner, Weston Ochse, John Urbancik, Jeff Strand, Tim Lebbon, Mary SanGiovanni, Wrath James White, Nick Mamatas, Bryan Smith, Maurice Broaddus, Jonathan Maberry, Kelli Owen, Paul Tremblay, Nicholas Kaufmann, Sarah Pinborough, Lee Thomas, Brian Freeman, Laird Barron, and again, so many more—including Jesus and Pic. Especially Jesus and Pic. Because that’s the point.

Yes, half of that first list above aren’t with us anymore, but now that’s starting to hit our generation, as well.

I started my career as the stereotypical “angry young man” and for years, I made that shit work for me. But I’m not a young man anymore, and it was this tour, and my coming to grips with Pic and Jesus’s passing while I was out there on the road, that truly made me realize that. I’m no longer a young man. You can’t be an angry young man when you’re about to turn fifty. That shit doesn’t work. And nobody wants to hear from an angry old man. If you doubt that, ask yourself how many people take Harlan Ellison seriously these days.

I never wanted to be Harlan Ellison. In fact, I remember a World Horror Convention in New York City many years ago, when a bunch of us stood aghast, watching Harlan Ellison do his shtick, and I turned to Steven L. Shrewsbury, and said, quote: “When we’re his age, if I’m acting like that, I want you to knock the shit out of me.” And Shrews promised he would. And so did Wrath and Michael T. Huyck Jr. and Jack Haringa, and then a line started forming of fellow writers queuing up to punch me.

But I digress.

I never wanted to become Harlan Ellison. And that was what the whole “retirement” thing was about. It wasn’t about retiring from writing or podcasting, or speaking up when my voice and platform and privilege could be put to good use to help out others in my field. It wasn’t even about retiring from appearances, although there would never be another tour like this again. It was about retiring from being that guy, and about being home more.

And about being available more when I was home.

About not having to be Batman anymore.

Because there was a whole new generation in place and actively involved in doing the same thing—a generation who were perhaps too young to remember horror’s mid-nineties crash (the crash that had birthed my generation) but who saw first-hand the collapse of the limited edition small press market and the Dorchester Wars, and who hadn’t just read our books, but had followed our careers, and knew a good deal from a bad deal, and knew what was acceptable and what was not. An entire generation of new horror writers who are standing up and going to bat for their fellow writers in issues of payment, rights, inclusion, diversity, and safety. A Justice League, if you will. And just like we did, they’re doing it in different ways. Some are diplomatic. Others will indeed burn your fucking house down.

And that makes me proud.

Watching Chris and Jim interact with this next generation—I got so proud of my friends and how far we’ve come that I had to excuse myself and go outside.  

Brian reading at the KGB Bar in New York City.
(Photo Copyright 2016 Leza Cantoral)

I saw it again a week later, when Mary and I read at the venerable KGB Bar in New York City. Neither of us are strangers to reading there, but this time, we were the veterans. The reading was organized by another young writer, Christoph Paul, and featured his generation—Leza Cantoral, Nick Cato, and Adam Cesare. Again, I was filled with pride listening to these kids read and watching them interact with their fans—readers of their generation and their age, some of whom merely viewed me as the token “old guy.”

I witnessed it again in the middle of November when I went to BizarroCon in Portland, Oregon. Bizarro writers of my generation—authors like Carlton Mellick and Jeremy Robert Johnson and Kevin Donihe—advising and mentoring another entirely new generation of up-and-comers. And there was John Skipp, dispensing wisdom to them all the way he’d done for us over the years. You know that game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? John Skipp is our Kevin Bacon. Think about it, and tell me I’m wrong.

Because I’m not.

I spent much of BizarroCon hunkered down with old friends. It was my second to last appearance on the tour, and rather than spending the time selling books, I wanted to spend it with friends. So, I did. I spent it in quiet corners of the bars and in my hotel room with fellow writers that I’ve known for twenty years, and we reminisced, as people who have known each other that long are bound to do.

But mostly, we talked about the kids.

Michael T. Huyck and Brian enjoy some down time in Oregon as the end of the road nears.
(Photo Copyright 2016 Brian Keene)

Nine months ago, when this series of columns started, I told you about the theory of Eternal Return—a concept in which the universe and all energy has been, and will continue to recur an infinite number of times. This concept can be applied to the horror genre. It goes through the same cycle, over and over again—a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. At least once in every decade since the First World War, the public has had a renewed interest in horror fiction. For the interests of our discussion, I have broken this era of modern horror down into six waves.

The first wave, spanning from 1900 to the mid-1920s begins, more or less, with the 1901 publication of M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud. It also gave us authors such as Lord Dunsany and William Hope Hodgson, and saw an increased public interest in ghost stories, particularly the work of M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Edith Wharton. 1923 brought us the birth of Weird Tales, a magazine whose long and varied history is so entwined with modern horror that it’s as difficult to imagine the genre without it as it is to imagine the genre without Stephen King.

The second wave, spanning the mid-1920s through the late-1940s, was an important period that gave us H.P. Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Shirley Jackson, and Seabury Quinn, among others, and the early works of Fritz Leiber.

The third wave, spanning the 1950s and 1960s gave us more mature works from Fritz Leiber, as well as the work of Anthony Boucher, Theodore Sturgeon, John Farris, Ira Levin, and five writers who are as important, if not more important, to the genre than even the works of the esteemed Mr. King: Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, and the early works of Ramsey Campbell. These five writers were among the first to truly begin centering horror fiction in contemporary settings, rather than crumbling New England waterfront towns or sprawling Victorian mansions. Their impact and themes still inform much of today’s horror fiction.

During the first three waves, horror fiction was published as either mainstream fiction, science fiction, or mystery fiction. There was no horror marketing category. That category wasn’t invented until the rise of the fourtth wave.

The beginning of the fourth wave, the Seventies and Eighties, brought us Stephen King, Dean Koontz, F. Paul Wilson, Thomas Monteleone, Karl Edward Wagner, Peter Straub, and others. When King became a bestseller in paperback, the marketing category of HORROR was invented. The genre waned briefly around 1979-1980 but then came back with a vengeance. The fourth wave also gave us Clive Barker, Charles L. Grant, James Herbert, TED Klein, Robert R. McCammon, Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon, Rick Hautala, Ronald Kelly, the Splatterpunks, Brian Hodge, and Poppy Z. Brite.

This was where I came in, as a reader. Then, in the mid-1990s, the whole thing collapsed.

And that was where I came in as a writer.

Some say horror died in the ’90s, but this is patently untrue. Horror as a marketing category to be stamped on the spine of a book certainly died, but the stories and books and readers were still there. From 1991 to 1995, the most prominent mass market horror publishers were Zebra Books and the Dell Abyss line. With the fall of those two lines, other publishers began shying away from horror, as well. Unable to sell their work to mainstream publishers, horror authors turned to the small press. Likewise, readers who were unable to find horror novels in stores did the same. The ’90s saw the rise of the small press, something which had always existed, way back in the first wave, but which really came to prominence in the ’90s.

The ’90s didn’t kill horror. It was just a transition period. Horror fiction was still published, it just didn’t reach as wide a readership. And it was also the birthing ground of the fifth wave.

That’s my generation—the fifth wave. We rose to prominence in that last decade and in the first decade of this new century. We were the first generation to have the Internet. We bridged the gap between the fourth wave—authors who had to adapt to new technology—and your generation, the post-Internet generation. And our generation also lived through our own collapse, with the fall of Dorchester and the crumbling of the small press.

Now we see the rise to prominence of the sixth wave.

And once again, it is a great time to be a horror reader and a horror writer.

A lot of things have changed in twenty years—both for the genre that I love, and the industry that I work in, and myself. But the genre prevails.

Twenty years ago, the mainstream stuff was sold in mass-market paperback format, clearly labeled HORROR and available at any chain bookstore. The underground stuff was sold as pricey limited edition hardcovers from small presses. Today, the chain bookstores are vanishing, and there are only a handful of small presses still doing limited editions (Cemetery Dance, Subterranean Press, Thunderstorm Books, Centipede, PS Publishing, and a few others). Today, you can find horror at the bookstore, but it won’t be at those vanishing chain stores—it will instead be at your local independent bookstore. And the underground stuff? It’s still available, perhaps more than ever. But you’re more likely to find it in a $3.99 Kindle edition than a $399 limited hardcover edition.

The delivery system may change, but the genre prevails.

People are born. Some of them grow up to become horror writers. Eventually, they die. There’s no getting around it. But their work lives on—not only in the books they contributed to the genre, but in the example and spirit of those who remember them, and those who follow them.

The writers may chance, but the genre prevails.

I have accomplished a lot in the last twenty years. I have been able to give back to a genre that has brought me incalculable joy throughout my life. I’ve written a lot of novels and short stories and comic books and other things. A few of them are described as “seminal” and “game-changing” and “had a noticeable impact on the genre” by people who are much smarter than me. I’ve got a bookshelf full of awards, including the 2014 World Horror Grandmaster Award, a 2001 Bram Stoker Award for Nonfiction, a 2003 Bram Stoker Award for First Novel, a 2004 Shocker Award for Book of the Year, and Honors from United States Army International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and Whiteman A.F.B. (home of the B-2 Stealth Bomber) 509th Logistics Fuels Flight. My writing career has allowed me to (mostly) keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over, signing books and delivering talks in bookstores, conventions, college campuses, theaters, and even three times inside the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency.

If I die tomorrow, I am proud of these things.

But the thing I am most proud of is this new generation of horror writers, and how this new generation of horror readers are supporting them.

You spend a year on the road, watching that unfold, and it makes the thought of leaving here much easier—because you know that the genre will prevail.

Time is a flat circle, and now I find myself not traveling its circumference, but standing still in the center, and touching all the sides at once.

Thank you. Just in case I don’t get to say it later, thank you for allowing me in your homes and your study halls and your commute and your breakrooms and your beds. Thank you for allowing me to earn a living doing something I would have done for free if I had to. Thank you for allowing me to give back. Thank you for not kicking me out the times I was an asshole. Thanks for being there. Thanks for everything.

We have now come to the end of the road.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: Well, okay… technically, we haven’t come to the end of the road, because there are two epilogues to this series of columns, and they will appear here over the next two weeks.

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.

5 thoughts on “Full Circle”

  1. You sir, are welcome to return to our home anytime. We have been given the opportunity to help people we wouldn’t have known about because of what you stand for. We feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. This genre contains some of the kindest and most accepting people we’ve ever met. Getting to know you and being a small part of your road trip has enriched our lives. We’re lucky and proud to know you.

  2. I’ll never forget meeting Brian at a Davis Kidd bookstore in Jackson, TN just prior to the first Hypericon in Nashville. What a nice guy and he remembered my name when we got to Hypericon! Meet Pic there as well and James Newman and Hunter Goatley and so many other great authors and greater people, thanks!

    Troy

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