The audience in Morgantown, West Virginia was small—easily the smallest since Albuquerque—but the dozen or so people who showed up were enthusiastic and engaged. One guy, Jarod Barbee, had traveled all the way from Texas. It is December as I write this, recounting events that occurred at the end of July, and I’ve been going back through these columns, collecting them into manuscript format so Cemetery Dance can eventually publish them as a book. Many recurring things jump out at me as I re-read them. One of those things is the number of displaced signing attendees. Starting way back in April, a woman from Bermuda travels to a signing in Pennsylvania. That story plays out again and again—so much that I didn’t even write about them all. At most of the signings this year, there was at least one person who had traveled far from home. I am at a loss as to explain why, but I find the phenomena very humbling.
I was due to sign at a Books-A-Million in Beckley the next evening, so after I finished up in Morgantown, I drove to my grandmother’s house in the mountains near Lewisburg. My grandparent’s home is a three-bedroom structure built in the Seventies with thirty-two acres of land attached to it. Nearby, my great-grandparents home still stands, as well—a weathered, rustic, World War I era structure of the type popularized by Mother Abigail’s home in Stephen King’s The Stand. If you go down yonder in the hollow, you’ll find the stone foundation of an even earlier home, built long before the Civil War. My family have lived on this mountain for generations, ever since we first got off the boat from Ireland. It’s a remote location, far from any town and bordering national forestland, so it will never be developed.
Every American town I’ve visited this year looks like it was purchased at Ikea, with the same retail options and fast food joints and tax services. A Wal-Mart in El Paso sells slave-labor-produced jeans for the same price as a Wal-Mart in Boston. McDonalds in Los Angeles tastes just as shitty as the McDonalds in Trenton. The Game Stop in Seattle has all the same merchandise as the Game Stop in New Orleans. Pick a Barnes and Noble—it doesn’t matter where. None of them are going to have a horror section, and the only reason you’ll even find my books there this year is because I’m on tour. There will be somebody dressed up in a Statue of Liberty costume outside your local tax preparation service this year, regardless of whether you live in Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine.
Every town is the same. Yes, the architecture and foliage may change. A suburban housing development in San Diego, California may have stucco buildings and palm trees, while one in Lancaster, Pennsylvania may have rancher buildings and tall, broad oaks—but the people living there all shop at the same places. They buy the same food, the same clothing, the same entertainment and media. They get their news from the same corporate-approved sources, and all of them—every single neighborhood—have Trump signs in their front yards. It is July, and I’ve been telling my friends and peers all summer that, based on what I’ve witnessed while traveling this country, Trump will win the Presidency. They all laugh at me. Even the ones who identify as Conservatives laugh at me. Then, it is November, and they all whisper, “How did you know?”
I was on tour. While everyone else was staying at home, and letting the Internet tell them what was going on in America, I was actually out in America, seeing things for myself.
Everything is the same. Small town America is a thing that exists in the memories of people of a certain age, and it’s a nice setting or plot device for movies and novels and comic books, but it is no longer the norm in this country. I suspect it hasn’t been for a very long time. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this—how many of your neighbors do you really know? Go to your local Target or Burger King or Pier One and ask yourself, “Who are all these people and where did they come from? Where do they live?”
There is no such thing as small town America. We live in an era of Stepford Towns.
But not so my grandmother’s home. Because it borders national forestland, it will never be developed. There will never be condominiums or big box retailers or a strip mall filled with nail salons and fast food joints. It is a place of solace for me, and I go there whenever I can. I find peace there, and contentment.
For the most part.
There’s just one drawback. My grandmother is very religious. In truth, my entire family is religious. Every Sunday, my parents go to the same Methodist church they’ve been attending their entire adult lives. They repeat things aloud from the liturgy, and listen to a sermon and sing three songs and then repeat the process again on the following Sunday. My sister and my brother-in-law go to one of those big modern, non-denominational churches, the kind where services are held inside an old Saturn dealership, and five hundred people show up, and instead of a choir, there’s some dude with a guitar who moonlights in a Pink Floyd cover band.
These things give them peace and solace—the same sort of peace and solace I get from writing.
Me? I’m not religious. I call myself agnostic, because it’s a simple term that most people seem to grasp. I believe there is more to this universe than we can possibly understand, and I believe that the supernatural is a real thing—something science hasn’t gotten around to explaining yet. But I don’t believe in God or Allah or Yahweh or Krishna, and I think their books were all ghost-written by human beings, and while I think Jesus Christ’s teachings were excellent rules to live your life by, I don’t expect him to come back anytime soon. Why would he? Last time he was here, a bunch of assholes nailed him to a cross because he had the audacity to walk around saying, “Hey, maybe we should all try to respect each other.”
(Brian makes personal note to write essay about how Jesus was the first Libertarian.)
I’m not a Christian, but I’m not a Christian-basher, either. As a rule, I tend not to disparage other people’s religious beliefs, because religion is a personal, intimate thing. It’s as personal as making love, and who am I to make fun of what you like in bed or what religion you believe in. What makes you cum may not work for me, and vice versa.
I’ve talked in previous columns about the tribalism that has infected our national discourse. Democrats versus Republicans. Progressives versus Conservatives. Coke versus Pepsi. The Jets versus the Ravens. Marvel Comics versus DC Comics. Religion had that problem long before any of these other things. For my entire life, I’ve seen Christians bashing Muslims, and Muslims bashing Jews, and Jews bashing Catholics, and everybody teaming up on the Mormons. And when they’re not bashing each other, then they’re bashing others around them, having a go at the LGBT community or atheists. And then the LGBT community and the atheists bash back, and on and on we go in this vicious fucking circle.
Me, I don’t care who you do or don’t worship. I don’t care if you fuck men or women. I don’t care who you voted for. I don’t care what you do or don’t believe—as long as you extend me the same courtesy.
But I don’t tell my grandmother any of this. My grandmother is ninety-two years old, and as far as she knows, I’m a born-again Christian and have been since the age of eleven, when I figured out that maybe if I pretended to be such, my family would leave me alone about Jesus and let me get back to reading comic books. I don’t tell my grandmother this because, despite what you may have read about me online, I’m not an asshole.
In many ways, my grandmother’s faith is all she has left. She was always a believer, but something happened back in the late-Sixties that I suspect made her faith more fervent. Her son, my uncle Mark, died in a car crash. I was a baby at the time, and have only vague memories of him. I remember him holding me, and I remember us playing with plastic farm animals, and that’s pretty much it. Everything else is faded black-and-white photographs, and his books that I inherited—a first edition paperback of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, a paperback collecting the works of Poe, and a few other works of weird fiction. My family tells me that Mark was an outstanding Christian boy, and maybe he was, but I also know, based on the books I inherited, that he was reading Lovecraft and Poe and Brunner and Heinlein, and maybe I would have had more in common with him than the rest of my family, had he lived. Maybe I wouldn’t have sometimes felt so alone, growing up.
I think my grandmother felt alone, too. Her son was dead, her daughter was married and living in Pennsylvania, and her husband was active duty Air Force and never home. It was a time of societal upheaval, not unlike what this country is experiencing again now, and I think she clung to the one thing she had left, the one thing that hadn’t changed—that never changes. She clung to her faith in God. Who am I to wave my hand at that or disparage it? That’s what religion is for—to bring peace and contentment to troubled souls, right? I’m glad that her God was there for her in that time of despair.
And now? Now she lives alone on a mountain, and her husband has joined her son, and her daughter still lives in Pennsylvania, and she despairs that her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter all voted for Clinton, and her grandson is one of those crazy Libertarians (because even though I’ve never come out of the religion closet with my family, they all know I’m neither a Progressive or Conservative), and the world she exists in has changed to the point of being unrecognizable. The only thing that has remained the same, the only thing she can identify with, is that faith in God.
And that’s okay with me.
I thought about this, as Grandma cooked for me. (Ninety-two years old and she can still rule a kitchen and would run rings around any of these so-called celebrity chefs you see on television.) We ate venison tenderloin and biscuits and mashed potatoes and green beans, and blueberry pie for dessert. As always, Grandma had cooked enough for an army, even though it was just the two of us. We sat there at her dining room table, FOX News droning softly in the background, and talked about current affairs and family members and the weather and the possibility that Jesus Christ would, in fact, return soon. She hoped he would. She hopes he will every day. My grandmother begins and ends each day on her knees in prayer, asking the Lord to deliver her. I thought about that, sitting there eating with her around that dining room table. It seats eight people, but there was only the two of us. And most days, it’s just her.
She won’t move. She’ll stab you if you mention a retirement community. And in truth, she doesn’t need it. At ninety-two she’s still mentally sharp and physically capable. But as I said goodbye the next day and headed for the next signing, I thought about how lonely she must get.
That loneliness, that quiet house…it’s no wonder she talked to God.
I couldn’t have said anything about that even if I wanted to. After all, only two days before, I’d had a conversation with what I believed to be the ghost of my dead best friend.
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.