“So,” author John Urbancik said as we drove across Florida from Tallahassee to Land O’ Lakes, “let me see if I understand this correctly.” (That’s how John talks. If you’re writing dialogue for John Urbancik, he would never say something like, “Let me get this straight” or “You’ve gotta be shitting me.” He would say, “Let me see if I understand this correctly.”)
“You’re on the second leg,” John continued, “of a book signing tour for The Complex and Pressure. In the first week of this second leg, you’ve been orphaned by the publisher of one of those books, and you’re waiting to hear the outcome of that. You have also seen three previously scheduled signings unceremoniously cancelled by the venues. A bookstore and a vehicle caught on fire, the radiator in your Jeep blew up, and you are running low on money, hope, and gas—and running even lower on fucks to give.”
I gripped the wheel and stared straight ahead. “Correct.”
“Also, you believe Jesus Gonzalez is sending you dire messages from beyond.”
“Either that, or I’m going insane.”
“Well, it would hardly be the first time you’ve done that.”
“You are being less than helpful, John.”
Grinning, John waved off the comment. “So, if things are that bad, what are we doing out here on the road?”
I shrugged. “I’m out here for you guys. And for the fans. I mean…between Pic and Jesus, who knows how many more years we’ll have? Hell, just look at the heart attack ratio alone—you, me, Lee, Haringa, all while in our forties. I’m out here to say goodbye, I guess. To let people know it’s been fun, and I appreciate it. I don’t know why you’re out here.”
“I’m writing a new book. It’s called On the Road with Brian Keene.”
And he did. John rode with me across five states—–Florida, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia, and during that time, he wrote a book called On the Road with Brian Keene—handwritten in a Moleskin notebook, scribbled from the passenger seat of the Jeep and in various hotel rooms along the way. Ask him about it on social media. Publisher inquiries welcome.
We reached Land O’ Lakes, which is the home of Camelot Books. Run by Tony and Kim Duarte, Camelot Books is a titan among horror, science fiction and fantasy booksellers. Most their sales are done online, but they do have a physical store which customers can visit by appointment. If you have money to spend, and you are traveling through Florida, I strongly encourage you to make an appointment to visit because it’s not just a bookstore—it’s a museum dedicated to this genre and the books we all love. The walls are lined with original artwork and paintings from book covers, including the original art for Camelot’s edition of my novel Entombed. (In addition to being a bookseller, Camelot has also published books by myself, Edward Lee, Mary SanGiovanni, Wrath James White, and others). Shelves stand floor to ceiling, overflowing with trade hardcovers and signed limited editions. John and I walked those aisles, gasping in awe at pristine volumes from Arkham House, Gnome Press, Fedogan & Bremer, Cemetery Dance, PS Publishing, Thunderstorm Books, Subterranean Press, Ash Tree Press, Silver Salamander, Dark Harvest, and so many more. We saw books that cost more than we make in a year. We saw books that cost as little as $20. We got to hold books that we have only ever seen online or behind glass. And we spent money on some of them.
While we were browsing, our friends began to stop by. Edward Lee showed up, looking fit and trim, along with David Barnett, the owner of the legendary Necro Publications and a fine author in his own right. Accompanying them was K. Trap Jones, a young author who I had never met before. Jeff Strand and Lynne Hansen arrived soon after, and hugs and handshakes abounded. I sat back, taking it all in and smiling. It felt good to be among friends. I hadn’t seen Lee in over a year, and it had been almost a decade since I’d seen Dave. I had, of course, seen Jeff and Lynne at the start of this tour, but it was always god to see them again. I don’t know that I’ve ever run across a couple that delight me in their togetherness more than Jeff and Lynne do. They just seem so perfect together, and their mutual love and respect is infectious and intoxicating.
Much like Tom and Michelle, I thought. And Jesus and Cathy.
My smile faltered.
Careful, Keene, my subconscious warned. This is supposed to be a good time. Don’t ruin it for everybody by getting maudlin.
Oh, yeah? I thought. That’s easy for you to say, subconscious. You haven’t lost your partner. Cathy and Michelle did.
No, my subconscious countered, but I do have to live inside your fucking head twenty-four seven, and believe me, pal, that ain’t no picnic. If you’re going to be depressed, have the decency to do it alone. Go out to the Jeep and drink one of those dozen bottles of bourbon that people brought to your signings in Chattanooga and New Orleans and let everybody else have a good time. You’ve been skirting the edge of alcoholism for thirty years now. You might as well grab the bull by the horns and give in. That’s what people want from you. The party guy. The fun guy. The public figure. They don’t want this sad little fucker who misses his friends. That guy sucks.
Shut the fuck up.
No, you shut the fuck up.
And then my subconscious and I started punching each other, which happens more than you might think. Mary says it is particularly prone to happening when I am asleep. I don’t know if that’s true or not, because I’m asleep when it happens.
Kim, perhaps seeing the wrestling match taking place in my expression, wisely suggested that we start signing books, so that’s what we did. Unlike the other book signings I’d done on this tour, the signing at Camelot Books didn’t involve the public. Instead, John, Lee, Jeff, K. Trap Jones and myself signed books for the store, which had pre-sold copies to their customers. We also signed store stock which could later be sold on their website. I inscribed a giant stack of Pressure, The Complex, The Chinese Beetle, and others. John signed a stack of his new novel, Stale Reality. I’m not sure what Lee, Jeff, and K. signed, because I couldn’t see over the stack of books in front of me.
When we were done, the group went back to Tony and Kim’s house. They value their privacy, as do I, so I won’t tell you anything about that. Suffice to say, we had a wonderful afternoon full of food and laughter and sunshine, and we talked about a genre that we all love. Tony and Kim were wonderful hosts, and I can’t tell you how grateful I was for everything. I talked with Tony and Kim about Hole In The World, a novel I owed them which was unforgivably overdue because I’d had a nervous breakdown while writing it, and yet they were gracious about the delay and understanding. (That was in July. As I write this, Hole In The World has four chapters left to be written and should be finished by mid-November). I talked with Dave about an anthology he was putting together for Gerard Houarner’s seminal Painfreak. (That was in July. As I write this, the deadline has passed and I hope to get the story finished this weekend). I talked to K. Trap Jones, and got to know him, and was reminded of what it’s like to just be starting out in this business. And I had a heart-to-heart with Lee, as we talked about our missing friends and how we both feel about that and how the days seem to be growing shorter and how there are things we still want to do—need to do—and how we might not have time to do them all. And while Lee and I talked about those things, we watched small lizards darting back and forth across the landscape. Apparently, lizards are to Florida what squirrels are to Pennsylvania.
“Alligators, too,” Lee reminded me. “You know how you have all those deer running around? Down here it’s alligators.”
At sunset, the party broke up and everybody headed home. More hugs and handshakes abounded. Then John and I climbed into my Jeep and hit the road again. Driving through rural Florida, I stopped at a swamp and got out. John followed after me.
“What are we doing?” he asked.
“I want to see an alligator,” I replied.
“You’ve never seen an alligator before?”
“In zoos. But I want to see one in the wild. Lee says they’re all around here.”
“Lee also hallucinated lizards earlier today.”
“They weren’t hallucinations. I saw them, too.”
John frowned. “How much did you and Lee drink?”
“Look,” I said. “I’m not drunk. I just want to see an alligator.”
“Well, we can do that from the safety and comfort of your Jeep. Wading out into the swamp isn’t a good idea.”
I stood there at the water’s edge, swatting at mosquitoes and studying the bog. Peat floated atop the dark water. Frogs croaked. Birds chirped. If there was an alligator lurking off the shore, however, I didn’t see it. I snapped some pictures of the swamp. Later, John’s longtime partner Mery told me that there is indeed an alligator in the picture, and that I was nearly on top of it, and if I had taken a few more steps I would have probably seen more of it than I wanted to. I have looked at that picture over and over again in the months that have followed, and I still don’t see an alligator.
But I do still hear from the other side.
At the time, I was under the impression that those communications had to do with the bad luck the seemed to bedevil this tour in July. By August, I would discover that they were about something else entirely.
We’ll get to that point later. There’s no hurry. Time, as they say, is a flat circle.
But it is also a motherfucker.
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently releasedPressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.