End Times

End of the Road

To get to New Orleans, you’re pretty much going to have to drive across a bridge. That’s what I was doing the morning of July 16, on my way to sign at Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop. I was still thinking about warnings from dead friends, and about balance and patterns and nice fans and fires and the theory of Eternal Return.

The stairs at Tubby & Coo's. (Photo Copyright 2016 Brian Keene)
The stairs at Tubby & Coo’s.
(Photo Copyright 2016 Brian Keene)

I don’t like bridges. I don’t like them for the same reason I don’t like flying. It’s not a fear of heights. It’s a loss of control. On an airplane or a bridge, your fate is taken out of your hands. When I drive across bridges, I tend to stick to the middle lane, as far away from either side as I can, and stare straight ahead, not looking down, not thinking about how I’m fucked if there’s a wreck or the bridge suddenly collapses.

Driving into New Orleans, it is impossible not to cross those bridges and think about the damage and devastation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, particularly the seemingly post-apocalyptic aftermath. It’s impossible not to think about the hundreds of thousands of people who sat there, suffering, waiting for the government to help them—only to discover that help was not forthcoming and they would have to help themselves. It’s impossible not to think about the lawlessness and savagery on display in the weeks following that disaster—a brutality perpetrated by both civilians and the law enforcement and military who were there to ostensibly help and assist them. What we don’t tend to remember is how it wasn’t just New Orleans that Katrina devastated. Surrounding towns, parishes, and states were hit just as hard, but the media tended not to focus on them, because a flattened town of poor people in Mississippi isn’t as telegenic and good for ratings as a flattened city full of trapped tourists.

I remember Katrina. I remember it because I listened to it happen. I was out on tour, just like I am now, driving from Rue Morgue magazine editor Monica Kuebler’s house in Toronto, Canada, to a signing in Chicago. I had satellite radio and I listened to coverage of Katrina during the entire long drive. I had friends in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Some of them got evacuated. Others were trapped inside. Those who were trapped were irrevocably changed.

All because of those bridges.

Take a bridge away, and people become islands. That’s what has happened in this country now. The bridges that used to exist between us have been swamped and destroyed. Those bridges are overrun. They are burned down and blasted. And now, all across America, every day is post-Hurricane Katrina. We are divided along social, political, and religious lines. We have formed our own little islands, dependent upon which team we identify with. With our bridges gone, so is our dialogue and any chance for mutual respect or middle ground. Now we’re just islands. Law enforcement. Civilians. Black. White. Latino. Republican. Democrat. Conservative. Progressive. Christian. Muslim. Jewish. Atheist. Marvel. DC. Pepsi. Coke.

I got to the store a few hours early. Rather than stopping by and checking in, I decided to grab some lunch and check my email. Over a burger and fries, I learned that yet another signing had been cancelled—this time in Spokane. That feeling of impending doom returned. First I’d been orphaned. Then a bookstore had cancelled on me. Now another venue had cancelled on me.

“At least there aren’t any more fires,” I muttered.

When I got to Tubby & Coo’s, I learned that the store had caught on fire earlier that morning. It was an electrical fire, and although there was no flame or heat damage, the interior smelled like smoke and there was no electricity. The owners were heartbroken and apologetic. I could tell they’d been counting on this appearance to make some money. I knew there would be a crowd showing up. And I was goddamned if I was going to lose yet another in-store appearance.

“Can you use your cell phone to ring up credit card transactions?” I asked.

One of the murals in Tubby & Coo's children's section. (Photo Copyright 2016 Brian Keene)
One of the murals in Tubby & Coo’s children’s section.
(Photo Copyright 2016 Brian Keene)

They confirmed that they could. So I told them that I’d be happy to sign books outside the store, and that’s exactly what we did. This was mid-July in New Orleans. It wasn’t just hot. It was fucking sweltering. But I didn’t care and neither did my hosts. I sat out there in the sun and the heat and signed books and took photos with everybody, and by the end of the signing, the store had sold out of Pressure and The Complex. We had a steady influx of people. Some were local. Others came from as far as Texas. I saw old friends and made new ones. I was given eight bottles of bourbon, a six-pack of craft beer, four books, a t-shirt, and a compact disc. I also got to see the interior of the store, and even though the power was off, and it was hot inside, and there was very little light, I was impressed. If you are ever in New Orleans, please do stop by and support Tubby & Coo’s. It’s a two-story building, and the second floor has been converted into an awe-inspiring children’s section with a wonderful, curated selection of age appropriate horror, fantasy and science-fiction titles.

When the signing was over, I hopped back in the Jeep and headed out back across the bridge. I was facing an eight-hour drive to author John Urbancik’s house. I was tired, running on caffeine and stubbornness, and wondering what else would go wrong, and how I would salvage it when it did. During that drive, I saw Trump signs and Clinton signs. I saw homes that had been foreclosed on and shuttered businesses. I saw four—four—police cars parked behind a lone black man in a BMW along the highway, and several passersby who had stopped to film the proceedings with their cell phones. I saw gut-wrenching poverty and obscene wealth. I saw bumper stickers proudly proclaiming the driver’s child was an Honor Student and other bumper stickers gleefully announcing that their kid beat up the Honor Student. I saw support for various professional sporting teams, but no support for each other as individuals. I was informed that #BlackLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter, and when I turned on the radio, I heard people arguing about which lives mattered the most. I saw signs telling me to repent because the end was near and billboards asking me if I knew Jesus Christ as my personal savior and graffiti telling me that there was no God and even if He had existed at some point, He was dead now.

I crossed many bridges between New Orleans and Tallahassee, but I crossed them alone.

Night fell and so did my spirits. Dread seemed to loom everywhere, suggesting itself in the most innocent of scenery. I became convinced that this tour was pointless, doomed to failure, and that nothing I did mattered. I thought about Charles L. Grant, dying broke in a hospice. I remembered when I was younger, and I’d attended a party at author Matthew Warner’s house. Myself, Mary SanGiovanni, Matt, Brian Freeman, and a few others of our generation had been standing in the kitchen, talking about how unjust Charlie’s method of passing seemed to us. And I remember the absolute gravity and fear in Douglas E. Winter’s voice when he stared at me and said, “Now you know what keeps us up at night, kid.” I thought about J.N. Williamson, dying in an old folk’s home with only his sister, Gary Braunbeck, and Maurice Broaddus at his funeral service, which was presided over by a preacher who informed them that J.N.’s life’s work had served the devil. I thought about Richard Matheson, still trying to write even as dementia ate away at his ability to do so (or so I’ve been told). I thought about Richard Laymon spending the morning writing and then collapsing in his kitchen. I thought about Pic and Jesus, and I thought about how it never ends well for us writer types. Nobody gets out alive, of course, but is it too much to ask that just one of us goes in our sleep with the knowledge that what we did actually mattered, and that we touched people’s lives with our stories about zombies and ghosts and vampires?

What the hell was I doing out here? It was the middle of fucking summer and I should be at home, playing with my son. I was wasting my life writing stupid pulp novels that would entertain people for a few days and then languish on the shelf of some used bookstore, quickly forgotten.

I, too, was an island.

John Urbancik and Brian build a bridge. (Photo Copyright 2016 Brian Keene)
John Urbancik and Brian build a bridge.
(Photo Copyright 2016 Brian Keene)

When I reached Tallahassee, it was well after midnight. John was awake and waiting for me. I’ve known John over twenty years. He is one of my oldest and closest friends in this business. He was happy to see me. He had a glass of bourbon waiting for me. And he’d made cookies. Five minutes spent in his company, and my gloom had passed. I hung out with my friend, talking and laughing, and enjoyed the bridge over troubled waters, a bridge that only the bonds of brotherhood can build—and that no storm can tear asunder.  

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.

3 thoughts on “End Times”

  1. Rest assured, Brian, that your work will not be forgotten or simply languish on at least one book shelf. That one book shelf being mine (and i suspect quite a few others that count themselves in the ranks of your faithful readers). Not simply because they are most excellent and entertaining reads but also because you are a smart, kind and down to earth guy. It shows in your work and especially in these columns you have been writing for Cemetery Dance. It shows at all the stops you have made on this tour. You care about your fans and they know this and it is reciprocated

    I know that your work has had an effect on my life. It may not be so grossly profound that i am going to start burning incense and chanting in tongues while bowing in front of my copies, nay…my SIGNED copies, of The Rising and City of the Dead, but an effect all the same. The same effect that others have had. People from many different genres and backgrounds. People like Stephen King, Stan Lee, Ric Flair, Gene Simmons, Chris Claremont, Harrison Ford, Mike Portnoy and many others too numerous to mention.

    You, like the others mentioned above, use your medium to paint a small picture of the world which in turn, helps shape the thinking of the people who read your work in one way or the other. They may not agree with your take, they may absolutely agree with your take or they may use your take on the world to help mold their own take on the world. The point is, whether they like it or not or even if they know it or not, your work has effected them. Strong stuff. I mean, Stan Lee’s characterization of Steve Rogers and Peter Parker helped define who i have grown to be almost as much as how my parents raised me. In fact, one of my biggest wishes in life right now, would be to meet Stan in person to tell him this before he is gone but I don’t think it will happen. That being said (and hopefully, I can tie all this together without it coming across as incoherent rambling), I have met some of these people over the course of my life. Gene Simmons, Mike Portnoy, Richie Kotzen, Billy Sheehan, Ric Flair, Geoff Tate and Your Good Self. Out of all of those people who have touched my life in one way or the other, you were the most humble and down to earth and seemed to go out of your way to make me feel on the same level as you (as did John Urbancik). Now, I have communicated with you in various forms of social media and email over the years since i first read The Rising back in 2005 (i think) and I always had this idea of you and your personality and in meeting you in person was pleasantly surprised that you were even cooler than what I thought you would be. You took time out to speak to me outside the store before the signing while I was waiting and you even blew off the email I launched your way years ago that, afterwards, I felt may have crossed a line sent on a late night whim and made me feel a little better about it. Now, to tie this back into Stan Lee, I never told you how much i enjoyed your work and how much it means to me for that time of escape that i get when i sit down with one of your books or how much it makes me think about my family and friends when i read some of your non-fiction work and makes me more appreciate them and my life which is much richer than it could have been thanks to you and Stan the man.

    So, thank you. Your work won’t be forgotten by at least one person.

  2. Brian, you’ve summed up in one article what really matters in our lives, and what doesn’t. I didn’t know that Ed Gorman had passed, and am sad as hell to hear of this. Jerry (J.N., or “Santa Jerry” as R.C. Matheson used to call him) Williamson mentored me. Mary, his wife, was my first literary agent. Those two friendly, amazingly generous people, taught me everything I needed to know about writing, handling the business side, and dealing with insecurity and negative reader responses. Charles L. Grant’s wife, Kathy, took over my HORROR SHOW column when I left the magazine in 1989. Never met Charlie, but his books, quiet haunting vision, and anthologies are present in my life.

    Thanks for sharing these moments and thoughts, Brian. You’re nothing but an inspiration, and you’re never truly alone.

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