In Which We Answer Who, What, Where, and Why
My name is Brian Keene. I’m a writer by trade and a road warrior by heart. Neither of these things make for very wise career or life choices, but at the age of forty-eight, it’s a little late for me to decide I’d like to become an IT Specialist or an HVAC technician instead.
Both writing and the road got in my blood at an early age. My parents were transplants from West Virginia, which is like a ghetto with trees and mountains. Seriously. All of the despair and poverty and crime that plague America’s ghettos can be found in West Virginia. But, just like the ghettos, you can also find hope and inspiration (even today, when meth production has overtaken coal mining as the state’s most popular employment opportunity). It was that hope and inspiration that motivated my parents to move north to Pennsylvania. Dad was just out of the army, after a year in Vietnam followed by a stint on riot duty in Washington D.C. and Detroit. Mom was fresh out of college. And I was still sucking on pacifiers and learning how to crawl.
At that point, the most successful person in our family was my grandfather, a straightforward, crafty, kind-hearted, slow-to-anger-but-capable-of-destroying-everything-when-pushed, womanizer who made his living as a moonshiner. During Prohibition, he used to hide his shine in the basement of the county courthouse, because it was the last place the authorities would think to look. Many in our family say I take after him. Sometimes that makes me uncomfortable.
But I digress.
My parents wanted a better life for toddler Brian (and my little sister who would soon follow) so we moved to Pennsylvania, where Dad got a job in a paper mill. We didn’t have a lot of money (especially when the union was on strike) but they always kept us fed and clothed, and more importantly (to six-year-old Brian) they always had money to buy me comic books. I’ve written at length for Stephen King Revisited about my early love of comic books and how, via their influence, I decided at the age of eight that I wanted to grow up to be a writer. But I’ve never written about how those comics—and my interest in writing—were tied to the road.
Several times a year, we’d make a seven-hour drive back to West Virginia to visit family. For most children, seven hours in the backseat of a car is an interminable hell, but I never minded. Those seven hours blew past because I always had a stack of comic books to read. And if I ran out of comic books, I’d stare out the window and make up stories about the places we passed and the towns we drove through. Oh, I did the same thing back home. I made up stories about everyone and everything in our neighborhood—the old church and cemetery next door, the spooky hollow where a witch was murdered in the 1930s, our neighbors, my friends. But those same locations got boring after a while, so I always looked forward to our family road trips because it gave me new places and people to make up stories about.
So, yeah, by age eight—years before I’d discover Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson—I was already equating writing with the road.
I guess I never stopped making the equation.
I sold my first bit of writing—an essay about Godzilla movies—in 1996. I did my first book signing tour—for a deservedly out-of-print and not-ready-for-prime-time short story collection called No Rest for the Wicked—in 2001. I’ve been doing both of those things ever since. That’s twenty years. Twenty years of writing books, stories, comics, and the occasional bit of journalism for money. Twenty years of going out on the road to promote it. Twenty years of deadlines, both hit and missed. Twenty years of blowing through advances and chasing down royalty checks. Twenty years of drinking in convention bars and biker bars and upscale bars. Twenty years of signing everywhere from the Barnes and Noble on 5th Avenue in New York City to a Waldenbooks in a strip mall in a small Kentucky town.
At first, I did book signing tours to build an audience. And it worked. Later on, I did book signing tours to convince the bookstore chains to order more copies. And that worked, too. I’m going to state a fact now, and I want to preface it with a note that it doesn’t come from a place of arrogance or cockiness or braggadocio, but simply to illustrate my point. I am one of the most successful horror writers of my generation. That’s a fact. I’m not wealthy, but I’ve managed to make a solid middle-class living crafting stories about zombies and giant worms and serial killers and sentient darkness from outer space, rather than working in a factory. My books are in print in different countries, and they sell every month. I’ve got a shelf full of awards. A flag was flown in my honor over the American base in Afghanistan. I’ve been the answer to a trivia question on a game show. My readers include actors and musicians and stand-up comedians and even a few politicians. I’ve had a pretty good run. So, that’s fact number one. Fact number two is that I owe at least half of my success to the extensive touring I did early in my career. (There are other factors that contributed to my success as well, but we’ll get to those in later installments).
But a lot has changed in twenty years. The truth is, authors don’t need to do these extensive promotional tours anymore. We can build an audience without ever leaving our homes. That audience can buy our books without ever leaving their homes, as well. And even if that wasn’t the case—even if the old models of writing and publishing and bookselling still existed—I don’t need to do an extensive promotional tour anymore. I’ve already built an audience. My books already sell. And yet, we still do. Joe Hill is out on the road this summer. Paul Tremblay is out on the road this summer. Kevin J. Anderson is out on the road this summer. Jonathan Maberry is out on the road this summer. And I’m out here, too.
If you’re asking why, know that I’ve asked myself that same question. I have two sons. One is twenty-five. The other is eight. They require two very different sets of parenting skills. My oldest son can fend for himself. But my eight-year-old—he’s only going to be eight once. I’ve been there his whole life. I’m lucky enough to have a job that has allowed me to be there for his whole life. And yet now, I’m heading out on the road again. My tour runs from May through December. A significant portion of that involves crisscrossing the country during the summer, with wingmen and wingwomen such as Kasey Lansdale, John Urbancik, and high-school football coach Tod Clark for part of the ride. I’m missing out on a summer with my child. Why?
Because I don’t want to miss anymore summers after this one.
And because all of my friends keep dying.
In the last three years, I’ve lost three of my best friends. On a warm August day in 2014, Mary SanGiovanni and I were deep in the middle of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, exploring the region for some background research for a novel Mary was working on. When we got to an area with cell phone service, my phone rang. It was my second ex-wife, and she was distraught. I immediately thought something had happened to our son, but instead, was stunned to learn that a friend of ours, Jason, had died of a sudden brain aneurysm. Jason and I had been best friends for years. We were friends long before I ever became a writer. And he was a close friend of my ex-wife, as well.
I was still dealing with Jason’s death when, that November, J.F. Gonzalez died. That happened quick, in retrospect. From his initial diagnosis (“Hey, Brian, you’ll have to work on that new novel we’re writing together by yourself today, because I have to go to the doctor for a check-up”) to the moment his heart monitor went flat-line, it was just a little over one month. I watched that motherfucking cancer whittle him down to nothing. That was the scariest aspect, to be honest—the speed at which he deteriorated. He was one of my best friends. Just one of the best friends I’ve ever had. We wrote four published novels together, plus a collection and a screenplay, and bunch of other stuff. Collaborating with him—one of us could end in the middle of a sentence and the other could pick up where we’d left off. Our voices meshed, our styles meshed, and our appreciation of the genre meshed. Our friendship was like that, too.
It took me a long time to work through the loss of Jason and Jesus, and I was just starting to come to grips with it all when Tom Piccirilli died. Now, unlike Jesus, Pic was sick for a long time. He’d had the brain cancer once before, and it had supposedly been terminal at that point, and all of us had gone to see him and tell him goodbye (that story is recounted in my book Trigger Warnings). We were overjoyed when he beat the cancer, and distraught when it returned. His death hit me hard, but it affected me in a much different way than Jason or Jesus’s did, and I’m still not sure I understand why. I loved Pic. He really was like a big brother to me. And yet, I guess somewhere deep down inside, I suspected it would happen. I guess after Jason and Jesus and everyone else, I assumed it would come. I cried when he was gone, but I didn’t drink myself into oblivion and stop writing the way I’d done when Jesus passed.
Jason, Jesus, Pic—each of their deaths impacted me in a different way, and I dealt with and processed each of them in different ways. Something I did in all three cases was write about them. And even when I wasn’t consciously writing about them, they were lurking in the spaces between the words. Usually, that’s all I need to do. I write things out of my system. That’s where novels like Dark Hollow and Ghoul and The Girl on the Glider came from. I had something on my chest, something dark and tumorous squatting on my soul and taking a big shit on my spirit, and I wrote it out of my system. And for the most part, I’ve done that this time, as well.
But here’s the thing. You can make peace with the loss of a person—or even three people—who are close to you. You can crawl back from the bottle, climb back from the brink. You can be there and be strong and be responsible for your sons and for your girlfriend and for everyone else in your life—but at the end of the day, there’s still a little voice inside of your head that says, “You’re next.”
That voice is impossible to silence, and so you start listening to it. You make your literary estate and fill out your will and start thinking about all the novels and stories you’d hoped to write one day, and you rank them in order of, “Which ones do I absolutely need to finish first?” And then you figure you’d better say goodbye to everyone…just in case.
I’m doing this so that I never have to do it again. I’m doing this because I miss you guys (my readers). You’ve grown in numbers, and it’s hard to talk with all of you one-on-one these days. I’m doing this because it will be nice to see all of you one more time and have that one-on-one interaction. I owe you that much. In the words of Prince, “we could all die any day…” Now, I’ve no plans to die. There are some things I’d like to finish first. But when it seems like your friends keep dying, and your pop culture icons keep dying, and your own health problems are becoming more and more of a daily concern… you gotta suck it up and be a realist. To quote another of my favorite musicians, Waylon Jennings, “living legends are a dying breed, there ain’t too many left. To tell the truth I ain’t been feeling real hot lately my damn self…”
I’m hitting the road one last time so that when I reach the end of it, I can stay home with my son.
But there’s more to it than that. As I said before, twenty years is a long time, and things have changed. Book tours have changed, publishing has changed, bookselling has changed, conventions have changed, travel has changed, horror fiction—and the horror genre—have changed. I’ve changed, too.
The only things that haven’t changed are writing and the road. They stay the same, while everything changes around us. The words we type today are the past tomorrow. And yet, everything is connected. It’s connected like the highways on a map are connected. This holds true for the history of our genre, as well.
A few months ago, I visited The York Emporium—a warehouse-sized used bookstore in my hometown—with Adam Cesare, Scott Cole, and Mike Lombardo in tow. Adam is a horror writer, Scott is a bizarro writer, and Mike is a horror filmmaker. All three are part of the Millennial generation. All three are going through the same struggles I went through nearly twenty years ago. While browsing through the shelves, I found three signed copies of John Skipp and Craig Spector’s The Light at the End—one of the absolute classics of the splatterpunk sub-genre. I made sure Adam, Scott, and Mike each went home with one, and I felt a real sense of history as I handed those books to them — three generations of horror writers, one generation after the other, helping each other and all hoping for the same thing.
That same weekend, Mike and I finished a year-long task of moving all of Jesus Gonzalez’s papers, books, and private effects. While going through boxes, Jesus’s wife, Cathy, found a bunch of hand-written letters from Robert Bloch to Jesus, Mike Baker, and Mark Williams. None of those four authors are with us now, and my time is probably limited, but it pleased me that Mike understood the importance of those letters, and why they mattered, and why the people in them mattered, and the generational sense of history that was imbued in them.
I am heading out on the road, surrounded by a history that I’ve somehow become a part of. It is May as I write this. The tour ends in December. Over the next nine months, I’m going to write about it weekly here at Cemetery Dance Online. I’m going to write about it from out there on the road. I’m going to examine that history, and what has changed, and what remains the same. In bookselling. In publishing. In touring. In our society. And especially in myself.
I will find all of those things out here at the end of the road.
My name is Brian Keene. I’m a writer by trade and a road warrior by heart. Neither of these things are wise career or life choices. The tolls add up. I rode into town twenty years ago. Now I’m riding out. You’re all coming with me…
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.