Interview: Brian Keene Sinks His Teeth into the Vampire Genre

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photo of author Brian Keene
Brian Keene
(Photo by John Urbancik)

Brian Keene is a multi award-winning author of over fifty books in the horror, fantasy and crime fiction world. Heavily influencing the resurgence of current zombie popularity, he also writes comic books in the same DC and Marvel universes he grew up loving. He also organizes the charity event Scares That Care, is a family man who enjoys fishing along the borders of Casa Keene and routinely supports his fellow writers to usher in a new era of dark scribes to help keep this thing of ours trucking along.

Most recently, I sat down with Brian to discuss his newest novella, With Teeth, a breakneck vampire tale several years in the making. Along the way, we also discuss the inner workings and eventual conclusion of Keene’s own Labyrinth mythos, what he’s working on next, his favorite vampire, and a whole lot more.

(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)

CEMETERY DANCE: Brian, as you mention in your afterward, the genesis of With Teeth had been laid down years ago, but had been rejected by Leisure after you sent them an outline for it. I suppose the obvious question — aside from what the heck was Leisure thinking? — is why did you sit on this gem for so long before finally fleshing it out to completion?

cover of With Teeth by Brian KeeneBRIAN KEENE: I sat on it simply because I had other stuff that I needed to write. I figured I’d come back around to it one day. That always seems to be the way my muse works. I’ve had ideas for stories that have stuck in my head for decades before I finally got a chance to write them. But when I eventually did come back around to With Teeth, I discovered that it works much better as a novella than it would have as a novel. I mean, once the vampires are revealed, the narrative runs at a pretty fast pace. If you slow that down, then it isn’t as effective. And if you build up more at the beginning, then it becomes padding. So…ultimately, I stripped it down to the bare bones, and I think the story itself is much stronger for that.

Why go straight to paperback when so many of your other books began publication as collectible hardcovers? I can’t imagine that was an ode to Leisure…

As far as the paperback release goes…you know, the Leisure connection never occurred to me until you mentioned that. In truth, it had been a while since I’d done a direct-to-paperback release, and I figured since this was on the shorter side, it would be a good opportunity to do it again.

Considering the relatively short length of With Teeth, did it and the two bonus short stories included in the book enable you to say everything you needed to say about vampires, or do you foresee revisiting this subgenre with anything more?

I think it has everything I have to say about vampires for the moment, but never say never. I mean, how many times have I said I’m never writing another zombie story? And then as soon as I say that, I get a cool idea for one and I end up writing about zombies again. (laughs) Never say never. I’m sure at some point, I’ll write something more about vampires.

Certainly, I’m not alone in feeling this way, but I think the more fun you have writing a book, the more fun we have reading it, and this one was a ton of fun. How much fun did you have with it and how long did it take you from start to finish for this one?

Oh, it was a blast! First draft was a month and a half. Started on December 17th and finished on February 1st.

Clearly vampires have had their fair share of time spent in the spotlight throughout the years, from Count Orlok to Dracula to Lestat and those sparkling smears on the mythos that shall not be named. Like any subgenre that comes and goes, what do you think it will take to reinvigorate our love of bloodsuckers in print and on the screen for a new generation, and do you think With Teeth can act as a prototype for leading the way?

I think it comes down to the story and the twist. The horror genre is one of the oldest forms of storytelling in the world, and I’m not convinced there’s anything left resembling a totally original idea. Everything, at this point, no matter how ground-breaking it may seem, probably has its roots in a monster or situation that has been done before. People might not remember that it’s been done, but it has been. I think the key, for writers and filmmakers, is to use your own unique voice, and give it your own unique spin. Make it YOUR vampire story, or YOUR haunted house novel, or YOUR cosmic horror movie. Subvert the tropes — break them down and tear them apart and then use them to build something fresh. Something that only YOU can give the world.

I don’t know that With Teeth is treading any new ground, but I’d like to think it has some characters and a setting you don’t normally see in vampire fiction or film. So, in that regard, it’s something new. I’ll take that as a win.

Much like the vampire mythos, werewolves have also seen their light shine and wane over the years. Is this a subgenre you might also like to explore among your ever-expanding Labyrinth universe?

Sure, if I ever get an idea for one. But I’ve been doing this, what…25 years now? Give or take? And while I’ve had some dud ideas for a werewolf story, I’ve never had a good one that made me want to sit down and write it.

Speaking of your Labyrinth universe, long time fans ought to pick up on the subtle nods in this one, such as the reference to Whitey. I also couldn’t help but wonder if Ob may have played an insidious part at the root of it all as well. When it comes to the varying components of your labyrinth, are these generally knocking around in your head long before they spill on the page?

cover of Captain America and The Falcon #196(laughs) No, no connection to Ob or The Rising in this one I’m afraid. But absolutely it’s all knocking around in my head. The first two comic books I ever read were The Defenders #33 and Captain America and The Falcon #196. Both were published by Marvel Comics, and though this was my first introduction to their characters, I was immediately struck by the fact that these two seemingly independent books were actually linked to each other. They took place in a shared universe and referenced other characters and occurrences — not just from previous issues of their own individual series, but from other comic books also published by the company. Understand, the year was 1975, and this type of thing was unheard of at the time. Sure, H.P Lovecraft’s mythos took place in a shared continuity, but Lovecraft’s stuff was impossible to find in rural Pennsylvania in 1975, and even if I’d had access to it, I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to read it at such an early age. For me, it all started with Marvel Comics. Soon after, I discovered DC Comics, and another shared universe! And after that, I was not only buying new issues from both publishers — I was also riding my bike to the flea market and yard sales on the weekend, snapping up any back issues I could find and valiantly trying to piece together the larger, uber-narrative of the shared universe itself.

A few years later, when then-new horror authors like Stephen King and F. Paul Wilson began dropping hints throughout their various works that their books and stories were also taking place in shared universes, I remember the adults around me expressing surprise at this. To them, this was something new and bold, but to me, I thought it was what writers were supposed to do.

So yeah, it was my explicit intention from Day One that everything I wrote — be it a short story, a novella, a novel, or a comic book — would be set in the same universe. A shared universe, just like those I’d grown up reading. I began writing for publication around 1993. I sold my first story in 1997. I sold my first novel in 2002. All of them were connected in my head. I’d be lying to you if I said I planned everything out ahead of time. I’ve never been that kind of writer. I work better when I have an opening sentence, a strong understanding of my characters, and a vague idea of what the plot is. Then I tend to make the story up as I go along. So, no, I didn’t have the entire Labyrinth Mythos mapped out in my head before I wrote my first story. But I did know that the Labyrinth existed.

To add to that, do you foresee any definitive conclusion to the Labyrinth, or would that spell a tragic end to more than the mythos itself?

Oh, there’s an absolute conclusion. I just have to live long enough to write it. (laughs)

It hardly takes a movie buff to consider With Teeth would make one helluva fun movie. Novellas seem to be the perfect length to lend to a film not to mention things seem to be heating up for you on the movie side of things over the past few years as well. Is there anything you can speak on movie-wise for this one?

Sadly, I’m not allowed to. There are indeed a bunch of things happening behind the scenes, but I’ve signed non-disclosure agreements on every single one of them. I can confirm that several of them are based on my novellas rather than novels.

Other than your own, what’s your favorite vampire(s) in film and/or in fiction, and why?

I’ll always stan Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, not only because it was the first vampire story (outside of comic books) that I ever read, but also because it’s my second favorite novel by him (my favorite being The Stand). I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re-read it over the years. I also really dig Simon Clark’s vampire stuff, particularly Vamphyrrhic. More recently, Chandler Morrison’s Until The Sun did a fantastic job of what we were talking about before — putting your own unique voice and spin on an already existing trope like vampires. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so.

Obviously, you’ve got your fingers in many a creative pie between comic books, film stuff, more books, your charity events and likely much more. Considering the relatively quick turnaround of the novella, do you think we’ll get to enjoy more of these shorter works from you in the future?

Definitely. I think horror works best in novella form, and with publishing the way it is these days, the novella is a much more acceptable format, both with publishers, booksellers, and consumers.

As somebody who’s both embraced and championed new platforms for promoting and producing your creative output, where do you see things headed, at least for you personally, as far as new platforms for showcasing your work and further connecting it to your audience?

I don’t know. I guess it depends on what the next platform is. I’m available in every format that currently exists — print, digital, audio, film, etc. I’m not available as an NFT, but then again, I’m still not sure I completely understand NFTs.

I’ll be 54 later this year. My creativity hasn’t slowed down one iota, but my pace has. I lived a very adventurous first fifty years, but I find that I’m paying for that now in the second half of my life. Chronic pain is a significant challenge, but one I am so far overcoming. I suspect, however, that it will not got any easier. So my personal goal is to just keep creating. If arthritis takes away my ability to type, then I’ll dictate. If I lose my ability to speak, then I’ll blink the stories out in Morse code or something. (laughs)

I imagine nobody is more stoked than you to finally be vaccinated and seeing the world slowly open back up where (socially distanced) face-to- face interactions are swinging back around again. Where do you see yourself making appearances over the next little while, and what are you most excited for?

I’m starting out cautious and slow, because I’m not convinced this thing isn’t going to turn and surprise us again, and also because I don’t have a lot of faith in half our population anymore. For me, the hardest lesson of 2020 was the actuality that fifty percent of humanity are more than willing to run outside and let the zombies eat them. So, I no longer assume that the person in line behind me at the store has the same concerns I do.

This year, I’m sticking fairly close to home, with a few regional conventions. Next year, I’ve been announced as a guest for StokerCon. But I think it will be a while yet before I head out on another cross-country book signing tour.

Brian, this interview has been a pleasure and an honor. I can’t thank you enough for giving me a piece of your limited time to do this. Is there anything else you would like to add about With Teeth, or anything else between heaven and hell you feel your friends and readers ought to know about the kingdom of Keene in the coming months?

If you like your vampires mean and ruthless and not-fucking-sparkly, then get yourself a copy of With Teeth — you can read it in one summer afternoon. And Suburban Gothic by myself and Bryan Smith will be out in paperback and for Kindle in July. And stay tuned for a big announcement regarding some characters and locations from the minds of Stephen King and Richard Chizmar that they have graciously allowed me to play with…and which I have tried very hard not to break or ruin.

To stay as up to date as possible on all things Brian Keene, you can visit his website and/or sign up for his weekly newsletters.

Rick Hipson is a Canadian genre journalist living in Kitchener Ontario with his partner in crime, young spawn and two cats who insist they aren’t vying for world domination. For over twenty years Rick has written for a variety of small press publications in print and online which no longer exist through, assumably, no fault of his own. He continues to share his love for dark culture entertainment through his film and book reviews, interviews and articles, which can be found through Rue Morgue Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Hell Notes.

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