Once Upon a Time…
For the last few months, this weekly column has focused on my current book signing tour for Pressure and The Complex. If I’ve done my job correctly so far, then you’ve gotten a good look at what such an undertaking is like for me at my age and at this point in our genre and industry’s history.
You’ve also probably seen the ghosts of Tom Piccirilli and J.F. Gonzalez flitting around between the sentences—sometimes subtly, and sometimes with hammer-force blows. They’re going to start making their presences known more fully in the weeks to come. But before I begin recounting the second leg of the book tour, and telling you about what went down in July and August, I thought perhaps we should travel back in time to the year 2008.
Things were very different in 2008. I was at the height of my popularity as a writer (indeed, I may have peaked around then). The mass-market mid-list was still thriving. Dorchester and Borders were both still functioning entities. The small press was still healthy, if somewhat bloated. Horror fiction was still enjoying a resurgence in popularity. I was still married. My son was a newborn. And I was off on another book signing tour—this time to promote a comic book I was writing at the time for Marvel Comics.
I was due to sign at a comic book store in Wyoming, and since Tom Piccirilli lived just an hour away (in Northern Colorado) and since he was one of my best friends and indeed, the big brother I’d never had, I asked him if he wanted to tag along. He did.
This is what happened next. Tom wrote this back in 2008. It appeared in the 2010 World Horror Convention Program. I am reprinting it here with permission from his estate. And I am doing so because Tom does a fantastic job of capturing exactly what things were like then. If you read this, and then go back and read the first eighteen columns in this weekly series, you’ll see just how much things have changed. Understand something: everything Tom writes in the first half of this essay is one-hundred percent true. The guitar, the AWOL soldiers, the granny in the wheelchair—all of this really happened. The essay doesn’t veer into meta-fiction until the helicopters and black SUVs show up. After that, it becomes fiction, obviously—but even then, Tom reveals some very real and poignant truths about us both, and who we were at that time in our lives.
Now Tom is gone, and I’m still here, a shadow of the person that he writes about in this piece.
One of my favorite works by Tom is the “Self” series—a mythology of interconnected short stories and one full-length novel about a reluctant magus and his demonic familiar (named Self). I always liked those stories because I’ve got my own such familiar. Oh, it’s not a real demon or anything like that. It’s just my other half. I call it the Beast. Every once in a while, the Beast wakes up and whispers in my ear, telling me how good, how justified, and how satisfying it would feel to blow this entire genre up, just like a pissed-off kid kicking over the Legos he spent all day building. The Beast tells me to burn it all to the ground and lay everything to waste, reduce the industry to a smoking crater, taking out friend and foe alike. The Beast tells me I should leave things the way they were when I found them back in the Nineties. As I get older, and as this business takes more and more from me, I sometimes see the wisdom in this, and it becomes harder to ignore those thoughts. Sometimes, fellow author and partner Mary SanGiovanni talks me out of it, the way Tom Piccirilli and J.F. Gonzalez used to. But even still…there are rare nights where I fantasize about it.
But on most nights, I just miss my friends and the way things used to be.
Here is one of those friends, telling you how those things were.
(And remember—this is completely true until the black SUVs and helicopters show up…but even after that, there’s more truth than you might imagine.)
How Brian Keene Nearly Caused the Nuclear Apocalypse and Yes, Every Word of This is True, Mostly
by Tom Piccirilli
This is how trouble starts, I thought. Riding into the wasteland side by side with my bud, my little bro, Brian Keene, with him hunched over the wheel as the empty terrain of Wyoming flashed by, talking Hunter S. Thompson and other dead heroes.
We’d known each other for more than fifteen years and learned there was a lifetime of difference between 29 and 45. Time and mileage had caught up. We were gray and balding. We were singed around the edges. We didn’t show our teeth much when we smiled. Me because of a bad case of bell’s palsy that had left the one side of my face partially paralyzed. Brian—well, I wasn’t sure. Maybe too much sorrow.
He had come out west for a book/comic signing/interview. My place was on the way so he breezed by in the airport rental and we fell into the old patterns of our friendship. We shot shit, we opened up about our lives. We whined a little louder to each other than we would most other folks. We admitted, we reminisced, we embellished. We talked word counts. We looked into each other’s faces searching out the scars of our endeavors. We wonder who paid the bigger price. It was the middle age version of seeing who had the biggest dick. It was the poor man’s version of who has the nicest car. We talked about Dick Laymon. We always talked about Dick Laymon.
As a mid-list, low-list, and no-list novelist over the course of my haphazard career, it was only with great difficulty that I managed to hold onto any self-esteem at all while riding shotgun during a five-hour signing/interview with Brian Keene. Note that when I say “with Brian,” I wasn’t signing alongside and I sure as hell wasn’t being interviewed. I was just his wing man while hanging around a comic shop in Cheyenne Wyoming, a small store run by a few friends who keep the place more as a labor of love than a business. I was out of my natural element. I was in Wyoming, man.
The store was a hole in the wall, but what they lacked in size and space they made up for in enthusiasm. They called everybody from their local high schools, newspapers, and cable stations to get the word out that Brian Keene was coming to town.
Now, you never know which way a signing is going to go. You might have 20 folks show up, or you might wind up flirting with the chick working the coffee counter at B&N because you’re sick and tired of making puppy eyes at stone-faced customers walking past at a brisk pace. Occasionally, the coffee counter chick might front you a biscotti for your troubles. In general, though, my own book signings definitely fall to the puppy dog eye extreme.
Brian downplayed it. He hoped to fake me out. He tried to tell me nobody would show. He said I would be bored shitless. He mentioned I could take the rented car and go off and get lunch and try to keep myself entertained, go see a movie, find a holdover frontier whorehouse.
The shop had ordered tons of Brian’s titles and issues of Dead of Night: Devil-Slayer, which had all been bagged and laid out on a table. They had signs up. They had pictures of Brian in full gangsta pose in all corners. They stopped short of having a life-size Brian Keene cut-out which you could pose beside. Or better yet, one with the face cut out saying YOU CAN BE BRIAN KEENE FOR A DAY.
Then the interviews began, the first conducted by store employee on camera. It consisted of many super-hero and super-villain questions. Like, “If you had to face down a zombie apocalypse, who would you want at your side?” Brian answered, “Wolverine.” With a codicil, “Or maybe Galactus.”
Next came the interview by a group of three young guys from the YMCA who apparently were putting this up on a website. They had a laptop with a camera set-up. They hit him with a load of questions, some sharp, some stolen from the previous list. Yes, still Wolverine, yes still Galactus.
Then the cutie but professional high school reporter chick showed up and asked pointed questions about writing, his personal history, day jobs, his new baby boy, writer’s block, inspiration, his parents. The local news channel wafted in and glommed on until Brian made an off-hand crack about religion in a red state.
The fans mobbed up and crashed the door. They swarmed. They overtook. They overpowered. They overwhelmed. They looked starved for brain juice nutrition. They were wide-eyed and slack-jawed. They explained and espoused to one another about Brian’s writing, singing about how it was so powerful, immediate, and gripping. How he had a real blue-collar sensibility, a working man’s approach to horror, emotional pain, loss, and thrills. It’s why, they said, he speaks to such a large cross-section of the public.
I lived in Northern Colorado and never even knew Wyoming had this many people. Brian shook hands and signed books and bonded and kibbitzed and posed and dallied. He even signed a guitar. I’m not sure why anyone would want a writer to sign a guitar. I’m not entirely sure how you make the transition from “I love this guy’s books” to “I need his autograph on my Fender.” It doesn’t matter. Despite my confusion, I watched Brian sign a guitar. I watched a young man cry “awesome” with tears pooled in his eyes.
But it was the three soldiers in full military fatigues that really caught my interest.
They came in with a flourish, stood in line with an even more excited air than the kid with the guitar, and called Brian “sir” and practically took an “atten-shun” stance while in his presence. They shook his hand while Brian did his verbal canoodling, and then they lined up for photographs. But afterwards they couldn’t bear to leave the shop early. They hovered in the back near where I was sitting. Their gazes gleamed with respect, admiration, and a little nervous energy. They kept eyeballing the door. It got me paranoid. I started watching the door too.
I said, “What’s the trouble, guys?”
“You look a bit worried.”
“Well, the truth is–”
“The truth is what?”
“We’re probably about to get arrested,” they confessed.
“Arrested?” I asked. “Why?”
“You’re AWOL?” This was a pretty major jump from the kid with the signed guitar. “You mean you left your post?”
“You left? You mean you left…what, the nuclear missile silos?”
“Our commanding officer wouldn’t give us permission to come see Brian. So we left anyway.”
This is what happens in Wyoming, I thought. You stick these guys out in the middle of a thousand square miles of nothing but sandstone and longhorn cattle skulls, give them only comic books and Brian Keene novels to read, and then tell them to sit by the button in case planetary nuclear annihilation becomes a necessity. Trouble ensues.
“But…Jesus, guys, who’s watching the missile silos?”
“They’re mostly automated. Unless we wind up under attack and somebody has to push a button.”
“There’s nobody around to push the button?” I asked.
“Well, we wanted to meet Brian Keene.”
“There’s nobody to push the button in case of nuclear attack? Well, shit, you got your Keene novels signed already. Get back to the silos!”
But we were in Wyoming. Boredom plays a large part of everyone’s lives. These people are edgy. These people, they’re on the cusp.
“We wanted to take Brian out for a beer and some shots of Knob Creek. It’s his favorite liquor. He blogs about it all the time.”
“Yeah, I know! But guys, Jesus, hold on–”
I worked my way through the crowd to Brian’s table at the front of the shop. He paused long enough to notice the expression on my face. He frowned and asked, “What’s going on?”
“Three of your fans just left the nation unprotected in case of a nuclear attack.”
“And it’s your fault. They want to party with you.”
Brian’s face fell in along its usual planes and edges, his normal expression mostly moderate guilt and dismayed confusion. “What did I do this time?”
“I don’t know but I vibe bad shit about to befall us, so let’s wrap this up. Who knows what’ll happen if the Army or the feds really want to make a case.”
“The feds are in play now? Should we leave?”
“Maybe after you finish signing this lady’s comic books.”
So after Brian made his fond farewells, hugged his fans, kissed a few babies, wheeled a grandma around in her wheelchair, signed a saggy tit, promised to run for president in 2012 if the Mayans didn’t kill us all with their evil prophecies, signed somebody else’s guitar, signed a perky tit, shook hands with the three soldiers, sipped from their flask of bourbon, left a few weeping readers on the curbside waving their black lace handkerchiefs while singing a heartbreaking Mexican song of death and farewell, and we finally managed to split from the store and jump into the rental car.
We hopped onto I-25 and headed south back towards Colorado, where the cowboys aren’t quite as bored or affected by the radiation from ten million stored nuclear warheads, and we could at least hope for a slightly elevated but still modicum degree of sanity. As always I was in bitter jealous awe of the admiration Brian managed to generate in his readers. The interest they showed in him because of his willingness to commit so much of himself and the persona he’d created down to the page. He spiked himself there with ten penny nails. I cut my wrists open and write in red too. All writers who give a damn about the work do. But Brian’s fans show up with bandages and bind his wounds for him, and that is something very special.
As we rode along discussing new creative projects and old publishing troubles, suddenly four black modified GMC SUVs tore up from behind us and quickly surrounded our vehicle.
Brian wagged his head in disbelief and growled, “Now what’s going on?”
“I don’t know, but I think they’re–”
“Feds! What do they want with us?”
“Well, it is your fault that the nation was defenseless in case of nuclear war. They may suspect you’re a terrorist. They’re signaling for us to pull over.”
“This thing has no pickup!”
“You’d better do what they want.”
Brian’s face filled with dread and shame. “Look, we can’t stop.”
“What do you mean?”
“I never told you about my Navy days, did I? And how once I was arrested by the shore patrol–”
“Yes, you’ve blogged about it.”
“Well, I spent a night in jail. In the can. The joint. The big house. The bin. That’s what we ex-cons call it.”
“Yeah, you blogged about it, B–”
“Well, I never told anyone about what went on board that ship. About the horrible experiments that were done…down in the hold…to our prisoners!”
“Oh Jesus Christ. What men do while they’re out at sea should be kept among themselves, Brian, I’m not judging you.”
His eyes shifted. “We have to get off the Interstate. Now!”
“How? It’s fucking Wyoming. We just passed a sign for a town that said POP: 32. How are we going to hide out when everyone in town can fit in your living room?”
We were stuck in the wasteland. No matter which direction we ran we were trapped in road warrior territory. Utah, South Dakota, Nebraska, or northern Colorado.
Brian drove with a force of concentration I’ve never seen on anyone else. I wondered if this was how he wrote as well. Focused like a beam of light becoming a laser. Every so often he’d spit chaw out the window and onto the windshield of the feds’ trucks. It must’ve miffed them good because they started trying to box us in then.
But desperation fuels incredible feats. Brian managed to get more action out of that car than I thought possible. We cut over to the shoulder and through a barbed war fence, Brian yanking the wheel so tightly that I thought for sure we’d flip over. Rotted fence posts exploded around us. The wire flapped in our grille. I didn’t want to die on an empty plain of red rock. The SUVs came after us, but Brian managed to zig and zag and serpentine past the outcroppings of stone while the trucks barreled into them and bottomed out even with their reinforced undercarriages. A red dust storm swirled around us. Brian spun the wheel hard again and floored it. We were in some kind of vague and uneven trail heading through the craggy ridges.
“Maybe we can get to Denver,” he said. “And lose them.”
“I don’t know. It’s still a haul.”
“But if we make it we can get lost for a while, get resettled, regroup, plan our way out of this. I never told you about the time Tim Lebbon and I went skinny dipping at World Horror Con and the cops threatened to–”
“Yes, you blogged about it.”
“Are those helicopters?”
They were. Flying in low from the east where the empty silos stood waiting for our proud troops to return after reading their Keene comic books. “Government troops!”
“Holy fuck. I think those are black ops teams!”
“What kind of shit have you gotten us into now, zombie boy!”
“Don’t call me zombie boy, motherfucker!”
We crashed through another barbed wire fence. I had no idea what all this fencing was keeping in or keeping out. We hadn’t seen a horse or a cow or long-horned sheep since we set out. We hit the highway again and nearly roared into the side of an eighteen-wheel Freightliner. I braced my feet against the dashboard. I thought for sure our front end was going to get chewed up but Brian managed to downshift and barely avoid wrecking us. We were on the wrong side of the highway heading south in the northbound lane, but Brian didn’t seem to mind. Traffic rushed toward us head-on as Brian adeptly and almost calmly jockeyed from one lane to the next, avoiding blaring vehicles.
I was a lapsed Catholic who was whining novenas and praying to all the saints and martyrs I could remember, even those with the really screwy names: John, Paul, Anthony, Ignatius, Basil, Benedict, Dominic, Catulinus, Abban of Murnevin, Theodore the Sanctified, Irwin. Was there a St. Irwin? I didn’t care. I prayed to him anyway.
“Take the next exit!” I shouted.
We rocketed up the entrance ramp and narrowly avoided a bright yellow rice burner motorcycle. Brian screamed out the window, “Buy American, bitch!”
“Are the helicopters still following?” I asked. I couldn’t see them anywhere.
“I don’t know. We’ve got to ditch this car.”
“There’s a truck stop up ahead.”
We pulled in and I immediately felt safer being among hundreds of other cars, trucks, SUVS, and vans. Fatigued families dragged ass across the parking lot while kids screamed and old folks bitched about the weather and gas prices. “We’ve got to steal a car.”
“Well, look for something that seems fast.”
We ran up and down the aisles trying to figure out what looked fast. And it had to be American. I was sure Brian would only steal American. I kept thinking about crossing wires. Who the hell knew which wires you crossed, but I’d seen a million movies where they made it appear easy. I’d written about it a lot myself. I had plenty of car thief protagonists in my fiction. I was suddenly enraged at myself for not researching the subject more. Fucking Google made it all too easy.
I turned and saw a Mustang slowing down beside Brian. I started to call to him, to tell him to duck or run or do something dramatic because the spooks were upon us, but suddenly the car braked hard and the driver’s door swung open. A teenage punk with a grin that nearly went ear-to-ear hopped out and practically into Brian’s arms.
I thought, What now?
“Excuse me,” the kid said, “but are you Brian Keene? It is you! I love your work! I read your blog faithfully!”
Brian turned to me as if to say, Look at this, another fan shows up at the most inopportune time. But he didn’t turn the guy away.
I thought, This is why they worship him. Because he always makes the time for them. Because he always gives them a friend when they need one, a mentor, a brother, a father figure. Whatever they’re looking for, Brian provides it by opening up his chest and reaching in and pulling it out of himself. Even while in heavy pursuit he’d stop and chat and sell some books and make this mook’s day.
He shook hands while I searched out assassins.
“Mr. Keene, I love zombies! I can’t get enough of the undead. I absolutely loved The Rising and City of the Dead–”
“I do more than zombies, man!” Brian said, more than a hint of impatience in his voice. “Haven’t you read my slightly supernatural, quasi-crime thriller Kill Whitey? Or my end of the world books Darkness on the Edge of Town, The Conqueror Worms and its sequel, Deluge, which I’ve been offering on my blog for free?”
The kid hadn’t really heard Brian’s retort, his eyes gleaming with love and adoration, his slack mouth continuing to work. “–and Dead Sea…and The Last Zombie…”
“I do more than zombies, you little shit! How about Castaways, my Richard Laymon homage? You don’t know about my Levi Stoltzfus series, my Amish mystic warrior?”
“Brian, we’ve got to split!” I called. “Steal his car!”
“And The Rising: Selected Scenes From the End of the World,” the kid continued. “And The Rising: Necrophobia. And The Rising: Deliverance! Oh, Mr. Keene–”
“You little fucker! I don’t just write about zombies!”
But Brian Keene could never bring himself to break away from a fan. So I rushed over, kneed the punk in the groin, gave him a swift kick in the stomach while he was down, and then jumped into the Mustang. I immediately felt comfortable behind the wheel, with the engine already groaning, the car hot and heaving. Brian threw himself head first into the passenger side and we squealed out of there.
We stewed in silence for a while as we raced down the interstate towards Denver. Everyone needs a little optimism in their lives, and I kept thinking that if we could just make it to the city we’d be free and our troubles with black ops teams would somehow vanish.
But the cops picked us up right as we blasted down into LoDo, the lower downtown area. Sirens filled the world again and swept over us like a hot screaming wind. A new set of black SUVs weaved in and out among state troopers. All the forces of justice descended upon us.
“Look,” Brian said, “I never told you what happened when–”
“Yes, you’ve blogged about it.”
“You didn’t even let me finish!”
“You blog about every fucking thing!”
The Mustang’s wheel felt good in my hands. I pulled shit out of that engine that had to have been blessed by St. Theodore the Sanctified. I was blessed by the Pope, the archangel Michael, and Christ himself. Panic was getting me back in touch with my Catholic roots.
All of the cops and black ops and feds slowed down and let us run out ahead of them. I knew that meant trouble, but I couldn’t see it coming from above or ahead or from any direction. That meant it would hit from below. I slammed the brakes and the car screeched like a twelve-year-old Brian Keene fan getting a picture with him for the first time. We sat there trying to catch our breath, staring out over the rim of eternity.
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
“I think it’s…the Grand Canyon!”
“Isn’t that Colfax Avenue over there?”
“Maybe it’s not the Grand Canyon,” Brian admitted. “But it’s big! It’s a very big canyon-like hole in the ground.”
“”It’s been a hell of a ride, man, let’s not stop. Let’s just keep on going.”
“It’s really not that big a hole.”
“Come on, let’s rock! Hit it!”
We clasped each other one last time.
“I love you, man!” I told him.
“I love you too, bro!”
“I’m sorry I called you zombie boy.”
“Godammit, you prick!”
And we gunned it forward into legend.
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.
Tom Piccirilli wrote more than twenty-five novels including A Choir of Ill Children, Shadow Season, The Cold Spot, and The Last Kind Words. He was a four-time winner of the Stoker Award, two-time winner of the International Thriller Award, and was nominated for the World Fantasy and Edgar awards. He passed away in 2015.