WHC Part 3: Old Friends and Other Revenants
In an earlier installment of this column, we talked about the early days of the Internet. I’m taking you back now to the year 1998. There were exactly four websites dedicated to horror fiction—Horror Net (run by Matt Schwartz), Masters of Terror (run by Andy Fairclough), Gothic Net (run by Darren McKeeman), and Chiaroscuro (run by Brett Savory). Think about that. Four websites devoted to horror fiction. By contrast, nearly twenty years later, Google horror fiction and see how many websites you get. But back in the olden days, we had four.
Richard Laymon used to hang out on Horror Net and Masters of Terror. You could find him in the chat room of the former, and he had his own primitive message board on the latter. Now understand, this wasn’t some half-wit hack or some brash newbie just starting out. This was Richard fucking Laymon, the fourth head on the Mount Rushmore of Modern Horror, the guy that some would argue was outselling his friends Dean Koontz and Stephen King in the United Kingdom and Australia, one of the titans of what had yet to be branded as Extreme Horror—and almost every single day he would take the time to interact with fans and newbie authors on both websites, answering reader questions and offering advice to budding writers.
These days, we take that sort of interaction for granted. If you enjoy an author’s work, you can probably tell them via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or a host of other social media outlets. But in 1998 we didn’t have those things. What we did have, though, was Richard Laymon.
As I wrote for Ginger Nuts of Horror last year, “Dick Laymon was a mentor and cheerleader and scout master for so many of us working in the field now. When we were all just starting out, we could always rely on him for advice, encouragement, laughs, and even a gentle ass-kicking when we needed it. Even writers who didn’t care for his work (preferring their horror quieter or their prose more “literary”) looked to him as sort of a guidepost as what to do and what not to do in this industry.
“His autobiography, A Writer’s Tale, is the seminal bible for an entire generation of writers—as essential and mandatory as Stephen King’s On Writing and David Morrell’s Lessons From A Lifetime of Writing. Stylistically, you see echoes of his influence in the works of writers like Bryan Smith, Steve Gerlach, J.F. Gonzalez, Monica J. O’Rourke, Brett McBean, Jonathan Maberry, and so many others, including myself.
“What doesn’t get acknowledged as much is his influence as a human being. Yes, his books were filled with depravities and atrocities, but the man himself was humble and good-humored and a monument to what it means to be a husband, a father, and a friend. As I said on my podcast, The Horror Show with Brian Keene, a few weeks ago, there have been times in my life where I have regretfully failed to follow that example (a sentiment that my co-host Geoff Cooper agreed with for himself), but it’s something to aspire to. With Dick, there was always another book or story to move on to and write, and with life, there always another chance to move on to and get it right.”
No, we didn’t have social media, but we had Richard Laymon.
Until Valentine’s Day 2001, and then we didn’t have him anymore.
I still remember getting that phone call. I was living in Maryland at the time, and had just come home from a lovely dinner with my then-wife (ex-wife now but still one of my best friends). This was before cell phones had become so prominent, as well. We weren’t in the door a minute and we got the call that he had passed away—which pretty much ruined the rest of that Valentine’s Day. And that’s the reason why I’m not crazy about celebrating the holiday anymore.
I told you in this very first column that much of this tour is spinning out of my reaction to the deaths of J.F. Gonzalez and Tom Piccirilli. They’re not the only friends I’ve lost in this business, but their deaths hit the hardest. The one thing that brought me a bit of peace in their cases was that I got a chance to tell them both what they meant to me. They knew for sure. But I never got that chance with Dick Laymon.
Until the last night of this year’s WHC.
I shared a room with Rachel Autumn Deering and her wife, Jessica Deering. On Saturday night, we had a party in our room. Just a small gathering. In addition to the three of us there was (in no particular order) Jeff Strand, Michael Bailey, Jack Ketchum, Linda Addison, Bryan Killian, Michael Arnzen, Stephen Kozeniewski, Kelly Laymon, Wile E. Young, Richard Wolley, Sara Tantlinger, our friend “Jenny” (who wouldn’t want her real name used here), and probably some other people I’m forgetting (and my apologies to them—I may have a brain disease brought about by bourbon and too much fun which makes me forget things from time to time).
It was a delightful evening, hanging out with old friends and new friends alike. At some point during the evening, Kelly Laymon leans over and asks, “Would you like to go say hi to Dad?”
I glanced around the room, eyes hurriedly scanning the corners, half-expecting his ghost to appear, tequila in hand, with that big old grin he often had in such gatherings. When this didn’t happen, I turned to Kelly in confusion and asked her to clarify.
Turns out Kelly was in the process of moving across the country. Wisely not wanting to entrust her father’s ashes to TSA or UPS or a moving company, she had packed Dick Laymon into the car with the rest of her belongings.
A few minutes later, Kelly, myself, Michael Bailey, and Jeff Strand stumbled out to the hotel parking garage… well, Kelly, Michael, and myself stumbled. Jeff didn’t stumble because he’d been nursing a bottle of spring water all night. I often secretly suspect that Jeff Strand might be the smartest and most responsible of all our generation of horror writers, but don’t tell him I said that.
But I digress.
We got to Kelly’s car, packed tight with all the stuff from her move. She rummaged around inside, moving boxes of books and other items, and then produced a lovely box with her dad’s ashes inside. She handed it to me, and I took it in my hands and stared down at it, and—to paraphrase singer Lera Lynn’s “My Least Favorite Life”—the blue pulled away from the sky and the station pulled away from the train. I felt time stop and fold back in on itself, collapsing and folding over and over again, until it was that proverbial flat circle we talked about in previous columns. It was 1980 and I was riding my bike to the newsstand, where I would buy some comic books and a paperback called The Cellar. It was 1991 and I was working a dead end job and reading The Stake on my lunch break and fantasizing about being a writer. It was 1998 and I was meeting Dick Laymon for the first time online. It was 1999 and I was meeting him in person, so star-struck that that I was rendered incoherent. It was 2000 and he got me in as a plus one to the Bram Stoker Awards and introduced me to his editor, Don D’Auria, and wrote an introduction for my first book and blurbed another based on a partial manuscript and then he and Edward Lee were polishing off my tequila and leaving hilariously obscene signatures in all of my copies of their books. It was 2001 and he was dead.
And it was 2016 and here he was again.
Some of J.F. Gonzalez’s ashes got spread at sea in California. Some of them reside at his home. And some of them are placed in a location known only to a few of us inside The York Emporium, one of his favorite bookstores. Any time I want to talk to Jesus, I just go to the store and do so. And then customers walk by and whisper, “Hey, isn’t that Brian Keene talking to the wall over there? That’s a shame. He used to not be insane.”
I didn’t speak to Dick Laymon out loud. At least, I don’t remember doing so. I said some things inside my head, though. Then I handed him back to Kelly, and Michael and Jeff each took their respective turns. I also snapped a picture of the box and texted it to Geoff Cooper, Mike Oliveri, and Michael T. Huyck, and told them that Dick said hi.
He would have thought that was funny.
I said in the first of these columns that this tour was about saying goodbye.
But in this case, it was about saying hello again, too.
* * *
This weekend, June 10-12, I’m signing in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Friday night I’m doing a Meet and Greet at 7 p.m. (along with Mary SanGiovanni, Stephen Kozeniewski, and dozens more authors) at Bradley’s Books in the Dubois Mall in Dubois, PA. Then, Saturday, we’ll be signing books at that same location all day long. If you’re near that area, come say hello and get a book signed.
On Sunday, I’m going to try an experiment—a pop-up signing somewhere near Youngstown, Ohio. I can’t tell you where because I don’t know where yet. I’m going to find a nice spot, put the location out there via Twitter and Facebook, and then wait for people to show up. It will either be really neat or fail miserably. Either way, next week, I’ll report back what happens.
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.