Letters From the Labyrinth 321
Twenty Going On Fourteen
Good morning. I’m Brian Keene and this is the 321st issue of Letters From the Labyrinth, a newsletter for friends, family and fans of my work.
A user on Twitter brought this science article to my attention on Friday, in which scientists have turned dead birds into zombie drones for use in military and commercial spycraft. And no, I'm not making that up.
In response, I joked that I did the zombie birds being used as spies thing twenty years ago in THE RISING, and then I paused and did the math, and yeah... THE RISING was published twenty years ago. The hardcover came out in 2003. That seems impossible to me, because I still remember writing it as if I'd done so yesterday.
Over the last year, I've been having some minor cognitive problems. Nothing serious. Just enough that my sons think it's funny, and Mary and Cassandra both frown at me and suggest I go to a doctor if its gets worse, and Ada just stares at me in nonplussed confusion because her step-dad is weird and his memory problems are obviously just another part of that overall weirdness.
Sometimes I forget things. Little things. Where I was driving to, or whether or not I took my blood pressure pills, or the name of somebody I signed a book for. But I still vividly remember writing THE RISING. I did so with a fire and a passion that it is very hard for me to possess any longer. Mostly because THE RISING was a book written by an angry young man, and the things I write today are the work of a contemplative older man who is still eager to learn and adjust and change, but is also a little terrified of where everything is heading. Oh, I can still summon the fire if need be. I think THE COMPLEX, WITH TEETH, and THE LABYRINTH series all ably demonstrate that. But those books are me having fun. When it's time to get serious and really talk about things, and express what's on my mind, more and more these days the chosen method is quiet horror, particularly in my short stories.
But yes, I still remember the kid who wrote THE RISING.
I still remember the kid who cheekily peppered that novel with references to some of his heroes -- nods to everyone from David J. Schow and John Skipp to Ken Foree and George Romero. And in many ways, I'm still that kid, because those guys are still heroes to me. Every time I see David or John or Ken now, it's in real friendship, and they treat me like an equal but there will never not be a part of me who's still that kid, freaking out. I just hide it well.
I still remember the kid who responded with, quote, "Ulp?!" when Richard Laymon asked if he could read the novel. I gave him the first three chapters and a synopsis, because I wasn't finished writing it yet. And I'm still the kid who tried to play it so cool when, after reading it, Dick offered me a cover blurb based on those three chapters, and then walked me across the room of a party at World Horror and introduced me to his editor at Leisure Books and told him about the zombie novel I was writing.
I'm not that kid when I look in the mirror. But I remember him.
THE RISING wasn't the first book I published. NO REST FOR THE WICKED and 4X4 came before. But it was my first novel, and it put me on the map, as they say, and everything I have enjoyed since then -- I owe to that novel. It was an unexpected success. The hardcover was, at the time, the fastest sell-out in Delirium's catalog. And when the paperback came out from Leisure in 2004? Well, it broke all the rules. They did a first printing of 10,000 copies, and expected 55% of those to be returned, unsold. (In those days, when the mid-list was still a thing, a 55% return rate was considered acceptable. At that point, the publisher did a little better than break even). Except a funny thing happened. That first printing sold out. So did the rushed second printing. The book briefly hit a few of the bestseller lists -- something mid-list horror paperbacks weren't supposed to do. It started getting major coverage, everywhere from Rue Morgue and Fangoria to places like The New York Times and CNN (as hard as it might be to believe, twenty years ago, CNN was still a decent, informative, and viable news station). A third printing of the book was ordered. Then a fourth. Then a fifth, and so on and so on. And it has remained in print, in one form or another, for the last twenty years. It's been translated into over a dozen languages. It's been optioned for film (but never developed) seven times. It's been optioned for video games twice (with the current version in actual development). It's been read and cited by actors, politicians, game show hosts, scientists, clergy, academics, musicians, artists, stand-up comedians, adult film stars, and one serial killer. It's been endlessly ripped off and pillaged. It's been assigned in a dozen or so colleges and at least three high schools. It's spawned book clubs in prisons and in suburban households. It's been a trivia question on several different game shows and more than one crossword puzzle. And, of course, it (along with Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic and Boyle's 28 Days Later) is rightfully accredited* with restarting the pop culture zombie craze that lasted far after all three of us had moved on to other stuff.
Not a bad twenty year run.
THE RISING will never be my favorite of my works. Despite its enduring popularity, I see all the flaws, of which there are many. It is a first novel, full of first novel mistakes. My voice was not yet my own, when I wrote it, and there are times I hear everyone from the Splatterpunks to King coming through. But it was the book that finally helped me hone my voice -- a voice that I continued to develop with CITY OF THE DEAD and TERMINAL (both of which also still echo, but also begin to sound more like me), and a voice that I fully took ownership of around the time of EARTHWORM GODS.
There are also parts of the book that now make me cringe. Some of the dialogue, particularly with the drug gang, is atrocious. And the rape wagon? I could have handled that much better. But, as I said, I was a much younger man then. We learn, change, adapt and grow as we get older. Or, at least, we're supposed to. I certainly try to. I wish everyone else did, as well.
So, no. THE RISING will never be my favorite. It's not even in my Top Ten.
And now I'll digress for a moment because I know if I don't post it here, I'll get bombarded with "Well, then what is your Top 10, smart guy?"
My Top 15 Favorites of My Books:
1. END OF THE ROAD
2. THE COMPLEX
3. THE GIRL ON THE GLIDER
5. CLICKERS VS. ZOMBIES
6. THE DAMNED HIGHWAY
7. EARTHWORM GODS and EARTHWORM GODS II
8. DARK HOLLOW
9. THE LAST ZOMBIE
10. TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME
11. THE LOST LEVEL
12. DEAD SEA
13. A GATHERING OF CROWS
14. KILL WHITEY
15. My episodes of THOR: METAL GODS
(THE LABYRINTH series would probably be on there, too, but I haven't finished it yet).
Anyway, as I was saying, THE RISING will never be my favorite, but I am so humbled and gracious and filled with gratitude that it has brought so much joy and entertainment to so many people. Over the past year, the book (and its prequel and two sequels) have been discovered by Gen Z. I giggle every time I hear from a new reader, usually between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, who contact me to complain about the ending, just as their parent's did a generation before them.
Which is as fun now as it was twenty years ago,
As I told my own fourteen-year old last week, THE RISING will never make him rich, but for the rest of his life, he and his brother will never have to worry about paying the electric bill each month. There will always be enough royalties from THE RISING to do that for them, long after I am gone.
Of course, he'll have his own royalties coming in eventually, as well. He's going to be a writer. There's no doubt now. He's spoken it to the universe and he's on the path. Like his old man, he's been writing a mix of fiction and non-fiction. An essay about what he and author Somer Canon's son did for a day. A short story (modeled to read like a police report) in which Geppetto is a meth manufacturer who ships his product inside wooden boy puppets, and is busted by detective W. T. Pooh and other literary public domain characters. He's good. Much better than I was at his age. When I was fourteen, I was still copying The Mist and The Keep. He's already taking the influences he has absorbed and using them to create brand-new things. His writing is earning him A's in creative writing class. My writing earned me solid D's.
He's much more inquisitive about the business and the creative process than I was at that age, too. And I'm not the only one who has noticed it. Mary has, too, as have other writing friends.
There's no doubt in my mind that he can and will be successful on this path. My parental instinct is to help him at every step, and ease the journey. My writer instinct knows better, though. I know he'll have to make the same mistakes and go through the trials and tribulations that we all must go through, because those fires are what forge us into professional writers.
I know that he will eventually write his own equivalent of THE RISING. Maybe it will be a crime novel. Maybe it will be a non-fiction book. Maybe it will be something I can't even imagine. But it will be his THE RISING.
And that's not a bad thing to have in your bibliography.
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*Addendum to the above: I always thought that Phil Nutman's Wet Work should have gotten some credit alongside me, Kirkman, and Boyle, but I guess it came out just a few years too early for critics and historians to count or consider it. If I remember correctly, it was first published in 1993? And then the horror market collapsed, and then, ten years later, THE RISING came out. But me, and every other author writing zombie novels, owe a debt to Phil Nutman, among others. Wet Work is a great novel, though. If you haven't read it, you should. It’s available on Kindle and in paperback here.
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A reminder that this newsletter is free, and will always be free. I mention this because Subtack recently began inserting a thing asking subscribers to “pledge” how much they’d pay if I were to charge for subscriptions. I find this annoying and frustrating, because subscribers think it’s something I’ve inserted. I have not. I will never charge a fee for this newsletter. It is information, and information should always be free.
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Next Saturday, February 25 myself, Mary, and Mike Hawthorne will be signing at the following locations:
11am to 1pm: Comix Connection 6200 Carlisle Pike Mechanicsburg, PA 17050
3pm to 5pm: Comix Connection 150 White St #3, York, PA 17404
The stores will have copies of our books and comic books (including Mary’s new Alien novel, which is not yet on sale anywhere in the U.S.). You can also bring books from home to be signed. No charge for photos. And there probably will be all sorts of other creatives milling about, too.
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If you’re attending Scares That Care AuthorCon II late next month, we’ve added four new ticketed events for the weekend:
An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe
Friday, March 31, 9:00 P.M. - Auditorium - A one hour program with dramatic performances of "The Tell Tale Heart" and "The Raven." Actor Campbell Harmon speaks in character as Poe with the audience about the author's life, his death, and his profound influence on American literature; dispelling the myths that have surrounded his legacy to show how his works continue to influence literature and culture today. This program is suitable for all ages.
Workshop: Writing Personal Horror
Friday, March 31, 9:00 pm to 11:00 pm (Second Floor, Room 15): In order to write effective and original horror, you have to dig into your own psyche and find out what scares you. By focusing on your own personal fears and giving them shivery life on the page, you'll be connecting to your audience - guaranteed. In this session, participants will learn techniques from instructor Tim Waggoner for drawing on their past, their present, hopes, dreams, fears, obsessions, and current observations to create horror that stands out from the pack. PARTICIPANTS SHOULD BRING SOMETHING TO WRITE WITH AND ON.
An Evening With Psychic and Medium Dakota Lawrence
Saturday, April 1st, 7:00 pm (Second Floor, Room 17): In this group setting, renowned psychic and medium Dakota Lawrence will conduct live readings regarding loved ones, participants' lives and more. Tickets will be available for purchase at convention registration. PLEASE NOTE that participants will be chosen at random from the gallery for a reading, and a ticket DOES NOT guarantee a reading.
Workshop: Writing For Video Games (What You Need To Know)
Saturday, April 1st, 6:00 pm until 10:00 pm (Second Floor, Room 15): Video Game industry veteran Richard Dansky (Red Storm, Ubisoft) leads this highly interactive seminar on how to write for video games. Participants should bring something to write with/on. This is a ticketed event, and tickets will be available for purchase at convention registration. Limited to 20 participants only!
To reserve your spot for any of these events, click here.
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Episode 7 of BRIAN KEENE LIVE is now available for you to watch. I was joined by academic, podcaster, and extreme horror writer R. J. Joseph to discuss her works, her career path, and the influence of Wrath James White. Watch here.
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This Week’s Blog: On Black History Month
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Here’s a GoFundMe for author Patrick Lacey’s uncle and aunt in-laws (the latter of which is suffering from dementia).
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Currently Listening: Various albums by Tindersticks
Currently Watching: South Park season 26 (HBO Max), The Sopranos (my annual rewatch)
Currently Reading: Convulsive by Joe Koch, Stranger With Friction issue 5, and The Gray Man by Tim Murr
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Took a break from writing this to play with Josey for a bit. She absolutely love cats toys. Loves them more than any cat I’ve ever seen. Watching her play with them, it’s hard to imagine her as the feral wasteland wanderer she used to be.
No sign of Bocephus. Either she wandered off elsewhere, or something happened to her. The possum who lives under our porch has been helping himself to the cat food I bought for her though, so at least it won’t go to waste.
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Things To Come:
Signature sheets for THE DRIVE-IN: MULTIPLEX (A Tribute to Joe R. Lansdale) edited by myself and Christopher Golden are continuing to make the rounds, so far with no hiccups. The signed, limited edition hardcover goes up for pre-order from Thunderstorm Books in April, so set some money aside now. We expect this to sell out very, very fast. If you don’t want to miss out, I would recommend subscribing to the publisher’s newsletter or at least bookmarking their website, both of which you can do here. There will also be a paperback edition this year, as well.
Thunderstorm Books also has signed limited editions of WITH TEETH and ISLAND OF THE DEAD in production, as well as a limited edition of Mike Lombardo’s Please Don’t Tap On The Glass, which is signed not only by Mike, but by myself and Edward Lee (because Lee and I contributed material exclusive to this edition).
The audiobook of THE RISING: SELECTED SCENES FROM THE END OF THE WORLD just wrapped production, so that should be released soon. That will complete THE RISING series in audiobook. With its release, all four books in the series will be available.
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Dave Thomas passed a year ago this past week. Here’s a pic of Dave with Wrath James White at World Horror Con Toronto.
As always, thank you for reading. I’ll see you back here next week.
— Brian Keene