Letters From the Labyrinth 322
The Many Saints of Spring Grove
A sincere thank you on behalf of myself, Mary SanGiovanni, Mike Hawthorne, and Comix Connection to everyone who showed up yesterday’s two signings. The turnout was great. Steady business in Mechanicsburg and a line in York, and between the two we signed what seemed to be a semitrailer full of books and comics. Special thanks to Chris, Max, Ned, Bill and the rest of the staff, as well.
I was particularly delighted to see my old pal Will, who was the model for my protagonist in THE CAGE. Years ago, around the time I was writing those first short stories that would one day comprise NO REST FOR THE WICKED, and getting an idea for a novel that would eventually become THE RISING, Will and I worked together as salesmen in a home electronics store. The two of us worked our ways up the food chain from sales to management.
Good morning. I’m Brian Keene and this is the 322nd issue of Letters From the Labyrinth, a newsletter for friends, family and fans of my work.
Here’s another pic from yesterday.
You locals might like to know that Mike and I got to talking yesterday about the Creator Cookout. This was a yearly charity event the two of us and J.F. Gonzalez used to do in conjunction with Comix Connection. We would cook food for customers, but you had to bring along a donation of canned goods for the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. For every can you donated, we’d sign one item. So, for example, if you had an issue of Deadpool by Mike, and a CLICKERS book by me and Jesus, that was three cans of food (one for each of our signatures). Mike and I put it on pause after Jesus died, because that took the wind out of both our sails. Then, when we first started thinking maybe it was time to bring it back, the pandemic happened. But now that that’s over with, I think we’ll start doing it again. So stay tuned for details.
I love signing in comic book stores because I love comic books. Anyone who knows me, be they close friend, social acquaintance, or a distant reader whom I’ve never met, knows that my love for Bronze Age comic books is nostalgic and pure and deeply abiding. Before The Hardy Boys. Before Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. Before J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Before Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. Before all of these, there were comic books. They were my introduction to speculative fiction, and to writing and storytelling.
The first two comic books I ever owned were Captain America and the Falcon issue 196 (written and drawn by Jack Kirby) and The Defenders issue 33 (written by Steve Gerber and drawn by Sal Buscema). My father bought them for me on a whim when I was eight years old. I remember that day with a crystalline clarity, because it was the day I knew I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. If he had not bought them for me, you and I would not be here together this Sunday morning. Instead, I would still be working in a factory or still driving truck or still selling home electronics with Will, and I would have been content with those jobs because I would not have dreamed or longed to be a writer.
See, my father worked seven days a week shift work at the paper mill, and then he’d come home and work our farm, so I only saw him for a little bit each day. On that particular day, he was out of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco, and decided to head to the newstand to get some. He asked me if I wanted to come along, so I did. We rode in his pickup truck, listening to 1970s honky-tonk on WNOW — a country music AM giant here in Central Pennsylvania at that time. When we got to the newsstand, Dad chatted with the owner (the newststand was right next to the paper mill, on the main street there in Spring Grove, and in 1976 the town was small enough that everybody knew everyone else). While he did, those two covers (particularly The Defenders cover) caught my eye. I was fascinated by them. I didn’t know that the green guy was Hulk, or that his companions were Doctor Strange or Valkyrie. But I knew I had to have it. I asked Dad if I could, and he forked over fifty cents for the two, along with some money for his chewing tobacco and a hunting magazine, and then we drove home.
I read both comics before dinner. I read them again after dinner. Then I got out the family dictionary and looked up all the words I didn’t know. Then I read them a third time, and noticed the credits box at the bottom of the first page, and I saw WRITTEN BY… This was a job somebody could have as an adult. And right then and there, I knew that it was a job I wanted to have.
More comics followed. Each week, I bugged my Dad to take me to the newsstand. I think he liked that time together. On weeks when his shift at the paper mill or duties on our farm kept us from going together, I’d ride my bike into town myself. I’d also ride it to the nearby flea market in Menges Mills (the town next to Spring Grove) on Sundays, where there was a lady who sold back issues of comics books for 10 cents each. Between those two places, I amassed an impressive collection of 1960s and 1970s Marvel, DC, Charlton, and Gold Key comics.
(A few years later, I got my first job at that same newsstand. I kept that job for three weeks before turning it into a middle-school criminal enterprise. To make a long story short — I was getting paid to deliver advertising circulars to every house in Spring Grove. But there were a lot of houses and the bag full of papers was too big and bulky to haul it by bike, so I had to walk. On the third week, I got the idea to deliver the ones that were close to the newsstand, and then dump the rest of the papers in a garbage bin behind Genova’s Pizza and just say I delivered them. That seemed way easier than walking all the way across town. This plan worked for two weeks, until townspeople began calling the newsstand to complain about not getting their papers. The owner fired me and threatened to tell my parents. I thought being fired was fair punishment, but I told him that if he told my parents, then I’d reveal to everyone that he’d been letting me look at XXX-rated magazines in the backroom — which he had. So we reached an agreement. He fired me, hired a new paper boy, and my parents didn’t find out why, and each week when the new comic books arrived, I got my cut of those comics before they made it out onto the spinner rack, which meant I then had more money to spend on more comics at the flea market).
But I digress.
(The flea market was great not just for comic books, but for old pulp magazines, genre paperbacks, throwing stars and nunchucks, fireworks, and everything else a kid in the 1970s might want. And as I’m typing this, I remember that I also added to my comic collection in sixth grade, when class bully Nelson beat the crap out of me in front of everyone. He punched me so hard in the mouth that my braces came through my bottom lip. I tried to fight back, but Nelson was a full ten inches taller than me, outweighed me by at least fifty pounds, and had one hell of a reach. I just couldn’t get in close enough to land a punch. Anyway, the next day, after they’ve stitched my lip, he and I are sitting in the principal’s office. He starts blubbering and crying, and reveals that his father is going to kick his butt for getting in trouble, and begs me to say that I started the fight. I tell him the only way I’ll do that is if he gives me his comic book collection. He agrees. I tell the principal I started the fight. He knows I’m full of it but he can’t prove otherwise. A few days later, Nelson and his father drop off his comic books at my house).
But I digress again.
(And look, I know my detractors will have a field day with the above childhood reminiscences, but we all do stupid things as kids. Hell, GHOUL is full of kids doing stupid things — most of which were based on things we actually did. I rationalize that me throwing away the papers was no different than Tom Sawyer getting other kids to whitewash the fence, but my therapist points out that in Tom Sawyer’s case, the work still got done… and also Tom Sawyer didn’t blackmail his employer or the school bully.)
And now we have gone way off topic, and this is turning into an essay about “My Criminal Youth And How Talk Therapy And A Former Cop’s Charity Helped Me Make Up For It”, rather than “My Love Of Comic Books And How Lucky I Was To Discover Them As A Child” so I digress a third time.
Those two comic books shown above were my firsts. Here are nine equally crucial ones that quickly followed those first two. Each one further solidified my love not just of speculative fiction, but of writing and storytelling, as well.
(This is the first time I’ve ever attempted to use the gallery feature here in the newsletter. Hopefully it worked. You should see covers to Kamandi issue 40, Adventure Into Fear issue 12, Giant-Size Man-Thing issue 4, The Defenders issue 40, The Witching Hour issue 58, The Eternals issues 7 and 8, Conan the Barbarian issue 71, and Captain America and The Falcon issue 197).
Those eleven comic books are the start of it all, for me. So, yes, I love signing in comic book stores. I always feel at home there.
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On episode 8 of BRIAN KEENE LIVE, Bram Stoker Award nominee Robert P. Ottone was the guest, and Mary SanGiovanni and Todd Keisling were the guest hosts. Click here to watch.
Next week is going to be open chat — sort of an Ask Me Anything. The week after that my guest is Laurel Hightower (I think? My schedule is on my other computer, but yes, I think Laurel is scheduled).
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At long last, the final book in THE RISING quadrology is now available in audiobook!
THE RISING: SELECTED SCENES FROM THE END OF THE WORLD is a collection of short stories set in the world of THE RISING, examining the history of the Siqqusim, the arrival of the first zombie, the fall of mankind, and the terrifying events that occur after CITY OF THE DEAD's conclusion.
Featuring both new characters and beloved fan-favorites, this globe-spanning saga elevates the horror to new heights. If you are a fan of my zombie mythos, you cannot miss this book!
Click here to start listening.
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This link contains the preliminary Programming Schedule for AuthorCon II (a Scares That Care charity event). This is not the final schedule. This information is being posted for Guests of Honor and Vendors. If you are a fan, reader, or general attendee, you should NOT refer to this version of the schedule as anything finalized or carved in stone.
If you ARE a Guest of Honor or a Vendor, and you filled out the Programming Survey before the deadline, then please review this preliminary schedule carefully. If you asked for a reading, you should have a reading. If you asked for a panel, you should have at least one panel. (Some of you may have more than one panel). If you asked for both a reading AND a panel, most (but not all) of you will have both, whenever possible.
After reviewing the schedule, if we’ve put you on a panel you don’t want to be on, or made you a moderator when you don’t want to be one, or have you reading with someone you don’t want to read with, email me (Brian Keene) at briankeene @ live dot com. Put ‘STC PROGRAMMING’ in your subject line, so that your message is given priority. We will do our best to accommodate you. The deadline for responding is Thursday, March 2.
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Currently Listening: Arise by Sepultura, Doggystyle by Snoop Dogg, Life Beyond L.A. by Ambrosia, and Re:(disc)overed by Puddle of Mudd
Currently Reading: Tree of Souls by Brett McKay
Currently Watching: Snowfall season 6 (Hulu), Mayor of Kingstown season 2 (Paramount+), 1923 (Paramount+), South Park season 26 (HBO Max), and Bullet Train (Prime)
I loved Bullet Train. It is ridiculously fun. I suspect much of my enjoyment of it had to do with the fact that (as others have commented) it seems to be a film made specifically for writers, filmmakers, and other creatives. There is zero waste within the narrative. Everything — be it a simple water bottle or some strange kids show mascot — is there to serve the story. I haven’t read the book that it is an adaptation of, but I’m wondering if it is written the same way.
I’m loving 1923, as well. Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren are a joy to watch, delivering some of the best performances of their storied careers. I also really enjoyed the previous show, 1883, of which 1923 is a sequel.
And therein lies my problem. I love both of these Yellowstone prequels but I’ve tried twice now to watch Yellowstone itself and I can’t even finish the first season.
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And that does it for this week, I think. It’s early Sunday morning as I type this, and I want to get a full day of writing in. I hope that you are well. Thanks, as always, for reading. I’ll see you back here next week.
— Brian Keene
It was great seeing you, Mary and Mike yesterday! Thanks to all of you for the kindness, conversations and signatures.
Wow. Looks like I’m going to be very busy at STC. There are sooo many things I want to sit in on.
I was also a comic book fan. When I was young, but also as a young adult. Still have a few left from my second foray into it. Maybe I’ll bring them with me and see if you want any.