Letters From the Labyrinth 344
Still on the line...
It feels funny, typing you a letter when a portion of your ashes sits just 12 inches away, right in my line of sight, atop your desk -- the very desk I'm typing this on. I've often wondered if you were there, watching as Lombardo and I struggled to get this desk out of your basement and up the stairs, and then out through the house and into my truck -- only to find out once we'd gotten it unloaded at my house, and up two more flights of stairs and into my office -- that the damned thing was, in fact, able to be disassembled after all. Were you there, laughing that hilarious laugh of yours and thinking it was payback for when I turned your hospital TV to Fox News and then hid the remote while you were sleeping? I've no doubt that you do check in from time to time. I've felt your presence, heard your voice on one occasion, and had that episode of bibliomancy. I wrote about all of those in END OF THE ROAD and THE TRIANGLE OF BELIEF, both of which I think you would have enjoyed, but then again, you knew most of that stuff anyway, long before I ever wrote it. And then there was your appearance in that lucid dream the morning Dave died. If you wanted to prove to me that our consciousness exists after death, well, you've done so. And I thank you for that, brother.
The Day of the Desk is how I refer to that day. I'd been intent on quitting -- of hanging this up after twenty-some years and getting a real job. In hindsight, I see that was just me not dealing with your passing well at all. Cancer is a motherfucker, Chuy, but so is grief. They're like two peas in a pod, and both of them will gnaw away your insides until there is nothing left. Some say that anger is the most toxic emotion, but you and I both know that's not true.
Grief is the cancer of emotions.
Anyway, that day, the Day of the Desk, I was gonna tell Cathy and Lombardo that I was quitting, but before I could, Stephen King said some nice things about me on Twitter (which is called X now, but that's a story so weird you wouldn't believe it) and then my phone blew up, and I never got around to telling them. Stephen King saved my ass that day, dude, and in the time since, he's proven himself to be, like Ferris Bueller, a righteous dude.
Today I'm not feeling like I was on the Day of the Desk, but I am full of internal conflict. Last night, I called Chris Golden, who -- in the years since your passing -- has become my new you (and I'd like to think that perhaps I am filling an equal Rick Hautala-sized hole in his life). And you remember my process back in the day: talk to you about it, and then write about it, and then I was purged. That's worked on everything except my grief where you are concerned, but 99 out of 100 ain't bad odds, Chuy, so let's see if it works for this. I decided to write it not in the form of an essay (since you've been gone, nobody Blogs anymore. We write "essays"... and oh yeah, remind me to tell you later that Coop is writing again, because I know that will bring you joy) but in the form of a letter.
So, after you died, Wrath and I finally founded those Splatterpunk Awards we'd all been talking about. (I also did that podcast that me, you, Coop, and Dave had been talking about doing. Turned out it was a really big hit). We decided to name the Lifetime Achievement Award after you, because who else better symbolized the camps of both Splatterpunk and Extreme Horror? Our speech at the awards every year even says this. In part: "Jesus was beloved by our generation of writers, and wrote Horror in all its forms. But he studied at the feet of the Splatterpunks and wrote one of Extreme Horror’s most seminal novels. That is why our Lifetime Achievement Award is named after him."
Wrath and I made a deliberate effort to avoid the nepotism that has clouded some of the genre's other awards at times. We studied how the Stokers, the IHGs, the Shirley Jacksons, the Hugos, the Locus, and all the other awards were put together, and then we picked and choosed the best parts of each process. Readers and reviewers recommend works for the ballot, giving the public a firm voice and hand. Then, the top five (or six if there's a tie) recommended works go to the jury, which we switch up from time to time to keep things fresh. The jury reads all the works, and votes on the winner. If the jury reaches an impasse, there's a rule that Wrath, myself, and previous Lifetime Achievement Award winners can chime in with our votes. The one thing we were adamant about -- the ONE THING we made each other promise we'd hold to -- was that neither of us were ever eligible for an award. If one of us wrote a kick-ass novel, it was ineligible for the award. If one of us edited an anthology, the anthology was ineligible for the award (although the stories by the authors in the anthology would be eligible). We were ineligible for the Lifetime Achievement award, as well.
That is, until last Saturday night, when Wrath completely surprised me by breaking those rules and presenting me with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
My first thought, when I realized what was happening, was, quote: "Ah, fuck. No putting this genie back in Pandora's box." My second thought was "I give it 24 hours before Gollum is yelling about nepotism on Twitter." Gollum is the nickname I've given to a writer from Canada who came along after you were gone. He's the type of tool who you used to especially loathe, and you'd have had some fun with him, I'm sure, were you still here.
Those two thoughts happened in the space of about six seconds. Then I shoved them away and tried to enjoy the moment, because there was no way to stop it from happening that I could see, short of yelling "Fire" and evacuating the room. And I'm sure you remember what happened last time I did that, at that miserable midwest con we were at, when you needed to pee really badly and the line at our signing table showed no sign of abating.
So, yeah... I allowed myself to be happy. I allowed myself to enjoy the moment. I was moved to tears by Wrath's graciousness and kind words. It was a nice surprise, and at 55, Chuy, there ain't much in this business that surprises me anymore. Of course, you and I were already to that point when you died. It's still that way for me. Everything old is new again. Everything runs in cycles and waves. Even us.
But I wasn't wrong about Gollum. He piped up less than 24 hours later, and then -- because he's four feet tall and has all the bravery and conviction of a tube of cream cheese -- tried to backpedal and say he was talking about global warming or some such shit. I didn't so much care that went after me. I could have ignored it. But it bothered me that in complaining about me and Wrath, he tarnished Monica's moment (because Wrath and I had decided to give the Lifetime Achievement Award to her, as well). First woman to win the Lifetime Achievement Award named after you, and she's got this diseased spider-monkey flinging poo on social media. And it bothered me that this isn't the first time this tool has vague-Tweeted such nonsense about Wrath, either. You remember what it was like for you and Wrath, back in the day. It's easier now, in some ways, and Jesus... I dearly, dearly wish you could see the explosion of Hispanic writers who were inspired by you. There's this kid, Gabino Iglesias, who used to read you when he was younger. He holds your flame high, brother. And there's V. Castro and Cynthia Pelayo and LP Hernandez and so many more. Of all the things I wish you'd lived to see, that's the one I wish the most -- your legacy, as one of the first unapologetically brown men to do this shit. So, yeah... it's easier for folks of color in the genre these days, but there's still bullshit to deal with, and Gollum's multiple veiled jabs at Wrath are just one of those little annoyances. And in truth, I suspect they probably bother me more than they bother Wrath. But then again, given Gollum’s height, he'd be in for a long day's hike if he wanted to get in Wrath's face.
But here's the thing, brother. Chris Golden is right. And Wrath is right. And Kristopher Triana and Wile E. Young are right. (They came along after you were gone, but my gosh, you would love them both). Maybe Wrath and I said we were never going to do this, and maybe Wrath broke that rule, but there's nobody alive who can honestly say I don't fucking deserve a Lifetime Achievement Award. I've bled for this genre for thirty years, Jesus. You and I know it. Our friends and peers know it. Our mentors know it. I don't need to fucking prove it to some halfwit lolibertarian. (You like that term? I do, too. Somebody used it on Twitter in reference to Gollum and it brought me great joy and much delight).
Because what it comes down to is this, my friend. The award honors a lifetime's achievement. And what have I achieved in my lifetime as a horror writer? We know each other's childhoods, and each other's families. We both grew up the same -- reading this stuff since we were 6 or 7 years old. Horror fiction brought us joy when times were joyless. Peace when times were chaotic. Calm when things were frantic. It was our friend when we had none, and kept us company when we were lonely. The lessons imparted in it taught us to be better men and better human beings. We were fans long before either of us ever became professionals, Jesus, and that's why we were both so happy to give back to a genre and a field that had given so much to us. It seemed the least we could do.
What have I achieved in my lifetime as a horror writer? My decision to be one has led me to the best friends I have ever known, including you, my brother. It has led me to the woman I love -- my soulmate, Mary. It has allowed me to help people and to make a difference in the world, be it through the charity or from helping other writers coming up behind us (and now the ones coming up behind them). It has allowed me to show David and Shane and Lombardo that it doesn't matter where you come from or what disadvantages you have -- hard work, determination, and belief in yourself will pay off. It has allowed me to give readers that same peace and comfort that I used to seek out. You'll remember, before you died, that young mother in Canada whose baby was in the cancer ward, and she sat there with him day and night, with my books to keep her company. I think of her all the time, dude. Almost as much as I think of you. What if we hadn't chosen this path? What if we'd never written these stories? What if I really had quit on the Day of the Desk? What would have helped her through then? Her, and everyone else like her?
What have I achieved in my lifetime as a horror writer? All of that, and more. The bibliography and the brag shelves and the shelf full of Stokers and the Grandmaster Award and all the other awards. They're nice, but they're not the achievements. The achievement is being able to make a difference in people's lives, the same way those who came before us made a difference in our lives.
That's the achievement, and that's why I can't be mad at Wrath for breaking our rule and letting Pandora out of the box. Because he's right. We earned this, me and you. This award that has both of our names on it. And Wrath deserves one, too. I love you both, and I miss you so goddamned bad, brother, and I can't believe how that pain just wells up so strong sometimes even after nine years. I'm feeling it right now, as I type this. But when I'm done, I'll go downstairs and hug my wife, whom this genre led me to, and then this evening I'll read some horror fiction, and take comfort in it.
Thank you, and Wrath, and everyone else, both here and departed. Tell the others on your side that I'll be along eventually, once I get to that end of the road.
Oh, and if you see Dave out there, tell him that Mary is still waiting for him to haunt the microwave. We know he said he'd haunt the toaster, but we don't own one of those because she is a half feral savage from the wilds of New Jersey and eats her Pop-Tarts untoasted.
With love and respect,
Good morning. Welcome to the 344th issue of Letters From the Labyrinth — a weekly newsletter for my fans, friends, and family.
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A reminder that next month (Sunday, September 24), Mary and I will be signing from 2pm to 4pm at Dark Delicacies 822 N Hollywood Way, Burbank, CA 91505. And I’m happy to announce that we will now be joined by Christopher Golden, as well!
This will be Mary’s first time signing at the store. (I’m not sure about Chris). It will be my seventh, if I did my math correctly. I love owners Del and Sue, and love the store. It is an oasis for horror people.
And remember, if you don’t live there, or anywhere else on the signing and convention circuit, you can order signed books from Mary and myself. We ship them directly to you, anywhere in the world. Click here to peruse the current stock.
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I was honored to write the Foreword for Dark Corners of the Old Dominion: A Virginia Horrors Anthology, which is now up for preorder.
“From Edgar Allan Poe’s Ragged Mountains to the shores of Tidewater’s Seven Cities… From the blood-soaked battlegrounds of the Civil War to the shadowy political arena of the D.C. Beltway… We have four hundred years’ worth of ghost stories, folk horrors, small-town terrors, urban legends, backwoods beasts, otherworldly secrets, and down-home Southern Gothic. Within this idyllic landscape, there are many dark corners. Within these pages, Virginia authors explore twenty-three dangerous destinations, myths, and monsters from the Commonwealth’s past, present, and future.”
All proceeds benefit Scares That Care.
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If you’re a subscriber to this newsletter, you may remember that Bocephus refused to comply with my efforts to convince her to go inside the cage an allow me to get her fixed. Well, that has now resulted in 7 new babies, currently barely three weeks old.
Bo is unlike any of the other feral cats that populate the woods and fields here. Given enough time, I’ve been able to tame each and every one of them at least well enough to get them spayed, neutered, and their shots. I’ve also managed to find good permanent indoor homes for 32 kittens total. But Bocephus has confounded all of my attempts to earn her trust until this past week.
She had her new litter of seven beneath our front porch (the same location Josie — another feral mom who is now my best buddy — had her litter). Earlier this week, she wandered across the backyard toward the field. Unfortunately, some workman showed up while she was still in the field so she hid out, refusing to come back to our house. Meanwhile, three of the seven were left outside, unable to figure out how to get back under the porch (and I am far too big to squeeze into that little space). So, I needed up bringing those three inside until she returned, so that they wouldn’t bake in the heat or get snatched up by an eagle or hawk.
Bo was not happy with me when I returned them, but I managed to avoid an attack.
The next day, she had all seven out on the sidewalk. I sat down on the front step and they began investigating my bare feet. Bocephus, exhausted, allowed me to babysit while she lay down just a few feet away. After about half an hour, she woke up and mingled with me and the babies. She was okay with me holding them, which was good, because socializing and taming them now will make it easier to find them homes in six more weeks.
Then a bee stung one of the baby’s on the paw. The kitten reacted, and she thought I’d done something, and she went after me. I retreated to the top of the steps, and she ushered the kittens under the porch one by one. As she did, I snatched up the injured baby, scrape the stinger from its paw, and gently put it in front of the hole. She growled, but did not charge.
Yesterday, she decided that we could be friends and I’m happy to report that the baby is just fine.
So, if you’re in the Central PA area, and you’d like to give a loving home to one of these little ones, they’ll be ready in six weeks.
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Currently Playing: Fallout 76 and Clash of Clans
Currently Listening: Desert Oracle Radio, and various Guns N’ Roses songs
Currently Watching: What We Do In The Shadows season 5 (Hulu) and The Outer Limits season 2 (Blu-Ray)
Currently Reading: At The Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft and Hellweg’s Keep by Justin Holley
With Hellweg's Keep (forthcoming from Flame Tree) Justin Holley delivers a scary, white-knuckle sci-fi thriller that will appeal to fans of Alien, The Hematophages, and Ghosts of Mars. So much fun!
Anyone who listened to Brian Keene Radio for more than 15 minutes this week knows I was on a huge Guns N’ Roses kick. And yes, I like the new single. Reminds me of “Yesterdays”. But the song I was listening to the most was various versions of their cover of Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”. So far, GnR have only done this live, but they’ve done it every night on this tour, so I’m hoping they’ll deliver a studio version on the next album.
Given that the band has been playing this live for the last year, there are a ton of versions on YouTube. Sound-wise, this is one of the better ones (although it’s shot from the rafters).
“Wichita Lineman” is considered by music critics, music historians, musicians, and people like John Boden and myself to be one of the all-time greatest songs ever written. It was penned by songwriter Jimmy Webb in 1968.
History tells us that Webb was heading westward on a straight road into the setting sun, driving past a seemingly endless line of telephone poles, each looking exactly the same as the last. In the distance, he noticed a solitary lineman atop a pole. He described it as "the picture of loneliness". Webb then "put himself atop that pole and put that phone in his hand" as he considered what the lineman was saying into the receiver. Quote:
“It was a splendidly vivid, cinematic image that I lifted out of my deep memory while I was writing this song. I thought, I wonder if I can write something about that? A blue collar, everyman guy we all see everywhere – working on the railroad or working on the telephone wires or digging holes in the street. I just tried to take an ordinary guy and open him up and say, 'Look there's this great soul, and there's this great aching, and this great loneliness inside this person and we're all like that. We all have this capacity for these huge feelings.”
At the time, country artist Glen Campbell was looking for a song set in a place. Webb sent him an unfinished demo. He hadn’t yet written the third verse. Campbell was so moved to homesickness and tears by the tune that he recorded it before Webb had a chance to finish writing it. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Wichita Lineman” is often cited as the first existential country and western song. And in that regard, it is a good barometer to test people with. If they say that country music is just “people singing about their trucks and dogs” you can write them off as a moron, because they’ve never considered the heartbreaking surrealism of this song, (or the Eastern philosophy and quantum theory of The Highwaymen’s “Highwayman” or the Southern Gothic Horror and Lovecraftian weirdness of The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Legend of Wooley Swamp” or Shooter Jennings’ album-length masterpiece of dystopian science fiction and horror Black Ribbons).
It is country music’s first existential song, but it’s so much more than that, and it achieves these things so simply in just two verses that are layered with hidden meaning and alternate points of view (depending on what the listener reads into it). Just an absolute masterpiece of songwriting.
People who know, know “Wichita Lineman”. Glen Campbell’s version was a massive hit at the time. It is has since become one of the most covered songs in American history, with renditions by Kool and the Gang, Johnny Cash, R.E.M., Urge Overkill, Smokey Robinson, Motorhead, Dwight Yoakam, The Troggs, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and dozens more.
The best version of the song is Jimmy Webb’s own, which you can listen to here.
But this Guns N’ Roses rendition is way up there for me, and I would dearly love a studio version. I know I’ve got some readers amongst the road crew. How about you guys suggest this for me? ;)
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And that does it for this week. Full house this weekend. Both my stepdaughter and my youngest son are here, and Uncle John Urbancik will be over to visit later today. We’re playing Cards Against Humanity (because at 15, my youngest is now allowed to play it).
As always, I appreciate you being here, and supporting this often times lonely vocation of mine. I hear you whispering through the wires, and I can hear you in the whine. My name is Brian Keene, and I’m still on the line…