Brian Keene Talks About Stephen King, Ghoul and Why Horror Matters

A resident of rural Pennsylvania, Brian Keene has written over 40 books, including 2003's The Rising, which is often credited with inspiring pop culture's zombie craze. His awards include the 2014 World Horror Grandmaster Award, two Bram Stoker Awards, and honors from the United States Army International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and Whiteman A.F.B 509th Logistics Fuels Flight (for his outreach to American service members). His public speaking engagements have taken him everywhere from college campuses to inside the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Loren Kleinman (LK): Why should we care about horror? What can we learn from horror?

Brian Keene (BK): Look outside your window. Pedophiles steal children and hide them in closets like perverse Christmas presents. Maniacs fly airplanes into buildings. Extremists butcher and slaughter others for their religion, race, or sexual persuasion. Law enforcement has become militarized against the populace they used to protect. Our governments have figured out they can get away with anything if they keep us distracted with the bullshit Left-Right paradigm, and reruns of Duck Dynasty and Dancing with the Stars, and funny cat memes.

The world is horrifying. I think the horror genre's popularity right now is because people would rather curl up with a nice, safe make-believe monster. Zombies, vampires -- these old tropes are a comfort compared to ISIS or some nut with a gun.

LK: You've written for some of my favorite characters: Doctor Who, Hellboy, Masters of the Universe, and Superman. Can you talk about what you learned about your writing from working on these media properties?

BK: Well, they're just that -- media properties. These characters are beloved by millions, but they're also corporate IP. Anytime you work on something like that, you have to remember that your role, as a writer, is to service the property. You can't kill Skeletor or reveal that the Doctor's been working for the Daleks all along or have Superman decide, "Fuck it. I'll police these people since they can't police themselves."

It's like the rich kid next door -- who has all the cool toys your parents can't afford to buy you -- invites you over to put on a show. So you play with the toys, but at the end of the day, you have to put them back in the toy box, unbroken.

But if you're not just writing fan fiction, there's new things you can do -- unexplored facets of the character or their universe that you can shine a light on. And hope fans respond to that.

LK: I'm a Ghoul fan. I read the book. I watched the movie. Can you talk about the idea behind the book? How does the theme of "coming of age" play into the storyline?

BK: Everything can be grist for the muse. Sometimes, writers draw on personal experiences. Ghoul was just that. Warren Ellis has a great quote about how it's a writer's job to say "here is where I think I am today, and this is what I think the world looks like." Ghoul was what my world looked like, growing up in the late-seventies and early-eighties, and what I thought it looked like. A lot of my personal experiences went into it. It wasn't just Timmy's coming of age story. It was mine.

LK: You've recently gotten support from Stephen King. What was that like? Are there any books of his that have inspired you? How has King influenced your own writing career?

BK: A few months before that happened, author J.F. Gonzalez passed away after a quick fight with cancer. I mean, it was lightning fast. A matter of weeks. He wasn't just my peer or frequent collaborator. He was one of the best friends I've ever had. When he died, I went to a dark place, and didn't think I'd climb out. I was ready to quit writing. Couldn't do it. Lost my heart.

One afternoon, me and filmmaker Mike Lombardo are at J.F.'s old house, helping his wife with some things. And I'm about to tell the two of them that I don't have the heart for it anymore. All of the sudden, my phone starts blowing up. Everyone's texting me. "OMG. Stephen King is talking about your books on Twitter!" So I check...

He did that on his own. It was unexpected and... let's just say it couldn't have come at a better time. It was like something out of a movie. That event in the third act that gives our protagonist the strength to keep going.

He's always been an inspiration to me -- to our entire generation. Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon, F. Paul Wilson, Joe Lansdale, the Splatterpunks, J.M. DeMatteis, Steve Gerber -- they inspired me, too, but Stephen King is at the top of my pyramid. You can draw a line from Poe to Lovecraft to Matheson to King. That's horror's Mount Rushmore. I recently wrote an essay for Stephen King Revisited about his influence on me.

LK: What are some other ideas that you're working on? What's next?

BK: I just finished THE COMPLEX--a novel about how we view ourselves and our neighbors versus how they view us and themselves. That will be out this year. PRESSURE, a corporate espionage/monster novel, will be out from Macmillian next year. And sequels to URBAN GOTHIC and THE LOST LEVEL.

LK: What advice would you give to aspiring horror writers? What about writers across genres?

BK: Being a writer involves writing. You've got to commit to sitting down and writing instead of X-box or Netflix.

If you're writing horror, know your history. Read. And not just King, Koontz, Barker, and Rice. You've got to dig deep -- Bloch, Hodgson, Jackson, Campbell, Grant, Ketchum, so many others. Don't just rehash what came before. Find new things to do with it, in your unique voice.

Don't worry about genre. Write what you want to write -- what you're driven to write. Let the marketers, publishers, and booksellers figure how to classify it. That's their job. Your job is to tell the story you feel compelled to tell -- the one only you can tell.