You know, it's funny how some things in life end up surprising you in a big way. How an event you thought would be enjoyable, but minor, turns out to be the highpoint of your entire weekend. This happened last Friday, at the beginning of Hypericon 5.
As some of you may know, Ronald Kelly.com holds an annual breakfast at a Cracker Barrel resturant in Goodletsville, Tennessee the Friday morning before the beginning of the Hypericon festivities. Last year it was limited to a party of two: yours truly and Hunter Goatley, my good friend and RK.com webmaster. Others who had planned to attend either got misdirected to another Cracker Barrel or had partied too hearty the previous Thursday night and neglected to rise early enough to join us. I knew we would have at least a couple more attend this year; Katie O'Neill and her beau, Gregg. And Mark Hickerson said he would try to make it this year as well.
As I drove the seventy miles from Brush Creek to Goodletsville, my mind was buzzing with expectations of the convention to come. I mentally mapped out my schedule, which consisted of two book signings, two discussion panels, and a late-night reading. I also considered several fellow writers who I was looking forward to meeting for the first time: Bryan Smith, Maurice Broaddus, and Wrath James White. But there was one Hypericon guest -- the guest of honor, in fact -- who I felt more than a little anxiety at the prospect of meeting.
Brian Keene. The resurrector of zombies and conjurer of conquering worms. A prolific and thoroughly unique horror author who, in my opinion, had been instrumental in stirring up the stagnant pool of horror fiction and bringing it back to vibrant life, for the betterment of both fans and horror writers alike. Sure, I'd corresponded with Brian a couple of times through email: once to ask his advice on motion picture options and another to invite him to contribute to my Somewhere South of Hell anthology (which he readily agreed to). Also, I'd been a guest on the One-On-One thread of his discussion forum. So it wasn't exactly like we were strangers to one another.
But there is always that underlying bit of trepidation and uncertainty when meeting someone face to face, especially someone as respected and famous (or is it infamous?) as Mr. Keene. I mean, most new fans of the genre hold him above Stephen King as the current master of contemporary horror. I remember recieving a shipment of books from Mark Hickerson shortly after the 2006 Hypericon... a box loaded with signed copies of Brian's novels. Books like Terminal, The Conqueror Worms, The Rising, and City of the Dead... all modern classics after the span of only a few short years. And Mark's stories of Brian's convention exploits were even more intimidating. "He's a freaking force of nature!" Mark would tell me and, mentally, I would conjure the imposing figure of a boisterious, hulking form clad in black t-shirt and jeans, and sporting a thunderous Zeus-like voice, stalking the hallways of Hypericon with an adoring entourage of sycophants following closely behind him, like the Israelites following Moses to the Promised Land.
During that long interstate drive Friday morning, I began to wonder how our first meeting would transpire. Would I approach him like some gibbering, doe-eyed fanboy? Or would I encounter him at a reading or panel and be devastated with a lackluster and indifferent response of "Ron? Ron who?"
As it turned out, I was to find out much sooner than I expected.
I turned off Exit 97, fifteen minutes before our agreed-upon breakfast appointment of ten o'clock. Thinking that I had beaten everone there, I drove by the front of Cracker Barrel, searching for a parking place. It was then that I spotted my old pal Mark sitting in one of the high-backed rocking chairs out front. And, occupying the rocker next to him, was someone I didn't recognize at first. Okay... maybe I did recognize him, but it was one of those cases where someone appears where you least expect them to, like Elvis at Burger King. Naw, I thought to myself. That can't be for real.
But, after parking and strolling down the covered porch of Cracker Barrel, I began to realize that it was for real. The guy sitting next to Mark stood up and extended his hand, looking genuinely pleased to see me. It was Brian Keene, in the flesh.
It was then that all my former misconceptions of this master horror author completely flew out the window. This man was very courteous, very laid-back, and very respectful of his company and his surroundings. We sat on the front porch of the restaurant and rocked for awhile, talking while we waited for the arrival of the others. And something took place that really put my mind to ease. In the span of only a few minutes, Brian made me feel like an old and dear friend. I've only met a handful of writers who possessed a similar gift for putting someone completely at ease, Joe R. Lansdale being one of them.
Soon, Hunter, Katie, and Gregg arrived. They too seemed genuinely surprised and delighted with the presence of our unexpected breakfast guest. Mark simply stood back and sported that big ol' satisfied grin of his; the one that says "I never cease to amaze you, do I, Ron?" No, my friend, after all these years, you never do and you probably never will.
It wasn't long before we were inside, feasting on a breakfast of eggs, ham, bacon, pancaskes, and gravy and biscuits. The conversation was intriguing, to say the least. Brian and I talked about the business of writing and shared the opinion that Alex McVey was undoubtedly the finest artist working in the horror genre today. We also talked about our families and discovered that our infant sons are a mere one day apart in age. Our eating came to an end, but our conversation continued, including talk of Katie and Gregg's sight-seeing romp through Tennessee and Alabama, and Hunter's insightful update of Robert McCammon's upcoming novel, Mister Slaughter. As the conversation continued over coffee, I could detect the waitress eyeing us anxiously (wanting to free up our table, no doubt) and neighboring customers studying us uneasily as they overheard the more bizarre and grisly tidbits of the subjects we were discussing. But, then, what should they expect from a bunch of horror writers and fans?
A little after noon, we left Cracker Barrel and headed to downtown Nashville for the Days Inn Stadium and the start of a wonderful weekend of panels, readings, book signings, and just plain hanging out and enjoying each other's company. It felt good to spend time with old friends and get acquainted with new ones. My wife, Joyce, and my children, Reilly, Makenna, and Ryan came down and joined me on Saturday afternoon, and my brother, Kevin, even stopped by on Sunday morning to visit awhile. So not only did I enjoy my horror genre family that weekend, but my true family as well.