Thanks to Glenn Rolfe for gracing the blog with his presence and his eloquence to talk about two of my favorite horror authors, Brian Keene and Richard Laymon.
Elvis and his Disciple: Two Grandmasters of Horror
by Glenn Rolfe, author of Chasing Ghosts
When I started writing, I was coming down from the Leisure Books Horror Club high I’d been living on for about five or six years. There were so many great books and authors that I discovered in that span of time. Chief among them were Richard Laymon and Brian Keene. They had similarities in their delivery—both love to bring the violence and the
gore, both can scare the crap out of you, and most importantly, they both could add in the surprising bits of tenderness that make all the madness mean something. Now, they didn’t hit on all of those buttons every time out, but it was often enough to set them above the rest for me. They created characters that I could relate to. They made it easy for me to slip into this world of creepy woods people, underground killers, or stranded islanders in for more than they ever signed on for. Their characters, their “bad guys,” their “monsters,” and their stories scarred my creative mind. And I thank them for it.
When I think of Richard Laymon, I obviously go back to the Beast House series. The Cellar is a fantastic and completely crazy book. How could someone come up with a beast that has a dick with teeth??? That acts as some sort of extra-powerful pleasure cock? I remember picking up a copy of The Midnight Tour at Wal-Mart. That was my introduction to the series. My wife used to ask me about the books I was reading… she stopped asking as often after I told her about the beast. Yeah, it sounds pretty sick and pretty fucking twisted if you just explain certain parts, but the best horror writers can make these things work. Laymon never wrote over your head. His work is easily accessible for newer readers. I’m sure he could have written books filled with big words if he wanted to, but he didn’t. He wrote the kind of stories that gave him a thrill. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone. He wrote for us. And we loved him for it. Unfortunately, by the time I started reading his work, he was gone. Laymon passed away from a heart attack in 2001.
Enter Brian Keene
One of the first books that I ever read that was not written by Stephen King or Anne Rice was Brian Keene’s The Rising. Like Laymon, Keene never fucked around with trying to show off some sort of literary gymnastics. He came straight at us with in-your-face horror, realistic fucking characters, and a love for the genre that practically lunged off the pages. And once he started, he couldn’t stop… and we didn’t want him to. I remember the scene in The Rising where Jim finds out exactly what’s become of his pregnant girlfriend and their baby. That scene was so amazingly fucked up that I couldn’t believe I was reading it. Keene leaves the bullshit out of his stories. There’s no room for fat or fluff in his works, especially his initial run with Leisure Books. He wasn’t fucking around when it came down to the nitty gritty. I remember reading Urban Gothic and having my head spinning throughout, sitting at the edge of my seat, burning through the pages. I think of Javier. I think Keene has balls–big, brass balls. When he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s easily among the best writers in the genre.
On the flipside of Laymon and Keene’s edgy side, is a soft belly ripe for the gutting.
Laymon’s Night in the Lonesome October introduced me to a character, Ed Logan, I completely felt for and related to. This one has plenty of the screwed up nightmare-inducing danger Laymon was so good at, but it also did a great job of making you feel Ed’s pain. Ed’s heartbreak hit me like truck, knocking me out of my Chucks and leaving me bleeding in the road. Of course, as I’m lying there bleeding, the temperature drops to where I can see my breath and the rain begins coming down in buckets. I was at love’s rock bottom with Ed. Laymon brought us together and then put us through one wild night. One of my all-time favorite books.
Keene delivered an even more potent punch with two pieces. First, my favorite, Ghoul. It’s a coming-of-age tale that works on every level. It was like being set in a time machine and being transported back to my youth. There’s a scene where the Timmy’s dad rips up his comic book as punishment. I remember my father taking one of my KISS tapes and breaking it in half for something I did to my little sister. I felt Timmy’s pain. My dad was also an alcoholic. He never beat me up, but I guess he’d mellowed a bit by the time I was growing up. Barry’s dad is a violent drunk and their story is one brought to vivid life throughout the novel. I just remember not wanting this book to end. I remember the gut-punch when it finally did. The Offspring have a song called, “Way Down the Line”: Nothing changes cuz its all the same/the world you gets the one you give away/it all just happens again way down the line. And all those things you learn when you’re a kid/you’ll fuck up just like your parents did/ it all just happens again way down the line. Those lyrics rang through my head as I read the ending of Ghoul. More recently, I finished Keene’s novella, The Girl on the Glider. This one resonates with me on another level. The story is a mostly true story crafted as a sort of meta-fiction. In it, Keene details a lot of the hardships and inner battles he was going through near the end of Leisure Books and Dorchester Publishing. Those things range from marital struggles, where he’s living, publishing issues, financial worries and strain, coming to grips with age and death, and a ghost that may prove he’s losing his fucking mind. The adult version of me can relate to this novella. I think about how worried and anxious I’ve become as I approach the ripe old age of forty. The world only gets scarier, and those are the types of fears and concerns Keene takes us through with The Girl on the Glider. I’m sure it was a very therapeutic manuscript for him, as well.
Basically, if you want to know how to write horror, or if you want to know what made me want to write horror, pick up any book by these guys. My all-time favorite is still King, but Laymon and Keene are right there. Heart and soul, blood and guts, reality meets the impossible, and characters that make it all too real. It’s what all of us horror junkies want when we pick up a book. If for some reason you aren’t familiar with their large bodies of work, do yourself a favor and get to it!
I tried my best to embody all of the things I love about Laymon and Keene in my latest novella, CHASING GHOSTS (Sinister Grin Press). My aim was to craft a shorter novel that would have been at home in the Leisure Books universe. I had a blast scribbling this one last summer and hope you all enjoy it as much as I do.
Richard Laymon—The Woods Are Dark, The Cellar, Beast House, The Midnight Tour, The Travelling Vampire Show, Night in the Lonesome October
Brian Keene—The Rising, Ghoul, Urban Gothic, Dark Hollow, A Gathering of Crows, The Girl on the Glider