The Scariest Part: Brian Keene Talks About THE LOST LEVEL

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Welcome to this week’s installment of The Scariest Part, a recurring feature in which authors, comic book writers, filmmakers, and game creators tell us what scares them in their latest works of horror, dark fantasy, dark science fiction, and suspense. (If you’d like to be featured on The Scariest Part, please review the guidelines here.)

I’m very pleased to have as my guest my good friend, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner and recent recipient of the World Horror Convention’s Grand Master Award Brian Keene. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Brian for well over a decade, and in that time I’ve roasted him at Necon, been roasted by him at Necon, and shared more than a few evenings full of drinks, laughter, and plans to dominate the genre. But most importantly I’ve seen his career blossom and his popularity as a writer grow with each passing year. It couldn’t have happened for a nicer, more deserving guy. Brian has published over forty novels to date, the most recent of which is The Lost Level. Here is the publisher’s description:

When modern-day occultist Aaron Pace discovers the secrets of inter-dimensional travel via a mystical pathway called The Labyrinth, he wastes no time in exploring a multitude of strange new worlds and alternate realities. But then, Aaron finds himself trapped in the most bizarre dimension of all — a place where dinosaurs coexist with giant robots, where cowboys fight reptilian lizard people, and where even the grass can kill you. This is a world populated by the missing and the disappeared, a world where myth is reality and where the extinct is reborn. Now, side-by-side with his new companions Kasheena and Bloop, Aaron must learn to navigate its dangers and survive long enough to escape…The Lost Level.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Brian Keene:

For me, the scariest part of The Lost Level was the novel’s central conceit — a character trapped far from home in an increasingly hostile and bizarre environment where everything is trying to kill him.

I’m a country boy, raised by country folks, and have always taken pride in the fact that I’m self-sufficient. These days, it’s trendy to be so. People call it “prepping” and there are books, television shows, websites, and trade shows dedicated to it. Growing up, we didn’t learn such skills because they were trendy, or because my parents and grandparents thought a coronal mass ejection would shut down the power grid and summon the zombie apocalypse. We learned them simply because we needed them. Just as a city kid learns skills which helps them traverse the streets and live in the metropolis, we learned how to field dress a deer or run a trout line across the river (to paraphrase the Hank Williams Jr. song).

As a result, I’ve always been confident of my ability to adapt to and survive any sort of adverse emergency situation. A few years ago, I fell off a cliff while hiking alone, toppled roughly twenty feet into a rain-swollen river, got washed downstream about a mile, escaped drowning and fought my way to shore, and then had to hike three miles out of the woods while bleeding from a gash that ran along the entire underside of my forearm.

In the dark.

This was no problem, nor did I have a problem supergluing the wound shut when I finally reached my home. “I can survive anything,” I said.

Which is why the universe decided to teach me a lesson not too long ago.

Until earlier this year, I lived in a remote cabin atop a small mountain along the Susquehanna River. Author friends who have visited there can attest to how far removed from civilization this home was for me. It was absolutely perfect, and I loved it. I chopped my own firewood, grew my own vegetables, and had a grand old time living as my forefathers did, and teaching my six-year-old some of those skills, as well.

Then the 2014 Polar Vortex hit, bringing hurricane force winds, below-freezing temperatures, and a metric fuck-ton of snow (that’s a valid measurement). In the first twenty-four hours, Central Pennsylvania was turned into a disaster area. Millions lost power — and heat. Roads were impassible. Even the National Guard were having a hard time of it. But not me. I sat on top of my mountain, fire roaring in the wood stove, laptop powered by the emergency generator, and feeling all proud of myself for once again being able to survive anything.

That’s when the Polar Vortex swung around for a second strike, dropping a tree on my generator, and two more through my roof. Not to mention the thirty or so more trees it dropped across the one dirt lane that led from my home down to the main road at the bottom of the mountain. The wood stove was unusable, the kitchen was full of snow, and the pipes quickly froze and burst. Within hours, my cabin was reduced to uninhabitable rubble (and just like health insurance and 401Ks, working writers seldom have homeowners insurance, because that’s something else we can’t afford). And we were trapped, unable to drive out because, even if we made it through the snow, my vehicle wasn’t going to transform into a robot and climb over the fallen trees.

It’s one thing to teach your child the same survival skills you learned from your father and grandfather. It’s another to make him live in a house that suddenly has no plumbing or electricity or heat. So, when the snow melted, we moved to an apartment in town. He is much happier because he has Cartoon Network again, and Minecraft, and doesn’t have to eat freeze-dried rations for dinner. And I’m happy because he is happy. And while, despite all its challenges, I vastly prefer living in the country over living in an apartment in town, I do have to admit I’m learning an entire new set of survival skills — like how to muffle the sounds of police sirens shrieking or the neighbors partying at 3 AM. In the country, I secured my trash cans so bears wouldn’t get into them. Here, we do the same to keep out feral cats.

We’re surviving.

And that’s what Aaron, the main character in The Lost Level, is doing, as well. He’s been transported to an alien dimension full of dinosaurs and robots and cowboys and lizard people. It’s a world where even something as innocuous as the grass can kill you. A world where, instead of him saving the Princess, the Princess repeatedly saves him, because he doesn’t yet possess the skills to survive there. He’s trapped there, with nothing other than what was in his pockets at the time. And he quickly discovers that no amount of readiness or prepping could suffice for what this strange new world has in store.

For me, the scariest part of writing the novel was putting myself in Aaron’s shoes, and remembering what it’s like to have your confidence and self-sufficiency shattered and eroded by helplessness and an all-too-consuming despair.

But you know what? You can survive helplessness and despair, too, as long as you don’t give in to fear.

Brian Keene: Website / Facebook / Twitter

The Lost Level: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Apex Publications

Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism. He is the author of over forty books. His 2003 novel, The Rising, is often credited (along with Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later film) with inspiring pop culture’s current interest in zombies. In addition to his own original work, Keene has written for media properties such as Doctor Who, The X-Files, Hellboy, Masters of the Universe, and Superman. Keene’s work has been praised by Stephen King and in such diverse places as The New York Times, The History Channel, The Howard Stern Show, CNN.com, Publisher’s Weekly, Fangoria, and Rue Morgue Magazine. He has won numerous awards and honors, including the World Horror Grand Master Award, two Bram Stoker Awards, and a recognition from Whiteman A.F.B. (home of the B-2 Stealth Bomber) for his outreach to U.S. troops serving both overseas and abroad. A prolific public speaker, Keene has delivered talks at conventions, college campuses, theaters, and inside Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, VA.

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