Sunday, August 18, 2019

When we meet our heroes.

I attended Monster Mania this year for one reason only: because my favorite author, Clive Barker (with Ray Bradbury and Stephen King coming in as close seconds) was one of the attending guests. 

I'm not sure if "favorite author" is completely the right term. I'll put it this way: whenever I feel as if I'm running low on creative gas, I reread one of his novels - say, Weaveworld, Everville, or Imajica - and I feel as if I've received a imaginative booster shot. He has the ability to create worlds of fantastic beauty and horror that feel real the moment you enter them. Not to mention that he wrote and directed Hellraiser, my favorite horror film of all time (by all means, see one and two, but for the love of god and all that is holy, stop there.)

But Imajica always has had a special place in my heart. To put it simply, the early 1990s really were not a happy time for me, and burying myself in that epic novel was my favorite escape from my many troubles. While I owned a battered paperback, my sister Elena managed to find me a first-edition hardcover at a library sale years ago, and my dream was to have Mr. Barker sign it someday. Maybe we would even talk about writing for a bit.

In 2001, when Coldheart Canyon was published, I saw that he was coming to Manhattan as part of a book-signing tour. I planned to bring my copy of Imajica and ask him to sign it instead, as it meant so much to me. Unfortunately, the signing was for the middle of September of that year, and the events of 9-11 cancelled his traveling plans. As a New York City resident I had much more to worry about that month, and there were much greater tragedies all around me, but yes, I still felt let down. No matter, I decided, there would be other book signings.

As conventions came and went over the years, I kept my eyes peeled for his name among the guests. But if he did come to the east coast, I must have missed him. I met Doug Bradley (who brilliantly portrayed his creation Pinhead) years ago, and half of my questions were about Mr. Barker instead of him. I hope he wasn't too offended.

So, to make a long story short, I was ecstatic to see he was coming to Monster Mania this year, and bought tickets for Joe and myself.

Saturday came. I arrived at 9 am even though the main convention didn't open until 10, and was able to squeeze my Equinox into the last unofficial spot in a nearby field. I met up with my friend Steve and his son, and we went straight to the signing hall. There was Mr. Bradley along with all the other Cenobites, and their foil / heroine Ashley Lawrence, and there was Tony Todd who played Candyman (another Clive Barker creation)... but where was the man himself? Was he only doing panels and photo ops? I texted another friend and all around mistress-of-all-horror-conventions Maureen, who informed me that as a VIP, Mr. Barker's signing would take place upstairs on the mezzanine.

The line to see him was so long that it went outside of the hotel. I waited two hours in the sun, during which Joe supplied me with water. A young lady behind me passed out from the heat, and I helped her boyfriend get her into the shade. Around noon, I finally made it to an upstairs waiting room, and then, with a group of about ten, I was brought into his signing room.

Finally, I thought, Finally I would ask the questions I had wanted to ask for so long. Mainly... why hadn't he written anything in years? Why had The Scarlet Gospels (a recent novel about Pinhead trying to dethrone Lucifer) been so short? He had begun a captivating fantasy / horror trilogy, The Books of the Art - why hadn't he finished it? Sacrament had seemed to be such a personal and autobiographical novel - had there been a real-life Jacob Steep who had transformed his life in some way? Were there any more novels or films in the works?

Tables were set up around the perimeter with his amazing artwork, and there were a few people selling them for him as I made my way through the line - but where was he? I knew what he looked like, but none of the the men behind the tables looked like him.

And finally, I saw him.

All the pictures I had ever seen of him had been of a captivating, vibrant man with black hair, who vaguely resembled Paul McCartney. Sometimes he had a beard, sometimes he didn't. Of course, at sixty-six, he wouldn't look the same as his jacket photos from the 80s and 90s. But this man... this man was gaunt, and in a wheelchair. He had to lean on a table for support as his attendant placed books beneath his pen. Was he a victim of cancer? A stroke? Parkinson's? AIDS, or as he called it in Imajica, "The Plague"? My heart sank as my mind went through all the possibilities.

Finally, it was my turn. I put my giant hardcover on the table in front of him, and he smiled. He reached out for my hand with his shaking one, and I took it.

"Hello," he said in a raspy voice as he stared into my eyes. "How are you? Are you happy? Are you well?"

I was taken aback. This man was talking to me with such kindness, as if I were the one confined to a wheelchair instead of him. I cleared my throat, and managed to tell him that he had always been my favorite author. In fact, I was a writer as well, and he had been such an inspiration to me. His smile widened. "Really?" he asked, and managed a small laugh. "Thank you so much."

As he signed my slightly yellowed copy of Imajica, I told him about how the book had gotten me through hard times. "Wow," he said, as he reached for my hand again. As I shook it, he looked in my eyes again, and whispered, "I sincerely hope that those times are behind you, and happier times are ahead. Please be good to yourself."

I put my other hand over his, and thanked him. He smiled, and I collected my book, and left. Of course, I could never ask any of the questions I had meant to, but they didn't matter. Well, maybe I'll always wonder about Jacob Steep.

After I walked out of the room, I whipped out my Android and searched for the story of his illness. In 2012 he had gone in for a dental procedure, and suffered "acute toxic shock" while in the chair, which put him into a coma. Obviously, after seven years, his road to recovery has been a long one.

I've met a few celebrities and been disappointed by their brusqueness. I've met others and been pleasantly surprised by their genuine kindness and friendliness. But to be met by one of my heroes with such warmth, especially in his condition... it was an eye opener. It's something I'm going to have to mull over for a long time. Not only about how fragile life is, and how much I procrastinate my real work, but about the faces we show the world. Here is a man whose most famous creation is a terrifying demon with nails in his skull who tears souls apart with hooks. But while that man is facing the real horrors of his own life, he can still shine kindness and empathy towards strangers.

It gives the term "hero" a whole new meaning.



Friday, August 16, 2019

Along with my other two paperbacks!

The Forgotten Cathedral is now available at the Bernards Township Library in Basking Ridge, NJ. Don't think I'll ever compare to the old giants, but as a kid who spent his nerdy nights devouring all the classic sci-fi on its shelves, having my books there amongst them feels like a greater personal achievement than anything else.


Saturday, August 10, 2019

God bless Vespucciland!

Got to spend time once again with this insightful gentleman, make some new friends, and get one of my favorite albums & his autobiography signed. All in all, a happy night in the big city.