During the 1990's, Ronald Kelly turned out a successful run of horror novels, becoming a readers' favorite in the genre. Then, after 1996's Blood Kin, Kelly seemed to drop off of the face of the Earth, only to surface a decade later. Ron has made appearances on message boards and thanks to the small horror press, is publishing again.
Horror Drive-In is proud to have our inaugural piece of fiction by this outstanding writer. And, quite aptly, this darkly comic story is set in an outdoor theater...
Oh, stick around after the main feature. Ron will answer a few questions and we'll supply a bibliographical look at his career.
“Billy Bud!” hollered Big Vern, banging on the ceiling of the concession stand with a
mop handle. “Get the wax outta your ears, boy!”
“Yeah, Daddy?” In the projection booth above, Billy Bud had been reading an old dog-eared copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland in the flickering light of Projector Number One.
“I forgot and left the reels for the second feature at the house,” his father told him. “Run over there right quick and get them, will you? They’re on the kitchenette table.”
Billy Bud Grandstaff laid his magazine aside and looked over at Projector Number Two. His father was right. The contraption was empty, no second feature reels on it at all. Wasn’t like his papa to be so forgetful. No, that was pretty much his job.
He opened the steel door of the projection booth, made his way down the concrete steps, and hightailed it to the “house,” as his daddy called it. It was more like a single-wide trailer located at the back property line of the drive-in theatre lot. A rusty, white-and-aqua Fleetwood from the sixties, perched precariously atop cinderblock columns.
Billy Bud was Vern Grandstaff’s only son and not a very bright one at that. Big Vern bragged, almost proudly, that Billy Bud wasn’t the sharpest lawn mower blade in the shed, and he reckoned he couldn’t deny it. After all, he was forty-three, still living at home with his mama and daddy, and working the only job he had ever had -- running the projectors at Big Vern’s Drive-In Theatre on Highway 70 West.
Halfway to the trailer, Billy Bud glanced back over his shoulder. They were showing a double-feature that night -- Iron Man and Madagascar 2, that movie with the talking lion and zebra and the fat lady hippo that looked sort of hot, if you squinted your eyes a bit. Iron Man was fifteen minutes away from finishing up. It was the other one Big Vern had forgotten to load into the second projector that afternoon.
He bounded up the steps – also constructed of cinderblocks – and ducked inside. The inside was stuffy and stank of sweat, cigarette smoke, and unwashed laundry. Billy Bud went to the kitchenette table. Dirty dishes, ashtrays, and empty Bud cans littered its surface… but no flat, plastic case containing the two reels of Madagascar 2. “Damn,” muttered Billy Bud. “Where in tarnation is it?”
He looked all over the place, but it was nowhere to be found. If he’d actually thought for a moment and looked under the table, he would have found that it had slipped off the edge and joined bread crumbs and fossilized macaroni-and-cheese noodles on the dusty Formica floor.
“Billy Bud!” yelled his father from the direction of the concession stand. “Get that movie and get your ass back to the booth! It’s almost intermission time!”
That was when Billy Bud did what he did best… he panicked. He knew if he didn’t have something, anything, on Projector Number Two when the last-call-for-refreshment bell was rang, Big Vern would tan his hide. True, Billy Bud was middle-aged himself, but that wouldn’t stop his daddy none.
In desperation, he left the trailer and went to the shack out back. Inside, he pulled a ceiling chain and a sixty-watt bulb snapped on. The shed was where Big Vern kept all his old movies. Not the new releases he rented every two weeks, but the ones he had bought and played back during the sixties and seventies, when the drive-in was at its heyday. One set of shelves held old horror and science-fiction films like Night of the Iguana Man, Grandson of the Iguana Man, Killer Gnats, and Booger-Eating Zombies from Planet 69. A second set of shelves held Big Vern’s exploitation films – the ones Billy Bud’s mother didn’t care much for. Movies like Big Boobed Biker Babes, Prison Pussy Party, and Billy Bud’s personal favorite, I Was A Teen-Aged Meth-Whore.
But none of those would do tonight. There were a lot of families on Friday nights, with a ton of kids. Staple Gun 5 or Bad Girls With Bullwhips wouldn’t be appropriate.
“Billy Bud… where the hell are you, boy?” Big Vern’s voice sounded mad enough to chew nails and shit thumbtacks.
On top of an old Frigidaire was a wooden crate full of old cartoons. Droopy Dawg, Popeye the Sailor Man, Heckle & Jeckle. Billy Bud loved Heckle & Jeckle, but Big Vern didn’t. He said they were just a couple of smart-ass birds, up to no good.
Billy Bud got down the crate, digging through it, looking for something he could play that wouldn’t offend anybody, least of all his daddy. When he got to the bottom of the crate, he found a black metal reel that he’d never laid eyes on before. A strip of masking tape in the center read: Black Mass, July 16, 2008.
“BILLY BUD!” Big Vern’s voice carried across the drive-in lot like the wrath of God. “Get back here with that movie… PRONTO!”
When Big Vern said “pronto” it was like the warden of death row asking “What would you like to order for your last meal? Fried chicken or meatloaf?”
“Aw… shit!” Billy Bud picked up the black reel, tucked it under his arm, and headed back to his post.
On his way, he saw that the ending credits of Iron Man were almost finished and folks were leaving their cars and trucks and gravitating toward the concession stand for Round Two of watered-down cold drinks and artery-clogging chili-cheese-fries. Billy Bud bounded up the steps to the projection booth and slammed the door. As Projector One wound down, he popped the black reel on the spindles of Projector Two and pushed the Auto-Thread button. Big Vern had paid a pretty penny for the two high-tech projectors, both of them Super-Adapt 5000’s. They would take any millimeter film, from 8mm to the kind today’s movies were printed on. The one on the black reel was a 16 mm, but the Super-Adapt worked like a pro, the spindles shifting inward, converging, and threading the slotted celluloid with no hassle at all. True, his father had paid $25,000 for the pair of them, while their septic tank was so backed up that they had to take a piss through a hole Vern had cut in the floor… but his father had assured them that it was an investment that simply couldn’t be passed up.
As Billy Bud let Projector Two prepare itself for showtime, he looked out one of the projection holes that had been cut in the cinderblock wall. Directly in front of him, was parked the Baxters’ red Dodge dually. Usually, Greg and Thelma Baxter were sound asleep in the cab by the second feature, while their twin boys, Jimmy Jack and Johnny Joe lay, on their bellies, atop the truck’s extended roof. The two ten-year-olds were there now, already decked out in their pajamas -- Incredible Hulk for one and WWE Wrestling for the other.
Down below, he could hear his father at the concession stand register, hee-hawing loudly. Billy Bud frowned. The old man was probably flirting with Rhonda Sue Hickey, who did hair over at the Clip & Curl. Big Vern was always coming on to the girl, who was twenty-nine to his sixty-two, and showed his lust openly and unashamedly, before sending her on her way with her grilled cheese sandwich, onion rings, and Diet Fresca. Billy Bud’s mother endured her husband’s indiscretion with a grain of salt, too busy flipping foot longs and black angus patties on the grill in back to scold him.
Most of the men were standing in line, shooting the shit, ready to order beer. Big Vern carried Miller Genuine Draft, Bud, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. And he kept Zima on ice for those two old queers who ran the used bookstore in town. After they’d had a few Zimas behind their belt, they’d retire to the back of their VW van, causing it to squeak and creak like two Rock-em Sock-em Robots making love.
After the last-call bell rang, the second feature was ready to begin. Well, it ain’t what the doctor ordered, thought Billy Bud, but here goes.
He snapped on the auto-play switch and the film began to roll.
There was no title and no sign of credits. The picture on the big sixty foot screen was blurry at first, then came sharply into focus. The scene was at night, but the flickering glow of patio tiki torches gave off enough light to reveal what was going on. Billy Bud recognized the spot right away. It was Shelter #14 over at Hickory Springs State Park. It was the same exact place the Grandstaffs had held their annual family reunion last May.
But the event that was playing out on the screen wasn’t no family reunion… not by a long shot.
There were maybe twenty-five or thirty people standing around the shelter in long, black robes. They wore rubber Halloween masks and held long black candles. Billy Bud studied the masked figures. There was Frankenstein and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and there were celebrities, too. Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, even Elvis.
The camera panned to the right as the procession of robed folks congregated between two maple trees. Trussed up with clothesline and hung up overhead was a bluetick coonhound, confused and whimpering pitifully.
“Hey, ain’t that Luke Branson’s dog, Ol’ Blue?” asked Jimmy Jack.
“I thought he got run over by a tractor-trailer on the interstate a while back,” replied Johnny Joe.
The scene continued, getting weirder by the moment. The people in the long, black robes suddenly stripped down to nothing.
“Lordy Mercy!” said Johnny Joe. “Them folks are plumb buck nekid!”
His brother nodded. “As the proverbial jaybird, I’d say.”
Marilyn, a young woman, and Nixon, a much older man, stepped beneath Ol’ Blue’s squirming form. A man wearing a George Bush mask held a long butcher knife over his head, then slit the poor pooch open from breastbone to balls. Marilyn and Nixon stood beneath a shower of dog blood, rubbing it all over themselves with great abandon.
Luke Branson jumped out of his Ford pickup a few rows up ahead. He looked more than a mite disturbed. He began to march past the other cars, fists balled into angry white knots, heading toward the concession stand.
Billy Bud turned his eyes back to the screen. The other naked folks were catching the remaining torrent of Ol’ Blue’s life’s blood in big styrofoam cups with BIG VERN’S DRIVE-IN THEATRE printed on the side. They were the forty-eight ounce size – Vern’s Super Slurp Special – so they held quite a lot.
Some of the drive-in patrons had begun to leave their cars now. Some seemed bumfuzzled by the whole thing. Others seemed outraged, and others seemed… well, they seemed downright embarrassed. The looks on their faces revealed that they weren’t necessarily bothered by the gore or indecency of the scene that unfolded… but more by the familiarity of it all. Some started toward the concession stand, while others jumped back into their cars and revved up their engines.
The scene on the screen had taken a turn for the worse. Nixon was behind Marilyn now, humping up against her ass, rubbing his hands all over her blood-slickened skin. She had two large brass rings dangling from her nipples. Nixon reached around, hooked his knuckles in the rings, and gave them a hearty yank.
“Ouch!” said Jimmy Jack. “I bet that smarted!”
“Like King Kong’s hangnail,” countered Johnny Joe. Both boys grinned, amazed at how far human skin could actually stretch.
Suddenly, Big Vern was standing in the gravel lane down below, shaking his fist in the air. “What the shit have you done, Billy Bud?” His nose was bloody and out of alignment, where Luke Branson had nailed him. “Turn that crap off… NOW!”
Enthralled, Billy Bud continued to watch the movie. “Hey, Daddy… that feller in the Nixon mask has a gall bladder scar a lot like yours. Just like yours, to tell the truth.”
Big Vern did a little dance of rage in the gravel. “I said shut that thing off… PRONTO!”
His father had said the word to end all words, but Billy Bud ignored him. Even in the face of his elder, he adhered to the Number One Rule of Drive-In Projection Maintenance and Operation. His father’s stern command was etched into his brain, never to be banished. Son, always remember… no matter what…whether it rains or snows, whether a Tennessee tornado rips through sucking earth or Lord Jesus comes back riding a winged Pegasus with the heavenly trumpets a-blaring… never… I repeat, NEVER…turn that projector off in the middle of a showing.
And that was exactly what Billy Bud took to heart now. He let the projector do its thing, displaying every gory and horny detail upon that big drive-in screen.
A loud crack like a rifle shot sounded as Rhonda Sue hauled off and slapped the shit out of Big Vern. Then she marched off to her Honda Accord, red-faced and indignant. Her ample breasts bounced beneath her Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt, jingling like Santa’s sleigh bells.
“I’m coming up there, boy,” shouted Big Vern. Rhonda Sue’s handprint blazed across his left cheek like a five-fingered birthmark. “And after I bust that projector, I’m gonna bust your sorry ass!”
Billy Bud stepped over, bolted the steel door of the projection booth, and then went
back to watching the movie. The naked folks had poured the Super Slurps of blood all over a concrete picnic table, which had been turned into a makeshift altar of some kind. Marilyn Monroe had laid herself out, spread-eagled, while Nixon climbed on top of her. Billy Bud thought that was just downright wrong. It should have been the man in the JFK mask giving her a poke.
“What the shit is going on?” demanded Greg Baxter, having woken up from his nap in the dually. “What’re you showing here, Grandstaff… pornoscopic movies? My young’uns don’t need to watch this trash!”
“I don’t mind,” said Jimmy Jack.
“Me, either,” added Johnny Joe.
“You boys get in this here truck!” Thelma Baxter said, dragging the twins off the top of the cab.
“And shut your eyes, for Heaven’s sake!” She wrestled the pair into the back seat of the Dodge and slammed the door.
Billy Bud returned his attention to the screen. Marilyn was on her hands and knees now. A lanky, white dude with a firefighter’s emblem tattooed on his butt cheek, wearing an Obama mask, was behind her, doing it doggy-style.
Glen Oakley, the local fire chief, ground gears for a frantic moment before speeding off, carrying the mobile movie speaker with him.
That was when all hell broke loose. Cars and pickups started taking off, one by one, slinging dust and gravel in the air. Others stuck around, anxious to see if they could identify various tattoos, moles, and scars.
Big Vern was at the projection booth door, wailing away at the lock with a ball-peen hammer.
A loud crash echoed from the far side of the lot. The mayor and the county sheriff had
suffered a hellacious fender-bender, trying to be the first ones out of the exit gate.
Damn, thought Billy Bud, picking up his monster magazine and hunkering down on his stool. Maybe I should have picked Heckle & Jeckle.
Horror Drive-In: Ron, I'll start with the obvious. What happened in your career as a writer that caused the long absence?
Ron Kelly: Well, things seemed to be going smoothly in my career back in the mid-90's, even though the horror genre was actually in pretty bad shape. Mass market authors were losing their contracts left and right, and a lot of publishing houses were cutting their horror lines completely out. I'd written eight novels for Zebra Books and had a couple more scheduled for publication, when, out of the blue, they informed me that they had cut their horror line as well. Since I pretty much had all my eggs in one basket, that suddenly left me without a publisher. You could say that day in October was my own little "9/11".
Anyway, none of the other paperback houses were taking on new authors at the time, and certainly not ones specializing in the horror genre. I tried my hand at new genres for awhile, but had no luck at all. Finally, it simply came down to putting my writing aspirations on the back-burner and heading back to work in the factories. And that's pretty much what I did for the next ten years; worked the ol' nine-to-five, raised a family, and didn't write a lick during that whole time. The long hiatus seemed to have done me some good creatively, because the ideas have been flowing steadily since I decided to return to writing in 2006. It's really great to be back behind the keyboard again after all those years.
HD-I: What made you decide to return to storytelling?
RK: Around the summer of 2006, some friends of mine -- who had been urging me to get back into the writing game for a long time -- informed me that folks had been asking about me over the internet. A lot of them wondered if I was dead or something! Well, I didn't even have a computer at that time, let alone kept abreast of cyberspace, so my wife printed off a lot of the posts from the various horror message boards from her computer at work and brought them home to me. And the response was downright humbling... and inspiring. I wondered "Could I actually have a second chance at this writing gig?" So that July I decided to return and try my hand at horror again. Needless to say, I was a little apprehensive at first. No, let me rephrase that... the thought scared the living crap out of me! First of all, I was gun-shy from that nasty business with Zebra back in '96 and, secondly, I wasn't even sure I could actually write after all those years. Luckily, it seemed like my writing skills hadn't left me, and my relationships with my new publishers have all been first rate and very pleasant. So far, I couldn't be more satisfied with how things have gone since my return to the genre.
HD-I: Do you think the climate of the genre is healthier now than it was ten or fifteen years ago?
RK: Personally, I think horror is a lot healthier now than it was back when I stopped writing, but there are plenty of doomsayers out there who are apt to call me a liar, spouting that old "Horror is Dead" anthem. Folks have been saying that time and time again, but the genre -- no matter how anemic and shaky it gets -- just seems to rejuvenate itself due to one factor or another. Sometimes a renewed interest in subject matter can do it -- vampires, zombies, etc. -- or a new author can help jump-start it all over again. It's happened in the past and it'll happen again. The current economic situation that's reared its ugly head in the past few months certainly hasn't helped matters any, but I believe it'll survive, no matter what those gloom-and-doomers say. You can't keep a good monster down, you know.
HD-I: I think you have a slew of new projects in the works. Some I know about and I think there are others that I don't. Can you give our readers a rundown on your upcoming publications?
RK: I have a lot of "comeback" projects that have been in the pipeline for a long time, but it looks like they'll finally be seeing print in 2009. Cemetery Dance Publications has two of my books, both unannounced, that will be out within the next few months -- a whopper of a short story collection and a new novel. Thunderstorm Books will be putting out The Sick Stuff, a mini-collection of my "splatter-punk" type tales from the early 90's as part of their Elemental Series this April. And Full Moon Press will be releasing Undertaker's Moon, Volume One of the Essential Ronald Kelly Collection, hopefully this spring or summer, followed by Pitfall, Twelve Gauge, and Burnt Magnolia.
Also, I'm currently editing an anthology of Southern horror tales that will feature the very best of today's dark authors south of the Mason-Dixie Line, and putting together a collection of post-apocalyptic horror stories. Then I've got several more novels on the drawing board, including sequels to my older novels Fear and Blood Kin. So I've got quite a bit of Southern-Fried Horror come your way.
HD-I: I'll just ask one last question and then we'll call it a day. The book of yours that I've seen readers respond to the most is Fear. I think it's your most popular novel. But which book is your own personal favorite?
RK: I'd have to say that my favorite is a toss-up between Fear and Hindsight. Fear was the most enjoyable experience I ever had writing a novel. The characters just seemed to create themselves and it was incredibly fun to put as many nightmarish creatures and situations as I could muster between two covers. But on a personal level emotionally, I'd have to say Hindsight is the one that is closest to my heart. True, it's a bit bitter-sweet when I look back at it... the main character was based on my mother as a child during the Great Depression and the book was published a mere month following her death from cancer. But it has alot of my family history integrated into it, it carries the same heart and soul as my people and the area they originated from, so I feel like Hindsight, out of all of my books, still has it's roots deeply anchored in my being, or so that's how it feels.
HD-I: Thanks so much for your time, Ron, and especially for the cool story.
RK: You're more than welcome, Mark. I really had a blast writing it. And thanks for starting this new fiction section at Horror Drive-In. I can't wait to read the next story. Y'all take it easy out there and many Happy Nightmares!
Select Ronald Kelly Bibliography:
Hindsight, Zebra Books, 1989
Pitfall, Zebra Books, 1990
Something out There, Zebra Books, 1991
Moon of the Werewolf, Zebra Books, 1991
Dark Dixie: Tales of Southern Horror, Spine-Tingling Audio, 1991
Father's Little Helper, Zebra Books, 1992
The Possession, Zebra Books, 1993
Fear, Zebra Books, 1994
Blood Kin, Zebra Books, 1996
Flesh Welder, Croatoan Publishing, 2008