On Sunday, while I was at BizarroCon, I got a text from author and editor Michael Bailey, informing me that Gak had passed away. I told John Urbancik, who was sitting with me at the time (we were watching a series of short films curated by John Skipp). Then I texted authors Geoff Cooper, Mike Oliveri, Michael T. Huyck Jr., Regina Garza Mitchell, and Kelly Laymon — because Gak had been part of our crew, back in the early days of “gangsta horror” (a label that I am forever grateful we quickly grew beyond). I meant to text some other people, but then my phone battery quit.

Long time ago when we was fab… Gak is bottom left, right above Tim Lebbon. (Photo copyright James Futch)

This was news that we’d been apprehensive of for some time. Although Gak was a very private person, there were a few of us who’d known he’d been sick for a while. But regardless… it’s still a blow. As author Ronald Kelly said to me this morning, “We’re still stinging from J.F. Gonzalez, Tom Piccirilli, and Jack ‘Dallas Mayr’ Ketchum. And now this.”

L to R: Mike Oliveri, Gak, Gene O’Neill, Brian Keene, and Michael T. Huyck.
(Photo copyright unknown but I believe it’s either Kay O’Neill or Geoff Cooper).

The first person I ever met in this business was Joe R. Lansdale. I’ve told that story on my podcast. But when I met him, I had only vague notions of becoming a writer. It was a desire, but I hadn’t yet taken the full leap.

About a decade later, after I’d taken that full leap, the first person I met in this business was Gak. His artwork was everywhere back then, in the last days of the horror zines, appearing in venues like Phantasm, Cabal Asylum, Scavenger’s Newsletter, The Sentinel, Welcome to Nod, Lathered in Crimson, Weird Times, etc. He’d also done some book covers for Necro Publications, Obsidian, etc. by then, if I remember correctly.

Brian Keene and Gak at Dark Delicacies. (Photo copyright Ann Laymon)

He’d illustrated a story of mine in one of those zines. Arriving at my very first World Horror Convention, I boarded an airport shuttle bus and started talking to the dude next to me. Turned out he was Gak, and he told me how much he dug the story and I told him how much I dug his artwork, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Gak’s iconic cover for 4X4 (which later became my back tattoo).

Over the last twenty years, Gak has illustrated more of my work than any other artist. His cover to 4X4 was integral to its success, and the original artwork is emblazoned across my back as a tattoo. His work on A Darker Dawning and A Darker Dawning 2 were as important as the stories. His covers to Sympathy For the Devil, Running With the Devil, The New Fear, and Leader of the Banned distilled the Hail Saten series in a way no other artist could have done. The original artwork for his illustrations for my short stories “Gratefully Dead”, “Full Of It”, “What Dreams May Come” and more hang in my office, as does the original painting for 4X4.

Gak’s cover for Hail Saten Volume 3. In the original, he’d drawn my bald patch. I asked him to color it in for this finished version.

And it continued throughout our careers. One of his later illustrations was for “The Last Things To Go”, a short story I co-wrote with Mary SanGiovanni, which appeared in the Library of the Dead anthology.

Gak’s “The Last things To Go” illustration.

For the same anthology, he also illustrated one of J.F. Gonzalez last written stories. I know that would have pleased Jesus immensely. He thought the world of Gak. And Gak of him.

L to R: Sarah Langan, Brian Keene, Gak and Dallas Mayr aka Jack Ketchum. (Photo copyright either Ann Laymon or Martel Sardina).

Gak and I had been working, off and on for the last decade, on a project called The Wanderer. It was conceived by us as part prose novel, part illustrated novel, and part graphic novel. We stopped working on it when it looked like our mutual friend Dave Barnett at Necro might have to shut down. When that didn’t happen, and Dave continued to fight the good fight, we started on it again. But then Gak got sick, and we stopped working on it again.

It will remain unfinished, because there is nobody else I would consider doing it with.

Brian Keene and Gak at Mount Rainier. (Photo copyright Ann Laymon)

Last time I heard directly from Gak was right after Pic or Jesus died (I can’t remember which). It was a short message, via email or Facebook. But I didn’t talk to him these last few years. I knew he was sick, but he didn’t know that I knew he was sick, and I didn’t want to throw the person who told me under the bus. Like I said, Gak valued his privacy. I wish now, that I had reached out.

L to R: Michael Laimo, Gak, Brian Keene, Michael T. Huyck Jr., Gerard Houarner, and Mike Oliveri. (Photo copyright unknown)

But I’ve got a lot of great memories, and a lot of him on my walls and on my shelves, and not just from my books. Anytime I reach for my favorites by Edward Lee or Gene O’Neill, for example, it will be Gak’s cover illustrations that greet me. And of course, I’ll carry him with me on my back until it’s my turn to join the others in that convention hotel bar on the other side, that way station where we all get together one last time before moving on to whatever comes after this. Personally, I believe we are reborn, but even if it is just oblivion, there will still be time for one last round, and one last toast.

Brian Keene, Ann Laymon, and Gak (Photo copyright Kelly Laymon)

Take care, brother. Give my best to Jesus and Pic and Dick and Dallas and everyone else, and tell them I’ll be along shortly. I only have a few more things to finish up, and I’m getting slower in this middle section of middle-age, but I’ll get there in time.

Gak and Brian Keene at the filming location of The Birds. (Photo copyright Ann Laymon)

9 comments

  1. I didn’t know Gak like you and some others did, but I knew and liked his work. He was at one of the early Horrorfind shows, and I had several conversations with him. Like-minded people tend to get along, but I found Gak to be exceptionally congenial. This is another terrible loss to the field, and it hurts to know his infectious spirit has passed.

  2. I met GAK at a WHC (Austin maybe?). He was walking with Kelly Laymon and she introduced me to him. I told him that I was a fan of his work, and he seemed genuinely surprised that I’d ever even heard of him. My total exposure to him was only around 12 seconds, but in that short time I knew that I’d probably love hanging out with him.

    There is a chance that I make the trifecta this year: StokerCon, STC, AND KillerCon. I’ve dealt with monkeys (and people) everyday for 15 yrs now, and want to reward myself. I’m doing KillerCon for sure

    Jason

  3. Another great post about another sad situation. Like End of the Road, these types of posts are really appreciated by this fan and will be important to the posterity of the genre. Thanks for doing right by your friends and colleagues and for giving these events their due context and framework.

  4. Man, this is rotten news. I’ve always been a big fan of his art. I still hang up my “GAK-O-Lantern” pumpkin art that I bought on Shocklines every Halloween.

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