Yearly Archive: 2004

Whoa, wait a minute — this is supposed to be a horror story!

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I was asked to be one of the three judges for this year’s Chiaroscuro Magazine/Leisure Books short story contest. We got quite a number of submissions, and on a scale of 1 – 10 (10 being the highest), the stories came in at a solid 6.5 to 7, which, I have to admit, surprised me — if for no other reason than a handful of past judges from other contests (not just this one) had led me to expect otherwise.

To be honest, I wasn’t prepared for there to be such originality among the submissions; for every mad slasher, ghost, vampire, and (insert tired horror cliché here) story I read, I found there to be at least one story whose content, writing, or central idea outshone the more predictable tales (and even the predictable stories displayed a level of technical craftsmanship that was refreshing).

But even in a majority of these original stories, certain disquieting similarities began to pop up, the most predominant one being that, somewhere past the mid-point of the story, it seemed that the writers suddenly thought: “Whoa, wait a minute — this is supposed to be a horror story!” … and subsequently grafted obviously horrific elements onto the narrative so it more resembled the popular concept of horror.

Example: one story dealt with a young boy’s imaginary friend whose physical form and behavior changed to suit the young boy’s mood; if the boy had been mistreated by his friends, the imaginary friend appeared to him as beaten-up and angry; if the boy’s mother had scolded him for something he did wrong, the imaginary friend appeared to him as smaller and sadder.

You get the idea.

Now this was — for the first 6 pages — an absolutely wonderful piece, reminiscent of the best Twilight Zone episodes, but then–

— Whoa, wait a minute — this is supposed to be a horror story!

— the imaginary friend shows up, unbidden, in the shape of a deformed monster wielding an axe, tells the boy that he’s “…sick and tired of pretending to be something I’m not”, and chops the little boy up into bloody chunks (the death of the boy takes almost 2 pages, and is unnecessarily graphic).

Now, had this turnabout been set up anywhere beforehand (which it wasn’t), I might have accepted it; it might have been a terrifically vindictive morality play about allowing reality to intrude too far into one’s fantasy life (which it is, at least for the first 6 pages, and beautifully done); the ending might have been interpreted as the death of one’s fantasy life equaling the spiritual and physical death of the Self; in other words, it might have resulted in something deeper and infinitely more disturbing than the cheap, bloody shock that the writer chose to end it with because, gosh-golly-gee, it’s a horror story and you expect this sort of thing, right?

What made this doubly alarming is that, in almost every case, the writers who grafted these ham-fisted horrific elements onto their stories had demonstrated a level of skill that led me, as a reader, to believe they were going to stay true to their voice and vision (and no, I won’t apologize for using that last word); until these grafted elements intruded, each story had suggested that its writer was not only well-read and intelligent, but trusted their own instincts enough to know that it’s okay to do Something Different in horror; yet near the end, some mass-market, don’t-challenge-the-expected-norm, lowest-common-denominator gene kicked in, and something SPOOOOOOKY or Shocking!!!! (read: recognizably horrific) arrived to bust up the party and send everyone home way too early.

And I keep wondering: Why?

Flash back to a month ago, on the Shocklines discussion board. The subject of happy endings came up, and it appears that many readers have come to expect a certain formula from horror: meet the main character, get to know/like him or her, follow him or her through the horrific darkness that ensues, and emerge alive and triumphant with him or her into the light at the end.

Mind you, I’ve got nothing against happy endings – providing that they emerge naturally, are consistent with the overall tone of the piece, and (this is the important point) are justified. Otherwise, it’s just bad plastic surgery.

Happy endings only work when they’re justified from within the natural progression (both tonal and narrative) of a story, and in my fictional universe, that rarely happens; horrific elements only work when they’re justified, and in the case of many of the submissions to the contest, this just wasn’t the case; too much grafting, not enough 2nd or 3rd-drafting: the writers didn’t trust their own instincts enough to not take the obvious way out.

Consider if you will Stephen King’s remarkable novel, Pet Sematary; here you have a story that is incredibly dark, with only the briefest flashes of light and hope sprinkled throughout. The dark (and, at best, melancholy) tone of the novel is set early on, as are the ground rules of its microcosmic universe, and King never once betrays those rules or the novel’s tone: because of the expert way he sets up everything, he can’t betray them and remain justified in the world-view he presents.

Many readers were shocked that King ended the novel as he did, and the reason behind this shock? As a friend of mine put it: “After all the horrible things that had happened, I was expecting a happier ending.”

Not if you read it correctly, you weren’t.

From almost the very beginning, you know there’s no way in hell that this is going to turn out for the best. So how would you have felt if King had betrayed his story to give readers an “expected” happy ending? And even if he had found a way to cop-out with touching warm fuzzies at the end, do you think the novel would have had the effect on readers that it did? That it still has, over 20 years later?

King never flinched here, never pulled back, never hoodwinked for the sake of making things more palatable or comfortable for the reader; the result is a novel that is not only one of the most emotionally rich he’s ever written, but arguably the single most horrific of his career.

And for you “…light at the end” folks, ask yourselves this – and be honest: how many of his novels and stories have had “happy” endings? I can think of maybe four – and even those aren’t “happy” endings in the traditional sense. So why does his work endure? Because it’s honest unto itself. From A Buick 8 may not be the best-written story he’s ever told, but it’s arguably the best-told story he’s ever written, simply because he remains true to the tale. And sometimes that means not ending things with a gaudy display of horrific fireworks; and sometimes it means not ending things on a happy note, lest the story and the reader be betrayed.

Old William Shakespeare|Willy S. said it best, folks: “To thine own self be true.”

That is, in reverse, the answer to my question about the contest submissions: these horrific elements were grafted onto the stories because their writers (for whatever reasons) have been conditioned — be it through uninspired films, television programs, or from reading work by writers whose only influence has been said films or television shows — to believe that readers will only accept a story as being “horror” if it has certain readily-identifiable elements — i.e. gore/violence/zombies/ vampires/what-have-you — that are popularly mistaken as being the only elements that horror is concerned with.

There is a new generation of upcoming writers who are being conditioned for mediocrity; they will not — or cannot — trust their own instincts because the popular misconceptions about horror are threatening to become the accepted rules. If that happens, if the tired, formulaic, tried-and-true become the norm once again, then I’ll be more than content to make do with being a writer whose work is only read when people are in “…a certain mood.”

But I will not be content to sit idly by and let the upcoming generation of horror writers betray themselves, their stories, their craft, and their chosen field by giving them the impression that it’s all right to shove a bloody shock down a reader’s throat because this is supposed to be a horror story.

The solution is simple: Don’t do that.

If you get to a point in a story where you say to yourself, Damn, I’d better have something horrific happen pretty soon, do yourself and the rest of us a favor and walk away; come back to it in a day or two when you can approach the story fresh, on its own terms, and not those you have been programmed to think are applicable; yeah, you might not end up with a wide readership, but odds are the readership you will have will be a fiercely loyal one.

New York City

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Okay, in case you haven’t already heard (which means my scream of shock didn’t reach all the way across the East Coast), this past Saturday night, June 5th, the Horror Writers Association honored my short story “Duty” with the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction.

That’s right: I won a Stoker. I’m still reeling from it, still incredibly happy, and still half-expecting someone to come tap, tap, tapping at my chamber door, saying, ahem, there was a terrible misunderstanding and could they please have it back because Stephen King is waiting for it.

I will confirm that it’s one hell of a humbling experience to receive one of these, and I am more grateful than I can put into words; but like I said in my acceptance speech: for those who claim the Stokers don’t mean anything, try standing up on that stage with one of them in your hand and saying that.

After having visited NYC, I can say to all of you New Yorkers that you’ve got every reason to be damned proud of your city; everyone I met — from the shuttle driver to the people who manned the hotel desk to the bleary-eyed guy who sold me a cup of coffee at 5 a.m. — was friendly and (get this) courteous.

That’s right, you read it correctly, courteous. Even though it was obvious to all of them (sometimes painfully so) that I was a visitor from Ohio, I was never spoken down to, never made to feel like a hick, never dismissed out of hand, and not once was I ever made to feel like they were doing me a favor by putting up with my presence in their city. The song is right: it’s a helluva town, and I can’t wait to visit again.

And for the record: the coffee I had in NYC was the most delicious coffee I’ve had in my life; and I want to move to Tower Records — not near Tower Records, to Tower Records, as in: I wish to live in the building, preferably somewhere on or near the escalator that links the CD section to the DVDs one floor below. Yes, I have problems, but you already knew that.

The Bram Stoker Awards

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Every year since 1988, the Horror Writers Association hands out their Bram Stoker Awards for Superior Achievement during their annual conference in New York City or Los Angeles. The Stokers, which are named in honor of influential horror author Bram Stoker, are analagous to the Nebula Award, Hugo Award, or World Fantasy Awards. The award itself is a hefty little ceramic replica of a haunted house.

The Stokers are awarded based on voting by the HWA’s active membership, which is composed of writers who have made at least three professional sales.

Currently, Stokers are awarded in the following categories:

  • Novel
  • First Novel
  • Short Fiction
  • Long Fiction
  • Fiction Collection
  • Poetry Collection
  • Anthology
  • Nonfiction
  • Lifetime Achievement

The Stokers are arguably the lynchpin in earning and expanding the reading public’s knowledge and appreciation of what the horror field has to offer.

Unfortunately, the Stokers have been jokingly referred to as “The Strokers” both within the horror field and without, and continue to be criticized (and in some cases, outright mocked) by many people. (But mock the Hugos, Nebulas, or World Fantasy Awards, and many of these same folks go apoplectic).

The term “Strokers” first appeared in a parody article in the second issue of Midnight Graffiti, (Fall 1988). It was not slamming anybody in particular. It was an alternate universe joke piece that suggested “Stroker” awards (a sculpture of one hand washing another) for categories like:

  • Most Typos
  • Novel Most Worthy of Novelization
  • Best Stephen King Ripoff
  • This Year’s ‘New Stephen King’
  • Best Work by a Dead Writer
  • Best Never-Published Story
  • Best Horror Story or Book that Isn’t Horror

… and so on.

However, the “Stroker” moniker came about as a result — in my opinion — of the 1997 awards, after which rumors and accusations of “vote swapping” ran rampant. (“I’ll vote for your work if you’ll vote for mine.”)

In ’97, the recipient of that year’s award for Superior Achievement in Novel was Children of the Dusk by Janet Berliner and George Guthridge. When that novel was announced as that year’s recipient, a lot of people were very surprised; until the recipient was read aloud, everyone (myself included) assumed that Tananarive Due’s My Soul To Keep had a lock on the award.

What made this one of — if not the — single most controversial award in the history of the Stokers until that time was this: in 1997, Janet Berliner was an officer of HWA (I believe she was president). George Guthridge, however, was not. The reason Children of the Dusk was permitted on the ballot — one that I agreed with, by the way — was because Guthridge, not being an HWA officer, should not have been penalized because he co-wrote a novel with someone who held office; ineligibility by association could not be permitted. So Children got on tha ballot, everyone assumed that My Soul To Keep would win, anyway, and all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds —
— until the moment the award was announced.

God, the accusations and rumors that started flying; Berliner had used her office to coerce people into voting for the novel; there had been vote swapping; there had been “political favors” promised in exchange for votes…it got really ugly really quickly. People whose work hadn’t even been on the ballot started attacking one another about things completely unrelated to the awards (though the subject of the awards was, in most cases, what had prompted the initial disagreements); the younger members started accusing the older, more seasoned pros of forming an impenetrable clique, thus guaranteeing no new writers ever had a chance at winning a Stoker; a large amount of known pros left HWA as a result of the ugliness, and the Young Turks who took over in their place proved almost instantaneously that they were just as capable of keeping things as effed up as the old guard had supposedly been…it was bad.

And HWA was viewed as an organization composed of bloody-minded, mean-spirited, socially-inept weirdos whose members all suffered from a perpetual case of arrested literary adolescence and gathered in NYC every year to engage in a well-dressed tunnel-visioned circle-jerk called the Stroker — uh, Stoker Awards.

(Keep in mind that HWA has repaired a lot of the damage since then, a majority of it due to the efforts of the current administration. If you’re thinking about joining HWA, do it now. It’s got a lot to offer if you have the sense to seek out and/or ask for it. Any writers’ organization is only as strong and useful as its membership … and HWA’s membership boasts a lot of power and integrity.)

Not only was the value of the Stokers tainted by the ensuing ugliness in ’97, but — much worse — the integrity and stability of HWA itself was called into question — and, in my opinion, still hasn’t fully recovered in the eyes of many, which doesn’t surprise me; after all, horror has always been the bastard child Lit-ra-chure keeps chained up in the basement whenever respectable folks come to visit and talk about Ulysses or other works that deserve serious consideration (No, I’m not bitter; why do you ask?).

What got buried under the detritus of all the in-fighting, accusations, rumors, and exoduses resulting from the ’97 awards was one simple fact: Berliner and Guthridge had agressively campaigned for the award: e-mails to members politely asking for their consideration, actual honest-to-God paper letters to the voting members and, finally, copies of the novel itself were sent to all qualified voters. (And we’re talking something like 200 Actives at that time; a 6-dollar cover price, with a couple bucks in postage to send each copy, and you’re looking at a couple of thousand dollars in materials and postage — not to mention the twelve hundred or so dollars’ worth of sales that Berlinger, Guthridge, and their publisher wouldn’t make because of sending out all these freebies.) As far as I can tell, they won it, fair and square.