Monthly Archive: February 2006

The Horror of the Used Bookstore

by Gary A. Braunbeck

There’s a dark side writing that few people have dared address. I’m talking about the single most dangerous foe to the writer’s resolve; the thing that can stop even the most dedicated wordsmith dead in his or her tracks; an element of the publishing business that renders all of us absolutely powerless when faced with it.

No, it isn’t the dreaded book signing that finds you sitting at a table for 90 minutes, during which time the only person to approach you and the unsold stacks of your new book is someone asking for directions to the bathroom; it isn’t having someone discover you’re a horror writer and asking (almost as if compelled to do so by a Congressional Decree): “So, do you know Stephen King?”; and, no, it isn’t that utterly radiant, mettle-testing moment when you open that first royalty statement to discover that your book has, in the course of one year, sold only one-third of its print run so obtaining that more pricey loaf of bread is going to have to be put on the back burner once again. Yes, all of these can test you, no doubt; they can chip away at your confidence if you let them; and they can make you a real buzz-kill who doesn’t get invited to many parties, but I’m not here to discuss my dreadful personality problems.

No; the single biggest foe to the writer’s resolve, confidence, and determination is (insert ominous chord here): the Horror of the Used Book Store.

We all shop at them. We’re writers, for pity’s sake, our major source of income is our writing (see Laura Anne Gilman’s previous post to learn more of that particular daily terror), none of us can afford to shell out 30 bucks for each new hardcover or 8 bucks for each new paperback on a consistent basis. We go there to find a bargain, or perhaps to locate a book that’s been hard to find or out of print for several years. While we’re doing this, we remind ourselves that the First Sale Doctrine, codified in Section 109 of The U.S. Copyright Act, allows the original owner of any book to transfer ownership of the phyisical copy in any way they choose, so, technically, there’s nothing legally or morally wrong with our purchasing any books here.

Besides (we tell ourselves), stores like this make books affordable to folks who otherwise wouldn’t have the money to buy them. So it’s all good … until we find ourselves face to face with copies of our own books.

Don’t shake your head at me; if you’ve ever published with a mass market house, odds are you’ve found yourself in this situation. And what is the writer’s first reaction? But, my work is eternal, it speaks to the deepest pain of the human condition, my books are things to be treasured , to be passed down from generation to generation, not end up here!

The first time I discovered copies of my novel In Silent Graves on the shelf at a used book store, I felt a slight twinge of disappointment — who wouldn’t? We all hope that our books will be things that readers will want to keep around to read again someday, but here we are, faced with the bald hard truth that not everyone who buys and reads our books is going to want to keep them. I at least had the pleasure of knowing that the 3 copies I found on the shelf had been well-read, as evidenced by the wear on, and cracks in, the spines.

Two weeks ago, I’m in another used book store with a friend of mine who also happens to be a writer, and he points out to me that another copy of Graves is on the shelf. I’m really into this now, I’ve adopted a helathy attitude, I want to see how well-read the copy was, enjoy the sight of those cracks in the spine, hold it in my hands knowing that whoever had owned it before read the living shit out of it before selling it here.

Well, guess what? (Here’s the moment that really tests the mettle.)

It hadn’t been read. It hadn’t even been opened, as far as I could tell. It still had the Walpurgis-Mart sticker covering the bar code on the back.

“What is it?” asked my writer friend.

“This hasn’t even been read,” I whispered.

“You don’t know that,” he replied. “maybe the person who sold this is like you, they take care not to damage the spine when they read a paperback. Maybe they’re just very careful with their books.”

“And maybe they just didn’t read it.” (Outwardly, I’m doing the Healthy Attitude Shuffle, I’m very calm and cool and collected; inwardly, I’m jumping up and down and throwing a fit and threatening to hold my breath until my face turns blue.)

“Okay,” my writer friend said, “then you gotta tell yourself that there was some earth-shaking emergency that forced them to sell this book. They lost a job. They lost a limb. Their Workman’s Comp ran out. They had to do it to put food on the table for their family, man! You know they had to do it to put food on the table! Dear God, why else would they part with one of your books? IT WAS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH!”

“So what you’re telling me in your own subtle way is that I’m over-reacting?”

“God, no! You’re a hero, Gary, a lifesaver!” He threw his arm around my shoulder and began talking very loudly. “Because of you and your book, somewhere in this city tonight, a man’s family is not going to bed hungry. They can afford Grandma’s medication for another month. Little Eunice can get that knee surgery so that her dreams of the Joffrey Ballet needn’t be forever buried, thus turning her into a bitter, empty shell of a human being before she turns 13! And it’s all because of this book on this shelf. I’m sorry, I’m … I’m getting emotional, tearing up. So moving, it is. I so rarely get to witness acts of decency and heroism. It reaffirms my faith in humanity. We must all hold hands,” he cried out to the terror-stricken customers. “Indeed, we must all hold hands and sing out our joy at being here to mark this resplendent moment in human history. Come, sing with me, all of you: ‘WHEN YOU WALK THROUGH A STORM, KEEP YOU HEAD HELD HIGH, AND DON’T BE AFRAID OF —‘”

“So I’m over-reacting, is this what you’re telling me?”

“Nah. They probably got through the first 20 pages and decided it was too much of a downer. You gotta admit, this thing ain’t gonna make anybody’s list of My Top Ten Favorite Chuckle-fests.”

“I feel so much better now, thanks.”

“Hey, take your pick: They did it to put food on the table, or they did it because they thought your book sucked the dimples off a golf ball through 40 feet of clogged garden hose.”

We’re writers, we exist because of fantasy and delusion and our ability to convey them on the page. And when you have to rely on your writing as your major source of income, any delusion helps, especially if you know it’s a delusion.

So I helped a stranger put food on the table for his family. I feel good about myself.

Hey, I’m a writer. Delusion is my business.

Movie Review: Bubba Ho-Tep

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Bubba Ho-Tep is one of my favorite 2003 movies. It’s an extremely adept adaptation of Joe Lansdale‘s novella of the same name by director Don Coscarelli. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis are wonderful in their respective roles as elderly men who may or may not be Elvis and JFK stuck in a nursing home in Mud Creek, Texas* who must do battle with an Egyptian mummy who is brought to unlife after his museum box is dumped in a creek near the home.

The low-budget movie circulated the U.S. in extremely limited release last year. My wife and I took my nephew to see while it played in Columbus for a week — to sold-out showings, no less — at our local art house theater, the Drexel. Afterward, many people my nephew talked about the movie to in his home town wouldn’t believe it was an actual movie.

However, now that Bubba Ho-Tep has been released on DVD, everyone who missed it in theaters can get themselves a copy. And in my book, it’s an excellent purchase for any movie fan’s library. I bought my nephew one just so he could prove to all his friends he didn’t just make the whole thing up.

The movie is wonderful all the way around, with great performances from everyone, right down to the smallest supporting character. It’s got all of Lansdale’s trademark humor and off-center poignancy.

The transfer is gorgeous, and seeing it again (this time on the small screen) made me appreciate the director’s use of comic-book angles more than I did inb the theater. There’s a surprising amount of extras, but the single biggest reason to own this (aside from having the movie itself) is for the secondary audio track where Bruce Campbell as Elvis comments on the film as if he’s seeing it for the first time. It’s basically a 90-minute performance piece, and it’s utterly hysterical.

What surprised me upon my second (and third) viewing (yes, I watched it twice — c’mon, you know I have no life) was that there are countless little throwaway character bits that I didn’t catch the first (or even second) time. A lot of love went into the making of this movie, a lot of care was taken, and the result — even if you have some quibbles about it — is undeniably a unique (in the dictionary sense of the word) movie: you ain’t ever seen nothin’ like this before.

The other surprise was the level of poignancy in the movie; this thing would have been a disaster if the filmmakers had decided to make fun of the elderly, or to play its two lead characters for laughs; they don’t. The characters — outrageous as they are — are treated with respect and given dignity, and I was shocked that during the “salute” moment near the end, I actually got a little choked up.

Helluva good movie, a new cult classic (as it deserves to be — the masses aren’t ready for something like this).

I’d most definitely give this movie ***1/2, hands-down — and it’s ***1/2 instead of **** because I have a quibble: I think it takes just a tad too long to set up its premise, but that in no way diminishes the enjoyment.

* They shot the movie on-location in an actual nursing home in the actual town of Mud Creek, Texas. When you watch the movie, you’ll notice that aside from JFK’s room, the home looks pretty run-down. The home had been closed down temporarily for badly-needed repairs.


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

Using profanity in fiction

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Unless you’re writing in the Christian Young Adult genre (and even that’s up for debate), it would be unrealistic to write a novel or short story wherein one of the characters didn’t swear at some point. Our lives have become much more fast-paced and frustrating, and a result of that frustration is that people swear more now than they did, say, back in the days of Booth Tarkington’s Magnificent Ambersons.

However (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?), there is a difference between the way people swear in real life and how they should swear in fiction.

I know a guy who would have a full one-third — if not half — his vocabulary hacked off at the knees if he were unable to say “f***”. My wife talks in her sleep; though she strives to be polite in her speech, her most common nocturnal utterances are some combination of “christ”, “sh**”, “f***”, and “what?” I’ve passed strangers’ conversations wherein I picked up at least nine different profanities before they were out of earshot.

I remember one instance, while reading Skipp & Spector’s The Light At The End, where in a single line of dialog, one character used eleven profanities — including all of the Biggies — in one sentence; it was rather impressive … but it was also way too much.

Yeah, I have no doubt that there are people out there in the real world who do speak like that, but if you overuse profanity in your dialog you rob it of its most important function.

Profanity, at its core, is best used as violence without action.

It should be employed in fiction to either foreshadow or replace violence. If you follow this suggested guideline, you’ll not only use less of it your writing, but what you do use will be so well-placed that it will have ten times the impact of an endless string of curses.

For example, in my novel In Silent Graves, there is a sequence in which the main character (who’s just lost his wife and newborn child) encounters two guys on a city bus who are swearing and cursing and spewing the most unbelievable filth (Andrew Dice Clay wouldn’t say some of the things these two guys do). Their language is upsetting a young woman who’s sitting near the main character, and as the intensity of the profanity and filth builds, so does the main character’s frustration and anger.

It’s the only time in the book that profanity of this level is used, and that was deliberate: it’s supposed to be as shocking to the reader as it is to the main character, because the increased intensity of the filth that comes out of their mouths foreshadows the violence that ends the scene.

Peter Straub’s Lost Boy, Lost Girl

Lost Boy, Lost Girl by Peter Straub
Hardcover: 304 pages
Random House (October 7, 2003)
ISBN: 1400060923

Lost Boy, Lost Girl features characters those who have read Peter Straub’s best-sellers Koko (1988), Mystery (1989), and The Throat (1993) will quickly recognize. In this book, horror novelist/Vietnam vet Timothy Underhill must travel home to Millhaven, IL and seek the aid of P.I. Tom Pasmore to solve the mystery of why Underhill’s nephew disappeared after witnessing his mother’s suicide.

While they track a pedophilic serial killer, they realize the lost boy had become obsessed with an abandoned house where he may have fallen under the spell of a ghostly girl.

This is without a doubt the best thing Straub’s written in a decade. I for one thinks it takes a lot of guts and integrity for a writer of his stature to go off in a new direction under the guidance of a new editor and–gulp!–actually grow before our very eyes.

My respect for Straub has tripled since reading this book, and I use every chance I can to tell any dark fantasy fans I meet that they must read Lost Boy, Lost Girl — I think it’s every bit as important a novel in the field now as Ghost Story was when it was released.

One of the goals Straub and his new editor had in mind with this novel is for Straub to reach a wider audience–which is why it’s so short. If you’ve had trouble with his stuff being far too dense in the past, then this is definitely the book for you. It’s the most accessible novel he’s ever written in the genre. It’s beautifully crafted, surprisingly moving, and creepy as hell. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter

The film The Sweet Hereafter is based on the novel of the same name written by Russell Banks. If you enjoyed the film, I encourage you to seek out the book, because it’s wonderful. If you want to be a writer, or if you simply enjoy a good story, the novel has a great deal to offer you.

The book’s central event is a school bus crash that kills many children in the small town of Sam Dent in upstate New York; the rest of the book explores the effect the tragedy has on the town and the novel’s central characters.

The Sweet Hereafter provides the best example I’ve ever encountered of an author alternating between several first person narrators. It’s told from four viewpoints: Dolores Driscoll, the bus driver; Billy Ansel, a grieving, alcoholic father of one of the dead children; Mitchell Stephens, a New York City lawyer who is trying to cope with grief over his own drug-addicted daughter; and Nichole Burnell, a teenager who was crippled in the accident.

Banks establishes such distinct cadences for each character that when all four of them are talking to one another, he goes sometimes for pages without a single “he said,” “she said.”

The book is 257 pages long and was first published in 1991, though parts of it appeared before that date in North American Review and Ontario Review.


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.