Monthly Archive: September 2008

An author’s view of the First Sale Doctrine

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Abuse of the first sale doctrine is fairly rampant in the small-press bookselling world. This is a real sore spot with me, and is going to take some explaining, so get comfortable.

You have possibly encountered on-line booksellers who offer copies of books (often books they did not themselves publish) for outlandish prices. I myself have seen copies of my Cemetery Dance collection Things Left Behind going for as much as $1,750.00 (which, by the way, is a good deal more than I received for writing it; not bitching about what Rich Chizmar paid me for it, not at all, but I would dearly love to have more than one copy of my first book but that ain’t gonna happen because I can’t afford the prices many places are charging for it). The sold-out release of Borderlands 5 turned up at several on-line auctions within days of its publication with bids starting — starting — at between $200.00 and $500.00.

There are some who mistakenly think this sort of thing is illegal; it isn’t. It is allowed under what’s know as the first sale doctrine.

According to Section 109 of the U.S. Copyright Act, whoever first purchases the physical copy of a copyrighted work (a book, a DVD, VHS tape, CD, etc.) has the right to do with that copy whatever they want, including transfer ownership of that physical copy in any manner they choose. They can give it away, sell it to some place like Half-Price Books, or offer it up for on-line auction. The doctrine deals with the physical object, not the intellectual or artistic expression contained within. For more info, read Lucy’s article “Why you can rent a novel but not a music CD“.

Here’s what pisses me off about this: there are some booksellers and individuals who will purchase and hoard multiple copies of a book with no concern for the work, the author, or the work’s fans — they couldn’t give less of shit about the quality of the stories or the novel. What they’re concerned with is obtaining as many physical copies as possible because (as was the case with Borderlands 5) a particular book might sell out very quickly, and they, in turn, can sell their copies at a price that is sometimes as much as 700% higher than what they paid for it originally.

When confronted with their unapologetic avarice (and avarice it is, make no mistake about that), they will inevitably defend their actions by claiming that they’ve every right to turn a profit on their investment…and then probably have the nerve to bitch about having to pay four bucks a gallon for gas because OPEC are a bunch of greedy bastards. What’s wrong with this picture?

Understand something: I am not condemning specialty-press publishers like, say, Donald Grant, who produce exquisite (and justifiably expensive) limited editions of books geared toward book collectors — those rare birds who have a deep and abiding respect both for the physical object and the work contained within and who, it should go without saying, can afford these editions. Nor am I condemning any specialty-press publisher who at a later date offers up copies of a book they’ve previously published at a higher price: after all, it’s their product, and if they can find a buyer for their product, more power to ’em.

I am also not condemning those who offer up for auction or re-sale books with the intent of using the money to assist others who are struggling with financial hardship or to fund charity drives.

My problem lies with those who buy books solely for the purpose of re-selling them at obscenely inflated prices so as to fatten their personal pockets just because they can.

No, it isn’t illegal, but in my book it is (and always will be) reprehensible and immoral. Which is why I do not buy books from sellers who engage in this practice, be they on-line or in the dealers’ room at a con. As far as I’m concerned, it’s price gouging if I see a book selling at more than twice its original asking price. I’m not completely unreasonable about this; I realize that booksellers have to make a certain amount of profit to stay in business and cover basic operating costs, so doubling the price of a sold-out or out-of-print book strikes me as equitable and fair, but beyond that — I walk away.

And God help ’em if they have the nerve to ask me to sign any books for them so they can jack up the price even more.

On horror, mystery, fantasy, and science fiction “experts”

by Gary A. Braunbeck

My pet peeve for the day is people who claim to be an “expert” on horror, or science fiction, or mysteries, or any other literary genre because they’ve read absolutely everything by just a single famous author in that genre … and smugly refuse to read anything else.

Odds are, you’ve met someone who’s this type of “expert”. You’ve probably had to endure their homilizing endlessly about their extensive knowledge of the field based on having read only Stephen King or Clive Barker or Robert Heinlein or Robert Jordan or Agatha Christie or Or OR … (not slamming these writers, get it? Got it? Good.)

And you have undoubtedly heard these “experts” dismiss out of hand any writer who isn’t King or Rice or Barker or Or OR… because these “experts” don’t want to expand their understanding and appreciation of the rich diversity of fiction offered elsewhere because to do so would be to admit (to themselves and others) that they don’t really have the slightest goddamn idea what they’re talking about.

For someone to claim they’re an “expert” on horror or fantasy or mysteries or science fiction based solely on having read everything written by a single author is tantamount to my claiming to be an “expert” on automobile mechanics because I’ve read the owner’s manual that’s stuffed in the glove compartment of my wife’s Toyota.

Try this little experiment: the next time you find yourself confronted by one of these “experts”, politely interrupt them and ask them how they feel about, say, the influence M.R. James’ or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work might have had on King or Rice or Barker or Or OR … and see how quickly that stops their lecture mid-sentence.

And if they can’t answer because it’s obvious they’ve never read (or, in most cases, even heard of) James or Hawthorne or Matheson or Blackwood Or Or OR… tell them to shut the fuck up, then go have an intelligent conversation with someone who has the brains to admit they don’t know everything.

In the meantime: read, people. Read lots. And for God’s sake, read outside your genre.

Movie Review: The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

This is a low-budget, sleazy, but high-spirited dirty movie from 1980 that has aged less well than many of the B-grade actors who starred in it. Adam West (Batman from the old TV series) is the most recognizable star, appearing as Lionel Lamely. The movie is supposed to show how the first “Happy Hooker” movie got made in Hollywood and is mainly a string of party sequences.

While it’s pretty awful to the modern moviegoing eye, it does have a few amusing bits.

My favorite moment happens when Richard Deacon (you might remember him better as Mel, the befuddled producer on The Dick Van Dyke Show) in the role of a shifty Hollywood producer, is negotiating with a certain female author for the rights to film her book; the author tells him that she wants to make sure the essence of her book is captured by the filmmakers, and to this Deacon replies:

“Books, schmooks! Who do you know who reads books? Books are made for coffee tables or for something to look at while you’re sitting on the toilet…but movies! Movies are for people with vision!”

I found it funny the first time I heard it, and I find it sharply perceptive now, something you’d never expect from a nervous-Nelly soft-core porno movie.

Movie Info

Rating: R
Alternate Title: Hollywood Blue
Running Time: 88 minutes
Director: Alan Roberts
Writer: Devin Goldberg
Cast:

Martine Beswick: Xaviera Hollander
Chris Lemmon: Robby Rottman
Adam West: Lionel Lamely
Richard Deacon: Joseph
Phil Silvers: Warkoff
Charles Green: Lawyer George
Lisa London: Laurie

Dumb things people say to horror writers at SF conventions

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I’ve been to a lot of science fiction conventions, and while there are always perfectly intelligent, pleasant, courteous, well-read people at such gatherings, you inevitably run into those skiffy fans who are missing a lot in the way of clue.

Here’s a list of things these folks have actually said to me at conventions, plus the responses I sometimes wished I’d given:

  1. Q: “You’re a horror writer?” *smirks* “So tell me a scary story.”
    A: There once was a writer who killed several innocent people in a hotel lobby because one person too many asked him to tell them something scary and he just snapped….
  2. Q: “What’s your name again? Hmm … never heard of you.”
    A: And what do you do for a living? … Really? You actually made a conscious decision to make that your life’s work? For the love of God, man, WHY?
  3. Q: “So you, like, write that Friday the 13th stuff, huh?”
    A: So you, like, have a reasonable dental deductible, right?
  4. Q: “Do you know Stephen King? What’s he really like?”
    A: So you, like, have a reasonable dental deductible, right?
  5. Q: “You write horror? Ew!”
    A: Phuck-u barada nikto.
  6. Q: “I can’t write, but I’ve got a great idea for a book; you can write it and we’ll split the money, okay?”
    A: Oh, MAY I? How long have I dreamed of this moment, when a selfless soul such as yourself would deem me worthy to WRITE SOMETHING FOR THEM while they sit on their ass and do nothing? How long have I prayed for yet ANOTHER person who isn’t me to make money off my efforts while I work 3 jobs, turn insomnia into an art form, and eat macaroni & cheese four times a week? BLESS YOU, SELFLESS ONE! BLESS YOU!
  7. Q: “Why are you openly weeping?”
    (Usually asked after forty-seven minutes of sitting at an autograph table where the only person to approach you is an overweight drunk from the NASCAR convention sharing the hotel that weekend asking for directions to the “sh*thouse”.)
    A: I want my mommy; my mommy reads all my books.
  8. Q: “Oh, I don’t read books.”
    A: Then WHAT are you doing here? Oh, you’re a hooker? Here’s a fifty — there’s a guy over at the autograph table who’s openly weeping; go cheer him up, would you?

Movie Review: Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Early on in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, one secondary character remarks: “Be content with your lot in life, no matter how poor it may be. Only then can you expect mercy.”

No other American director has understood or been able to capture the Mexican “culture of poverty” as unflinchingly as Peckinpah. Though Garcia may not be Peckinpah’s best film (it continues to appear on several “All Time Worst” lists), it is without a doubt his most personal. From its lovely opening image (a young pregnant Mexican woman resting by a river, sunning herself) to its harrowing closing shot (a smoking Gatling gun), Garcia is unique, for no other film of Peckinpah’s has so seamlessly managed to contain every element this often-brilliant director was obsessed with exploring: love, betrayal, desperation, tenderness in the face of brutality, loneliness, helplessness, anger, the struggle of integrity vs. conformity, friendship, and, of course, the futility of violence.

Peckinpah was accused throughout his career of glorifying violence, but he insisted he was doing the direct opposite: showing how repulsive it was by dwelling on it so much — and on no film was he more accused of glorifying the violence he claimed to disdain than in Garcia.

The basic story goes like this: The beautiful daughter of a wealthy and powerful Mexican land baron is seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by one Alfredo Garcia, a shameless gambler/drunkard/womanizer. The land baron, El Jefe, assembles his soldiers and declares his outrage at the loss of his daughter’s (and subsequently the lessening of his own) honor, and shouts: “Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!” And like the Knights of the Round Table questing for the Holy Grail, El Jefe’s army is off and running.

Into this scenario enters an American expatriate named Bennie (Warren Oates) who is biding his time playing piano in a sleazy Mexico City bar. He is approached by two gangsters he often works for as a bagman (Robert Webber and Gig Young) who have been authorized to offer him a substantial piece of change if he’ll hunt down and decapitate Alfredo Garcia. Bennie, despite many indecent instincts he’s been trying to kill, accepts the offer, telling them he can use the money to take himself and his girlfriend, Elita (Isela Vega, who remains the strongest female character to appear in a Peckinpah movie) somewhere far away and begin a new life.

Along the twisted way, Bennie proposes to Elita in what is arguably the most heartfelt and sadly moving scene Peckinpah ever filmed. The two run into and overcome several obstacles in their way (yes, I’m being deliberately vague here) before they find themselves at a rotting, neglected graveyard where the careless Garcia, shot by a gambling partner, is now buried.

The first half of this film has the loose narrative structure of an obscure European import; in fact, in places, it gets downright eccentric — but I still say this film was condemned only because it came from Peckinpah; had it come from a director from New Zealand or France, critics would have drowned it in praise.

“Why does he think of this as a horror movie?” I hear you ask.

Because from the moment Bennie and Elita enter that wretched graveyard in the middle of the night, Garcia employs not only the classic visual elements of old horror movies (circling bats, wolves howling in the distance, misshapen shadows skulking in the background) but its heart and soul surrender to the horrific as well. The shadow-drenched grave robbing sequence is truly nightmarish, and from that scene on, the film begins a fast descent through all nine circles of Dante’s Hell as Bennie makes his way across country with Garcia’s decomposing head inside a wet burlap bag that is perpetually swarming with flies.

“Just you and me, Al, baby!” says Bennie, who spends the second half of the film slowly going insane. Warren Oates (who was infuriatingly underrated for most of his career) gives a fabulous performance as Bennie, making the man at once repulsive, sympathetic, heroic, romantic, and tragic. His fascinating and complex characterization was easily the best American film performance of 1974, yet was ignored by virtually everyone when it came time to hand out those overrated golden statuettes.

Bennie’s “relationship” with Garcia’s head gets so creepy by the film’s end that I refuse to spoil it for you by going into any more details; suffice it to say that Bennie not only talks to Al, but often stops in the middle of a sentence to listen as Al gives him advice. (And that’s not even the weird part.)

I am convinced that John McNaughton drew some of his visual and thematic inspiration for Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer from the second half of Garcia. Watch both films back-to-back and you might think you’ve just watched then first two movies in an uncompleted trilogy.

Movie Information

Rating: R
Release Year: 1974
Running Time: 112 minutes
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writers: Gordon T. Dawson, Frank Kowalski, Sam Peckinpah
Main Cast:

Warren Oates: Bennie
Isela Vega: Elita
Robert Webber: Sappensly
Gig Young: Quill
Helmut Dantine: Max
Emilio Fernandez: El Jefe
Kris Kristofferson: Paco

Writing horror: the devil’s in the details

by Gary A. Braunbeck

A writer friend of mine was busy making final revisions on a story he was planning to submit to an anthology. He asked me if I wold look at his story and offer suggestions and opinions. I read the story over, and while a full 75% of it was rock-solid, the final sequence seemed to me to fall victim to over-ripe melodrama.

Now, instead of just saying outright that the finale was over-baked (and a bit nonsensical), I instead pointed out to him what I saw as the place where the story wandered off the highway. It had to do specifically with the nature of a central character’s physical and spiritual metamorphosis mid-way through on which the rest of the story’s events were hinged. The precise nature of this metamorphosis, and what the character intended to accomplish with it, were unclear and — I felt — because of their nebulousness, robbed the story of any impact; instead, they had chosen to finish things off with a (figurative) loud and histrionic display of horrific fireworks.

I began asking him specific questions about the precise nature of this character’s physical and spiritual metamorphosis: what exact physical change was taking place, how it affected the character’s ultimate goal, and what that ultimate goal was supposed to be.

“What exactly is the nature of this change?” I asked.

“It’s a supernatural transformation,” was his reply.

“But a supernatural transformation into what, exactly?”

“I don’t know…it’s just a supernatural transformation,” he again said.

“That’s not good enough,” I replied. “In order for you to get from the mid-point of the story to a more logical, chilling, and less cartoonish ending, you have to know exactly the nature of this transformation, how it affects the character’s psychological and spiritual make-up, and what the character’s ultimate goal is once this transformation has been completed.”

Now, I thought this was a fairly clear, concise, and thoughtful piece of criticism. My writer friend, after throwing up his hands and sighing loudly in frustration, looked me right in the eyes and said: “Dude, it’s just horror! It’s not like science fiction where these kinds of specific details matter!”

No, I did not kill him, but I did make it clear that they had not only just insulted and trivialized the horror genre, but also (intentionally or not) my life’s work.

I don’t know anyone who would enjoy hearing their life’s work reduced to a triviality, do you?

Now, in my writer friend’s defense, he was dealing with a story that had been giving them problems for a while; so much so that it had been put away and only recently approached again.

I would also add that this writer has not written or read as much horror as he have science fiction and fantasy.

I would also add that he had been having a really, really bad couple of weeks personally, and as a result felt like I was attacking them.

That said (and, yes, he apologized later when he realized the remark — however off-hand — had offended me), his comment encapsulated for me, with disturbingly and depressingly crystal clarity, why it is that a lot of horror stories and novels being published are of an at-best journeyman quality.

It’s because too many writers think, Dude, it’s just horror! Too many writers think that it’s okay to just say “…it’s a supernatural transformation”, and leave it at that, because once you’ve let the demon out, you don’t really need to think about the Hows and Whys and How-Comes; once the Boogeyman is boogying, the details don’t matter, just so long as it’s exciting or suspenseful or horrific.

Wrong.

It is exactly when the Glop is slurping victims left and right that you most need to think about the details. Every story — no matter how believable or outrageous its premise — must follow its own internal logic; it must establish the rules for its own microcosmic universe and then adhere to those rules. Fairly basic stuff, unless you think it isn’t necessary to bother establishing those rules in the first place.

Let me give you an example: the first Jeepers Creepers movie. Throughout the story, all we know about the Creeper is: he’s a demon (and even that much is left for us to infer, rather than directly established). Nowhere in the first film does the writer bother establishing the Creeper’s precise nature; we don’t know where it came from, what it wants, why it wants it, or what, exactly, the Creeper plans to accomplish through its actions. As a result of the Creeper’s nature and powers never being established, the story leaves it wide open for it to behave however it needs to in order to keep the story suspsenseful.

That’s not necessarily a good thing; yes, because neither the audience nor the characters in the film know the Creeper’s precise nature, it is impossible to predict what it will do next, and by default that should have generated more suspense…but it doesn’t quite work. It’s the very unpredictability of the Creeper’s actions that works against the second half of the film, preventing it from reaching the dizzying levels of suspense that mark the first forty minutes; if we, the audience, had been given some vague idea of the Creeper’s nature, had we been given just a few rules, had just a few details been established, then we wouldn’t have felt so much that the writer was simply pulling things out of his ying-yang in order to make the next scene SPOOOOOOOKY.

It’s sloppy storytelling, pure and simple.

Conversely, the reason Jeepers Creepers 2 was a much better-written movie was because the writer took the time to painstakingly establish the background elements lacking in the first film; because we did know the Creeper’s nature, what it wanted, why, and — an old trick that always works — that it was functioning under a time limit, the second film generated and maintained a high level of suspense that was both intense and followed the internal logic set down by the ground rules. No, it ain’t Lawrence of Arabia, but on terms of storytelling, it’s light-years ahead of the first movie.

If you think I’m making a tempest in a teapot here, consider this: Stephen King went back and revised the first four Dark Tower books so that they better followed the internal logic and ground rules that emerged as he wrote the last three novels in the series; he did this because the details are important; he did this because, as a writer, he was not content to simply let gaffes in continuity remain uncorrected.

He did this because he takes his work very seriously, and part of taking it seriously means that you think about the details, you follow your own ground rules, and you (as the late Theodore Sturgeon so eloquently phrased it) ask the next questions: What is the true nature of the beast? Why does this happen? What does he or she want? What brought them here? Etc.

No, you don’t have to offer these answers outright during the course of the story, but you, as the writer, have to know these answers yourself, for if you start your novel, novella, or short story with all the answers already in mind, you’d be surprised at how quickly and clearly your story will follow a logical course of events wherein these answers are shown to the reader through the actions of the characters or the progression of events.

The details are important, folks. They are vital. They are not to be dismissed off-handedly, because it ain’t just horror: it’s a question of careful storytelling, because it’s only through genuine craftsmanship that we can offer readers a much richer and rewarding reading experience than just tossing the details out the window and just being SPOOOOOOOKY.

Book Review: Ghosts of Yesterday by Jack Cady

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

Ghosts of Yesterday by Jack Cady
Night Shade Books, 2003
ISBN: 1892389487
hardcover

Ghosts of Yesterday coverEarly in 2003, Night Shade Books released a stellar collection of 12 short stories and essays from the superb (and now deceased, sadly) Jack Cady that any serious readers of fantasy or horror should have on their shelves.

Ghosts of Yesterday is the best single-author collection I’ve read in five years. It’s composed of 30,000 words of entirely new fiction, plus pieces that hadn’t been in collections before.

Ghosts contains one of the best short stories I’ve ever read in any genre, “The Lady With The Blind Dog.” The story — like the collection itself — is by turns thoughtful, sad, frightening, tragic, and, in the end, majestically chilling. You’d also do well to pay close attention to the essay “On Writing The Ghost Story” and the novella “The Time That Time Forgot.”

Cady knows how to do it right, and makes the work produced by most of us look like high-school level attempts at Lit-rah-chure. Get it and read it. Do it now. The man’s memory deserves nothing less from us.