Yearly Archive: 2008

Book Trailer for Coffin County

Here’s the book trailer for Gary Braunbeck’s new novel Coffin County. The book is a continuation of the Cedar Hill Cycle that was begun with In Silent Graves, Keepers, Mr. Hands, and the stories that have appeared in his story collections Graveyard People and Home Before Dark.

Recent reviews for the novel have been pretty good:

“(Braunbeck) tackles difficult plotting, and writes beautiful, poetic passages. He is also adept at characterization; creating a comprehension of those who may not possess redeeming qualities, and reaffirming, through deft description, the likeability of others. Coffin County has many likeable characters, and many of them die. This is brave of Braunbeck; in the novel, nothing is predictable, anything is possible: Rather like chaos theory.”

“…Gary A. Braunbeck has stepped quite comfortably into the very large shadows left behind by Richard Matheson and Stephen King… COFFIN COUNTY is an intelligent, cogent, powerfully written novel of supernatural horror supported by a solid and thrilling police procedural foundation. I know you will enjoy this truly horrific slice of the dark stuff from a writer whose talents have wowed me for years.”
The Tomb of Dark Delights

“Braunbeck delivers an intensely creepy and truly original tale that’s guaranteed to give you chills late at night.”

“Speaking of characters, more articulate reviewers than this one have noted that Braunbeck creates the most human cast in dark fantasy. These are people you might run into at the corner store or at a neighborhood cookout. Even the unsavory people are drawn with a depth that is so defined it qualifies as High Definition Horror. Pick up Coffin County and lose yourself in Cedar Hill, a town so creepy it makes King’s Castle Rock look like Disney World.”

On Book Advances

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Many dim moons ago, when Reagan had just taken possession of the White House and I’d taken possession of my 20s, I decided on fiction writing as a career, unaware at the time that my decision was due to undiagnosed brain damage, the extent of which is still being determined. I was cranking out bad short stories and even worse novels on a magnificent (and if used as a weapon, potentially deadly) Olympus manual typewriter. Its loud, metallic clickitty-clack-clack became the underscore of my Grand Opera of the Imagination, a march, a rally cry, a battle hymn, always singing out You can do it! You can do it!

Yes, we all recognize the above as being Inspirational Bullshit Designed to Make You Urp on Your Shoes. The truth is, that sound used to drive me crazy, because eventually it began to sound like the Failure Police were mocking me as they danced and sang before my eyes in a Kick-Line of Coming Calamity: You’re going nowhere/You’re doing nothing/No one will read you/You’ll die unread. Boogie-oogie-oogie. Sisyphus had nothing on me.

One of the things that used to keep me going was the thought that, if I kept at it and listened to the advice of pro writers whenever I could corner them, I would start to publish, then be paid, then be able to support myself on writing alone. Well, I did keep at it, I did listen to advice from the pros (especially a marvelously encouraging letter from Harlan Ellison to the 19-year-old moi), and I began to publish. My first short story appeared in a small press magazine when I was 22, and now–almost exactly 25 years later–I have somewhere around 200 published stories to my credit, as well as 10 novels, 10 short story collections, 1 non-fiction book, and 2 anthologies that I have co-edited. And there are nights when that chorus line from the Ninth Circle of Hell still puts on its little show, with a Sunday matinee thrown in for good measure. And I wonder why I’m on anti-depressants.

One thing that often appears to beginning writers much as the vision of the Holy Grail appeared to King Arthur is the concept of the Advance. Ah, so elusive she seems, waiting somewhere Out There in your future, wagging her finger seductively, lips moistened and eyes gleaming with yummy promise: I’m here for you, you’ll see. Some day, we’ll be together.

Cue soft focus, Writer embraces Seductress, Fade Out as echoing voices sing: You finally got here/Don’t need to punch the clock/But you remember/There’s still Writer’s Block!

Ahem. Yes, the last and deadliest phase of going from part-time to full-time writer, from would-be pro to flat-out slave of the muse: the advance.

As I write this, I have a stack of book contracts within easy reach. All have been signed by the proper parties, and all have been accompanied by advance checks. There’s just one little glitch in this portrait of the Writer’s dream Come True.

I haven’t written any of these books yet.

(Not entirely true; work has begun on all and is nearly finished on two; the point is, I’ve got until October to deliver all five. Boogie-oogie-oogie, cue the kick-line in the wings.)

That’s the part of the Pro Writer Fantasy sequence that never enters the picture when the young You imagines that provocative seductress beckoning to you from your future. Yes, it’s great to have someone hand you a stack of cash for something you haven’t written yet (it’s still one hell of a confidence booster), and when you’re younger it’s easy to think you’ll never, ever, under any circumstances, have trouble producing that book you’ve already taken money for, but somewhere in the theatrical wings of your subconscious Jung and Freud are rolling on the floor, howling with laughter as the Failure Police don their black fishnet stockings ala Dr. Frankenfurter and wait for their cue.

I once promised myself that I would never, ever accept money up front for something I haven’t written. As far as my books go, I’ve broken that promise every time, and so far I haven’t locked up, freaked out, melted down, climbed a tower with a rifle in my hands, or taken to reading John Grisham.

But ….

But there’s always the waiting chorus line in my head, kept in place by a stage manager who every so often calls: “Places for the Dance of Doom and Despair! Places, please, he’s gonna crack this time, I just know it!”

Taking advances up front for something not yet written is a sure-fire way to keep you on edge, and adds (as I’ve found so far) a certain, feverish, almost desperate quality to the work itself, which gives definite intensity to the telling of the tale. I’ve had many people say one of the things they like best about my work is its strong emotional content. I appreciate that, because I do like to engage readers’ emotions as deeply as possible (there just isn’t story without feeling), but to be completely honest, sometimes that intensity comes not just from my imagination, but from the realization that Dear God, I’ve already taken money for this thing and I Have to finish it, I Have To, Dear God I HAVE TO! What if I can’t? What if I go blank, become blocked, flip out, have to take a one-way ride in the Twinkie Mobile to the House of Good Pudding? What Then? What? WHAT THE #@!* WAS I THINKING?

And one lithium later I remember the why I got into this in the first place.

To meet women.

As long as they’re not part of certain chorus….

The Literary Ghetto

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Recently, I saw a blurb for “The Wicker Man” written by a professional reviewer named Jeff Shannon:

Typically categorized as a horror film, The Wicker Man is actually a serious and literate thriller about modern paganism, written by Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) with a deft combination of cool subjectivity and escalating dread.

Shannon seems to think that horror by its definition cannot be “serious” or “literate”. Unfortunately, he has plenty of company. And I have seen countless instances of others — readers and reviewers alike — who dismiss science fiction, mysteries, and fantasy on the same grounds: that genre fiction is somehow not “real” literature.

And so writers and readers of genre fiction get shoved off into their own literary ghetto, where “discerning” readers of lit-rah-chure deign not tread.

Even within the various streets of the literary ghetto, residents dismiss their neighbors: science fiction writers dismiss horror as “trash”, and horror writers dismiss romance as “fluff”, and on and on without any of the self-styled lit snobs taking the time to actually become familiar with the work they scorn.

(I’m going to talk about horror fiction from here on out, because it’s near and dear to my heart.)

Unfortunately these attitudes are something that I see us being stuck with. Horror fiction–regardless of how well-crafted, well-written, thoughtful, literate, and serious-of-intent any number of individual works may be–will always, always be given at-best second-class citizenship treatment in the literary world, and I maintain that a lot of this (especially over the last 30 years) is due in part to horror movies–make that bad horror movies.

People assume that any work labelled “horror” will have something in common with the Freddy/Jason/Pinhead/Candyman/what-have-you ouvre; it’s got to have blood, guts, sex, death, torture, sadism, all the visceral elements that are right in your face and up your nose and down your throat.

While it may be true that even many of the more literate and serious works have a smattering of these elements, necessary for advancement of the story, it’s those very elements that people tend to focus on and assume that they and they alone constitute horror.

Two quick examples: If I say to you, “Deliverance”, 9 out of 10 people will immediately respond with “Squeal like a pig!”

I want to hit these people.

Yes, that rape scene is brutal, but it is not gratuitous, and in the cases of both the film and the novel, if you look beyond the brutality itself to what the act says about the men committing it and those suffering it–not to mention the spiritual, psychological, and thematic ramifications of the act–it adds a depth, a seriousness, if you will, to what follows that otherwise would not be there. In fact, if you watch or read closely (not all that closely, now that I think of it), you’ll realize that the main characters would not have been able to survive what happens to them later had the attack not happened.

But most people will say, “Squeal like a pig!” and think they get it.

Same goes for the original The Exorcist; most people remember only the little girl’s cussing and spitting up pea soup. Forget that both the movie and novel have a core of emotional pain that has rarely been equaled, and that both ask very serious, very smart questions about the nature of human goodness and decency–nah; let’s talk about the vomit and a little girl saying “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!”

Yeah, that’s what it’s about. Right.

Paul Schrader’s version of The Exorcist: The Beginning, gets shelved because it was “…too cerebral and not nearly violent and bloody enough”, yet Freddy vs. Jason–an idiotic, sloppy, sadistic, hollow-cored piece of cinematic afterbirth that not only celebrated everything that is wrong with modern horror, but wallowed in it–was a box-office smash.

And the majority of people assume that horror fiction is exactly like horror movies. Or that it’s all a regurgitating of Stephen King–because, after all, nothing in the field was done before King did it, right? (Not a slam against King–I’m impatiently awaiting the seventh installment of The Dark Tower just like millions of other readers.)

It’s just that King–more than Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Anne Rice, any of the giants–has been the most visible and the most popular, so naturally he has amassed the largest and most fiercely loyal readership; unfortunately, a part of that readership is a bit tunnel-visioned: everything and everybody is just (in their eyes) copying the master (untrue) and riding on King’s coattails.

(Which, in an important way, we all are, like it or not; the man bulldozed and widened the road on which we’ve all traveled the past 30 years, so you know what? If part of the toll we have to pay for all he’s done for modern horror writers is answer questions like, “Oh, so you write stuff like Stephen King?”…ultimately, isn’t that a small price for still having the field of modern horror? I digress.)

Take another look at T.M. Wright’s Cold House; this was, is, and will always be a f*cking brilliant piece of work; it’s moody, eerie, thoughtful, scary, poignant, smart, and challenging–everything good, literate horror fiction should be. Do you honestly think this novel would gain the wider mass-market readership it deserves were it to be picked up by a bigger publishing house?

I don’t think so (though I would fervently hope for it).

Why? because it forces the reader to think along the way; it forces them to pay attention; it’s not the type of novel that presents everything in clear, graphic, spoon-fed terms so that readers aren’t challenged in the least and can easily lay it aside for a game of beach volleyball and be able to pick it right back up where they left off without blowing a single brain cell.

And I maintain that at least part of the reason for this is because people have become too spoiled by a steady diet of bad, stupid, by-the-numbers horror movies. The two things ain’t mutually exclusive; one of these things isn’t like the other.

What it comes down to is this:

  1. Horror will always be given at-best second-class citizenship in the literary world, and our only defense against this is to continually produce, read, support, and buy work that is of the highest caliber we are capable;
  2. Horror fiction will always be judged–at least, in large (if not total) part–by the quality or lack thereof of the majority of horror films, because it’s easier for people to judge a field on the basis of something they can watch than something that they have to take hours (if not days) out of their lives to read;
  3. Writers in the field are going to have to answer the “Stephen King”-type questions for at least another 20 years, so we’d save ourselves a lot of time, energy, and frustration if we quit complaining about it because–face it–most of us who’ve emerged in the field in the past 2 decades wouldn’t have careers if King hadn’t widened the road for us to follow;
  4. There are always going to be those who want to distance a work from horror by calling it something like “…a serious, literate thriller” or somesuch happy horseshit, because (and I speak from experience here) whenever you link “horror” with “serious” and “literate”, the two words that emerge most often in describing the works in question are “pretentious” and “depressing”.

I am not saying that I look down on writers and filmmakers whose work has a more visceral core; I think Jack Ketchum and Martin Scorsese would be a match made in heaven (“Closing Time”, anyone?); nor am I disdaining work that succeeds in giving you the out-and-out creeps (like the work of Hugh Cave, great stuff); I like to think I embrace all aspects of the horror field when they are done well. And if that makes me a snob or an elitist–demanding that work be done well–then guilty as charged.

So join me here among the rest of the second-class citizens in the literary cul-de-sac, won’t you?

Dave W. says A couple years ago I heard a literary critic describe Connie Willis as “sort of a science fiction writer” because she couldn’t imagine SF writers as being able to write. What would she do with Gene Wolfe?

Horror and Thriller Collection Short Reviews

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Here are some short reviews of collections I’ve enjoyed lately.

Four Octobers by Rick Hautala: The flap copy for this quartet of novellas from Hautala (who some of you may know as A.J. Matthews) would have you believe that the four tales are “…loosely connected…” Well, sure, if all you look at are the physical locales and the element of some characters making peripheral appearances from tale to tale, but look closer and you’ll see that more connects them than just people and places: there is a palpable sense of overwhelming loss that permeates every story, so that “loosely” thing? Not so much. This beautiful edition from CD Publications boasts a gorgeous cover and interior artwork from the redoubtable Glenn Chadbourne, and collects 2 of Hautala’s most accomplished novellas — “Miss Henry’s Bottles” (a personal favorite of mine) and “Cold River” — as well as 2 brand-new works, “Tin Can Telephone” (reminiscent — and deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as many works — of Ray Bradbury) and “Blood Ledge”. The result is one of the year’s finest single-author collections, and further proof that Hautala is much, much more than just “…that other author from Maine.”

Thundershowers at Dusk: Gothic Stories by Christopher Conlon: As with Eyes Everwhere, I have to confess to a certain bias; Chris asked me to read this collection in manuscript form with an eye toward providing a cover blurb. After I finished reading it, I told him, “No, I won’t do a blurb — I want to write the Introduction!” So I did. Conlon is best known as an award-winning poet and anthology editor (the most recent anthology being the excellent Poe’s Lighthouse from CD Publications), but he’s also a stellar writer of fiction — he just doesn’t write it all that often, which is a real loss for readers. Thundershowers at Dusk is a hands-down brilliant collection from first page to last, every story is a winner, and it contains one of the finest novellas I have ever read in any genre, period, “The Unfinished Music”. As rich and rewarding a collection as you’ll ever read. (And I will add here, for any publishers who happed to read this, that Conlon is now shopping around a stunning first novel entitled Midnight on Mourn Street that is going to bring a lot of sales and accolades to whichever publisher is smart enough to snatch it up.) I maintain that Conlon is a better writer now than I could ever hope to be, and Thundershowers at Dusk more than proves it. Hence my deep-rooted resentment of him.

American Morons by Glenn Hirshberg: Paul Miller’s Earthling Publications gets the Hat-Trick Award this year for having published 3 exceptional books in 2006, the first being this collection, Hirshberg’s follow-up to The Two Sams. While I greatly admired the first collection, American Morons surpasses it on several levels, mostly because Hirshberg’s writing has become even more focused and polished; he’s going to be a major force in the field in the next few years, and while his writing has more in common with that of Steven Millhauser than Stephen King, it is nonetheless some of the most nerve-wracking and unapologetically literary work being produced in the field. All of the stories are winners, but the book is worth its price for “Safety Clowns” and “Devil’s Smile”.

The Tenant by Roland Topor: A million thanks to Millipede Press for putting this short novel back into print, along with 4 rarely-seen short stories and Topor’s own artwork (which reminded me of the surreal work of Heinrich Kley). It’s an utterly gorgeous book, boasting an intelligent and articulate Introduction from Thomas Ligotti … but mostly, there is The Tenant, which remains today just as terrifying, eloquent, and compelling as it was when originally released in 1965. The 4 shorts accompanying it are equally impressive, resulting in a genuine must-have collection.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel: Hempel, in case you’ve not read her work, is one of the finest short story writers of the last 25 years, and this omnibus assembles all 4 of her collections, including the hard-to-find At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. With the exception of the jaw-dropping novella “Tumble Home”, most of her stories run less than 10 pages in length, and stand as a testament to what a skilled writer can do in a very limited amount of time. This collection contains one of my all-time favorite short stories, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”. If all so-called “literary” fiction were as exquisite as Hempel’s, the world would be a better place.

The Ocean and All Its Devices by William Browning Spencer: It’s been 10 years since Spencer’s last collection, The Return of Count Electric and Other Stories left readers screaming for more, and Spencer delivers in a big way with this follow-up. For my money, Spencer;s work — be it in short stories or novel form — has always read like a head-on collision between John Cheever and Donald Barthelme; which is to say, it’s rooted both in the humane and the surreal. The title story is both tragic and nightmarish, containing some of the most chilling imagery you’ll encounter. Spencer doesn’t write nearly enough, so grab this superb collection and keep it near to bide your time until he releases his next book.

Psycho and the power of good film editing

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I once had the pleasure of spending fifteen minutes at a bar with the late, great Robert Bloch talking about movies, fiction, and peoples’ misconceptions about what they both see and read.

Bloch told me — as he did many other fans over the decades — that he still had people come up to him and complain about how bloody and violent they found the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Bloch’s novel Psycho. (“Thank God I didn’t have her sitting on the toilet,” Bloch always said.)

People complained about Janet Leigh’s nudity and complained that seeing her naughty bits so offended their sensibilities; they complained about the excessive amounts of blood; and they complained, consistently, about the violence of seeing the knife plunge into Ms. Leigh’s body over and over.

Go back and watch Psycho and pay particular attention to the shower sequence. Hitchcock — aided greatly by the work of the brilliant film editor George Tomasini — pulled off a dark magic trick that to my mind has yet to be equaled in American film: they made you believe you were seeing things that weren’t actually depicted.

You do not see Janet Leigh’s naughty bits. You do not see blood splattering all over everything. And you most definitely do not ever, even once, see the knife plunge into Ms. Leigh’s body. But the sequence is so brilliantly filmed and edited that viewers were — and some still are — left with the impression that, dammit, they saw all of that.

More on why self-publishing is (probably) a bad idea

My husband was recently interviewed by a reporter from his hometown newspaper. He got a ton of website traffic from the feature they subsequently ran on him, and he was contacted by old friends he hadn’t heard from in 20 years, and that’s all good.

However, the staffer who interviewed him — a reporter who is not an intern, and who has written dozens of features for the paper — asked a truly jaw-dropping question: “So your books are self-published?”

This was the second question she gave him; she asked it in the same tone as the first, which was to ask if he was from Newark. In other words, it wasn’t really a question, but more a statement of perceived fact she was double-checking.

This question floored us because:

  1. It showed she hadn’t done basic preparation for the interview and taken two minutes to do a Google search and find out that he’s professionally published 20 books, etc.
  2. It showed she profoundly misunderstood the process of becoming a professional fiction writer.

Gary, being the nice guy he is, gently told her that pro fiction writers don’t self-publish and explained why. And he thought that would be the end of it, until he saw the feature in the paper and read this line:

“The author has never self-published because a lot of book stores will not carry self-published authors and it also can be expensive.”

The reporter was likely on a strict word limit, so her including that line struck us as strange and unnecessary. In subsequent discussion on Livejournal, our friend Mehitobel made a comment that I think nailed it on the head:

“See, that’s just a weird-ass line. I can see someone ignorant of publishing, or even so jaded with local author profiles that they expect a local author to have self-published, asking about it in an interview. But the line quoted above from the article suggests to me that the reporter may actually view self-published books as the norm, better, or more ambitious. It’s like she has it backwards.”

It’s possible the reporter had been listening starry-eyed to some life coach who told her he’d sold a ton of self-published books and that self-publishing is the right and proper thing for an entrepreneurial spirit to do. If you are a self-help guru, evangelist, TV star or some other celebrity, sure, you can self-publish a book as an adjunct to your public speaking engagements and do very well. And independent comics artists have long been admired for DIY books. But if you’re a non-celebrity trying to become a pro fiction writer, self-publishing is more likely to hurt than help.

I don’t consider self-publishing to be synonymous with vanity publishing. Vanity presses are scam artists preying on the hopes and dreams of the naive; however there are places like that are straightforward, useful print on demand services.

I don’t consider writers who choose to self-publish their work to be “cheating” or lacking in intelligence or moral fiber or anything like that. Want to make a book of love poems as a Christmas gift for your sweetie? Planning to put together a calendar or anthology to support a charity? Have you written an RPG rulebook or other game supplement you want to get into peoples’ hands? After you’ve done your homework, does or a competitor seem to be the most economical way to get your project into print? Go for it.

But if you’ve got a novel or even a short story collection and you aspire to a larger audience than your circle of friends, you really ought to reconsider.

I know several people who’ve self-published poetry and fiction books. They’re nice people. Most of them did it because they were frustrated by the long, tedious process of submitting their work to and being rejected by traditional publishers. I can certainly sympathize with their frustration.

But 99.99% of the time, if your goal is to establish yourself as a legitimate author and put yourself on a track to a career as a writer, self-publishing is going to be a costly mistake. The only time it’s not a mistake is if you’re an experienced publishing professional and you know you have the resources to produce, promote, and distribute a good book that can adequately compete with the 400 other books that are published every day.

But people who write pro-quality books almost never have to turn to self-publishing; they generally only do it if they have very specific, well-considered publishing plans in mind and want complete control of their projects. If a pro has a book that the big houses deem unmarketable, he or she can usually find a small press willing to get the manuscript into print.

The average advance for a novel is $5K or thereabouts. It might take you months or even years to finish your first book. It could also take you years to squirrel away that much money if you work an entry-level job. So let’s think of finishing a publishable novel as the equivalent of having slaved away to save up $5,000.

If you told me you were taking your $5,000 and going to Las Vegas, I’d probably ask if you were going to splurge on a fun vacation.

If you replied, “No, I need more money; my bank doesn’t pay enough interest, and the stock market’s too darned complicated. I’m gonna hit the casinos and turn this five grand into fifty grand!”, I’d think it was a phenomenally bad idea and try to talk you out of it. Yes, you could get lucky at the slot machines and come home with a fat roll of cash, but the odds are you’d come home hung over and broke.

If on the other hand I knew you were a statistics prodigy with an eidetic memory who’d been consistently winning regional poker games, I’d think you had a real chance. If you then told me how you were sure you could keep the casinos from figuring out you could count cards, but knew you might be wrong and detailed a plan to escape quickly and safely with your winnings, I’d think it was a daring scheme and congratulate you.

The notion of being a rebel writer self-publishing your way to grand authorial success is as bright and shiny as Vegas. But unless you’re very talented or very lucky, it’s just not going to pay off in a career.

I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir here. But based on the reporter’s questions, some people might need to read this.