Author Archive: Gary Braunbeck

Mass Murder

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Former FBI agent Robert Ressler — he’s the man who gave us the term “serial killer” — defines “classic” mass murder as involving one mentally-disordered killer in one location who kills 4 or more other people more or less at the same time.

These days, mass murders are taking place more and more in public places like schools and businesses, but it used to be more common for mass murder to be a more private event.

I worked with a janitorial company for several years in the late 70s and early 80s, and one night I was awakened at 2 a.m. by a call from my boss asking me if I would volunteer to join a skeleton crew for an emergency job. The night would pay $300.00 for each crew member. At first, still groggy, I couldn’t understand why anyone would turn down 300 bucks for four or five hours of work; then he told me why he had to call and ask for volunteers.

Three days before, a local man had snapped, killing his family and then himself. The family was a somewhat prominent one in town, and the surviving relatives wanted the house cleaned as thoroughly and as quickly as possible. Two of the family members this man had killed (with a shotgun) had been children.

I wound up cleaning the childrens’ room.

You cannot help but feel the sick-making silence and overwhelming loss of life when you perform a duty like this. Three times I had to stop work to go outside to either cry or vomit. But I got that room cleaned; I wiped away every trace of those childrens’ existence. There was a lot of blood, as well as other liquids, all of them dried. There was also, in places, bits of flesh and bone mixed in with that blood.

When it was all over, we collected our pay and went back to our homes. I fell asleep somewhere around nine a.m. and didn’t wake up until well after four. I had thrown my clothes from that night into the corner, along with the work boots I’d been wearing. As I was gathering everything up for washing, I for some reason checked the bottoms of my boots, and found a very small but — thanks to the mopping I’d done — still very wet piece of human tissue wedged into the heavy treads.

I got sick all over again. This was all that remained of one of those children. But which one? And from what part of them had this been blasted? Had they died immediately or had they suffered? All this came to me in a rush and I just imploded.

Statistics and definitions don’t give you any inkling of the enormity of the pain and loss a mass murder brings, nor of the nightmares the people left behind to pick up the pieces will have to endure.

Nunzilla’s School of Reading Comprehension

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I read very slowly.

When I was in the second grade at St. Francis de Sales School in Newark, Ohio, our English teacher, Sister Mary Elizabeth, required that we read aloud on Mondays and Fridays. Coming from a hard-core blue-collar background, reading was not something that was encouraged in the Braunbeck household. Not that my parents discouraged it, but because both of them worked long hours at hellish factory jobs, they were either too tired or too busy with things like bills and home repairs to find time to read much. Neither of them completed high school, and neither of them ran in social circles where “intellectual” pursuits such as reading were the norm.

No, I’m not blaming them, far from it; Mom would always buy me a book if I found one I wanted, and Dad was more than happy to read to or with me. (Aside: Mom was a big Mickey Spillane fan, and read his books whenever she could, but the only two books I ever saw her re-read were Blatty’s The Exorcist and F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep, which she thought was “… one of the best books I’ve ever read. I hope he writes another one.”)

Okay, so I’m sitting there in English class one Friday, and we’re taking turns reading paragraphs from some book — I wish to hell I could remember its name — about this kid named Johnny who works odd jobs so he can earn money to go to the movies because he likes to imagine that he’s the cowboy hero or brave fighter pilot or smart detective.

Gets to be my turn, and I’m reading along — slower than the other kids, but smoothly, nonetheless — when I encounter a word I’d often heard but had never actually seen in print before: “aisle.”

I stopped, stared at the word, and tried to figure out how to pronounce it.

Sister Mary Elizabeth made quite a show out of my inability to read this word aloud, so finally, embarrassed beyond belief, I gave it a try.

What I said was something akin to “i-sell.”

Everyone laughed. Sister Mary Elizabeth told me to try it again.

I-sell. Again.

I couldn’t figure out any other way to pronounce it.

Sister then pulled several other books from the shelf and opened them to selected pages, thrust them under my nose, and ordered me to read about twenty-five different words at her random choosing, all of which I’d heard, none of which I had ever seen in print before, among them “redundant”, “envelope”, “digestion”, “automatic”, and — my personal favorite to this day — “repetitive”.

I missed every last one of them.

And everyone got a dandy guffaw out of that.

Most of the kids who attended St. Francis came from fairly well-to-do families, families who financially contributed heavily to both the church and school, who held positions on the school board or church board, and who got to wear dresses and ties to their jobs and sit behind desks.

I was one of a small handful of kids who came from, well … not-so well-to-do families, and there was a marked difference in the way we were treated, both by our fellow students and the teachers. If one of the rich students was having difficulties, well, then, hire a tutor, arrange for special sessions with teachers after school, cut them as much slack as possible.

But if one of the poorer students was having trouble … tough shit. Their families were barely making the quarterly tuition payments, so it wasn’t worth anyone’s time to give them any extra help.

Three days a week, I was provided with a free lunch because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for an entire week’s worth. Somehow, Sister Mary Elizabeth managed to work that into her scolding of me in front of the class that day, as well as several observations about the limited selection options available to me for my wardrobe.

“Go sit out in the hall, you’re holding everyone else back, you dumb-bunny.”

Dumb-bunny. Never forgot that one.

So I went out into the hall and sat there.

Which is how I came to find myself transferred to the “special” English class the following Monday.

Here is what the “special” English class consisted of:

Some assistant coach (or Darrell Sheets, the marvelous, kind man who was the school’s janitor) sat at a table in the cafeteria while the rest — there were five of us — were seated at another table. On this table was a stack of childrens’ books. Twenty of them, in fact. I remember this because these books never changed. Ever.

These were books written for children at the pre-school/kindergarten level.

This is Dick. This is his sister, Jane. Dick and Jane are playing with their Dog, Spot. “Run, Spot, run!” See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.

Goddamn page-turners were these books.

From Grade 2 until Grade 5 that is how I spent my English classes; down in the cafeteria, sitting at a table with four other “special” students, reading the same twenty books over and over. (We were not allowed to bring our own books, we had to read only those that were deemed to be “within” our “ranges of comprehension.” At least at the beginning of every year they gave us twenty different books than the year before. Our big exam was to read two of them aloud at the end of the year.)

As a result of this, and the lack of reading time/assistance at home, I read at a first-grade level until the sixth grade. Even then, I was way behind the other kids. (The “special” program had been 86’d at the end of my fifth grade year because they could no longer find assistant coaches or assistant janitors who were willing to baby-sit us.)

I somehow managed to bluff my way through sixth grade English — I squeaked by with a “C” — but even that summer, I found that I was still having trouble reading books that, by all accounts, I should have been able to breeze through four years ago.

I was given a reading comprehension test at the start of my seventh grade year.

I was reading at a third-grade level … and just barely at that.

But I got lucky. My English teacher that year was a terrific guy named David Kessler who had been made aware of my “learning disability” and who, even though he wasn’t allowed to give me any extra help either in or outside of class, did provide me with books designed to help me read better. I guarded these books as if they were my life savings. Whenever either of them could, Mom and Dad helped me, or one of the neighbors if I offered to cut their grass. But mostly I had to do it on my own.

By the time I left the Catholic School system at the end of my eighth grade year, I was reading at the fifth-grade level.

For me, it was a personal triumph.

I haven’t bothered getting myself tested in decades, because whatever level I’m reading at right now is the level I will read at until I take the Dirt Nap.

But there remain times ….

There were several sections in Dan Simmons’s brilliant The Hollow Man that I had to re-read more than once before fully understanding what I was reading. As much as I admire and enjoy the work of Joe Haldeman, Harlan Ellison, and Gene Wolfe, there are times while reading them that I feel genuinely stupid, as if I’m standing there in front of Sister and the class trying to decipher “aisle” once again.

It took me three days to read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a short novel that many people read in three hours.

To this day, I remain angry about that.

To this day, I still have trouble reading at times, and always will, and that has caused some measure of enjoyment to be subtracted from my life, and that saddens me whenever I think about it for too long, because the ability to read is one of the most precious gifts we possess.

Life is material; you just have to live long enough to figure out how to use it

by Gary A. Braunbeck

There’s a great line from William Goldman’s novel The Color of Light: “Life is material; you just have to live long enough to figure out how to use it.”

William Faulkner maintained that any child who managed to live past the age of seven had enough material to write books and stories for the rest of his or her life and never see the well run dry; Flannery O’Connor said much the same thing.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if you encounter any authors who insists that their work isn’t in some form autobiographical, they’re lying through their teeth.

It’s not only outward, chronological events that shape our psyches and determine who we become, but our own internal worlds; imagination, impressions, prejudices, fantasies, regrets, passions, likes and dislikes, all of it is eventually filtered through the writer’s sensibilities to make an appearance in their work.

Sometimes a writer has to wait until he or she has gotten enough distance, both emotionally and chronologically, to turn a fiction writer’s objective eye on an event. You can’t use an actual occurrence from your own life and then defend it to people by saying, “But that’s how it really happened.” Fiction cares nothing for how an event ‘really’ happened, only how said event or events fit into the natural progression of the story you’re telling.

You have to learn to put your ego aside when you write a story or novel, even if you’re using something from your life as fictional fodder; you have to care enough to be quiet. Let the story be your guide, not your desire to inflict yourself and your views on the reader.

On writing about child abuse

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Everything is bigger to a child; not only physically, but perceptually and emotionally, as well. A dollar found becomes a discovered treasure. A harsh word becomes a deafening declaration of war. A heap of dirty clothes in the corner becomes a nasty, fanged monster after the lights are out. A paper cut is a knife in the stomach. And a hug from a parent in times of fear becomes Perseus’s shield, protecting them from Medusa’s deadly power. Everything is amplified in ways adults find hard to remember.

So can you begin to imagine, just for a moment, the terror, the pain, the agony and confusion experienced by a child whose every waking moment is marked by fear and nothing but?

Childhood is over too soon under the best of circumstances; to strip a child of their trust, to despoil them of the belief that those who love you will always protect and never harm you, to commit the obscenity of taking a child and simply, totally ruining their world, to destroy the joy in their hearts ….

It is, in my opinion, the most unpardonable and irredeemable of human crimes. Period.

If you’re a fiction writer, you’ll see that a lot of editors shy away from stories that involve any harm coming to a child. In some genres, portraying child abuse or child murder is seen as an unbreakable taboo, and to deal with these subjects is to risk your readership if you can even get the work published.

And it often does seem like the lowest of low pandering tactics: you want suspense? To engage a reader’s emotions? Then put a child in jeopardy!

And too often it is used as a cheap effect, especially in horror and suspense. Some authors do seem to sit down to write a piece and say, “Oh, I’ll throw in a dash of child abuse for added depth.” To do that is not only insulting to the reader and a slap in the face to those who dedicate their lives to bettering the existence of children who are in an abusive situation, but it serves to numb people to the plight of these children.

But I believe there’s room for honest portrait of it in good fiction. Not to use a tale as bully pulpit or soapbox decrying child abuse, but to genuinely explore how abuse affects the human condition through the eyes of a story’s characters.

If you write fiction about child abuse, probably the most important thing to remember is to keep your work from becoming what Ray Garton once called “whacking material for pedophiles.” It’s a hard thing to keep a graphic scene from becoming inadvertently titillating — and sometime a story genuinely needs a graphic depiction.

To use what is probably my most uncomfortable example, take “Some Touch of Pity,” a novella that appeared in Marty Greenberg’s Werewolves. Anyone who’s ever read that story remembers the rape scene. I agonized over that thing for weeks, not the least of which because I didn’t want any element of that scene to seem even remotely titillating. Marty, God bless him, understood that a graphic presentation of the rape was integral to the story — the central character relives this moment from his childhood on an almost hourly basis, it’s what defined his view of himself, and it’s what keeps him standing at arm’s length from his own true heart. But Marty said that as the scene stood, it would be just too much for DAW. Understood.

I rewrote the scene so that the reader experienced it only through the sensations and impressions that the child could identify. That’s the version that was published in the anthology. It was still effective, but it didn’t pull the reader nose-first into the painful, filthy, bottomless pit of the character’s suffering. So, when it came time to include the story in my first collection, I restored the rape scene to its original form, which is much more direct, unflinching, and brutal.

God, how I lost sleep over that. I worried that people would read it and think I was simply trying to shock them in the most depraved manner. I worried that readers would find the story offensive and unreadable. Then I realized that, with all the worries I was dredging up, the one which never crossed my mind was: is it necessary to be this graphic?

The story informed me that, yes, it was necessary to present it in this way. I’m relieved to say that, in the years since I published the uncut version, not one person has accused me of being irresponsible in telling the story in the manner that it required. Writing that story was a gut-wrenching experience, but ultimately I think it was worth it.

 

Book Review: Memorial Day by Harry Shannon

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

Memorial Day by Harry Shannon
Five Star Press, 2004

For those of you who have read Shannon’s previous novels, Night of the Beast and Night of the Werewolf, it will come as no surprise that his latest novel crackles with the same brittle dialogue and muscular prose he’s been honing over the past few years. What might surprise you is that Memorial Day isn’t a horror novel — at least, not in the commercial/marketing sense.

Memorial Day is very much a noir mystery novel, and with only a few minor bumps along the way, Shannon makes the kind of smooth transition between genres that most writers can only dream about. Reading like a cross between Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, the novel tells the story of psychologist/television celebrity Mick Callahan, who, as the novel opens, has hit rock bottom thanks to booze, drugs, women, and his own out of control ego. With nothing left and nowhere to go, he accepts a job hosting a radio talk show in his home town of Dry Wells, Nevada. One of the callers to whom he speaks one night is murdered, and Mick–who made his reputation on television partly by investigative reporting–takes it upon himself to track down the murderer.

Fairly straightforward, traditional mystery elements, yes, but what makes Memorial Day stand apart from the majority of first mystery novels is Shannon’s unflinching, lean, and unsentimental portrayal not only of Callahan, but of all the characters who populate Dry Wells. Not only is Callahan trying to get his life back on track, not only is he dealing with a truckload of guilt carried over from his previous life, not only does he make enemies out of seemingly most of Dry Wells’ population, but he’s also dealing with memories of his own abusive childhood that are being brought to the surface as his investigation uncovers tawdry secret after tawdry secret.

These are a lot of character elements to deal with in a novel; that Shannon not only grapples with these elements but resolves them — and does so in a tight 266 pages — but he also draws fully three-dimensional characterizations for everyone in Dry Wells that Callahan comes into contact with. No easy feat, and one cannot help but applaud Shannon’s craftsmanship.

Which is not to say that everything is on solid ground; there are times when a line of dialogue comes off as self-consciously noir-ish ("You might as well paint a target on your forehead", "This town’s got a lot of dirty little secrets", "You move, you die" etc.), one very important clue is delivered in too-obvious manner, and in the final third of novel, Callahan suffers one brutal beating after another, only to quickly recover and come back for more.

But these are, in the end, minor quibbles that do not adversely affect the overall strength and readability of Memorial Day; at best, they reduce a **** novel to ***1/2.

With Memorial Day, Shannon has made a strong and memorable mystery debut. Mick Callahan has the makings of a fascinating series character in the traditional of Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain or Andrew Vachss’ Burke. Personally, I think it’s high time we had a new series character like Callahan, and a new mystery writer as skillful as Shannon. Even if mystery is not your usual cup of tea, I still highly recommend Memorial Day.

Book Review: 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories by Michael A. Arnzen

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories by Michael A. Arnzen
Raw Dog Screaming Press

Those of you who have visited Arnzen’s web site, or the Raw Dog Screaming Press site, or have already purchased this book, know that I provided a blurb for the cover, so you can safely assume that this is going to be a positive review. I stand by what I said in my blurb, but decided I wanted all of you to know why I said it.

Of all story forms, the short-short (defined as a story clocking in at 1000 words or less) is by far the most difficult, and the one that can often defeat even the most seasoned writer. The short-short requires a poet’s skill at encapsulation of imagery and ideas, as wells as the fiction writer’s ability to employ these same elements in the telling of a cohesive and coherent story — and I emphasize those two words because (more often than not) the short-shorts that appear in the horror field are written by folks who mistakenly assume that those terms are mutually exclusive, which they are most decidedly not.

Even the most surreal of short-shorts must adhere to the structure and internal logic of the short story, regardless of how dreamlike and bizarre the prose might be. The late Donald Barthelme was arguably the master of this particular form of story, but with 100 Jolts, Arnzen, without laying claim to it, emerges as the inheritor of Barthelme’s crown.

Consider the following story, used here in its entirety:

A Worse Mousetrap

As I type, the mouse climbs my shoulder and leaps into my breast pocket. I laugh when his furry gray head pops out. He twitters his whiskers, watching as I finish my apology. I hug him against my heart. Later, I will sign my note as the rat poison makes it way through my system.

Looks easy, doesn’t it?

Trust me, it’s not.

In five sentences–count ’em, five–Arnzen not only employs the poet’s skill at encapsulation and the storyteller’s ability to form a cohesive and coherent narrative, but also manages to leave a great deal of the horror unspoken. This is a complete story in every sense of the word; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; it has a central conflict; and it adheres to the single most important rule of fiction: its central character undergoes a change between the start and the finish. That Arnzen chooses to convey this through subtleties rather than graphic depictions makes it even more effective and affecting, adding a great deal of power to that final line.

Every story in 100 Jolts does this, seemingly effortlessly, time and time again.

One of this collection’s most jaw-dropping achievement comes at the very beginning with the section entitled “Skull Fragments”; it contains 12 separate short-shorts, all of which can stand on their own as disturbing horror stories, but when taken as a whole, tell a 13th and even more deeply nightmarish tale.

I think 100 Jolts is a remarkable achievement, and a book that all serious readers of horror fiction should have in their hands and on their shelves.

Sam Peckinpah

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Sam Peckinpah is the director who redefined screen violence; he is also one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.

He was born in Fresno, California on February 21, 1925 and died of a heart attack in 1984. In between, he was married five times and directed over a dozen ground-breaking films, mainly in the 60s and 70s.

He grew up on a ranch in the California mountains. His father was a judge, and Peckinpah was a rowdy teenager who eventually enlisted in the Marines. He was never put into combat, though.

After his discharge, he discovered theater and eventually got his lucky break in the early 50s when respected Hollywood director Don Siegel hired him as an assistant at Allied Artists. Peckinpah began writing scripts (he helped rewrite and had a small role in 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) and got his first job directing in 1958 when he did an episode of the television series “Broken Arrow”. His feature-length directorial debut was 1961’s “The Deadly Companions”.

Peckinpah, with films such as “Major Dundee” and “Ride the High Country”, easily established himself as a great American director. Critics were quick (before “The Wild Bunch”, anyway) to mention his name alongside those of John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Peckinpah hated it.

He hated it because in the “good old” Western the only characters an audience was asked to sympathize wih were, naturally, the good guys like Randolph Scott and Chuck Heston. When the so-called “bad guys” got blown away, it was supposed to make an audience cheer wildly.

Which, as Peckinpah was quick to point out, completely robbed the “Bad Guys” of any humanity whatsoever. Peckinpah was also quick to point out that the “bad guys” in “Shane” were given full identities, so why couldn’t this be a trend that could set itself firmly in the American Western?

Because no one is supposed to care about the bad guys.

Peckinpah then set out to make an “anti-Western.” A film that, while it might be set in the West, horses and posses intact, had nothing else in common with the type of films he’d been making — and despising.

That film was “The Wild Bunch”. In it audiences met the likes of Pike (William Holden in one of his finest hours) and his gang, a run-down, over-the-hill bunch of outlaws who time and progress has caught up with. They were old, tired, anachronistic, looking for a way out. Audiences learned to sympathize with these men as the film progressed, even side with them and, in the film’s historic finale — almost folklore now — watch them die in blood-drenched slow motion, every agonized twitch dwelt upon until their mangled bodies lay dead before the camera.

Here was Peckinpah’s genius with his bloody ballet of death: he’d made a Western, all right, but he’d shown it from the “bad guy’s” point of view, and no one cheered when they died. The black and white way of presenting right and wrong was forever destroyed, and the myth of the American Western was forever debunked.

Peckinpah was then asked why he chose to make the violence so bloody, and why he chose to film it in slow motion. His reply (which I cannot quote verbatim) was something along these lines: “I thought audiences should be given a good, clear look at what they’ve been cheering all these years.”

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.

Partial Filmography:

“The Deadly Companions” (1961)
“Ride the High Country” (1962)
“Major Dundee” (1965)
“The Wild Bunch” (1969)
“Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970)
“Straw Dogs” (1971)
“The Getaway” (1972)
“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973)
“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974)
“Killer Elite” (1975)
“Cross of Iron” (1977)
“Convoy” (1978)
“The Osterman Weekend” (1983)

Why I became a writer

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I was in the sixth grade when I decided I wanted to become a writer.

I was not — big surprise here — a very social or popular kid. I had a geek haircut and thick, Coke-bottle glasses with dark frames. I wore clashing strains of plaid. I looked like the secret son that Buddy Holly kept chained up in his basement.

One Friday in English class we were given back our spelling tests from the previous day (I got a C — a pretty typical grade for me then). Our teacher, a great guy named Steve Shroeder, informed us that our next assignment, to be done in class that day, was to select seven words from the test and write a story using those words. Everyone groaned, including me.

Then I picked up my pencil and started writing.

Twenty minutes or so later, everyone else is sitting there staring at their papers and I’m still cranking. I wrote right up until the lunch bell rang.

It was a child’s first attempt at a horror story. All about a haunted house and a photographer who snaps a picture of the moment of his own death three days before it happens and doesn’t discover it until he’s developing the pictures and sees himself standing in his darkroom, looking at a newly developed photograph, while behind him this slimy, awful monster is creeping through the wall behind him. He turns around just in time to see a clawed hand reach for his face. The end.

I figured the story was going to get me in trouble — I attended a Catholic grade school and most of the faculty — nuns and otherwise — thought I was “disturbed.” (I lost count of how many times I was called into Sister Barbara’s office for a “chat” about “my problems getting along with the others.”)

The next day, Mr. Shroeder hands back the papers. He had written a big-ass “A+” in bright red ink at the top of my paper, and on the back of the last page he wrote: “Great story. You should do more.”

I had written stories before that I’d kept to myself for fear of how people would react to them. This was the first time anyone had ever read something of mine — and an adult, no less — and they’d really liked it. It was the first time in my entire childhood I suddenly felt like I wasn’t useless.

That really was the first day of the rest of my life, and I owe a lot to Shroeder. I don’t know where I’d be now if I’d gotten the reaction I expected to get.

On horror personas

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I don’t know about you, but if I encounter one more horror writer (in most cases, this would be a new writer) who prefaces his or her name with:

  • “The New Bad Boy/Bad Girl of Horror”
  • “The New Queen of Terror”
  • “The New Prince of Dark Fiction”
  • “The New Court Second-Scribe in Charge of Queasy Sensations at The Pit Of Your Tummy”

… or some-such other b.s. handle designed to draw attention to the writer rather than the work, I’m going to climb a tower with a rifle, I swear it.

(Wouldn’t it be interesting to have someone call themselves “The Nice Guy Of Horror” or “The Courteous Queen Of Terror” or “The Really Swell Dude of Dark Fiction”? I’d actually remember that, and would probably seek out their work to read just because they were clever enough to do it.)

Sometimes — dash, repeat, italicize — sometime these monikers are created not by the writers themselves, but, rather, by reviewers.

One case of a writer who’s employed a moniker he or she didn’t create her- or himself is that of John Paul Allen, one helluva nice guy and author of the novel Gifted Trust. A reviewer for that novel dubbed Allen “…the father of nightmares.”

An interviewer who read that review used the phrase to introduce Allen, so it comes as no suprise that Allen has used that phrase in publicity releases — and why the hell shouldn’t he? It’s an eye-catching, memorable phrase that is going to go a long way in helping potential readers remember his name. He didn’t come up with it and decide to label himself, and any writer who’s handed an unsolicited blurb like that is a fool not to get as much mileage as he can out of it. Yes, writing a strong novel is damned important, but once the work is published, it all boils down to bidness and marketing, and anything that draws attention to your work can and should be used to your advantage. So, good for John Paul.

However.

I have come across (or been introduced to, unsolicited) a number of writers who, both on-line and at conventions, assume a “persona” not only for the benefit of their readers (assuming they actually have any, as they claim), but for that of other writers and editors, as well.

When asked why they insist on assuming these personae, every last one of them (at least, to whom I have spoken) have answered with something like: “Because I want readers/editors/other writers to remember me. It’s a way of making a strong impression.”

On the surface, it might be seem like a good answer, but it reminds me of a snippet from a Bill Cosby routine wherein two guys are talking about cocaine usage; the first guy asks the second one, “What’s the attraction?”, and the second guys answers, “Well, cocaine intensifies your personality.” To which the first guy responds: “Yes, but what if you’re an asshole?”

If you focus the majority of your energy on perfecting a “persona” so that other writers/readers/editors/artists will remember you, then I guaran-flippin’-tee you that you’ll succeed; they’ll remember you.

But ask them to name a piece of your work and see what happens; you could probably hear a gnat fart in the silence that will follow. Which is precisely what you’ll merit; if you choose to make it all about you rather than the work, then you richly deserve the disdain and/or obscurity that is coming your way.

I can say this without fear of reprisal because I do not have a persona; I barely have a personality. Trust me on this.

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.