Author Archive: Gary Braunbeck

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.

J.N. Williamson Biography and Appreciation

Author/editor J.N. “Jerry” Williamson died this past Thursday. He was a friend of mine, a kind man and an excellent writer whose work has largely fallen out of print. If you find the following books, I encourage you to look past the garish 80s horror covers and titles that he so often got stuck with and read them:

The following biography and appreciation were written by John Maclay; they may be freely reprinted/reposted.


J.N. Williamson Biographical Facts

J.N. Williamson was born April 17, 1932, Indianapolis, IN

Graduated Shortridge High School, where he co-edited the school’s daily paper with later writer Dan Simmons and later U.S. Senator Richard Lugar. Studied journalism at Butler University and served in the U.S. Army.

Sang in the style of Frank Sinatra professionally with his parents’ band and for Broadway-style musicals at Starlight Musicals in Indianapolis, where he met his wife of many years, Mary

The father of two sons, Scott and John, stepfather of four children, and grandfather of many.

An avid I.U. and Indiana Pacers basketball and Indiana Colts’ football fan

A precocious Sherlockian, he published his first book, The Illustrious Client’s Case Book, while still in his teens

Worked in sales management and as an astrologer, and sold short stories intermittently

Published his first novel, The Ritual, in 1979 at the age of 47, and went on to sell 31 more in the next 15 years

Editor of the acclaimed Masques horror anthology series and other books

Recipient of the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003

Died December 8, 2005, Noblesville, IN


J. N. Williamson: An Appreciation

I first met Jerry Williamson in the fall of 1982. At that time, just since 1979, he’d sold 16 horror novels, and was to go on in the decade to double that total. He and Stephen King were the most prolific and excellent horror novelists of the 1980s, so it was only fitting that they received the Horror Writers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award together in 2003.

As a short story and nonfiction writer, and as an editor, Jerry also excelled. He edited and I published the first Masques horror anthology in 1984, to be followed by three more volumes (two of which I published) in 1987, 1989, and 1991. And Williamson’s encouragement of new writers in the genre is well known. In fact, he arranged my own first short story publication in 1983.

Jerry never let financial and physical ills deter him, and was still working on new projects when he passed on. He remained bright, and a writer’s writer, to the end. He was an inspiration to so many, including myself, not to mention a warm and dear friend.

There’s much more to say, of course, but I’ll conclude by quoting from Stephen Vincent Benet’s reaction to the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald (a writer Williamson loved): “You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This . . . may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.”

So it is with you, Jerry. We love you, we honor you, and your presence on this earth will be sorely missed. Rest in the Lord.

Movie Review: God Is Alone

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

God is Alone is a 2004 indie film written and directed by Jason Torrey. It’s about a young man named William who, along with his deaf sister Amy, endures a great deal of abuse from their father. After William loses his job, he sees a girl abandoning a baby in a dumpster; he tries to help the baby, and the film chronicles the disaster that follows. On a symbolic level, the film is basically an update of the story of the birth of Christ.

I thought that Monique Farrar, the actress who played Amy, was superb–I don’t recall the last time I saw a face so naturally and deeply, deeply sad; of all the actors in the film, she was the only one who I felt wasn’t “acting”–she was natural and effortless and heartbreaking as hell.

Other reviewers have criticized the movie for having far too many scenes of William walking around. I agree (though I can undertand, to an extent, why Torrey chose to do this), but even if I hadn’t liked it overall, I would still recommend that people watch it for the extraordinary “coffee-making” scene that comes about 2/3 of the way through.

The coffee scene accomplishes everything that good film storytelling should accomplish; it adds depth to the character, it has real poignancy, it’s nerve-wracking as hell in context, and ultimately incredibly sad.

The entire sequence, from the time her father pours the coffee on the table right up until Amy falls asleep in her bedroom is–in my opinion–perfect. No flashy camera work, nothing terribly symbolic, just one person in a great deal of quiet pain and fear trying to keep herself from being further abused, then retreating into memories of the past in order to make coping with the present more endurable.

There’s a lot of subtle pain and terror in that sequence, and though the rest of the film doesn’t measure up to these 8 or 9 extraordinary minutes, that they exist at all is proof enough of the director’s talent for me.

If you can get past some of the over-long strolls, a handful of visual self-indulgences, and some of the heavy-handed religious symbolism (that Amy was dressed in white, white, white all the time got on my nerves in short order) this is very worthwhile–though flawed–piece of filmmaking. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to be exactly what it wants to be: it’s the work of a single vision, so it’s understandable that that vision might have gotten a little tunnel-visioned at times.

There is a scene in the movie that–as far as I can tell–serves no other purpose (speaking here from a narrative point) than for the director and his wife to put their baby daughter on-screen. But you know what? I’m a sucker for babies. The little girl is adorable, a natural for the screen if I ever saw one. Unfortunately–for the scene in question–you can’t look at anyone or anything else once the baby comes on. It’s not that she makes noise or draws attention to herself, it’s just that she’s so darned cute you don’t really care about anything else.

But I want to re-emphasize something: despite my reservations about it, this is a very worthwhile film, one that shows its director as having serious intent and a talent to watch.

God is Alone is 104 minutes long and is intended for mature teens and adults.


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.

Movie Review: The Village

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village is about the people of Covington, an isolated late-1800s era village somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania. The villagers have an uneasy truce between themselves and monstrous creatures who live in the woods surrounding their village. Travel is prohibited; as the movie opens, one of the village’s elders has just lost his only son to a disease that could have been cured had they been able to travel to nearby towns to get medicines.

The plot thickens as the creatures invade the village at night and leave red slashes on doors and mutilated animals. After her beloved is gravely wounded, a blind girl decides she must brave the woods to get medical supplies.

Signs was an allegory about faith; this movie is about fear. The villagers wear the color of caution and cowardice.

The good things about this movie are that it is beautifully photographed and wonderfully acted, and the micro-writing of the script is very good. There are a number of great scenes, but I think the best is between Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) and Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) on a porch.

The problem — and it’s a big one, folks — is that The Village should have never been approached as a horror/suspense movie in the first place. It is not a scary movie because it never should have been a scary movie. Shyamalan has bought into his own PR as the “New Master Of Suspense”. This movie — and bear in mind I’ve liked all his other films — was hamstrung by bad storytelling. As a result, it’s the weakest of the films he’s written and directed so far.

I’ve seen the central idea of The Village done in at least two old Twilight Zone< episodes, and I can’t help but think that a writer like Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont or Richard Matheson would have done The Village right and told it as a sociological drama.

Another film similar to this was done many years ago; it’s a wonderful Alan Bates film entitled King of Hearts. If you enjoyed The Village but left the theater feeling dissatisfied with the story as I did, you might try to find King of Hearts as a rental.

Furthermore, several people have mentioned to me that the plot of The Village is quite similar to a children’s novel entitled Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix. Haddix’s novel includes not only the basic idea of the village, but the village elders also have black boxes in their homes.

Derivative or not, The Village has a good story at its core — but it took the movie over an hour to finally get around to telling it. The “twist” should have been revealed in the first thirty minutes — as it is, it’s broadcast enough that my wife and I guessed it pretty early on, and I know of at least one person who guessed it from simply watching the trailer. It could have been a really chilling and poignant drama had it been written and directed by someone who wasn’t bent on making a suspense movie with a twist at the end.

And unfortunately although the story looks and sounds great, Shyamalan blew every chance he had to tell this story the way it should have been told.

Discussion (Spoilers Follow)

The movie does have an interesting political subtext, and many viewers (including myself) are interpreting it as a critique of the Bush Administration’s handling of the war on terror: “If you won’t fear the outside world so that we can control you with fear, we will create monsters to frighten you into meek submission.”

Political allegories aside, the story was actually told backwards: this would have been a much more compelling movie had it begun with all of these broken people in the counselling center deciding they’d had enough of society’s violence, and then following them as they took steps to make the life in the village and raise their children to be fearful of the outside world, and ending with the creation of “the monsters.”

There was an outright plot hole in this one, too (aside from the literal plot hole in the woods). Why was the monster suit hidden in the floorboards of the quiet room where Noah would have access to it? The scene before had led us viewers to believe all the suits were in the forbidden shed. And how would Ivy know what the claw of one of the monsters would feel like, since she’s never seen one? Sloppy.

And I found Noah’s character to be a bit aggravating; I’m faulting the script rather than Adrien Brody’s acting, which was fine as usual. Noah giggles at the sounds from the forest at the beginning because he know’s what’s going on — it seems like he’s the embodiment of the director laughing at us because we don’t know what’s going on yet. I gathered that Noah was responsible for all the animal mutilations as well, but it seems impossible he could do so many of the animals later on, and it’s never really clarified. Another plot hole.

This movie’s horror trappings were ultimately unnecessary. The tale was told with the emphasis on the wrong elements.

The lesson: never buy into your own PR, lest you take a good story and purposefully mangle it so that it better suits your “reputation.”

Movie Information

Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 108 minutes
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Score: James Newton Howard
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins (who also shot O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Sid and Nancy)
Cast:

Bryce Dallas Howard: Ivy Walker
Joaquin Phoenix: Lucius Hunt
Adrien Brody: Noah Percy
William Hurt: Edward Walker
Sigourney Weaver: Alice Hunt
Brendan Gleeson: August Nicholson
Cherry Jones: Mrs. Clack


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.

Movie Review: The Punisher

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

I watched this 2004 movie last night and much to my surprise, I liked it. I’m not sure that this was really a good movie (though I can say without hesitation that the camera work — done by the talented Conrad W. Hall — and pacing of the action sequences are excellent) but I sure had a good time watching it.

It put me in mind of a Bogart movie from 1953 called Beat the Devil — a movie that bombed and was panned by critics upon its initial release because everyone thought it was being serious; the ensuing decades have revealed that the movie is, in fact, a subtly tongue-in-cheek comedy whose wit and cleverness was a bit ahead of its time.

I think that’s why The Punisher tanked; it’s not a serious movie, despite the way it was advertised (and one wince-inducing torture sequence). I found this to be a wild entertaining, tongue-in-cheek comic book/action movie satire with a couple of very sly performances from Tom Jane and John Travolta.

And if you think I’m off-base about the tongue-in-cheek aspect, go back and watch the dinner-with-the-neighbors sequence again; Jane does some hysterically subtle stuff. And consider the diner sequence when guitar-strumming Johnny-Cash-as-psychopathic-assassin Harry Heck confronts Castle. And review the time the Russian assassin shows up–looking like Gorgeous George, complete with the Popeye red-striped shirt–you’ll have no choice but to realize that this thing was not meant to be taken seriously; it’s all tongue-in-cheek, and just overdone enough to be winkingly funny; it’s meant to be a joke, and one that the viewer is in on.

Seriously; if one were to view this as a movie with serious intentions, it would be a disaster; watch it as a sly action dark comedy, and it’s a whole new experience.

The basic plot is pretty simple: after his family is murdered by gangsters, Frank Castle goes on a one-man mission to kill the killers. “This is not revenge,” Castle says. “This is punishment.” He sets up his base of operations in a seedy apartment building where his oddball neighbors take an interest in him.

Comic book purists may of course be dismayed by the liberties the movie takes with the Frank Castle canon. Jane’s Castle is a Federal undercover agent whose entire extended family is murdered by Howard Saint’s hitmen at a reunion in Puerto Rico. Whereas in the original comic Castle had nothing to do with the drug lords prior to his immediate family’s murder, in this movie Saint decrees the mass slaughter in revenge for his son’s death during a drug sting orchestrated by Castle. And the subsequent action takes place in Florida instead of New York City. Furthermore, instead of being a loner, Castle becomes involved with his neighbors despite his own intentions.

Movie Information

Rating: R
Release Year: 2004
Running Time: 124 minutes
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Writer: Jonathan Hensleigh and Michael France, based on the works of the various writers for the Marvel comic
Cinematographer: Conrad W. Hall (who also shot Fight Club and American Beauty)
Cast:

Russell Andrews — Jimmy Weeks
Omar Avila — Joe Toro
James Carpinello — Bobby Saint/John Saint
Mark Collie — Harry Heck
Ben Foster — Spacker Dave
Laura Harring — Livia Saint
Thomas Jane — Frank Castle (as Tom Jane)
Kevin Nash — The Russian
Will Patton — Quentin Glass
John Pinette — Bumpo
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos — Joan
Roy Scheider — Frank Castle, Sr.
Hank Stone — Cutter
John Travolta — Howard Saint


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.

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

by Gary A. Braunbeck

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

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

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

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

And I keep wondering: Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The solution is simple: Don’t do that.

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