horror

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.

Writing horror: the devil’s in the details

by Gary A. Braunbeck

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

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

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

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

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

“But a supernatural transformation into what, exactly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

It’s sloppy storytelling, pure and simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Forget Genre

by Gary A. Braunbeck

This is going to bounce around a bit like a paper cup caught in the wind, but will hopefully come together at the end, so bear with me.

One of the things I promised myself when I agreed to take part in this blog was that I would try to avoid offering advice to aspiring writers. This is not arrogance on my part, nor is it my assigned covert role in some labyrinthine conspiracy designed to make certain that basic necessary knowledge for starting one’s writing career is kept concealed from you, thus eliminating any potential competition you and your work might pose in the marketplace.

The reason I am uncomfortable offering advice to aspiring writers is simple: I’m still learning how to do this myself (and I hope that I’ll never stop learning). Many of the things I discovered through trial and error no longer apply, and I wouldn’t dare try to tell someone else how they should go about managing a writing career.

But there is one piece of advice that, when pressed to, I gladly offer to aspiring writers — and it’s one that is often met by blank, confused stares: Forget Genre.

If you sit down and say, “I’m going to write a HORROR story,” you might — consciously or not — start grafting traditionally horrific elements onto a story where they don’t belong, and you can hobble a story by trying to force it to fit within the “traditional” (read: popularly accepted) boundaries of a particular genre, rather than expand those boundaries by not worrying about how it’s going to be categorized. View it only in terms of the story you want to tell, not the one you think readers are going to be expecting.

Two things happened recently that prompted me to revisit this subject for myself: 1) Reviews for my novella In the Midnight Museum and my new Leisure novel, Keepers started appearing, and, 2) A member of a local writers’ group made a statement so naive as to be almost — almost — laughable.

About the former: much to my relief, the reviews for both Museum and Keepers have thus far been overwhelmingly positive, but in almost every case, the reviewers have said something along the lines of “…it’s both horror and not”, or, “…I guess horror is as good as anything to call it…”

You get the idea. Neither work fits easily into any single category, and it’s making some people crazy trying to figure out where to put them. My response is: how about just addressing them as stories and leave it at that?

My guess is that readers and reviewers begin reading a story labeled “horror” (or “cyberpunk”, or “fantasy”, or “mystery”, or what have you) with certain ingrained expectations; they have come to anticipate certain elements to appear to a particular type of story, and are surprised — sometimes not pleasantly so — when those expectations are not met and/or indulged.

Only half a dozen times in my career have I sat down and said, “I’m going to write a HORROR story,” and then proceeded to do just that, always bearing in mind what readers expect in a horror story, and making damn sure I worked in as many of those expected elements as I could. Six times I’ve done this, and six times I’ve produced stories that are just, well…awful. And they’re awful because I did not forget genre, genre was the overriding factor in their creation — and telling a good story was secondary.

Shame on me.

Now to the latter point before I bring all this together.

I belong to a local writers’ group that is composed mostly of fantasy and science fiction writers. Many of these folks are unpublished or have just begun publishing; some of the folks have a decent amount of fiction already published; and a small handful of them, including myself and Charles Coleman Finlay, have got a fairly decent body of published work out there.

In a recent discussion, one of the members — who writes heroic fantasy — commented that she’d noticed a “…larger than usual number of horror-type stories” being submitted for critique, and could we possibly cut down on that because she and several other members don’t ‘get’ horror. When prompted for further comment, she also admitted that she’s read “…some Stephen King” but otherwise tends to read almost exclusively in the field of — you guessed it — heroic fantasy.

She is not alone in this; members who write exclusively mystery fiction have quit the group because they didn’t ‘get’ fantasy, and the science fiction folks didn’t ‘get’ mystery.

What’s to ‘get’? Somebody explain this to me — on second thought, please don’t, it wasn’t an actual request.

It doesn’t matter a damn if your story is horror, or mainstream, or fantasy, or erotica, or any other genre or sub-genre — it is, must be, must always be, first and foremost a good story.

Why don’t more readers and writers understand that? Have we become so tunnel-visioned in our expectations that we have given up the hope of ever seeing any genre attempt something new and/or different? Or have we been trained through a steady diet of the same old same-old to want nothing more than journeyman-level storytelling, storytelling that challenges neither the mind nor the heart (forget about those “traditional boundaries” I mentioned earlier)?

If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, I think it’s quite possible that you’re the type of reader or writer who’s come to think in terms of “genre” far too much for your own good.

Far too many writers — both new and established — think too much in terms of the type of story they’re writing — and what’s worse, far too many of them read almost exclusively in the field in which they want to publish. While it is important to be be well-read in your chosen field, it’s vital that you read outside that field as much as possible, otherwise you’ll eventually be writing nothing more than a hip imitation of a pastiche of a rip-off of something that was original two decades ago but has now fallen far too deep into a well-worn groove to offer a challenge to either writers or readers.

I read all over the place, and do not restrict my influences to those giants in the field from under whose shadows I hope to emerge.

As a result, yes, both of my recent works are and aren’t horror; they’re both also fantasy and not; each is and isn’t a mystery, a romance, a mainstream character study. What they are, are two pieces of which I am very proud because they were the best stories I could make them … because I followed my own advice and Forgot Genre.

Approach any work as being simply a story, and you’ll always “get” it; think only in terms of “genre” and you’ll have a hobbled story by the third paragraph.

That is the best piece of advice that I have or will ever have for aspiring writers. I hope you found something useful contained here.

Now go read Theodore Sturgeon’s magnificent The Dreaming Jewels and put someone into brainlock when you ask them to tell you what kind of a novel it is.

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.

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.

The Bram Stoker Awards

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Every year since 1988, the Horror Writers Association hands out their Bram Stoker Awards for Superior Achievement during their annual conference in New York City or Los Angeles. The Stokers, which are named in honor of influential horror author Bram Stoker, are analagous to the Nebula Award, Hugo Award, or World Fantasy Awards. The award itself is a hefty little ceramic replica of a haunted house.

The Stokers are awarded based on voting by the HWA’s active membership, which is composed of writers who have made at least three professional sales.

Currently, Stokers are awarded in the following categories:

  • Novel
  • First Novel
  • Short Fiction
  • Long Fiction
  • Fiction Collection
  • Poetry Collection
  • Anthology
  • Nonfiction
  • Lifetime Achievement

The Stokers are arguably the lynchpin in earning and expanding the reading public’s knowledge and appreciation of what the horror field has to offer.

Unfortunately, the Stokers have been jokingly referred to as “The Strokers” both within the horror field and without, and continue to be criticized (and in some cases, outright mocked) by many people. (But mock the Hugos, Nebulas, or World Fantasy Awards, and many of these same folks go apoplectic).

The term “Strokers” first appeared in a parody article in the second issue of Midnight Graffiti, (Fall 1988). It was not slamming anybody in particular. It was an alternate universe joke piece that suggested “Stroker” awards (a sculpture of one hand washing another) for categories like:

  • Most Typos
  • Novel Most Worthy of Novelization
  • Best Stephen King Ripoff
  • This Year’s ‘New Stephen King’
  • Best Work by a Dead Writer
  • Best Never-Published Story
  • Best Horror Story or Book that Isn’t Horror

… and so on.

However, the “Stroker” moniker came about as a result — in my opinion — of the 1997 awards, after which rumors and accusations of “vote swapping” ran rampant. (“I’ll vote for your work if you’ll vote for mine.”)

In ’97, the recipient of that year’s award for Superior Achievement in Novel was Children of the Dusk by Janet Berliner and George Guthridge. When that novel was announced as that year’s recipient, a lot of people were very surprised; until the recipient was read aloud, everyone (myself included) assumed that Tananarive Due’s My Soul To Keep had a lock on the award.

What made this one of — if not the — single most controversial award in the history of the Stokers until that time was this: in 1997, Janet Berliner was an officer of HWA (I believe she was president). George Guthridge, however, was not. The reason Children of the Dusk was permitted on the ballot — one that I agreed with, by the way — was because Guthridge, not being an HWA officer, should not have been penalized because he co-wrote a novel with someone who held office; ineligibility by association could not be permitted. So Children got on tha ballot, everyone assumed that My Soul To Keep would win, anyway, and all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds —
— until the moment the award was announced.

God, the accusations and rumors that started flying; Berliner had used her office to coerce people into voting for the novel; there had been vote swapping; there had been “political favors” promised in exchange for votes…it got really ugly really quickly. People whose work hadn’t even been on the ballot started attacking one another about things completely unrelated to the awards (though the subject of the awards was, in most cases, what had prompted the initial disagreements); the younger members started accusing the older, more seasoned pros of forming an impenetrable clique, thus guaranteeing no new writers ever had a chance at winning a Stoker; a large amount of known pros left HWA as a result of the ugliness, and the Young Turks who took over in their place proved almost instantaneously that they were just as capable of keeping things as effed up as the old guard had supposedly been…it was bad.

And HWA was viewed as an organization composed of bloody-minded, mean-spirited, socially-inept weirdos whose members all suffered from a perpetual case of arrested literary adolescence and gathered in NYC every year to engage in a well-dressed tunnel-visioned circle-jerk called the Stroker — uh, Stoker Awards.

(Keep in mind that HWA has repaired a lot of the damage since then, a majority of it due to the efforts of the current administration. If you’re thinking about joining HWA, do it now. It’s got a lot to offer if you have the sense to seek out and/or ask for it. Any writers’ organization is only as strong and useful as its membership … and HWA’s membership boasts a lot of power and integrity.)

Not only was the value of the Stokers tainted by the ensuing ugliness in ’97, but — much worse — the integrity and stability of HWA itself was called into question — and, in my opinion, still hasn’t fully recovered in the eyes of many, which doesn’t surprise me; after all, horror has always been the bastard child Lit-ra-chure keeps chained up in the basement whenever respectable folks come to visit and talk about Ulysses or other works that deserve serious consideration (No, I’m not bitter; why do you ask?).

What got buried under the detritus of all the in-fighting, accusations, rumors, and exoduses resulting from the ’97 awards was one simple fact: Berliner and Guthridge had agressively campaigned for the award: e-mails to members politely asking for their consideration, actual honest-to-God paper letters to the voting members and, finally, copies of the novel itself were sent to all qualified voters. (And we’re talking something like 200 Actives at that time; a 6-dollar cover price, with a couple bucks in postage to send each copy, and you’re looking at a couple of thousand dollars in materials and postage — not to mention the twelve hundred or so dollars’ worth of sales that Berlinger, Guthridge, and their publisher wouldn’t make because of sending out all these freebies.) As far as I can tell, they won it, fair and square.