I’m kind of a snob when it comes to fiction — horror or otherwise — and don’t mind admitting it. This gets me into a lot of trouble when it comes to reading for pleasure, something I have less and less time for these days. I often make the mistake of applying (sometimes consciously, mostly not) my own storytelling standards to the work of those I read, and that’s just silly (as well as being a habit I am fighting to break); if everyone wrote the same kind of stuff I do, and wrote it the same way I do, “variety” would be the stuff of fairy tales. And everyone would be depressed and grumpy all the time.
But every once in a while I start to ask questions about the fiction being produced in the horror field, simply because I’m still stubborn enough to want to see the field expand beyond its popular definition.
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.
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 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.
My pet peeve for the day is people who claim to be an “expert” on horror, or science fiction, or mysteries, or any other literary genre because they’ve read absolutely everything by just a single famous author in that genre … and smugly refuse to read anything else.
Odds are, you’ve met someone who’s this type of “expert”. You’ve probably had to endure their homilizing endlessly about their extensive knowledge of the field based on having read only Stephen King or Clive Barker or Robert Heinlein or Robert Jordan or Agatha Christie or Or OR … (not slamming these writers, get it? Got it? Good.)
And you have undoubtedly heard these “experts” dismiss out of hand any writer who isn’t King or Rice or Barker or Or OR… because these “experts” don’t want to expand their understanding and appreciation of the rich diversity of fiction offered elsewhere because to do so would be to admit (to themselves and others) that they don’t really have the slightest goddamn idea what they’re talking about.
For someone to claim they’re an “expert” on horror or fantasy or mysteries or science fiction based solely on having read everything written by a single author is tantamount to my claiming to be an “expert” on automobile mechanics because I’ve read the owner’s manual that’s stuffed in the glove compartment of my wife’s Toyota.
Try this little experiment: the next time you find yourself confronted by one of these “experts”, politely interrupt them and ask them how they feel about, say, the influence M.R. James’ or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work might have had on King or Rice or Barker or Or OR … and see how quickly that stops their lecture mid-sentence.
And if they can’t answer because it’s obvious they’ve never read (or, in most cases, even heard of) James or Hawthorne or Matheson or Blackwood Or Or OR… tell them to shut the fuck up, then go have an intelligent conversation with someone who has the brains to admit they don’t know everything.
In the meantime: read, people. Read lots. And for God’s sake, read outside your genre.
At the beginning of Peter Straub’s wonderful novel In the Night Room there is a quote from philosopher, publisher, and journalist Roger Scruton that reads: “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”
Not to downplay Straub’s redoubtable achievement with this novel, but Scruton’s epigrammatic bit of wisdom knocked my socks off nearly as much as did the novel itself — and I am not one whose sensibilities are easily affected; it takes a lot to genuinely move me, and Scruton (Bad Attitudes; A Dove Descending and Other Stories) did just that.
To understand why this hit me as hard as it did, we’re going to go back to 2002 — October of 2002, to be precise — and join Gary during his stay in the nuthouse. (Okay, technically it was not the nuthouse, more of the pre-nuthouse holding facility, but why nitpick at this late date?)
Understand something before we move on: none of what follows is intended to be a ploy for sympathy; it’s not a pity party; and it sure as hell isn’t romanticized. I did not have then — nor do I now have — much sympathy for myself. I was weak, self-centered, and more than a little stupid. I could have turned to others for help, but I didn’t; it was far easier to allow myself to implode. In short: I’m not attempting to make you feel sorry for me.
As some of you know, the 16 months between June of 2001 and December of 2002 were not, to put it mildly, blue-ribbon days for Yours Truly. During that time, I lost, within 9 months, my grandmother (heart failure), my father (cancer), then my mother (emphysema); I’d moved to a new city, gotten divorced (my fault, all my fault), underwent surgery to prevent nerve damage to my right hand, and somewhere in there went off my anti-depression medication — yes, I know, stupid, Stupid, STUPID.
The result from all of this is that one week before Halloween of 2002, I found myself in possession of a lot of seriously strong and potentially dangerous medications taken from my parents’ house. (My sister, Gayle, had enough to deal with, so I went through all the rooms and cabinets shoving Mom and Dad’s medications into a box, intending to dispose of everything when I returned to Columbus.)
Bear in mind that though I am far from the brightest bulb in the sign, I am not (under the right circumstances) without a certain cleverness when it comes to finding ways to self-destruct.
I could not go for 5 minutes without thinking of my grandmother’s lonely last years, or seeing my father’s body, or the look on my mother’s face when I told her that I had come to the hospital to take her off life support, or the deep, deep hurt in my soon-to-be ex-wife’s eyes the last time we had seen each other.
I couldn’t sleep; I wasn’t eating, my writing production was down to practically zero because I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the People Who Weren’t There Anymore, and my right hand was becoming more and more useless (this was before the surgery). I was now surrounded by a circle of friends who were, on average, 15 years younger than me and with whom I ultimately had very little in common (I knew I was in trouble when I mentioned Harold Russell and not one of them knew who I was talking about), and I allowed my world to become more and more circumscribed by the handful of rooms in my apartment. If I could bring myself to get out of bed at all, I spent a lot of time sitting in front of the television watching re-runs of shows that hadn’t been very good the first time, but that didn’t matter because I wasn’t seeing them, anyway.
So it’s October, roughly a week before Halloween, and I’m not really here anymore; some empty, cheerless thing that’s wearing my face and using my body to get around has taken the wheel, and I don’t feel like fighting with it.
I have enough money to get a motel room for the night. I have more than enough medications in the proper dosages to ensure that the job will be done correctly (I’ve been researching this for several weeks). And I have recently purchased two packages of pudding cups so that there will be a way to ingest all these medications without causing myself to throw up. (The Shuffling-Off Cocktail Recipe ends here; just know that I had everything necessary to do the deed and knew how and when to take it.)
There’s only one glitch: all of the motels within walking distance of my apartment (I don’t drive) have no vacancies due to a Quarter Horse convention that’s in town. So, much to my disappointment, I’m going to have to do the job at the apartment and hope that my two roommates will still be able to live there afterward.
I’m walking back to the apartment and realize I’m thirsty, so I make a short detour to the neighborhood Giant Eagle to buy a soda. I’m standing in line behind a couple with several children, and the youngest child — maybe 3 years old — looks back at me, then turns to her mother and tugs her sleeve and says, “Mommy, that man’s crying.”
Damned if she wasn’t right. I’d had no idea, perceptive fellow that I am.
“Don’t stare,” says the child’s mother, but the little girl looks back at me, still gripping her mother’s sleeve, and says, “What’s wrong, mister?”
“I’m sorry,” I say to her sweet little face.
And then she starts crying.
Now everyone in this line and those on either side of us is looking over and trying to look like they’re not looking. Me, I’m standing there shaking like an alcoholic in the grips of the DTs, my face soaked, crying so hard that snot is coming out of my nose in buckets, and a police officer is coming toward me.
Oh, good, I think. Way to be inconspicuous, Einstein. Everyone’s staring at you, you’ve got roughly a thousand dollars’ worth of prescription medications in your bag, and now a cop’s coming. This is going to screw up the Shuffling-Off schedule something fierce if you don’t think fast.
The officer asked what the problem was, and I managed to force a smile to my face and told him that I’d just come from a funeral and I was sorry, this just sort of hit me unexpectedly, and he bought it, and I purchased my soda and walked back to my apartment, still shaking, still in sloppy tears. Pathetic.
I got back inside, walked up to my room, dumped all the medications and pudding on the bed, and just sort of … imploded.
I honestly don’t remember much about the next 12 hours — I have vague impressions of peoples’ voices talking to me, of someone holding my hand, of eating something, of sleeping for a while, of watching a movie — but when I finally came back to something like lucidity, I was being checked in to an emergency mental health facility here in Columbus. Two psychiatrists had been filled in on my recent history, both had talked to me (which I barely recall), and both had decided I was a danger to myself and to others.
I spent a week there before being deemed stable enough for release. I won’t bore you with the details of the intensive day-to-day routine of life in there, save for one thing: the book I had brought with me: Stephen King’s From A Buick 8.
Understand that I had given up hope. I had no faith left — not in myself, not in humankind, not in love, friendship, integrity, this ethereal whoseewhatsit called God, nothing.
And my writing career? — forget it. I was more than aware that a lot of readers considered my stuff to be too dark, if not outright depressing, I didn’t see my fiction becoming any more cheerful anytime soon, and as far as I could tell, the future was in no way bright enough to require my wearing shades.
Submitted for your approval: not a happy camper.
Still, I had already started King’s novel, wasn’t all that far into it, and God knows I didn’t have anything better to do with my extra time, so during those free periods — few and far between that they were — I read.
And something odd began to happen.
I started feeling … if not better, then no worse.
Don’t go thinking this is leading up to my describing some thundering, overpowering, Wagnerian epiphany, because it isn’t; I had no uplifting moment of realization; no heavenly choir began singing over too-loud, sentimental John Williams music as a beam of moonlight crept through the window and anointed my face and mind with the Silver Light of Truth and Inner Peace; I experienced no visions, no revelations, uttered no exclamations of “My God, the ghosts have done it all in one night!“
No, what happened was, simply, this: I became caught up in the story (which, for the record, may not be the the best-written story King has ever told, but is, I think, the best-told story he’s ever written). I wanted to find out what happened next. And because I read slowly, I was able to pace my reading so that I had only enough time to read a chapter or two in the afternoon, and the same later at night. (Sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on what feelings I had “shared” with the group during any one of the five daily sessions that were held — and those weren’t counting the individual sessions.)
But here’s the important thing: I had something to look forward to. What was going to come crawling out of the car’s trunk next time? What was the deal with the lights and fireworks? Would the dog survive? (Dogs don’t fare well in King’s books.) Would King be able to pull off this round-robin of first person narrators? Inquiring minds wanted to know.
Okay — I wanted to know. And that came as something of a surprise to me. Because all of a sudden, I cared about something again.
Admittedly, it wasn’t myself, but why nitpick? Something within me still held on to enough wisps of hope that it allowed me to become immersed in a story. And that immersion, that curiosity, that wanting to know what happens next, began to spread over into the way I behaved toward the other patients, the doctors, the nurses, and myself. I started to actually talk to and not at everyone else. What did I have to lose? If nothing else, I had Buick 8 waiting for me at day’s end.
Yes, I’m skipping over a lot of things — those times when I fell back into hopelessness; when something one of the characters said reminded me of something of my mom or dad used to say and I’d hurl the book across the room, only to retrieve it a few minutes later, smoothing out the cover and pages; those times I was too heavily sedated to focus on the words — because the point here is that as both a reader and human being I had found consolation in imaginary things, and knew it my heart that it was not imaginary consolation.
Looking at my trusty dictionary, I read the following about “consolation”:
1. a source of comfort to somebody who is upset or disappointed
2. comfort to somebody who is distressed or disappointed
3. a game or contest held for people or teams who have lost earlier in a tournament
Arguably, all of these definitions could apply (the third one falling more on the metaphorical side of the coin), but for the sake of this argument, we’ll go with the first two.
I remember something comedian Red Skelton used to say at the end of his television show every week:
… if by chance someday you’re not feeling well and you should remember some silly little thing I’ve said or done and it brings back a smile to your face or a chuckle to your heart … then my purpose as your clown has been fulfilled.
That is the kind of consolation I’m talking about, and it is the kind of consolation that I found in reading King’s novel at that time, and in that place. I honestly don’t think any other book could have done this for me, under those circumstances.
What I came away with — aside from three different types of depression medication that I have to take twice a day — was the knowledge that good storytelling can be a source of great consolation, and that this consolation can give back a glimmer of hope to a weary heart.
How many of you reading this have been lost in depression, or sadness, or lingering grief, or loneliness, or doubt, or any of the thousands of shadowed corners in the human heart where even the blackest darkness would look like a star going nova, and found some moment of comfort in a book or short story that you’ve read?
And, yes, you bet your ass that this can apply to horror fiction. I’m not talking about that old happy horseshit that says imaginary horrors help us to better deal with the real ones — we’ll get into that at another time — but, rather, how the very act of reading something that raises anxiety or provides a good chill reaffirms the immediacy and necessity of your own existence.
If some part of you is still willing to choose to be frightened, or disturbed, or repulsed, then this same part is embracing life by embracing fear: if you can still be scared, then you still think life has value and meaning; and if you still think that life has value and meaning, then there is still hope in your heart.
What greater gift could a storyteller hope to pass on to his or her readers?
So, yes, the consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation. Even if those imaginary things live in dark corners and aren’t sometimes particularly pleasant or uplifting.
As long as there is fear of the darkness, there will be hope.
Horror World is hosting a brand-new serialized novella by Gary Braunbeck. The first installment of this estimated 18,000-word tale is up now … subsequent installments are scheduled to go up on or about the 11th and the 18th of the month.
You can read the first part of “In Seeing: A Story of Cedar Hill” here:
All three parts of the novella will be archived as each new installment is posted, but at the end of the month, the entire story will be taken down. I think the plan is that HW Press will release the novella as a limited-edition chapbook, so be sure to read the story while it’s free!
In other Gary Braunbeck news, The Sci Fi Channel recently interviewed him about his latest novel, Coffin County. You can read the interview here: