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The Messiah on Mott Street

by Gary A. Braunbeck

The first time I was aware of art "happening" to me was when I was a little boy and was watching a first-run Night Gallery episode with my mom on December 15, 1971. The episode was "The Messiah on Mott Street," starring Edward G. Robinson, Tony Roberts, and Yaphet Kotto. The story centers on an old Jewish man named Abe Goldman (played by Robinson) who is sick and dying on Christmas Eve. Abe prays that a Messiah will save him from the Angel of Death, because if he dies, no one will be around to take care of his young grandson.

I realized about two-thirds of the way through that there was this little lump in my throat, and by the time the episode reached its unapologetically sentimental conclusion, I was bawling like a baby. So was my mom. Until the day she died, "The Messiah On Mott Street" remained her favorite Christmas episode of any television show. We had both been moved by Rod Serling’s simple tale of redemption and miracles among the tenements, and as Mom was pouring herself and me some hot chocolate afterward, she wiped her eyes and said, "Oh, I swear, that Rod Serling can sure write good stories."

It wasn’t until Mom said those words that I came back to reality long enough to realize that Rod Serling (who I knew from The Twilight Zone) had written the words that those people had said, and that his story had made both me and Mom cry (in that good but embarrassing way you never want to tell anyone about later), and that meant that words and stories could affect people.

Not a major unveiling as far as art exhibits go, but it did the trick for me. Watching that episode, knowing my reaction to it, Mom’s reaction to it, and then her reaction about her reaction, brought it full-circle and I started crying again (silly, sentimental boy), and when Mom put her arm around my shoulder and told me it was all right, it was okay, it was just a television show, just a story, all I could manage to say was, "No, it wasn’t," before I started in with the spluttering again.

I hadn’t the experience or the brains to fully realize what was happening to me, so how in hell was I supposed to articulate it? It seemed to me then that, if this were a fair world and just universe, everyone would be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings as well as the people on Night Gallery had, and then maybe people wouldn’t find themselves standing around with snot running down their face and tears in their eyes, frustrated because they couldn’t find the words to express all they needed to convey.

So I began seeking out Rod Serling everywhere I could. I found collections of his short stories at the local library (Serling was a much-underrated prose writer) and read them all cover to cover, then started in again. Anytime a movie written by Serling came on television, Mom or dad would call me down to watch it. I became a Twilight Zone re-run junkie (still am), and you can bet your ass that mine was there in front of that television set every Wednesday night at 9 p.m. tuned to NBC for the next new episode of Night Gallery.

The death of a child

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I once had a daughter. She died when she was very young. She had been sick from the moment she was born and never got better. She never learned to walk, never made a sound, never blew out the candles on a birthday cake. The only home she ever knew were the sterile walls of an ICU.

She was very tiny and she fought very hard. The last seventy-two hours of her life were agonizing, and when she died it was without the benefit of a warm, loving human touch lingering on her skin. Her mother, exhausted and sedated, was asleep on a couch in the hospital’s lounge; I’d not eaten for almost a day-and-a-half and so had gone to the vending machines one floor below to get some coffee and a sandwich. The entire trip took four minutes. The coffee was lukewarm and weak, the sandwich stale and tasteless, and by the time I came back to the ICU, my daughter was dead and gone.

Her death was not a surprise, her mother and I had known for a while that it was (as the tired cliché goes) “only a matter of time.”

Not a surprise, but still the ice-pick in my throat.

I remember seeing the curtain pulled around her incubator.

I remember the beeps, whirrs, and susurrations made by the various machines hooked up to the other patients in the unit.

I remember wanting to cry but being unable to.

Then it was shuffling, being taken aside, muffled words from weary nurses, uncomfortable-looking orderlies, a gurney with a squeaking front left wheel, and the last sight of my daughter: bumps and curves and patches of pale flesh inside a translucent plastic bag, rolling away, away.

Her mother and I were both young and foolish and not nearly strong enough to handle this. Our relationship crawled along for a few more months, a joyless thing, back-broken and spirit-dead, before ending in infidelity, accusations and poison.

It’s been over twenty years since she died. I have since seen my writing career at last get on its feet, and finally gotten — albeit sporadically — the upper hand in the battle with my recurring bouts of severe depression.

Still, there are times — periodic though they may be, usually very late at night or first thing in the morning — when it all comes back, diminished not one whit by the passage of years, and I crumple. Simply crumple.

Don’t believe what the pop-psychologists or self-help books or daytime talk-show hosts tell you about it: You never fully recover from the death of a child. The grief eventually works its way into the shadows, back there someplace, a whisper, an echo, a tendril of smoke perpetually curling in the air over a just-emptied ashtray … but it never completely goes away.

The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation

by Gary A. Braunbeck

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.

Okay, then:

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”:

con-so-la-tion n
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.

Book Review: The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

book coverThe Girl in the Basement and Other Stories by Ray Garton
184 pages; Subterranean Press, 2004
ISBN: 1-59606-012-3

Oddly enough, reading Ray Garton’s collection of stories kept reminding me of the original Get Carter starring Michael Caine.

Let me explain: throughout Carter, you see how Caine’s hardened criminal is complex, strictly moral within the boundaries of his own code, and very, very dangerous and scary. Yet at the end of the film, you walk away with the feeling that, as dangerous as he’s shown to be, the character never really even touched upon the depths of the violence of which is capable…and that makes him all the more formidable and frightening when you view the film a second time.

The same can be said of The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories, which now takes its place alongside Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From and Harlan Ellison’s Slippage as one of the few collections that I immediately re-read upon finishing it. And, like the original Get Carter, as good as it is initially, it’s even better the second time, and a lot of that is due to the remarkable restraint that Garton exercises throughout the title novella and four accompanying stories.

If you’ve read any of Garton’s novels, then you know that he can turn on the gory fireworks with the best of them; in fact, his last 2 novels, Sex and Violence in Hollywood and Scissors, are so gloriously over-the-top that Garton has arguably invented a new sub-genre: that of the Grand Guignol Black Comedy. He remains a master of the horrific set-piece, and some writers (like myself) might consider selling our souls to have half his ability at pacing. But what a lot of readers love about Garton’s work are those amazing fireworks.

Potential readers should be warned that The Girl in the Basement contains no such fireworks, yet the collection suffers not a whit from its lack of violence and gore; in fact, it emerges as all the more intense and affecting for its restraint.

All of the stories in The Girl in the Basement are concerned, at their core, with the same thing: corruption; be it moral, physical, spiritual, psychological, or societal, Garton touches upon corruption in all its attendant forms, even those we don’t often recognize on the surface as being such.

Take the opening title novella. Ostensibly a story about a possessed child, one begins to prepare oneself for all of the usual trapping associated with this type of story, secure in the knowledge that Garton-an expert hand at injecting new life and energy into the more traditional horror tropes-will not fall victim to cliché.

The story focuses on 15-year old Ryan, a young man who, at the beginning of the story, is living in a foster home with several other teens, having endured a series of abusive foster parents before arriving at the home of Hank and Marie Preston. Ryan has a job bagging groceries at a local market. He has a budding romance with Lyssa, another teen in the Preston’s care. He has a troubled (at best) relationship with his mother, a drug addict who is trying to get her life back together. He harbors dreams of becoming a writer, dreams that are encouraged by the Preston’s neighbor, Elliot Granger, himself a published horror writer who is currently recovering from painful hip surgery and must rely on Marie Preston and Ryan for help with many of his physical chores.

Already die-hard fans can see several Garton-esque elements in place; the abused kid, the isolated writer, characters struggling with addiction, the internal scars carried by those survivors who’ve seen the uglier side of life but haven’t yet given up. If you hear echoes of other Garton novellas like "Monsters" and "Dr. Krusadian’s Method" early on in "The Girl In The Basement", I suspect it’s because Garton wants you to; after all, the best way to surprise readers’ expectations is to pull a sleight-of-hand by setting them up to expect more of the same and then pulling the rabbit out of your hat.

Which is not to say that "The Girl In The Basement" is an exercise in narrative and structural trickery (even though there is some sly trickery involved on Garton’s part, and it’s both justified and enviable); this novella is very much its own story, but it’s most definitely not the story you’re expecting.

There’s a 9-year-old, mildly retarded girl named Maddy who’s kept in the basement of the Preston house, you see, and sometimes she talks in the deep, gravelly voice of an adult, one who seems able to predict things, one who knows things about you that no one else knows or has ever known…

Think you know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen? Forget it. About the time government agents showed up to "talk" with Maddy in private (something they’ve been doing for quite a while, as it turns out), I had to shake my head in admiration because I had no idea where he was going with this.

What makes this title novella one of the most accomplished pieces of Garton’s career is not just the remarkable restraint he exercises when dealing with the more overtly horrific elements (which at times become almost secondary, and at one point superfluous), but the depth of emotional realism he displays when dealing with the characters. This is hands-down the single most compassionate piece he’s ever written; every character is fully fleshed out, both their strengths and weaknesses, their pettiness and kindness, their courage and cowardice, are on display here, and as horrific as this "possession" of the little girl is, it pales in comparison to the portraits Garton paints of how this horror affects the characters. There is a scene near the end of the story where Ryan has a meal of cookies and juice with his drug-addict mother that is one of the most heartbreaking things you’re likely to read this year, simmering as it is with a palpable sense of desperation, loneliness, terror, and tragic inevitability.

The horrific elements of the story are for the most part kept on the periphery, and while I think this is going to be a turn-off for readers who look to Garton only for fireworks and fury, those readers like myself who look to Garton to always challenge himself as a storyteller and us as readers are going to come away feeling like we’ve just left a feast.

And while "The Girl In The Basement" raises many points and answers many questions about the nature of corruption, it leaves just as many unanswered, and rightly so: if one is powerless to fight against corruption, then is it better to simply turn away and ignore it or use it to your own personal advantage? And does that corrupt you, as well?

I don’t mean to make this sound philosophically heavy or (God forbid) heavy-handed, because it’s a damned entertaining and suspenseful novella, but the depth of emotional maturity and thoughtfulness-as well as the previously-mentioned restraint-elevate this (in my eyes, at least) to the highest form of storytelling that can be found in the horror field; it’s suspenseful, horrifying, emotionally rich, perceptive and wise, and-here’s the kicker-surprisingly intimate. The "possession" of this little girl (once you read it, you’ll understand why I keep putting that term in quotation marks) might be affecting the world and universe at large, but Garton keeps the focus on Ryan and those around him, creating a claustrophobic microcosm that, like all good fiction, mirrors our own everyday lives just enough to make us genuinely uncomfortable enough to question the solidity of the so-called real world surrounding us.

With the exception of the next story, "Cat Lover", all of the stories end with an image of something mudane-a woman crying, a man getting out of his car, someone watching television-that is made darker and more tragic by the context in which it appears; it’s Garton taking snapshots of the everyday and like all good writers making us wonder what’s going on behind these seemingly inconsequential pictures.

"Cat Lover" is an impressive story, made all the more so when, at the end, you realize that you’ve just read a story wherein all that physically happens is that a man has a stroke and spends the rest of the story lying paralyzed on the floor of his home worrying that no one is going to feed his cats. While the shock ending can be seen coming from the second page, "Cat Lover" isn’t about the nightmarish image that closes the story; it’s about loneliness and isolation, and what happens when an individual must suddenly rely on those he/she views as corrupt as their only source of salvation. It’s also one of the most sharply-rendered character studies I’ve read in a long time.

"Reception" is a hard one to talk about without giving away its devastating one-two punch at the end; suffice to say this portrait of a family recovering from the death of one its children manages to achieve in 7 deft pages what I myself strive toward as a writer: to simultaneously chill you to the marrow and hit you square in the heart.

"The Night Clerk" may be my favorite of the shorter pieces contained here-and it’s also the one story in the collection that I think most readers are going to finish and go, "Huh?", if not outright dislike. For starters, it’s not a horror story in the traditional sense-is, in fact, Garton going mainstream. This seeming vignette about a guy who goes to a an all-night convenience store only to meet up with a laid-back yet oddly pompous night clerk reads like a cross between John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Yeah, there’s some violence and tension involved when a masked gunman storms in to rob the place, but this isn’t a story about violence; it’s a tense meditation on the difference between genuine courage and like cowardice…and bear in mind that the courageous character in this piece is not who you initially think it is. Of all the stories in this collection, "The Night Clerk" is the one that might require you to read it a second time in order to pick up on the myriad subtleties of character and foreshadowing that are sprinkled throughout.

The closing story, "Housesitting", brings the overall theme of corruption full circle, as its central character, housesitting for her best friend while she’s on vacation with her husband-uncovers some hidden secrets about her best friend (via some disturbing photographs) that not only forever taint her relationship with her best friend, but corrupt her view of the world around her, as well. The closing scene between the two friends-taking place in a brightly-lighted kitchen on an almost too-ideal suburban afternoon-is Garton writing at the height of his power; as heartbreaking and affecting as this scene is, there is so much more going on beneath the surface, culminating in a single, powerful, beautifully understated final image that will haunt you long after the book is finished-might even, in fact, make you go back to the beginning and start the collection all over again.

The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories is a superb collection, filled with countless surprises, genuine scares, and more than enough emotional depth to satisfy even the most jaded reader.

Of Subtext, Subtlety, and Coming In After The Fact

by Gary A. Braunbeck

There’s a certain type of story, one that I have come to call the After-the-Fact story. I have not seen many After-the-Fact stories written in the horror genre; mostly, they’ve stayed in the neighborhood of “literary” fiction. So, why haven’t we seen more of this type of story in horror?

After-the-Fact stories are tricky little bastards, because the main action of the story has already happened before the first sentence. After-the-Fact stories do not employ flashback, nor do they resort to the obvious mechanism of having a character offer a quick recap of what happened before the reader came into it; no, in these stories, you’re presented with a situation that, nine times out of ten, is in no way connected to what actually happened; you have to piece together the events by what is said and done by the characters. They’re a little like walking into a room just after someone’s had an argument or gotten a piece of bad news; even though you know something’s just happened, no one will tell you what it was, so you have to figure it out for yourself by observing the effect it’s had on those around you: you have to pay attention to the detritus, because that’s all you’ve got to go on.

A classic example is John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer”. On the surface, it’s about nothing more than some rich guy in suburbia who’s spending a Sunday afternoon running from neighbor’s house to neighbor’s house to use their swimming pools. “I’m swimming my way home,” he tells his friends and neighbors, all of whom laugh and remark on what a card he is as they go about mixing their martinis and discussing events at the country club. Occasionally someone remarks, in passing, ” … he’s looking better, don’t you think …” or … I’m really surprised to see him out like this, after, well …” Then the main character comes over to them and that line of conversation is dropped. This goes on for a while, each successive neighbor becoming more surprised and anxious at seeing him, offering more whispered comments when he’s out of earshot — ” … didn’t realize he was back …” etc. — until it becomes obvious that something fairly awful has happened to this guy sometime before the story began, and though Cheever never once directly states what happened, everything you need to know is there.

The first time I read “The Swimmer”, its sudden shocker of an ending seemed to come out of left field, so I went back and re-read the story, much more slowly than the first time, and realized that Cheever had, indeed, dropped a ton of clues; unfortunately, the majority of them were hidden in the detritus, given only through subtext.

Raymond Chandler (creator of Philip Marlowe, the hero of such classic novels as The Big Sleep and The Little Sister) once gave the best example of what constitutes subtext that I’ve ever encountered (and I am liberally paraphrasing here):

A man and woman, both middle-aged, are waiting for an elevator. It arrives, and the man helps the woman get on. For the first several floors they are alone, watching the blinking lights. They do not speak and stand well apart from each other. The woman wears a very nice dress. The man wears a suit, tie, and hat. The elevator stops — not their floor — and a young woman gets on; she smiles at both the man and the woman, who smile at her in return. The man removes his hat. The ride continues in silence. The elevator stops, the girls gets off, the man puts his hat back on. A few floors later, the man and woman get off and walk together toward a door at the end of the corridor.

It was usually at this point that Chandler would ask the listener: “What’s written on that door?”

So I’ll put the question to you: what words are written on that door which our middle-aged couple are heading toward?

How the hell am I supposed to know? some of you may cry. No one in that freakin’ elevator said word one to anyone else, and on the basis of all the nothing that happened during that boring, boring, boring ride, I’m supposed to guess what it says on that stupid door?

Yes, you are.Because an awful lot happened during that elevator ride:

  1. The man and woman never spoke to each other, even while they were alone;
  2. They also made it a point to stand well apart from each other even though the man helped her get on;
  3. When the young woman got on, the man, obviously out of respect and courtesy, removed his hat;
  4. Once the young woman disembarked, he put the hat back on; and,
  5. The man and woman got off on the same floor, and are heading toward that door together.

Still say nothing happened and that you have no clues to go on?

Detritus. Subtext. The unspoken information that is conveyed to a reader through a character’s behavior, actions, speech, or lack thereof. In acting, it’s referred to as “nuance”. It’s subtle, but its implications are quite direct if you care enough to pay attention.
That is, in my opinion, what the horror field has lost over the last few decades: a willingness on the part of both writers and readers to (respectively) employ and appreciate the quieter, more delicate, and less obvious details of character and scene that can make fiction so much richer and rewarding.

Last chance; take a guess what it says on that door.

Try: Marriage Counselor.

That was an After-the-Fact story; tricky little bastard, wasn’t it?

There’s usually very little action in these stories; nothing much seems to happen at the core — it’s on the periphery that you have to watch out for yourself.

A handful of other After-the-Fact stories you’d do well to search out and read include Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”; Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path”; Raymond Carver’s “What Do You Do In San Francisco?”, “Popular Mechanics”, and “Why, Honey?” (these latter two being arguably horror stories); Carson McCullers’s “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud”; Michael Chabon’s “House Hunting”; John O’Hara’s brilliant “Neighbors” (a horror story if ever there was one); and a personal favorite of mine, Russell Banks’s “Captions” — perhaps in its way the most extreme After-the-Fact story I’ve yet encountered –wherein Banks details the agonizing disintegration of a married couple’s existence through captions taken from newspapers or written underneath pictures in photo albums.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed that the above list contains no horror writers. There is a reason for this: not many have attempted an After-the-Fact story. Maybe it’s because the structure of this type of story seems to self-consciously “literary” to them; maybe it’s because horror readers have become far too accustomed to having everything spoon-fed to them and don’t think they should have to work a little while reading a story, and so horror writers just automatically assume that All Must Be Revealed as quickly and in as simplistic of terms as possible. I don’t know, I’m guessing here. But I’ve been going through my books searching for at least six examples of a successful After-the-Fact story in the horror field, and here’s what I came up with:

  • “Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly,” by Dennis Etchison
  • “Petey” by T.E.D. Klein
  • “Red” by Richard Christian Matheson
  • “Snow Day” by Elizabeth Massie
  • “Taking Down the Tree” by Steve Rasnic Tem
  • “Gone” by Jack Ketchum

… and that was it (even with this small a list, Klein’s, Matheson’s, Ketchum’s, and Tem’s stories almost offered too many concrete hints to qualify).

I thought perhaps Peter Straub’s “Bar Talk”, “The Veteran”, or “A Short Guide To the City” (all from his magnificent collection Houses Without Doors) could be used to beef up the list, but that would have been stacking the deck (pardon my mixed metaphors); Straub’s work is the result of an exceptionally well-read literary background, so of course the sensibilities of his work are informed from countless sources, resulting in fiction that is challenging in its approach to structure and subtext — no more so than in the “Interlude” fictions sprinkled throughout Houses.

So no Straub; it wouldn’t be playing fair on my part. Same goes for Stewart O’Nan, whose wonderful collection In The Walled City contains not one, but two After-the-Fact stories, “Calling” and “Finding Amy”. (I exclude O’Nan because, though he does sometimes dabble in the horror field, he is not primarily a horror writer.)

So I came up with six stories, four of which (though superb) just barely made it onto the list. I’m sure there are other After-the-Fact horror stories out there that I missed, but my guess is, not that many.

Horror may be trying to outgrow its popular definition, but it’s still suffering from a case of arrested literary adolescence — and I’m not one who apologizes for using the term “literary” when talking about horror. It can be among our most literary forms of storytelling; emphasis on can be; we still need to take chances, even if we fall flat on our faces in the attempt.

A new Gary A. Braunbeck novella

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:

http://www.horrorworld.org/fiction.htm

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:

http://www.scifi.com/scifiwire/index.php?category=5&id=55910


Book Trailer for Coffin County

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

Recent reviews for the novel have been pretty good:

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

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

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

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

On Book Advances

by Gary A. Braunbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I haven’t written any of these books yet.

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

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

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

But ….

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

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

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

To meet women.

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

The Literary Ghetto

by Gary A. Braunbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to hit these people.

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

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

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

Yeah, that’s what it’s about. Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it comes down to is this:

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

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

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


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

Horror and Thriller Collection Short Reviews

by Gary A. Braunbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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