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:
- First Novel
- Short Fiction
- Long Fiction
- Fiction Collection
- Poetry Collection
- 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.