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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Why I became a writer
by Gary A. Braunbeck

I was in the sixth grade when I decided I wanted to become a writer.

I was not -- big surprise here -- a very social or popular kid. I had a geek haircut and thick, Coke-bottle glasses with dark frames. I wore clashing strains of plaid. I looked like the secret son that Buddy Holly kept chained up in his basement.

One Friday in English class we were given back our spelling tests from the previous day (I got a C -- a pretty typical grade for me then). Our teacher, a great guy named Steve Shroeder, informed us that our next assignment, to be done in class that day, was to select seven words from the test and write a story using those words. Everyone groaned, including me.

Then I picked up my pencil and started writing.

Twenty minutes or so later, everyone else is sitting there staring at their papers and I'm still cranking. I wrote right up until the lunch bell rang.

It was a child's first attempt at a horror story. All about a haunted house and a photographer who snaps a picture of the moment of his own death three days before it happens and doesn't discover it until he's developing the pictures and sees himself standing in his darkroom, looking at a newly developed photograph, while behind him this slimy, awful monster is creeping through the wall behind him. He turns around just in time to see a clawed hand reach for his face. The end.

I figured the story was going to get me in trouble -- I attended a Catholic grade school and most of the faculty -- nuns and otherwise -- thought I was "disturbed." (I lost count of how many times I was called into Sister Barbara's office for a "chat" about "my problems getting along with the others.")

The next day, Mr. Shroeder hands back the papers. He had written a big-ass "A+" in bright red ink at the top of my paper, and on the back of the last page he wrote: "Great story. You should do more."

I had written stories before that I'd kept to myself for fear of how people would react to them. This was the first time anyone had ever read something of mine -- and an adult, no less -- and they'd really liked it. It was the first time in my entire childhood I suddenly felt like I wasn't useless.

That really was the first day of the rest of my life, and I owe a lot to Shroeder. I don't know where I'd be now if I'd gotten the reaction I expected to get.

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On horror personas
by Gary A. Braunbeck


I don't know about you, but if I encounter one more horror writer (in most cases, this would be a new writer) who prefaces his or her name with:
  • "The New Bad Boy/Bad Girl of Horror"
  • "The New Queen of Terror"
  • "The New Prince of Dark Fiction"
  • "The New Court Second-Scribe in Charge of Queasy Sensations at The Pit Of Your Tummy"
... or some-such other b.s. handle designed to draw attention to the writer rather than the work, I'm going to climb a tower with a rifle, I swear it.

(Wouldn't it be interesting to have someone call themselves "The Nice Guy Of Horror" or "The Courteous Queen Of Terror" or "The Really Swell Dude of Dark Fiction"? I'd actually remember that, and would probably seek out their work to read just because they were clever enough to do it.)

Sometimes -- dash, repeat, italicize -- sometime these monikers are created not by the writers themselves, but, rather, by reviewers.

One case of a writer who's employed a moniker he or she didn't create her- or himself is that of John Paul Allen, one helluva nice guy and author of the novel Gifted Trust. A reviewer for that novel dubbed Allen "...the father of nightmares."

An interviewer who read that review used the phrase to introduce Allen, so it comes as no suprise that Allen has used that phrase in publicity releases -- and why the hell shouldn't he? It's an eye-catching, memorable phrase that is going to go a long way in helping potential readers remember his name. He didn't come up with it and decide to label himself, and any writer who's handed an unsolicited blurb like that is a fool not to get as much mileage as he can out of it. Yes, writing a strong novel is damned important, but once the work is published, it all boils down to bidness and marketing, and anything that draws attention to your work can and should be used to your advantage. So, good for John Paul.

However.

I have come across (or been introduced to, unsolicited) a number of writers who, both on-line and at conventions, assume a "persona" not only for the benefit of their readers (assuming they actually have any, as they claim), but for that of other writers and editors, as well.

When asked why they insist on assuming these personae, every last one of them (at least, to whom I have spoken) have answered with something like: "Because I want readers/editors/other writers to remember me. It's a way of making a strong impression."

On the surface, it might be seem like a good answer, but it reminds me of a snippet from a Bill Cosby routine wherein two guys are talking about cocaine usage; the first guy asks the second one, "What's the attraction?", and the second guys answers, "Well, cocaine intensifies your personality." To which the first guy responds: "Yes, but what if you're an asshole?"

If you focus the majority of your energy on perfecting a "persona" so that other writers/readers/editors/artists will remember you, then I guaran-flippin'-tee you that you'll succeed; they'll remember you.

But ask them to name a piece of your work and see what happens; you could probably hear a gnat fart in the silence that will follow. Which is precisely what you'll merit; if you choose to make it all about you rather than the work, then you richly deserve the disdain and/or obscurity that is coming your way.

I can say this without fear of reprisal because I do not have a persona; I barely have a personality. Trust me on this.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Writing horror: the devil's in the details
by Gary A. Braunbeck

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

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

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

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

"It's a supernatural transformation," was his reply.

"But a supernatural transformation into what, exactly?"

"I don't know...it's just a supernatural transformation," he again said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

It's sloppy storytelling, pure and simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, June 23, 2008

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?

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Horror Of It All

by Tim Waggoner

Want to write horror? A lot of folks do. The mainstream publishing industry may have momentarily turned its collective back on the genre, but the small press scene is thriving, not to mention the burgeoning number of horror sites on the Web. Unfortunately, a great many stories published in these markets are uninspired (to put it kindly) and just plain bad (to put it honestly). Want your work to stand out from the rest of the lycanthropic pack? Want to start selling to larger and more prestigious markets? Want your horror stories to be so good that people breathlessly race through your prose, barely able to whisper an exhausted, "Goddamn, that was something," when they've finished reading?

It ain't easy. But I've got three tips to offer that will increase your chances of joining the dark pantheon of horror writers who kick major ass.

1. Beware of clichés.

Read widely, both inside and outside of the horror genre, so you can recognize plots that have been done to (living) death. Then you'll know better than to write a story which ends, "And it was all a dream" or "And then he realized as his lover sank her fangs into his neck that she... was... a... VAMPIRE!"

When I was in my teens, I wrote a horror story with the embarrassing title of "Scary Christmas." In it, a young punk torments and kills an elderly man whose ghost comes seeking Yuletide revenge. At least I had the good sense never to send this piece of crap out. Revenge stories are one of the biggest clichés in horror fiction, and beside that, there's no tension in them. Readers know exactly how they're going to turn out every time.

Still, you can make clichés work for you. In my story, "Blackwater Dreams," published in Bruce Coville's Book of Nightmares 2, I tried my hand at another ghostly revenge story. Only this time I took the cliché and gave it a twist. The man character, a young boy who blames himself for the drowning death of a friend, is visited in his dreams by his friend's ghost. He fears the spirit has come seeking revenge, but the friend isn't angry -- he's lonely. At the end of the story, my protagonist has to make a terrible choice: leave his friend to his loneliness, or join him in his watery afterlife.

In my story "Alacrity's Spectatorium," I twisted another cliché around. I took the notion that vampires don't cast reflections and created a dark mirror which displays only the reflections of vampires. What price would vampires pay for a glimpse of themselves in such a unique mirror? More, what would such a glimpse mean to them?

Instead of ending with a cliché, why not begin with one? Start with "It was all a dream" and build your story from there. Why not begin with a man discovering his lover's a vampire and see what happens after that? Or flip the cliché around. What if a vampire discovered his lover wasn't another nosferatu but was instead (shudder) a human?

And try to avoid the most overworked plot in horror fiction, which author Gary A. Braunbeck describes as a story in which the main character exists only to get "slurped by the glop." Stories in which characters are merely props to be eaten, drained, eviscerated, sliced, diced and turned into julienne fries by your monstrous "glop," whether it's a vampire, werewolf or the ubiquitous serial killer. These stories aren't just boring; they're insulting to readers who deserve better.

Probably the best way to avoid clichés is to adhere to one of the hoariest: write what you know. Draw on your own experience for your story ideas, write about the things that excite and disturb you, the people, places and events that form the unique fabric of your existence, which make your life different than any other that's ever been lived before. If you do this, you can't help but be original.

2. There's a difference between disturbing readers and simply grossing them out.

Too many beginners think that writing horror is all about detailed descriptions of disembowelments and gushing bodily fluids. They mistake the use of such elements for artistic audacity and cutting-edge (pun intended) writing. The truth is, though, that such writers are the literary equivalent of the kid who jams his finger up his nose and pulls forth a big old nasty booger so he can wave it in his friends' faces.

Good horror -- like all fiction that truly matters -- is about affecting readers emotionally. True, revulsion is an emotional reaction, but it's a simplistic one with a limited effect on readers. They finish your story about a penis-munching condom, think, Man, that's sick, and immediately forget all about it. You've failed to touch them save on the most shallow of levels.

I'm not saying you should avoid writing about the dark and disturbing. That's what horror's all about, from the quiet subtlety of a half-glimpsed shadow on an otherwise sunny day to the in-your-face nastiness of blood dripping from the glinting metal of a straight razor. But if you are, as Stephen King puts it, going to go for the gross-out, it has to arise naturally from the story itself, to be so integral to the tale you're telling that it can't be removed without making the story suffer.

In Gary A. Braunbeck's novella, "Some Touch of Pity" (also an excellent example of a writer taking a cliché -- the werewolf story -- and putting an original spin on it), there's a flashback detailing a character's rape. Not just the physical aspect of it, but what the character experiences emotionally as the rape occurs. The scene is absolutely brutal, but it's also completely necessary to the story. If the scene were toned down, or worse, removed, the story would be far less emotionally wrenching.

In my story, "Keeping It Together," forthcoming in the SFF-Net anthology Between the Darkness and the Fire, I write about a gay man living a heterosexual lifestyle in a home and with a family that he has created from his own desperate desire to be what he perceives as "normal." But it's an illusion which can't be sustained, and as the story progresses, the house, his wife and young daughter all begin to decay around him. In one scene he has sex with his wife out of a sense of husbandly duty, and since she is well along in her dissolution by this point, their lovemaking . . . damages her. I created this scene not merely to make readers go "Ooooh, yuck!" but to further dramatize the impact of such deep-seated denial on both my main character and those around him.

Remember that extreme elements, like anything else in fiction, are only tools to help you tell your stories in the best way you can. But like any powerful tool, they should be used sparingly, cautiously and always with good reason.

3. Give us characters we care about.

Let me say right up front that this bit of advice doesn't mean that we have to like your characters. It means your characters should be so well developed and interesting that we want to read your story to find out what happens to them. There are characters -- Captain Ahab, Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector -- who aren't always likable (and are sometimes downright despicable) but who are so unique, so fully realized, that they can't fail to fascinate. Compelling characters is what memorable fiction is all about, whether you're writing for The New Yorker or Cemetery Dance.

In my story, "Seeker," which appeared in the White Wolf anthology, Dark Tyrants, I write about a disillusioned crusader who has lost his faith in God and has gone searching for a nest of vampires in order to prove to himself that there is some sort of spiritual aspect to existence, even if that aspect is evil. The plot runs on two tracks. First is a narrative of the crusader penetrating the forest where the vampires live, being attacked by them, and finally dealing with their leader (who I made not merely a vampire but one who has merged with the Wood itself). The second track details, through various flashbacks, the events that caused the crusader to lose his faith and make him so desperate to find a sign -- any sign -- that there's Something More to life.

If I did my job right, readers will be interested not only in the action in the story, but also in the crusader himself, so that when the story reaches its climax and the character's quest is fulfilled in a way he -- and hopefully readers -- never imagined (no, he doesn't become a vampire himself; remember what I said earlier about avoiding clichés? I try to practice what I preach), there's not only an emotional pay-off, but hopefully readers will leave the story thinking a little bit about their own spirituality.

There's a lot more to writing good horror, but if you take the three morsels of advice I've given you to heart, you'll create stories which will not only rise above the generic tales of flesh-munching zombies and blood-lusting serial killers that are out there, you'll create fiction worth reading -- and worth remembering.


This article was originally published in EWG Presents, July 1998 and was translated into Portuguese by Ricardo Madeira and reprinted on Terravista in July 2000.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Forget Genre
by Gary A. Braunbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shame on me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

On Dark Fantasy
In the 1990s, dark fantasy became regarded as being "code" for horror. Why? Major publishers who flooded the market with awful, horrible, no-good novels in the 1980s to cash in on horror's popularity decided it was the genre's fault when readers were unwilling to buy mass-produced dreck.

But, the market watchers noted, fantasy sold just fine. So major publishers responded by deciding to market books with otherworldly elements as fantasies and books with nonsupernatural crime elements as thrillers; most anything else was rejected as unpublishable and left for the small press to peddle.

Both horror and dark fantasy explore the nature of evil and the darker sides of human nature and create a creepy or frightening atmosphere. Thus, when asked what the difference between dark fantasy and supernatural horror is, some people will say that there is no difference, or that the difference is that horror goes to greater extremes of sex, violence, and, well, horror, than dark fantasy.

To my mind, that's a bit of an oversimplification: there are some books and movies that are squarely fantasies that are also extremely gruesome and thus get sold as horror. While a broad gray area certainly exists between the two genres, there are a few ways to distinguish the two.

(The standard disclaimer applies: these are general characteristics I've noticed rather than "rules", and those trying to separate the fantasy from the horror should look at a work as a whole, rather than latching onto a single element and thinking something like "Aha! Everybody dies at the end, so this must be horror!")

Setting

Horror is about an intrusion of the frightening and unknown into a mundane, everyday world the reader is familiar with. It doesn't have to be a present-day world, though; you can easily set a horror novel in a historically-accurate past. The intrusion doesn't have to be supernatural (a deranged serial killer will do just fine) though it often is.

Dark fantasies have an established setting that is fantastic or otherworldly. Such a fantastic setting can range from the overt sword and sorcery of Michael Moorcock's Elric saga to the subtle magic of many of Ray Bradbury's tales to the action-comedy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you start out in a world where vampires or ghosts or magic are treated as a "normal" occurance by the characters, it's a fantasy world.

Book and movie series that start out as horror may then travel into dark fantasy genre because what was unknown and frightening in the first book -- say, a world crawling with zombies -- is established and known, though maybe only slightly less scary.

Characters

The protagonists of dark fantasies are often heroic. They choose to face the dangers presented to them in the book, story or movie in order to save others or to achieve some greater goal. They are often experienced with the occult or in possession of special skills, knowledge, or powers. Clive Barker's private investigator Harry D'Amour (portrayed by Scott Bakula in Lord of Illusions) is an example of such a heroic character operating in a horrific dark fantasy universe.

The protagonists of horror stories and movies are often survivors. They're regular everyday people who have been thrust unwillingly into a frightening, awful situation, and they may be hugely unprepared to deal with it. But deal with it they must, or they die in often spectacularly nasty ways. Kirsty, the young heroine of Barker's novella The Hellbound Heart is an example of horror's archetypical survivor character.

Plot

In many dark fantasies, there's an implied comfort to the reader: the rollercoaster will stay on its tracks. The characters the reader cares about will usually make it out alive in the end, and the day will be saved.

Readers don't get that comfort in many horror novel and movies; the cars might go off the tracks at any time. The protagonist may surive the zombie hordes only to be shot by a redneck deputy in the final scene. Everybody might die. It's horror.

Censorship Issues

Horror has a reputation for being "nasty" and has, in the past, been accused of promoting Satanism because it explores the occult. I've met writers with a prudish streak who steer clear of horror simply because they feel it would somehow give them a bad reputation.

There's a long-established assumption in some quarters that science fiction (and, by extension, traditional fantasy) is "juvenile" literature, and thus is mainly reading material for teenagers. So, many speculative fiction magazines have been reluctant to run stories with profanity or graphic descriptions of violence or sex. Much horror is squarely adults-only stuff that doesn't flinch from any subject or description.

It might seem, then, that horror is especially vulnerable to censorship due to pressure from groups who seek to squash objectionable content. Some feel that the dark fantasy label is mainly used to camouflage horror from conservative attack.

However, dark fantasy ultimately doesn't provide much cover; bear in mind what's happened to the Harry Potter books, which have been wildly popular (and increasingly dark) children's fantasy novels. A few fringe groups have been vocally protesting that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft, which therefore promotes Satanism. The protests wouldn't have even come up if not for the books' huge popularity, because magic is a staple in practically any fantasy novel I can think of, including Christian-influenced works like Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia

Thus, I submit that most horror/dark fantasy stays off the nutters' radar because it's not the kind of thing they'd ever seek out to read, and the press doesn't draw their attention to it; they never were part of the market for these books, and publishers listen to the market.

Protests, in fact, have been good for book sales in some cases, because people run out to buy a copy to see what all the fuss is about.

It's when groups can exert sufficient pressure on local stores and libraries to keep certain books off the shelves entirely that the trouble starts. But at least in the modern world, most adults can bypass local efforts at thought control and get their books online.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

There's a good way to get blood for a transfusion, and a bad way ....
According to Anne Wingate (a mystery writer and forensics expert), during World War II both the German and Soviet armies ran out of living blood donors during the worst battles. So, they started using cadavers in which the blood had re-liquefied to provide transfusions.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

On Horror

"Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion."
-- Douglas Winter, 1982

As a literary genre, "horror" can be loosely defined as any work that creates as atmosphere of fear or dread and provokes those reactions in the reader.

Many people associate horror with spooky tales of the supernatural: ghosts, demons, vampires and the like. Such stories are often the modern-day equivalent of old tales about the unknown dangers that lie in the shadows beyond the comforting light cast by the campfire.

But in this modern age, we have lit virtually the entire planet, and so the midnight world has lost much of its mystery and fear. So others insist they couldn't be frightened by a story unless it dealt with a scenario that could really happen: being stalked by a serial killer, being trapped in a basement with hungry rats, etc.

And still others insist they can't be spooked at all by a story ... but they can be plenty grossed out by one. These people associate horror fiction with the sense of revulsion that gory descriptions of decay and mayhem can create.

Thus, to a certain extent, horror is in the eye of the beholder; it can be quiet or over-the-top, fabulist, surreal, or mundane. Horror sends its tentacles into virtually every other genre: mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, romance, erotica, etc.

The basic qualities of a good horror tale are ideally the same as for any other story: a compelling plot and sympathetic and interesting characters. There should be plenty of atmosphere and suspense; if a good horror story can't make jaded ol' you want to sleep with the lights on, it should at least give you a delicious shiver now and then.

Horror became hugely popular in the 1980s due to the burgeoning popularity of authors such as Stephen King in the mid-to-late 70s. Publishing companies were eager to cash in on the trend, and by the late 80s, bookstore shelves were absolutely flooded with hastily-commissioned, poorly-written novels. The good stuff was lost in a sea of crap, and disenchanted readers naturally stopped looking to horror for entertainment.

The horror market crashed, and throughout the 1990s major publishers shied away from horror novels from beginning writers. King and other authors such as Anne Rice continued to sell very well, but the industry as a whole treated horror as a dead genre. Good novels continued to find publication, of course, but they were most often marketed as thrillers or as dark fantasy. Unestablished writers of works that could be marketed as nothing but horror had to seek publication in the small press.

The commercial prospects for horror started to improve in the late 1990s, but the re-emergence of horror as a popular genre has been slowed by real-life horrors such as the Columbine school shootings and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Horror is a bit like science fiction: it's popular as long as the real thing isn't readily available in the Real World. Just as many people lost interest in science fiction movies when the space program was going full steam, many people lose their taste for horror when the evening news is full of it.

A few subgenres

  • Apocalyptic: horror stories that deal with the end of the world, or the threat of it if the protagonist fails. Stephen King's The Stand and Robert McCammon's Swan Song are examples.

  • Splatterpunk: this term was coined by David J Schow at the World Fantasy Convention in Providence in the mid-80s to describe really extremely visceral graphic horror. Think of the literary equivalent of Dead Alive without the goofy humor. Some argue that this subgenre is outdated, and doesn't exist anymore because of the backlash against horror towards the end of the 80s. However, there are still plenty of people who want to see plenty of blood and guts and extreme violence in their stories.

  • Supernatural: ghosts, goblins, exorcisms, vampires, zombies, and other elements of the occult populate supernatural horror stories. Parts of The Bible even fall under this umbrella, and the ghost story and haunted house story are well-established in mainstream literature.

  • Gothic: creepy stories of romance and romantic suspense, set in a backdrop of cursed families, crumbling castles and decaying Southern plantations. Not to be confused with stories about goths.

  • Lovecraftian: stories which are written in the style of H.P. Lovecraft or which use elements from the Cthulhu mythos he created. Look for references to Elder Gods, tentacled horrors, cults, and general doom for mankind.

  • Quiet: the quiet horror story goes about its creepy business without much mayhem or blood. Such stories may very well be otherwise classed as mainstream stories; consider Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery", for instance.

  • Psychological: tales of disturbed human minds. These stories can deal with psychotic killers, but they can also warp the mind of the reader, leaving him or her wondering what's real and what isn't.

  • Erotic: this type of horror fiction puts plenty of sex in the mix. The idea here is that the sex and desire are integral to the plot of the story, and the reader gets creeped out as much as he or she gets turned on. If you've seen the NC-17 version of David Cronenberg's movie Crash, you know exactly what I'm talking about.


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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Jack the Ripper

When Jack the Ripper was on his murder spree, there were an estimated 1200 prostitutes in the Whitechapel area. The city of London had about 80,000 prostitutes total.

As dangerous as it was, prostitution paid better wages than any of the other jobs working-class women could get in the city, such as being a scrubmaid, sewing in a sweatshop or making matchboxes. Those who slaved at regular "women's work" could at most expect to get about ten pence per 17-hour day of hard labor. Prostitutes, on the other hand, earned two or three pence per john serviced.

Jack's murders were less terrifying than the specter of starvation to most working women, so they continued their trade as best they could.

Reference: Murder Ink edited by Dilys Winn (Workman Publishing Company)

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Meeting Chuck Palahniuk

I met Chuck Palahniuk at this past weekend's Bram Stoker Awards convention in sunny Burbank, CA. Palahniuk's phenomenal short story "Guts" was up for the short fiction award (surprisingly, it didn't win). The convention's organizers didn't expect Palahniuk to attend; they figured he'd be too big-name and literary and Hollywood to have any interest in such a small genre con.

Turns out, the organizers were wrong; Palahniuk seemed really pleased to be there, and looked like he got a huge kick out of the assortment of horror fans and California goths who attended his late-night reading and signing the following day. When he signed books, he also put one of two stamps inside: one read "Haunted Tour 2005" and the other "Prison Library Copy".

As much as I admire his work, I dreaded meeting him. It's not uncommon for big-name novelists to be complete jerks; success leads to swollen, infected egos, and many authors begin to act as if dealing with fans and "lesser" writers is dreadfully beneath them. For instance, nobody's been able to identify who the murdered Guest of Honor portrayed in Sharyn McCrumb's novel Bimbos of the Death Sun is based on because there are so very many spoiled, nasty authors who fit that mold in real life.

My fears were unfounded; in person, Palahniuk is a very pleasant, gracious man. I sat across from him at the awards banquet; he preferred salmon over steak and has phenomenal table manners. With long hair, he looks a bit like a healthy version of Iggy Pop; with short hair, he bears a bit more resemblance to a thin Clive Owen. You might be tempted to apply the adjective "nice" to him, but "nice" just doesn't cut it considering the sheer intensity of his work.

Chuck Palahniuk (left) and Gary A. Braunbeck:

Before he read "Guts", Palahniuk talked to us a bit about a writing workshop he'd belonged to as a beginning writer. The workshop's leader had a background in acting, and thought it very important that his students learn how to be good readers of their own work.

So, to toughen his students up, the workshop leader would arrange for them to do readings of their work in wildly inappropriate places. Instead of quiet libraries and bookstores, he'd sign them up (often with no advance notice) at loud, busy coffeeshops and sports bars.

"This would lead to situations where someone would be reading their touching story about their child's bout with cancer in some bar full of drunk guys who were watching the Patriots play on the big-screen TV. And these guys would just not give a shit about the person reading," Palahniuk said.

The experience led Palahniuk to start writing each story as if he was eventually going to have to read it aloud in a place where he'd have to compete with a blaring football game for attention.

"Guts" is just such a story, and Palahniuk is an excellent reader. It's hard to tear your attention away, even if the faint of heart might want to after Palahniuk reaches the horrifying meat of the story. He says that when he's read the story for the public before, some people fled; those who could not flee have doubled over with their heads between their knees, trying to not listen to a tale that's going to stick in their heads like an icepick.

The extremity of Palahniuk's fiction was also formed by his admiration of Shirley Jackson's work. When her short story "The Lottery" came out in The New Yorker, many readers were completely horrified by it and promptly cancelled their subscriptions with outraged letters of protest to the magazine.

"In this day and age, what kind of fiction would you have to write to get that kind of extreme reaction in readers? What kind of fiction has that power?" Palahniuk said to us. "And so that's the kind of fiction I've tried to write."

Palahniuk engaged in correspondence with one of Shirley Jackson's daughters, and one thing led to another (he said he couldn't go into exactly what), and in the end the daughter sent him part of Jackson's cremated remains.

Palahniuk still remembers the day he got the cremains in the mail. His then-roommate hovered nearby as Palahniuk opened the box to find a foil package inside.

"Don't you dare open that at the kitchen table!" his roommate exclaimed.

Palahniuk sent Jackson's ashes on to his publishing company, who has them under lock and key.

While Palahniuk the man is far too kind and gracious to do anything untoward at the dinner table, Palahniuk the author will mix the ashes right in with the mashed potatoes. And if you dare take a bite, you'll find it's really very tasty.

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Monday, June 13, 2005

Guest Feature: The Newly Discovered Erotic Works of H. P. Lovecraft

by Toasterleavings


Possibly the single most disturbing aspect of the collected works of H. P. Lovecraft is his portrait, which combines the raw sexuality of a repressed televangelist, and passionate joie de vivre of a sleep-deprived mortician.

It is therefore with no small degree of trepidation that I reveal that which has been covered in darkness and kept far from the world's innocent light, that none shall need quiver with base corruption*: The erotica of H.P. Lovecraft.

Some quotes from a selection of the less lurid works are displayed below:

  • The Temptations of Shub-Niggurath
    "Her teats swollen with hellish sustenance, goat rump shewed high and sinister under that greenish alien moon. A monstrous guilt assailed me. I do not recall when, the shrieking vapours were clouding my faculties and robbingreason, yet I became aroused and was drawn to her, all the while gibbering in a dark tongue."
  • Nyarlathotep cried 'Proceed!'
    "The hellish season progressed indeterminably, without change or hope of succor. I had heard many pray in strange words for sign of rain. Whatever gods to which they had once owed control had died or left, and other unknownable forces had crept forth and taken ownership of their lives. It was then that I saw Nyarlathotep. He was of the old native blood, swarthy, lithe limbed and mysterious. He was carrying strange instruments of glass and metal, yet I could only seem to focus on his proud profile, and tight, high, Nile bred buttocks. My head swam with a black dizziness, and as if gripped by compulsion occult, I staggered toward him. Dark, unfathomable eyes drank me completely, and I knew that I was his creature, by choice or force."
  • The Alarming Excesses of the Fish-Cultists
    "...it was then that they spied me, peering through the begrimed pane, as they cavorted and gibbered before that degenerate idol. I had been unable to properly view the creature, crudely constructed from filth and mud. Its form had seemed to swim across my vision, mere glimpses of a tentacled head, a mad staring chaos of eyes. I had momentarily swooned, and brushed the pane with my hand, alerting the base revellers within. They took me before the idol, and savagely rent the clothes from my person. Naked but for my protective belly sigils, I quivered upon the dank, slick floor. In moments they were upon me, probing, tweaking, licking, spanking. A profusion of gills, bewebbed fingers, degenerate scaled limbs and wet tongues. Luckily, I was powerless to stop them."

As you can see, H.P. was possessed of a powerful sexuality, limited in expressive form by the circumstances of his life. He obviously preferred the passive; hence much swooning and compulsion. Some of his darker works are not fit for publication, but will be featured in an Entertainment Tonight feature story, and discussed at length by theologians in suspiciously darkened rooms.

*naturally, I'm all for base corruption.


Toasterleavings is widely recognized as the world's foremost authority on beak helmets, pioneered the use of soldering irons to cure scurvy, and may go all the way to eleven. His turn-ons include the busy tentacles of Cthulhu, Influenza, and wacky dinosaur collisions captured on 8mm. Her turn-offs include star signs, a variety of wooden planks, and cow-eating bitchfaces. Currently he develops immersive Smurf simulation software and spandex based weaponry for the military. Available for parties or eulogies.

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Thursday, July 08, 2004

Whoa, wait a minute -- this is supposed to be a horror story!
by Gary A. Braunbeck

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

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

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

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

And I keep wondering: Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The solution is simple: Don't do that.

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

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Wednesday, May 26, 2004

The Bram Stoker Awards
by Gary A. Braunbeck

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

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

Currently, Stokers are awarded in the following categories:
  • Novel
  • First Novel
  • Short Fiction
  • Long Fiction
  • Fiction Collection
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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.

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Sunday, December 21, 2003

A school's fear of horror stories
by Gary A. Braunbeck

Friday I got a phone call from my sister, who was nearly in hysterics because of a series of phone calls she'd just received from, respectively, my nephew's school, the school's psychologist, and Social Services. All 3 are of the opinion that my nephew--who just turned 12--is potentially another Columbine shooter, another Charles Whitman, and another Freeway Sniper.

(An aside: as you may know from the national news, for the last several weeks those of us who live in central Ohio--specifically the Columbus area--have been beset by a series of freeway shootings along 1-270; the sniper, thus far uncaught, has killed one person and wounded several others; all of this has led to a rabid concern which has, as of late, turned into a very unhealthy sort of paranoia, despite the valiant efforts on the part of the authorities to nab this asshole or assholes who evidently have watched Targets one time too many. But that's another rant.)

So how did my nephew--who is frightened of violence in any form--come to find himself labeled a "potential" violent offender?

Horror stories.

I love my nephew, and he loves and respects me. He thinks it's just the greatest thing in the world that his uncle has published ten books, the majority of them in the horror field. My sister has told me more than once that I am the father figure in my nephew's life, and I have no problems with that. (Eric's biological father has been pretty much out of the picture since Eric was 3, and his stepfather doesn't much like Eric and takes every opportunity to remind him of this fact; so the role of surrogate Daddy falls to me.)

Because he thinks I'm the coolest guy walking and breathing, Eric also wants to be a horror writer--a notion I do everything in my power to encourage. But at the same time, I make damn sure that he reads stuff other than horror. (Too much of anything stifles quickly.)

So ... Eric's class was recently assigned to write Christmas stories. Being my nephew, Eric naturally chose to write a Christmas horror story. It's actualy fairly clever--a variation on Poe's "The Cask of Amontilado". It's about a disgruntled elf who, because he refuses to be fat and jolly (he's skinny and grumpy) decides to wall-up Santa one Christmas Eve just so the jolly old fat man will get off his case.

Eric's teacher, while extremely complimentary of the story, was disturbed by its content (which is darkly humorous, in the style of Roald Dahl--Eric has a surprisingly black and sarcastic sense of humor in his stories); then said teacher, who evidently has nothing else in their life to hold their interest, decided to make Eric show her what books he was currently reading for his own pleasure.

So he did.

Eric is currently reading a novel by author Nancy Etchemendy (I may have misspelled her last name, apologies if that is the case) which Nancy signed and gave to him at the last Horrorfind convention in Baltimore. Eric also showed his teacher an autographed copy of Clive barker's The Thief of Always and a copy of Neil Gaiman's wonmderful Coraline, this last being a book he's reading at my urging.

Said teacher then took these books away from him and, along with his Christmas story, marched into the principal's office and threw them on the desk, stating that she thinks Eric has "potential" problems with violence, and that he is "disturbed." The elf in the story is one who's been picked on constantly and decides to strike back. The teacher, principal, and psychologist couldn't for the life of them figure out why Eric might feel this way.

Flash back to four days ago: Eric was being picked on outside the school by some bully who decided it would be funny to trip Eric, who at the time had a handful of evil, evil books he was using to fuel his psychopathology. Eric did not have time to drop said books and shove his arms out to break his fall.

As a result, Eric hit a large rock face-first, gashed his nose, and shattered his glasses; to make it a truly memorable experience, a few shards of glass lodged in his fucking eye and resulted in his having to wear a patch over that eye while the wound heals (the damage was not permanent, thank the Fates, and he'll be seeing fine again in a few weeks).

And yet this assembly of Mensa members at Eric's school couldn't figure out why he felt like he was being picked on.

Hands were wrung, worried glances exchanged, phone calls made.

Eric's "obssession" with horror is "unhealthy" and "might" lead to "potential" violent behavior; Eric Must Be Watched Closely, lest he do the Columbine Boogie between lunch and Arts & Crafts; my nephew is a "potential threat to the safety of the other students"; and Social Services--whom I do not blame, they're only acting on what information has been made available to them, which is their job--will be sending someone to my sister's house to "...observe the home environment."

What has been made crystal clear, though, is that Eric "must" undergo some form of psychological testing to ensure that he's not going to walk into Band class with a rocket launcher and go hunting humans.

All of this because he likes to read and write horror stories.

I am so fucking angry over this I can hardly see straight.

So beware, all of you, one 12-year-old Eric, The Threat To Society; beware, all of you, his unbalanced and dangerous uncle who planted the seeds of psychosis in a young boy's brain; but most of all, most importantly of all, beware those who read and write horror stories; our secret cabal has been revealed, our true purpose thrown into the light, our dark hidden agenda exposed.

We're out to get each and every last one of you. The revolution is coming, and we'll kill you in your sleep with our well-read copies of Ghost Story, The Stand, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, The Vampire Lestat! Charlie Manson and his family got nothing on us, and we're coming to get you.

Beware. Beware.

The horror...the horror.

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Hello, and welcome!

I'm Lucy Snyder. I'm a Worthington, Ohio author and former magazine editor; on this site you'll find my writing as well as features from my husband, novelist Gary A. Braunbeck.

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