Posted on April 18, 2011 by Flames
Explore the world of writing horror from a Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild award-winning author’s point of view. Gary Braunbeck uses film, fiction and life experience to elucidate the finer points of storytelling, both in and out of genre. This part-autobiographical, always analytical book looks at how stories develop and what makes them work-or not work-when they’re told.
Be warned: reality is as brutal as fiction. Rob Zombie, police shootings, William Goldman and human misery are all teachers to the horror neophyte, and Braunbeck uses their lessons to make To Each Their Darkness a whirlwind of horror and hope for the aspiring writer.
Flames Rising is pleased to present the introduction to this book by Gary Braunbeck.
Preamble: Welcome to My Abyss
Eight years ago I wrote a non-fiction book entitled Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror As a Way of Life. It was, at the time, the best I could make it. Upon its release it received a lot of very kind reviews and was later honored with a Bram Stoker Award nomination from the Horror Writers Association. Since then, it has gone out of print, the rights have reverted back to me, and if you want a copy you can easily find one at any number of on-line booksellers (used and otherwise) – but be careful: some of them are charging outrageous amounts. Believe me when I tell you, do not pay more than the original cover price of $40.00. Never say I offered no help during these uncertain economic times.
I was not then, nor am I now, completely happy with the way Fear… turned out. It’s not just the formatting mistakes and typos that were in that edition (though rest assured I did not do the Happy Dance about those), but I always felt as if the book had come this close to its goal and my intention only to run out of steam in the home stretch. There are few worse feelings in a writer’s professional career than to realize that you’ve loosed a piece on the world that, in some ways, was either not yet ready to be written, or was ready to be written … just not by you, not as you were then, with your limited emotional inner-vocabulary.
Don’t misunderstand; I remain proud of Fear… and will happily sign it for those who have in the years since gone to the trouble to track down a copy because they’ve heard such good things about it. In many ways (which I briefly touched upon in the original edition) the writing of Fear… saved my sanity and my life. It reinvigorated my creative drive (which had been all but nonexistent) and my determination to live the rest of my life as well as I could and bring no further pain, anxiety, sadness, disappointment, fear, or the infliction of loneliness into it than I already had – and believe me, I’ve done more than my share of spreading around the misery as fairly as I can, especially in my younger days.
In the Introduction to the first collection of Cedar Hill stories, Graveyard People, I wrote, with tongue firmly in cheek, the following words:
“What you now hold in your hands is the first collection … of my Cedar Hill stories (in) the order in which they appear in the Cedar Hill Cycle, an ongoing work that will see completion only when I die.”
Somehow I don’t find that quite as funny now as I did then (more on that later).
It occurs to me that this explanation has taken on a far-too-somber quality far too soon, so instead of carrying on in this borderline-melancholic tone, I’ll take a breath and continue slouching toward the point.
If you’re like me, you always feel a little apprehension when an author releases the “preferred version” of a previous book. There are naturally numerous reasons for this, not the least being that this is the version of the book that existed before an editor got his or her red pencils on it. It could be that the previous version of the book was the better version, thanks to a keen editorial eye that caught not only typos and continuity problems, but was also able to find the excess fat when the writer became self-indulgent and mercilessly trimmed away elements that might very well have bored readers to despair. It could also be that the book was gutted in order to meet an absurd word- or page-count by a mass-market publisher or, in some cases, because the fucking font used by said mass-market publisher was set in stone and the length of the manuscript exceeded the previously-mentioned acceptable page count because of the required use of said font.
So here you are, looking at an author’s “preferred” version of a book you purchased, read, and enjoyed years ago (if you hadn’t enjoyed the original, you wouldn’t be standing there with the new edition in your hand wondering should I or shouldn’t I). It really is a crap-shoot, because sometimes the “preferred” editions add depth to the characters and storyline, fill in little plotholes that you noticed on the way but decided didn’t really matter, and give the overall narrative a stronger and more confident cohesiveness that you didn’t even realize had been missing until now. And sometimes all a “preferred” edition does is dump in the fertilizer that the original editor worked months to shovel out, a heavy-duty filter mask covering the nose and mouth at all times.
Examples of “preferred” versions that fit in the category of the former: The Totem, by David Morrell; The Throat, by Peter Straub; Robert Dunbar’s The Pines; and F. Paul Wilson’s Rakoshi (originally published as The Tomb, the novel that marked the debut of Repairman Jack). For the latter category (and here’s where I’m going to piss off a lot of folks), I have one grand example: The Stand: Complete and Uncut by Stephen King. For me, the new material added zilch to that epic, except for some really grotesque background details about certain characters that neither humanized them more, nor enriched relationships, nor did anything to move the story forward; in fact, sequences in the original version that I’d found terrifying and exhilarating were now bloated and mind-numbingly repetitive. I had to force myself to finish it. And King is a writer whose work I usually greatly respect and admire (I think Pet Sematary will co-exist alongside the works of Poe, Hawthorne, Lovecraft, and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk until the multiverse implodes and we’re all reduced to the final vibrations on the unseen strings running through the three sheets of space and one sheet of time, and don’t even get me started on The Dead Zone, a novel I re-read every year … but already I digress).
It is a few months away from the middle of 2010 as I write this, which means it is also a few months from my 50th birthday (this said by the guy who didn’t have a game plan past 40 because he really didn’t expect to still be here), and the person I am now, like the narrator of The Indifference of Heaven (a.k.a. In Silent Graves), is coming to grips with the truth of his mortality; it’s no longer some abstract concept happily pushed back into the fog youthful denial but an actual figure closing in from the distance, with recognizable features and questionable breath. So here I am, re-examining the horror field and the validity of my place in it, and whether or not my overall body of work has any real worth or purpose. (Hey, I’m almost 50, fer chrissakes! Allow me nine lines of middle-aged crisis morbid musings. Your turn is coming. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.)
I look back on the person I was eight years ago and find that he embarrasses me. His impatience, his anger, his almost complete disregard for his own health, his naïveté, and his selfishness; Christ, his selfishness. Yeah, he’d managed to survive some nastiness (okay, okay, a lot of nastiness) from his childhood, his teenage years, his early adult life, blah-blah-blah, and he was trying to believe that the worst was over and he was now firmly walking down the road of health, happiness, and success. He had no idea that all of the shit that had happened to him up to that point – or that he’d walked into or caused himself – was just a warm-up, the comic in baggy pants with a spritzer bottle and banana-cream pie, the opening act to the final third of his life where more than a few surprises were waiting up the multiverse’s sleeve, some of which were going to land on his head like a curse from Heaven.
But I do have at least one thing to thank him for; he had a hand in helping to get me to the point where I am, at last, ready to write the book that Fear in a Handful of Dust should have been.
And so …
That does not mean that what you’re reading at this moment is the “preferred” version of Fear… — no; had that been the case, I would have kept the original title and simply added a “Revised and Expanded” beneath it in smaller letters. Consider this book to be the equivalent of a variation on a theme. It’s a bit more orderly, a bit more directly honest, a little less stream-of-consciousness (but not much), more focused on the writing process (and the pitfalls that process often presents if one is not careful), and if you’re expecting to find the entire text of the original between these covers … sorry, not happening. It has nothing to do with any esoteric or “artful” (gaaah! – that word!) pretensions on my part. But it does have everything to do with those of you who purchased the original edition, and those of you who have purchased this “…variation on a theme.”
As a reader and lover of limited edition books, nothing makes me want to grab a rifle and climb a water tower more than shelling out forty-bucks-plus-shipping for a limited edition, only to see the exact same book, word-for-word, come out a few years later in a much less expensive trade paperback edition. (Yes, I still tend to overreact from time to time). It completely negates the collectability of the original edition and makes the reader feel like a rube, like he or she has fallen for the old bait-and-switch.
If you are one who purchased the original edition and may be thinking that you’ve been had, know this: probably a little more than 40% of the original text is contained within these pages. What reprinted text there is has not been altered in any way (with the exception of correcting typos and errors in grammar and syntax). I think you’re going to appreciate the new material and having this as a companion piece to the book you purchased eight years ago.
If you are one who didn’t purchase the original because the forty-bucks-plus-shipping for the limited edition was way the hell out of your financial comfort zone, you should find the cover price of this Apex edition much more agreeable, and you’ll be getting the book that I’d always intended the original to be. I wanted to make certain that no one comes away feeling as if they got the bad end of the deal. I spent a lot of time worrying over this, and I hope you find my solution to be a fair and equitable one. The book was simply too important for me to give up on.
Which, finally, leads me to the new title and …
As mentioned earlier, the original edition was subtitled Horror as a Way of Life, and it actually came close – this close – to conveying what I wanted to get across to those folks – readers, writers, editors, book reviewers – who, in one form or another, seemed to frequently and loudly bemoan the stale state of the horror field, yet most, when asked what might be done about it, just cast a downward glance and shook their heads in bemused resignation. Horror fell into a sickening rut in the late 80s and early 90s and that’s what lead to its demise; everybody was writing the same kind of book that was being written by everybody else, and if someone, through sheer cosmic accident, happened to produce a piece of work that was original, that dealt with the terrors within as well as without, that offered unique situations and fully-developed three-dimensional characters reacting as real human beings would react when faced with such a dark challenge, well … there was no dearth of evil-clown artwork that could be slapped on the cover to make it look like everything else. (Ask the wonderful, overlooked and underrated writer Joseph Citro about this, whose handful of excellent novels during this period were all but treated as afterthoughts – evil clown covers included – and which are now being reprinted by a first-rate regional publisher, Hardscrabble Books, in New England, and treated as the works of literary merit they always were … but the publisher never shies away from mentioning the more horrific elements to be found between the covers – not one of which has an evil clown in sight.)
Well, here it is, nine years past the 2001 so daringly envisioned by the remarkable Arthur C. Clarke, and Horror has been enjoying something of a renaissance since entering the new century. Oh, man, it really looked good when the books first started shipping out of the warehouses around 2002 – 2003. Mass-market publishers were taking chances with some risky, emotional, challenging, even experimental and surrealistic material. The subject matter grappled with in these books – not to mention the skill and manner with which it was tackled – was for a while awfully exciting. It seemed like this stuff was so gloriously all over the road, something new and different every month, nothing predictable or pedestrian – hell, even some of the covers weren’t what you expected. It was time to see what the horror-hungry public was now ready to flock to, a public that had been surviving on expensive limited- and numbered-editions from a small handful of specialty presses that somehow managed to not lose their shirts in the interim. For a few years – say, up until 2005 – 2006 – it looked as if Horror was truly going to pull itself by its bootstraps and start climbing toward a new and higher creative precipice where it could evolve into what Robert R. McCammon once called “… the supreme mythic literature of our time.” Whoo-hoo! Groovy, even! I’ll just grab my wallet and then — let me at ‘em! Would we see the resurrection of the traditional ghost story? I wondered. Would the countless purveyors of so-called psychological horror grow enough of a spine to move out of the niche created by Thomas Harris and Hannibal Lector? Would the plethora of second- and third-rate Stephen King wannabes finally feel that second testicle drop and dare step out of his (justifiably) massive shadow? Might this next generation of writers bring with them an aesthetic and intelligence honed by reading of past masters? Would there at long last be that oh-so-longed-for daring move into cross-genre work? The editors were swearing that Horror wouldn’t fall into the same old rut of the late 80s – early 90s. And, much to my surprise, it didn’t.
It created a completely new rut to fall into.
The rut of the 80s and early 90s was guarded by vampires and psycho killers.
The new rut – and what a roomy, bottomless rut it seems – is guarded by … vampires, psycho killers …
… and zombies.
Lots and lots and lots of zombies, some of which carry the shredded flesh of Jane Austen in what’s left of their teeth; others are still chewing on H.G. Welles, or Jules Verne, or .. I’ve lost track. After the publication of Brian Keene’s Stoker Award-winning The Rising the renewed interest in the undead was fast and furious (and I am not blaming Brian for this, so no nasty e-mails, please). Yeah, fast and furious, and a lot of Keene’s imitators produced work that was, at best, of journeyman quality. Most of it was just awful – no sense of character, no original plots or plot elements, just face-paced blood and guts and zombies.
Lots and lots and lots of zombies.
(This is all leading up to my explaining the new title, so stay with me.)
I have grown to hate zombies. For the record, I have written only 3 zombie stories in my career, and one of them – “We Now Pause for Station Identification” – won the third of my five Bram Stoker Awards.
I love a good zombie story when it’s done well, when it’s in the hands of someone with skill, wit, intelligence, and the ability to instill it with more than one level. Anthologies like those edited by Christopher Golden, Kim Paffenroth, John Joseph Adams, and the Prime Books anthology Zombies: The Recent Dead, edited by Paula Guran (which should see release shortly after this book) are excellent examples. But don’t kid yourselves: the quality of the stories you’ll find in these collections are the exception, not the norm.
The recent and near-ubiquitous trend of “reimagining” classic works of literature by adding zombies or vampires or sea monsters or IRS agents – okay, that last one hasn’t happened yet, but it’s probably coming soon: Wise Blood-Sucking Vampire IRS Agents – got on my nerves in a hurry. I read Seth Graham-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and liked it; it was funny enough to hold my interest and showed a lot of imagination on the author’s part; there were a couple of times where I could not differentiate his prose from that of the author on whose dead spine he was doing cartwheels. It was a fun read, but that was all. Now we’re seeing – from both the major mass-market house as well as the specialty press – a plethora of “revisionist” classics wherein characters such as Mr. Darcy or Huck Finn (with Zombie Jim), as well as others mentioned previously, being picked over the last remains of meat on a turkey drumstick. At least Graham-Smith demonstrated some craft in his novel, but the imitators that have followed in its wake are the equivalent of on-line fan fiction. They’re mostly terrible. The writers don’t even bother with craft, they simply find sections of the original text that can be excised so that they can insert their beastie of choice. In olden days, this would have been called hackwork.
I know an excellent writer currently enjoying a rise in his popularity who can string together some of the loveliest sentences that work on both the micro- and macro-writing levels. His prose is confident, his sense of pacing a wonder to behold, and his characterization is solid. Problem is, nearly all of his books have been inspired almost completely by Stephen King’s books. And it shows. Most of the time said writer is just employing King-like concepts and tropes as a jumping-off point; the King-like familiarity grabs readers’ attention, pulls them into the novel, and keeps their attention as he smoothly moves into his own original storyline and fresh ideas. There is another up-and-coming writer I know who cites horror movies and their directors as being her major influence. And it shows. She couldn’t write a good sentence if guns were being held on her family and one of them killed each time she over-used adjectives. Like the writer mentioned earlier in this paragraph, you can correctly infer that there is something missing from their work for me – the same thing I find that is missing from a majority of new horror being published by newcomers: the authenticity of an individual literary vision – in short, too much of it reads like what’s come before, and what’s going to come after will be just like what came before and what comes after it … ad nauseam.
I have a theory about this, about why it’s happened before and why it’s happening now.
Too many Horror writers are afraid to bring their own personal darkness to the surface and use it to instill their work with that authenticity; it’s just easier to use what’s come before – or elements of what’s come before – because it’s immediately recognizable by readers. Vampires. Ghouls. Serial Killers. Science experiments gone awry … and zombies. Lots and lots and lots of zombies.
Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Joyce Carol Oates, Poe, Kelly Link, Caitlin Kiernan, Jonathan Carroll. Names you know, and whose books you have read. You know what sets them apart? They know their own darknesses, have come to grips with it, and are now in control. They also like to mix it up as often as possible; with the exception of Poe, all of them write or have written some impressive cross-genre works, works that terrify, frighten, disturb, move, and chill you because they know the big secret: terror is an extremely intimate thing, and if that terror feels mass-manufactured, then all is lost. So they instill their own personal darknesses into their work – carefully, subtly, quietly, often imperceptibly – so that when the set pieces come, when all hell breaks loose, they have drawn the reader so deeply into the narrative that there’s no escape; story and reader have become one because said reader has been made to feel that the writer has written this book or story exclusively for them, and they accept the writer’s individual darkness because it has come through so well on the page – because the writer, as Yeats so succinctly put it, had the “reckless courage” to enter into the abyss of him- or herself, submerged themselves in that abyss until they have gathered the darkness needed for the work, and then made it back to the surface and to the keyboard for the most part unharmed.
Each has gone to their darkness and shared it brilliantly on the page.
If only the next generation of horror writers could learn from this. But most of them aren’t; most of them have no influences that existed before 1982, and much of their work doesn’t read so much as a horror novels as they do film or mini-series treatments. They walk nowhere near the Abyss of the Self where their personal darkness awaits at the bottom, so they cannot bring that element of authenticity to their work. But their darkness is still there, waiting.
I see the EXIT door ahead, so …
I decided to re-title this book To Each Their Darkness as a reminder that until you have explored your Abyss and brought back the materials you need to enrich your work, that missing authenticity will always be AWOL. And it’s not only your loss, but your readers’ loss, as well.
Not to mention that of your story or novel.
And all of them deserve better. They deserve to be steps upon which the horror field can reach that new precipice upon which it comes ever closer to being the supreme mythic literature of our time.
To Each Their Darkness, then.
I’d like to share some of mine with you. Welcome to my Abyss.
Gary A. Braunbeck is a prolific author who writes mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mainstream literature. He is the author of 19 books; his fiction has been translated into Japanese, French, Italian, Russian and German. Nearly 200 of his short stories have appeared in various publications. Some of his most popular stories are mysteries that have appeared in the Cat Crimes anthology series.
Gary’s fiction has received several awards, including the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction in 2003 for “Duty” and in 2005 for “We Now Pause for Station Identification”; his collection Destinations Unknown won a Stoker in 2006. His novella “Kiss of the Mudman” received the International Horror Guild Award for Long Fiction in 2005.