I see the sentiment expressed in horror circles often: “I read and write horror, but I don’t often read anything which actually scares me.” Of course, the word to consider here is “scare.” I have this discussion with my English classes every year when we read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. They always ask, as I’m handing out Jackson’s seminal haunted house novel, “Will this be scary?” I always answer, “Let’s talk about that word and what it means.” We discuss the differences between the adrenaline-based reaction they refer to as “scary”—what they experience while watching a horror movie in the theaters—and the nature of “horror” and being “horrified.”
Eventually we come to the truth that, most likely, they won’t be scared when reading The Haunting of Hill House. Though there are some suspenseful moments, they most likely won’t feel the same adrenaline-laced fear they experience when watching a horror movie (of course, this then sparks a discussion in the different ways in which horror movies and horror fiction tell a story and deliver an impact, but we don’t have space to retell all that here).
They might, however, feel a sense of unease or even horror when considering Eleanor Vance’s life, how she was dominated for years by her invalid, overbearing mother. Maybe they’ll feel some horror when they learn that Eleanor’s existence is so empty and devoid of meaning she believes crashing her car into a tree so she can remain in Hill House forever (because whatever walks there, walks alone), is far preferable to going on in what little life she has. There is where the horror of that novel lies.
If this seems like a winding path toward Gary A. Braunbeck and how his work has impact me, hold on, because we’re just about there. I have to confess to occasionally expressing the same sentiment which kicked this column off: I love horror and all it offers, but it’s not often I read something which actually scares me. And to be honest, I experienced a major turning point in my own writing when I stopped trying to “write scary” and focused instead on telling stories about emotions and the human experience.
But Gary Braunbeck holds the distinct honor of having written some of the very few novels which have actually scared me. Of course, the circumstances for the first time this happened were perfect. My wife was in Colorado for the week visiting her sister, who’d just had her first baby. I was home alone with the kids. I was also reading In Silent Graves, in which main protagonist Robert Londrigan loses his wife and unborn daughter in a horrific tragedy. So there I was, home alone, with my wife several states away, reading about this man who’s had the center of his life ripped from him. And my wife still had to fly home from Colorado.
Did I mention I really don’t like planes?
Perhaps, if I was less imaginative, I wouldn’t have so easily taken Robert Londrigan’s scenario and pasted it onto my own. And it was only my wife at risk flying back from Colorado, not my whole family. But even so, Braunbeck was able to tap into those devastating emotions so well. Reading In Silent Graves late into the night after my kids had gone to sleep and I’d signed off from Skype with my wife in Colorado turned into a pleasurable (because horror-folks like to be scared) nightmare as Robert’s story unfolded.
Maybe it was just because I read it late at night, all alone. Maybe it was the circumstances of my wife being away, and fearing everything that could go wrong on her flight back, and it was merely happenstance Braunbeck’s story managed to tap into that fear (not a fear of planes, mind you, just the fear of losing my wife).
And let’s be honest: Underneath my happy-go-lucky exterior, I’m a bit of worrier. Once I get something worrisome in my head, it’s very hard to shake it loose, even though I may not look worried at all. Most likely, other folks not nearly as imaginative or as worrisome as me wouldn’t have felt scared reading that novel at all.
But it scared me. The concept of losing my wife. The prospect of that gut-wrenching loneliness afterward. Mix in the fear of what it would feel like to lose everyone I loved, and that novel left me in a weepy little mess.
I also couldn’t stop reading it, and finished it long before my wife returned home.
My first exposure to Gary Braunbeck’s work came in the form of Leisure Fiction’s ARC (advance reading copy) of Coffin County. This was still several years before my milestone evening spent with Tom Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson and Stuart David Schiff, but this novel still cracked my mind open in unbelievable ways. Not only was the prose deliciously eloquent (almost purple at times, in that wonderfully lush way no one else can ever imitate), but the novel was deeply mysterious, a trait so often lacking from a lot of average, run of the mill horror.
In fact, that’s one of the things I appreciate most about Gary’s work, this deep sense of existential mystery running through his stories, his Cedar Hill Cycle in particular. Gary’s not just writing gory little tales to give you the shivers, he’s tackling BIG THINGS ABOUT THE COSMOS head on, grappling with them, trying to pin them down into some sort of meaning. Whether or not Gary ever feels as if he’s succeeded in this struggle for meaning, (and if he felt like he did, I imagine his fiction would lose much of its tension), this struggle for meaning is what gives his work such power and resonance. Why is the world like this? Why do bad things happen? Why does it seem as if Evil always wins? Is there any meaning to any of this? What is nature of death, why do we have to die?
One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from his nonfiction writing memoir, To Each Their Darkness, and it expresses this need for meaning just as eloquently as his fiction:
What I see is pain and isolation that empowers not the sufferers, but that which afflicts them. I want a reason for this. I want a reason for babies born with cancer, for the endless supply of thoughtless cruelties both little and large we inflict on one another on an everyday basis, for old folks who are abandoned to die alone and unwanted and unloved.
I want an explanation, please, for all of the soul-sick, broken-hearted people who become so hollowed by their aloneness that they turn on the gas, eat the business end of shotgun, or find a ceiling beam that can take their weight. I want sense made of this. I want to know the reason why…and since none is forthcoming, either from above or those around me, I’ve decided to try and find an answer on my own. So far, the best—the only—way for me to work toward this is through writing horror stories. – Gary Braunbeck
In the course of Coffin County, Braunbeck delves into some pretty serious theological territory searching for the meaning behind what looks like senseless violence in the brutal slayings of a serial killer. In Coffin County, we’re posed the following question: Why do serial killers exist? Why are so many people killed in such senseless explosions of violence?
Well, as Coffin County tells us, it’s because God’s pissed we murdered His only son. He got so angry He, in a fit of rage, created the End of the World, a point in time even He couldn’t erase, bringing to life the old philosophical argument: Can God Create A Rock So Big He Can’t Lift It?
In any case, Judas—the Betrayer—screams from the corner of Hell that he alone should bear the punishment for Christ’s death, not the entire world. God comes up with a solution. In simplified terms: Judas is sent back into the world as an everlasting serial killer. Every person he kills—someone whom folks will remember and mourn—buys extra time against the end of the world, because it brings the world’s pain closer into balance with the pain God felt over the death of his son. It’s a fascinating—and absolutely horrifying—concept, a story grappling with the age-old question of how and why God could allow so much death and violence in our world.
Even more horrifying, the novel’s protagonist, Ben, is offered the chance to have his dead wife and son back, so long as he continues Judas’ work. For everyone he kills, not only is the world’s end staved off, he gets one more day with his dead family. It’s one of those novels you close and think: I’d never do something like that. Would I?
And with a dim sense of horror, you realize there’s no easy answer forthcoming.
Gary Braunbeck owns the distinct honor of not only scaring me once with one his novels, but then scaring me a second time. Roughly a year after reading In Silent Graves when my wife was away, I was reading Mr. Hands on my flight to my very first genre/writing convention ever, MoCon, in Indianapolis. At one point in Mr. Hands, Gary recounts the story of drunk’s terrible, selfish treatment of his sick daughter, which leads to her death.
Though I wasn’t a drunk and there was little to no similarities between myself and this character, it got into my head (which is what Gary does so well). I found myself thinking about all the times I had to stop what I was doing to care for one of my kids when they were sick, because, as chance would have it, my daughter was about the same age as this little girl. Even though this fictional character and I weren’t alike at all, something in that scene reminded me of all the petty selfishness which existed inside of me, and made me fear the kind of father I’d be if only a few things about my life had turned out to be just a little different.
The upshot of all this? That I should never read Gary A. Braunbeck when separated from my loved ones by a plane ride, or while riding on a plane myself.
In Silent Graves wasn’t just an emotional roller coaster ride, however. It was one of the first horror novels I read which seemed like it was going about important business, telling an important story which extended past thrills and frights. The same goes for his following Cedar Hill novels Mr. Hands, The Keepers, Coffin County (as mentioned), and Far Dark Fields.
See, for those just joining us: I came to the horror genre through the “side door.” I grew up a science fiction fan and spent several years trying to write it. When my taste for science fiction dulled, I turned my eyes to horror. For me—as it has been with so many others—Stephen King proved to be my “gateway drug.” I read Desperation and The Stand, and that was it for me. I’d fallen in love with horror, and wanted to write it.
The problem, of course, was that Stephen King was a genre unto himself. I didn’t ever think his kind of horror would be something I’d be able to replicate. And as I started wading into the genre, hooking up with Leisure and other publishers to receive ARCs for review so I could see if horror was the genre for me, I started to doubt myself. I certainly enjoyed most of the horror novels I read for review, but most of them didn’t seem to mean anything past their plots, if that makes any sense. They weren’t about anything important.
But Coffin County threw me for a tailspin. Here was this brooding, intelligent, philosophical/theological horror novel about why evil is allowed to happen in this world. When I found my way to In Silent Graves, and then Mr. Hands and the rest of the Cedar Hill cycle, though I knew I could never copy what Braunbeck did, I realized I’d found horror worth reading, the kind of horror worth writing. Braunbeck’s work was about something important. In Silent Graves grappled with everything from grief to myth and religion, quantum physics and multiverses, to those who are marginalized because of their physical deformities. My God, it literally covers—or tries to—everything.
Mr. Hands dealt with not only child abduction and grieving, but the obsession with revenge. The Keepers talked about reincarnation, time, a love which extends past death, multiverses, and all the creatures God sorta “forgot” to put on His Ark. Far Dark Fields brings all of these novels and all their pain and death and ties them together, trying, once again, to offer meaning for all the terrible things which happen in the world. These stories offered not only horror but a deep pondering of the universe, serious metaphysical concepts for the brain to chew on.
They were about something deeply important.
When I first started writing horror fiction, not only was my work very trope-ridden (I’m sure the argument could be made that it still is), but my characters tended to be larger-than-life figures with square jaws, mean right hooks, and maybe even (to my undying shame) unsurpassable martial arts skills and vampire-killing samurai swords. And of course, they also probably had “demon blood” in them, which gave them not only superpowers to fight these monsters, but also angsty conflict over whether they were “human” or not. (Yes, this story exists. No, it was never published—Thank God).
It took some time, but eventually I became more and more interested in writing about regular, in-the-trenches-type-folks who were just as concerned with next month’s rent or next week’s groceries than anything else. Gary Braunbeck’s characters have played a huge role in this development. I remember the first time I read “Union Dues” and considered the dull, numbing (but no less terrifying) horror which could be found in everyday life, in the legacy of a family doomed to manual labor, or working in industry, or the horror which comes from unemployment, poverty, and labor tensions. Being somewhat lower-middle class myself, raised middle class (a middle class which has gradually disappeared over time) Braunbeck’s work has helped me carry out the advice Mort Castle once gave me about looking deep into my own conflicts and questions to find horror worth writing about.
I don’t know anything about growing up in an industrial working class like many of Braunbeck’s protagonists. But reading those stories further turned my gaze inward into my own life and experience, prompting me to begin mining horror there, nudging me to look for monsters in the mirror or on the sidewalk or at work, rather than in demons or old ancient tomes.
I finished Prodigal Blues recently. At the novel’s end, I’m pretty sure I sat and stared sightless for several minutes, trying to absorb and process everything I’d binge-read in the space of three days. I gotta be honest, that one has been sitting on my shelf for years, because as much I love everything written by Braunbeck, the novel’s subject matter—sex trafficking of children and teens—was daunting to say the least. I was genuinely afraid of not only what I might experience in reading it, but also terrified of what Braunbeck might do to me emotionally over the course of the novel (are we seeing a trend, here?)
Suffice to say it was simultaneously one of the most terrifyingly visceral, emotional, gut-wrenching (and at times gut-churning), yet beautiful novels I’ve ever read. Of course, it was written by Gary Braunbeck; I should’ve have expected no less. It owes its impact to another trait of Braunbeck’s which has very much impacted me. Gary Braunbeck doesn’t look away from the horrible things of the world.
“Akira Kurosawa was a Japanese film director and screenwriter, and horror folks like to quote him often for saying: “The role of the artist is to not look away.”
Gary Braunbeck doesn’t look away, and he doesn’t allow his readers to look away, either. There are things in this world which are horrible, things we don’t want to think about which makes us sick to our stomachs, and we would much rather ignore them and go about our happy, carefree way.
But that doesn’t work for Gary Braunbeck. He’s going to show us these terrible things because to ignore them is what allows them to exist in the first place. He will MAKE us look upon these horrible things, to acknowledge them, and to rob them of their hiding place in the shadows.
However, what separates Braunbeck from those who try to be edgy, hardcore and explicit is Braunbeck’s heart, which beats so strongly behind everything he writes. Why do we need to see these dark things? Not for shock value, or to deaden the senses, or for cheap sensationalism or gory thrills. Braunbeck shows us these horrible things, he refuses to look away, because looking away means further marginalizing those who are marginalized, it means they are not important enough for our gaze. In some ways—though his work is darker than Koontz’s—I’m very much reminded by Braunbeck’s work through another one of my favorite quotes:
I want to say to the reader…Take my hand. We’re going to go through this horrifying place, and things will happen that are too horrifying to think about, but it’s going to be all right at the other end. There’s going to be meaning and purpose to this. Trust me. Dean Koontz: A Writer’s Biography.
My one wish as a writer is that, like Gary Braunbeck, I won’t be afraid to look at the dark things of the world. That’ll I have the courage to write about them, and make others admit they exist, too. Braunbeck’s work has steered me to me to try—as much as possible—to write about marginalized people whom escape our notice every single day.
Who are the folks we walk by every day without a second thought? The folks who barely register on our radar? The weak, the wounded, the scourged, the diminished, the dying? I can’t ever write the same way Braunbeck does, but if I’m strong enough, I can try to unflinchingly observe the world as he does, and not look away from what I see there, as Gary himself refuses to look away.
Fiction and Nonfiction of Gary A. Braunbeck
Coffin County – Cedar Hill Series
Far Dark Fields – Cedar Hill Series
Prodigal Blues – novel
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance Magazine. His column Horror 101 is featured in Lamplight Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014 and Through A Mirror, Darkly, in June 2015. His novella Mystery Road is forthcoming in limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications, and he’s currently working on his first novel.