HORROR USED TO BE my thing. The films were obvious
and crude, a goddamn symphony of gore and breasts and
screeching violins; the novels built of atmosphere and clumsy
plotting—and adverbs. And, I'm sure of it: I loved them all.
And then I turned fifteen.
Somewhere in that pretentious shift Halloween and
Stephen King became guilty pleasures. I came to some conclusions
about art and literature, about catharsis. I read Winesburg,
Ohio and realized a book like that can change a
person. I grasped, just a little bit, the interplay between society and
At some level, I've known all along that the stories we classify
as "genre fiction" (and their analogues in film) play
a part in that reaction—and that they do or could or might
as fundamentally affect a human being as any work of art.
Fear in a Handful of Dust, though, this book
makes me believe.
Fear is, on its surface, Gary A. Braunbeck's take
on the horror genre—a collection of film reviews and short story
dissections. (Braunbeck, by the way, is a user of this
site.) In this it is not extraordinary: it stands
self-consciously in the shadow of Stephen King's Danse Macabre
(and after reading its first third I suspected that there it would
remain). But it blossoms, somewhere in its vast autobiographical
stretches, into a work more profound and more focused. It tells a story,
and ultimately it finds a thesis.
h o r r o r a s a w a y o f l i f e
IF HORROR IS INDEED
the literature of fear, then everything
is a horror story. . . . Fear lies at the core of everything
we do. We work in order to make money and pay bills because
we're afraid if we don't, our families will wind up on the
streets; we do what we can for those who love us because,
on some level, we're afraid if we don't, we'll lose them;
we keep up our work-place practices because we're afraid of
losing our jobs or being passed over for promotion; we
take vitamins and go to the doctor and work out three times
a week because we want to stay healthy and look good because
we're afraid of growing (and looking) old, which leads us
back to Ye Olde fear of
death--the ending to every story,
fictional or otherwise--that we want to stave off for as long
The story told in Fear is a patchy autobiography,
from his father's service
in World War II to present-day Gary Braunbeck, hunched over his keyboard
and typing. And it's a violent story, jumping from horrendous accidents to
assaults and brawls and murders—a story of fear, anxiety, and
little glimpses of closure.
"Horror as a Way of Life" is its subtitle, and by God I believe it.
Horror amidst a life of common jobs and common trials—bright flashes
of crisis and the fiction they inform.
And yet, through all the scenes of real, true, visceral destruction,
through a strike-breaking riot, through a jarring police raid, through even
the rape of a child, it is the anticipation of the horrible
that so grips me in this story. Much like the emotional gut-punch of a
parent who, having looked away for just a moment, finds
missing, Braunbeck tells here of standing in line for an
Emerson, Lake and Palmer concert as a teenager. His
is perched on his shoulders, and as the hours pass without the band arriving,
the line balloons, becomes a mob. When the doors finally open, there is trampling
and separation and blood and chaos, and ultimately—
Well, I don't think I'll tell. The point here is that, as Braunbeck recounts
pieces of his life, we begin to understand how the genre of horror can be
redeemed (and redemption is surely something horror needs right now).
In this true story we see the heart of horror fiction, this
excruciating anticipation, and realize it is also the foundation of a
great swath of what we call "literature"—and that there is not,
at this level, much difference between the two.
All this is reinforced as Braunbeck reviews films not commonly understood
as "horror"—Straw Dogs,
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Seconds
(and most of the other films by John Frankenheimer), etc.—in
the context of the genre.
And, perhaps unintentionally, he shows the other side of
the equation, the sort of near-fandom that has collected on the surface
of the genre and obscured its more high-minded potential, in a column he
wrote years ago in the magazine Eldritch Tales. In a tone
that reminds me, more than anything, of the Comic Book Guy, he discusses
the first five film adaptations of stories by Stephen King—or, rather,
dismisses them. And though this may be the proper reaction, there
is a certain presumption about the nature of King's works as holy texts,
a bit of nudging and winking toward his sympathetic readers, that reminds
me of what exactly needs to be cut from the body of horror. But I'm getting
ahead of myself.
The balance of the book's attention falls on fiction, mainly
short stories. Braunbeck offers the beginnings of a
"how to write" guide—a dissection of
opening lines, a discussion of the relationship between
autobiography and fiction—which, though interesting, adds
little to the reams of material already written on the subject.
But as he moves toward horror in particular, as
he compares two stories ("Megan's Law" and
"Gone") by Jack Ketchum, he again addresses what exactly is
wrong with the works of the genre (elaborated upon quite well in
his writeup "Whoa, wait a minute -- this is supposed to be a horror story!"): the blunt instrument of revulsion that so sadly and often
replaces the art of subtext.
Braunbeck closes the book with his story "Duty," a work of subtle agony
about the death of a parent that won the Bram Stoker Award for short
fiction in 2003. Placed as it is, it serves as a demonstration of
what horror, done well, can be.
t h e p u r p o s e o f f e a r
LET'S RETURN, FOR A moment, to the book's opening:
Fear begins with Braunbeck sitting in the dark. He's in a movie theater, watching
House of 1,000 Corpses and coming to terms with
the fact that he likes the vile thing. He, having written
horror fiction for decades, understands as well as anyone the buttons
being pressed, the obvious manipulation—yet he remains affected.
There are two questions implicit in this scene:
What is it that Braunbeck, or any of us, actually enjoy about such a
film as Corpses? And, why the hell do we have to resort to trash
to find it? Nearly any book about the horror genre will strive to
answer the first question; The purpose of Fear, I
think, is to address the second. And in order to understand its answer
we must, for a moment, talk about community.
Any writers' community, present company included, is in some ways an incestuous
family—a gene pool too shallow to mask its wild, recessive traits.
It has a private language, a set of in-jokes. It has expectations.
Even in a healthy community this is both a strength and a weakness, an
amplification of the positive and negative; in an unhealthy
community it can be downright catastrophic.
And the community of writers (and readers) that sprouted around the horror
genre in the wake of success by such writers as King, as Anne Rice,
as Dean Koontz, and so on, can barely be seen as healthy.
The symptom, the catastrophe, is a shelf of books filled so extensively
with unreadable prose and formulaic plots that most
readers simply quit in frustration. That, ultimately,
publishers abandon an entire class of storytelling.
The disease—well, I'm tempted to say
the disease is the acceptance
of poor writing. The difference between writing well and simply writing is
enormous: hours of revision, a trunk filled with works that
revision couldn't save, and ideas, ideas, ideas, ones not
rehashed from a thousand old stories. And writers, being human, will
often work no harder than necessary to be accepted.
A community that accepts poor writing invites poor writing.
But the reason an unhealthy community of writers accepts sub-par
storytelling, at least in the case of genre fiction, is that it has
such self-conscious expectations: A horror story is a horror
story because of certain morbid elements of plot and tone. Fantasy works
contain primitive weaponry and villains composed of pure, pristine,
personified evil. Detective novels have a choice: clone
Raymond Chandler or ironically clone Raymond Chandler.
Yes, I exaggerate; yes, there are exceptions—but my point is
simply that too much can be forgiven if one stays within the lines (the
converse is also true), and so
ultimately a community stagnates. It twitches and twitches and
twitches, but never quite dies. It lies in wait.
Fear speaks directly to writers and fans: tear down
these boundaries, grow beyond
these lines. And I'm convinced Braunbeck is right, that
he understands exactly where to begin. But to say "begin," and to do
so—well, these are separate things. I'll be reading, and hoping,
and perhaps now even writing something resembling this genre-breaking
fiction. Because, though I still feel guilty whenever I do walk through
that horror aisle, I'm starting to imagine.
Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life by Gary A. Braunbeck
248 pages, Copyright © 2004 by Gary A. Braunbeck
Betancourt & Company