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 myth.

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 as possible.

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 their child missing, Braunbeck tells here of standing in line for an Emerson, Lake and Palmer concert as a teenager. His eight-year-old sister 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
ISBN: 1-59224-603-6