If you were somehow dissatisfied by Stephen King’s book, On Writing, you might want to try to hunt down a hardcover memoir by a horror author named Gary A. Braunbeck, published last May by Wildside Press. The book, Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life, is everything On Writing should have been. One part memoir, one part writing workshop and one part film class, Braunbeck’s book may be more reminiscent of King’s study of the genre, Dance Macabre, than it is of On Writing, because it is more interested in the genre of fear than in the craft of writing itself. But what makes Braunbeck’s book succeed is the way he unflinchingly explores the relationship between genre texts and his own approach to both writing and the world — giving us insight into his horror “aesthetic” and elaborating on why reading in this genre means so much more than sticking your hand into goopy buckets of broken bone and blood.
Like so many writers in the genre today, the specter of Stephen King haunts Gary A. Braunbeck. In fact, the clever opening chapter of Fear is a film script that depicts a writer being chided by a copy of King’s books on a nearby shelf, books which talk and dance and tease him for repeating what King has already done. It’s an hilarious allegory for the contemporary horror writer’s struggle for his own voice under the massive influence of King. It’s just plain funny — like a Disney film gone horribly wrong. At the same time it allows us to not only empathize with the writer’s plight but also bracket off King’s similar book endeavors while we read ahead (and Braunbeck will go on later to deconstruct the films made out of King’s books, among other things). I think what makes this opening chapter work so well is that it serves as a great example of how Braunbeck can process personal anxieties into good fiction. That’s the grand lesson of this book and it’s one worth paying attention to if you’re a writer on the dark side. Reading this book made me rethink why I was so drawn to the genre as a young person. People assume that these texts corrupt the youth, but the truth is much more complicated than that: they give order to the chaos, they give a name to nameless fears, they empower us to confront nastiness, and they do so much more. In Fear in a Handful of Dust, we learn about this by tracing how horror fiction and film gave Braunbeck a way of understanding and managing the horrors and anxieties of his everyday life. His life experience, it turns out, has many lessons to teach.
Though Braunbeck can certainly be funny, the book is far more serious than its humorous opening chapter suggests. Fear in a Handful of Dust is an earnest — if at times, moody — exploration of the dark side, and this level of seriousness is what makes Fear more satisfying for horror fans than King’s On Writing. Braunbeck confesses openly, but avoids the self-absorbed blathering of many other memoirists. He is searching for the hot nugget of truth buried inside the bologna like the best of them. At the same time, he celebrates the genre as a sort of personal therapy and grand social ritual. He writes like a teacher, discussing films and books which had a profound influence on his aesthetic, as he builds a case for why we should take horror seriously. His love for well-crafted writing is contagious. The chapter on “Opening Lines” and other matters of writing style ought to be required reading in any horror writing course. Braunbeck celebrates the craftsmanship of great genre writers — especially highlighting the work of contemporaries like Jack Ketchum or Richard Laymon — in order to illuminate what makes work of dread a piece of literature. The analysis of his own stories and novels is equally compelling, giving fans of Braunbeck a lot of substantial meat to chew on.
One thing that made this book unique, I felt, was the close analysis of genre art films. Reading Fear made me want to run right out to the video store and spend more time with some classics. Braunbeck’s film analyses are really smart, but he tends to focus on secondary films by American directors that aren’t as accessible as most horror blockbusters — genre-bending films that pushed the envelope of cinema and took risks that weren’t always popular. So you might need to do a little extra research to pass Braunbeck’s class in Horror, so to speak, if you didn’t take the Film History prerequisite. But Braunbeck’s work is enlightening. He explains, for example, why Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses is “ingenious garbage” and why some almost forgotten films like Friedkin’s Sorcerer or Polanski’s The Tenant really deserve to be studied more closely. His lengthy discussion of John Frankenheimer’s work (especially the film, Seconds) gave me a far better appreciation for this director than I already harbored and Braunbeck’s treatment of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia made me want to host a Sam Peckinpah Video Marathon.
Even more compelling than the “lessons” in the book are the shocking autobiographical entries that Braunbeck crafts with an unflinching and dramatic flair. The tale of his alcoholic father’s breakdown one morning — featuring a loaded weapon — is a painful look back at an episode in Braunbeck’s life that will amaze you with its gut-wrenching honesty. The breakdown and recovery that close out this book will touch you. I won’t give anything away, except to say that the real world horrors that Braunbeck explores are scarier than a lot of the fiction I’ve read so far this year. And such excursions into memory explain Braunbeck’s approach to horror as a serious avenue into understanding the human condition. This is why I say Braunbeck’s writing is “earnest”: you never get the sense he’s pulling your leg. Even when he’s treating something lightly, he’s got a serious purpose. And I think that’s what I respect most about Braunbeck’s writing: his emotional honesty. This is one of the most interesting and intense memoirs by a genre writer that I know of. I recommend it to writers and horror fans alike.