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August 01, 2006

Installment #18: Of What's There, What You Thought Was There, and "I Know Damn Well I Read That!" 

For the first time in my you-should-pardon-the-expression professional career, a single work of mine has garnered the most outstanding notices I've ever received. My forthcoming novel from Cemetery Dance Publications, Prodigal Blues has been getting nothing short of rave reviews since the ARCs were shipped (ARC, in case you're not familiar with the term, is pub-speak for Advance Reading Copy).

No one -- and I mean no one -- has had anything even remotely bad to say about it. (Now watch; just because I've tempted Fate by saying that, the pans will start coming in non-stop. Yes, I'm an optimistic sort.)

Here are a small handful of some reviews:

"Expert storyteller Gary Braunbeck outdoes himself with Prodigal Blues, a haunting, unsettling, eerie and beautiful novel about the hazards of childhood in the face of overwhelming real-life horrors. Here is a tender, heart-felt, unflinching exploration into shattered lives that will leave the reader disturbed, enlightened, and with a real need to hug loved ones. Braunbeck is one of those rare writers whose work can actually teach it audience a vast, human lesson."

-- Tom Piccirilli, author of The Dead Letters and Headstone City

"A toe-tapping tale of terror ... Prodigal Blues is good enough that you might feel scarred after reading it. But in the end, it is that good. And it is really the first non-supernatural novel by Braunbeck, but one hopes not the last. As ever, Cemetery Dance puts together a wonderful hardcover novel. Deena Warner's illustrations are plentiful, dark and suggestive. They ratchet up the level of disturbance and move the story but are tastefully rendered. Braunbeck's been hitting the paperback racks with his novels of the supernatural, but there's real potential for him to eke his way into the mainstream without ever really becoming mainstream. No Braubeck is definitely not mainstream fiction. He's more like the big, solid rock that sits in the middle of the river. Always there. Always strong."

-- The Agony Column

"Prodigal Blues is a disturbing novel. It deals with the most vicious forms of abuse and molestation of the young. To describe in detail the bare bones of what transpires to several youths in this novel would be excruciating. And Gary does not flinch one bit from the horrors in it. Yet he imbues the story with such tenderness that it is impossible to not feel a sense of joy. Prodigal Blues demonstrates humankind's obstinate ability to maintain dignity, compassion, and even a sense of wit in even the most dire circumstances."

-- Horrordrive-In.com

I'm not listing these to toot my own horn or to gloat (okay, maybe I want to gloat a little -- after all, I want all of you to buy it), but there's been a recurring theme to all the reviews that bothers me a little bit.

Understand that I am in no way dissing the reviewers who have thus far been incredibly complimentary of the novel (you wait your whole professional career for reviews like these, and I remain continually stunned by the reactions the novel's been getting), but at least half of these reviews describe sequences that, uh, um ...well ... aren't in the novel.

The story, briefly, concerns a man who, while on a road trip, is kidnapped by a group of children who have been physically mutilated by a man known to them only as "Grendel" who, throughout the novel, is never far behind them. They kidnap him because, in almost every case, their faces have been mutilated beyond recognition, and they fear that their families will no longer recognize them; hence, they need someone with a "normal face" to act as their go-between.

There's a lot more to the story than what I've described above, but the above is all you need to know for the sake of this column -- that, and one other thing, which is admittedly a peripheral point, but one I feel compelled to make:

In horror fiction (as in, sickeningly, real life) children are easy targets. Even the laziest and sloppiest of writers can generate a certain amount of dread and suspense by putting a child in danger, simply because all of us who possess an iota of compassion will automatically feel protective of a child, even a fictional one. But if one chooses to do this, one must be cautious of a few things: 1) The child has to be more than a mere symbol or literary construct; he or she must be a fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional human being -- and that includes any annoying flaws in their personality; 2) Said child must also be depicted as not completely clueless of their situation; otherwise this could lead to their surrendering to the role of victim, which could very well harm not only the integrity of the narrative but hurt reader sympathy, as well; and, 3) The depiction of any cruelty against said child must be both justified in order for the story to maintain its integrity and depicted with a deft hand -- that is to say, it must be as swift and brief as possible.

Okay, with that mini-rant out of the way, I'm going to jump around for a few paragraphs, so stay with me.

I once had the pleasure of spending fifteen minutes at a bar with the late, great Robert Bloch talking about movies, fiction, and peoples' misconceptions about what they both see and read.

Bloch told me -- as he did many other fans over the decades -- that he still had people come up to him and complain about how bloody and violent they found the shower scene in Hitchcock's film version of Psycho. ("Thank God I didn't have her sitting on the toilet," Bloch always said.)

People complained about Janet Leigh's nudity and how seeing her naughty bits so offended their sensibilities; they complained about the excessive amounts of blood; and they complained, consistently, about the violence of seeing the knife plunge into Ms. Leigh's body over and over.

Uh-huh, okay, right.

Go back and watch Psycho and pay particular attention to the shower sequence. Hitchcock -- aided greatly by the work of the brilliant film editor George Tomasini -- pulled off a dark magic trick that to my mind has yet to be equaled in American film: they made you believe you were seeing things that weren't actually depicted.

You do not see Janet Leigh's naughty bits. You do not see blood spalttering all over everything. And you most definitely do not ever, even once, see the knife plunge into Ms. Leigh's body. But the sequence is so brilliantly photographed and edited that viewers were -- and some still are -- left with the impression that, dammit, they saw all of that.

(Another good example is the justifiably famous "hobbling" scene from the film version of Stephen King's Misery; you see Annie smash Paul's left foot for all of 2 seconds, just long enough for your to shout "Ouch!", but you never see her do the right foot -- you hear it, and you see Paul writhing and screaming, and that remains enough for viewers to insist they saw her smash both ankles.)

I find that I am in a similar situation when it comes to the reviews for Prodigal Blues. (And, no, I'm not trying to compare my work to that of King, Bloch, or Hitchcock, we clear on that? Good.)

What's happened is this: at least half the reviews have warned readers that the novel contains scenes of (to quote from one) "...graphic child abuse and torture..."

Sounds like another fun, light-hearted, gay-spirited, slapstick comedic romp for which I am so well-known, doesn't it? A little something to make Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door seem like a Neil Simon laugh-fest. (And as an aside, if you want to read a supreme example of how savagery directed against children can be used as an integral part of a story, then steel yourself and read that groundbreaking, heartbreaking masterwork from Ketchum.)

There's just one thing -- with the sole exception of a single brief image the narrator glimpses on a digital computer file, the novel contains no depictions of abuse or torture of children. Zero. Nada. Don't worry about coming across it, 'cause it ain't there. Trust me, I wrote the thing, I'd remember.

Every instance of abuse and/or torture suffered by the group of children is conveyed -- again, with the exception of that single image, which takes up all of 2 lines in the book -- through dialogue, through the children relating their experiences to the narrator.

Yet one reviewer to whom I spoke after his review was posted said to me, "I know damn well I read that!" I asked him to pick up the ARC and flip through it and read to me any graphically-depicted scene of totrture and/or abuse.

After a minute or two of his flipping around and muttering under his breath, he finally sighed and said, "Well, shit! I thought I read that."

He then offered to go back and amend his review, which I said was unnecessary, because he (and the others) had proven an important point to me -- one that I wanted to prove mostly to myself; that if one exercises the utmost care when dealing with a delicate and controversial subject, one can make a reader believe that they've read something that isn't actually in the book.

It's a wonderful thing when a reader's imagination can fill in the blanks you as a writer deliberately create, because nearly every single time that happens, said reader can summon up images and events infinitely more disturbing and horrifying than anything you could describe in excruciating detail.

Which, to reiterate, I do not do in Prodigal Blues.

I know that lately I've been talking about this novel to the point where you may be sick of hearing about it, but it's a work of which I am supremely proud.

Until next time ....



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