Most horror authors simply make up the demons and ghouls and horrible beasts they write about. Gary Braunbeck, I’m convinced, is different; I believe he conjures them up, captures them, and distills their very essence into his pages.
Braunbeck is one of those writers who has garnered a heap of critical acclaim, has awards stacked two-deep on his shelves, and yet who is still eluded by the kind of mainstream success granted to authors with half his talent. Here’s the thing: Braunbeck panders to no one. He’s not interested in following the latest trends. He’s not interested in rehashing the same old tropes or jumping on whatever bandwagon the masses are riding. His muse leads him down some dark paths that are utterly unlike the places his peers tend to go, and he refuses to follow anything else.
More often than not those paths lead to a small Ohio town called Cedar Hill. This is Braunbeck’s Castle Rock, his Oxrun Station. It’s the fictional town where the majority of his stories and novels take place, and over the last several years Braunbeck has been leading this town and its haunted citizenry towards a cataclysmic conclusion.
The Cedar Hill “cycle” thus far includes five novels (In Silent Graves, Keepers, Mr. Hands, Coffin County and Far Dark Fields) and two short story collections (Graveyard People: The Collected Cedar Hill Stories, Volume 1 and Home Before Dark: The Collected Cedar Hill Stories, Volume 2.) The concluding novel, A Cracked and Broken Path, and a final volume of short stories, The Carnival Within, are still to come (when they will come is unknown – the most recent date given for Path was April 2012, but it has yet to appear). Honestly, that’s a daunting amount of material to tackle, but it’s a task that delivers rich rewards.
It would be impossible for me to summarize the series in the space I have here. To even attempt such a thing would be a disservice to potential readers as well as to Braunbeck himself. Suffice to say these are the stories that tell the story of a haunted town, a place steeped in unimaginable tragedy. It’s a town that was settled in the blood of a gruesome mass murder, and that barely survived a fire that consumed its casket factory and the neighborhood surrounding it. It’s a place where monsters named Mr. Hands and Hoopsticks roam the streets and alleys and the nightmares of small children. It’s a town where ordinary citizens try to live ordinary lives in the midst of extraordinary circumstances beyond their control.
Or, to sum it up as Braunbeck himself often does: “This is Cedar Hill. Weird shit happens here. Get used to it.”
What really sets these stories apart is the unparalleled skill with which Braunbeck spins them. It’s difficult to pin down his influences because he writes like no other horror author I’ve ever encountered. His work is dense, his concepts and vocabulary are complex, and yet there’s a lyrical quality to it all that makes reading it feel effortless. He’s populated his work with characters that feel real, yet could not exist outside of a Gary Braunbeck novel. His style is instantly recognizable; it’s rich and challenging and all his own.
Braunbeck does occasionally stray outside of Cedar Hill. He’s written short stories for major anthologies and magazines as well as minor, hard-to-find markets. He co-edited the fifth and final edition of the Masques series with J.N. Williamson, and co-edited another anthology, Five Strokes to Midnight, with Hank Schwaeble. He’s also written the nonfiction books Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life and To Each Their Darkness.
There is a tremendous body of work out there, and to be honest I envy those who will be encountering Gary Braunbeck for the first time. His work is such a refreshing change of pace; discovering it brings the kind of thrill all readers seek every time they try a new author, but rarely are able to find. His output may have slowed somewhat over the last few years, but you’ve got plenty to catch up on and keep you busy until, hopefully, the words flow for him again.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.