Gary Braunbeck wants to scare the living hell out of you, but he isn't content to do so with the usual cast of characters – your vengeful ghosts, your monsters under the bed. Oh, he can (and will, and does) use those things, and to great effect, but he's also aware that those things are just shadows. In the hands of the truly skilled and talented (such as his), those things can frighten, but even the best constructed shadows can be banished with just a little bit of light.
Braunbeck likes to dig deeper, to find those things that scare us because they are real and relatable; things like loneliness and regret and ignorance and unfulfilled promise. Those are the types of things that go bump in the night in Braunbeck's collection Rose of Sharon and Other Stories, a group of stories that will haunt you long after you turn the last page.
I've written about Braunbeck's work here at FEARNET before, and will continue to do so as long as they let me, because I believe he is a writer who matters. His work, as showcased in Rose of Sharon and in any of the works discussed in the aforementioned article, demonstrates a clear understanding and expression of how people experience, process and deal with emotional pain. Not to mention that he knows how to spin a damn good yarn, how to grab you with the first sentence and refuse to let go.
Take "Need," for example, one of the many stories in Rose set in Braunbeck's fictional town of Cedar Hill. Reading the story is like picking up pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and examining them one at a time, the picture revealing itself to you in a series of disconnected images. As you begin to put the pieces of "Need" together you'll see that it's heading for a hopeless conclusion, but you won't be able stop yourself from following it through.
"I Never Spent the Money" is like that, too, although told in a more traditional, linear fashion. It’s really just two guys in a bar, one old and one young, both full of remorse, talking about what might have been for each of them. One of them is determined to take a final shot at something he's always wanted to do, and damn the consequences. Braunbeck holds a couple of important reveals until the very end, things that could easily come off as trite if not handled properly; here, the impact is devastating.
"Mail Order Annie" is another highlight, and the closest thing you'll find to a traditional ghost story in this collection. It's a sweet story about a chance meeting at a snowed-in train station, and it features a rarity in Braunbeck's work – a truly happy ending.
If you're new to Braunbeck's work, Rose of Sharon and Other Stories is a great place to get a feel for what he does. There's straightforward storytelling sitting side-by-side with experimental sketches and short works that are more about an emotion or an exchange than a plot. There are made-up, movie-ready monsters side-by-side with humans on the edge, deciding if they're going to tilt to the good or give in to the evils of anger and desperation.
A word to the wise: if you do pick this one up, don't read it all at once. There's not a lot of comic relief, and even though Braunbeck's storytelling ability makes it difficult not to charge from one story to the next, there's a lot of bleakness here. Trust me – you’ll want to pace yourself.
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.