book review24 Nov 2008 09:13 am


Gary Braunbeck, Coffin County(New York: Leisure Books, 2008). $7.99
Review by Jason Ridler

In 2004, award-winning writer Gary Braunbeck penned an essay known as “Storytelling Unbound” in his essay collection Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life. The essay was a trenchant argument for writers to read widely and deeply across genres. Braunbeck, most closely associated with the horror and dark fantasy, began to notice a genre myopia amongst both readers and writers of horror fiction, a desire for trope over substance in the outlaw form of fantasy fiction. Braunbeck disagreed with this development. The more he read across genres, the more he saw them as not enemies or competitors but schools of learning where many of the fundamental lessons were the same, even if some of the tools were different.
To get back to this ethos of possibility over limitation in any form of fantasy, Braunbeck suggested writers try “storytelling unbound.” What, exactly, is this approach to fiction?

The type of richly imaginative, wildly exciting, joyously unpredictable storytelling where you get everything from a straightforward character study to a hard-boiled mystery and even a ghost or two; not only ghosts, but cowboys, as well, if the writer feels they need to yippee-ki-yi-yea their way into a chapter or two.  Time travel and high-tech intrigue, alternate universes and comedies of errors; passionate romance and nerve-wracking terror — hell, throw in the kitchen sink and a robot domestic while we’re at it.  Go for broke — just don’t go for the easy out.  Read everything you can in as many different genres as possible.  Don’t feel that you as either writer or reader have to restrict your interest to “only cyberpunk” or “just the gaming-related fiction” or “SF, SF, and only, only only SF!” And God please don’t exclude the opinions, observations, or insights of those readers and authors who toil in fictional fields beyond the boundaries of yours. This goes so much deeper than simply wanting all forms of speculative fiction to march to a different drummer; it’s a ferverent prayer that all of us will learn to foster a need and desire beyond all the needs and desires that have come before to catapult ourselves into the burning core of our imaginations and meet the whirling, winged, wondrous things that have been waiting for us to take that next step in our creative evolution.

A tall order, to be sure. But Braunbeck walks the talk. His latest work, Coffin County, is his best attempt to marry “storytelling unbound” to a long narrative. Coffin County is more unconventional than his previous novels (In Silent Graves, Keepers, Mr. Hands, and Prodigal Blues). There is no single central protagonist save perhaps the wounded Detective John Littlebear, who acts as an anchor for the reader as we all try and understand the malevolent force that dominates the story, a force known as Hoopsticks, and the community of Cedar Hill.
And here we see one of the many approaches Braunbeck weaves into his narrative. The police procedural core gives us a mystery to solve, one whose clues become more fantastical as the investigation continues. From this starting point, the journey evolves along science fictional lines, into issues of quantum mechanics that twist into the dark fantastic, breaking almost every rule young writers are given about mixing genres. And Braunbeck does this with aplomb. We jump from POV and time in to the perspectives and lives of residence of the town, perspectives that merge at points of violence and tragedy, and the terrible rational that is actually behind it all.
The novel’s thematic core revolves around understand the human suffering that has plagued this blue collar town for what seems like forever, how hard working people with good intentions have become tied to generations of hardship and a few bright moments amidst a pall of degradation and suffering. While Littlejohn’s own quest for peace in the wake of his wife and unborn child’s senseless murder provides a focus, Coffin Country taps a more mythic lodestar to follow from start to finish.


This novel could not have been written without using techniques and approaches from various genres, from fantasy to mystery to crime and horror and fringes of science fiction. But the story is 110% Braunbeck. His characters are flawed and compelling as any in fiction today. Part of the reason he’s earned a reputation for well-rounded and rich characters has been applying emotionally-driven acting techniques to his fiction. For a decade, Braunbeck performed in summer stock and dinner theatre. While always a “technical” actor, working from the outside to find the character he was playing, Braunbeck also found himself working with “method” actors, those that practiced a system of acting created my Russian author and actor Constantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky. In a nutshell, method actors find the emotions of their characters within themselves, reliving and feeling their own pain, joy, love and hate and use them as the fuel for the character’s emotions. While he never used it for his acting, Braunbeck found this approach to creating characters integral to his fiction.

I still approach characterization — especially during the early stages of a story or novel — from a technical starting point, but almost always fall back on Stanislavsky’s Method when it comes time to add emotional depth and authenticity to whichever character is coming to life on the page — and I won’t commit a single word to the page until said character is someone I recognize as an old friend.

That theatrical resonance is ever present in Braunbeck’s work and has led to his short story “Rami Temporalis” being made into a short film (see And it has permeated all of the characters in Coffin County, including the dreaded Hoopsticks. To help market the novel, Braunbeck relied on his training as an actor to create a powerful and dark book trailer for Coffin County, reading a selection of the work from the perspective of Hoopsticks. It is available on Youtube. Warning. This book trailer may be disturbing to some viewers.

This visceral snippet introduces the reader to the horror and mystery that needs to be unveiled and understood, if not solved, at the heart of the novel. Who is Hoopsticks and why has this city become the playground for torment for over two hundred years? To reach this heart, Braunebeck employs cross-genre techniques, exploring their connections as part of his novel’s progress, leading to a powerful and mythic convergence.

Gary Braunbeck’s Coffin County is a well crafted, readable, yet unconventional novel that crosses genre lines with ease. If you crave a dark tale that will challenge you, one that offers more than tropes and old conventions and seeks instead to find connection between varying schools of fiction, then add Coffin County to your book pile. You may be terrified, but you won’t be disappointed.

-Special thanks to Mr. Braunbeck who provided the quotes used above.


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