(This month's Classic Return is one of the most important collections of the last few years. You may have to hunt to find it, but it's well worth the effort. And no, I'm not selling you my copy. This is what I had to say about it shortly after its release.)
You just know. When you pick up the work of a writer and it reminds you of someone like Harlan Ellison, you just know you have discovered an important new voice in contemporary literature. That Gary Braunbeck chooses to use dark fantasy and horror as his medium cannot detract one bit from the emotional barrage of his fiction, no matter what academics and critics maintain. When they think they've spotted a "genre" story, their brains stop analyzing, a strange phenomenon that afflicts ardent followers of what they call "serious" fiction. Well, I don't know how anyone could read a story by Gary Braunbeck and see it as anything but serious.
I've pointed out in other venues that a Braunbeck story is often the "conscience" of an anthology it appears in, and what I mean is this: his stories have a way of consistently attacking your emotions (even emotions you were unaware you had) no matter what the theme of the anthology. His words truly transcend the simple traps of labeling, setting a course for an emotional center likely as not dormant somewhere in your psyche.
The various stories in this hefty collection are arranged into a framework of fragments and stand-alone kernels, forming a cycle in which the bleakness of human emotion can only be relieved by an occasional ray of understanding or acceptance.
In "Some Touch of Pity," a Native American man's wolf side chooses his destiny — to exact vengeance on those who have sexually abused children, much as he himself was abused as a child. In "Cyrano," a tortured Frankenstein's Creature finds solace among other tortured souls of literature, and is rewarded by their understanding and love. In the lovely "After the Elephant Ballet," a children's book author comes to appreciate and understand his difficult mother, but only with the help of a ghostly young burn victim and a nun's parable about elephants. The protagonist of "Union Dues" comes to realize just what it means to be a company man like one's father, to be used up and replaced like a broken piece of machinery. A final act of love leads a man to a strip joint and a tragic meeting with an ex-girlfriend in "Rose of Sharon." In "By Civilized Means," an elderly mother awaits the execution of her son, his last phone call her only link — or is it? And Sam Peckinpah and Warren Oates hunt an ancient Mexican vampire while on location in "Bloody Sam," an all-out actioner which still manages a full measure of emotion and sense of loss.
The collection's most memorable pieces are "Searching for Survivors," about a teacher who needs to know why, as a baby, he was inexplicably spared during a teenager's killing spree, and "In Hollow Houses," in which a young homeless girl and her friends learn their true heritage.
Braunbeck's stories plumb the range of human emotion as their protagonists face a deep sense of loss, and grief often inexorably tied to their families' shattered dreams and expectations, and regrets too late to avoid. I dare you to read this poignant collection without finding at least once a moment that cuts through your emotionless shell and pierces the dark regions of your heart, the ones you want to ignore. It is a collection to be treasured and read more than once, creating its own rewards as the words swirl around until they fall into place. Who can measure the rewards of a story like "Small Song," in which a shattered man
is visited by the young woman his dead baby daughter would have become and, in the few hours they have, she convinces him to repair his broken life while he still can?
Gary Braunbeck's THINGS LEFT BEHIND is another fine limited edition by Cemetery Dance Publications, signed by the author, the jacket artist (Alan Clark), as well as J.N. Williamson, William F. Nolan, and Ed Gorman, all of whom contributed well-deserved words of praise. Highest possible recommendation. (And you might even recognize the cover art.)