Fright For Life
Everyone will tell you that Edward Bryant is the nicest guy in the world. Responsible, a good friend, kind to his cats, endlessly helpful to other writers. So where does this come from: "The muzzle of the .357 belched flame and the back of Mrs. Hernandez's skull exploded outward, the spray of blood and tissue coating the face of the zombie close behind her"?
Or this? "Bremer devised the rules on the spot. All the cooks were handed razor-sharp boning knives as the guards hefted their Schmeissers significantly. Non-players would be shot on the spot. So would mothers who cried out or moved from where the guards had placed them by the tables. On command, the players would start to remove the skin from the flesh and the flesh from the bones of the six children on the tables. The cooks would be graded on both speed and style. They would receive bonus points for the length of time their subjects lived. Winners would receive extra rations on Christmas. Losers would be rendered incapable of enjoying the holiday at all."
Colorado boasts an astonishingly large group of talented horror and fantasy writers. Edward Bryant is one of the primary reasons for this. Bryant has written and published dazzling short stories of his own for over three decades (the first excerpt above is from "A Sad Last Love at the Diner of the Damned," the second from "Skin and Blood"). He has also run workshops, written reviews, organized readings, hosted conferences and spent hours encouraging beginners in the field. Many of his protegés have gone on to professional careers; some have become major names. "He's not only the energy but the locus," says Dan Simmons, who had had pieces accepted but never published when he was first admitted to a professionals-only workshop run by Bryant in 1981. ("The magazines became defunct before they paid me," Simmons recalls. "I quit submitting. I was killing off all my favorite magazines!") Simmons has since published several novels, some of which have won major commercial success, some critical praise and some both. "Ed really does make people keep writing till they get published," he says.
According to Connie Willis, another Bryant workshop participant whose novels have garnered multiple awards, Denver has an exceptional number of sci-fi fans as well as a "huge" writers' community. "Nobody, not even Seattle, can boast that many," she says. Willis believes two long-running workshops hosted by Bryant (one in Denver and one in Colorado Springs) have helped feed this phenomenon, as has the conference he organized annually for the past decade, which brought in fantasy writers from all over the country -- "basically, everybody who ever went on to became a force in the field." There was also a long-running reading series Bryant helped set up at Arvada's Little Shop of Horrors. "And he's a wonderful public speaker," Willis adds. "He was toastmaster for the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver in 1981. It's very prestigious. You have to present the Hugo awards, which Ed did in a tuxedo and on roller skates."
Bryant is currently pouring his energy into the tenth World Horror Convention, which takes place in Denver this weekend.
Bryant's writing isn't all splattershock -- his stories would be much easier to take if it were. Rather, his work is compressed, vivid and intelligent. He knows his science, and he understands human nature. His prose is strong and shapely, sometimes surprisingly delicate, almost poetic. He creates ingenious plots, characters you care about, lively dialogue. So one minute you're listening to a rather likable young couple bicker in what seems a warmly engaging, Anne-Tylerish tale, and the next minute there's a chainsaw in the picture and you have no idea who's going to use it -- or for what. You don't really want to know, either, but you can't stop yourself from turning the pages until you find out. Some of Bryant's stories take root deep in the reader's brain, releasing themselves later as uneasy dreams.
The stories function on several levels, and the best of them are timeless, Willis says. "They're not just about what they're about on the surface," she adds, pointing to "The Hibakusha Gallery," a grisly piece about an amusement park where visitors can be photographed looking like Hiroshima survivors. Bryant "turns it into a story about loss and grief and the guilt people feel about things that happened to their loved ones that they couldn't control," Willis says. "I think a hundred years from now, sci-fi readers could read it."
Often there's a kind of nuanced precision that mitigates the horror. For example, the beginning of "Fur Balls" invites the reader into the psyche of a lovelorn werewolf:
"Here's what Pete learns when he takes the business end of the gun into his mouth: You can breathe through the barrel. The pistol is not sufficiently sealed to kill you by denying air. Well...not directly, at any rate.
"He discovers something else. With this particular model, when he eases the hammer free with his thumb, depresses it slightly, and then breathes...the semi-automatic pistol whistles. He can tune the pitch by varying the hammer fall and by controlling his own breathing.
"Pete Gandillon understands true enchantment.
"He doesn't feel sufficiently adept to make music. But he can make a sound that reminds him of cockatiels screaming.
"It gives him something interesting to do while he waits to die."
Bryant's writing also offers humor, a prevailing sense that we are all the victims of a cosmic joke. Werewolves, vampires and zombies may not exist, but they're reasonable metaphoric stand-ins for the terrible things that happen to people.
Three years ago, the joke was on Bryant himself when he awoke one morning to find he couldn't move his arms or hands. He lay where he was, terrified and in pain, until a woman he'd been dating phoned. "I nudged the phone off the hook like some sort of bad physical comedy," he says. "I got my head down to the receiver...She was calling to chew me out about a variety of issues, but I tried to get across that this was no time for dating issues -- this was a life-or-death situation."
His friend came over. "I was in terrible shape, because every time one of my arms would move, there would be greater physical pain than I'd ever experienced in my life," he says. The friend got him dressed and cleaned up and took him to a doctor. A series of misdiagnoses followed. Eventually, Bryant found out that the bones of his shoulders had broken in his sleep. "I joked that maybe some ex-girlfriend had used a key to get in and beaten the heck out of my shoulders with a Ball Peen hammer," he says.
Bryant has had diabetes all his life. He now discovered that he also suffered from sleep apnea and severe osteoporosis. "What seems likely is that the weakened bones were broken when my body went into involuntary convulsions due to hypoglycemia," he says. "Or the convulsions could have been triggered by my apnea."
For a few months, he was completely dependent on his friends, unable to brush his teeth or put on a shirt without help. Even after his recovery, he realized that his health was far more fragile than he had previously understood. He has some heart disease, and his kidneys function at 40 percent capacity; at 55, he has the bones of an old man.
"There's no way my body can be fixed," he says, "but what we can hope to do is keep all the deteriorative processes as minimal as possible. And, as Joan Didion says, 'play it as it lays.'"
In the process of re-achieving independence, Bryant found that his relationships had changed, along with much of his attitude toward life. The long-term psychic effects of his illness are still slowly making themselves known.
"It's become a time in my life to start getting some things tidied up," he says. "I'm not saying wrap everything up and kiss it all goodbye. But this last year, as we came up to the faux millennium -- because I couldn't get everything done, I figured that the true millennium doesn't start until next January 1 -- I found myself doing things like renewing my passport, cleaning up tax issues, getting all my financial things in order, doing a last will and testament and a living will and a power of durable medical attorney, and making sure that people had some idea, if I get hit by a bus or anything else happens, what I want accomplished after my death."
He is also trying to set up what he calls "a very modest award" to be given annually to someone in the arts by judges he's already designated. These judges are to select the "sort of achievement that would have delighted me," Bryant says, laughing. "I'm looking for a modest immortality there and trying to see that my skewed tastes are perpetuated.
"The future is no longer indefinite. Time has become very finite to me and very precious," he continues. "I know that I'm way past the midpoint of my life. I'm not happy about this. It's not a big concern, this matter of being cognizant that I'm going to die. It's more a matter of...I hate the idea of dying, because I'm afraid I'm going to miss something. When [former Westword writer] Alan Dumas died, I went to his funeral. As I was sitting through the service, suddenly I thought, next weekend there's going to be a new round of movies coming out, and Alan's never going to see them."
For all of his kindly availability to younger writers and his occasional garrulous and confiding moments -- Bryant almost always speaks in complete sentences, in a voice so deep and well-modulated that theater people sometimes mistake him for an actor -- he is known as something of a recluse. He lives alone with his two cats, Zooey and Caliban, in a quiet, century-old Denver neighborhood; his house is crammed from floor to ceiling with books, games and odd artifacts. There's a complete set of McDonald's Inspector Gadget toys, a Navajo code-talking G.I. Joe and a replica of the Fantod, the fantastical biped from Edward Gorey's The Doubtful Guest. Skulls of various materials are scattered about on tables and shelves. A gargoyle, a resin casting of a Tyrannosaurus rex tooth, and an Eskimo fetish made from the penile bone of a walrus.
"He's an extremely private person," says close friend and fellow writer Melanie Tem, who met her husband, Steve Rasnic Tem (also a fantasy writer of note), in one of Bryant's workshops and has published nine novels. She believes the seed of Bryant's writing lies somewhere in this nexus between warmth and reclusiveness. "There are a lot of things about Ed personally and intra-psychically that I don't have a clue about," Tem adds.
Although Bryant has never married, his friends say he's very appealing to women. "Many, many women would have given a lot to have been his partner," says Tem.
"The man gets laid like Brad Pitt," says famed fantasist Harlan Ellison, who was Bryant's first mentor and remains a close friend. "He has the most charming way with women, and he always has. He's getting so much action, there's probably not much point in getting married. I keep hoping for advancing age to slow him down, because one of these days, one of these women is going to break his back."
The longest-term relationship Bryant has had with a woman lasted four years. When he -- inevitably -- turned the experience of waking immobile and in pain into a horror story, he transformed the woman who helped him -- in real life, a close friend -- into a kind of vampire who completed the protagonist's destruction. Most of the women he has dated, however, remain strong supporters.
Bryant has always felt both pride and pleasure in his independence. "I'm not used to having people around all the time," he says. "I make a genuine distinction between loneliness and aloneness. I know what each is like. There are times I'm lonely. But there are also many times when I need to be alone, when I don't want the feeling of someone else in the house other than the cats."
During his illness, however, Bryant realized that "it's good to have relationships in which people can take care of you, just as you sometimes take care of others. I have to say -- okay, I say this grudgingly -- it's not so bad. It's all well and good to have the old traditional Western image of 'I can do everything myself.' But when you're lying on your floor in the privacy of your home, choking to death on your own drool, maybe you'll rethink that policy. I really don't want my ultimate legacy to be that after my death my cats still ate well for six weeks." He laughs.
Bryant's solitariness stems from a profoundly isolated childhood. His father grew up in Colorado, but met and married his mother in New York State during World War II. After the war, his maternal grandfather, a lifelong fan of cowboy fiction, especially Zane Grey, offered to finance a cattle ranch for the family out West. Bryant was six months old when his parents, his grandfather, an aunt and her ex-coal-miner husband moved to Wyoming.
"That was the time when I learned to take an old wooden horse-drawn hay stacker and with my mind turn it into a sailing ship," Bryant says. "Then we got some surplus rusted steel farm equipment, and I started figuring out it could be a surrogate spaceship."
There was no running water or electricity on the ranch. The phone was hand-cranked. "I call it my Abraham Lincoln phase," says Bryant.
In the one-room schoolhouse he attended, he read the entire library of books and listened in on the other children's assignments. ("That experience probably killed any chance I had of becoming a specialist," he says.) Meanwhile, his grandfather was reading him Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows. "My vocabulary wasn't everything it could be," observes Bryant, "so when Ratty and the others would cross the river using a boat with sculls, I found it quite grotesque."
An event that occurred when he was about five inspired his lifelong devotion to cats. "What I'm about to tell you may be a misremembrance," he says, "but I don't think so.
"My mother heard this -- and I use the word advisedly -- caterwauling outside, and she came out of the house and discovered that I had been playing in the dust in the space between the house and the barn. And there was a very large rattler curled up within striking distance of me. We had all sorts of feral cats, including the biggest and meanest, who was called the Mom Cat. She was sort of the goddess figure for felines in that part of the country. All of these cats were descended from her. The cats had formed a circle between me and the snake. The Mom Cat was there, and she was caterwauling louder than anybody else. The cats kept darting in and taunting the snake to strike at them. And the snake was totally distracted."
Bryant's mother ran to get his father, who disposed of the rattler with a shovel. "No cats were injured," Bryant concludes. "And nor was I."
The ex-coal-miner uncle was a passionate moviegoer. With him, the young Bryant saw "everything from John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima to science-fiction movies like The Thing." Since his uncle disliked musicals, it was his mother who introduced him to the delights of such movies as An American in Paris.
Financial problems forced Bryant's family to leave the ranch when he was about ten. His father became an itinerant ranch hand and eventually got a job with the postal service in Wheatland. His mother took secretarial work. Bryant became a town kid.
He was immensely shy, he says, and the culture shock was enormous. "I used to spend my recesses making friends with the school buses in the parking lot," he recalls. "I would wander among the vehicles, hoping against hope that one of them would turn out to be sentient and speak to me."
He laughs again. "I look at all this from the vantage of time and think, the way behavior's defined today, I'd be in deep trouble," he says. "I'd be assigned a counselor, and I'd probably be getting therapy. Back then, you just coped.
"I really felt a strong urge to be social, but I didn't know how. I was sort of a wimpy version of Frankenstein's monster, in the sense of blundering about knocking things over -- metaphorically and actually. I've always been fairly physically clumsy."
Two helpful things happened. Bryant took an extracurricular class in speech, which gave him a few basic tools -- things as fundamental as simply taking a deep breath before you speak. "In math class one day," he recalls, "I started talking to some of the other students, and they responded. There's a science-fictional image for that, too: the alien who starts to communicate with the native Earth species." And an English teacher began Bryant's writing career by recruiting him to work on the school newspaper.
Bryant was one of two National Merit finalists in his school competing for a major national prize. If he'd won, "I'd have gone to the University of Arizona to be an aerospace engineering major," he says. "Instead, my colleague went off to UA to become a mathematician. He married another mathematician, and they went back to Wyoming and started a bison-breeding ranch."
Bryant went to the University of Wyoming on a scholarship and earned a master's degree in English. His thesis was half scholarly paper -- "Imagery of the Path in the Novels of Herman Hesse" -- and half seventy pages of what Bryant terms a "ghastly, typical young man's coming-of-age" novel.
He saw a flier for the Clarion Writers' Workshop in Pennsylvania and decided to attend. One of the teachers was Harlan Ellison. For Bryant, the workshop constituted a trial by fire. "No one had given me a hint about ambitious, boundary-pushing or even clean writing," he says. Nonetheless, Ellison prefaced the critique of Bryant's first submitted story with these words: "I don't want this to prejudice the reaction, but, Ed, I'd like to buy this for my anthology."
Bryant moved to Los Angeles, where he was able to make a living writing stories and articles, many of them for men's magazines. For a while he attempted the literary venues. The rejections from Paris Review and the North American Review were complimentary but said his work was too fantastical. Science-fiction magazines found it too literary -- at first. But the science-fiction field was changing, focusing more on humanity and imagination, less on cold technology, and Bryant's writing came increasingly into demand.
Bryant moved to Denver in the early '70s. He won Nebula awards -- the highest honor bestowed by the Science Fiction Writers of America -- for short stories in 1978 and 1979. A clutch of other awards followed.
Bryant's material comes from his own life and the lives of those around him. One of his most-anthologized stories, "While She Was Out," arose from his difficulties finding a parking place at a shopping mall and his vengeful thoughts when he found a battered old sedan taking up two spaces. He is constantly on the lookout for odd newspaper items. In an introduction to one of Bryant's books, Simmons describes two news stories Bryant had repeated to him. One was about a British earl who built a giant catapult, used it to launch pianos, dead pigs and Austin Minis across his estate and offered to do the same for Kevin Costner during the filming of Robin Hood. Another dealt with a South Carolina man who went to an emergency room demanding to know if he could get rabies or AIDS from a raccoon he thought had been dead when he decided to lavish some sexual affection on it.
"What newspaper does Bryant subscribe to?!?" Simmons asked.
"I still don't feel I fit easily into any narrow category," says Bryant. "I've always seen fantasy as one of the great Western fictional traditions. So much of what we read comes out of the tradition of fantasy, of speculation about why things are the way they are."
He was delighted when magical realism began gaining acceptance in the U.S. "It came from predominantly Catholic cultures in which magic -- of a highly metaphysical nature -- was accepted," he explains. "Miracles, angels, demons...
"I believe very strongly that realistic fiction can accept, without choking on the mouthful, that element of the fantastic, that you really can have your cake and the frosting and the enjoyment you get digesting it all wrapped up into one happy parcel."
Bryant himself is not a believer in magic or the supernatural. "I'm not a UFO nut. I'm not a conspiracy buff. I acknowledge all of these things, but I see them as fantasies. I have a great wistful desire to see them. I'd love to have a UFO experience. I'd love to see a ghost. I would love to find evidence of life after death. I've seen some remarkable phenomena, but none of these has ever been anything that I couldn't, with half a second's thought, explain rationally. So I'm a hopeful romantic. I'm always looking for the wondrous.
"And I believe the wondrous exists. But it's really a metaphor for some very physical, nitty-gritty realities. Certainly while I'm writing, in that act of creating people and worlds, I suspend my sense of disbelief. I believe in the things I'm writing about."
Horror writers tend to react with indignation to the suggestion that there might be anything weird or off-kilter in their fascination with the grotesque. "People who write horror have the same fears as anyone else," says Simmons. "They're just more courageous. They light the lantern and go down into the cellar and look."
Willis feels that the horror in Bryant's work arises less from gore than from his profound understanding of people's guilt and fears. But Bryant remembers readings of "A Sad Last Love" after which audience members came up to him and said something like, "I hated that story, and I'm not so sure about you for writing it."
He himself found the story, in which a young woman is chased and ultimately cornered by an army of the undead, upsetting. "When I wrote the last line, when I realized exactly what the story was about, I was appalled," he says. "I was genuinely appalled. Clear up to the last scene, I didn't know if she was going to come out of it or not. That young woman was someone I cared about. There was a real sense of anguish knowing that as a writer, I was going to do something truly awful to her."
Bryant did allow his protagonist one small mercy. "I gave her that grace note," he says. "But it devastated me."
Bryant turned increasingly to horror as he found science-fiction writing becoming too cerebral for him. Horror, he felt, was more concerned with the visceral. "The two most common concerns of horror fiction are death and sex, and death and sex are two of the great commonalities of life," he says. "I didn't see it as any kind of a morbid preoccupation. I wasn't a kind of Victorian goth, sitting in my window looking down with great melancholy upon the evil and folly of the secular world. I was exploring my own emotional nature, which I had always hidden away and partitioned off."
It's hard to find anyone who will say a bad word about Bryant. Trying to describe both the quality of his work and his impact on the field, his colleagues seem to search for superlatives. "He's a wonderful person," says Connie Willis. "The older I get, the more I realize how difficult an accomplishment it is to be a good person -- one many writers overlook in their eagerness to be a genius."
"His credibility is very high," says Tem. "People believe in him. He also has a breadth of taste and knowledge."
Asked to come up with one unpleasant fact to balance the outpouring of praise, Willis obliges: "He's had whole groups of nationally known writers dangling spoons from their noses."
The one criticism you occasionally hear is that had Bryant done less teaching and organizing, he could have accomplished more as a writer. He has never written mainstream fiction. Although he has several short-story anthologies to his credit, he has never published a novel. Some of those who participated in his workshops, like Simmons and Willis, are far better known to the general public than is Bryant. Tem is one of those who wishes he had written more.
So is Clay Evans, who writes for the Daily Camera in Boulder and has published a book about his experiences as a cowboy, I See by Your Outfit. Evans met Bryant in 1975 in a sci-fi bookstore on what is now Boulder's Pearl Street Mall. He was fifteen.
"I was loud and annoying and in people's faces," Evans says. "He took my passion at face value. Even better, he held me accountable. He invited me into his workshop."
Evans would like to have seen Bryant publish a novel. "He's such an incredible writer," he says. "Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury made it on short stories, but Ed came of age a little later, and I think he needed to do a novel. He's very active in the sci-fi and horror worlds, and I wonder if he ever gave his own talent the room it needed."
Other writers see it differently. They say Bryant has lived off his writing for decades and created a fine body of work. Two new story collections, Flirting With Death (CD Books) and The Baku (Subterranean Press), will be released this year. In addition, Bryant has worked on screen- and teleplays.
Besides, criteria like wealth and fame are meaningless for writers, according to Simmons: "We can't sort ourselves out that way. We're all writing for posterity, and works of quality are going to last."
Bryant admits to writer's block. In an article he published many years ago, he described it as "a huge, gray, English sheepdog with matted fur and bad breath. It sneaks up when you're not looking and sits down on you. You may rail and struggle, but you won't get anywhere. Remember, this is a big dog."
Bryant has no reservations about the huge success of some of his friends. On the contrary, it delights him. "I don't love it when people I think are piss-poor writers succeed," he cautions, "people I think are pandering, or are simply no-talents who have caught the wave at exactly the right moment.
"My perception is that you need talent; you need good subject matter; you need endurance and persistence; you need the energy to actually write the work. But even with all of that, you need lightning from a clear sky. Chance. Breaks. Good luck. The timing of the right editor being at the right publishing house at the right time, so that they see your work and say, 'I believe in this. I can make this into an enormous success,' and they do. What happens if you send the same novel to the same house six months before and it goes to a different editor? It might sink like a rock. It might be rejected."
Bryant's first mentor, Harlan Ellison, has a great deal to say on the subject of Edward Bryant and his work, but he disclaims any credit for discovering him. "That's like Columbus 'discovering' the native Americans," Ellison says. "They look at him and say, 'We weren't lost.' If it had not been I, it would have been someone else. Ed is a natural talent, a writer of extraordinary ability.
"Life has not been easy for Ed. He has had any number of setbacks and physical ailments. Just the rigors of staying alive and continuing to be a proud and interesting voice in American literature is an act of enormous courage and stick-to-itiveness. He is the perfect American writer. Of his time and of his place. And he has brought honor to Denver. He can't shoot pool for shit, though."
Ellison pauses for breath. "He is the dearest man in the world. You can see the decency shining out of his eyes. He's got a good heart, and he's kind and intelligent. For the most part, you never hear Ed say an unkind word about anybody -- not that he's a Pollyanna. Even when he goes after someone in a review, he's not going after you personally. It's about the work. There's a pellucidity. You owe an allegiance to the art, and it transcends friendship. Even when he's tearing a book apart, there's no mean-spiritedness in it. There's no mean-spiritedness in Ed."
As for those who complain that Bryant's output is insufficient, "Fuck 'em," says Ellison. "Fuck 'em royally. A writer writes as much as a writer writes. Ed is a fine public speaker, charming, a great presence. He writes at a steady pace. At the close of day, that's just as laudable a way to have gone through one's existence as to sit at the typewriter and pour out reams of prose.
"Readers will order you about," he adds. "That's what happened with Ed. He's so good, they want more. It wouldn't matter if he had written a hundred novels -- they'd want a hundred and one. People say the dinos died out. They didn't. They're birds. They're still with us. Even when a writer's gone, the resonance is in what they've left behind. I've left behind Ed Bryant, Octavia Butler. I've left behind careers that may transcend mine. Ed will be leaving behind the work that he did as an editor, teacher and writer. That work stays. It remains.
"The man is a pearl of great price."
Bryant admits that sometimes he, too, wonders what would have happened if he'd put more energy into writing and less into organizing. "Sometimes I think I could have had a long string of novels, so many more short stories," he says. "I could have been a screenwriter in Hollywood. As it is, if I'm bound for anything in modern literature, the best I can hope for is footnote status."
But then he brightens. "In the arts, it's never too late to kick into overdrive. I do believe that I'm still capable of not only continuing my work, but finding some angles of approach that will surprise those who think they know my writing -- and myself.
"As long as you're alive, there's always more time."
The World Horror Convention 2000 runs May 11-14 at the Adam's Mark Hotel in downtown Denver. Guests and presenters include Peter Straub, Melanie Tem, Harlan Ellison, J. Michael Straczynski, Steve Rasnic Tem, Dan Simmons and Omni editor Ellen Datlow. For information on cost and specific activities, log on to www.whc2000.org or call 303-341-7538. To learn about the Denver Area Science Fiction Association, which sponsors the annual MileHiCon, go to www.eco-net.com/milehicon
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