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.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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