Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2007
Column: HARVESTING THE DARKNESS #2: FULLY STOKE(re)D by Norman Partridge
Last weekend I picked up my third Bram Stoker award. Well, not really. Joe Lansdale picked it up for me. The truth is that I’ve never been present to accept any of the Stokers I’ve won. The first two times, Lucy Taylor picked them up. That was okay, because I’m sure most folks in the audience were damn near ecstatic to find themselves staring at Lucy instead of me. Joe’s another story, though. Sure, Lansdale’s a handsome enough guy… but, hell, I’ve still got all my hair.
Still, I was pleased to see my short novel Dark Harvest get the award for Long Fiction this year. If you read my first column here at Subterranean Online, you know it’s a book that’s close to my heart in a few different ways. That makes receiving Haunted House #3 pretty sweet. Toss in the fact that it comes from my peers… well, that’s sweeter. Fact is I wish I’d been in Toronto to belly up to the bar and raise a tall glass of semper fi with all of you.
Of course, said sweetness had about as much staying power as the Costo-sized heavyweights who pass for contenders these days. That was my own fault, because I checked the buzz on a few message boards after I heard the news. It wasn’t long before the bitching and moaning started up, re: The Stoker Process, and everyone gathered ‘round for a good catfight.
Ever notice how that happens? And how those threads endure? Man, some of them remind me of Marvin Hagler in his prime. They go the full fifteen rounds. Threads in which the merits of books and writers are intelligently debated—those die a quick death. But give folks a chance to rail against the powers that be, or work up a head of steam about how much better things in this disordered mess of a world would work if only they could don a metal suit and reign unchallenged à la Victor Von Doom… well, do that and you’re good for ten pages and a couple thousand views, for sure and for certain.
And right about here I’m tempted to haul a 60 Minutes crew straight down the rabbit hole to Message Board Land, where the Internet warriors dwell, and go a few rounds myself. But Bill Schafer only allows me 1,000 words for this gig, so we’ll have to raincheck that action. Let’s get back to those threads chewing over the Stokers and the awards process itself, since that’s what this column’s about. See, in the midst of the weekend hubbub, some interesting questions managed to rear their heads, and I’d like to take a crack at them.
Since we’re talking Stokers, an award decided by popular vote, much of the discussion focused on the responsibility of the voters. Tote up the final ballot this year, you’ve got just over three dozen works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of money to spend if the membership’s ponying up dollars for books. The question is: how many voters actually make that trip, and—realistically—should they be expected to?
To find an answer, let’s slap together three quick scenarios:
1. It’s a perfect world. Everybody reads everything and votes accordingly.
2. Nothing’s perfect… but, hey, everyone tries. Members read what they can, and—since they’re professionals and know the field—they cast some votes based on factors other than the particular work in question. Say, a writer’s entire body of work, or career.
3. Are you kidding, idiot? The world sucks. The most popular kids win every goddamn time. Welcome to Horror High School.
Of course, the truth lies somewhere in the gray areas between those scenarios. And the truth isn’t consistent, either. It varies from year to year. So what can be done to make things better, and move us toward that ideal in Scenario #1?
Someone suggested that nominated works be made available to the HWA membership, perhaps as PDF files. And, hey, that might work in some categories—say a short story. But I don’t see it happening with longer pieces. These collections, novels, and novellas represent the sweat of each creator’s brow. The nominees worked hard on them. Personally, I can’t see an author giving up what might be the best work of his or her career in pursuit of an award. That doesn’t sit right with me… and I didn’t do that with Dark Harvest. My reasoning was simple. Mostly, it just didn’t seem fair to the readers who were supporting my work by popping forty bucks for the hardcover over at Cemetery Dance.
And even if I had gone the PDF route, and every other nominee had, too… remember, we’re talking more than three dozen works showing up in members’ email boxes in the relatively short time between final ballot and vote casting. Me, I work a joe job and write—there are some years where I don’t finish that many books. In other words: Sorry, Charlie, there’s too much tortoise in the equation, not near enough hare.
So sweep that idea under the door, and what alternatives are left? Well, there are always juried awards like World Fantasy and the IHG. To tell the truth, the longer I’m in the business, the more I appreciate awards of this sort, where a small group of professionals accept the reading chores for a year, narrow the field, make the calls for winners and losers. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who signs up for that kind of a deal is really going above and beyond the call of duty, and I certainly respect those who give it a go.
Of course, the downside to juries is that they can pretty easily fall victim to the predilections (if not the downright prejudices) of their memberships. Remember, these are small groups, and four or five individuals can easily find themselves leaning in a direction that may not be representative of an entire organization. Conversely, a small group can split wide and hard, too. Hey, if you’ve hung around long enough, you’ve probably heard about that happening between the fantasy- and horror-based judges for the World Fantasy Award a time or two.
But no method is perfect. And maybe that’s the only answer I can scratch up for you right now. I will tell you this: when it comes to this year’s Long Fiction category, I was pleased to find myself in fine company. The other Stoker nominees included Kim Newman, whose particular blend of horror and pop culture I’ve admired for years. Laird Barron, a hot new talent whose work I’ve been following in F&SF. Chris Golden and Jim Moore, two of the hardest working professionals I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. And Fran Friel… well, I don’t know Fran’s work. Not yet. But her inclusion in this category is enough to make me order a copy of her book, and I look forward to reading it.
And for me, that’s ultimately what awards should be about.
The tale, not he who tells it.
For a writer, that’s the place the work gets done. You fight your battle on the page. That’s where you need to ask yourself if you measure up—to the best that you can do, or to the best that can be done—because that’s the only place you can make a difference.
Right there. On paper.
It’s the same place you’ll find your real reward.