A few years back, I was hit with an emotional blow so fierce that it stunned every aspect of my life. I was numb, in a state of confusion, and alone. The details are private, but my recovery answered for me a question often asked in genre circles: What is the value of "escapism" in fiction? Is it a value at all?
In the wake of my hardship, I had lost the ability to escape into books. Pages from my favourite authors did not generate that "vivid and continuous dream" John Gardner remarked was the goal of all good fiction. Thankfully, this frightening situation was reversed by two very different fantasists: Robert E. Howard and Gary Braunbeck.
Howard provided my mind with a dark, fantastic landscape, filled with rapid-fire and arcane adventures completely foreign to my experiences. Braunbeck, on the other hand, closed the gap between the fantastic and the real, dealing with savagely human concerns. Both showed that fantasy has within in it many values, including the relief of escape and the importance of human resonance.
The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
Robert E. Howard is best known for creating Conan, but it was not the Cimmerian warrior that helped me regain my senses. Instead, I became enthralled with the swashbuckling, supernatural adventures of Solomon Kane, the puritan warrior with a flintlock pistol in one hand and a rapier in the other, smiting demon and heathen and anyone else who tested his mettle in his never ending quest to vanquish demonic forces alive and well in seventeenth century Europe and Africa. Kane's world was brutal and poetic, his adventures dark and exotic. They were about as far from my own life as Kingston, Ontario, is from Atlantis.
That was bliss. I hung on to Kane's puritan smock as he blasted and slashed his bizarre enemies with righteous anger and justification. In the first story, "Skulls in the Stars," Kane defeats a supernatural villain by sheer willpower. Such certainty of purpose and skill was a gem. You knew Kane would be back in the next story to kick ass and take names, his victories assured. And Howard's delivery, a fusing of high-octane pacing, highfalutin language and poetic yet two-fisted storytelling, was always soothing to my frantic mind.
The escape into the fantastic reminded me of an essay by Harlan Ellison™ called "The Tombs." Ellison recounts his experience being jailed for weapons possession. Before getting locked up, a friend shoved some Oz books into his hand so he had something to read in jail. For Ellison, the books were keys to an escape hatch.
Enchanted as generations of tots and elders have been by Frank Baum's Dorothy and Tin Woodman and Scarecrow and Wizard, none of them could have blessed the kindly old characters as much as I did that night. They took me out of myself, and I recognized for the first time the full value of fantasy.
Though my prison was psychological, I felt the same as Ellison did in the clink. Howard and Solomon Kane gave me a reprieve of wonder, adventure and certainty when things were painfully real, immediate, and chaotic. That escape was a deep and enriching breath that allowed me to get my bearings.
The Dark Resonance of Cedar Hill
I burned through the collection as well as Kane sliced through his enemies. After I finished, I was worried that I might suffer the same reading problems I had before. And I did. Even Howard's other fiction did not help. Conan could not save me, nor mighty King Kull, so I tried reading in another direction. Not for escape, but for resonance. And given my recent hardship I turned to the painfully human fiction of Gary Braunbeck.
Braunbeck is an award-winning writer of dark fiction. To call him just a horror writer would be to diminish the wide breadth much of his fiction takes, from fantasy to science fiction to humour. But the heart of his work is personal, gritty and compelling. Much of it is biographical, re-envisioning the traumas of Braunbeck's own life in fictional form as a means to understand them and perhaps lay his own demons to rest. I worried that reading such fiction would be akin to putting salt on a wound. Sometimes it was, but the wound began to heal. Soon I was relating, not running, from people in emotional hardships.
In Graveyard Tales: The Collected Cedar Hill Stories, Vol. 1, Braunbeck delivers compelling tales of love, hate, loss and, sometimes, redemption. These are stories of everyday people who struggle against often tyrannical blue collar hardship and self-sabotage. Everyone's dreams seem a day late and a dollar short, their lives slipping into Twilight Zone territory as fears and horrors become manifest in mythic and terrible ways. The painful ruin of a family in "Matters of Family," the cruelty of childhood and the price of redemption in "The Marble King," and, indeed, the power of escape in "Modoc Rising" all touch deep swells of human emotion. They prove that adage of C. S. Lewis, "We read to know we are not alone."
After finishing both the Howard and Braunbeck collections, I could read at will. But the experience of escape and resonance from reading these works stayed with me. Why them? Why not any of the hundreds of other writers in my personal library?
Crucially, both authors were relatively new to me. What I needed was foreign lands and lives, unfamiliar storytelling voices, authors who spoke to me but whose worlds were not yet known in detail.
Robert E. Howard gave me a respite through escape and adventure. The stories provided the seed to an imaginative landscape and allowed me to catch my breath while playing in Howard's grim but wild wonderland.
Gary Braunbeck's fiction resonated and connected with sore feelings. The humanity in his work, often tortured but always striving, managed to reach through my numbness. Here were people in dire straits, under pressures as severe as mine, falling, fighting, trying to overcome similar strains and turmoil.
In different ways, each author proved the value of escape for the reader of fantasy fiction, be it of the imaginative landscape or the gritty realist variety. Ellison had Oz. I had Kane and Cedar Hill. Both of us realized what J. R. R. Tolkien already knew, and which bears repeating here, about the values of escape in fantasy.
I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?
The author would like to thank Matt Rotundo for his research assistance with this piece.