The Divine Madness of Absolute Clarity:
An Introduction by Gary A. Braunbeck
I’m not going to tell you a damned thing about this novel you’re holding in your hands right now; I’m not going to tell you how Scott Johnson creates an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension that starts with the very first paragraph and never lets up; I’m not going to tell you about the emotional layers he uses in creating the all-too-real human beings who populate these pages, nor am I going to go on at length about how the shifting dynamics of the characters’ relationships ring so true that often-times you’re going to feel like you’re voyeuristically eavesdropping on the most private and intimate moments of someone else’s life; I will avoid discussing how Scott Johnson understands the difference between genuine tragedy and the merely tragic – something that all too few horror writers seem to grasp (or care about) in this age of the Rampant Zombie Boogie – which, with the exceptions of a small handful of writers’ work, cannot end quickly enough for me; I’m not even going to get into the beautifully-orchestrated set-pieces that, combined with the excellent characterizations and the authenticity of fear that lies at the core of the story, propel City of Demons to a level of near-operatic grandeur in the final third; I won’t discuss his menacingly poetic narrative voice, nor how his dialogue is as crackling and literate as anything penned by Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, or Charles Beaumont; and rest assured that I will not waste your time or mine by describing the jaw-dropping, epic, and beautifully grotesque imagery that reads like Johnson has taken Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and transposed it to modern-day Houston, Texas; I’m not going to discuss any of that. Instead, I want to tell you a little bit about Scott Johnson himself.
Picture, if you will, a demented leprechaun. Add about sixteen inches of height, a sharply-trimmed goatee, and give it a voice that falls somewhere between Richard Burton and Tommy Lee Jones, and … you might have some idea of what to expect if you ever meet him in person. Yes, he’s a bit on the small side, but so is a vial of nitro.
You can feel his energy for his work, and when he discusses his love of the craft, you cannot help but listen.
And then there are his eyes. Go on-line and look at his author’s photo on his website, or photos taken of his readings at any convention, and you’ll note immediately that there is a barely-contained creative insanity lurking In There. This is a man who does not see the same world the rest of us do. I do not mean he sees the world differently than us – he sees a completely different world, and that mad sparkle in his eyes tells you that Scott Johnson is warped in the best of all possible ways – the embodiment of what Oscar Wilde called, “… the divine madness of absolute clarity.”
Scott Johnson’s clarity of vision is absolute. I have had the pleasure of seeing him evolve from a damned good writer into one who displays the range and control of the truly gifted. There are several sequences in City of Demons (especially its bravura finale) that very easily could have tipped over into the absurdly over-done, piling grotesquerie on top grotesquerie for the sake of shocking or grossing out the reader, but like a good actor who knows that the quality of a performance is best measured by the control which he or she orchestrates in peeling back the onion layers of a character’s psyche, a good horror writer knows that terror, heartbreak, and revulsion are their most effective and affecting when the reader is given just enough of a glimpse of the horror to know they don’t need or want to see anymore; a telling detail, a small line of blood trickling across the floor from behind a closed door, a terrible sound from somewhere behind … it can more than enough when the writer knows when and how to exercise control, and – just as importantly – when the writer trusts in the intelligence and imagination of his or her readers.
Scott Johnson trusts his readers, he respects their intelligence, and knows they are sharp enough to fill in the blanks for themselves, thus making their reading of his work all that more a personal and intimate experience – because, let’s face it, take away any and all blurbs, words of praise, the bells and whistles of word of mouth, Internet publicity, great cover art, all of it, and it boils down to this: terror is arguably the most intimate of individual human emotions, and to provoke that reaction with mere words on a page requires that the writer and reader both agree to step into that dark alley together. The writer knows what’s back there, but you don’t, and as a reader you accept that, trusting that the writer does indeed know what lies back in those shadows between the dank brick walls. And he does – just look at his eyes. He sees what you can’t, but also knows that half the joy in this process is making the reader believe that he’s in the dark as just as they are.
That’s where the control factor really kicks in. There are many writers who are so impatient to get to the punchline of a sequence, so determined to get to “Z” that they forget to go from “A” to “B” and so on. Not Scott Johnson. This is a writer who, here, is in complete command of the English language and in total control over his story. Scott loves horror, and that comes through. He knows that story is king, and he its humble messenger.
A good writer also knows when he’s worn out his welcome, so allow me to make a quick and (hopefully) graceful exit with this last thought:
What you hold in your hands is, in my opinion, an almost perfect horror novel; and the only reason I qualify it with the “almost” is because Johnson hasn’t written his next one yet.
So climb into the cruiser with the nightcrawlers and hold your breath as the real nightlife of Houston, Texas comes out to play.
Gary A. Braunbeck
Lost in Ohio
June 4, 2009