Good morning. I’m honored to have been asked here today.

When Maurice first invited me to speak, he also informed me that there was more than a little bit of controversy centered around the inclusion of so many horror writers, mostly because several people couldn’t understand what practitioners of this particular form of story-telling could offer to a congregation gathered to celebrate their creativity, faith, and spirituality in a House of God, and I can fully understand how it would be difficult, if not impossible, for some to reconcile the two.

As many of you may be aware, there are a few of us who are Agnostics, and you might be wondering how someone who harbors that level of doubt can lay claim to any canon of spirituality.

There is a quote from German poet and philosopher Heinrich Hein that I hold very close to my heart, because I think it can be embraced by those who, like myself, believe in God, as well as those who have their doubts:

“Regarding my actions in this world, I care little in the existence of a heaven or hell; self-respect does not allow me to guide my acts with an eye toward heavenly salvation or hellish punishment. I pursue the good because it is beautiful and attracts me, and shun the bad because it is ugly and repulsive. All our acts should originate from the spring of unselfish love, whether there be continuation after death or not.”

I’ve always felt that philosophy could be accepted by everyone, regardless of their private spiritual beliefs – and despite Hein’s claim that he cares “…little for the existence of a heaven or hell…” he nonetheless concludes his statement by giving voice to what seems to me to be a central credence of Christianity: “All our acts should originate from the spring of unselfish love, whether there be continuation after death or not.” In essence, one should be strive to be kind to all others without the expectation of reward at the end of one’s days.

I like that so much, not only because it comes as close as anything I’ve ever encountered to summarizing my own personal beliefs, but because those words could very well have been spoken by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount.

This is simply a way of telling you that, yes, I am a horror writer; yes, I do believe in God; and it is through my work that I give thanks to Him every day for the blessings I have while learning not to focus too much on those things I have yet to achieve.

I’m not going to defend what we as horror writers do – this is neither the time nor the place – but instead offer you the reasons why I – who once briefly studied for the priesthood – chose to do toil in this particular field of fiction.

And it has to do with a gift from God that I did not know was a gift at the time.

Allow me to introduce you to my father, Frank Henry Braunbeck, who was born on May 22, 1926, who passed away June 15, 2001, less than 9 months before my mother joined him. My father was a WWII veteran, 71st Infantry, Artilleryman. He fought in the battles of Regensburg, Straubing, Reid, Lambach, Weis, and Steyer; he crossed the Rhine, Danube, Isar, Inn, and Enns Rivers; and he helped to liberate the concentration camps of Strubing and Gunskirken Lager. He was a loyal soldier. He was born and raised in Ohio. He never made it past the eighth grade because he had to go to work to help support his ailing mother and three younger siblings after his father abandoned them during the Great Depression (he worked as a paper boy, ten different routes each day).

Near the end of the war, Dad was the sole survivor of a crash in Eberstadt, Austria—just beyond the village of Darmstadt—that killed all the men in his unit; while driving down an icy mountain road, the driver lost control of the truck and it went over the side of a cliff. The truck plunged, upside-down, over 150 feet before landing in the ice and snow below, killing everyone except my father. He lay inside the wreckage of the truck for nearly two days, kept from freezing to death only because of the bodies on top of and below him. When at last the wreckage was discovered, it was by an SS unit that had been hiding out in the mountains, the very ones Dad’s unit had been looking for. The first thing this unit did was pull all the bodies from the remains of the truck; the second thing was to defile the bodies; the third was to build a pile with the bodies; and the last thing they did, before they left, was to set that pile on fire. My father—who had been faking being dead the entire time—was right in the middle of that pile, and didn’t dare move or speak for fear they’d discover he was alive and…

…and I’ll just leave the rest of that to your imaginations. The smoke from the fire was spotted by the Darmstadt villagers, who immediately came to the scene and put out the (thankfully) slow-burning fire (snow had begun to fall quite heavily, and while it did not douse the flames, it hindered their spreading a great deal). My father was discovered alive, was taken to Darmstadt where he remained in their small hospital for several months before being transferred to one in Munich upon Germany’s surrender.

He had broken nearly every bone in his body. He spent 18 months in a full-body cast. (18 months. Can you imagine what it must be like to not be able to move at all for a year-and-a-half? My entire life, I don’t think I ever saw him once sit still for more than thirty minutes at a time.)

After the war, he never received any kind of therapy to help him deal with it. As a result—and because he came from a generation whose members simply Didn’t Talk About Such Things—he suffered from nightmares about the incident. He had a tremendous amount of trouble sleeping, and so took to having a few beers before bedtime to make him sleepy. As the years went on and the sleeplessness persisted, those few beers became a few more beers, then a few more beers with a couple of belts of whiskey, and he slipped quietly in full-blown alcoholism.

The term “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” didn’t exist yet; in post-WW2 America, the term that was used was “shell-shock,” and the popular treatment was a prescription for sleeping pills and a firm, “Suck it up, buddy.”

We now jump ahead to the summer of 1977. This summer was, to put it mildly, not pleasant. Dad’s alcoholism was at its violent peak, his self-respect was non-existent, and he saw no point to his life. He had worked for the Roper corporation for nearly twenty-three years when they decided to close down their Newark plant after the fifth labor strike. What my father received as a severance package was $125.00 for every year of employment. Dirt money. Chump change. Money gone before it was got. And, oh, yeah: Kiss retirement before sixty good-bye, pal.

In the summer of 1977 my father had been at his new job at Larson’s Manufacturing for a little over five years. He operated a sheet metal press, with lathe work on the side. His body was already showing the wear of a life that had been one struggle after another. He still couldn’t sleep for more than 2 or 3 hours at a time. He couldn’t concentrate. The mortgage—which should have been paid off with some of his pension money—was still looming over his head, and there was talk of layoffs.

His drinking that summer was the worst it had ever been. The nightmares were incessant. The pain in his body—from both his war injuries and those sustained from working the factory line for thirty years—was nearly unbearable, and the painkillers prescribed by his doctor barely helped. Add to this his heart and blood-pressure medication—plus a recent diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes—and the man never had a waking moment where he wasn’t worried to death about something.

So he drank. A lot. He flew into violent rages that usually l
eft my mother bleeding and me having to take her to the emergency room and lie to the attending physicians about how she came to be in such a state. Throughout the first 18 years of my life I intervened as often as I could when Dad went into these rages. I’ve got some impressive scars to prove it.

(to be continued …)