NOTE: This review was written circa 1997.
Widely touted by writers as diverse as William F. Nolan, Yvonne navarro, Thomas Monteleone, Elizabeth Massie, J. N. Williamson and Ed Gorman as one of the most promising young writers to emerge this decade, Gary Braunbeck does much to earn their praise in this imprressive debut collection. Things Left Behind features highly readable dark fantasies, modern fables which provide glimpses into the darker side of human existence. A very talented writer, Braunbeck shows a real knack for conveying the pain and pathos of his characters. Displaying impressive range and versatility, he grabs readers by the hand and takes them on a tour of broken lives and ruined dreams.
There are 22 stones in this volume, each bleaker than the last. The collection is framed by the tale of Geoff Conover, a young man whose life is turned upside down when he learns a dark secret about his past. Geoff appears three times in the collection, in the beginning, middle and end, seemingly passing through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' stages of denial (in "Dreams and Permanence"), anger (in "Frozen Mammoth), and, finally, acceptance (in "A Sort of Homecoming"). Each new tale develops themes broached in its predecessor, all the while steering readers toward a new stage in Geoff's personal development. Indeed, the stories are so tightly interwoven that Geoff occasionally refers to happenings in other stories as historical events.
Each story is followed by a "fragment", shorter pieces which, for the most part, appear to be exercises in creating moods. Like their longer cousins, these vignettes amplify lessons learned in previous stories while building toward the payoff of the last tale in the volume, "Searching for Survivors," where readers learn the sad truth about Geoff's early childhood.
As horror aficionado Matt Schwartz said in his review of this collection, "Things Left Behind is more than a collection of short stories, it loosely forms a coherent storyline that runs throughout the sizable tome." It also provides glimpses of where this noteworthy writer has been and gives clues as to where he's going. Consider it a milestone in Braunbeck's career, a snapshot of where he stands at age 35--a talented, quirky writer in control of his craft, a writer whose voice and vision evokes raw, unfiltered emotion and creates a sense of unrelenting dread. Braunbeck is poised on the edge of a promising career--it will be interesting to see where he goes from here.