Why the Bram Stoker Award® Matters

Why the Bram Stoker Award® Matters

by Michael A. Arnzen


            Who among us does not recognize and covet the Bram Stoker Award® — the hallmark trophy of horror literature?  For one thing, the Horror Writers Association has the coolest and perhaps heftiest statue ever created for writers, molded in the form of a haunted house complete with giant insects crawling out from the window shutters and a working front door that reveals the bronze etching of the winner’s name and title.  The only thing missing is a creaking sound effect when you open it up.  If you get a chance at the Stoker banquet, gaze upon this fine sculpture, which truly is a work of art.  To most people, it would make an awesome Halloween decoration — but for those of us who own one, we’d would rather keep it away from sugar-fingered children and secure it as safely as gold, perhaps tucked away someplace near our books or our computer, for inspiration and affirmation.

The thing is freaking awesome.  The designer, Brian Kirk, deserves to have a real life Stoker house built just for him, bugs and all, for what he has gifted us with, and which we have been handing out to swooning, gushing scary writers for precisely thirty years now.

In 1988, the first Stokers were awarded, and smart alecs ever since have been asking – “If it’s named after Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula, why is the statue a haunted house?”  Harlan Ellison famously quipped that he thought it should be called the Usher, not the Stoker, because it does resemble Edgar Allan Poe’s infamous House. There is no straight answer to this question, but why not memorialize our annual selections for “Superior Achievement” in novels, stories, anthologies, poetry collections and virtually all literary expressions of terror in a nod to both writers? Like any haunted house — it’s only symbolic, and it contains many secret rooms. Bram might be the dark landlord of this Usher house, but there’s plenty of vacancy to hold those we deem to be the Stokers and Poes of today.

One might ask: But are they really? No award list is perfect, but ours is quite solid.  Over the years I’ve heard many bitter voices scoff at the winner’s list, yet many of those skeptics are now long gone, nursing their ulcers, while so many of our past winners continue to write and succeed in longstanding careers.  Trends in publishing come and go, the membership ebbs and flows and sometimes the final ballot looks like a popularity contest…but don’t be fooled by all the hullabaloo. It’s not. Those who vote for the winner must earn the right, by achieving “Active” status in the organization, which is only met by publishing professionally and getting paid for it.  Maybe this is why, compared to other speculative fiction writing awards, ours remains consistently solid, without all the politics and failures of other genre contests. Because it isn’t really a contest.  The Stoker has remained a rock steady meter for understanding our amazing genre, because even if horror isn’t booming, the award persistently reflects our community’s understanding of itself as a collection of writers who read each other, and it stands at the center of the HWA and StokerCon as a testament to our stability.

It’s easy to become jaded and think the Stoker is the only reason some writers participate in the HWA, or that the trophy is a pointless prize given to the same old veterans and that it gets too much attention. That isn’t true; we are a thriving living community — the worms who writhe inside the haunted house of our genre — and it brings us together in a kind of pro writer’s book club. I’m not just talking about gatherings at StokerCon or any of the previous Bram Stoker Award Weekends from days of yore.  Because the membership can recommend, nominate and ultimately vote for the award, the Stoker process is founded on the presumption that we all actively read each other’s work, and while some of us might feel inundated by all the offerings for free copies that crowd our email accounts and mailboxes, I find it enlivening and educational. I never hesitate to renew my HWA dues each year, because I get more than my membership fees back in free reading all year long and I love to see what everyone is up to.

I am not alone in this regard.  The Stoker shows the world what we think we are “up to” in our dark circles. We shape our own legacy as an organization and a genre when we grant this award, because the finalists and winners’ lists become “reading lists” for others — from librarians looking for something new to add to their collection to a teacher compiling titles for a class syllabus to a new horror fan surfing the net to see what she should read next.  Perhaps most of all, the awards signal to new and upcoming writers what our genre feels are models of contemporary horror fiction, and everyone getting started in this business should be reading the shortlist and learning whatever they can from it.  The Stoker serves an educational function, and this is yet another reason why it matters so much.

As an author, I want to be proud of my work, and also proudly share the work of my peers, and the HWA has never let me down.  I won my first of four Stokers back in 1994, in the “First Novel” category, for my book, Grave Markings. Winning didn’t make me more money, but it truly made my career, because it opened many creaky doors for me. As a paperback original, the book had a relatively short shelf life and though its first run sold well, winning the award did not send my royalty statements off the charts, nor did the award instantly turn me into some celebrity author with a status like Stephen King. Only newbies and strangers think awards translate into fame and fortune. It does help, naturally, because it adds a little clout to your byline and you might get a better reception from editors – or even a few direct invitations to write for them – but there are no guarantees of publication with your new work. The award is ultimately not for the person, but for something they produced in the past year, earning the appellation of a “Superior Achievement.”

What does a writer get out of that?  Well, there’s quite literally that “winning” sense of achievement — but what you get out of a Stoker foremost is a kind of confidence that shapes your sense of self as an author. You worry less about whether you’ve really got what it takes. You’ve been told you have artistic, literary value that transcends the merely monetary “award” you get for your creative talents and dark vision.  You know that others believe in you, and that’s a priceless thing.  You can look at that creepy statue on your shelf when you’re feeling glum and realize that while you’re not the next Stephen King, the man does have the same exact trophy on his shelf, too. He’s in one of the rooms, as is Robert Bloch, Clive Barker, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Straub, JK Rowling, Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti… and dozens upon dozens of great authors you recognize, living and dead, right alongside old Bram and Edgar.

So when you win this award, you proudly add the award to your resume, your CV, your bio… perhaps even your business card or even your tombstone. One is all you need to proclaim to the world you’re an “award-winning author” and actually have earned the rank. But perhaps you’re the ambitious type and see it as a way to keep score: Once you get one, you aim to get another and another and another. You want bookends, perhaps.  I’ve won four of them and you’d think that would be enough, but I want to win one in every category so that someday I can make a gigantic Monopoly set and use them for hotels.  But in all seriousness, the award is not really a competition, and while it might feel like one when you’re sitting at the Stoker Banquet, the truth is that — as with all writing activities — you are really only competing with yourself to do your best and perhaps “beat” your past achievements. That’s another reason the Stoker matters.  It encourages us to do our best, and to grow.  This is why, for instance, we give a “First Novel” award — one of the rarest, because it can only be won once. It says: keep going and maybe you’ll win one for your second if you’re on your game. All the categories are like incentives for us to read widely, to think of the genre as more than just one “thing.” I once won a Stoker in the now defunct “Alternative Forms” category for my author’s newsletter, for crying out loud. And you know what? It made me try harder to make it more than just a promotional newsletter, and I’ve kept it going for many years now. Winning the Stoker for my other titles in fiction and poetry has helped me continue to believe in myself over my 25+ yearlong career.

It’s like a college diploma — a superior achievement in learning — and something my parents once told me was worth the money because it was something “no one can ever take away from you.”  They were right.  Yet I do have my diplomas in a dusty frame on a wall, I never look at them with a swoon of nostalgia or pride. I do look at my Stokers, though, and grin. Sometimes I even make creaky noises when I open the doors and cackle with glee. And sometimes, just sometimes, I hold it up to my ear and imagine I hear all those horror author voices trapped inside there, laughing along with me, then saying, in unison: stop being goofy, nothing really matters but the writing itself – so shut the door now, and go play on the page. Just go write.


(Reprinted from the StokerCon 2018 Anthology with permission of the author)