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On The Trail of the Great Armenian-American Horror Novel: A Chat with Gary Braver

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Oct 13, 2005

Under his own name, Gary Goshgarian has taken his readers on Greek sea-diving adventure in "Atlantis Fire," uncovered evil spirits on the islands of Boston harbor in "The Stone Circle," and updated the werewolf genre, courtesy of chemical contamination, in the horror / biomedical thriller "Rough Beast." Writing as Gary Braver, Goshgarian has continued the thrills with "Elixir," a modern-day tale of immorality and its horrors; "Gray Matter," which combines the edicts of our American meritocracy with atrocities worthy of Josef Mengele; and now, with the release of "Flashback," a glimpse into the hidden recesses of early memory, where shadowy monsters lurk and family secrets await discovery.

In many ways, "Flashback" is the most unsettling of Goshgarian's trove of work. The story flirts with convention just enough to dart back into the unexpected and keep the reader off balance; the writing combines the tender pain of nostalgia and the raw terror of recurring traumatic memories. In the book, a young entrepreneur named Jack Koryan suffers a freak encounter with exotic jellyfish, and is left comatose for months as his severely chemical-burned body slowly recuperates. But deep in his subconscious, long-forgotten events are slowly surfacing as the exotic enzymes of the jellyfish toxins invade his brain and enhance his memory centers.

Jack comes to the attention of Dr. Renee Ballard when he awakens and displays unheard-of ability in his short-term recall; Ballard's interest is piqued because she's part of the clinical research trials for a new drug that promises to reverse the effects of Alzheimer's disease. The key to the new drug, called Memorine, turns out to be the same jellyfish enzyme that has super-charged Jack's memory; but what Renee only gradually comes to find out is that a dangerous flaw in the new drug makes Memorine dangerous, sometimes deadly, by unleashing traumatic memories in their full, undiminished power for some of the clinical participants -- and allows other patients to retreat into vibrant worlds of times long gone, as they begin to live -- quite literally -- in the past.

Gary Braver joined EDGEBoston for a chat recently, in which he explained the relationship between science, horror, and the precautionary nature of the biomedical thriller genre.

EDGEBoston: Your earlier novels deal with subjects more traditional to horror: spirits and beastly transformations. Now you write medical thrillers, but even in your approach to the medical thriller genre, you'be held on to an element of horror.

Gary Braver: The shifting of the genre from horror, which was [the genre for] "The Stone Circle," to the medical thriller, really came at the dictates of the publisher. Something called "Rough Beast," which is scientific but has horror elements in it, got good responses, and the publisher said, "Give us more of the same." Which led to "Elixir," and then to "Gray Matter," which [are about] scientific tampering with human biology, the consequences of which affect a family -- because we wanted the advances [in science] to affect the average family. That's where most people can identify with [the story]. The horror elements [in these books] are bizarre contradictions as a result of [scientific] innovations, such as an elixir that prolongs life, [but] the bad news is that if you go off the stuff you fast-forward age and die. Or, in "Gray Matter," the enhancement of human intelligence in children results in brilliance, turning slow kids into geniuses; however, the emotional makeup of these people is flat-lined. They lose all human empathy, and therefore they're all brains and little heart. The science [in "Flashback"] essentially is "Frankenstein" -- it's monster-making. That is, we have an advance -- however, with consequences that are woeful. It essentially is the paradigm of so much science fiction, that you're picking forbidden fruit, and therefore you're going to have to pay the price. The horror elements are the aberrations -- the grotesque consequences. That's where the two genres overlap, but the umbrella genre is medical fiction.

EDGEBoston: In early science fiction, like "Frankenstein," the mysterious force of nature that allowed monsters to come to life was lightning; then, when nuclear war was a big preoccupation, it was radiation that created mutants and huge ants and so forth that would roam the landscape; then it was viruses, man-made or from outer space, that threatened sleepy towns and average American families; now we're seeing the monster-making force become biological in nature, like genetic engineering, or, as in "Flashback," an exotic enzyme.

Gary Braver: That's really the nature of precautionary novels -- to find the latest in what is going on [in science], in nanotechnology, or enzyme research, or pharmacology. That, crossed with the economics of it all -- forcing people to rush to market cure-alls that may have [in-built] problems. In "Flashback," that's really draw from the news: Vioxx, Fen-Phen, and all the others that are sad, economically, for the stockholders of these companies, and sadder still for the people who are taking these things and have to suffer the consequences. In a sense, the rush to market of these "miracle drugs" based on faulty clinical research has caused deaths. You lost all this body fat [using] Fen-Phen, and you died. That gives writers like myself, and others, the fodder to cross the horror and the science fiction tales with social commentary on the pharmaceutical industry. I'm going on a tangent now, but I don't pass my books off as diatribes against pharmaceuticals -- many people would not be alive if it were not for certain pills and medical procedures. But it is [necessary] for good fiction to have villainy, or potential villainy, and we have the precautionary "Frankensteinian" tales about tampering. What has happened, I think, in the real world, is that we have gotten scientifically much more specific in the research. So the enzymes that enhance longevity, or eliminate the scourge of Alzheimer's -- that's all science on the cutting edge, and the stuff of which thrillers are made.

EDGEBoston: It sounds as though what you're suggesting is that even more crucial to genre of horror, and thrillers, isn't so much the enabling device of a virus or an enzyme, but rather the ongoing horror of human beings finding the capacity in themselves to mistreat other human beings.

Gary Braver: Yes, I mean, that is the basic ingredient of so many of these genres. You're going to have forces of good and forces of evil. Any novelist is looking for both the protagonist and the antagonist, since conflict is the engine that drives these books. It's the nature of the artistry of the presentation that avoids contrivances and clich?s -- it's how you treat those [fantastical elements]. But you need good guys and bad guys, and that's essentially what we have in these stories.

EDGEBoston: You wink at some of those clich?s in "Flashback" -- the heroine is threatened with a dead cat. It raises the stakes to show a little heavy-handed villainy, and then to address it and force the bad guys to have to be more subtle.

Gary Braver: I didn?t' want to make it all threats, and dead bodies, and swinging puppies hanging from the back porch. That was enough to make it threatening in a realistic realm -- finding a cat's head in your mailbox is enough to choke anybody's aspiration blow the whistle.

EDGEBoston: After reading your book, I found out about an attempt to create a vaccine against Alzheimer's. What promising avenues of scientific inquiry against the disease did you run across while researching "Flashback"?

Gary Braver: There was an attempt at a vaccine several years ago, by someone at the Harvard Medical School. It looks as if he had an actual vaccine, but it didn't work. The clinical trials on animals looked very promising, and than it just evaporated. It was very sad, because there was a lot of hope -- it didn't pan out at all. There is new research on the neuro-physiological properties of toxins -- there is a jellyfish in "Flashback," but apparently there is a sea-slug that I read about after I finished the book, that has a toxin whose benefits seem to affect short and long term memory -- at least, in lower and higher animals in the testing [phase]. As far as I know, it has yet to be tested on humans, but it has some promise. Anything that is toxic that would affect the nervous system -- a snake bite, a jellyfish sting -- has the potential, obviously in lower doses, to affect the nervous system positively. So toxins of all sorts, from the smallest creatures to the larger ones, are always of interest to people in pharmacology. I'm not sure why this particular sea slug, which is only a handful of cells -- it's a fairly primitive organism -- why or how it has been shown to have some effect on memory, but it is the latest creature of interest in pharmaceutical [research].

EDGEDBoston: Why was your toxic creature of choice a jellyfish?

Gary Braver: The story takes place in Boston. The original idea [for the book] came from the interest in Gila monster saliva, which I [discovered] from checking out the most recent research, at that time, in Alzheimer's disease. It was a conference paper that was delivered in Amsterdam that was touting the properties of the Gila monster spit. Now, there are no Gila monsters that I know if in Boston, but that gave me the idea of finding a toxic creature. Because of the warm gulfstream on occasion coming close to the shores of Massachusetts, I go the idea of a rare tropical jellyfish washing up this way. And I've been places, Cape Cod and some of the harbor islands, where in fact strange warm water creatures show up -- hammerhead sharks, beluga whales, and tropical fish like tuna. Even lionfish, a creature from the Caribbean.

EDGEBoston: All your books take place around Boston, and all your books feature Armenian Americans and the Armenian community -- why is that your touch-stone?

Gary Braver: How many Armenian-American novels do you know of? It's my heritage. It's my version of the Irish-American novel.

EDGEBoston: Armenian Horror.

Gary Braver: Yes -- The Great Armenian-American Biomedical Thriller! It's a way of plugging my ethnicity. I live in Boston -- I've been here for thirty years. You write from what you know, and I'm comfortable talking about Boston communities. I live in Arlington. The fictitious town I've used in the last four or five books has been Carlton, Massachusetts, which is ten miles out of Boston -- a la Arlington. I'm more town-specific in this novel, because I have a scene in the Robbins Library, which is in Arlington. I don't mention Arlington specifically, to protect the innocent, and I don't want to screw anything up anyway -- the street names, for instance, I'd probably get them wrong. But, yeah, the town, the ethnicity -- be true to your town. Be true to your tribe.

EDGEBoston: There's an intriguing twist in your book in that people fear death because it means forgetting everything -- but your book is looking at the equally terrifying prospect of memory becoming too powerful. What if you could literally live in your memories? I think a lot of people might choose to do that if they could, given how powerful nostalgia is already.

Gary Braver. Two things. One, as I get older -- you can see how my fantasies and fears go, with the Alzheimer's thing. And two, as one gets older, one becomes more nostalgic. There are people who live in the past, there are people who just hold on to their nostalgic recollections. And that can be dangerous too. My aunt died as the result of the consequences of dementia, and it may or may not have been Alzheimer's, but she did bump down the staircase, and I watched her fade away. It is the worst kind of way to go, because it's a double death -- you lose your inside and then you lose your outside. You lose your recollection of who you were, and then you lose your body. And [you become] somebody else -- there's no affect, nothing that resembles the person, except the husk of who you used to be. Alzheimer's is hideous. No one dies of Alzheimer's, you just die of organs failing -- by the time you forget who you are, you've forgotten how to walk, and you live in a bed.

But, I watched her fade away, so it was something that was close to me. And there were times when she would lapse into baby- and girlhood, and she would talk to people who weren't there, and I found it very touching. And [I though about] the what-if: what if someone were to get locked into a flashback of the past and be living back then, in second grade, talking to teachers and other children and grandmothers and all that? And then you have the dark side too: what if you were caught in a trauma? A closed loop of traumatic experience? That would be worse than death -- that would be worse than forgetting. You'd be locked into some hideous thing: you saw our father dangling from a rope in the garage; you got caught in a fire; you were in a car accident and your mother died. I mean, you keep re-living that over and over and over again. That gave me the idea that this could be an interesting side-effect of the miracle cure, the fifty-billion dollar pill that cures Alzheimer's. As a writer, I'm always looking for the dark side: "The good news if you made a human being artificially, Dr. Frankenstein. The bad news is, it doesn't look like anything else of the earth and it's going to come after you and kill everything that was ever important to you." That's the paradigm from which so much of this stuff f broadcast. It set the stage for whatever I'm writing -- science fiction is not what I'm writing, but it?s on the borderline. So, the downside was nostalgia overdone, or memory that overcomes the rememberer.

EDGEBoston: What's next on your slate? I just know you've already started your next book!

Gary Braver: Yes. It's called "Skin Deep." I'm now dealing with cosmetic surgery. Certainly with all the make-over shows, and our celebrity-mania and our youth-mania, and superficial beauty-mania, [the subject of plastic surgery] lends itself to a possible good thriller novel, if it works out the way I think it's working out. I'm not going to say much about it because I'm only about a third of the way through -- I'm not sure of its complete arc. But it's been fun to write, and it's allowed me to explore issues of beauty. I'm married to someone who is rather attractive, and who can sometimes find herself being seduced by all the vogue and celebrity stuff. At the same time, that rubs up against her feminist ideals and aspirations. I think many women feel that. People are getting lid-lifts and facial and breast enhancements at remarkably young ages -- in their twenties. And in some places even earlier -- in south America, people are getting cosmetic surgery in their teens: "My breasts are too big, my breasts are too small, my nose is too big, my nose is too small," etcetera. And it's the same old story -- a quick fix [courtesy of] science. And this has a downside to it, of course.

EDGEBoston: It's the quintessential American horror, isn't it? Having too much of what you think you want: too much longevity; too much intelligence; too much memory.

Gary Braver: No one wants to be normal, and that is really what I see in our particular culture, and other first-world countries too. The discomfort with normalcy -- you're not smart enough, you're not pretty enough, you're not young enough? it's inculcated into us from all the forces of the various media, it's just there all the time. I once heard a young person blame his mother for having subscribed to Vogue and Glamour magazines with all the gorgeous women on the cover. He cannot date an average-looking female. "You've spoiled me, mom! You had all these beauty women magazines!" I love that!

But at the same time, it gives people these models that are superficial. The reason I respect "The Silence of the Lambs" so much is, in a very dark way, Thomas Harris dealt with the commoditization of flesh -- he has one guy who skins women, and another who eats their insides? well, not womens' insides, but males' insides, in the case of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. In many ways, "Skin Deep" is going to deal with those particular themes.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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