A Sick, Sick Man
Posted by Cullen Bunn on Aug 16, 2011
I never should have drank those @#$$#@$ Sea Monkeys.
Thus began the first of my gross-out stories, a group of disgusting horror stories that fill me with an odd mixture of pride and shame.
For many years, the Gross-Out Contest was the highlight of the annual World Horror Convention, a gathering of horror writers and horror fans. During the event, contestants read some of the most vile, horrific stories and poems with the intent of triggering the gag reflex for a panel of judges that often included bestselling authors and an audience that more often than not filled the room.
At times, contestants snorted live worms, ate cockroaches, whirled frozen chicken carcasses around their heads, or read virtually nude. And lest you think stories were of the “I ate a booger!” level of disgusting, we’re talking about the circle of revoltingness reserved for tales of killer yeast infections, pimps in a leper colony, sentient pustules and just about everything in between. Only the most deviant minds even consider participating.
I entered the contest four times. I took first place all four times.
I know what you’re thinking. Drinking Sea Monkeys doesn’t sound so gross. Trust me, the story gets much, much worse from there. It’s a beautiful Lovecraftian tale of fatal flatulence and demoniac diarrhea.
My entry the next year began:
When she started puking, I didn’t know if I should fetch a bucket or stop frenching her.
It gets much worse from there.
And here’s the first line of my fourth entry:
We buried grandma two weeks ago, but the yeast infection that killed her just wouldn’t stay dead.
You’ll notice I excluded the first line of the third entry. It’s just too vulgar for polite company. If you want to read the stories, there is a collection available. Cullen Bunn’s Heaveworld came out a couple of years ago from Skullvines Press. It collects all the winning entries. The book is out of print, I believe, but you can still find it. It’s the only place those stories will ever appear. (I did submit one of the stories to an anthology once, and the editor wrote back with a simple, “No! No! Good heavens, no!”)
When I entered the contest the first time, I was proud of myself. Standing in front of that many people, reading something I had written… That was out of character for me. I’m a shy, reserved person. And in order to win the contest, I had to throw caution to the wind and give the performance of a lifetime. Simply reading the story wasn’t enough. I channeled all the hog-calling country boy swagger I could muster. I was out of my comfort zone, but it paid off.
Entering and winning those contests introduced me to a lot of people I might not otherwise meet—other writers and editors whom I wouldn’t normally have the courage to speak with. I read stories in front of some of my idols—Joe Lansdale and John Skipp, for example. One of the biggest thrills of my life was having Mr. Lansdale tell me (after I had finished my story), “You’re just messed up.”
I became known for writing my stories at the last minute, scrawling them on napkins and crumpled up bits of paper… and Heaven forbid anyone try to stand in my way on the road to victory. Only one or two people ever posed a real threat (the very talented Jeff Strand, for example). And after my second win, it became obvious that I had changed the contest forever. Half the entries were doing their best Cullen Bunn impersonation as they read. A bunch of others tried to make up for their lack of performance skills with lame props and showing pictures of grotesque images to the crowd.
But those stories started to haunt me. People started to think of me as a gross-out writer. That wasn’t who I was—not really—but I couldn’t shake the reputation.
Why? I wondered.
Then I figured it out.
When I entered those contests, I went all-out. It was the only way to avoid getting booed off the stage, let alone win. I was reckless and passionate and more than a little crazy. Meanwhile, I was overly cautious with everything else I wrote. I worried that I’d offend someone with my content or my story structure or my grammar. I basically killed my own creativity with all my worrying. When I was reading a gross-out story, I didn’t care what people thought of me. With everything else, though, my worry boiled the life right out of my work.
The gross-out contest is no more (as far as I know). I think the World Horror Convention grew out of it. I understand why. It didn’t help to class up the joint. But I think the contest had a lesson to teach young writers—a damn good lesson.
No matter what you’re writing—splatter fiction, comic books, romance novels, kids books—don’t be overly cautious. Don’t let overthinking and worry about the critics rob your work of its zeal. Yeah, there are going to be people who try to tear you down. There are going to be people who nitpick every word you write, every phrase you turn. So what? Don’t let that kill your work in the early stages. You can always edit a first draft, but you can’t do a thing with a blank sheet of paper. And it’s much more fun to edit something fun that a boring, lifeless dead fish of a story.
I still write most of my first drafts in longhand in cheap notebooks. There’s a certain urgency to working that way that helps me get past the inner critic and editor.
The gross-out contest helped teach me that.
Cullen Bunn is the writer of The Damned, The Tooth, and The Sixth Gun from Oni Press and The Fearless from Marvel. He is also the author of a middle reader prose horror novel, Crooked Hills, from Earwig Press.
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MikeOliveri Aug 22, 2011 at 9:10pm
Those were some epic performances. Good lesson.
And nah, they killed the Gross-out Contest by turning it into a boring-as-hell reading. Judging became about the merit of the story itself, not the gross-out factor. Boooorrrrring.
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