Wednesday, July 2, 2014

In a Dark Country, Red Dreams Stay with You: The Horrors of Dennis Etchison

Dennis Etchison (born Stockton CA, 1943) didn’t set out to be a horror writer. While Etchison has been referred to as a writer of “dark fantasy” or of “quiet horror,” in an interview with journalist Stanley Wiater in Dark Dreamers (1990), the author states that he found himself in the horror genre “sort of by accident.” Etchison began writing and publishing science fiction stories in the 1960s, but as the short genre fiction market changed he found his work gained more acceptance in the burgeoning horror fiction field of the 1970s.

With his bleak, pessimistic, often quite violent tales of people drifting through a modern world of lost highways and all-night convenience stores, mistaken identities and secret sociopaths, how could Etchison have ended up anywhere but the horror shelves? His enigmatic yet striking stories gained plaudits from Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Charles L. Grant, and Karl Edward Wagner, and were published in two paperback collections by Berkley Books, 1984’s The Dark Country and 1987’s Red Dreams (both originally put out by specialty horror publisher Scream/Press several years prior, both with inimitable J.K. Potter covers).

By the end of the 1980s Etchison had become a highly regarded editor as well, gathering brilliant and blisteringly horrific tales of all styles and voices from his most talented peers for the anthologies Cutting Edge (1986), Masters of Darkness (3 vols., 1986–1991), and MetaHorror (1992). If all that weren’t enough, under his pseudonym Jack Martin (a character with that name appears in many of his tales) he wrote novelizations for films by both John Carpenter and David Cronenberg! Let’s face it: Etchison may not have grown up wanting to be a horror writer per se, but he certainly knows his way around the oft-maligned genre. In his introduction to Cutting Edge, he gives a shorthand lesson in the failures of genre fiction during the modern era: Tolkien, Heinlein, and Lovecraft impersonators who refused to engage with the fracturing contemporary world around them. None of that for Etchison.

Like Stephen King, Etchison had many of his short works appear in low-rent 1970s men’s magazines, as well as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and various horror anthologies edited by Charles L. Grant, Stuart David Schiff, and Kirby McCauley. These are the stories you’ll find in The Dark Country and Red Dreams. As one might have guessed, his horror stories could also be classified as “soft” science fiction (as he noted to Wiater) as well as crime/noir fiction. Anyone who’s read widely in these fields will know that those genre lines overlap and blur . His paperbacks may have been marketed as modern horror—witness the blurbs and taglines on them, all “blood-curdling” and “master of the macabre” and so on—but Etchison took all those influences and crafted his own particular type of dark, speculative fiction.

What’s truly important, and why Etchison should still be read today, is that his stories are crafted with a true writer’s care; he infuses his work with a literary sensibility, not a pulp one. As someone who loves horror fiction but doesn’t only read horror fiction, I find this quite refreshing. He can be bloody and violent, he can be quiet and intimate, he can be challenging and oblique, but he always uses his own unique template. Etchison’s not afraid to utilize a sort of experimental style to delineate the crumbling psyche of a doomed character. Occasionally his allusive prose and his sleight-of-hand skill at misdirection can mitigate the impact of some stories, so I find a careful approach to him works best. Etchison shows; he does not tell. His work stands out from other ’80s horror because of that; that first rule of writing is often the first one jettisoned by horror writers.

Etchison often sets his fictions in the desert highways and late-night byways of his home state; he knows well this empty land and the darknesses therein. Etchison is very good at writing scenes of shocking violence, but his fiction doesn’t rely on them, as so many horror writers do. There is much psychological violence, distress, dismay, a sense of things being not quite right, of a person not quite at home, wandering lost along a dark highway—and then meeting someone, or something, at the end of the night...

Of his two major collections, I am most partial to The Dark Country. While Red Dreams has its dark gems, the stories in the earlier collection seem darker, meaner, both more graphic and more effectively subtle. “The Late Shift,” one of his most lauded and original works which was first published in Kirby McCauley’s seminal anthology Dark Forces (1980), reveals a sinister source for those poor souls working the graveyard shift in 7-11s and gas stations and diners. Poor souls indeed.

The icy merciless horrors of “Calling All Monsters,” “The Dead Line,” and “The Machine Demands a Sacrifice,” which form what Ramsey Campbell calls in his introduction “the transplant trilogy... one of the most chilling achievements in contemporary horror.” Blurring SF and horror in a vaguely Ellisonian manner, Etchison offhandedly imagines a future (?) of living bodies at the service of some (mad) science, evoking specifically Dr. Moreau’s House of Pain. The sentence “This morning I put ground glass in my wife’s eyes,” begins “The Dead Line,” its no-nonsense, amoral tone invoking the hardboiled writers of the 1930s. More please!

“It Only Comes out at Night,” like its generic title, is a traditional horror piece, as is “Today’s Special,” but each is tightly written, offering horror fans the poisonous confections they love. The frigid vengeance of “We Have All Been Here Before” and especially “The Pitch” is quite satisfyingly nasty. Along with his talent for straightforward storytelling, Etchison has a skill for diversion, letting the reader think a story going’s one way when—record scratch—it goes somewhere else entirely. To wit: “Daughter of the Golden West,” which begins as a Bradbury-esque fantasy of three college-age men (the collection is dedicated to Bradbury) and ends with a revelation of one of California’s greatest tragedies. It’s a gruesome delight.

The title story won the 1982 British Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award for best short fiction. Nothing SF or noir or supernatural about this piece at all; it reads more like an autobiographical piece of an inadvertently nightmarish vacation. Jack Martin’s friends callously and drunkenly exploit locals at a Mexican beach resort, then he’s forced to face a fate dealt at random. This is not the kind of story you expect to find in a book with the little “horror” label on its spine, but does that even matter? It’s spectacular, mature and disturbing about everyday matters that can spiral out of control.

While The Dark Country is where the gruesome edge of Etchison’s blade resides, Red Dreams is its quieter sibling, but no less unsettling or insightful for that. The late great Karl Edward Wagner, in his intro, opines that Etchison’s nightmarish fiction is one made of loneliness, “of an individual adrift in a society beyond his control, beyond his comprehension, in which only sheeplike acceptance and robotlike nonawareness permit survival.” Ya got that right, K-Dub!

These are stories for grown-ups, their fears of age and insignificance—like the protagonist of “The Chair,” who attends his 20-year high school reunion and is called again and again by the wrong name, every time different, till one person gets it all too right. The father in “Wet Season” has faced a parent’s worst nightmare but then... it gets worse. “Drop City,” while overlong, is a noir/horror mash-up, slowly—perhaps too slowly—building to an impressionistic finale. A man wanders into a bar and discovers his life might not be anything he can remember. If the readers pays close attention, the ending will seem eerily familiar. "The Smell of Death" has a physician-heal-thyself angle inside its early '70s disaster SF setting; male/female relationships are in Etchison's spotlight (a common practice in his work) in "On the Pike," which has a young couple checking out the freakshow tent at a dilapidated carnival, one of them egging the performers on and on...

The thematically ambitious “Not from Around Here” finds Etchison in a quiet Phildickian mode as he slowly introduces us to a near-future and a religious cult whose texts provide perfect insight and pleasure. A lifelong movie fan, Etchison’s future world includes movies never made save in a film geek’s fevered imagination, works like, “Carpenter’s El Diablo, De Palma’s The Grassy Knoll, Cronenberg’s Cities of the Red Night, Spielberg’s Talking in the Dark...”  (That’s rich, Etchison having Spielberg make a movie called “Talking in the Dark,” since that’s one of Etchison’s best horror stories!). I found it rather too leisurely in the telling, taking a long detour before getting to the real meat of the tale, but I dug the litany of classic movie actresses names that operate as a sort of exorcism for the protagonist, an acceptance as the promises of the cult are kept.

That "Talking in the Dark," the opening story, is probably the most horror-genre typical story in Red Dreams. A fan gets to meet his favorite horror writer! You know how writers hate being asked the utterly banal question “Where do you get your ideas?” (“Poughkeepsie” is Harlan Ellison’s eternal answer)? Here Etchison answers it. Sure, the inspiration’s real life; writers are regular people too. Except when they’re not. The blackly comic and bloodily conclusive scene sinks its teeth in.

Another favorite is “White Moon Rising,” a murder-on-coed-campus (shades of King’s “Strawberry Spring”) that fragments character POV as it climaxes. It originally appeared in Whispers, and was a standout of realistic horror amidst the dark fantasy included in that landmark anthology. But more than a handful of the stories in this collection are like stylized little writer's exercises, with the use of second-person narration, vague hints at interpersonal trauma, and existential-y questions of life and facing death; this is why Red Dreams had less of an impact on me than Dark Country. Still, both books should be in the serious horror fan's collection.

The fiction of Dennis Etchison insinuates and intimates, brimming with allusions that seem to go right up to the point of comprehension and then dissipate, leaving your imagination tingling, realizing that fully facing his horrors might leave you wishing you hadn’t. Intelligent yet jittery with fearsome anxiety, horrific without clichéd stupidities, the stories found in Red Dreams and especially in The Dark Country will reward 21st century horror readers and remind them that the 1980s were a boom for the genre, as it was breaking away from its pulp past and pointing the way to a petrifying—and wholly unavoidable—future.
(This post originally appeared in slightly altered form as part of "The Summer of Sleaze" on the website)


Lincoln said...

Great post, Will. Etchison is one of those authors who seems to be mostly forgotten by contemporary fans. Like Campbell, he does require careful reading, but it's very rewarding. Haven't tried any of his novels, but I do have some on my shelf - have you read any, Will?
The interior artwork in those Scream Press hardcovers is also excellent.
His 'Hollywood' stories are terrific, and can be found collected together in 'Fine Cuts'.
Favourites would be 'It Only Comes Out at Night', 'The Blood Kiss', 'The Spot' and 'White Moon Rising'.

solongyoubastard said...

Great overview. I stumbled upon your excellent blog when I was google-imaging the cover of Etchison's novelization of Halloween III, which I wrote an article about for the Pink Smoke website. Since reading your earlier review of Dark Country, I've become a huge fan of his work and was thrilled to score a great copy of D.C. at a used bookstore in Northern Virginia. Keep up the great writing, always look forward to new entries.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks guys! You know I don't even own any of Etchison's novels, dunno why exactly. I wish there'd been a paperback of BLOOD KISS though.

solong, there will be plenty more reviews!

DJ SORCE-1 said...

This blog is amazing, just discovered it a few weeks ago. I have Etchison's Halloween 3 novel. I didn't realize he was the author until I read this post. I'm curious how many books you read in a year on average. I'm assuming a book a week or more.

Unknown said...

That top cover image was re-purposed for a Spanish language reprint of Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife, just do an image search for "Esposa Hechicera".

Will Errickson said...

Dan, yep, I've seen that... I've learned it was quite common to repurpose paperback cover art for European editions (but they also had some amazing original covers, see my post on the French-translated '80s horror paperbacks, esp for King's IT). Thanks for stopping by!