(March 30, 1943 – May 28, 2019)
On Tuesday May 28th, the American horror writer and editor Dennis Etchison passed away. He might not have gained the mainstream recognition of some of his contemporaries, but to his fellow writers (and to fans) Etchison was a titan of the field. A “writer’s writer”, if you will; a true artist whose work influenced anyone who was serious about creating serious-minded horror fiction.
He was born in California in 1943. Most of his work was set in that American state and focused on showing us the dark shadows that gather in the corners of sunny SoCal. His short fiction is exemplary, using beautifully crafted, quiet prose to look inward and delineate the psychology of his characters in relation to their surroundings.
He was a screenwriter and a wrestling fan—and sometimes wrote about the sport under a pen name. He also wrote novelizations of the films The Fog, Halloween 2, Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, and Videodrome under the pseudonym Jack Martin (which is also the name of a character who appears in several of his stories). His screenplay for Halloween 4 was rejected by Moustapha Akkad for being “too cerebral”. A great many horror fans would love to have seen it filmed.
My own introduction to Etchison’s work was in the shape of his first collection, The Dark Country, which was named after his superb award-winning long story. It isn’t an overstatement to say that the book changed my life. Full of terse, ambiguous stories, it showed me the possibilities of horror fiction. I read that book so many times that it fell apart in my hands, so I went out and scoured the local second-hand books shops for a second copy.
Etchison was the Raymond Carver of horror. His melancholy, stripped-back style and focus on the interior life of his characters, along with prose that seemed to sing softly, but insistently into your ear, made the horrors he wrote about seem even more real.
I was lucky enough to meet him at the 2010 World Horror Convention in Brighton. It was evening. I was drunk. I’d brought one book with me to have signed—Etchison’s Darkside. He was sitting at a table with Ramsey Campbell—whom I already knew quite well—but for some reason I felt unable to approach them. Clutching the book in my hand, I looked at my wife and said “I can’t. I can’t speak to him.” She took the book from my hand, and said “Are you crying?” I nodded. My cheeks were wet. She smiled, touched my face, then walked to the table and asked Etchison to sign my book.
The next day, when I told Steve Jones about this, he laughed, and told me that he’d never forgive me if I didn’t just go and speak to Etchison. “He’s a lovely guy. He’s cool. Very laid-back.”
I was booked in to go attend a kaffeeklatsch with Etchison that morning, and luckily, I saw him approach the hotel’s front desk to ask where he was supposed to be and at what time. Emboldened by Steve Jones’ words, I stepped forward and offered to accompany the man to the sister hotel down the road, where the event was being held. That 10-minute walk is one of the best times of my life. He smoked. We talked. We laughed. He was possessed of a certain type of “cool” that I associate with California—a kind of detached, laconic grace. He was also hilariously funny, blessed with the comic timing of a stand-up comedian. I’m glad I got to shake his hand and tell him exactly what his work meant to me.
Once we were in the hotel room where the talk was being held, I poured him a coffee and then didn’t say another word. I just listened. I absorbed. I absorbed everything.
Dennis William Etchison has gone into the dark country, but it is a place I feel he already knew: a geography he’d spent his career mapping out. I hope he feels at home there. I hope it looks like California at dusk, with the shadows gathering along the sidewalks and the temperature dropping and the hint of a Santa Ana wind in the air …