I have written about Rick Hautala many times over the years—his bio when he was Guest of Honor at our beloved Necon, the introduction to the reissue of his wonderful first novel, Moondeath, and the announcement of his HWA Lifetime Achievement Award, among others—but I never thought that I would be writing this. I hope I might be forgiven, then, for plagiarizing myself in these dark days, when words don’t come easily. The things I’ve written about him before are all still true—it’s just that they mean more to me, now.
I’ve talked elsewhere about Rick as a friend and as a man—about his humor and his struggles and his love for his wife and sons. But in truth, if you’d asked him what he was, he wouldn’t have said a friend or a man or a father or a husband…he’d have said he was a writer. He believed more firmly than anyone I’d ever met that writers were born, not made, that he had no choice in the matter. His career had some breathtaking highs, but even at the lowest points, when others might have urged him to cut his losses and find some other vocation, Rick felt helpless in the face of his nature. He didn’t even truly understand the suggestion that there might be some alternative. He was a writer. How could he conceive of being anything else?
I loved him for that.
Rick liked unique and funny t-shirts and would always have a new one to show off at Necon every July. The best—the one that author Jack Ketchum and I recently agreed best represented the true Rick—was emblazoned with the following:
What are you, a writer or a punk?
That was Rick.
No one wrote horror with as heavy a heart, or with as deep a sense of foreboding and sorrow, as Rick Hautala. His characters are ordinary people, so full of worry about mundane, human things that when the extraordinary begins first to invade and then to tear apart their simple lives, we feel the tragedy on a visceral level that so many who came after Hautala never achieved.
Right from the beginning of his career, Rick achieved something that marked him out as a force to be reckoned with—he didn’t write like anyone else. When you crack the pages of a Hautala novel (whether under his own name, or his AJ Matthews pseudonym), there’s no mistaking that voice for anyone else. There’s an anguish in his characters and a terrible claustrophobia to even the most open of settings that marks his novels indelibly.
With Rick Hautala and the modern ghost story, author and subject formed a perfect bond. The horror in Rick’s work is the sorrow of isolation and the fear of the unknown future that lies ahead, often laced with echoes of past mistakes. He didn’t go for the cheap scare, ever. Instead, he created a supernatural catalyst with which he deconstructed human frailties and the fragile ties that bind us.
These themes are found everywhere in Rick’s work. Some of the best examples include the million-copy, international bestseller Night Stone, the milestone short story collection Bed Bugs, and the extraordinary novella Miss Henry’s Bottles, which may be Rick’s finest work. Fan favorites include the novels Little Brothers and The Mountain King. Hautala’s in top form in Winter Wake and Cold Whisper, as well as the novels he wrote as AJ Matthews, in particular Looking Glass and Follow.
With The Demon’s Wife—the last novel he completed—he had begun a new phase in his writing career, written something truly unique. We can only wonder where his ruminations would have taken him next.
The tragedy of Rick’s life was that he never knew how many people loved him, how many held him in high regard—or if he knew, he never quite believed it. He never knew how good a writer he was. Oh, he wanted you to read his novels, and he wanted you to like them, but even the books of which he was most proud he dismissed with comments like, “I think that one worked out pretty well.” That was the highest compliment he could give himself.
Rick Hautala was the horror writer’s horror writer. He never looked down his nose at the genre, but embraced it instead. Legendary for his kindness and his generous spirit, he influenced a great many young writers and exuded a sense of camaraderie that became infectious. In Rick’s view, we were all in the trenches together. Self-effacing and approachable, he combined a blue collar work ethic with literary sensibilities shaped by his love of Shakespeare and Hawthorne. His passion for the horror genre was second only to his love for writing, and all of those elements conspired over decades to transform him into a determined mentor, offering critical feedback and quiet encouragement to many new authors as they began their own careers. Despite the mark he has made on the genre and his quiet mentorship of other writers, Rick was rarely recognized for his work until 2012, when he received the HWA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. That honor meant the world to him.
I worry that Rick Hautala and other masters are in danger of having their legacy forgotten. That can’t be allowed to happen. Go and pick up a copy of Winter Wake or Little Brothers or one of Rick’s fantastic short story collections. Connecting with readers, making them feel…that was the only reward that ever really mattered to him. So go and read some Hautala, and spread the word.
March 25th, 2013