Grim Hints and Nervous Portents: On Dennis Etchison

ONE SALUTARY EFFECT of the commercial boom in horror fiction precipitated during the 1980s by Stephen King’s best-selling success was the coattail rise to prominence of a number of distinctive talents who had labored in relative obscurity during the preceding decades. Undoubtedly the most accomplished of these neglected authors was Dennis Etchison, who died on May 28 at the age of 76.
Since the mid-1960s, Etchison had been steadily publishing brilliant short fiction in scattered venues — from genre outlets like Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine to small-press journals such as Stuart David Schiff’s Whispers — meanwhile churning out novelizations of horror films to make ends meet (e.g., The Fog [1980], Halloween II [1981], Halloween III [1982], and Videodrome [1983], the last three as by “Jack Martin”). While his stories won Etchison a devoted following among horror connoisseurs, it was King’s blockbuster success, and the resultant rise of a horror midlist, that permitted him to expand from being a marginal story writer with a cult audience into a moderately successful author of paperback-original novels.
I can still remember, with piercing clarity, my first experience of reading Etchison’s work. Indeed, I can even recall precisely the place and time: a stifling summer night in 1983, in a two-room apartment in Lake Worth, Florida, with insects buzzing at the screen and the fan cranked up high. The book was the 1982 Scream Press edition of The Dark Country, the author’s first collection, and I passed from the clutching terror of “It Only Comes Out at Night,” in which a driver slowly realizes he is being tracked by a killer, to the creepy elusiveness of “The Nighthawk,” whose young heroine comes to suspect that her brother may be a shapeshifting monster, to the unremitting grimness of the title story, wherein a pack of nihilistic expats in Mexico fritter away their days and their sanity, in a sustained, breathless epiphany.
It is hard to say why Etchison connected with me so powerfully on a visceral level. Perhaps Karl Edward Wagner offers a hint, in his introduction to the next Scream Press collection, Red Dreams (1984): “Etchison’s nightmares and fears are intensely personal, and his genius is to make us realize that we share them.” At the time, I really did share them; I was working nocturnal runs as a delivery man, and the landscape of Etchison’s stories was the one I passed through nightly: 24-hour convenience stores, bleak highway rest stops, neon-lit beachside motels. Like so many of Etchison’s protagonists, I was stuck in a dead-end job, going nowhere, my head and belly full of the scattered detritus of American consumer culture — of pulpy slasher flicks and freeze-dried orange juice, cheesy paperbacks and Cheez Doodles. Like those fellow unfortunates, I was a lonely twentysomething, more than a little paranoid, awash in the wreckage of a failed relationship, biding my time until some momentous event should give my life meaning — any event, even a spectacularly horrific one. I never did stumble across an automobile graveyard at one of those highway rest stops, or a zombie clerk at one of those convenience stores (at least, I don’t think so), but Etchison’s stories offered the dark promise that it might happen, tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow.
Etchison’s three early collections — The Blood Kiss appeared, also from Scream Press, in 1988 — are books I return to again and again, savoring the unsentimental pathos with which the author captures the sense of loss and longing that suffuses everyday life in mass-culture America. His tales are models of concision, the prose spare yet still richly suggestive. In the hands of a lesser writer, such an elliptical style, often amounting to a montage of hallucinatory details, might seem obscure, but one never loses faith in the author’s informing vision.
Only a few of the stories are overtly supernatural, most conveying mere glimpses of the numinous that remain inscrutable, hauntingly ambiguous. The co-ed murders in “White Moon Rising,” the vanished pets in “The Dog Park,” the eerie flicker of TV light in “Deathtracks,” might be evidence of supernatural agency, or they might simply be the inexorable expressions of a hollow, decadent modernity. The corpus of Etchison’s short fiction — including the more recent work gathered in The Death Artist (2000) and Talking in the Dark (2001), a “best of” compendium — is, like the transient social world it evokes, filled with grim hints and nervous portents rather than convincing explanations.
Etchison’s settings are at once vividly realized and hazily anonymous, cryptic snapshots of a generic suburbia and the lost souls who inhabit it. While it was easy enough for me to glimpse, in these ambiguous locales, the sun-blasted Florida hell where I grew up, it was only after I moved to Los Angeles — and read the 2001 collection Fine Cuts, which gathers 13 stories highlighting his corrosive vision of modern Hollywood — that I realized just how much of a SoCal writer Etchison was, the mutant heir of Richard Matheson and Nathanael West. When he finally began to produce full-length novels, the expanded canvas they afforded gave him even more opportunity to develop his vision of contemporary California as a spiritual wasteland in which dark and sinister forces incubate.
Unfortunately, these novels — Darkside (1986), Shadowman (1993), California Gothic (1995), and Double Edge (1997) — lack the cohesive brilliance of his shorter work, upon which his reputation still largely rests (though he was also a skilled editor, with award-winning anthologies to his credit). While all four novels feature Etchison’s shrewd eye for social detail, especially regarding California lifestyles, they are also all flawed in one way or another, deploying mysteries that seem truly creepy and ominous and then resolving them in disappointing fashion. Rendering his vision of the privations and terrors of modern life a bit too blatantly, they descend from the empathic observation of alienation and despair into (at their worst) simple preachment.
Darkside’s extrapolation of a teenage suicide cult as a response to the numbing boredom of suburban life is provocative and unsettling, but Etchison’s attempt to link this outburst of adolescent nihilism to the lamentable decay of counterculture values since the ’60s is unconvincing, informed by a retrograde nostalgia altogether lacking in his more hard-edged short stories. Shadowman, in which a remorseless killer stalks the children of a fog-shrouded coastal hamlet, contains some effectively atmospheric writing, but it continues the trend toward explicit social critique, including sometimes maudlin pronouncements about the spiritual nobility of the urban underclass. Etchison’s personal debts to the counterculture become glaringly clear in his novels, and while his portraits of middle-class characters struggling in the ruins of their shattered ideals has at times a genuine poignancy, they also tend to descend into polemical disquisitions on cultural malaise.
California Gothic, Etchison’s best novel, largely escapes this negative verdict: though it too is deeply invested in the putative “death of the ’60s,” it avoids clichéd and sentimental pronouncements in favor of a disquieting ambivalence. A middle-aged Los Angeles bookstore owner must confront his own counterculture legacy when his first wife, a member of an underground cult who supposedly died during a fiery shootout with the FBI, returns to menace his suburban family. An uncanny harbinger of those “waves of chance [that were] ready to blow everything away at any moment,” this woman represents the darker side of counterculture values, a remorseless agent of unhinged utopian change. Etchison’s handling of suspense — including uncertainty regarding the supernatural nature of the threat — is masterly throughout, as is his evocation of believably flawed characters struggling against implacable social forces. But the resolution of the plot is rushed, dissipating some of the charge of the preceding events — and leading one to conclude that Etchison was always uncomfortable with more expansive narratives.
His subsequent — and final — novel, Double Edge, does little to mitigate this judgment. Though absorbingly written, the story is essentially lightweight, a slice-and-dice tale of Lizzie Borden–style ax murders in contemporary Hollywood. More than any other of the novels published under Etchison’s byline (as opposed to his “Jack Martin” pseudonym), it gives the impression of having been written to pay the bills.
But what other fate could one expect for an author whose essential gift was short fiction — a form that has always skulked in the shadow of its more well-fed cousin, the novel? That Etchison was able to sustain a five-decade career — and build such a brilliant reputation — on the basis, essentially, of a few dozen short stories is a truly remarkable achievement, especially given the kind of novel-driven field horror fiction has become in the wake of Stephen King.
Ramsey Campbell, in his introduction to The Dark Country, called Etchison “a poet of loneliness and alienation.” That is exactly right, but his poetic gifts were of the lyric rather than the epic variety. Ultimately, it is for his muted, haunting, and ferociously downbeat stories that the author will be remembered. They are among the very best that modern horror in the United States has produced.
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Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor. His most recent book is Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (Bloomsbury, 2017).
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Featured image: “Etchison at the 2008 World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City” by Nihonjoe is licensed under CC BY 3.0.
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