We lost Dennis Etchison yesterday, and like Ellison's passing, like David Bowie's passing three years ago, this one hurts. Like both, Etchison shaped my expectations of what his particular art form--in this case the psychological horror story--could do. Of all of the impressive writers who came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, Dennis Etchison was the one who made me want to write horror.
I first encountered Etchison's work when I picked up a copy of Kirby McCauley's Dark Forces at the University of Texas Co-Op and spent the afternoon lost in its pages instead of attending class. Even of the many great stories in that anthology (from Stephen King's classic "The Mist" to "Dark Angel," Edward Bryant's terrifying tale of revenge, to Joyce Carol Oates's sublime "The Bingo Master"), Etchison's "The Late Shift" stood out. Brooding, moody, intense, it resonated with me in a way I never expected. I hadn't read much horror prior to that afternoon; a science fiction fan, I still held prejudices about horror's worst elements. However, I was immediately taken with Etchison's urban landscape populated by desperate, alienated individuals. I reread "The Late Shift" immediately and felt no small amount of kinship with this Californian. Yes, his story took place in Los Angeles, but he might as well have written about the city where I grew up.
Houston wasn't Los Angeles, of course, but its own sprawl made such stories as "Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly" and "Call First" and novels like Darkside and California Gothic easily relatable. The city's abundance of hospitals lent plausibility to Etchison's organ transplant story "The Dead Line." The verdant Hermann Park, surrounded by neighborhoods of wealth and privilege, might have been the same setting for "The Dog Park," and the police cars that appeared forever parked on the tangled freeways easily could have sprung from "The Dead Cop." My family passed by the rest stops dotting I-10 during our sojourns to Austin, but I felt like I knew the abandoned locale in "It Only Comes Out at Night." And how could one not be terrified of department stores or high school reunions after reading "The Pitch" or "The Chair," respectively?
It wasn't just the settings and situations that set Etchison apart. He kept his prose spare, a holdover from his experience as a screenwriter, and it brought his vision to life. It was not just lean but fat-free, not just descriptive but evocative, even poetic. You cannot read any of the stories in The Dark Country or Red Dreams or The Blood Kiss without having his vision get under your skin. I tried to channel the opening line of his fantastic "Call 666" ("He awoke to the sound of a chainsaw.") in one of my own stories, but Etchison, always, managed to do it better.
I began reading Etchison just as his story output seemed to slow and his novels for Abyss (Shadowman, Double Edge) began to hit bookstore shelves. Critics point out the disjointed, episodic nature of his longer work, and yes, I can see that, but his fiction seemed to work best in the way that, say, John Carpenter's The Fog or David Cronenberg's Videodrome worked (he wrote the novelizations for both): Etchison got to the heart of an image in a way that never fully left your brain.
He also was an exceptional anthologist, finding outstanding work for Cutting Edge, Metahorror, and the three-volume Masters of Darkness series. All were firmly grounded in the tradition of the best horror fiction, yet also felt modern, with each author's distinctive voice showcased.
He'll be missed. But the stories will live on.