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DENNIS ETCHISON
Talent on the Page

June 2000
By Paula Guran

"The work is what it is. You can't change that. When there is talent on the page nothing else matters, and when there isn't nothing else can make up for it." -- Dennis Etchison

Dennis Etchison doesn't really want to talk about himself or about writing. He's much more willing to talk about wrestling, but is far too polite to start without encouragement.

Etchison's recent collection, THE DEATH ARTIST, is a brilliant summation of Etchison's style. Often writing of alienation and isolation, he subtly blends mundane detail into an overwhelming sense of dread. He exploits the unreal reality of life in Southern California and often uses film and the bizarre business of Hollywood in his stories. The reader is confronted not with supernatural bogies, but with what really scares us in this day and age. Perhaps the most common motif in Etchison's work is that of the solitary individual trying to relate to the world. One suspects the writer reveals a great deal about himself in his stories even while, paradoxically, he is reticent about discussing himself and his work.

Unlike most writers, Etchison winces at the thought of another interview. He told Doug Winter fifteen years ago in FACES OF FEAR it was not the writer's job to foster interest in himself as a person, that the writing should stand on its own. This man is a native Southern Californian, surely he's adapted to vacuous hype as a needful thing by now? No. "There have been far too many interviews for me along the way, and I hope this the last one. The only reason I'm doing [this Horror Online interview] is because we're friends."

Dennis Etchison "There are writers who spend more time promoting themselves than writing," he explains. "They have to in order to succeed, because the quality of their work just isn't there and they know it in their hearts. We hear them endlessly proclaiming their own brilliance, as if saying something often enough and loud enough can make it real. They are the hawks among sparrows. The only ones they fool are those who can't tell the difference between gold and polished copper. But copper tarnishes when left out in the world too long, and their careers will turn black at the end if they don't have the sense to step off before it's too late. The work is what it is. You can't change that. When there is talent on the page nothing else matters, and when there isn't nothing else can make up for it."

There's the next paradox: Etchison's talent brought a certain level of achievement, but it did not guarantee continued success -- at least in the way the world normally measures it. The title story from Etchison's first collection of short fiction, THE DARK COUNTRY, won the British Fantasy Award in 1981 and the World Fantasy Award in 1982. The book was significant not only for its literary merit, but was also largely responsible for starting the small press horror boom. Etchison went on to garner more World Fantasy and British Fantasy Awards for both his writing and his editing. As an editor Etchison -- through several groundbreaking anthologies of original fiction including CUTTING EDGE (1986) -- literally shaped the perception of what modern horror is for readers, writers, and readers who then became writers and editors.

book cover Meanwhile Etchison had the talent and the right connections to make a grab at the golden ring on the Hollywood scriptwriting merry-go-round: several uncredited movie scripts, a staff writing television gig, never-produced options. It's a way to make a living, but it's more proof that big talent doesn't always succeed in a big way.

Ultimately, Etchison was both blessed and cursed by the genrefication of horror. For the first fifteen years of his career he was published in the science fiction field as well as literary and commercial magazines. When horror boomed he began selling to those markets and his reputation was made as a horror writer. By the time horror went bust, he remained defined only as a horror writer. "The only reputation I have," says Etchison. "lies in the horror field, which means that editors outside the field have never heard of me, so I have to start all over again. This has happened to a number of writers who were previously identified with horror/dark fantasy. When the field collapsed we were left high and dry. Whether some of us will ever be welcomed elsewhere, outside of small press publishing, remains to be seen."

book cover So, here's a man who -- with both his writing and editing --expanded the boundaries of horror, broke down barriers between various kinds of literature, and yet somehow became, himself, confined. Paradox.

Etchison was an early success, winning essay contests and writing for his junior high and high school newspapers. "Reading Ray Bradbury in grade school changed my life. I began by blatantly imitating him but started to go off on tangents of my own, and soon I came to resent schoolwork for preventing me from doing what Bradbury recommended: writing a short story every week."

At first he also acted in plays and worked at photography on what he calls an "advanced amateur" level. "But," he says, "the pressure to write fiction with some semblance of regularity finally became unbearable. Then, on the last day of class in my junior year, there was a pool party for the staff of the school newspaper at the home of one of the students, Susan White. I asked her if she had a typewriter in the house. Yes. Could we move it outside --and did she have a small table to put it on? Again, yes...but why? Because, I announced, I'm going to write a short story, right here and now. I couldn't wait any longer. So while my friends were eating hot dogs and diving in the pool, I was sitting poolside at the typewriter, clacking away with one-finger abandon."

"I had no idea what to write but used Bradbury's method of putting down the first two or three nouns that come to mind and taking off from there, free-associating. I didn't finish the story that day, but I sat up typing on my mother's old Underwood upright at the kitchen table late at night, after my parents were asleep. Three days later I had a second draft of a story called "Odd Boy Out." It was a sort of soft science fiction-fantasy tale about some teenagers in the woods, God knows why."

He tried to sell it. Following the instructions for manuscript submission in WRITERS DIGEST he submitted the story to five or six science fiction magazines. After receiving rejection slips from them all, he remembered something else Bradbury had said: "Always send your story to the least likely market you can think of, because it won't be anything like what they're used to seeing and it will stand out, rising to the top of the slush pile like cream."

Young Etchison got a copy of WRITERS YEARBOOK, the annual special published by Writers Digest, and scanned the short story markets. "They were divided into categories -- Westerns, Mystery, Teen, Science Fiction, Men's...and I settled on men's magazines. As I read down from the top of the list -- ADAM, DUDE, GENT -- one, ESCAPADE, caught my eye. Now as it happened I had a couple of copies of that one, because the last page of every issue was given over to a column by Jack Kerouac, 'The Last Word'. On the Road had recently come out in paperback and Kerouac was a great hero of mine. Anyway, here I was with a story that had teenage characters and no sex -- how unlikely can you get? But I sent it to them, and a few weeks later I received a letter accepting the story for $125."

book cover The story came out in June of 1961, the same month Etchison was graduated from high school. "I walked down to the liquor store near our house to buy a copy and they didn't want to sell it go me because I was too young. I pointed to my name on the contents page and finally got them to take my fifty cents. One of my teachers, a great woman named Florence Rippel, congratulated me and added, "Next time, try to make it a better magazine." The school paper published a picture of me with my feet up on a desk next to a typewriter and the headline, ETCHISON LAUNCHES CAREER ON $125. Bear in mind, that was a lot of money then. Now, all these years later, the magazines sell for ten times as much, but the writers aren't getting paid ten times as much, are they? But don't get me started..."

By 1976 Etchison was a full-time writer. A fan of John Carpenter, he wound up writing the novelization of THE FOG (1980), then, writing as "Jack Martin" (the name of a recurring character in his fiction), he followed with novel versions of HALLOWEEN II (1981) and HALLOWEEN III (1982). (He wrote a script for HALLOWEEN IV which was never used.) Etchison worked with David Cronenburg and wrote the novelization of VIDEODROME (1983), again writing under the Martin pseudonym. Novelizations are rarely high art -- although Etchison acquitted himself well with the material at hand -- but they put food on the table and provided Etchison with contacts in the movie business

His first three "real novels" -- DARKSIDE (1987), SHADOWMAN (1986), and CALIFORNIA GOTHIC (1995) -- "comprise an informal trilogy," wrote critic Stefan Dziemianowicz, "concerned with the debased forms counter-cultural ideas have assumed in contemporary times. . . . For Etchison's characters. The death of the 1960s represents a sort of personal death in life."

book cover DOUBLE EDGE -- a modern take on the Lizzie Bordon legend -- was published in 1996. Sort of. "DOUBLE EDGE came out at a time when Jeanne Cavelos, who originally bought the book, had just left Dell and the Abyss line was being discontinued. Her replacement was a nice enough young man named Jacob Hoye but he seemed not to know much about horror and the company obviously didn't care about it anymore as a viable commercial category. Rather than publish the book as a crossover title they dumped a few copies into the chain bookstores and wrote it off. There were no ads and no promotion whatsoever so no one new it was out there. When I called the Bantam/Doubleday/Dell publicity department about contacting their California sales rep for some help in setting up signings, she refused to give me a name or phone number. She recommended instead that I walk into the bookstores in my area -- cold, like a door-to-door salesman -- and introduce myself and offer to sign books for them. That was the promotional strategy of the then-largest book publisher in the world. It was as if they were not interested in expending the slightest effort in selling even a single copy. Well, they got what they wanted, and I took the fall; in wrestling terms, they jobbed me out. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A book may not sell well, so why promote it? Unfortunately the author's sales figures then reflect that prediction, which makes it very hard to sell the company another book--or a comparable company, for that matter, when they look up the numbers and see an unearned advance in the computer. And I naively believed that writers and publishers share a common goal: to sell as many books as possible. But how wrong I was.

book cover "There's an implicit assumption that books come out on a level playing field and that when one doesn't sell it's because the public has assessed it, found it wanting and rejected it. The truth is that most people are unaware of most of the books published in a given year, just as they are unaware of many of the films that are made and not distributed widely or advertised well--so if they don't know something exists, how can they either accept or reject it? This is, I am afraid, too much of a conundrum for my simple mind to grasp, but apparently it is reality, at least here on Bizarro World. So we'd better find a way to deal with it, however difficult that may be, because for better or worse this is where we are and I have a growing sense that nobody is going to get out of here alive. Of course the larger question is, What maniac put us here and why -- let's see, was it Eric Bischoff or Vince Russo? But don't get me started. As the Rock says, "Know your role and shut your mouth!" Okay, okay, I'm trying..."

The Rock? Why the fascination and constant references to wrestling? "Oh, I could give you a carefully rationalized answer about good vs. evil, one-on-one contests, the individual before an audience -- but the truth is, I just like it. In fact I love it. Always have, since the early 50s, when it dominated television, and I probably always will. I used to go to the matches with my dad at the old Olympic Auditorium, Long Beach, El Monte, San Bernardino, the L.A. Sports Arena...and I never stopped going, even during wrestling's down years. Why do I love it? Because. As with horror literature, I'm weary unto death of taking a defensive stance."

As "The Pro," Etchison writes for RAMPAGE, a slick full-color wrestling magazine with an unexpectedly high level of writing. A number of other science fiction/fantasy/horror writers -- like Chet Williamson, Tom and Elizabeth Monteleone, David Bischoff, Pat Cadigan, and Doug and Lynne Winter (Lynne is also editor-in-chief and Doug edits, too) -- contribute to RAMPAGE. "As another of the magazine's writers, Kristin Sparks (actually a famous masked science fiction author) put it, 'Wrestling was postmodern before postmodern was cool.' A great article, by the way -- 'Why Wrestling Matters', July 2000 -- and one that covers it all, from Aristotle to the Theatre of Cruelty, from Artaud to Angela Carter. Sure, an interest in wrestling fits in with psychotronic consciousness and fringe culture, and it contains a healthy dose of semi-underground defiance...but you know, the bottom line is, those whose eyes are open will see, and those whose eyes are closed will never know what they're missing. Like science fiction in the 50s and horror movies in the 70s -- and horror literature now, for that matter -- there are those who know and appreciate what it has to offer at its best, and the ones who don't are either uninformed or snobs convinced it's only pop-trash juvenalia. They 'know' this without ever having taken a good look at it."

Other than wrestling-writing, Etchison has a number of projects on his agenda. He has a new screenplay, SHADOW GLEN, written in collaboration with Peter Atkins (HELLRAISER:BLOODLINE, WISHMASTER). Etchison has also partnered with Charles Holloway to produce a series of original digital-video interviews for cable television, the Net, and as retail audio. "The first one is entitled CLIVE BARKER UNCENSORED and is really quite remarkable -- Clive in candid conversation for 2 1/2 hours with his longtime friend and collaborator Peter Atkins who served as the interviewer on this one. Clive says it will be his last major interview. Others we're hoping to line up include Carpenter, Romero, and Bradbury in what should constitute their definitive on-the-record statements."

book cover A short story "The Late Shift" (from Kirby McCauley's classic anthology DARK FORCES) has been optioned by New Line Cinema for an anthology film John Landis is preparing with several other directors, including Joe Dante and Walter Hill. "It is, I take it, a kind of unofficial follow-up to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, under the working title REALLY SCARY STORIES," says Etchison. "I hope it goes, especially since one of the other stories is Ramsey Campbell's "Down There", and Ramsey is not only a close friend but the finest short story writer currently working in the field. It would be great fun for us to have stories in the same film. We can't lose. If the movie is awful, we'll talk about how 'those assholes out in Hollywood' ruined our work. If it's good, we'll just say 'thank you' and take the credit. Either way we win, assuming that the short stories as they exist in print don't change retroactively."

Etchison is also returning to editing (his last foray was METAHORROR, published in 1992) with an anthology, THE MUSEUM OF HORRORS, for the new hardcover imprint at Leisure Books. The book will showcase members of the Horror Writers Association. There are new short stories coming out in CEMETERY DANCE magazine and some anthologies, plus a couple of novels in progress. One novel is already completed, "a kind of romantic hardboiled Hollywood noir called BLUE SCREEN. The problem is that it falls between the cracks; it's neither horror nor mystery and so doesn't quite fit any of the categories in commercial publishing. It's sort of a dark psychological mainstream novel, but at the same time a suspense melodrama, so I don't think editors know quite what to do with it."

book cover THE DARK COUNTRY is returning to print from Babbage Press. A retrospective volume of the author's selected stories from 1961 to 2001 for another publisher is also projected. "I look forward to picking the ones that I think work while leaving out some of the dross -- but at the same time I dread it. Rereading old work is always surprising and disappointing. It is never as I remembered and usually an embarrassment. Sometimes I can't believe how awkward an old story seems and I'm tempted to pick up a pen and begin revising (as Bradbury did with "King of the Grey Spaces"/"R is for Rocket" and stories in THE OCTOBER COUNTRY), but I don't, out of respect for who I was then. For better or worse, each represents the best work I knew how to do at that moment and as such is frozen in time, a signpost indicating where I was at that stage of my life. Sometimes I'll spot a phrase or bit of punctuation that absolutely has to go, but I try not to touch-up beyond that. The challenge is to accept what is and be at peace with the past, however appalling it may be." The last interview? We'll see. Even Mick Foley came back for one more match.


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