THE DARK SIDE’S CALLING NOW, NOTHING’S REAL: DENNIS ETCHISON’S DARKSIDE

Etchison-Darkside-CoverOn the heels of his first collection, 1984’s THE DARK COUNTRY, as well as two decades worth of short fiction, a handful of pseudonymous novels written (or co-written in one case) for the same sorts of adult markets Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, and Robert Silverberg had been writing for, as well as a near miss with a novel known as THE SHUDDER, Dennis Etchison finally landed a horror novel under his own name with 1986’s DARKSIDE.

The book continues to show off the already impressive fiction skills Etchison displayed in his short forms, telling the story of a family that has moved to a new house in Beverly Hills. Of the five members, husband/father Douglas Carson is the newest addition, a new husband to beleaguered matriarch Casey and stepdad to the three girls: fourteen-year-old (but all grown up) Erin, eleven-year-old Lori, and single digits wee one Elizabeth/Lizzy. Doug is the big breadwinner here, composing music scores for various films. Of late, he is working on horror flicks, bringing much needed suspense and life to the cheap features made by untalented directors and spliced together by rushed editors. It’s a paycheck.

Each member of this family unit is given a chance to shine in the novel. First off, however, Erin acts as the protagonist. She’s the first character we meet, and she’s pulling something a little scary and dangerous. With the novel’s opening, Etchison demonstrates his ability to assemble minor details to evoke a character’s emotional state:

It was all right to be afraid.

Erin lay with the covers up to her chin until the sliver of light under her door disappeared like the sweep of a knife blade across the carpet, cutting her off completely from the rest of the family. She heard the faraway click of the latch to Lori’s room, then the whistling of water through the pipes in the walls, the muffled thud of feet overhead as Mom and Dad shuffled out of the TV room and into bed. The moon rose behind the trees and cold blue shadows fell across her desk, spilling onto the floor and crept up the end of her quilt, a relentless advance that she did not want to stop. The hands of the alarm on her dresser sliced through another hour and closed the gap, merging straight up. Still she waited, listening intently for unexpected footfalls on the stairs outside her room. But there was only the faint insect grinding of the electric clock, the distant humming of the refrigerator in the kitchen, and then—at last!—the whispering of oversized tires passing slowly on the street in front of the house. (location 103)

What’s she up to? Erin is waiting for her opportunity to sneak out of the house to meet up with some friends. We don’t quite know what the meet up entails, but Erin is convinced that it’s got a hint of something dangerous to it. Still she wants to go. She stays out far later than she intends, coming home bruised and at a loss for just what occurred to her.

She has hazy recollections of meeting up with some of her friends, but nothing between that and the morning she woke up hurting and thirsty. Does it maybe have something to do with the stories of the Lost Ones, local urban legends she pooh-poohs as being kiddie stories?

She will explore these questions with friends from school and a few older boys, but the danger is not left behind when she’s done. Instead, it seems to follow her home. Someone is seen standing outside windows around her house and that someone might even be sneaking into the house in the middle of the night to linger alongside her or her sisters’ beds.

Erin soon discovers there is more threat to what she’s gotten involved with than she might have first believed, and when that threat comes calling, it leaves the family mourning a terrible loss—the kind of loss no parent should ever have to deal with. This is the first half of the book, and the second half tries to find some semblance of answers about what has happened and why.

Dennis Etchison has a way with mood. Many of the better stories in THE DARK COUNTRY use descriptions in aggressive ways, adding menace to stories that might or might not have linear plotting. This is replicated here, though in a longer format. This is not to say these are short stories fixed up into a long form. The novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end all its own. The lists of details, however, strikes me as a horrific counterpoint to the kinds of things literary novelist Don DeLillo was doing at about the same time, and I would raise no doubts if someone revealed the genesis for DARKSIDE came about as a horror spin on some of the ideas fueling DeLillo’s WHITE NOISE, which appeared in 1985.

There’s bleakness and weariness woven throughout DARKSIDE’s text. Small incidents inflate into matters of life and death through an inspired turn of phrase or description. An unusual sexualized approach lends some of the scenes that should be innocuous rather unsettling qualities.

DARKSIDE’s lighter moments, which do exist despite the rather grim material it grapples with otherwise, are never typical comic beats or attempts to portray physical humor. Etchison employs a bit of witty repartee of the sort teens and adults bat back and forth, but more often than not the humor peeks through observation of American culture. Although these are mostly targeted toward the culture of the time, a close read shows how little has really changed in the decades since the book’s release. Etchison’s cynical eye toward the mundane aspects of 1980’s living apply just as easily to today. Take this passage about little Lizzy’s favorite cartoon show:

Elizabeth was head-over-heels for Dappy the Duck.

The attachment had begun innocently enough, with the first appearance of his dashing likeness on a box of Kwackles, the Cereal That Stays Kwisp No Matter What, progressing from casual acquaintance to intimacy under the spur of his constant presence on early-morning and after-school television. By Thanksgiving of the first year he was featured prominently on every package of breakfast cereal manufactured by Federal Foods; by December he had landed a starring role in the Kwackles Christmas Special, featuring Goodbye Kitten, Fudgy McNutly and the precociously seductive Blueberry Cheesecake, who was Elizabeth’s primary competition. By the end of winter, Dappy’s jaunty countenance had penetrated the all-important notebook and lunchpail market and, fame being the instantaneous phenomenon that it is, an Animal Kwackers comic book, a Punk Duck record album and a Saturday morning cartoon series followed in rapid succession. In a few short months, thanks to shrewd and aggressive career management, Dappy had achieved that pinnacle of success known only to the very few: he had become a household word, something that took merely mortal stars salty years to accomplish. (location 290)

Sure, the specifics are firmly rooted in their time of course. However replace television shows with YouTube, webcomics, or another modern social platform, and you have the same bid for stardom employed by characters and wannabes operating these days.

It’s an acidic appraisal, and still manages to be a direct hit on the children’s programming from when I was growing up (around the time of the novel’s original release) and in the years since. Marketing toward kids always did seem to have a dual edge to it, at once pandering to a crowd adults did not completely understand (despite having gone through it themselves) and yet also trying to be gee whiz appealing to an entire family. Generation gaps are never more prevalent than in that particular industry.

Of course, the humorous aspects are just gravy to the rest of the story, which is a suspenseful yarn appraising an unforeseen assault on the family unit. This is a family that is pulling itself apart from within, a theme that fed into last year’s horror cinema darling HEREDITARY. Taken on a metaphoric level, DARKSIDE can be seen as a flipside to that particular film, in some ways. Last year while commenting on the feature, I noted how it seemed to embrace Ramsey Campbell’s themes (and this year’s MIDSOMMER also seems to embrace Campbellian themes from works like ANCIENT IMAGES and others as well as that seminal classic Christopher Lee vehicle, THE WICKER MAN) but as I was reading DARKSIDE, I saw how disjointed and unconnected the family unit was. Parents don’t communicate so well, and children seem to be operating on another level. There’s even a hidden organization that uses unique symbology: two signs appear in the text with regularity, one of them is an A positioned in the middle of a circle (which is likely familiar to more of today’s readers than it might have been the original audience) as well as a pie wedge design that seems to wed the doomsday clock so popular in the 80s with the 60’s peace sign. These symbols find their meanings in the text, of course, but for a time they are found on jackets, on signage, and even scrawled on rocks relating to the core mysteries: What happened to Lina that night, who is lurking around the family, and just what is the Darkside?

The novel has some ties to both Etchison’s own fiction as well as his interests. The Lost Ones get namechecked alongside a few other local legends in a conversation between cynical Erin and a worried Lori:

“What about the Lost Ones?”

“Hah. That’s nothing but a story they tell kids around here to keep them from going into the canyons. Like the Watchbird, the Nighthawk, the Boogyman. It’s a fairy tale, don’t you know that?” (location 755)

One of these, “The Nighthawk” is Etchison’s own creation. The title of a story that appeared in his first collection, in fact, which recounts the very real happenings around a local myth. Likewise, Doug and his pal Gil reminisce about going to Mexico, and getting into trouble as college guys:

“I was wondering. When are we going to take some time off and bust loose for Ensenada one more time? It’s been too long. We could catch some sports fishing, lie in the sun . . .”

“And get beat up in Hussong’s, thrown in jail by the federales, all that good stuff, right?”

“No, man, I only mean . . . I don’t know what I mean. But damn it, something’s missing. Don’t you feel it?”

“Of course I feel it. We used to be wild dogs, Doug. We never kept up with the pack. We could run away and eat sweet grass and roll in the clover whenever we wanted. There was no leash then. Sure, I know what you mean.” (location 987)

Not only does this passage emphasize the push/pull relationship between the younger crowd and the previous generation (a push/pull that is occurring between Doug and his adopted daughters even now, with Doug on the side of “the pack”), but it echoes a flow of events from the title story of THE DARK COUNTRY itself. In that piece, some young college guys head south of the border for a little rest, relaxation, and bedmate hunting only to end up involved in darker events that required them to take a midnight journey to avoid getting tossed into jail or worse . . . I had not thought I was actually reading a connected series when I decided to read/reread Etchison’s Dark-themed titles, and yet the author seems to have built a connected world nevertheless. Knowledge of one story might not be required when reading others, but encountering the short fiction before reading the novel leads to a richer experience. The world feels larger and perhaps a tad grimmer.

On a less grim note, it was also fun to see a certain name thrown into the mix of local teen deaths—the area has quite a few of them, it turns out:

“There was Ricky Mayer, the Wister boy, Laurie Strode, the Martin child, so many other tragic incidents . . .” (location 2107)

One of those names should strike a gong of memory for horror fans. Laurie Strode is of course the name of the final girl from the first two Halloween flicks (as well as a couple of later ones). Etchison also novelized the second and third films under his Jack Martin pseudonym (which gets namechecked here, as wel). Including Laurie among the vanished is a cheeky move, though; it is guaranteed to raise a grin from horror fans at a point in the book where there are few chuckles to be found. There are other such moments, including a shout out to the aforementioned Ramsey Campbell, whose short story “Horror House of Blood” gets a mention as a popular horror flick in the book.

DARKSIDE is a well named novel, since it explores the attraction and repulsion of dark places and the eerie people who beckon us to see what’s there, like unscrupulous carnival barkers. The novel ventures into some creepy places indeed, and is somewhat of a precursor to the sorts of stories Gary A Braunbeck would later write. Etchison’s book uses supernatural and mundane world threats to great appeal, and he assaults the notions of family in both direct and subtle ways. Children are not sheep in his book, they are active participants, and they are just as prone to find themselves in situations over their heads, situations they might not be able to escape from. It’s a mature work, one that balances its horror and suspense elements and leads readers down interesting, unusual paths. One of these avenues makes use of a core conceit that would fuel the various FLATLINERS features, the first film of which would not hit screens for almost a decade following this book’s release.

Etchison excels at observation and description. I enjoyed his portrayal of young characters, as well. The one area that sometimes strained my suspension of disbelief was in the adult character motivations. I sometimes just did not buy Doug’s cluelessness or Casey being so out of touch with her husband and kids. These sometimes felt less organic than imposed by the plot, and so some of the material surrounding these characters that emerges from these moments comes across as forced. Then again, Etchison’s short fiction often took unusual turns, which made more sense on subsequent readings. This was my first time through the book, and there were moments where the prose sang, beckoning me to follow, and there were other moments where the prose dragged me forward with its relentless darkness and suspense, and there were occasional shoves that I just did not buy. It’s a meaty novel, one that takes risks and chances, and if it does not always succeed at what it attempts DARKSIDE cannot be accused of being pedestrian, being puerile, or appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Instead, we have a slow burn of a book from the get-go, which builds to a strangely suspenseful yarn that grapples with supernatural and all too natural threats (as well as the fears of moving somewhere outside your comfort zone, as Beverly Hills turns out to be), while it explores two generations’ inability to understand one another or to communicate what is important. It’s a book about perspectives, and how they change when tragedy and death intervene in an otherwise idyll domestic scene. Mythic cycles and urban legends intersect with the day-to-day world in unique ways, influencing and shaping events while growing in turn. Horror is not always the most reassuring of genres, yet it seldom turns as dark as it does in Etchison’s hands. For reads looking for a little literary substance with their slow burn horror styling, DARKSIDE has plenty to offer.

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DARKSIDE is available in an eBook these days, from the folks at Crossroads Press. Artifact copies abound in various editions. The paperbacks in particular have cover art that should appear in Hendrix and Errickson’s PAPERBACKS FROM HELL.

While reading Etchison’s novel, I inevitably ended up getting that blasted song “On the Dark Side” from John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band stuck in my head. If you’d like to share in my . . . condition, give the single a listen through your favorite streaming service or grab a copy of the EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS motion picture soundtrack on good ol’ CD.

Next up, we return to the world of Donald E. Westlake with the third of his Sam Holt series of amateur sleuth stories. WHAT I TELL YOU THREE TIMES IS FALSE finds Sam on a lovely island for a commercial shoot with three other actors who are tied to their mystery characters, getting caught up in a murder plot that could have come from Agatha Christie herself. Felony & Mayhem re-released this book in paperback a few years back, and it’s still available in that form. No eBook as yet, alas.

WORKS CITED

Etchison, Dennis. DARKSIDE. Berkley: 1986.

“The Dark Side’s Calling Now, Nothing’s Real: Dennis’ Etchison’s Darkside” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover and excerpts taken from the Crossroads Press eBook edition, copyright © 2016.

 

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