Around 2000/2001, a new internet publisher (Stealth Press) decided to enter the small genre publisher market and they made a bit of a splash with their inaugural titles. Stealth’s opening foray included a trio of reprinted books from the original splatterpunk horror authors John Skipp and Craig Spector (THE LIGHT AT THE END, THE CLEANUP, THE SCREAM) as well as a for-the-first-time complete edition of Clive Barker’s BOOKS OF BLOOD (including a concluding piece that wrapped up the saga of the first story, “The Book of Blood” and marked a bit of a capstone to the six volumes) and An until-then career retrospective for author Dennis Etchison. Although Stealth Press did not last, they offered some great books before they closed their internet doors.
2001 turned out to be a milestone of sorts for Etchison: his fourth decade as a published author. So, TALKING IN THE DARK: SELECTED STORIES was born, allowing the author the chance to pick some of his favorite stories. A requisite new short story (“Red Dog Down”) was included as well, capping off the collected 24 pieces. This week, we take a look at this retrospective volume.
TALKING IN THE DARK contains a good selection from each of his collections in its table of contents. In fact, they are generally grouped to follow those collections publication date—tales from THE DARK COUNTRY appear first, RED SCREAMS second, THE BLOOD KISS third, and THE DEATH ARTIST fourth—though a few individual stories have been shuffled around between volumes to present one of Etchison’s story cycles as a whole/continuous read or otherwise pairing up tales that share interests or motifs. In fact, Etchison’s collections already did this to some degree, and while all those collections (as well as this one and his subsequent collections/retrospectives FINE CUTS and GOT TO KILL THEM ALL) are available in eBook and often paperback editions these days, this was not the case at the time. I believe one of the books, THE DARK COUNTRY, had either just seen republication or announcement by Babbage Press and THE DEATH ARTIST was slated for a Leisure Books paperback release a year or so later, but the author’s other two volumes were used book store finds at best. Likewise his novels and film tie-in work. Thus, a book like this served a couple of purposes. It brought some of Etchison’s stories back out for the reading public to discover or re-discover, and it gave the author the ability to place tales from different books into a single stream of reading consciousness, allowing him to play up some of the threads running from THE DARK COUNTRY through THE DEATH ARTIST.
The individual stories span all the decades from the seventies to the oughts, and while the trappings and toys making up the world these characters occupy might change (e.g., at least one early story features that new, exciting device the telephone answering machine, complete with miniature cassettes while later tales feature more advanced apparatuses), Etchison’s storytelling methods remain relatively unchanged. As with THE DARK COUNTRY, we find stories of people in motion, mostly taking place in California (and there often in the greater Los Angeles area) or perhaps just south of the border. Many of these stories involve protagonists who are divorced, and a lot of them kick off, end up, or otherwise include telephone conversations and/or the aforementioned exciting device. Fast food chains (such as the not terribly tantalizingly named Feed Bag) get name checked regularly, and locations such as Beaumont Canyon and Pico Boulevard summon troubles like candle flames do moths (or the Marsden House summons the macabre and supernatural in Stephen King’s second novel). Etchison’s landscape seems then to have concrete points of intersection, his short stories providing dark, almost mythological connections to one another as well as to his novels, which as we see will be touched on but not included via excerpt). This patchwork of legends, cautionary tales, and slice-of-life/death character portraits are many lenses into a singular world, Etchison’s own dark country. The effect of reading all these tales is closer to literary visits to Ray Bradbury’s Green Town, Illinois or his Family stories than regular return trips to one of those famous New England towns such as Castle Rock or Oxrun Station. We don’t get the sense of these stories being one long fable or historic accounting, so much as individual myths or urban legends that sometimes use similar landmarks.
Etchison’s writing style, however, shows some great leaps in technique and his interests over the range of publications from the seventies to the oughts. His earlier works are a tad easier to position in the horror genre, for example. Sure, they might sprawl out into the realms of science fiction (two of his chilling “transplant trilogy” stories make appearances here, including “The Machine Demands a Sacrifice” and “The Dead Line” both tackling the topics of how our bodies are treated when declared officially dead but still serviceable banks for transplant materials) but these tales have elements that would not be out of place in an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or in one of Ray Bradbury’s famed collections of creepy sf/f/h stories. Etchison is a speculative writer, a fantasist unparalleled in his ability to show characters (often at work) turning a metaphoric corner and ending up not in the next hall over but in a world that only marginally resembles the one they take for granted. However, as his fiction writing matures into the stuff found in his fourth collection and the additional story for this book, we see even those familiar tropes left behind. The stories become far more literary exercises than straight ahead genre ones, sometimes building on the experimental styles he toyed with before, but often spending most of the word count developing a state of mind and then shaking it until something breaks.
Take for example, “Inside the Cackle Factory” a deceptively simple tale of a woman who has found employment corralling test market participants for television shows. The phrase “Cackle Factory” is one that gets used in at least two of Etchison’s earlier stories before it graces this title; it’s one of Etchison’s pet phrases, and connotes a crazy-making place. The cackles are either mad ones or the sorts of releases of frustration that Alice must have made during her more infuriating escapades in Wonderland. For this story, the phrase is used in relationship to television. Basically, protagonist Lisa Anne is a low-rung-on-the-ladder employee of a television test group organization, one of the folks who lines up the paid watchers and makes sure they listen to the instructions for determining if this or that pilot gets the go-ahead to be broadcast and turned into a full show. In fact, she’s the greenie on this team, working with some folks who are old hats at the biz (and there’s even a War Room where the high mucky-muck producers and whatnot monitor audience responses as though analyzing lie detector print outs). Lisa Anne is here for more than a paycheck, but not for something as mundane as trying to peddle her own script (everyone in or outside The Industry in Hollywood is a writer, after all). Instead, she has personal ties to the industry, ties she has not revealed for fear of getting the boot before a quest can be completed. Lisa has a relative who was part of the process, a relative who went from success to failure and never managed to get out of that ghetto despite making clever, quirky, and smart product. Lisa Anne wants to understand the nuts and bolts behind the decision making. When she sees a show that seems quirky, funny, intelligent, and unlike other things (the delightfully titled “Dario, You So Crazy”, a buddy show pairing Roberto Benigni and Rowan Atkinson in comedic situations and a show that Etchison and screenwriter and pal Peter Atkins conceived of together) that somehow gets poor audience responses, she breaks the character she has made to show her true colors and discovers what really happened to her successful/failed television biz relative. Soon after, she gets the chance to see a surreal sequence involving the failed show’s producer, and this finale offers her (and the readers) a terrible view into what really happened to her relative. The story shifts attacks quite a bit, starting out as more-or-less reality punctuated with occasional moments of eeriness and then returns to normality before arriving at that surprising, surreal conclusion, which somehow manages to be both far-fetched and yet relatable. The fate of television writers and producers shown in this story might not be literal truth, but it’s nevertheless an honest appraisal couched in metaphor and symbolism. What’s most fascinating of all is how the surrealism is an organic component instead of an intrusion. The story itself is deceptively simple for much of its page time, playful in its reliance on anagrams to puzzle out hidden meanings in things, but once the final sentence has been read, the story lingers, unfolding in the mind like a paper sculpture to show its hidden depths.
“Inside the Cackle Factory” is not the kind of tale I would have predicted Etchison would write after sampling the more overtly fantastic and crime stuff in THE DARK COUNTRY. It’s subtle as a Gene Wolfe tale. However, the evolution of style between that first collection and THE DEATH ARTIST, where this one appeared, is made pretty clear in TALKING IN THE DARK’s contents. Make no mistake; the style is still recognizably Etchison’s. The author’s sentences and lyrical writing are easy to read, and this often masks an individual work’s depths. Etchison’s occasional dabbling in surrealism and non-linearity might be present from the beginning and it comes more to the fore in his later works.
I can recall scratching my head after reading 2000’s THE DEATH ARTIST, since the works in that were such a bound away from the stuff he was writing in the 70s/80s. I could appreciate the craft and artistry in that collection, but the stories did not elicit the same sorts of shudders I recalled from pieces such as “The Late Shift” or “Today’s Special”. Those early stories often feature overt monsters, but the later ones feature figurative ones. THE DEATH ARTIST’s stories often didn’t resolve as one might expect or wish, instead they seemed to unravel. They were ambitious if ambiguous. They demanded their readers think outside of the comfortable boxes genre tales are often content to remain within. I respected the book, but I did not quite like it.
Revisiting that volume’s material almost two decades later, I find myself drawn to those particular stories all the more. Seeing the progression, the range, and the development of Etchison’s ability as a writer is fascinating. Easy to read is not easy to accomplish, and his ability to blend an approachable style with such literary techniques and an honest strangeness that would not be out of place in Robert Aickman’s works is something to applaud.
TALKING IN THE DARK opens with one of Etchison’s most popular and powerful stories from THE DARK COUNTRY, that little piece that investigates the sorts of workers who operate on “The Late Shift.” That piece is a creepy gem, of course, that ends with a man in a phone booth unable to convince a world that trouble is closing in on him. The book’s final story, “Red Dog Down”, culminates with a man and his son in a neighbor’s garage deciding the fate of a good dog who made a bad mistake. What waits in between are tales that range from cross country trips by night, delves into Old Mexico, and visits with people doing a day’s work in LaLaLand and winding up in someplace less musical. However, the book offers more than an appraisal of his short work. Though there are no excerpts from his novel-length works, a few of the stories give us recurring characters from Etchison’s novels.
Four of the tales feature Jack Martin, Etchison’s pseudonym for the novelization work he did for HALLOWEEN sequels and David Cronenberg’s masterful VIDEODROME; these tales are supernatural-light, showing the weirdness of the more-or-less normal world of Hollywood. Martin himself might brush with the otherworldly, but in each of the tales he leaves almost as ignorant of that brush as when he came in. In one tale, his father is convinced that recording white noise can reveal the voices of otherworldly beings, but what does Martin himself hear? In another, Martin ends up as a part time apartment cleaner, who encounters a woman he is convinced to be the star of several pictures he loved as a boy, but is she what he believes or something else entirely? In another, Martin visits a high school reunion where few people recall his actual name, and where the class clown has made a strange new life for himself involving a fascination with the chair used to execute Charles Whitman. And in the World Fantasy Award winner “The Dark Country,” Martin finds himself on vacation south of the border, in a boys-only bungalow, exploring matters of life, death, crime, and punishment around a string of robberies. These four stories serve as a master class in developing a series character in a world touched by the supernatural without exposing the character to such a degree that he/she would have to become jaded over time. These stories make me long to revisit Etchison’s second novel, SHADOWMAN, which was part of the often exciting Dell Abyss line of horror novels released in the ’90s and which stars none other than Jack Martin.
One of TALKING IN THE DARK’s stories offers a reunion of sorts with the mother and daughters that Etchison introduced in his first novel, DARKSIDE, as Cory and her middle daughter Lori head off to a state facility to pick up her runaway thirteen year old daughter Erin. “The Olympic Runner” is a piece that serves as a prequel of sorts to the novel, showing the beleaguered mother a year or so before DARKSIDE opens and it sets the stage for elements that novel will exploit (e.g., she’s recently separated from her authoritative husband, struggling with the kids who are acting out because of that marriage’s break up, and in an early relationship with a weaker willed guy named Tom, who she does not know if she can really involve herself with completely), but it stands well on its own as a slice of life in a troubled family. The opening time is spent on the journey, car ride and occasional stop offs along the way to the facility. These moments show us the frazzled characters, the strained relations. Then, the latter portion of the story spends time on the facility grounds, a place where no record of Erin can be found, and a waiting game ensues while Cory and the facility’s personnel rectify the matter. Lori has an encounter on the grounds that builds to a non-supernatural but nevertheless shocking conclusion.
Horror in Etchison’s work is often found in his moody descriptions as well as the events that unfold and the psychological landscapes he develops. He does not build atmosphere, per se. Haunted locales besieged by shuddery thunderstorms are not his interest. Instead, dread materializes in Etchison’s work through momentary interpretations or revelations of the world these characters inhabit. These can and do drop when least expected, either as dusted over windows on the cars occupying a rest stop’s parking lot or in the finally revealed occupant of the driver’s seat a parked police car, or in the revelation of a racially motivated army storming a middle class neighborhood. However, horror from unexpected locales is not Etchison’s only writerly tool for disarming his readers. He invokes humor in the damnedest of places as well.
The titular story, “Talking in the Dark” is a piece that offers some of the most overtly comedic beats. A fan of an author sends a letter offering to buy the author a beer if he would stop by whenever in the area. He’s not only a fan but a writer as well, laboring on a single story to get it “just right.” When he has the chance to meet the horror author who inspires him, the protagonist learns that the dreams we build up around people we have read but never met are nothing more than fantasies. The reality can be disappointing or downright dangerous. As the story moves through several months of waiting to its meet up and then speeds along to its grimdark conclusion, it offers up plenty of humorous jabs at aspiring writers, at published ones, and at the sorts of folks who can relate more to books than to the flirty waitress at their local diner . . . The dialogue is not necessarily laugh a minute ala Donald E. Westlake, but there are a few zingers along the way to the story’s ultimately chilling conclusion, and some trenchant observations that brought an amused grin to my mug. He might not be the literary inheritor of Robert Bloch’s masterful blend of humor and horror, but Etchison’s work can stand comfortably alongside Bloch’s.
The stories Etchison includes in TALKING IN THE DARK are each gems taken on an individual level. Some sparkle in ways that appeal to a meat and potatoes genre fan more than others, of course, while others will appeal more to the literary crowd. Etchison’s stands with his feet comfortably position in both of these worlds, and giving oneself over to the reading of the stories is an engaging, thrilling, and dare I say it enjoyable experience.
It is unfortunate that Etchison is no longer with us, having passed away last month. However, it is more of a crime that his exceptional stories did not find more collections and outlets than they did. TALKING IN THE DARK appeared almost two decades ago, and since then Etchison’s name has been connected to an anthology or two and a couple of collections that offered more reprints than new material (one of which was announced almost a decade before it actually saw publication). However, Etchison did not drop off the map completely. He was connected to other projects, including a multi-volume set of reinventions of Twilight Zone episodes for the radio-show style market. So, he was still doing his Etchison thing, scripting and creating, but the straight up fiction (short or long) seems to have slipped to the wayside. What we have are treats, make no mistake, but I wish we had more.
TALKING IN THE DARK is available in an eBook edition. Artifact editions are still available, though often pricey.
Now for a little heads up about coming weeks:
Next week, we will return to the Considering Westlake series with the tabloid journalism novel TRUST ME ON THIS. If you’re interested in checking it out, you can grab a copy of the eBook edition. No new paper copies are available, though artifact editions can be found in various secondary or tertiary outlets. I actually grabbed a copy from the shelves of a local Good Will, believe it or not. Not quite sure yet which one will get the next slot and the one the week after.
After that, we will check in with Paul Tremblay’s newest collection, GROWING THINGS (available in eBook/hardcover/audiobook). This will be followed by a look at the newest Mira Grant novella from Subterranean Press, IN THE SHADOW OF SPINDRIFT HOUSE (eBook/hardcover), and then we will check out the finale to Donald E. Westlake’s Sam Holt series (paperback).
Fear not, Etchison readers. I may have talked myself into check in with the author’s second novel, SHADOWMAN. However, a reread and review of that won’t be appearing for a few weeks (obviously). If you cannot wait, grab a copy of the eBook or one of the old Dell Abyss paperbacks.
Etchison, Dennis. TALKING IN THE DARK. Stealth Press: 2001.
“Words Like Violence Break the Silence: Dennis Etchison’s Talking In the Dark” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover art taken from the Stealth Press edition (it’s J.K. Potter, man! One of the greats!).