WE ALL GO INTO THE DARK: DENNIS ETCHISON’S SHADOWMAN

IMG_0138Dennis Etchison’s second novel did not appear for seven years after his first novel DARKSIDE (reviewed here). The author’s sophomore work hit shelves in 1993 as part of the Dell Abyss line, an imprint dedicated to transgressive, unusual, non-formulaic horror fiction, which did not require Indian burial grounds, spooky teens, or traditional haunted houses. Etchison’s general writing style seems a good fit to that publishing paradigm. On the surface level, SHADOWMAN tackles the topic of child disappearances, which might not seem a particularly novel topic; however, the emotional torrents churning beneath the surface are the same currents of rage and pathos that fueled Melanie Tem’s earlier Abyss title and Bram Stoker Award winner for First Novel, PRODIGAL.

SHADOWMAN returns to his series character, Martin (aka John “Jack” Martin), who appeared in several of the author’s short stories, including the World Fantasy Award winning “The Dark Country.” That name also appeared on the covers of the novelizations for VIDEODROME and two HALLOWEEN sequels Etchison penned in the early eighties.

This time, Martin finds himself grappling with divorce, dealing with a career that seems to be failing him (or which he himself is failing), and heavy doses of guilt for the root cause of his divorce and every parent’s worst nightmare:

“I had a little girl. She was eighteen months old, One day I gave her a bath. I left the room for a minute, and when I came back she had fallen down in the water and drowned, that was that. Lee never forgave me.” (101)

He is the one to find a body caught in weeds on the beach near his ex-wife’s house. The corpse is gone from the waist down, suffering from exposure to the ocean and mutilated by bites. It’s the inciting incident for Martin’s involvement with the rest of the story, and it’s definitely a shocking moment.

However, Martin is not the only character of note here. His ex-wife Leanne (aka “Lee”) plays a role. Martin’s pal and flatmate Will plays a role. A child services woman by the name of Lissa has a big role in the proceedings. Four boys “who could not wait” (28) get to serve as explorers in the plot. A homeless kid by the name of Chris serves as the focus for all these disparate characters, the point of similarity drawing these people into the storyline. Not all the characters come into direct contact with one another, but they all arrive on similar trails of inquiry.

Chris, as it turns out, is also the point of contact for the novel’s titular antagonist. There seems to be a powerful presence at work behind the scenes of tourist-friendly Shadow Bay, California. The kids know him by legend, and they have a few names for him: The Man With No Face, The Shadowman, or The Man Who Lives In the Castle. His is a strange presence that preys on kids, spiriting them away. The lucky few that are found are all in terrible shape. Others vanish completely.

Ruthie sat up, her face as neutral as a sleepwalker’s. “He finds you when you play out at nighttime,” she said calmly. “He takes you to the castle. He locks the door, and then he takes you up in the mountains and buries you in the ground. And you can’t get out. And nobody can find you. Never. He did that to my friend. I saw him.” (262).

As to his particular nature, it is difficult to say. According to the kids he is a nearly-supernatural boogeyman, capable of terrifying feats. But those are just children’s fearful exaggerations, right?

As readers familiar with my review of the Jack Martin stories collected in Etchison’s 2001 career retrospective TALKING IN THE DARK might recall, Martin often brushes up against possibly supernatural encounters but seldom sees them as such. The paranormal is always well hidden in his particular tales, and that is the case here. Is the weird child killer human or not? It is almost impossible to say for certain in the opening portions of the novel. Even through the conclusion, the antagonist seems to operate like some kind of inhuman slasher, a Michael Meyers figure who can move where he wishes, kill whomever and whatever he likes, and seems all but unstoppable. Unlike Myers or most slashers, however, this antagonist does not always work alone. He is a gopher in some ways, a servant or servitor, and although his identity gets revealed at one point it does not fit well. That revelation is more like an unmasking, though it still seems like the identity is merely one more mask worn by some kind of a force of nature. As a reader, I enjoy this ambiguity.

Although the book was originally published as part of the Dell Abyss horror line, which featured Kathe Koja’s visceral horrors, Brian Hodge’s playful ones, and Poppy Z. Brite’s amoral bloodsuckers and gothic works, SHADOWMAN often feels like the odd book out of the line. The subtitle, which appears only on the title page and nowhere on the cover of the book, holds a clue to its intent. This is “A Novel of Menace” and it certainly is that.

The book unfolds with the pace of a leisurely literary novel. There is no speedy rush towards typical horror sequences or atmospheric scenes. Once it reaches the finale, however, Etchison maintains a breathless pace as his various groups of characters strive, often fail and sometimes achieve Pyrrhic victories in their individual missions. The book is nevertheless fraught with misunderstandings, oversights, lapses in judgment and low evils. There are a few passages that evoke the sort of frisson that horror is associated with, per se. SHADOWMAN is not a shocker in the style of the penny dreadful horror paperbacks that populated racks in the 1980s, it’s not a reassuring story, and it’s not a thrills a minute work in the mold of Stephen King. Instead, this is a work that revels in establishing the mood of unease throughout. Its horrors are more subtle and subversive. As I mentioned before, there are a few nods toward the serial killer/supernatural slasher genre as well as the ticking clock of a child-in-peril thriller—these two genres fueled DARKSIDE, in fact. However, it is not a book that rewards all expectations for either of these genres.

Etchison’s lyrical descriptions are as moody as any found in his short works. He was never a man interested in maintaining atmosphere, per se, but his prose is brilliant at achieving mood. Take his description in the opening chapter of the book’s first section “The Red Tide”.

The late afternoon sun knifed across through the windshield. It cut across the surface of the ocean at the end of the street like a blade angled low over the water, slashing rooftops, stabbing the windows of houses and parked cars, impaling everything in its path. Martin’s eyes burned. He lowered the visor and leaned back against the headrest, but it was no use. He could not get away. (5)

A conscious choice of wording establishes the feel of a mean sunset as well as foreshadows some of the evils to come. I did mention this was a sort-of-slasher book, no? Check out all the cutting, slashing, bladed terminology in that single paragraph.

However, just as with DARKSIDE, SHADOWMAN allows the author time to indulge a little bit of observational philosophy, this time tackling the topic of how the emotion of horror can move through degenerative stages in one of its victims:

There are varieties of fear.

The first is unease, a sense that all may not be as it appears. This is the feeling you have when you know something is wrong but you don’t know what it is yet.

Then there is anxiety, a warning that it might be better not to know what is out here. This is the one that makes you call in sick instead of going to work, with no excuse that anyone would understand.

Next comes the apprehension that wakes you in the night and says, For God’s sake don’t turn on the light! It breathes on your neck in the dark and you know it has to be more than your imagination, because something is there.

Finally there is the panic that means someone is about to break your door down and there is nothing you can do about it. This is a primitive reaction that leaves you beating your chest and howling at the moon, ready to kill or be killed, and by then it is too late for any kind of reason.

But stronger than any of these is what the rabbit feels an instant before the club falls: total systemic shutdown, with respiration suspended and heart stopped, a simulation of death that is the only chance for survival. It is a kind of death in life, past instinct or reflex, thought or desire. Beyond it there is nothing but the void. (136-137)

This is Etchison as clever observer, giving us a view into a character’s descent through those stages. It also clues us in Etchison’s overall intent. SHADOWMAN easily establishes the first and second varieties of fear. As for the rest, well, again YMMV. I seldom got to the third variety with this work, though his other fiction has taken me much further along this particular fear spectrum . . .

As I have alluded to already, Etchison’s second novel plays with a lot of the same things he was doing in his first both in terms of thematic material as well as settings/sequences. DARKSIDE also tackled the topic of a threat to teens/kids. It took to task the lack of a supportive counterculture scene, which this novel also involves—where the previous book’s broken peace sign symbol showed up on a punk club, basically calling attention to a culture retaliating against peace and love, SHADOWMAN creates a commune out on the garbage heap, an overt attempt to escape society. Whereas DARKSIDE’s counterculture was tied directly with the disappearances of several teens, particularly through the guise of that group’s strange leader, this counterculture group is perhaps more benign. They are not directly involved in horrific pasttimes per se, they merely tolerate the antagonist’s presence when he passes through. This group turns a blind eye to the Shadowman and his young victims mostly because they are incapable of standing against him.

In addition to subtle references to DARKSIDE, SHADOWMAN also incorporates elements from several of Etchison’s short stories. Of course, there are tangential asides to a couple of the Martin stories—in particular, the director Martin mentioned adoring in the piece “The Spot”. However, I noticed references to other, unrelated to Martin tales as well, including “We Have All Been Here Before,” a tale involving an unnamed police chief and his immoral psychic advisor. That particular story ends with a premonition (or possible postcognition) showing the all too real psychic a mighty flood that sends bodies tumbling down out of the hills. This finds an uncanny echo here. The police chief from that story might well make an appearance here, as well. In my imagination, that story is a sort-of-prequel to this novel.

Also, SHADOWMAN’s four boys have echoes of the protagonists from “Daughter of the Golden West”, though they won’t grow up to be the lads from that particular tale. That story involved a couple of lads looking into the disappearance of one of their number, a storyline which SHADOWMAN also incorporates almost whole cloth (though with a rather different climax and conclusion). Now that STRANGER THINGS is dominating the horror genre zeitgeist, there are certain expectations for a pack of kids plumbing the mysterious. Those expectations are bound to leave new readers of SHADOWMAN shaken. I suppose the same could be said, at the time, for readers of either Stephen King’s IT or Gary A Braunbeck’s fiction.

Speaking of Braunbeck. This novel would serve as an intriguing bookend read with his less supernatural thriller PRODIGAL BLUES. Both novels tackle the difficult topic of children in peril and adult responsibilities to the terror-struck (quite a bit of Braunbeck’s fiction is driven by this theme). The two novels are not clones of one another, they both reveal their individual author’s passions, interests, and (dare I suggest) obsessions. However, the two books form a kind of literary dialogue with one another.

And on that note . . .

Etchison is a master of description; unfortunately, his dialogue is not quite to my taste here. For me, it is SHADOWMAN’s biggest weakness. I can tolerate the novel’s occasional excursions into unrelated sequences. For example, a trip to the movies sends one of the investigating kids into the wrong theater to have a brief encounter with a perv, which feels out of place. By the end of the book, it’s shown to be a weird foreshadowing or clue, but it’s awkwardly executed. Kind of like one of the brief excursions Italian horror films and giallos from the 1970s/1980s would throw in to keep audiences off balance. It’s an odd choice, but I can appreciate it in the spirit it was intended—the world in Etchison’s novels is one where kids are under constant danger from predators, and they must become a kind of predator themselves to survive it. However, the dialogue is a bit flatter than I typically enjoy. I suspect this is also on purpose, lending a layer of the mundane to these characters and the world they occupy. However, when it is at its best it is ignorable; at its worst, it reads like a television script, needing some decent actors to lend it heart.

When first published, SHADOWMAN featured a blurb from none other than Peter Straub, who described the book as “fat-free horror, horror without sugar, without maps, without easy transitions or resolutions.” He goes on to refer to it as “a subversive book in any context, but in the safe, imitative world of contemporary horror, it is a kind of terrorist raid.” (ii) The book is certainly one designed to evoke unease, it does not pay off horror fans looking for an easy meat-and-potatoes sort of horror tale (would that be red-meat-and-BOOtatoes?). However, it’s certainly got style to spare, some fascinating things to say, and it kept me turning the pages. I suspect Etchison will long be remembered for his short fiction, since those tales invoke all of his strengths to best effect: description, unease, a penchant for the weird and surreal. His novels are a bit of an acquired taste, using the same toolset on a longer scale is a bit of a challenge to like. However, my visit to his longer works (or revisit, in this novel’s case) have shown me he nevertheless displays some talent for novels. While that talent could have been refined over time, he chose instead to invest his considerable skills and talent in other areas. We have a handful of books, almost as many novelizations as original novels, and while they are not quite the cut jewels that his shorter pieces are, they nevertheless have something to say and know how to say it.

SHADOWMAN, for its occasionally weak dialogue, is a moody exercise, evoking menace in ways other paperback originals at the time did not. These days, it is a fair read punctuated by moments of dark brilliance.

#

Dennis Etchison’s second novel is available in an eBook edition, these days. Artifact edition copies of the Dell Abyss paperback are still around if you look.

Next up, we will return to our Donald E. Westlake reading series with the fourth and final volume in his series about actor-turned-amateur-sleuth, Sam Holt. THE FOURTH DIMENSION IS DEATH finds Sam enduring the aforementioned stages of fear when his doppelganger is murdered and he becomes a suspect in the crime . . . Felony & Mayhem paperbacks are available, but there are no eBooks.

WORKS CITED

Etchison, Dennis. SHADOWMAN. Dell: 1993.

“We All Go Into the Dark: Dennis Etchison’s Shadowman” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image and quotes taken from the Dell books paperback first edition.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s