an interview with Dennis Etchison
by David Mathew
"Rather dark, depressing, almost pathologically inward fiction about the individual in relation to the world..."
Chainsmoking his way through a packet of cigarettes, Dennis Etchison is explaining the distinctive features of his fiction. We're in East London, during one of Etchison's visits over from America. He continues:
"I was an only child and I grew up probably less well socialised than most people, with their brothers and sisters in the house. The first couple of years of my life, my father and all the men in the family were away in the war. I was raised by women - very spoiled. But at the same time I was more isolated from other children. You don't realise, when you're living through that, how not-normal it is. So my stories are about solitary individuals, trying to find a way to intersect with society. And I guess that's a metaphor for my life, for what I'm trying to do. The writing is just an encapsulated, melodramatized version of the conflicts I've had: trying to fit in. Any writer worth reading is going to talk about his own experience, even if he is writing fantasies...
"Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac wrote about themselves, but there are plenty of writers who would never give themselves away. You have no strong sense of who they are as people, and somehow they seem less interesting to me. The writers I feel the greatest love for in history, whether it's William Blake or Ray Bradbury, or Kenneth Patchen or Charles Bukowski, are writers who revealed the intense moments of their lives and the interior struggles they were going through. And offered it up in skilful fictional terms. I feel a closeness towards them; I don't know how else to put it. Even though you may never have met them, you feel a great loss when they die. It's not just that there won't be any more books or stories; it's because you have a sense that a beautiful soul has left the earth. Someone you felt kinship with, you know? The writers we have the highest regard for are the ones who revealed the most about themselves..."
Therefore, welcome to the Revelations According to Etchison. Few writers will reveal more about themselves than this man. After more than the obligatory few years of critical neglect, Dennis Etchison continued to be a whispered name for many years to follow. All the while he produced work that is now regarded as exemplary. He wins awards and high praise from other writers in the fields of the fantastique. Furthermore, I can verify that he is a wrestling fan, loves London, and can even interpret the map of the Underground with no problems. He once abandoned his car on the freeway when it died on him, and refused to drive anywhere for the following fifteen years. He spent time in the L.A. County Jail in the mid-1960s for failure to pay parking tickets, and out of boredom asked if anyone on the cell block had anything to read. For a small fee he was able to rent The Sterile Cuckoo, and was told by one of the other inmates: "It's got a lot of big words in it - but it's about fucking, I know."
But these are other stories...
Despite Etchison's reputation as a writer of horror fiction, there is clearly another line of fiction which converges with the first. It is fair to say that he has been influenced as well by some of the American Dirty Realist writers such as Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff...
"Yeah, that's fair. I began, for the first fifteen years of my career, with what little reputation I had in the science fiction field. I was in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy eight times; I was in Orbit; I was in New Writings in SF four times. I was in Fantastic Stories and other science fiction markets. Simultaneously I was publishing in slick magazines and some of the literary magazines. Eventually, with the horror boom that began with Stephen King, that field opened up many new markets and I found my work being accepted there. Since then my reputation has been in the horror field. My reading was always very wide. Probably my genre reading was in the minority. It seemed to me that there were literary values that were not being used by writers in the field. I try to bring those values to my writing. If you look at the anthologies I've edited, I think you'll see rather mainstream stories. It was always my intent to expand the boundaries of the genre rather than to define them more clearly. I wanted to break down the barriers between various kinds of literature. These distinctions are largely to serve the interests of publishers. Many people I know - intelligent, educated people - shudder when I offer them a book and say, 'Oh, I never read horror.' And I say, 'You don't know what you're missing. There're some really fine writers...' But in most cases they refuse to read it. If they were packaged simply as novels, as Peter Straub's The Hellfire Club is, you're going to reach a much broader audience; and many people who wouldn't have looked at the book if it had a peeled eyeball on the cover will now pick it up. I'm pleased that in the States Ramsey Campbell's last couple of books were printed without the word 'Horror' on the cover. As I said in the introduction to Cutting Edge, the genre offers a safe harbour for people who could not find acceptance elsewhere, but it also limits the number of readers you can have. I see no advantage for a writer of talent and skill to be published exclusively within the confines of a genre."
Dennis Etchison returns to science fiction themes on occasion: in 'The Dead Line', for example, and its notion of organ transplants, which has an opening line that Ramsey Campbell referred to as the most chilling line in horror fiction, to paraphrase... "That came from an article in Harper's Magazine in 1974 by Dr Willard Gaylin, who speculated that in a few years there might be organ farms and bio-emporiums, where people would go to buy replacement body parts. And that human beings might be kept alive in a vegatative state to provide material for transplants. It was such a powerful article, I acknowledged it in a footnote. I particularly wanted to say thank you for the use of the word 'bio-emporium', which I couldn't improve upon. It was such a powerful and disturbing notion that I thought about if for about eight years before I was able to face writing the story. It was so unpleasant to write about. It was dramatized on the stage in L.A. three or four years ago..." (Etchison did not adapt the piece himself.) "...I invited a number of friends to come and see it, including Ray Bradbury. It was an evening of short plays and that story was the first. They also did Kim Newman's 'The Man Who Collected Barker', Sturgeon's 'The Graveyard Reader' and a couple of other stories - a wonderful evening. But my friend Bradbury left after 'The Dead Line'. He said the script was fine, the acting was fine, but he had an aunt who was dying and he just couldn't take it. But it seemed important for me to confront it without blinking - and see where we're headed. That, after all, is the nature of science fiction: the cautionary look at the future. If this goes on, then this is where we might end up. For good or for bad."
Part of Etchison's reputation is for being able to sustain a novel with the energy of a short story. "I go at it as hard as I possibly can. I usually begin by reading the novel from line one again, every morning. Bradbury says not to do that. He always begins writing each morning without looking at what he did the day before. I have to go back and build up the momentum. It also gives me a consistency of tone so the whole thing has the same feeling. It has a skin around it... If you try to write a novel with the same intensity of language that a short story employs, it's exhausting for the reader. So there have to be passages where things relax a bit. Generally, these novels of mine are written with a great concentrated attention to language. And that comes from my training as a short story writer. A great many novels I pick up are written in an offhand style that seems to be no style at all. They're accessible, they're easy to get into - but that's not the way I write... I revise as I go along. If I go for three or four days and get practically nothing done and feel that I've hit a brick wall, I've learnt now that's my unconscious telling me I've taken a wrong turn. I may have to go back and throw out several pages. I have a notebook of discarded fragments and may one day write a brand new story based on work that I've thrown out."
Who are his current inspirations?
"I'm inspired by a British scientist and writer named Sheldrake, who wrote The Presence of the Past. He puts forward a theory of morphic resonance, which is essentially the idea that nature has memory. That is what is missing from Darwin's explanation of evolution. If Sheldrake is correct, his books will prove to be the most important non-fiction books of the twentieth century. He has redone Darwin. But the most interesting mind in the world that I'm aware of is the American Terence McKenna, who writes about ethno-botany, shamanology, philosophy, and is an all-round eclectic head. His focus of interest stems (if you like) from the psilocybin mushroom. Incidentally, there was an interview I did here when Shadowman was being released in the Raven edition, in which I said that after Shadowman was published I went back and reread it and was struck to find there was a recurring motif in the book that I had not been aware of, and it was mushroom imagery. It seemed to me later that the book had been about psilocybin mushrooms, although I wasn't aware of that at the time. When that interview came out in a magazine here the phrase 'psilocybin mushrooms' was written as 'suicide-by mushrooms'!
"Watson and Crick, who discovered the twin helix of DNA, suggested there might be life forms on this earth that drifted here from elsewhere, and that the likely candidate would be fungi spores since they can live in a vacuum. The experience of ingesting these mushrooms seems to be that of encountering an entirely alien intelligence. Something that has its own geometry and vocabulary. We may be entering a consciousness that is not of this earth when we ingest them... Now, will you be writing 'Californian Writer Has Delusions of Communicating with Aliens?'"
I remark that Whitley Strieber did the same thing in Communion and ended up making money, so perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad idea.
Etchison replied, "I know Whitley and I think he's telling the truth as he knows it. The book Communion - whether you believe it's a fantasy or something that truly happened, a human being's encounter with aliens - has a peculiar gripping power to it. And he's talking about an archetypal experience. It goes back to the Old Hag story in Finnish mythology, perhaps thousands of years. The experience of waking up in the middle of the night in the dark in your bedroom and having a conviction that there's someone else there - someone who doesn't belong. If Whitley's book was a hoax, why would he have done that? He was making large amounts of money writing horror novels and when he began his Communion phase, he was criticized resoundingly and the price of his novels went down in the marketplace... I once stood on a street corner in New York and asked Whitley, 'If I had been standing next to you in the cabin when those things happened to you, would I have seen what you saw?' He did not give me a glib answer; he thought about it for about sixty seconds and then said, 'I don't know.' Not: 'Of course, Dennis...' Whitley claims that he has never been high, and he doesn't drink. He took and passed lie-detector tests... McKenna's view is that Whitley was so thrown by the event because he has never been loaded. Terence says he's seen the little green men hundreds of time, and every time they come into his room he has a conversation with them. But Whitley certainly doesn't look at it humorously. Phil Dick once said that there's no way to know in any ultimate sense if an hallucination is true or not. Your brainwaves are being stimulated, just as if you are looking at something. There's no external, objective way of establishing the matter. All you can say is that other people did not see the same things you did..."
The conversation turns to California. Etchison writes about California, where he lives, but he believes that he would have ended up writing regardless of where he lived.
"Every writer reflects his own life experiences; mine just happen to be there. The only differences would be in the specifics. I look out of the window and write about what I see. And I try to find some core of meaning in it that will apply beyond California. I've been gratified to find that British readers have nominated my stories several times over the years for the British Fantasy Award. To them, the Californian landscape that I'm describing must seem very alien. In fact, the stories that won were realistic stories - not fantasies. I wondered if the British readers thought I had a terrific imagination for creating this colourful world. Little did they know I was only describing things as they are, particularly in Mexico which is just below the border with California. To drive down over the border - suddenly you're in another country, a very colourful and bizarre country. Maybe the readers thought I was making it all up!"
What is it about California that he finds so fascinating?
"I'm in sync with its rhythms, and if there are magnetic fields around certain places in the world then I'm part of that, or the biosphere that surrounds the area. To me, it's the centre of the universe and the mark of normalcy - which will get laughs from readers elsewhere. Have you seen The Last Temptation of Christ? Here you have these Biblical figures, Judas and Jesus and the others, talking with distinctly New York accents. Judas is saying, 'Hey! Jesus! What the hell is all this? Wha' ya doin'?' I love the film, but that was jarring to me. But to Scorcese's ear I'm sure it sounded normal - he's a New Yorker from Little Italy in Manhattan. I'm sure he was unaware of how stylised it sounded to the rest of us. To my ears, I don't have any accent at all..."
Dennis Etchison has been asked several times to write something set in England, but it has never quite panned out. "I've been afraid to do it, because even though this is my eleventh trip, I don't really feel qualified to speak much about London except for tiny pockets of it that I know pretty well. The locals would read my descriptions and laugh because I'm so uninformed. If you were to go to L.A. for a couple of days and then fly out and try to write the definitive L.A. novel, readers who know L.A. would find it ludicrous. You don't understand the connections; the whys and wherefores of it. So I wouldn't presume to do it. There was a round-robin story in Time Out magazine where I had to write a piece picking up a route on a map, covering certain predetermined areas of London. And I wrote my piece to coincide with those streets. Then, when they published it, the editors decided to change the locations so that what I was writing didn't fit in with the rest of the geography of the other pieces, and it didn't make sense. That was the only foray I made into writing about London. I'd love to be able to write an intense novel about an American in London but I don't feel that I know it well enough."
In several of Etchison's books - in Darkside more than most - the religious cult is regarded as a dangerous force. Most people would agree with his verdict, but what draws him back to the subject of cults?
"Well, you see a lot of it because of this millennial fever that we're going through. There are fundamentalist religious organisations that believe the battle of Armageddon is imminent. According to McKenna's findings, the year 2012 will be the end of history as we know it. He doesn't necessarily see it as apocalyptic, but rather as moving on to another stage. So I'm determined to stay alive until that date to see what happens. The cult business? Every kook sets up his own religion or therapy group in California! That's not unusual. It's just that I see so much of it. In Darkside, and to an extent in Calfornia Gothic, I was concerned with what had happened to my generation. I have the feeling there are millions of people my age who were bright, college-educated, full of promise - now no longer visible on the landscape. Many of them are driving taxi-cabs and washing dishes and are completely out of sight. It's as if the skills they were prepared for with the idealism of the '60s were unable to be absorbed by our society. In those books I postulated that some of them had dropped out and created a cult of their own around psychedelic mushrooms. It's also a matter of homelessness. You see so many homeless in L.A. because the weather is so good. They can sleep on the beach in the wintertime; they don't have to worry about freezing to death. It's as far west as you can go in the old pioneer spirit of finding your destiny. One wonders what bright and promising people are among the homeless in L.A."
What is Etchison's average working day?
"I get up early and start to work. I write for several hours - before life intervenes. You have to go out to the market or the post office; take care of business. In terms of the length it takes to write a book, I did the movie novelisations in around six weeks each. Double Edge, which is published here by Pumpkin Books, was written in seven weeks. On the other hand, I've spent a year and a half or two years on books. Sometimes you set it aside and work on other things for a while... Barry Malzberg wrote some books in 72 hours. I'm a very fast one-finger typist. In the last couple of years I've been working on the computer, which has many advantages and disadvantages. It solves the mechanical difficulties of having to retype manuscripts: it's hugely labour-saving in that regard, but it affects the quality of the prose and mitigates against extensive revisions because what you write comes out looking so perfect on the page - or the screen - as it is. Peter Straub disagrees with me. He claims that the computer causes him to revise much more than he ever did before. I always revised hugely. If you look at the file folders for some of my short stories, they're a couple hundred pages long, full of typed drafts. I would mark up each draft every time I went through it so that there were so many marks on the page I couldn't read it anymore. Then I had to retype the page - to clarify it. The stories would go through at least four to six separate drafts on the typewriter. There's no way to measure how many times a short story or novel is revised now that I work on the computer, but they're revised constantly and fanatically. Combing it with a ever-finer-toothed comb until it looks perfect. To my eye."
We talk about his struggle for literary attention before the field opened its arms. Did he ever feel that it might be better to give it all up?
"I'm still thinking about it! I was a Theatre Arts major. Half the time English and half the time Theatre Arts. And when you work in front of an audience you can hear and feel the response immediately. You know when something is going over; you can adjust it for the next performance. But when you're writing, it's not even going to be published until months, or years, hence. And then what sort of reaction are you going to get? A few letters will filter through. And unless you actually go to conventions or book signings and meet the few people who read your books, you're not going to know how they're received. You have to distance yourself from the critics. If you believe either the good or the bad reviews you're in trouble. It's easy to dismiss ignorant reviews by people who didn't understand what you were doing. I don't mind if they disliked what I was doing, but I would like to feel they understood what I was trying to accomplish. But half the time you get reviews from people who don't have a clue what you were writing about. So you disregard them. You say, What an asshole. But if you do that, you have to be willing to disregard the favourable reviews. And it's hard for your ego to do that because anybody who praises your work, you think, Wow, they must really understand. But they may not have understood either...
"I know a short story or a book that I've written much better than anybody else in the world. I've read it a hundred times. And just because it's published doesn't mean I think it's perfect. You don't write in a vaccum. You write on a schedule, professionally, and something may be published that I know is flawed. I understand the weaknesses of the work better than anybody else. I could give you an annotated version of one of my stories that would point out not only the references and the origins of the lines and thoughts, but what I was trying to do - what I wished there were more of, what I now think there's too much of. After you've written it and set it aside, you can come back to it and you see it in a different light. So I now look back at any story of mine more than a couple of years old and it does not look good to me. I could go through it and make it better, but I don't do that. It represents the best I could do at that time, under those circumstances, and it's representative of the person I was. I am embarrassed by some of the early stories, which continue to come back in reprint anthologies around the world. It's nice to be paid for work I did in my teens! But I can look at it as if someone else had written them and say, 'My God! Is he aware of how these words look on the page?' I have a more acute sense of style than I did then; a better understanding of myself and human relationships. Two years from now I'll look back at the present stories and be appalled. But it's like life: what you do is the best you can do on that day. You have to finish your job at the end of the day and say, given the circumstances, this was the best that I could do. But tomorrow's a new day. I can try to do better."
Over the years he has won quite a few literary awards, but he is subdued on the subject of their worth.
"Awards are a wonderful reassurance, but you cannot take them too seriously. If you look back at the history of awards in this field, you will see quite a few writers and works which, in retrospect, you feel didn't really deserve the attention." He is understandably reluctant to name names at this point... "How could I look those people in the eye again? But how can you be sure that you as an artist are entitled to an award? All it means is, some people liked it, and you thank those people."
I ask him if he believes his work has changed since he got married.
"I used to be accused of being misogynistic in my fiction. I never saw it that way, but a number of people read my stories and thought I had a problem with women. I wasn't conscious of that. I'm more conscious now of trying not to sound misogynistic in my fiction, because I have a wife who's going to read them. To describe an unpleasant human being who happens to be female and to describe her type realistically is, I think, not misogynistic. It's simply realistic writing. I describe a number of unpleasant human males in my stories but I'm not anti-male. I don't think I have any more bad women than bad men in my stories. People who have a hyper-sensitivity for that subject point out my so-called bitterness towards women. I have the highest regard for women. They are superior to men: physically, mentally and emotionally. If I looked down on women, why would I want one to live in my house with me? You can't generalise or universalise about a gender, or any group. My wife is a distinct individual and she does not represent all women - and I certainly don't represent all men. I've tried to avoid writing about her in particular; I don't feel comfortable doing that. But other women I've known have appeared in my fiction in various guises. Not to get even with them, simply because since I have known them I have insight into the way they thought."
Earlier on in his career, Etchison wrote several novelisations, and I wondered how these came about.
"I did The Fog was because I was a fan of John Carpenter. When it was offered to me by Bantam Books, I really couldn't resist the opportunity to meet with him. I liked him immediately. I handed him a copy of a story of mine that had just been published called 'White Moon Rising'. His eyes got large and he said, 'I've just written a script called Black Moon Rising.' So we immediately hit it off. It was a good experience. He and his producer came back to me for Halloween II and Halloween III, which I wasn't as keen on since John wasn't directing, but at the time we were talking about my writing a script for Halloween IV, which I ended up doing - not the script that was filmed. John sold his interest in the title 'Halloween' to his partners, and they ended up using other screen writers... Then, when the opportunity came to work with David Cronenburg, I couldn't turn that down either: the novelisation of Videodrome. I had the highest regard for Cronenburg. I was able to go to Toronto to meet with him, to read different drafts of the script, watch the film at various stages of editing. It was fascinating - too much so to turn down. I'm a huge movie fan."
His latest novel, Double Edge, would make a good film, and indeed was inspired by one, at least in part. Double Edge explores the infamous Lizzie Borden case. (Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered with an axe near the end of the nineteenth century; although there is evidence to suggest that their youngest daughter, Lizzie, perpetrated the crime, it remains unsolved because there is other evidence to suggest that she could not have conducted these murders.)
"I had always been fascinated with that case. There was an American television film for ABC called The Legend of Lizzie Borden, starring Elizabeth Montgomery. It was written by William Bast and I had been familiar with the case before that, but the film (directed by Paul Wendkos) was so exceptional that I began to read whatever I could find. A few years ago, Robert Bloch, who was a good friend, loaned me a couple of books. I found that every author had a different solution to the murders. And all the theories were convincingly argued. I set out to write a new novel, and since it was something I already knew so much about, I didn't have to do any additional research. I decided to put forward a theory that, to my knowledge, no other author on the subject has suggested: that there were... Well, if I say it, that will give away the book! It's fascinating because it's an unsolvable case. I could make a convincing argument for any of several characters being the killer. You can now stay in that house as a Bed-and-Breakfast, by the way. They've restored the original wallpaper, the original furniture. I would love to go there and spend time in that house. I have a feeling I would get a sense there of what might have happened. I'm a very visually oriented person, and the idea of standing there seeing the yard - I think I would have a clearer idea of what happened." And then he could claim the trip as a business expense... "Well, absolutely! I know that the last questions I had about the JFK case, which I investigated for 13 years, remained unanswered until I actually went to Dallas, and then I saw the last piece of the puzzle. Because of the way the buildings were laid out, it was very clear to me."
What purposes does he think horror and fantasy serve?
"It does seem to be the appropriate form for contemporary fiction, since what we're living in seems increasingly irreal. Through my eyes, things look stranger every day. So if I describe these things realistically, it's going to look like magic realism. You have to hunt for the universal truth at the core of it that will be meaningful to others. The only thing I can write about is how things seem to me. And whether or not others will find it interesting is out of my control. Steve King, for example, happens to have a view that a lot of people can identify with. He has something in common with a large number of people so they understand exactly where he's coming from. But I don't think he set out calculatedly to write in a certain way. If I set out with a point of view calculated to appeal, you would detect the falseness. The reader can tell when you're not being honest."
In an attempt to reach the central truth of a story, Dennis Etchison has abandoned several tales because they have proved to be too difficult to finish. "Sometimes you put them aside for a while; more often what happens is that you end up exploding it outward from the centre. You turn it into something different. I could show you stories where originally they were going to go in an entirely different direction. When I was writing Shadowman I had it planned all along that the murderer was someone different. But when I got to that point, I realised there was a better, more interesting way to tell the story. Writing is all about trying to find the heart of the story and articulate it, and it may or may not be what I had originally planned. But you have to be open and conscious enough to see what it really is. If you hold it too close to your pre-planned notion, it may not end up reading true. That's the problem with writing for Hollywood. You have to do outlines which are discussed and torn apart endlessly by others. But when you get into the writing you may discover much more interesting scenes and directions, but you don't know that when you start. It's like trying to plan a date in advance. 'As I help her on with the coat, that's when I'll try to kiss her...' But it doesn't ever quite work out that way. You have to live the moment and respond to it honestly. That's very much what writing is."
Dennis Etchison and I took a bus from the house in which he was staying to the train station. He thought I was terribly generous to pay his 50 pence fare, which I assured him was on Interzone. He was off to the West End to meet his wife and some friends, and I was travelling home to Bedfordshire. I found Dennis to be a warm and giving individual, with no prissiness or falseness; more a feeling of gratitude to be working in a job he enjoys and a general contentment with the world. His work is bleak and raw, but his temperament on the day of our meeting was sunny, cheerful, and above all, truthful.
Elsewhere in infinity
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