In The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986), editor Jack Sullivan briefly sums up Dennis Etchison's career:
Although he has only published two collections of stories, Etchison's magazine contributions over the past twenty-five years mark him as the most original living honor writer in America. In both subject matter and style, he has forged a contemporary horror milieu as new and daring as the film nightmares of David CRONENBERG. Etchison's lonely highways, ncon-lit twenty-four-hour stores, bleak hospital wards, tacky shopping malls, and hauntingly interchangeable stretches of suburbia hold hidden horrors—both material and supernatural—for his restless, alienated characters. His jerky, spaced-out sentences, with their California sound, arc the perfect language for stories such as "The Night Shift'' (1980), in which the insomniacs and "messed-up" people who work night-owl shifts really are zombies, and "They Only Come Out at Night" (1976), the story of a haunted highway rest stop that is one of the most terrifying horror talcs of the 1970s.
Most writers arc either in the LOVECRAFT school of head-on explicitness or the LE EANU school of subtlety, but Etchison suspends the rules and has it both ways.
I have touched on several Etchison stories in writing about installments of Karl Edward Wagner's The Year's Best Horror Stories anthologies:
Like Charles L. Gant, Dennis Etchison is not a writer to fool around with while we grapple with our own emotional problems. His protagonists have a terrible record as exemplars in such situations.
The TV reporter was saying something about ritual mutilations of the homeless in the tunnels under Glendale and Atwater, when he noticed an item at the top of page four. A body had been found in a bedroom in another part of the city, the victim of an apparent burglary attempt. He did not recognize the person's name, nor was the scene of the crime anywhere near this neighborhood. Yet something about the story held his attention.
It took him a minute to figure it out.
Today, in the park, the voice on the other end of the line had said an address. Another number first, a code of some kind, then a street and house number.
It was the address in the newspaper. The same. He was sure.
Moral: never answer a ringing pay phone in the park. It may be for you.
* * *
Etchison was a writer's writer, and found promising material in the quotidian. "Deathtracks" is about the carnage and cost of the Vietnam War. It does not leave the living room of a dead soldier's parents.
...."It was a long time ago. He—our son—was the last American boy to be killed in Vietnam."
It was four minutes to six and he didn't know what to say.
"When it happened, we didn't know what to think," said Mrs. Morrison. "We talked to people like us. Mostly they wanted to pretend it never happened."
"They didn't understand, either," said Mr. Morrison.
"So we read everything. The magazines, books. We listened to the news commentators. It was terribly confusing. We finally decided even they didn't know any more than we did about what went on over there, or why."
"What was it to them? Another story for The Six O'Clock News, right, Jenny?"
Mrs. Morrison drew a deep, pained breath. Her eyes fluttered as she spoke, the television screen at her back lost in a grainy storm of deep blue snow.
"Finally the day came for me to clear David's room . . ."
"Please," said the young man, "you don't have to explain."
But she went ahead with it, a story she had gone over so many times she might have been recalling another life. Her eyes opened. They were dry and startlingly clear.
It was three minutes to six.
"I started packing David's belongings. Then it occurred to us that he might have known the reason. So we went through his papers and so forth, even his record albums, searching. So much of it seemed strange, in another language, practically from another planet. But we trusted that the answer would be revealed to us in time."
* * *
Few horror-reading pleasures can compare to the excruciating humiliations and misunderstandings inflicted on his protagonist by Dennis Etchison in "Call Home." The story makes one of Larry David's predicaments look like a vicarage tea party. The disaster seems to occur for no reason at all, except that, to use Jack Sullivan's phrase, we live in "a fundamentally malign universe".
Readers of Arthur Machen and John Buchan, however, may detect causes subtly obscured below the surface of contemporary your-can't-win absurdism. When a small child inveigles itself into an adult stranger's care, and begins expressing itself with a knowing and calculating maliciousness, surely it isn't the universe at large where the malignity is to be found.
* * *
Dennis Etchison is never easy on the nerves, and those readers with a large cargo of bad faith and a lust for self-distraction face some unpleasant shocks of recognition as he delineates the crack-ups of his protagonists.
"The Olympic Runner" is unalloyed up-close horror. One of Etchison's skills as a writer is that the reader is immediately beset by anxiety: just what kind of horror will this be? What is being fled? What is falling apart?
The car steadied as she regained control. The sea shifted, then settled again into a smooth blanket of the purest cerulean blue under the bright light bulb of the morning sun. Just then something skittered down the cliffside and tumbled out into the highway; she veered to avoid it, unreasonably frightened. When the tires struck and crushed it there was a soft pattering like knuckles against the underseal. She rolled her window down and tried to locate what was left of it, but she was too late.
"What was that?"
"Nothing, baby. A loose rock."
"Are you sure?"
As they rounded the curve, she framed a last glimpse of a tiny mound of sandstone in the mirror. "Yes, I'm sure. I was afraid it was an animal. You know, the kind that run out in the road and freeze when they see a car coming? What do they call them? You remember. We read a story about it. When you were little."
"I don't think so. Not around here."
"Um, did you know that armadillos are the only animals besides humans that get leprosy?"
"No, I didn't know that. Thank you." She hid her amusement from her daughter, who lately could not tolerate any degree of teasing. "Are you getting hungry?"
"I'm on a diet." The girl made a breathy, impatient sound. "Can't we listen to some music? You haven't turned the radio on since we left L.A."
"Certainly. All you have to do is ask. Politely."
Etchison has several stories about people in cars, en route between one calamity and another, and beginning to realize the full import of that crossing. "The Olympic Runner" is one of the finest.
* * *
"The Woman in Black" begins as a youth-comes-of-age-in-hardship story like Ole Yeller or To Kill A Mockingbird. But then, this being an Etchison story, events soon take a turn. Beautifully done by a master.
When they took his mother away he went to live in the big house.
There he discovered rooms within rooms, drapes like thick shrouds, a kitchen stove big enough to crawl into, overstuffed furniture that changed shape as he passed, a table with claw feet larger than his head, ancient carpets with designs too worn to read, floor heating grates that clanged when he walked on them, musty closets opening on blackness, shadowed hallways that had no end.
These things did not frighten him.
For soon he made friends with the boy across the street; his aunts and uncles came by to help with the meals; it was summer and the back yard stayed light forever.
Before long, however, after only a few days and nights, he found that he could think of but one thing: of the lot next door, beyond the fence, of the high wall that kept him from its bright and dark treasures.
* * *
30 March 2023