This is a reprint of my interview with Dennis Etchison, I believe that appeared in “Horror Garage” magazine …
THE DARK COUNTRY:
Interview With Dennis Etchison
By Michael McCarty
Peter Straub called Dennis Etchison “one of horror’s most exciting, most radical and innovative talents.” George Clayton Johnson called him, “One of the greatest living writer of psychological horror.” This greatest can be found in a number of his work including such classics as Darkside, The Dark Country, The Death Artist, California Gothic, Double Edge. He has several awards including the British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards.
The California writer started writing short horror fiction in the early 1960s hasn’t stopped since. Highly respected for being an editor as well he is an author, he has edited a numerous short story collections and anthologies.
Currently, Dennis Etchison is adapting the original “Twilight Zone” television series into one-hour radio dramas –for worldwide syndication http://www.twilightzoneradiodrama.com. His latest release is “Don’t Turn On The Lights! Volume 1: The Audio Library Of Modern Horror,” a CD limited to 100 signed and numbered copies which featured Dennis reading his stories “Dog Park” and “Inside The Cackle Factory.”
MICHAEL McCARTY: Why do you write horror?
DENNIS ETCHISON: It’s easy to give a glib answer to a question like that, “I can’t write it anything else.” But the truth of the matter is, I never set out to be a horror writer. I never thought of my stuff as horror — I was writing the kind of story I thought would be good, and then I went about to sell it. As the years went by, I was selling more in the horror field.
During the ‘70s I had been selling science fiction, but things started really get going for the in horror. I don’t mind it, but it was by no particular design. I’m writing the kind of story that reflects what I see, think and feel when I look out the window here. I don’t think, “What are the elements of a horror story? And how should I go about writing it?”
MM: When you started out writing, you were writing science fiction for such magazines as “The Magazine Of Science Fiction And Fantasy,” and “Orbit.” Was there any reason that you particularly wanted to get out of science fiction or were you more comfortable writing horror?
ETCHISON: I think it’s just the way that your mind develops over the years. I had been a lifelong science fiction fan, loved it, had some familiarity with horror. I was a fan of horror movies and certain frightening stories that I’d read like “An Occurrence On Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce.
I just found that after the so-called “new wave” movement in science fiction, which was in the late ‘60s – early ‘70s – there seemed to be a reaction against that. Science fiction seemed more conservative or right wing both in its politics and its literary techniques and at the same time there opened a renaissance in the horror field. It was started by the small press magazines like “Whispers” and eventually the success of “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist.”
Then there was Stephen King and there came to be a renaissance in horror. More editors were interested in looking at horror than the science fiction editors. The remaining science fiction editors seemed to be fairly conservative and traditional in their standards so I found greater acceptance among horror so called dark fantasy editors.
You know when you finish a story you go down the list of places to send it and when it comes back you send it out to the next place on the list and it seemed that I was getting more acceptances in the horror field and then also as I said before, I think your personality, your view of the world changes, as time passes. I just began to see my point of view reflected in the horror field more than in the science fiction field.
MM: Early in your career, do you get your start in men’s magazines?
ETCHISON: Yes. My first short story sale was published in a men’s magazine called “Escapades” when I was still in high school. I’ll never forget going down to the little store near my folk’s house to buy a copy when it came out. They didn’t want to sell it to me it was a nudie magazine with naked women in it. I showed them that I was in the magazine and they finally sold me a copy.
I didn’t set out to be just a science fiction writer or any particular kind of writer. So I would purposely would try to sell a story to a slick magazine, a genre magazine and a mainstream magazine. I would attempt to alternate one after another; every third one would be one of those, so I wouldn’t get typecast. It turned out that I would get typecast, I’m only known as a horror writer now. That is partly because the other markets had dried up.
MM: Another early magazine you were published in was the men’s magazine “Cavalier.” That magazine also launched the careers of Stephen King, Mort Castle and Bentley Little. What kind of short stories did you write for them?
ETCHISON: It turned that one of the editors at “Cavalier” was Douglas Allen who had been the editor at “Escapades.” Writers sent to them because they paid better than the science fiction magazines did. I sold them a horror story and a science fiction story – after they rejected by the science fiction and horror magazines. Unfortunately no one saw them (laughs). I don’t know who was reading “Cavalier” at that time. It was one of the magazines that were following in the wake of “Playboy.” For a few years there was a whole bunch slick would-be sophisticated magazines in the mold of “Playboy.” “Cavalier” in the early’70s was the best of the lot.
They paid a little bit more, not as much as you think — about what one could get for a short story today. There has been no increase to account for inflation. Economy suicidal to continue to write short stories they pay essentially what they paid when I started.
I knew that Steve King had stories in “Cavalier,” I talked to him once about that, we compared prices of what we got for our stories. We were both aware of each others stories, but we weren’t in the same issues.
MM: Talking about short stories, one of my favorite stories you wrote is “The Late Shift,” in which a man discovers the local 7-Eleven is staffed by zombies. What was the inspiration for this terrific tale?
ETCHISON: I was riding in a car with a couple of friends. We saw someone walk in front of us at a stoplight that had that shambling walk that a half-dead person might have. I made some remark about “That is really a dead person and they just keep the person going through medical means.” Within thirty seconds of laughing and talking I had explained the whole story.
They take this people and they inject them with some kind of “Super Adrenaline” right in the heart muscle so they can get an extra couple of days work out of them after they die. Afterwards, after I thought about it – the theme seemed clear – it was anti-capitalist story. The idea was how the capitalist system can extract its pound of flesh from you in labor even after you died. There is that mysterious period of time, two or three days between the time you died and the time that you’re cremated or buried. In a true capitalist system, which is interested in utilizing its resources to the max, they might find a way to make money off of you during that time, before your body is planted in the ground.
MM: You did novelizations of such books as “The Fog,” “Halloween 2,” “Halloween 3,” and “Videodrome.” Did you get a chance to meet John Carpenter or David Cronenberg. And if so, what were they like?
ETCHISON: The main reason I took those assignments because I was a fan of theirs and I wanted to be able to meet them. For “The Fog,” I worked very closely with Carpenter and company. There were in post-production of the film and was near where I lived. I arranged to go there to meet with them and view the reels of film that they were cutting – I saw a lot of material that wasn’t in the finished film. There is material in “The Fog” novelization that is shot but not in the final film, there are words which were on the final soundtrack that were indecipherable and the release prints. I worked with the soundman on the film. Who played me back the words that were being spoken, separated from the other sound, so I could hear that was actually being said. I tried to duplicate the color scheme, the visual style, the camera movements, everything about “The Fog,” so the book would be a true reflection of Carpenter’s style and attitude. I had the benefit of ask him questions of what he was getting at in a particular scene. In a sense, the book is a sort of an expansion of the film, rather than just a rip off of it.
The same thing with David Cronenberg. I really didn’t want to do another novelization at that point, I absolutely adored Cronenberg work. I had a chance to film to Toronto, where he was editing “Videodrome” and I got four different drafts of the script. I saw a footage that had been shot and not used. I saw a reel that was edited in different order. I was able to talk to the director at some length at the studio and at his home about the film. I very much enjoyed that. I will always be grateful that it allowed me to meet Cronenberg – a wonderful artist and someone who I feel close to artistically.
MM: Last question, what is your favorite, most perfect Dennis Etchison book or short story? And why?
ETCHISON: The one that hasn’t been written yet. I have never written something that I felt hit the target 100%. Each time I try to get a little closer to the center of the target. I have yet to score anything that I would consider first rate. Some of them are closer to what I had in mind, than others.
When I look them over, I would say that The Dog Park isn’t bad, The Detailer isn’t bad, Red Dog Down isn’t bad, Inside The Cackle Factory And The Dead Cop isn’t bad. But that is because they are more recent and to where I am now. But probably ten years from now and be appalled. When I was putting together my 40 year retro collection for Stealth Press called Talking In The Dark, I had to look through all my stories and the ones I had tentatively listed to be in the book, were often a great disappointment when I re-read them. Sometimes I thought they were appallingly were poorly written. They are not as you remember them because you are more sophisticated now than you were then. Your standards keep on improving, your ability keeps improving.
If you liked the Dennis Etchison interview and want more interviews with Horror icons such as George Clayton Johnson, Ray Bradbury, Dean Koontz, William F. Nolan, Richard Matheson, John Saul, check out
35 Interviews with Horror and Science Fiction Writers and Filmmakers