R.I.P. Dennis Etchison

rip-dennis

Confession: The first horror novel I can remember reading was not a towering classic like Dracula or Frankenstein, nor even a New York Times Bestseller gateway-drug à la Stephen King’s The Shining. It was something no more prestigious than a cheap paperback novelization of a slasher movie. Its spine was cracked and its pages were yellow. And it was great.

I read Halloween II, a book I’d inherited from my mother, years before I ever saw the movie upon which it was based. Hell, I hadn’t even seen the first Halloween back then. Nor had I fully graduated from reading R.L. Stine’s kid-friendly Goosebumps books, which were all the rage during my ‘90s-kid childhood. Still, Halloween II served as a crucial stepping stone for me. It was the first horror story I ever read whose pages numbered in the triple digits, and it was also my first taste of adult horror.

Halloween II was written by Jack Martin, an author who I would never read anything else by. I would, however, go on to read a lot of stuff by Dennis Etchison, the man behind the Jack Martin pseudonym. Where Martin had but a short life consisting of only a couple more novelizations (one of another Halloween sequel, the other of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome), Etchison boasted a long and illustrious career as a novelist, short story writer, and anthologist. Much like Charles L. Grant, Etchison represented an aspect of the horror genre that was more driven by atmosphere and psychology than what mainstream audiences often gravitated towards in the ’80s and ’90s. He was, in many ways, a writer’s writer.

Naturally, when news broke of Etchison’s recent passing, it didn’t take much to get me itchin’ to revisit some of his work, preferably something I hadn’t read in a long time. But what? Maybe his novel California Gothic, concerning a complex web of unreliable narrators navigating unreliable realities in the celluloid shadows of Hollywood. Or maybe his classic short story “The Dog Park,” with its bleak and biting dissection of loneliness, desperation, and show-biz cannibalism. Or maybe MetaHorror, an anthology he edited for the vaunted Dell Abyss line, which ambitiously pushed the envelope of what genre fiction could be at a time when its definition was very much in flux.

Rifling through a box of books while trying to decide, I chanced across Halloween II. The same copy that had once belonged to my mother. The same copy I’d read more than two decade ago. Its spine was even more cracked now, its pages yellower than yellow. A wave of nostalgia swept over me. My choice was made.

It almost goes without saying that Halloween II is far from Etchison’s finest work. I read a review once that surmised Etchison mainly wrote novelizations as a way to collect an easy paycheck. I don’t know if I believe that. I do know that Etchison was a dyed-in-the-wool cineaste, even acting as a consultant for the film-focused chapters of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. I’ve heard that he was a personal friend of director John Carpenter. And I’m aware that he famously co-wrote a screenplay for Halloween 4 which went unused after being dubbed “too cerebral” by the sort of people who decide such things.

In any case, reading Halloween II today illuminates one thing for certain: Great writers are great writers, full stop. Their greatness shines through regardless of what material or constraints you give them, or even what they themselves might think of the job. Even working within the confines of a story given to him by someone else, saddled as he was with characters, events, and ideas that were not his own, Etchison’s voice remains unmistakable. His flair for poetic description and ominous mood give an otherwise screen-accurate adaptation a flavor distinct from its cinematic source.

It may pale in comparison to his original works, but as far as formative genre introductions I could have done a lot worse than Dennis Etchison playing in somebody else’s sandbox. Like an old beat-up paperback at the bottom of a cardboard box, it’s comforting to know that Etchison was and always will be there. He proved just as important a piece of my literary development in adulthood as he was in my youth.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning from him.