A Look into the Life of Horror Writer Dennis Etchison

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Possibly one of the most well-received writers and unfortunately, one of the most recently deceased within the horror writing community, Dennis Etchison made his waves in the world of writers at large. As an American writer and editor of fantasy and horror fiction, he has been hailed as, “one hell of a fiction writer,” by his peer in horror, Stephen King. Etchison himself described his work as, “rather dark, depressing, almost pathologically inward fiction about the individual in relation to the world,” which is fair–writing horror is a pretty grim business. It could be argued that The Viking-Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, which described him as, “the most original living horror writer in America,” really did recognize the genius and inspirational talent of him as a writer. At the end of this month, we’re coming up on the first anniversary of the death of this highly regarded writer of horror fiction. So join us as we celebrate the life and work of Dennis Etchison for our Dead Author Dedication of May.

Growing Up…

Born Dennis William Etchison on March 30, 1943 in Stockton, California and he grew up as an only child when World War II was still ravaging the globe. He, therefore, didn’t have any men in his home and as a result believed he was spoiled greatly as a child where he spent most of his time without normal exposure to children his own age. It’s said that this sense of isolation from his peers, as well as the need to interact with society, was reflected later as parts of the themes of many of his work. His father regularly took him to attend shows at the Olympic Auditorium where he developed a fascination in the fight between good and evil–and gave him the ability as a young boy to become a fan of wrestling as a sport.

During his teenage years he wrote for his school papers and was a decidedly good writer for his age, having discovered Ray Bradbury and emulated his style before he had developed his own. This was the time that he began writing short stories, but upon submitting them for publication was rejected every time–that is until he remembered Ray Bradbury, who had suggested that a writer should look to a market that would be the least likely to publish their work. After heeding the advice of his source of inspiration, he was promptly accepted for publication in a gentlemen’s magazine entitled Escapade.

Career

While we’re going to focus more on the literary career of Dennis Etchison in our next installment of the Dead Author Dedication for the month of May, we feel it’s important to recognize here some of the highlights of his achievements. Dennis Etchison had a prolific writing career when it came to short story fiction, something utterly unheard of for an author who was actually quite popular during their lifetime–considered a king of anthologies, he began with publications of his short stories in the 1960s.

At UCLA he sought a higher education in the 1960s, Etchison studied film and eventually became highly knowledgable on the subject; he wrote various screenplays, many of which were never produced. He even became a consultant to Stephen King for his non-fiction volume Danse Macabre (1981) and also wrote for television. In his expansive five-decade career, his range included short stories, movie novelizations, original novels, anthologies, essays, editorials, and radio work.

Not surprisingly, Etchinson also served as the President of the Horror Writers Association from 1992 to 1994. At the turn of the century, in 2002, he adapted almost one hundred episodes of the original Twilight Zone television series for a CBS radio series which was hosted by Stacy Keach. Over the course of his career, he won the British Fantasy Award three times for fiction, as well as two World Fantasy Awards for anthologies he was responsible for editing. In 2017, Etchison was recognized by the Horror Writers of America when they bestowed the honor of the Bram Stoker lifetime achievement award upon him.

Much of Etchison’s work can be found under his pen name, Jack Martin, One thing that Etchison can be credited for aside from all of his other achievements is his excessive humility when regarding his own work. Inspiration can be found from his relatability for aspiring writers and we think that this can be summarized by one quote in particular.

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 vacuum. 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.

Dennis Etchison on his own writing.

Throughout his career Etchison gave back to the next generation of aspiring writers, by teaching classes in creative writing at his alma mater, UCLA. The most admirable trait of this horror master, is that he inspired many to write down their stories and accept that our flaws as writers actually contribute to our ability to evolve and improve.

Death

Although his cause of death has still been relatively unreported upon, we do know that Etchison was reported to have died during the night on May 28, 2019, at the age of 76. This was a tremendous blow to the modern horror community, as it lost one of the most influential modern writers who brought originality and life to such an exciting genre of fiction.

Etchison Through Film, Screen, and Radio

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As a professional writer for fifty years, not only was Dennis Etchison successful with his short stories, novels, and editorial work, he also had a prolific career with film, screen and radio work. This of course simply works as an overview of what he was most known for in these fields—in respect to him as our honored Dead Author Dedication of the month of May, we felt it was fair to mention how he contributed to the field of film, screen, and radio.

Screenplays

In his time writing screenplays, Etchison wrote a fair few that he could be proud of, although his own humility would not allow it later in life. Whether it be a screenplay based on the works of others, or his own—sadly his screenplays were not as widely received as his short stories and novels. In 1998, Etchison’s story, The Late Shift was adapted to film by Patrick Aumont and Damian Harris into the film Killing Time.

Ray Bradbury

One author that Etchison greatly respected was Ray Bradbury and he displayed this in many ways during his career, by paying homage to the classic American author. One screenplay that he was said to have created, but has thus far not been produced, was The Fox and the Forest.

Teaming Up With the Greats

John Carpenter

1986 brought in the opportunity for Etchison to team up with director John Carpenter to write the script for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers; unfortunately, when Etchison finalized the script, producer Moustapha Akkad rejected it, saying that it was “too cerebral,” and that it would not have been right for the direction of the franchise.

Halloween was banned in Haddonfield and I think that the basic idea was that if you tried to suppress something, it would only rear its head more strongly. By the very [attempt] of trying to erase the memory of Michael Myers, [the teenagers] were going to ironically bring him back into existence.

Dennis Etchison on his idea for Halloween 4

He was informed via telephone with an explanation that his script would not become part of the deal during the sale of the pitch for Halloween 4; that is not to say that the fourth installment of the Halloween franchise was unsuccessful, but once Akkad had gained ownership of the franchise, he returned it to a more original idea that brought the fan-base back.

Stephen King

In 1983, Etchison first worked with King to be the film consultant and historian for King’s Danse Macabre. His work with Stephen King, perhaps is the most impressive, having teamed up with the prolific writer to create the screenplay for The Mist which was adapted in 1984 fir a ZBS Media production as a 90-minute radio rendition.

Television

Etchison was a staff writer during the year of 1985, when he contributed to the television series The Hitchhiker.

The Ogre originally written by Colin Wilson, was rewritten by Etchison—he also co-wrote one of the stories for the television series Logan’s Run, entitled “The Thunder Gods,” which was later printed.

Radio Work

As an author who could seamlessly cross platforms, Etchison adapted almost one hundred episodes of the original The Twilight Zone television series for a CBS radio series which was hosted by Stacy Keach in 2002. Later on this radio series was released commercially on audio CDs. This was definitely not the only time that Etchison did writing for radio work, as he also worked as one of the writers on the audio series for Fangoria’s Deadtime Stories which was hosted by Malcom McDowell—also something that was later released on CDs and digital downloads.

Following the Literary Works of Dennis Etchison

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For authors like Dennis Etchison, who had prolific writing careers and a popular reputation within the genre of horror, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when they weren’t completely brilliant. With a unique voice and the ability to paint a realistically terrifying image of the scenes that play through their head, an author can snatch the very breath from the lips of their readers. So what it is about a specific author that makes them so special? Why are people like Dennis Etchison voices within horror and what did they leave behind as a creative legacy? The answer may seem to be nothing more than simple common sense, but I know I learned something new or at least found something inspirational about the way he grew up and lived his life.

Short Stories

The fictional short story works of the late Dennis Etchison have graced the public since 1961 and can be found in a wide variety of publications–including, but definitely not limited to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Mystery Monthly, Escapade, Fantastic Stories, Fantasy Tales, and Weirdbook. Apart from his work in magazines, he was also featured in anthologies like Orbit, New Writings in SF, od Sterling’s Other Worlds, Prize Stories from Seventeen, The Pseudo-People, and The Future is Now. This is far from an exhaustive list, since his stories can also be found in many of the major horror and dark fantasy anthology publications that include FrightsHorrorsFearsNightmaresDark Forces, Terrors, New Terrors, ShadowsWhispersNight ChillsDeathWorld Fantasy AwardsThe Dodd, Mead Gallery of HorrorMad ScientistsYear’s Best Horror StoriesMidnight and many others.

The Dark Country (1982)

In 1982, Etchison published his short story collection, entitled The Dark Country, which subsequently received both the World Fantasy Award for its title story–interestingly enough he tied with Stephen King for this award. For this collection he also won the British Fantasy Award for the Best Collection of that year, an award for which he had been previously nominated for his Late Night Shift (1981) collection. That would be the first time that one writer would receive both of those major awards for a single work. Possibly the most interesting part about the story of his first award-winning collection of short stories is how it very nearly got published over a decade earlier in 1971–but on the eve of the release of the publication, the company went bankrupt and Etchison had to wait for his first collection to reach his audience and be received to critical acclaim. He since published several more collections, some of which won Best Short Story, such as The Olympic Runner (1986) and The Dog Park (1994).

Novels

Aside from his brief time dabbling in the adult, erotic scene, Etchison’s first official novel was intended to be The Shudder, was meant to be published in 1980, the editor was very demanding when it came to changes to the manuscript that Etchison believed were highly unreasonable. Although a portion of the novel was published in A Fantasy Reader–the book of the Seventh World Fantasy Convention–in 1981, the novel as a whole sadly remains unpublished. That’s something that we as readers would nearly die to read!

Movie Novelizations and The Jack Martin Books

Between the 70s and the 90s, Etchison fell into the business of writing movie novelizations–not the best of gigs, given his awards received with his past publications–a form of writing considered to be a thankless form of writing. Arguably the only form that garners less appreciation is ghostwriting. Both forms offer poor pay, unrealistic deadlines, and a certain apathy that consumers approach the style of literature with.

Despite the early obstacles that he faced, Etchison became a renowned author of short stories, novels, and a highly regarded anthologist in his own right. Even Dennis Etchison had to eat though and the decision to churn out novelizations of an already established plotline became an easily defended one. Surprisingly, or perhaps not due to their popularity on-screen, these movie novelizations are now amongst his most popular works as an author. Die-hard fans of the HALLOWEEN franchise tend to hold those particular novelizations by Dennis Etchison, under the pseudonym of Jack Martin, in great esteem.

The Fog by Dennis Etchison (1980)

THE FOG (1980)

One of the only books that Etchison wrote under his own name, versus his pseudonym Jack Martin, was THE FOG (1980). This particular novelization is considered the best of all of them–not just of his movie novelizations, but out of all of his novels period. This may be due in part to the fact that while Etchison’s best work was in short story format, that this particular novelization had a creative voice and flow that went unmatched with the rest of his novel-length work.

Halloween II by Jack Martin (1981)

The HALLOWEEN Franchise

Etchison wasn’t the author for the novelization of the first HALLOWEEN movie, instead, he followed Curtis Richard’s 1979 publication of HALLOWEEN with the sequel, HALLOWEEN II (1981). The novelization by Curtis Richard was rather impressive, which gave Etchison a fairly high standard of literature to match, even if he was operating under his Jack Martin pseudonym. Considering even just the content of the movie itself, with a storyline that just couldn’t be compared to the original movie, HALLOWEEN II and its subsequent novelization felt as though it were lacking. The quality that he had made himself known for, through his short story collections and THE FOG (1980), was simply not there.

There is something to be said for a good plot and storyline, but no one would ever say it about the HALLOWEEN sequel, because there wasn’t a comprehensive plot to be found. Truthfully, there is little of Etchison’s presence in the book at all, aside from chapter headings and brief moments where he let his writing personality shine through. This book, as well as the following HALLOWEEN III, pushed Etchison out of his comfort zone. As a more cerebral and non-violent horror writer, the fact that he had to write gory and bloody horror forced him to write material that would never have been seen in an original novel. Despite all of the pitfalls of these two particular novelizations, they managed to somehow be bestsellers amongst fans of the genre.

VIDEODROME by Jack Martin (1983)

VIDEODROME (1983)

The final movie novelization that Etchison wrote under his Jack Martin pseudonym, was VIDEODROME (1983) a movie originally by David Cronenberg. After THE FOG (1980), VIDEODROME is considered one of his stronger novels, since the genre of horror that it falls under is more in line with the author’s writing style. Etchison’s strengths always came from the ability to create a palpable tension, the apprehension within a character and their motivations, as well as the atmosphere in which the entire story operates under. Unlike the slasher genre that HALLOWEEN belongs to, VIDEODROME capitalized on the fear of mental, emotional, and physical torture that suited Etchison’s talents just fine.

Editorial Work

Etchison not only excelled with his talent for writing–as shown by the many awards he won in that field–but he was also a talented editor, having received two World Fantasy Awards for Best Anthology. One of the awards was for MetaHorror (1993) and the second was for The Museum of Horrors (2002). Other anthologies that he edited include the critically acclaimed Cutting Edge (1986), Gathering The Bones (2003) as well as the three volume series Masters of Darkness.

Have you read any of the novels or short story collections that were authored by Dennis Etchison? Let us know what you thought about them in the comments!