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A Look into the Life of Horror Writer Dennis Etchison

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.