A Few Words About Dennis Etchison

Dennis (at right) visits the Iliad Bookshop with (from left) Amanda Foubister, Mandy Slater, and Stephen Jones

(Written on 5/29/19, one day after the passing of Dennis)

Me celebrating Dennis’s 70th birthday with him at Dark Delicacies

Where to begin when it comes to Dennis Etchison…

How about this: I owe my writing career to him.

Here’s how that came about: back in the early ‘80s, when I was living in L.A. as a young (very young!) would-be screenwriter, I dated someone who was close to Ray Bradbury. We got to do a lot of things with Ray, many of which involved hanging around other writers. One of those writers was an interesting, friendly fellow named Dennis Etchison, whose work I was unfamiliar with. I asked my boyfriend about him, and he loaned me a book by Dennis. The book was a collection of short stories called The Dark Country.

That book changed my life.

I’d never read anything like it. The stories weren’t just frightening and perfectly crafted, some of them were also set in Los Angeles, but, more importantly, they were set in my Los Angeles. This was the Los Angeles I knew, a place whose sunny reputation hid an underbelly of tension, of dark canyons and all-night convenience stores, of south-of-the-border jaunts gone bad, of greed and class warfare.

A few years went by. I split from the boyfriend, but stayed friends with Dennis. I eagerly grabbed every new tale by him. Ask me to name my five all-time favorite short stories, and at least three will be by Dennis Etchison. “The Dog Park” just might be the single best work of short fiction I’ve ever read.

By 1992, Dennis was serving as President of an organization called the Horror Writers of America (a year later, he got the name changed to the current Horror Writers Association to more accurately reflect the organization’s multinational membership), and I was selling screenplays. Dennis personally recruited me into the organization, using my screenwriting credits to achieve Active status. However, I had discovered that I didn’t really love being a screenwriter the way I’d thought I would; I’d just finished a long working stint on a very bad film, and I was finally starting to think that I should look at writing prose fiction.

Dennis’s stories were my models. I began writing short fiction. I showed them to a few friends, who thought they were saleable. My friends suggested I go to the World Fantasy Convention and start to network.

Dennis (at right) visits the Iliad Bookshop with (from left) Amanda Foubister, Mandy Slater, and Stephen Jones

I attended my first World Fantasy Con in 1993, in Minneapolis. Dennis met me almost as soon as I arrived, and started introducing me to everyone. One of the editors I met there – Stephen Jones – would buy my first short story a year later, and go on to become the editor I’ve worked with the most.

That convention was an amazing experience. I rented a car and became Dennis’s driver for a few days. At the time Dennis was embroiled in a feud with Harlan Ellison, and I still laugh when I think of him telling me that he’d put any five of his stories up against any five of Harlan’s stories (Dennis was also a wrestling fanatic, which made this even more amusing). I drove Dennis to a signing at the massive Mall of America; no one came to the signing, so Dennis, Poppy Z. Brite, and Melanie Tem read their stories to each other while I listened in.

A few years later, Dennis was editing The Museum of Horrors, an official HWA anthology. I submitted a story called “Pound Rots in Fragrant Harbour”; the idea of being edited by Dennis was a dream for me. Dennis not only took the story, for years after he’d always ask me how many awards the story had won (and just shake his head when I told him none). The fact that he felt that strongly about it meant more to me than any award.

Around 2004 or ‘5, Dennis, Peter Atkins, and Glen Hirshberg started a reading performance group called the Rolling Darkness Revue; they read from their work with live musical accompaniment and put out books each year. I was honored to be a part of the 2006 edition; it was a tremendous honor to be sharing a reading stage with Dennis Etchison (who was an incredible reader, by the way, his voice perfect for capturing the quiet, intense menace of his prose).

In 2010, my first novel (The Castle of Los Angeles) was about to be published, and I had to secure blurbs for it. I knew Dennis didn’t often do blurbs, but I had to ask. To my delight, he said he would…but when he sent his “blurb”, I was completely and utterly floored: it was nearly two full pages long, and was an extraordinary and gracious analysis of my book. It was the kind of blurb that other authors asked me about for years (“Are you the one who got that blurb from Dennis Etchison?”).

Over the 37 years that I knew Dennis, we had so many wonderful conversations, too many to recount here. Dennis had some (ahem) habits that occasionally drove his friends nuts (we always knew that going to a restaurant with Dennis would end with, “Are you going to finish that?”), but we just smiled and accepted them because it was Dennis and he was a genius and we loved him. One of the best moments of my time as HWA’s President was being able to tell Dennis that our Lifetime Achievement Award Committee had selected him to receive the 2016 honors (along with Tom Monteleone). Talk about coming full circle: there I was acting as HWA President, telling the man who’d originally gotten me into the organization when he’d been President that he’d just been awarded the horror genre’s highest honor.

When I saw Dennis in March of this year, I hadn’t seen him for a few months, and it was quickly apparent that he was very ill. He didn’t want to talk about it publicly, but he was dealing with cancer. It had formed a mass in his throat that he couldn’t swallow around, and he’d lost a lot of weight. I offered to help.

I’d like to say this is the exact moment when Dennis got the idea for “The Dog Park”, but the truth is that it was shot at a party some time after that story was published.

By May, a group of friends and former students were helping Dennis get to his cancer treatments at UCLA. I wasn’t able to assist as much I’d wanted to, but I did have the privilege of taking Dennis to his final radiation treatment. We spent a great afternoon together talking about writing, politics, life, and of course, his cancer. He told me that, prior to this, he’d never been seriously ill, broken a bone, or spent a night in a hospital. He was sure he’d recover. He’d just scored possibly the biggest deal of his career. He was looking forward to new writing projects. He told me his favorite story: he, Ray Bradbury, and Bill Nolan used to meet, go down to Long Beach to shop at Acres of Books, and then have lunch at the Queen Mary. One day he and Bill arrived at Ray’s house, and there was a check on Ray’s front table for $627,000. Bill Nolan freaked out. “Oh my God, Ray, this is a check for $627,000! You can’t just leave this lying around like this! A maid could take it, or it could blow away! Ray, do you know how much this check is for?” Ray glanced back and said, “I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s for two books!”

That wonderful afternoon spent talking writing and life with Dennis was thirteen days ago. He died yesterday.

I believe Dennis is the finest writer of short horror fiction the genre’s ever been gifted with. I’m sorry he never received Bradbury-sized paychecks for his work; he deserved to. But he wasn’t just a writer; he was also a teacher and mentor to many of us, unfailingly generous and possessed of an infectious passion for writing. His departure leaves a huge, ragged hole in both literature and the lives of those of us who were fortunate enough to know him. He told me, thirteen days ago, how pleased he was with all the friends and students who’d helped him recently, and that he wanted to take us all out to dinner soon. I’d like to imagine him in the afterlife, dining and chattering with his good friend Ray, gesturing at Ray’s plate and saying, “Are you going to finish that?”