Red Dreams

Red Dreams by Dennis Etchison containing the following stories: “Black Sun”, “Drop City”, “I Can Hear the Dark”, “Keeper of the Light”, “Not From Around Here”, “On the Pike”, “Talking in the Dark”, “The Chair”, “The Chill”, “The Graveyard Blues”, “The Smell of Death”, “Wet Season”, “White Moon Rising.” (Collected 1987): Dennis Etchison is pretty much the horror writer’s horror writer when it comes to short stories, praised by such genre luminaries as Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell. That he’s not more famous is partially a product of his concentration on short stories and partially happenstance and partially the fact that he may be too good and too idiosyncratic to be a mass-market success.

He doesn’t write about vampires or werewolves or voracious evil gods from beyond the universe. His style is straightforward without being unornamented, his plot sense as idiosyncratic as everything else about him. It’s very difficult to figure out where the average Etchison story will end up. And a mass audience tends to like familiarity and predictability.

What a writer, though, published now for nearly 50 years. This was just his second collection of short stories, released in mass-market paperback during the horror boom of the 1980’s. It collects stories from nearly 20 years, all of them fascinating. Etchison sets a lot of his stories in a bleached-out Southern California, but not all. His characters move through a world where explanations are often lacking for what’s happening to them. His narrative viewpoint is probably closer to pure noir than any other horror writer I can think of.

This viewpoint makes the subject matter quite startling, as characters who would be at home in a Jim Thompson novel move through worlds that vaguely resemble the worlds of Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick. The closing novella here, from 1984, “Not from Around Here”, embodies the narrative and stylistic dissonance that makes Etchison unique: it’s like a Philip K. Dick near-future story about movie preservation and weird cults as rewritten by James M. Cain. Or something like that. It’s all Etchison.

There isn’t a weak story here — even the earliest, “Wet Season”, while more traditionally supernatural, doesn’t nail itself down with authoritative explanations for what exactly is going on. It actually is neo-Lovecraftian without reading in any way like a traditional Lovecraft homage. And “Talking to the Dark” is a gem about a devoted horror fan who gets to meet his favourite writer. It’s horrible and funny, and one wonders reading it whether Etchison has based that writer on anyone from the real world. And why, if so. This is an essential collection for anyone who likes finely crafted, haunting short stories, genre or not. Highly recommended.

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