May 21st, 2007

My Dinner With Dennis

Saturday night, after the mob scene that was the Fangoria Convention party at Dark Delicacies, I had the great pleasure of sharing a late dinner with Dennis Etchison.

Now, I've known Dennis for (oh holy cow, I can't believe I'm about to say this!) a quarter-century, but most of our meetings take place in large groups where comments are shouted across other voices and probably not heard correctly. For Saturday, Dennis was one-quarter of a group of four, in a quiet restaurant, and it was like an instant class in the history of the genre and the art of writing.

Most of you probably know this already, but here it is again: I consider Dennis to be the world's greatest living horror writer. Let's just put aside (please) everything but his writing, and in that area he's a master. "The Dark Country", "The Dead Line", "The Dead Cop", "The Dog Park", and a dozen others are all absolute classics of the genre. My own connection to Dennis's work is pretty intense: I was basically a science fiction reader and a screenwriter until somebody handed me the first printing of The Dark Country; after that, I not only started to read modern horror, I wanted to write horror fiction. We know where that decision led (for better or worse!).

Dennis was relaxed and thoughtful during our dinner, and we chatted about everything from our recent work to film to the state of the genre in general. Dennis has recently had two filmmakers inquire about the rights to The Dark Country (both the collection and the eponymous short story), including one very talented screenwriter who wants to pitch a horror anthology series that would include a number of Etchison stories.

A lot of people may not know that Dennis started as a science fiction writer - most of his early sales were to places like F & SF - but I'd never heard about how he landed in the horror genre: Someone gave him a copy of an early magazine called Whispers, and he sold to them almost immediately. As Dennis put it, he landed in horror almost completely "by accident".

Ricky and I also told him we were in bad need of some new Etchison work, and he confessed that he's got several stories in his head that he thinks are the best he's ever come up with (he says he plots a little more of them every night just before he falls asleep). What's really holding him back, I think, are the current pay rates. He's frankly disgusted with the five-cents-a-word that passes for professional rate for fiction in 2007. When he first started, he said it really was possible to pay your rent from short story sales; now not only have rents gone googolplex, but in most cases fiction rates have actually dropped. Dennis related an anecdote about a magazine that recently wanted to reprint one of his stories; he asked for five cents a word for reprint rights, and they turned him down. He proceeded to point out that everyone from the paper manufacturer to the postal clerks who delivered the magazines to the layout artists and editors were making more now than they did thirty years ago, and all the editor could do was nod...and turn him down again.

Dennis is somewhat disdainful of the current crop of horror writers, or what he calls "the Cemetery Dance crowd", partly because of their emphasis on gore and rape, but also because of their willingness to accept continued low pay rates.

I can only hang my head in shame there, and be chastened. Dennis is absolutely right, of course, but I have no idea how the situation could change at this point.

For the sake of lovers of good fiction everywhere, I sincerely hope it does. We all need new Etchison material, especially when the man himself is telling us it may be his best work yet.

Anyway, it's both informative and humbling to be able to spend an hour in the company of a master. I'd highly recommend the experience to the rest of the Cemetery Dance crowd.