“The Dark Country”

dark-country

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Fantasy and horror writer Dennis Etchison’s first collection of short stories, published in 1982. I read the 1984 Berkeley edition (which is out of print and often pricey). A reasonably-priced Kindle edition is available.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Dark Country contains sixteen horror stories originally published between 1972 and 1981. I sought it out because of Stephen King’s glowing remarks in Danse Macabre:

[Etchison] is also one hell of a fiction writer, and if you have not read his volume of short stories, The Dark Country, you have missed one of the great volumes in our peculiar field (…). The stories are not just good; they are without exception exciting, and in some cases genuinely great.

(Danse Macabre; Forenote to the Paperback Edition, p.xx)

I’ll agree on one point: Etchison is a good writer. Every story has a least one moment of beautiful writing (an apt metaphor, a piece of deft dialogue) but the tales largely fail to make an impact. Their ideas are too large for a short format.

Mythologies are suggested but we don’t get enough pieces to even speculate their details. The information we are given is often held back until very late in the story, leaving us unsure of our footing. And this isn’t information essential to the hook or the twist; it’s basic scaffolding: Where are we, when are we, what world are we in? I often felt like I had walked into the middle of a movie while suffering a low-grade fever. Etchison’s logic is a dream-logic that I just can’t access. (I had a very similar problem with Joan Aiken’s collection The Monkey’s Wedding and I have to wonder if this says something about my imaginative muscles…)


It Only Comes Out at Night

A perfect horror tale. Nothing else in this collection approaches its power. The questions it deposits at our feet are haunting and the build is so, so good. Fear and paranoia settle into the reader before the character catches on, which is the real trick of successful horror.

The two lead characters are given no backstory or history beyond their names and the fact that they are married. No physical descriptions, no ages, no reason for their trip. But we don’t need anything else. We know how unsettling rest stops can be in the middle of the night, we know how strange the world can seem while sleep deprived.

[1] A phrase that I quite liked (the first time I read it).

Finally he let out a breath that sounded like all the breaths he had ever taken going out at once.

(p.8)

Etchison ends up using essentially the same phrase twice more (which seems excessive for one collection):

“The Nighthawk”:

Maria let out a long sigh that sounded like all the breaths she had ever taken going out at once.

(p.132)

“It Will Be Here Soon”:

He sighed. It sounded like all the breaths he had ever drawn going out at once.

(p.146)

 

Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly

[2] Again (like note [1]) a phrase I liked and then was surprised to find repeated (this time in the very next story):

She was young but not too, twenty-nine going on forty, and pretty, too, but not very.

(p.14)

“The Walking Man”:

Maybe she reminded me of the types in the class Beverly Hills saloons (…): twenty-nine going on forty.

(p.19)

 

The Walking Man 

[3] Great opening paragraph for a lackluster story:

It was one of those long, blue evenings that come to the Malibu late in the year, the water undulating up the beach like some smooth, sleepy girl moving slowly under a satin sheet. I must have been staring, because the bartender leaned over and pushed the empty glass against the back of my hand.

(p.17)

[4]

When they joked at each other under their breaths the sound came to me above the piped-in music: telephone voices just out of the shower, brittle as window glass, unexpectedly cold, and transparent.

(p.18)

[5]

“Sure,” he said. You know how he said it.

(p.19)

I like this a lot, but again (like notes [1] and [2]), Etchison reuses it (note [20]).

This repetition doesn’t feel like style as much as sloppiness.

[6]

And there were the eyes. They set me on edge. They were too extreme, like something you learn never to expect in this life: gilt on the lily, egg in the beer, too much, much too much for the way they tell you things are supposed to be.

(p.20)

[7] Reference:

It was an exaggerated triangle, inverted – like the Sub-Mariner, I think, if you remember.

(p.20)

Namor the Sub-Mariner is a fictional Marvel comics character. He debuted in 1939.

[8]

“You talk like they’re not even human,” I said. (…)

“And we are?” she said. “Is that what you mean?”

(p.20-21)

[9] Reference:

I dug my heels into the jute carpeting.

(p.24)

A long, soft, shiny vegetable fiber that can be spun into coarse, strong threads. It is the second most important vegetable fiber after cotton due to its versatility.

[10]

“One alone is weak. But two is a point of view.”

(p.24)

We Have All Been Here Before

[11] Reference:

“Red Pendleton shirt. Trousers filthy.”

(p.30)

Pendleton Woolen Mills is an American textile manufacturing company located in Portland, Oregon. It is known for its blankets and woolen clothing.

 

Daughter of the Golden West

[12] Reference:

A parturient drawerful of Blue Chip Stamps.

(p.42)

Blue Chip Stamps started as a trading stamp company. They were a loyalty program for customers, similar to discount cards issued by pharmacies and grocery stores in the digital era. A customer making a purchase at a participating store (grocery, gas stations, pharmacies) would be issued stamps from a machine next to the cash register. These could be redeemed for merchandise. The program lost popularity in the 1980s as credit cards and easier loyalty programs were established.

[13]

She had a quality of bored immobility which seemed to preclude manipulation, and a lack of assertiveness which made it somehow unnecessary.

(p.48)

[14] Vocabulary:

He stopped on a worn virgule in the carpet.

(p.49)

noun – 1. a short oblique stroke ( / ) between two words indicating that whichever is appropriate may be chosen to complete the sense of the text in which they occur.

2. a dividing line, as in dates, fractions, a run-in passage of poetry to show verse division, etc.

3. a short oblique stroke ( / ) used in computing; a forward slash.

[15]

He was aware in a rush of the power assumed by someone who simply waits and asks no questions. But understanding it made it no less effective.

(p.49)

[16]

“Are you hungry?” she asked and then laughed a kind of laugh he had never heard before.

(p.51)

 

The Pitch

The second-best story in the collection (after “It Only Comes Out at Night”). “The Pitch” builds mystery and suspicion then gives us the information we need for our imaginations to run with the visceral, horrific punchline.

[17] Reference:

Around a swaying bunch of sphagnum moss.

(p.53)

A genus of approximately 380 accepted species of mosses, commonly known as peat moss.

[18]

He left, looking relieved to be leaving and at the same time uneasy about it, a very curious expression.

(p.56)

[19] Vocabulary:

He squeezed gouts of juice from a plastic spout like a magician with a never-empty lotta.

(p.58)

I can’t find a meaning of this beyond slang for “lots of” or a nickname for Charlotte. Is it a typo?

[20]

You know. You know what he said.

(p.58)

[21] Vocabulary:

Still moist, they resembled thick, mushy clumps of pseudopodia.

(p.59)

pseudopodium

noun – (biology) – a temporary protrusion of the surface of an amoeboid cell for movement and feeding.

 

You Can Go Now 

[22] Vocabulary:

He fumbled through business cards, odd papers, credit plates.

(p.63)

Charge plates, often called Charga-Plates, were the predecessors to credit cards. They were used in the U.S. from the 1930s to the late 1950s. It was a 2.5 x 1.25 inch rectangle of sheet metal related to Addressograph and military dog tag systems.

[23]

He sampled the radio, but it was only more of the same: back scratchings about love or the lack of it and the pleasure or the pain it brought or might bring; maybe, could be, possibly, for sure, always, never, too soon, not soon enough, in the wrong rain or the wrong style. Wrong, wrong. He flicked it off.

(p.64)

[24] Translate:

Past the broad landmark barn and the whitewash message fading on its doors, one he had never understood:

Hiara Peru Resh

(p.68)

The closest translation I can find is in Malagasy (language of Madagascar): “together Peru fresh.” I don’t know if there is a meaning to be found here or if Etchison had actually seen this graffiti and, like his character, didn’t understand it.

[25]

The river smelled like dead stars.

(p.70)

[26] Reference:

It reminded him of a Nichiren Shoshu recruiter who had buttonholed him on the street once.

(p.71)

A branch of Nichiren Buddhism based on the teachings of the 13th-century Japanese Budhist priest Nichiren Daishonin (1222 – 1282).

 

Today’s Special

The sloppiest outing of Dark Country. In the opening pages I couldn’t tell who was speaking to who and the whole thing was surprisingly uninspired. I mean, you begin a story with a butcher, you’ve got to give me something better than him murdering an enemy and displaying the meat for customers.

[27] A long, confusing sentence that doesn’t work. You can hear it running out of breath:

And as he worked on into the night, his tanned face and immaculately styled hair set off tastefully above the high, fashionable collar and wide hand-sewn tie that lay smoothly against his tailored shirt of imported silk, the whole effect suggesting a means far beyond his butcher’s salary, was that perhaps the beginning of a narrow, bloodless smile that pinched the corners of his thin, efficient, professional lips?

(p.78)

 

The Machine Demands a Sacrifice

An odd complaint, but let’s have it out: in this story and “Daughter of the Golden West,” Etchison gives his main characters names that start with the same letter. Jesse and Jaime here and Don and David in “Daughters.” A simple thing like assigning different starting-lettered names would help us differentiate the characters, especially in a short story where we don’t spend very much time with them. In both stories, I had a hard time keeping a grip on who was who.

[28]

“My kid, she ain’t got a tooth in her head. My wife made one big mistake, that’s for sure (…) She loses a tooth, my wife tells her to put it under her pillow for the fairy. Some fairy. I leave her a quarter. Next thing you know, she’s pullin’ out teeth to get more money. I can’t afford to give her no allowance. She’s a good kid, real smart, she understands – business is touch. But this fairy shit. I don’t have the heart to tell her. So pretty soon she’s got no more teeth. Whadaya think of that?”

(p.86)

Man. I think I would have rather read that story.

 

The Dead Line

[29] I agree with Ramsey Campbell’s Introduction; this is a great opening line:

This morning I put ground glass in my wife’s eyes.

(p.99)

[30] Vocabulary:

I adjusted my clothing, smoothing my hair down from the laminar airflow around the beds.

(p.101)

adjective – (physics) – (of a flow) taking place along constant steamlines; not turbulent.

The Late Shift

[31] Reference:

Feeling like a newborn before the LeBoyer [sic] Method.

(p.111)

Frederick Leboyer (b.1918) is a French obstetrician and author. He is best known for his 1975 book, Birth Without Violence, which popularized gentle birthing techniques, in particular, the practice of immersing newborn infants in a small tub of warm water – known as a “Leboyer bath” – to help ease the transition from the womb to the outside world. He also advocated low lighting and noise in a warm room to limit the supposed shock of birth.

[32]

The milk made a lumpy sound when he let go of it.

(p.113)

[33] The whole “old” song being barely old thing (As seen in The Magus note [30]; Pet Sematary note [18]. I promise to stop bringing it up after this):

A radio in the store was playing an old ’60’s song. Light My Fire, Macklin thought. The Doors.

(p.113)

When Etchison published this story, “Light My Fire” was thirteen years old. Is that old?

[34] Reference:

“It’s pHisoHex,” said Whitey, “mixed with white pencil.”

(p.115)

pHisoHex is a trade name for Hexachlorophene, also known as Nabac. It is an organochlorine compound that was once widely used as a disinfectant. In 1972, the FDA halted the production and distribution of products containing more than 1% of hexachlorophene. The restrictions were enacted after 15 deaths in the US and 39 deaths in France were reported following brain damage caused by hexachlorophene.

[35]

“The dead are here. Aren’t they.” It was a statement. “Tell me something. What do you do with them?”

(p.116)

[36] Translate/Reference:

And then he heard it again, that high, strange voice. “He-he-he! tamunka sni kun.

(p.117)

 

Allan A Macfarian’s book North American Indian Legends translates these words to mean: “I hate to leave my own people.”

[37] Vocabulary:

Slithering a hyaline hand over the change machine.

(p.118-119)

adjective – (anatomy; zoology) – having a glassy, translucent appearance.

noun – (literary) – a thing that is clear and translucent like glass, especially a smooth sea or a clear sky.

[38] Great sense of excitement in this action:

He opened his eyes. He hesitated only a second, to take a deep breath.

Then he was out of the van and running.

Gravel kicked up under his feet. He heard curses and metal slamming. He just kept his head down and his legs pumping. Once he twisted around and saw a man scurrying after him. The driver paused by the mortuary building and shouted. But Macklin kept moving.

He stayed on the path as long as he dared.

(p.124)

[39] …and great final lines:

He peered out through the clear spot in the glass.

Outside, the outline fuzzy and distorted but quite unmistakably, was a blue van. It was waiting at the curb.

(p.126)

 

The Nighthawk

I wanted to understand this one. I wanted more out of it. I wanted to know why Darcy thinks of one relative as “Grandpa” and the other as “the grandmother.” Unfortunately, the story is a collection of seemingly disparate details. It reads like a dream, which would make symbolic and emotional sense to the dreamer, but leaves the listener cold.

[40]

“Hey yourself,” she said, because she had to say something. But her face did not change.

(p.130)

[41]

“Grandpa?”

“Yes?” He waited.

“What- what does it mean when somebody says you’re ‘evil’?”

He laughed easily.

“Well, Darcy,” he said, “I’d have to say it just means that somebody doesn’t really know you.”

(p.134)

[42]

She had an odd feeling then, as if they had begun to talk about something they were not supposed to, and her not even knowing. The feeling attracted her and scared her at the same time.

(p.136)

[43]

Now she did begin to feel afraid. She felt a nervous jolt enter her body, sort of like a charge of static electricity from the air, but she strained to keep breathing, to draw energy from the feeling and not be smothered by it. She had to know.

(p.138)

[44]

Then she was listening to the slapping of the surf, the trembling in the close room, the sound of a sob and the high, thin weeping of the wind that might have been the keening of an animal left too long alone.

(p.142)

There is atmosphere and claustrophobia but not enough plot to push it from confusing to unsettling.

 

It Will Be Here Soon

[45]

Still, had Martin been able to love anyone, he would have loved his father.

(p.145)

[46] Like in “The Nighthawk,” the main character refers to his male relative normally (Grandfather/Father) but thinks of his female relative with odd detachment (the grandmother/the mother). In this case, I think it’s because the woman is Martin’s step-mother, but why not use the term stepmother, then? Adding the article “the” makes the female figure seem alien or dangerous but we don’t get any additional information to tell us why she’s thought of this way.

[47] Vocabulary:

Beyond the firepits the old natatorium still stood.

(p.147)

noun – a building containing a swimming pool.

[48] Reference:

A copy of FATE and an old National Enquirer.

(p.151)

A U.S. magazine about paranormal phenomena. Fate was co-founded in 1948 by Ramond A. Palmer (editor of Amazing Stories) and Curtis Fuller. Fate magazine is the longest-running magazine devoted to the paranormal.

[49] Reference:

He vaguely recalled going into Los Angeles to hear Gabriel Green lecture about his meetings with the “space people.”

(p.151)

Gabriel Green (1924 – 2001) was an early UFOlogist who claimed contact with extraterrestrials. He was a write-in US presidential candidate in 1960 and 1972. He published one book, Let’s Face Facts about Flying Saucers (1967).

[50] Reference:

Dr. Raudive in Germany, who has recordings of 72,000 different voices.”

(p.152)

Konstantins Raudive (1909 – 1974) was a Latvian writer and intellectual. He studied parapsychology all his life, and was especially interested in the possibility of the afterlife. He and German parapsychologist Hans Bender investigated electronic voice phenomena (EVP). He published a book on EVP, Breakthrough, in 1971. He recorded over 100,000 audiotapes, most of which were made under what he described as “strict laboratory conditions.”

[51] Reference:

“You record with the gain full up. That’s Sheargold’s method.”

(p.152)

I think this is referring to Richard Sheargold, a figure in the EVP community. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry but from the book The Dead Are Alive: They Can and Do Communicate With You by Harold Sherman:

[Richard] Sheargold, with an acute ear for radio transmissions, postulated a theory [about EVP] akin to the old theosophical “thought form” concept. According to Sheargold the voices are encapsulated fragments within the psyche of an individual, the residue of all the experiences and contacts of a lifetime galavanized temporarily into life (…) One point emphasized by Sheargold, whose hearing faculty was trained in a lifetime of audio work, was that the voices were absolutely objective on magnetic tape.

[52]

He passed into the dream as easily as a breath is taken and released.

(p.156)

A great line, but he’s already used it.

“The Walking Man”:

I passed from her back into myself as easily as a breath is taken and released.

(p.21)

 

Deathtracks

[53] References:

A playback of some Hollywood Sam Katzman or Albert Zugsmith version of the sixties; he almost expected Jack Nicholson or Luanna [sic] Anders to show up.

(p.164)

Sam Katzman (1901 – 1973) was an American film producer and director. In MGM in the 1960s, Katzman produced several Elvis Presley films, as well as the Herman’s Hermits film Hold On! and Roy Orbison’s only film, The Fastest Guitar Alive.

Albert Zugsmith (1910 – 1993) was an American film producer, film director and screenwriter who specialized in low-budget exploitation films through the 1950s and 1960s.

Luana Anders (1938 – 1996) was an American film and television actress. She was part of a group of well-known actors who met in the acting class of actor Jeff Corey, including Jack Nicholson, Sally Kellerman, Robert Towne and Robert Corman.

[54] Vocabulary:

A pointillist pattern of salt-and-pepper interference swarmed the 12-inch screen.

(p.166)

Pointillism is a technique of painting in which small, distinct dots of color are applied in patterns to form an image. Georges Seurat and Paul Signac developed the technique in 1886, branching from Impressionism.

 

The Dark Country

[55]

He studied the man’s face, but a lifetime of apprehensions were recorded there, too many for Martin to isolate one and read it accurately.

(p.176)

[56]

“They say he comes down out of the hills,” said Winslow, his eyes unblinking. Martin half-turned to the low, tan range that lay beyond the other side of the highway. When he turned back, the man’s eyes were waiting.

(p.176)

[57]

I’ve got to get away from here, thought Martin. No, that isn’t right. Where else is there to go? I’ve come this far already just to get away. It’s hopeless. It always was. You can run, he told himself, but you can’t hide. Why didn’t I realize that?

(p.181)

[58]

“Maybe they can do something about it.”

“Maybe,” said Martin, cracking open a beer. He could have told Will that it wouldn’t do any good. He stopped in at the office anyway. It didn’t.

(p.182)

[59] References:

By Love Possessed by Cozzens, Invitation to Tea by Monica Lang (…), The Foundling by Francis Cardinal Spellman.

(p.183)

James Gould Cozzens (1903 – 1978) was a Pulitzer-prize winning American novelist and short story writer. By Love Possessed was published in 1957 and became a critically acclaimed best-seller. The book follows Arthur Winner Jr., an attorney, through 49 hours of his life.

It’s difficult to find information about Monica Lang. According to Goodreads, Invitation to Tea (1952) is her only published book. It is an autobiography of marriage in the early part of the 20th century.

Francis Spellman (1889 – 1967) was an American bishop and cardinal of the Catholic Church. The Foundling (1951) appears to be his only book of fiction. In it, a wounded war veteran returns to New York City and finds a baby in the Christmas crèche.

[60] Etchison uses periods in dialogue to great effect. He gives beats and pauses with full stops. I’ve never seen someone do it so much and I rather like it.

“I hate to say this. But. You did lock up, didn’t you?”

(p.185)

[61]

Martin came up. They shot looks at each other that both startled him and made him unreasonably afraid for their safety as well as his own.

(p.187)

[62] Reference:

[He] thought of the last news tape of the great Karl Wallenda.

(p.192)

Karl Wallenda (1905 – 1978) was a German-American high wire artist and founder of The Flying Wallendas, a daredevil circus act. In 1978, at age 73, Wallenda attempted a walk between the two towers of the ten-story Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Due to high winds, he fell to his death during the attempt. A film crew from WAPA-TV in San Juan taped the fall.


 

The Dark Country is an uneven collection, though two of the stories (“It Only Comes Out at Night” and “The Pitch”) are worth the three or four dollars it costs for the e-book (and if you can find it at a library, definitely take the opportunity to read them).

“Daughter of the Golden West,” and “The Nighthawk” have potential as Du Maurier-esque novellas but fail in their current form. I would have spent fifty more pages in either of those worlds, if only to be given any shape to the nebulous threads Etchison hints at.

“It Will Be Here Soon” and “The Dark Country” give us compelling characters with intriguing relationships; character studies that are, again, more suited for novels.

Etchison showed such potential and strength that I looked for a full-length novel to give him another chance. Strangely, most of his novels are movie tie-ins under pseudonyms (Halloween, Videodrome, The Fog) or stitched-together short story collections.

So, I won’t be revisiting Etchison country and I’m left perplexed by his career.

Next week, continuing the Danse Macabre recommendation train: Ursula LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven.

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