The Dark Country: A collection of horror stories

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Dark Country by Dennis Etchison

The Dark Country was Dennis Etchison‘s first collection of short stories, and originally appeared back in 1982. I picked up an out-of-print copy recently, after seeing that it had been included in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman‘s excellent overview volume,  Horror: 100 Best Books. Well, I don’t know if I would place it on my personal top 100 list, but this book certainly is a unique collection of shuddery, gruesome little tales.

Readers looking for horror stories depicting monsters, ghosts, demons and other manifestations of the supernatural would be best advised to look elsewhere; the only monsters in this volume are of the human kind, and the only demons are those found in the minds of the assorted oddball characters. These are all very much (post)modern stories, and there are no crumbling castles or Carpathian villages to be found. Some of the tales even take place in the not-too-distant future, and have a decidedly science fictional overtone. Without exception, every story is a distinct little gem, but like gems, some of them are flawed.

For me, these flaws take the form of either too much or not enough information. In some of these tales, such as “You Can Go Now,” Etchison gives us loads of detail, and at the story’s end, it all doesn’t add up to much. In others, such as “Today’s Special,” one feels that not enough has been supplied to fully understand the story. Etchison is a very stylish writer — sometimes almost too stylish — and that flashy style often comes at the expense of clarity. Often, these stories must be reread in order to pick up on hints missed on the first go-round. Or perhaps one will feel compelled to reread lines, just to revel in the frequent beauty of the writing. Etchison certainly does have a handy way with a simile, as, for instance, when he writes “… the sky… was turning a soft, tropical orange of the kind one expects to see only on foreign postage stamps.” Or when he writes, “The river smelled like dead stars.” Yes, the ol’ boy certainly does know how to write descriptive and imaginative prose, and in most of the cases here, that prose is in the service of tales that do hit the reader squarely.

One of my favorite tales in the collection is one of the most straightforward: “Daughter of the Golden West.” It concerns a bunch of gals who are decidedly, um, man hungry. There is a loosely linked trilogy of tales concerning organ transplants (these are the tales that tend to science fiction) that are also very well done. Other tales in the book will make readers never look at butcher shops, or salesmen, or clairvoyants, or oral sex, or laugh tracks, or late-night convenience store clerks in quite the same way ever again. For every head scratcher of a story in the book, there are two killers. So yes, the book is a mixed bag, but even the problematic tales hold one’s interest and invite reexamination. After finishing these 16 morbid little stories, I was sorry to see the book end. Etchison’s is certainly a unique voice in the horror field, and if other readers react as I did, they will feel compelled to read more of him. This is an unusual collection, and I recommend it.

In an era when “horror” has come to mean an endless proliferation of cheap, badly written supermarket paperbacks, Etchison’s work is like a glimpse into another realm where “horror” can be synonomous with “literature”. These stories display real craft, and feel as if they’re actually about something. They’re not just about gruesome deaths and perverse cruelty, they’re about real people; they sometimes surprise by being about compassion and love. And in place of the simple stomach-churn lesser authors settle for, Etchison wants to disturb you; you may find yourself still getting a chill three days after reading one of these gems. Etchison is one of the few contemporary writers in this genre who has the potential to stand the test of time.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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