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.