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Night In The Lonesome January - Happy Birthday, Richard Laymon



I'm awakened by the sound

Of rain against my window

It's getting harder to ignore

But these tired eyes need rest.

-- "Flourescent Skies", Assemblage 23

I read a lot. I know this will make some of you wonder "when?" given the amount of time I spend going on and on about games, either playing them or writing about them, but despite the fun of interactive entertainment, there's nothing quite like a good book. Also, I make my living working in a used bookstore, and before that I worked in a library. Books, you could say, are in my blood.

Blood...it's an interesting word. Sometimes the mere mention of it is enough to make a person squeamish. For vampires, it's the choice of the Undead Generation, while for us mortals the sight of it usually triggers the unsettling sensation that something is very, very wrong. I'm not a vampire despite my choice to keep rather late hours, but I enjoy reading about them on occasion. My genre of choice, in fact, when it comes to literature (or rather, "literature" as the literati snobs prefer to describe it) is horror. Like many readers of horror my age, I cut my teeth on Stephen King with the likes of "The Stand," "It," and "The Tommyknockers." But while Mr. King received the pleasure of busting my virginal horror maidenhead, and I still enjoy the occasional dalliance of impropriety with him via his short stories, my one true love ever since I first discovered him in 1995 has been Richard Laymon.

The collective speaks out to me and asks, "Who?" A part of me enjoys answering this question, because Laymon is my favorite writer in the genre and I love the idea of introducing new people to him. There's another part of me, though, who will forever sit in her dark, quiet room at home, face against tear-stained pillows, clutching a threadbare teddybear and wishing for a release because Richard, my one true horror love, left me lo these long years ago on Valentine's Day of 2001, when he died of a massive heart attack at age 54.

Scattered light through broken windows

Far beneath fluorescent skies

Voices calling from a distance

So why am I still standing here?

-- "Flourescent Skies", Assemblage 23

All melodrama aside, I can safely say I know virtually nothing at all concerning his real life, save that he and his wife were good friends with Dean Koontz and often shared dinners with him and his family. Of his literary life, on the other hand, I am more familiar because Laymon struggled all of his life to nurture an audience in the country where he lived. Laymon's first novel, "The Cellar," was published in 1980 by Warner Books. It is a slim novel, clocking in at only a little over 250 pages in pocket paperback, but between those two black covers lurked a tale soaked through in blood, squelched nightmares from every oozing chapter, and provided an ending that didn't just thumb its nose at convention, but rather threw convention on its stomach and proceeded to violate it in every manner imaginable until it begged for mercy. Laymon is often credited with inventing the "splatterpunk" subgenre of horror, and with a read-through of "The Cellar," it is easy to see why. His first book sold well enough that Warner wanted another, and Laymon was only too happy to provide. 1981 saw the release of "The Woods Are Dark." It was the book that almost single-handedly wrecked Laymon's writing career.

The tense, electric hum abides

The wires meant to contain it

Until it arcs through angry skies

That look down with contempt.

-- "Flourescent Skies", Assemblage 23

Despite letting "The Cellar" pass through the doors of their press virtually untouched and uncensored, Warner Books decided to take a closer look at their second offering by Laymon, and one editor decided it was just too much. The manuscript was returned filled with edits, requests for revisions, orders to excise entire scenes and rewrite others, time and time again. Laymon fought as best he could, but as a newly-published author did not have the clout of a more established writer, and in the end, "The Woods Are Dark" was released with some fifty pages of cuts, rewrites, edits and, in the ultimate insult, whole sections that were rewritten by a line editor from Warner's own stable. When Laymon returned the manuscript after correcting all the spelling errors, grammar mistakes, plot compression, timeline distortions and flat-out idiocy that had resulted from the hackwork done to his novel, he was told that correcting everything he had identified would cost too much money at this stage and the book would be published as-is. To add insult to injury, the original cover artwork for the book was inexplicably passed over in favour of a cheap-looking and cheesy bright green foil-stamp design that would have looked out of place even on a romance novel of the times, much less a work of horror. The results were far too predictable: "The Woods Are Dark" produced miserable sales, despite a cover blurb from Gary Brandner who was enjoying considerable fame himself as the author of "The Howling," and Warner axed Laymon from their lineup. Just like that, a promising writer's career was utterly and capriciously ruined. The small remaining consolation to Laymon was that the UK publisher of "The Woods Are Dark" had the decency to fix the outright obvious mistakes in the text prior to its arrival on the shelves there.

Laymon continued to write, but his US career as a horror novelist was effectively over. In the UK, however, he enjoyed a considerable amount of success, publishing sometimes two or even three novels a year, including three sequels to "The Cellar" which became known to his fans as "The Beast House series". In the late 80s, Laymon's career in the US began to pick up again. "Flesh" was voted Best Horror Novel of 1988 by Science Fiction Chronicle, and both "Flesh" and "Funland" were nominated for a Bram Stoker Award by the Horror Writers Association. The 90s saw Laymon's work picked up by Leisure Press, and he slowly began to receive attention in the States. Reading his works chronologically, one can watch Laymon's skills grow and become more polished. Later books feature better characterization and better pacing, and Laymon's ability to create plots out of seemingly absurd situations became second to none. His 2000 release, "The Travelling Vampire Show," won the Bram Stoker Award. Unfortunately, Laymon died in February of 2001, and thus the award was given posthumously. The first book published in the aftermath of his death, "Night in the Lonesome October," is cited by many fans (myself included) as one of his best-written and most enjoyable novels; I re-read it every October as a memorial (needless to say, the blog title pays homage to this as well).

Rivers overflow their banks

And change their course forever

Force their will upon the earth

And wash it all away.

-- "Flourescent Skies", Assemblage 23

Today, Richard Laymon would have celebrated his sixth-third birthday, and my mind can only wonder at what he would have accomplished these past 9 years if he had continued to write. But in a career spanning a mere two decades, Laymon managed to publish more than thirty novels and seventy short stories and novellas, including a collaboration with Edward Lee and Jack Ketchum, two of his contemporaries in the genre, entitled "Triage." And finally, Laymon's work on "The Woods Are Dark" was vindicated, as his daughter Kelly was able to piece together her father's original manuscript from the files left behind. The original, unedited and uncut edition of the book was published by Leisure in 2008, and readers could now experience his vision first-hand.

So, to the man who has tingled my spine more than any other, my companion on countless journeys through the darkest hearts imaginable, the individual who has scared me time and time again only to later remove the mask and reveal himself as just a humble author, and who inspired me to work on writing creepy stories of my own without worrying about censoring myself, I raise a humble bottle of Mountain Dew in thanks and tribute. Happy birthday, Mr. Laymon, wherever you are. I've already made reservations for our date this October. I'll not forget...and somehow, I don't think you will either.


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Oh man. I love Splatterpunk but it's hard to come by in my area(WV). About a year ago I picked up The Bridge, by Skipp and Specter which was a good read, but not enough. I'll definitely be checking into this author and any more you can recommend to me, as I'm new to the genre.

I'm a small time fan of King, as well, I mainly like his short stories. I love the collection "Everything Eventual." The stories in it are a but more classic in tone, so it fills that void for me.

My birthday is the 16th, and I'm celebrating tomorrow. Maybe I can get someone to pick up one of Laymon's books! Beautifully written article, Areala. This one seems a bit more literary than usual- I like the descriptions.

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  • Retromags Curator

If you enjoy splatter, MZ, then I can recommend a couple different authors besides Laymon. First and foremost, look for anything done by Leisure publishing for US releases. They're the guys putting out everything unedited and uncut; they did it for Laymon with his book, they did it for Jack Ketchum with "Off Season", they did it for Robert Dunbar with "The Pines", and those are the three I can come up with just off the top of my head.

Ketchum is a good one to start with if you like splatter, especially the uncut release of "Off Season" which I read and enjoyed but will never read again. Ketchum is another one of those writers like Laymon who became the victim of a dumb publisher forcing him to edit/tone down his own material, or releasing a book with a cover that had nothing to do with the contents inside (the cover artwork of "The Girl Next Door" when it was originally published was a skeleton dressed in a cheerleader outfit, despite that it takes place during the summer, when there is no school, and none of the girls involved are cheerleaders...yeah...that one sold a lot of copies to horror fans, let me tell you what...).

Brian Keene is another excellent choice. I've read "Castaways" by him (think "Survivor" only on an island with cannibals that the network didn't know about), and I've also read "The Conqueror Worms" which is a VERY well-written story that casts an older man as the protagonist in a story about the day it started raining and would not stop, which forces the giant earthworms which have been sleeping below the soil to the surface to keep from drowning. He could very well have been Laymon's apprentice, and has a number of other books out that deal with zombies, ghosts, shipwrecks and the like.

For sheer, unadulterated and unabashed gorehounds, J.F. Gonzalez is the guy to go to. His stuff isn't as well-written as some other authors, but his story ideas are gruesome and Leisure lets him get away with an astounding amount of stuff that you couldn't even dream of showing even in an unrated film. His book "Survivor" is what the film "8mm" could have been if the director had been told, "Don't worry about the rating...a triple-X for gore is perfectly acceptable."

As for this blog entry being a bit more literary than usual...well, what can I say? I gotta use that degree in English for something. Might as well be in conjunction with writing about a guy who wrote for a living, eh? :)

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