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Authors: Dennis Etchison

The Dark Country

BOOK: The Dark Country
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"The first short story collection by a master of the macabre is most welcome, for it has long been obvious that he has the unique personal vision and the command of style to make horror hounds howl with shivery delight. Consider the scary revenge motifs of 'We Have All Been Here Before' and 'The Pitch,' which play on fantasies we have all been guilty of. Share the organ donor's nightmare of 'The Dead Line,' which begins with what Ramsey Campbell in his introduction calls 'the most horrifying first line ever written.' Try the title story, which won the World Fantasy Award, or any of the 16 stories here, and you are sampling the state of the art in modern horror.''

—Publishers Weekly

To Ray Bradburry

Table of Contents

Introduction by Ramsey Campbell


















By Ramsey Campbell

It was about time. I mean the award I presented to Dennis Etchison for "The Dark Country"—the British Fantasy Award for best short story of the year. Though the award should have been presented at the Birmingham fantasy convention, I was forbidden to do so by the committee, which had become estranged from the British Fantasy Society, whose award it was. All this is incidental and not very interesting, except that the way Dennis was denied his moment of glory in front of the audience which was waiting to hear who had won the awards seems frustratingly consistent. Etchison is still far less appreciated than he deserves to be, and it was certainly about time for this book.

And yet for a period in his twenty years of writing he was appearing alongside Stephen King, in alternate issues of
What must the readers have made of the oblique and allusive Etchisons which appeared in (continued on page 90) fragments between the nude ladies primly covering their pubes and the body-brief ads, Big Flash, Scuttles and Sling Shot (. . . a tornado of perfection ... big idea with brief action)? Perhaps they didn't know enough about the conventions to which horror fiction is expected to conform to be deterred by his unpredictability.

I can only think it's that quality which has denied him the 
fame accorded to so many lesser writers. In these days of supermarketing labels it's dangerous for a writer of HORROR FICTION to break the conventions. Maybe it bothers some readers that some of his tales pursue their themes beyond what would be the conventional punch line, while some do without a punch line entirely. You have my word that he is offering more than hidebound horror fiction does, not less.

Etchison is a poet of loneliness and alienation, whether in the big city or on the freeway. "You Can Go Now," "The Nighthawk," "It Will Be Here Soon," and "Deathtracks" are four of the most poignant fantasies (which means anything but escapism) of our time. On the other hand, his transplant trilogy is one of the most chilling achievements in contemporary horror I can think of; in particular, "The Dead Line" manages to live up to the most horrifying first line ever written. Etchison has little time as a writer for the manufacturing of atmosphere, and why should he when he can even (in "The Pitch") make a description of food terrifying? Who else in this too often reactionary field has forged so far ahead and kept on while so few people noticed? Now at last the power and range of his work is on display too strikingly to be ignored.

Dennis Etchison is the finest writer of short stories now working in this field, and the rest of us ought to learn from him.

Mersey side, England
July 22, 1982


If you leave L. A. by way of San Bernardino, headed for Route 66 and points east, you must cross the Mojave Desert.

Even after Needles and the border, however, there is no relief; the dry air only thins further as the long, relentless climb continues in earnest. Flagstaff is still almost two hundred miles, and Winslow, Gallup and Albuquerque are too many hours away to think of making without food, rest and, mercifully, sleep.

It is like this: the car runs hot, hotter than it ever has before, the plies of the tires expand and contract until the sidewalls begin to shimmy slightly as they spin on over the miserable Arizona roads, giving up a faint odor like burning hair from between the treads, as the windshield colors over with essence of honeybee, wasp, dragonfly, mayfly, June bug, ladybug and the like, and the radiator, clotted with the bodies of countless kamikaze insects, hisses like a moribund lizard in the sun. . . .

All of which means, of course, that if you are traveling that way between May and September, you move by night.

Only by night.

For there are, after all, dawn check-in motels, Do Not Disturb signs for bungalow doorknobs; there are diners for mid-afternoon breakfasts, coffee by the carton; there are 24-hour filling stations bright as dreams—Whiting Brothers, Conoco,

Terrible Herbst—their flags as unfamiliar as their names, with ice machines, soda machines, candy machines; and there are the sudden, unexpected Rest Areas, just off the highway, with brick bathrooms and showers and electrical outlets, constructed especially for those who are weary, out of money, behind schedule. . . .

So McClay had had to learn, the hard way.

He slid his hands to the bottom of the steering wheel and peered ahead into the darkness, trying to relax. But the wheel stuck to his fingers like warm candy. Off somewhere to his left, the horizon flickered with pearly luminescence, then faded again to black. This time he did not bother to look. Sometimes, though, he wondered just how far away the lightning was striking; not once during the night had the sound of its thunder reached him here in the car.

In the back seat, his wife moaned.

The trip out had turned all but unbearable for her. Four days it had taken, instead of the expected two-and-a-half; he made a great effort not to think of it, but the memory hung over the car like a thunderhead.

It had been a blur, a fever dream. Once, on the second day, he had been passed by a churning bus, its silver sides blinding him until he noticed a Mexican woman in one of the window seats. She was not looking at him. She was holding a swooning infant to the glass, squeezing water onto its head from a plastic baby bottle to keep it from passing out.

McClay sighed and fingered the buttons on the car radio.

He knew he would get nothing from the AM or FM bands, not out here, but he clicked it on anyway. He left the volume and tone controls down, so as not to wake Evvie. Then he punched the seldom-used middle button, the shortwave band, and raised the gain carefully until he could barely hear the radio over the hum of the tires.


Slowly he swept the tuner across the bandwidth, but there was only white noise. It reminded him a little of the summer rain yesterday, starting back, the way it had sounded bouncing off the windows.

He was about to give up when he caught a voice, crackling drifting in and out. He worked the knob like a safecracker zeroing in on the signal.

A few bars of music. A tone, then the voice again. ". . . Greenwich Mean Time." Then the station ID. It was the Voice of America Overseas Broadcast. He grunted disconsolately and killed it. His wife stirred.

''Why'd you turn it off?'' she murmured.' 'I was listening to that. Good. Program."

"Take it easy," he said, "easy, you're still asleep. We'll be stopping soon."

"... Only comes out at night," he heard her say, and then she was lost again in the blankets.

He pressed the glove compartment, took out one of the Automobile Club guides. It was already clipped open. McClay flipped on the overhead light and drove with one hand, reading over—for the hundredth time?—the list of motels that lay ahead. He knew the list by heart, but seeing the names again reassured him somehow. Besides, it helped to break the monotony.

It was the kind of place you never expect to find in the middle of a long night, a bright place with buildings (a building, at least) and cars, other cars drawn off the highway to be together in the protective circle of light.

A Rest Area.

He would have spotted it without the sign. Elevated sodium vapor lighting bathed the scene in an almost peach-colored glow, strikingly different from the cold blue-white sentinels of the Interstate Highway. He had seen other Rest Area signs on the way out, probably even this one. But in daylight the signs had meant nothing more to him than FRONTAGE ROAD or BUSINESS DISTRICT NEXT RIGHT. He wondered if it was the peculiar warmth of light that made the small island of blacktop appear so inviting.

McClay decelerated, downshifted and left Interstate 40.

The car dipped and bumped, and he was aware of the new level of sound from the engine as it geared down for the first time in hours.

He eased in next to a Pontiac Firebird, toed the emergency brake and cut the ignition.

He allowed his eyes to close and his head to sink back into the headrest. At last.

The first thing he noticed was the quiet.

It was deafening. His ears literally began to ring, with the high-pitched whine of a late-night TV test pattern.

The second thing he noticed was a tingling at the tip of his tongue.

It brought to mind a picture of a snake's tongue. Picking up electricity from the air, he thought.

The third was the rustling awake of his wife, in back.

She pulled herself up. "Are we sleeping now? Why are the lights . . . ?"

He saw the outline of her head in the mirror. "It's just a rest stop, hon. I—the car needs a break." Well, it was true, wasn't it? "You want the rest room? There's one back there, see it?"

"Oh my God."

"What's the matter now?"

"Leg's asleep. Listen, are we or are we not going to get a—"

"There's a motel coming up." He didn't say that they wouldn't hit the one he had marked in the book for another couple of hours; he didn't want to argue. He knew she needed the rest—he needed it too, didn't he? "Think I'll have some more of that coffee, though," he said.

"Isn't any more," she yawned.

The door slammed.

Now he was able to recognize the ringing in his ears for what it was: the sound of his own blood. It almost succeeded in replacing the steady drone of the car.

He twisted around, fishing over the back of the seat for the ice chest.

There should be a couple of Cokes left, at least.

His fingers brushed the basket next to the chest, riffling the edges of maps and tour books, by now reshuffled haphazardly over the first-aid kit he had packed himself (tourniquet, forceps, scissors, ammonia inhalants, Merthiolate, triangular bandage, compress, adhesive bandages, tannic acid) and the fire extinguisher, the extra carton of cigarettes, the remainder of a half-gallon of drinking water, the thermos (which Evvie said was empty, and why would she lie?).

He popped the top of a can.

Through the side window he saw Evvie disappearing around the corner of the building. She was wrapped to the gills in her blanket.

He opened the door and slid out, his back aching. He stood there blankly, the unnatural light washing over him.

He took a long, sweet pull from the can. Then he started walking.

The Firebird was empty.

And the next car, and the next.

Each car he passed looked like the one before it, which seemed crazy until he realized that it must be the work of the light. It cast an even, eerie tan over the baked metal tops, like orange sunlight through air thick with suspended particles. Even the windshields appeared to be filmed over with a thin layer of settled dust. It made him think of country roads, sundowns.

He walked on.

He heard his footsteps echo with surprising clarity, resounding down the staggered line of parked vehicles. Finally it dawned on him (and now he knew how tired he really was) that the cars must actually have people in them—sleeping people. Of course. Well hell, he thought, watching his step, I wouldn't want to wake anyone. The poor devils.

BOOK: The Dark Country
10.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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