Sunday, June 2, 2019

Dennis Etchison: BLACK SUN

On the evening that Dennis Etchison's death was announced, I pulled out my signed hardcover of his 1984 collection RED DREAMS and reread his short story "Black Sun," a beautifully depressing tale about the day-to-day terrors of resisting the draft during the Vietnam War. Though I was just a toddler when Etchison first published this story (in the thirteenth volume of Damon Knight's legendary ORBIT series), his stripped down and yet evocative prose managed to transport me to another era... a bloody period in United States history that might be difficult for younger Americans to comprehend in the twenty-first century. Over the course of a story that's only nine pages long, Etchison induced in me the deep paranoia and anxiety that would have festered in any rational man forced to deal with a mechanistic process as irrational (and inhuman) as the draft.

In "Black Sun," the mundane, absurd, and tragic realities of living in the shadow of the Vietnam War during the 1960s is brought vividly to life, though filtered through Etchison's existential point of view. Etchison's "horror" stories owe more to Franz Kafka and Albert Camus than the usual supernatural scriveners often cited by those who choose to inhabit the horror genre. In the 1970s, or perhaps even in any other decade, only Etchison could get away with publishing such a starkly literary story within the pages of a science fiction anthology. The fact that Knight decided this uncompromising and realistic tale was appropriate for the pages of ORBIT says a great deal about Etchison's unique point of view. Even when Etchison was writing about the quotidian, his stories somehow felt nightmarish, distorted, and unreal. As "Black Sun" itself states, "The horror lies in that there is no horror."

The title Etchison chose for this particular story inevitably made me think of a 2001 Sally Mann photograph also christened "Black Sun." Though the phantasmagoric artist J.K. Potter is most often associated with Etchison and his work, it occurred to me while rereading "Black Sun" that perhaps the haunting Sally Mann photograph seen below would best sum up the overall tone and atmosphere of Etchison's fiction. A future collection of Etchison's stories adorned with a cover featuring Mann's unforgettable image would be eerily fitting.  

Late last night, while rereading this story (as well as "Not From Around Here," the final tale in RED DREAMS), I couldn't help but think that the majority of Etchison's stories must have been impenetrable to the general readership of the popular magazines in which they first appeared. What did the average reader make of the hopeless, downward spiral of the doomed lovers in "On the Pike"? Or the brutal, deadend epiphany experienced by frustrated romantic Jack Martin, the protagonist of "The Chair"?

In his cogent introduction to RED DREAMS, Karl Edward Wagner nails the underlying theme that unites many of Etchison's stories: "Etchison's nightmare visions are those of loneliness--of an individual adrift in a society beyond his control, beyond his comprehension, in which only sheep-like acceptance and robot-like nonawareness permit survival. Underlying it all is a sort of desperate, dark humor--condemned men joking as they are led to the gallows."

I would not say this about most writers who are tagged--whether fairly or unfairly--with the "horror" genre label, but without a doubt Etchison's stories deserve to be collected by the Library of America or some equally august series designed to preserve genuine American classics for future generations. 

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