February 12, 2010


IN THE DARK. I like the title. Most of us spend a significant part of our lives in the dark, both literally and figuratively. In face, if I were honest, I’d have to admit to spending the better part of my first twenty-five years in the dark, clueless about where to find the light switch. After bumbling through two and a half dim decades, I consider myself fortunate never to have stuck my fingers in an electrical outlet, metaphorically speaking. I never literally stuck my fingers in an outlet either, though I know many people who are certain that I did and that the resultant shock to my brain goes a long way toward explaining why I am the way I am.

Richard Laymon became a friend of mine well after I stumbled out of the dark, and he assumed from the start of our relationship that I’d always had my act together. I never disabused him of this serious misapprehension. We all need our illusions, and I was happy to serve as one of Dick’s. When he called me for advice about the mechanics and the byzantine diplomacies of the publishing and film businesses both here and abroad, I shared with him all the wretched experiences of my early career and made clear to him the lessons I had learned from this school of hard knocks—though in my case, if truth be told, my mistakes were so spectacular and the consequences so dire that it should accurately be called the School of Ferocious Bludgeoning.

Because my survival skills are widely recognized in the writing community, I receive calls every week from writers seeking advice about knotty problems with publishers, editors, copy editors, film producers, movie-studio executives, accountants, lawyers, barbers, greengrocers, appliance repairmen, argumentative video-store clerks, persistent mimes, evangelical aluminum-siding salesmen, the cat-eating extraterrestrials who have moved in next door, the occasional homicidally angry reader who feels the author has used the word hat too often in recent books and must SUFFER HIDEOUSLY for this grievous transgression—and, of course, literary agents. I always strive to mine my own experience for the best possible counsel; but in Dick’s case, I mulled over my advice more carefully than usual, because his unfailing good humor, commitment to hard work, and sense of proportion about himself made me want to steer him exactly right. Among writers, critical–mass egos are so common that if they could melt down like runaway nuclear reactors, then exploding novelists would long ago have been responsible for the destruction of the Earth; consequently, Dick’s humility is inspiration for his friends to do their best for him.

Some people reading a Richard Laymon novel, who never had the chance to know the author personally, will be shocked, horrified, appalled, and some—a smaller number—actually will not like the experience. On hearing of their shock and their horror, Dick would smile that choirboy smile of his, nod his head, and be pleased. Even hearing that some had been appalled, he would smile and say, “Well, yes, the ought to be when the scene insists on them being appalled. What am I writing for if not to affect readers?” And even on hearing that some didn’t’ enjoy the experience, Dick would smile, shrug, and say, “Gee, if I could please all the people all the time, I’d have to stop writing, ‘cause I’d know I was doing something wrong.”

Dear reader, you can’t know what a rare attitude that is among writers. Most novelists—struggling to make a living in a difficult business, aware that success, once achieved, frequently doesn’t last long—desperately want to please everyone. They spend ungodly amounts of time scooping the market, trying to determine what readers want, going to lots of conventions to show the flag and maintain connection with the most ardent fandom for their form of fiction, always striving to please, because they have seen how many good writers never find audiences and how many others, achieving an audience, pass out of favor in a few years. But here’s the secret that, even when they discover it, so few want to believe: Novels written with too intense a concern about pleasing the marketplace may bring temporary success but will never result in a long career, because they will be full of calculation and devoid of originality, crammed full of stuff that the writer thinks other people want, but lacking in any qualities that inspire his or her creative passion. The best way to succeed is to stop scooping the market, write what you most passionately want to write, and not worry when people tell you that you’re writing the wrong thing.

I, too, receive an occasional letter from a reader who tells me I’ve got it all wrong, that I just don’t please him, that I ought to write more like [plug in the name of any writer you wish] or just give up altogether. As long as the letter isn’t rude, I respond to this well-meaning soul with, “Sorry the book didn’t please you. But if I wrote just like the novelist you mention, then I wouldn’t write like me, in which case, there would be no point in writing at all. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it rots a writer’s soul if he engages in it.” When they’re rude, of course, I have them flayed, dragged behind a runaway horse, mercilessly tickled with duck feathers, subjected to twenty-four hours of Meet the Press videotapes, and finally squeezed in a giant garlic press. I always feel sad about this, but then they were rude.

Anyway, here is IN THE DARK, a novel by a writer who always writes out of personal conviction, who will delight some and offend others, but who will always be himself, word by word, line by line, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. Here is a novel by a nice guy whose perpetual optimism, in real life, never inhibits his unblinking exploration of the nastier side of human nature in his novels, which is a tonic to those who like their fiction brisk and astringent.

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