THE HORROR writer Richard Laymon was a prophet almost entirely without honour in
his own country. An American working in what is almost purely an American
tradition - that of the "stalk-and-slash" and "splatter" genres - for
most of his life he could only get published in the United Kingdom,
where his fan following was impressive, highly appreciative and very
vocal. This despite the fact that his first published novel THE CELLAR
(1980) was the very epitome of American Gothic grisliness - vile troglodytish
creatures dwelling far beneath the site of a gruesome slaughter-scene
emerge at intervals to terrorise the local inhabitants, maiming and
killing the males, sexually enslaving the females.
In effect Laymon was merely updating just about any novelette submitted to the old "shudder"
pulps such as Horror Stories and Terror Tales of half a century before,
but with lashings more sex and, as it were, lashings more lashings.
The result sold over 200,000 copies and gained a four-week residency
on the B. Dalton bestseller list.
His second novel in the mainstream (a young-adult "stalker" tale, Your Secret Admirer,
had preceded The Cellar), THE WOODS ARE DARK (1981) bombed so badly,
however, it virtually destroyed his career, at any rate in his own country.
Laymon always insisted the book was sabotaged by an over-eager editor affected by what might
be termed (after the man who heroically wrestled Thomas Wolfe's notoriously
flatulent prose into shape) "Maxwell Perkins- itis", an infamous syndrome
amongst American book editors who view the work of their charges as
a kind of tabula rasa that requires a good deal of close attention.
Thus in an excess of editorial creativity, The Woods are Dark was rendered
virtually unrecognisable to its author, was published, and then proceeded
to do no business at all in the nation's bookstores.
A decade later Laymon rewrote it back to its original form for his British publishers. It
then sold, like all his books in the UK, massively in both hardback
and paperback. In later years, in interviews Laymon rarely spoke of
US publishers save through clenched teeth, lauding his British publishers
(first W.H. Allen then Headline) immoderately.
Laymon was born in Chicago in 1947. He attended both Willamette University, Oregon,
and Loyola University, Los Angeles, gaining a Master's degree in English
literature at the former, as well as a teaching credential and enough
librarianship credits to become a certified librarian. At one time or
another during his twenties and early thirties, he taught English at
high school, edited small-circulation mystery magazines, published a
short-lived paper for pipe-smokers, and clerked in a university library
and a junior high. He was also a legal report-writer.
At the same time he cracked Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine aged 22, and later sold to
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Mike Shayne as well as the "men's
mags" Cavalier and Gallery. His tales were in the "dark suspense" genre
rather than detective stories, and once The Cellar was published he
began to gain commissions from editors of original horror anthologies.
His "difficulties with publishers" were to an extent exorcised in THE STAKE (1990), a
vampire novel whose main protagonist is a writer of horror stories.
Self-justificatory rants against purblind, greedy and doltish editors
form an unusual counterpoint to the obligatory shrieks, groans, choked
gurgles and meaty "thwacks" of hammers socking stakes into centuries'
old hearts. Laymon otherwise rarely used his stories for propaganda
purposes, preferring to let his customers have their bloody bones unadulterated.
In the main his books chronicled, in fairly repulsive detail, a breakdown in the civilised
norm. BEWARE! (1985) starts off with the discovery of a crowd of ruptured
corpses (destroyed by a blood-mad, invisible "force- creature") and
keeps gear-shifting upwards after that.
In BLOOD GAMES (1992) girls on vacation from university gather at an abandoned hunting lodge
(scene of a frightful massacre years before) in the Vermont woods to
play "dares", thus sparkling off the spirit of the place and creating
SAVAGE (1993) was atypical of his output and an interesting experiment he didn't quite
bring off: his hero, a young boy, called (alas) Trevor is in Mary Kelly's
room when Jack the Ripper murders her (allowing Laymon to bring into
full play his fearsome descriptive skills in the depiction of Kelly's
appalling dismemberment). The Ripper takes ship for America, pursued
by Trevor who (in old age) tells the story in a curious mix of over-researched
period thieves' cant and Old West vernacular.
There are no morals in Laymon's books ("Stephen King without a conscience," the writer Dan
Marlowe once commented). Evil men get their come-uppances, but so do
total innocents. He wrote of an entirely arbitrary and godless world,
a dreadful reflection of our own.
Richard Carl Laymon, writer: born Chicago, Illinois 14 January 1947: married (one daughter); died Los Angeles 14 February 2001.