The lost world of horror master Richard Laymon

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • October 30, 2013

Richard Laymon  (1947-2001) was one of the greatest 20th century American horror writers, but you won’t find his books at your local Barnes & Noble. I discovered him after my sophomore year of high school, at the tail end of his posthumous print publishing career. Leisure Books, his U.S. publisher, switched its catalog entirely to e-books in 2010, and Laymon’s mass market paperbacks disappeared from trade bookstores. Fans now have to rely on used bookstores, eBay, and Amazon to get their hands on his work, an unfortunate fate for such a prolific and talented author.

Horror is arguably the least popular strain of genre fiction in today’s book market, as consumers rely more and more on thrillers and murder mysteries to get their fix of literary adrenaline. Stephen King’s books continue to sell exponentially (Doctor Sleep, his recent sequel to The Shining, stands as the latest example), but much of King’s  work foregoes pure horror for a colorful mix of science fiction, psychological thriller, fantasy, and realism, as The New Yorker book blogger Joshua Rothman notes in his recent essay, “What Stephen King Isn’t.” But horror novels can evince feelings in a reader that cannot be found in any other kinds of books.

Horror fiction imagines people pushed to their physical and psychological limits, allowing glimpses into shadowy areas of human nature. Laymon’s work encapsulates this theme. At their core, his novels are painfully human, and his judicious use of the supernatural often shapes his characters and their actions in deeply unsettling and interesting ways.

Laymon understood the darkness of sex, a human desire so primeval, pervasive, and powerful that it often makes monsters of us. His villains are often sexually ravenous, as are his protagonists. The narrator of Island, for instance, cannot stop ogling the busty women with whom he is shipwrecked, despite the fact that there is a sadistic killer on the loose, and the narrator of Bite confesses that he is jealous of the vampire who enters his old flame’s room at night and drinks her blood.

But sex is just one facet of the expansive creepiness that dominates Laymon’s writing. His minimalist style perfectly complements the tense, fast-paced action of his novels. His writing is imbued with a witty, dark sense of humor that adds another level of creepiness to his unsettling narratives. And he had a knack for remaking old horror tropes into terrifying novels; Bite and The Traveling Vampire Show, for instance, are two remarkable takes on the classic vampire tale, and are still original and frightening, even in a post-Twilight literary climate where almost all of the terror has been stripped from the once horrifying monster.

Laymon was also a master of writing endings, and his best novels don’t deliver their strongest blow to their readers until the last few pages. Like his forebear H. P. Lovecraft, Laymon had deft control over ambiguity in his fiction, leaving his readers with just enough information to satisfy them, but not so much that every narrative thread is neatly resolved. His greatest works end with shocking scenes that force readers to re-evaluate the events of the book and their perceptions of the characters, as in The Cellar and The Traveling Vampire Show, novels whose images continue to haunt me four years after picking them up for the first time.

Laymon was considered part of the “splatterpunk” school of horror fiction, a subgenre that includes such writers as Jack Ketchum, Poppy Z. Brite, and Edward Lee. Splatterpunk horror emphasizes detailed descriptions of gore and violence, and, despite all the literary subtlety to which I allude above, Laymon’s novels are no exception. Cannibalism, decapitations, amputations, shootings, maulings, sexual assault, incest, castration, and cauterization stain red the pages of his books, and have garnered him critical accusations of exploitation and misogyny.

Admittedly, Laymon’s novels—especially his earlier works—are sometimes needlessly graphic and unrealistically erotic. In The Woods Are Dark, for instance, two main characters make love outside a cabin in a cannibal-infested forest, surrounded by human heads mounted on stakes. But for all his drawbacks, Laymon was also an effective writer, creating eerie stories with multidimensional characters that challenge and warp our perceptions of the world. And his books are a lot of fun. So if you’re looking for a scare this Halloween, take a trip to a used bookstore, browse through the paperbacks, and see if you can dig up a Laymon book. Just don’t be surprised if you have trouble sleeping.