The Frightening World of Richard Laymon

Where an man realises his young mind was exposed to things far worse than horror stories...

The author Richard Laymon is an enigma.

My friends and I used to joke about him being a possible pseudonym of Dean Koontz or Jack Ketchum, such was the mystery surrounding him.  When I was in Laymon's native USA a few years ago, I asked a local bookstore if they had ever heard of him. They hadn't, and worse, they couldn't even find him on their database.  This was surprising as during the 90s here in the UK he enjoyed a large amount of success. His books took up as much space as Stephen King on the shelves of my local bookshop. His success was probably a happy accident of both his alphabetical proximity to Mr King and Mr Koontz on said shelves, and the helpful quotes from Mr King and Mr Koontz on his covers. (Strangely, despite King's quote reading "If you've missed Laymon, you've missed a treat", he once cited Laymon's The Cellar as being amongst the worst of haunted house literature). Still, even the bestseller-conscious Book Club carried his titles.

There is surprisingly little about Laymon on the internet. I'm still none the wiser as to whether the books published posthumously were completed by another author or whether they were trunked earlier works. There is no official website, richardlaymon.com is not owned by anyone and the only fan site hasn't been updated since 2008. http://rlk.stevegerlach.com/ 

I've just finished reading Night in the Lonesome October.  I think this was Laymon's last complete novel.  It occurred to me that I might have read every adult novel Laymon ever completed prior to his premature death in 2001. Admittedly I read most of them between the age of 14 and 16 -- having guiltily picked up this latest book to break up the twin intensities of I Was Amelia Earhart and Terry McDermott's Perfect Soldiers while on holiday --  but I wondered how many others had actually invested  such time in Laymon's work. And how many had actually critically appraised it.

If you aren't familiar with Laymon, his adult novels are a breed of horror that I have seen described as splatterpunk. His work uses sex and violence in such an extreme way that it borders on absurd. Often this appears very knowing, providing you like horror; at other times it makes you question how it ever got into print in the first place. (Interesting side note: I just tried finding a rare interview with the man that I watched some years ago. It has vanished! I might be misremembering, but in it he talked about how his UK publishers made him cut out some "unsavoury" scenes. Given what made it in, what was left out!?)

He wrote nearly 30 adult novels and 20 or so books for teens.  In many respects he was a "professional" writer in that he delivered books to a particular formula. No Laymon book is without its sex-in-a-shower scene, its incredibly attractive key players and its inexplicably insane bad guy. Generally his books seem to finish up at about a third of the way in, only for the bad guy to come back for one last hoorah. And there is always a vulnerable character, often a teenager or child, who winds up getting kidnapped making the final chapters a frantic race against time.

Even as an adult there are enjoyable elements in Laymon's books. The writing is punchy. The stories are engaging:  Body Rides and Endless Night are particularly good. I can see why, as a bored suburban teenager, his writing entertained me. Most of the characters are bored suburban teenagers too. In Laymon's world, the suburbs are where it's all happening. Danger lurks in every shadowy garage; every mysterious stranger out after dark is either a killer or your soon-to-be lover.   

However, there is a huge amount to dislike -- especially now I am an adult and a bit more sensitive to the world around me.  Some of what I have found has thoroughly disturbed me.

The rape stuff is just the starting point. And there is a lot of rape in Laymon. I can't think of a book of his without a rape. Not that writing about rape is inherently wrong. There are horrific rape scenes in American Psycho and a rape scene in the recently Pulitzer Prize nominated Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. But those scenes are used to serve the story, they aren't there to titillate. In Laymon's books you can't help but feel that rape is used as just another tool to entertain.

In a great interview with Laymon (you can read it here: http://www.mania.com/richard-laymon-horror-writer-bite_article_22364.html), he is asked about his use of rape in his work and doesn't exactly cover himself in glory with his defence. Here is a choice quote:

[T]he rape and degradation of women is so disturbing and off-putting (and politically incorrect--let's not forget) that most writers prefer to stay away from it entirely or soft-peddle it. Either they have no taste for dealing with it or they are afraid of negative reactions from editors (mostly New York feminists), readers, relatives, and friends. This creates a situation in which the 'rape and degradation of women' is largely not to be found in our literature.

Pretty amazing really. Rape is "politically incorrect"? Here is another:

The 'rape and degradation of women' in my books is a reflection of real life. Should I avoid being 'disturbing and off-putting' by choosing not to write about it? When I'm creating a scene, a chief concern is usually this--what would really happen in a situation like this.

Bear in mind these comments are from the end of the 90s not the 50s.

So Laymon's defence seems to be that he is writing about rape to stick it to the cowardly political correct brigade and "New York feminists" who want to censor "real life" reflections of rape in literature.  Putting aside his claim that literature doesn't realistically depict rape, the idea that Laymon's novels are "a reflection of real life" is patently absurd to anyone who has read his work. The charm of his work is its essential unreality.

But his defence brings up an interesting insight into Laymon; an insight that brought about my feelings of unease upon reading him as an adult. As mentioned earlier, I always perceived Laymon as a bit of a savvy hack. A professional writer with a capital P. But his defence doesn't smack of savvy professionalism. It smacks of someone lacking even a modicum of self-awareness. He actually believed he wrote realistic fiction and the frightening world he presents is actually how things are.

So taking what happens in Night in the Lonesome October as my reference, this is how Laymon's "real life" looks:

  •  Everyone but a handful of white, heterosexual westerners between the ages of 15-35 is not to be trusted.
  • Ethnic minorities are suspicious. They walk around being impolite and chastise you for talking to their pets. And they probably have weapons under their long, weird clothes and will behead you if you don't give them a wide berth.
  • Old people are crazy. Particularly old women. They are ugly and probably gypsies. They will put a curse on you. Even if they don't, they are probably up to no good.
  • Gay people are either sex murderers or in need of a punch to stop them trying to come on to heterosexuals of the same sex. One character called Kirkus gets a punch in the stomach from the "hero" for coming on to him. "Stop being such a fag" he tell the gay guy, who later turns up to save the day and apologise for being so full on before.  I was surprised Kirkus didn't thank the hero for the punch...
  • Who else is awful...? Oh I know, homeless people. They are almost certainly all sex offenders and definitely cannibals. In this novel they are lovingly referred to as "Trolls". Laymon has form here, as this name is also used in "Funland".  In that book, the heroes go round killing homeless people because they are evil...

That Laymon was conservative politically doesn't surprise me, but to have had borderline far-right views and been so mainstream in the UK is really strange. 

It probably goes without saying that I don't think Laymon's worldview comes anywhere how things really are. But so what? Why am I worrying about a deceased author who was hardly a major figure even in his genre? (arguably as a president of the HWA he was a major figure...)

Well, you rarely get to see such views lying around as naked as they are in Laymon. I find it interesting trying to understand staunchly conservative views as they are so far from my own. At the very least I can learn something from having read all those books.

As someone prone to being a bit cowardly, I do understand being scared of the world. Serial killers are frightening, wars are terrifying, Yellowstone blowing up one day is just not cool. I get fear; understanding it is why I think horror is interesting and important. But Laymon's worldview is built on fear of absolutely anything different, anything not white, middle class and able bodied/minded. His insane characters are just insane. There is no explanation or attempt to understand these characters. Bad guys are just bad, and good guys are good just in virtue of not being the bad guys. 

Some more from the man himself:

Oddly enough, in our present society, there is often a perception that a crime is somehow worse when it is committed against a woman, a child, a Jew, a homosexual, a homeless person or a 'person of color' (to name a few) than if it is committed against an employed heterosexual white Christian male adult. This is the thinking behind 'hate crime' legislation. To me, a crime is a crime is a crime. Victims are victims, regardless of their individual differences. And assholes are assholes and ought to be taken out.

The last line is particularly revealing. Basically, there are good guys and bad guys, and bad guys should be killed. The End. It's your basic argument for the death penalty.  But how is it that these bad guys got to be so bad? Isn't it funny how those that abuse have often been abused? What about some context or history... you know, like real life.

A consistent trait of every Laymon hero/heroine is their ability to face down their fears, something I don't see him doing in his portrayal of the world. Laymon isn't interested in asking why we are scared of things. In fact, that's what makes his world supposedly scarier -- evil just happens. It isn't part of the usual causal chain the binds the rest of the universe.

Here is another related insight into Laymon's views, put into the mouth of one of his protagonists in Night in the Lonesome October,a university literature student. Her favourite book is Atlas Shrugged  by Ayn Rand and she goes on to talk about how it is the best book ever written but a conspiracy by teachers (who are all commies) stops it being taught because they are scared of its message. When another character (the gay guy who gets punched) suggests her message is "selfishness", our heroine says: 

That's what they want you to believe... you know what her real message is... nobody has a single goddamn right to take what doesn't belong to them. Like a government for instance. The governments got no right to make us do anything... not even for what they call the "common good". We're nobody's slaves... we don't owe jack shit to society.

Perhaps I am doing Laymon a disservice by assuming these were his actual views, but given the interview above and that these comments come apropos of nothing in the book, I am assuming they were. What strikes me about these views is that if everyone believed them, we probably would live in a world just like the one Laymon wrote about. If we didn't pay taxes or contribute to "the common good", it would be every person for themselves. There would be no police (police are often Laymon protagonists) to tackle crime. No health service (or in the US, no charitable organisations) to tend to the mentally ill, no doubt exacerbating the homeless problem that Laymon fears so much. The only winners in such a world would be the brutal psychopaths that stalk Laymon's work. There would be no stopping them because what "right" would someone have to contravene their desire to murder people. After all, psychopaths are "nobody's slaves".

Richard Laymon is not just a straw man; I doubt he would have seen himself as such. He represents a certain strain of thought that is still prevalent. It's the "we want freedom from criminals, we want freedom from the law" mentality. The people that want to see petty criminals hung but can't believe they have to pay a speeding fine.  At the centre of such views is always an individual who ultimately believes that he is the good guy and that the world is trying to oppress them.  The problem is, lots of people think that, even the psychopaths.  We can't all be the good guy.

I certainly hope Laymon isn't the good guy.

I don't think he is. He could only be if his world represented "real life".  But the sad indictment of Laymon's work aesthetically was that it just wasn't scary. Sexy, thrilling, ridiculous, and entertaining? Sometimes. But it never kept me up at night. Never had me worried. The things he was asking us to fear were just ridiculous. They were straw men.

The scariest thing about Laymon really, is that he thought he was writing about real life.