Ah, but doesn’t it always seem to be the quiet one who turns out to be the serial killer? You know, the quiet one with dead bodies in the attic, or with children chopped-up and archived in bubble-wrap under the floorboards? On the six o’clock news there’s the interview with the concerned neighbor who tells the world how the killer was, “Quiet and polite, always said ‘Good morning,’ and kept his yard neat.” Yes, it’s those quiet ones—they’re the ones to watch.
Richard Laymon certainly was a quiet one, it was only his books that gave a clue to the mayhem going on in his mind. Laymon was a writer of horror fiction, specifically that genre known as “Splatterpunk”: brutal, disturbing, sadistic and violent tales of murder, sex and sadism.
Laymon was born in Chicago in 1947, and died of a heart attack on Valentine’s Day, 2001. He was the author of around 40 novels (one of which The Traveling Vampire Show won the Bram Stoker Award), and over 50 short stories, an output that saw him described as:
”Stephen King without a conscience.”
Laymon is certainly not to everyone’s taste. His books have been described as “sick,” “depraved,” “perverted,” “poorly written” and “disgusting.” All fair comment, but Laymon was an author of visceral horror, and one doesn’t get on a roller coaster to enjoy the scenery.
King was originally critical of Laymon’s work, and wrote in his book Danse Macabre:
There are haunted-house stories beyond numbering, most of them not very good (The Cellar, by Richard Laymon, is one example of the less successful breed).
King later changed his opinion, and became a “fan”:
“If you’ve missed Laymon, you’ve missed a treat.”
I’m not sure if “treat” is the right word, but America did miss out on Laymon during his lifetime, as few of his books were published in his homeland, and sales were almost non-existent. Laymon blamed this on a re-edit of his second book The Woods Are Dark, which saw the publisher cut 50-pages from the text. It basically finished his career in the States. But America’s lack of interest was in stark contrast to Europe, in particular the UK, where all of Laymon’s books were published, sold well, and received generally good reviews.
“In Laymon’s book, blood doesn’t so much drip drip as explode, splatter and coagulate. Its dynamic is described in salivating detail.” - The Independent (UK).
“A brilliant writer.” - Sunday Express (UK).
“This author knows how to sock it to the reader” - The Times (UK).
I can recall popping into bookshops in Glasgow and London during the 1990s and being able to find Laymon’s grisly tales displayed as prominently as King and Koontz. It may have helped that Laymon had a last name alphabetically close to the other two.
I started reading Laymon around the time of his death and devoured all of his books within a couple of months. They were compelling pulp horrors, but at the same time troubling because of Laymon’s often sleazy use of sex and torture as a device to create horror. Laymon argued he was reflecting the world as he saw it, and claimed:
”Horror writers are specialists in worst case scenarios.”
Laymon’s books are filled with such scenarios, which you could argue are little more than reflections of the writer’s own fear at being powerless to stop such terrors happening to himself or his family.
I can tie my own love of horror film and fiction to being scared shitless at a carnival when I was about five-years-old. I had dared to enter the “Ghost Tunnel,” which was basically an enclosed metal walkway consisting of a long, dark corridor, mirror-walled, with sliding panels, from inside of which two teenagers, dressed in rubber skeleton masks and gloves, attacked and pummeled anyone foolhardy enough to enter this nightmarish sideshow. I was terrified and (almost) loved every moment of it.
If this was the spark, then watching The Blob a few months later on TV, provided the fuel. The film’s all-consuming gelatinous goo (“Indestructible, indescribable, nothing can stop it alien!”) was responsible for recurring nightmares—one could argue this was some subconscious fear of my troll of a father’s attempts to destroy my nascent personality.
Horror fiction by its nature tends towards the conservative, the conformist, where the alien, the strange, and the abnormal are to be feared and ultimately defeated. This may explain why Laymon’s work is often denounced as “sick” and “depraved” because in his books the typical hero and heroine don’t win, but usually end up victims of the killer, the monster, or the sex mad beast in the cellar.
Around 2000, Richard Laymon was interviewed for Dark Dreamers, which seems to be the only interview he gave to TV. Laymon comes across as a quiet, rather mundane (if slightly creepy) high school teacher, but from his words you know there’s something dark and unsavory going on in his mind.