Richard Laymon Kills
I discovered Richard Laymon in a very Richard Laymon way - late one night in a strange drug store. There is a large drug store in Oakland that used to be a Longs - hence its sometime nickname ‘Taj MaLongs’. It is now a CVS and a very sad hollow shell of the great 24 hour drug store giant that it once was. It was like a regular CVS had a baby with a Wal-Mart and a Target, slapped a ‘Open 24 Hours’ sign on the front and added a shoe repair kiosk and hot dog restaurant in the foyer (they even had an entire fabric section). I used to go to this store quite often.
My favorite thing to do when visiting this store was to browse the book aisle. They usually had the standard bestseller shelf, but the rest of the selection was such a random assortment, you really never knew what the fuck you’d find there. I collect an ongoing series of post-apocalyptic books that they sometimes would carry, for instance. One night I picked up a book called Offspring by Jack Ketchum and decided to buy it.
As it turns out, Offspring is a sequel to another Ketchum book (Off Season), but I didn’t know that and read it anyway. I enjoyed it a lot - it was very different from other books I’d read. So I found myself looking for other authors to check out while at the CVS. I remember seeing lots of Richard Laymon books as time marched on, and I read the back of The Cellar, the first of the Beast House books, but was mistakenly under the impression that The Cellar was the sequel to The Beast House. And so I waited until I found a copy of The Beast House in order to buy my first Richard Laymon novel.
I ended up taking The Beast House with me on a vacation in early 2009. I figured it would be a quick read and, as it turned out, I had a lot of downtime for reading on that vacation. I ended up finishing The Beast House and every other book I had taken with me. So I made my friend take me to the local Half-Price Books and I got another Richard Laymon novel called After Midnight which I almost finished reading before I got home.
By then I was hooked. I ended up buying up most of Laymon’s back catalogue at various used bookstores over the next few years (and even managed to buy the same book more than once; as a result of that embarrassing mistake, I now keep a list on my iPhone of all of his books that I have). I was sad to learn that he had passed away in 2001 and even more sad to learn how his career almost didn’t happen - his books were only just beginning to be published in the US before his death, but he was hugely popular in Europe and especially in England. I have a rerelease hardcover of The Woods Are Dark which includes an introduction by his daughter explaining what happened. The short story is that when that novel, his second, was released in the US, the publishers botched the release so badly that it killed his entire US career for a really long time and it is only due to his wild success in Europe that his books even began to see release in the US.
I own two books signed by Richard Laymon. I bought both of them at Borderlands Books in San Francisco which is a sci-fi/fantasy centric bookstore. The first I got was Bite, it is a UK paperback and I had just picked it up off the shelf to look at the cover art and happened to flip the book open and saw the signature on the title page. I did a triple take, held it up to the light to verify that it really was pen on the paper, then used my iPhone to google his signature and verified that it was real. The book cost a bit more than a US paperback, but I bought it in a hot second. Another time I was at the store (I’ve been there all of 3 times), I was browsing their rather meager used section and found another of his books signed. This one is his novel Savage and it is inscribed “For Jason, Keep yer powder dry and yer knife sharp. Best, Dick Richard Laymon June 21, 1999” These are precious materials. Richard Laymon will never sign another book, so the number of signed books of his is finite and I am very happy to be in possession of two such books. I hold these discoveries just as dear to my heart as the autographed Octavia E. Butler book I found at a used bookstore once. This kind of thing is my favorite kind of thing.
Richard Laymon's books are not for everyone. There's a lot of fucked up shit that happens, and even among his fans there are those who will mention moments when they believe he took something too far. If you think that Stephen King has written fucked up shit, you ain’t seen nothing til you’ve read some Richard Laymon. My mother asked me if it was more explicit than the Stieg Larrson Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series and I told her absolutely. I have never read anything else that was ever quite as explicit and fucked up as what Richard Laymon writes. And for a while I felt some shame about that - that I enjoyed reading these books. I thought that enjoying them made me fucked up. And maybe it does, but it’s not like I am going out and doing any of the atrocious things that he describes. The books provide a catharsis. But they are not for everybody.
So which book should you start with? That’s a tough one. Because frankly, if you’re going to like Laymon, you’ll like anything he’s written. There are books that are better than others, but I’ve yet to read anything of his that I have disliked. And if you’re not going to like him, you won’t like anything he’s written. My personal favorites are The Traveling Vampire Show and Night in the Lonesome October. I started with the Beast House books, though, and you could do worse than starting there. After Midnight, Endless Night, Island, and Darkness, Tell Us are all really strong choices as well. And I haven’t even read a whole bunch of his books that other people cite as favorites.
I’m not in a hurry to finish reading all of his books. He wrote somewhere around 30 novels in his lifetime (some were published under different names, some are almost impossible to find). There will never be any more books and once I’ve finished reading his books, there will be no more forthcoming. At that point, though, I have no problem rereading his work. In fact, I look forward to rereading After Midnight and The Midnight Tour one day.
If you’re a Laymon fan and you want someone to talk about it with, please don’t hesitate to contact me. If you want a Laymon reading buddy, I’m here for you.