Forgotten Books: Pity Him Afterward by Donald E. Westlake
Every once in awhile I get stoned just watching a literary master do his work. The last two nights I was flat out dazzled from beginning to end with Donald Westlake's 1964 novels PITY HIM AFTERWARD.
The story concerns an escaped madman who takes the identity of a man who is headed to a theater that does summer stock. While we see the story several times from the madman's point of view, we're never sure who he is. This is a fair clue mystery.
In quick succession, a young woman who works summer stock is found murdered in the house where the young, struggling actors stay. A part-time chief of police appears to find the killer.
Two points: writers owe their readers original takes on familiar tropes as often as possible. The madman here is no slobbering beast but rather a deranged and sometimes pitiful lunatic (the opening three thousand words are among the most accomplished Westlake pieces I've ever read). And the police chief Eric Songard is one of the most unique cops I've come across in mystery fiction. He works nine months of the year as a professor and summers as a police chief. The small town he oversees usually offers nothing worse than drunks and the occasional fight. Murder is another matter. Westake gives us a cop whose self-confidence is so bad all he can do is try and hasten the appearance of the regular cops from a nearby district. Meanwhile he has to pretend he knows what's going on. He could easily have gone to series. He's a great character.
As the story is told, we get a beleivable look at summer stock with its low pay, brutal hours, frequent rivalries. The payoff is that some of the actors will get their Equity card at the end of the nine week run and thereby become professional actors.
Then there is the telling. The craft is impeccable. Precise and concise and yet evocative because of the images Westlake constantly presents us. You also have to marvel at the rhythm of his language, watching how'll he'll shave an anticpated word here for a certain effect, add a word there for the sake of cadence. These sentences are CRAFTED.
There are so many great Westlake novels it's impossble to rank them. But given what he accomplished, I'd have to say this is one of his early best.
Ed here: Since there's more and more crossover from dark suspense/horror to suspense and mystery, some of you have picked up on writers you've met on this blog. Harry Shannon is a must-read. His novels and stories are filled with suspense and fascinating takes on society (he's a psychotherapist). The touches of horror make them all the more modrant (though Harry has a wild sense of irony.)
PENNING THE WEIRD STUFF by Harry Shannon
Just to get it out of the way, and solely off the top of my head, Roald Dahl, John Collier, Ambrose Bierce, Saki, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. At least those are the names that come to mind when I think of my childhood in Nevada . If memory serves, I got most of those books of short fiction at the library. Used to go there and read for hours to get away from the mess at home.
Perhaps in part due to that mess, I've had a taste for the macabre since I can remember. I think there's something in those of us who struggle to write horror that appears one millisecond after having been deeply affected by a story (for example the gory foot at bottom of the stairs at the conclusion of Collier's deliciously creepy "Sredni Vashtar," or the children blithely chatting while their doomed parents scream at the end of Bradbury's "The Veldt"). That mysterious something that suddenly appears? The urge to write your own. Try your hand at creeping someone else out.
I've always thought of myself as more of a long distance runner than a sprinter, so "A Host of Shadows" is only my second collection in ten years. I'm beyond pleased that so many people appreciate these tales. And I hope at least a few of them are similarly moved, and promptly put my book to one side to try out their own idea. That may be the highest compliment of all, that we have inspired someone else. Believe me, I've thanked Richard Matheson and Ray for that on several occasions.
I'd thank Saki and Ambrose Bierce and Collier, but for some reason they never answer my damned emails.
-- Harry Shannon
Harry's books are now available at
Amazon Kindle Smashwords
A Host of Shadows
Harry's first collection of short stories
in almost 10 years
ETA August 2010
Dark Regions Press
Includes the Bram Stoker Award Nominated short story, "The Night Nurse"
"Master craftsmanship." - CEMETERY DANCE
"Harry Shannon takes age-old themes and gives them a new and fearsome bite. Vividly realized, his writing is controlled, assured, and filled with the kind of spooky atmosphere that used to make you hide your head under the bedcovers on wind-wracked nights."
- TOM PICCIRILLI
"A literary muscle rarely seen in the horror field these days; in fact, the last time I can remember reading novels that were both this action-packed and this smart was in the heyday of Robert McCammon. Shannon is a writer of incredible energy who never blinks his eye for detail."
- GARY A. BRAUNBECK
"Shannon writes with an assured level of control, pace and experience that sings off the page. In fact his writing knocked me off my feet ... and I'm still reeling."
- TIM LEBBON
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What I've never understood is why Westlake didn't connect with a larger audience...why didn't everyone who was reading every Elmore Leonard picking his up, too? John MacDonald's readers? Latterly, Carl Hiassen's?
But there are so many writers about which this kind of question can be asked.
And thanks for taking care to see that Harry Shannon might escape that sort of fate...looks interesting.
I'm not making this up when I tell you I peeled PITY HIM AFTERWARDS off my bookshelf two nights ago. I'm only 5k in, but you're right--this book, and especially the first bit (so far!) is amazing. I'm learning about POV even while I'm enjoying the read.
Small world. Lots of books.
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