In His Posthumous Autobiography, Dark Fiction Author Rick Hautala Defies “the Notion that Death Ends It All”
(Portrait of Rick Hautala by artist Glenn Chadbourne)
Shawn Macomber talks to Holly Newstein Hautala, Christopher Golden, Thomas F. Monteleone and Timothy Deal about horror author Rick Hautala’s posthumously-released autobiography THE HORROR…THE HORROR as well as a handful of star-studded fundraising campaigns through which you can help support Hautala’s widow.
In the deliciously chatty, rousing new autobiography THE HORROR…THE HORROR —unearthed and published only a few short months after its author’s sudden death last March (and available for download from Crossroads Press HERE)—Rick Hautala writes of working up the gumption at nine or ten years-old to go see RODAN at the Strand Theater in Gloucester, Massachusetts in defiance of a mother who had made it “absolutely clear that she didn’t want me or my brother watching such things because they would give us nightmares.”
“Interesting concept,” Hautala muses. “‘Give’ us nightmares—like a nightmare is a gift you receive. I like that!”
As devotees of Hautala’s creepy-cool, inventive oeuvre are well aware, when it came to such “gifts,” this was a man firmly ensconced in the “it is more blessed to give than to receive” school—not for nothing was he awarded the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement last year—and yet the exquisitely rendered, revelatory vignettes laid out in THE HORROR… were very nearly left tightly wrapped up under the (metaphorical) tree.
“Rick had a ‘man corner’ at one end of the sofa in our apartment where he piled to-be-read books, manuscripts he needed to blurb, war games, magazines, etcetera,” Holly Newstein Hautala tells FANGORIA. “It was a pretty substantial pile. After he passed, I was winnowing it down and found a manila envelope. I opened it, and there was the manuscript of THE HORROR… with Rick’s handwritten edits. I had no idea he had written it. I was surprised and, as I began to read it, saddened and comforted by the genuineness of his voice on the page. As far as I know, it’s the only secret he kept from me…
“I searched Rick’s thumb drives and his external hard drive for THE HORROR… and it was nowhere to be found,” she adds. “I can only assume that, in one of his ‘Eeyore’ moments, he decided nobody would want to read it and deleted it.”
Such an impulse would not have been out of character.
Yes, THE HORROR… fairly bursts with heartening tales recounting, amongst many other things, an adolescence spent seeking “something to fill the void” until sci-fi and horror fiction jumpstarted a “life of the imagination and dreams”; college years at University of Maine Orono alongside charismatic fellow student and future publishing goliath “Steve” King; high-flying Wild West days of the eighties pulpy paperback horror boom; and the recent triumphant, against-all-odds reinvention that has been cut tragically short. It is a tome bold enough to both offer oodles of practical advice to aspiring writers and make the implicit argument that DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE is in some ways a more frightening film than THE EXORCIST.
But the book also features frank discussions of the low self-esteem that plagued Hautala—un-exorcized demons he acknowledges played an outsized role in his creative process: “I’m haunted. That’s why I write what I write.”
“If you want to understand what made Rick’s protagonists unique, it was that so many of them reflected who he was as a person,” bestselling author Christopher Golden says of his close friend and occasional collaborator. “Questing for answers. Full of doubt and hope in equal parts. Often weary and put-upon, but stout of heart in the darkest of times. That was Rick.”
THE HORROR… will not be Hautala’s only parting shot. Four diverse novels remain in the pipeline—a dark urban fantasy (THE DEMON’S WIFE), a thriller (THE COVE), a sci-fi collaboration with Matthew Costello (STAR ROAD), and a YA novel (MOCKINGBIRD BAY)—alongside a stack of unproduced screenplays. Crossroads Press, meanwhile, has begun a full court press (details HERE) to drag Hautala’s out-of-print work back into the limelight.
While the autobiography by circumstance necessarily possesses a bittersweet profundity sadly at odds with its breeziness—“It’s so full of his voice, the way he spoke and thought,” Golden says, “that it represented a chance to have one final conversation with my friend”—it also, as Newstein Hautala aptly notes, serves as a “historical document” of a tumultuous era in the world of genre writing and publishing.
“Rick began his career when publishers could take tax write-offs from ‘midlist’ writers who might or might not have a bestseller in them,” she explains. “Then the tax laws changed, and midlist writers were doomed. Publishers could no longer get tax breaks for promoting and ‘growing’ less-than-wildly-profitable writers. Rick’s career hit the skids due in part to this change, only to be resurrected when the small presses, aided by e-publishing and print-on-demand technology, stepped up and filled the space for readers once occupied by the midlist. So Rick’s story shows, up close and personal, the arc of publishing history over thirty years.”
Alas, the resurrection came along a bit too late to fully turn Hautala’s fortunes around. Mere months before his death, Hautala found himself unable to pay the premium on his life insurance and the policy lapsed. “The life of a freelance writer is often lived on the edge,” Newstein Hautala says. “The next project, the next screenplay—that will be the one. Rick was too driven to write to consider anything other than part-time adjunct teaching as a career, and like many other writers and artists, he died broke.”
Amidst the tragedy, however, a tight knit community of horror writers and publishers—including, notably, Evil Jester Press, CEMETERY DANCE, NECON, Kings Way Press, Brian Keene, Books & Boos, and AudioComics, among others—stepped into the breach, holding benefit sales and offering donations. (Click the links above to be led directly to those fundraising campaigns)
“I think [Rick] would have been mortified that the world knew he was a ‘failure’ financially, but deeply humbled and grateful that all the ‘good karma’ he put out into the world came back to help his family,” Newstein Hautala says. “Things would have been bleak indeed for us without it.”
It is not difficult to find testimony to back this up. Timothy Deal, for example, read Hautala as a teenager and, thus, was naturally ecstatic when the writer granted Deal’s then-fledgling dark fiction journal SHROUD permission to reprint a story back in 2009. Two years later Hautala agreed to appear at the inaugural edition of AnthoCon, a yearly speculative fiction and art convention Deal co-founded. “As clichéd as it may be, Rick was larger than life,” Deal says. “Despite his talent and long list of published work, he was easy to talk to and have a drink with…We had planned to tongue-in-cheek-ly crown Rick and Holly as the con king and queen [at AnthoCon 2013] in November as a token of our appreciation and esteem. Now we plan to celebrate his life with Holly, and Rick’s friends and fans.”
Perhaps the most impressive tribute to Hautala’s impact will be MISTER OCTOBER, an upcoming two-volume benefit anthology edited by Golden and featuring stories by such genre luminaries as Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Kevin J. Anderson, Joe R. Lansdale, and F. Paul Wilson.
“I can’t speak to whether or not contributing to this book has had a healing effect on folks,” Golden says, “but I can tell you that during the worst of the grief, it helped me immeasurably to be doing something.”
“Rick was a walking contradiction,” the author continues. “He believed in his own work, but he never had any faith that others would embrace it, which was so strange considering how many young writers and readers he encountered over the years who cited his influence…I was stunned by the outpouring of love and respect after his death, and I wish more people had shared those feelings with him during his life. One of the reasons he didn’t want a funeral was that he believed nobody would attend. He truly had no idea how much he was loved.”
Borderlands Press co-founder and celebrated genre writer Thomas F. Monteleone (see FANGO coverage of Borderlands’ recently-announced Henry Kuttner reissue HERE) echoed this sentiment. “Rick was one of those writers who kept the focal tube of his microscope ratcheted down to the finest details,” he says. “His best work examined the sinewy connections between families and the people who affect and shape them. He wrote with the same cruel truthfulness with which he observed the real world and all its failings…He always said being a Finn meant always having to say you’re sorry. It was one of his many self-deprecating jokes, which endeared him to his friends and readers alike. He was a friend and I will always miss him.”
Nevertheless, for Newstein Hautala, it seems a bit premature to suss out her husband’s legacy.
“Ultimately, I think Rick will be remembered as one of the big names in the genre in the 1980s, when horror really came into its own,” she says. “His work influenced so many who grew up in the ‘80s and are writing today. So I think his legacy is yet to be completely defined. What I would most hope people would remember about him: He was a generous, gifted man who believed that we are all in this world together, so let’s help one another. He had a killer smile. He loved good cigars and good beer. He loved his family and his friends. And most of all, he loved to sit down with his laptop and write, or as he called it, ‘making up goofy shit.’ It was his vocation and his calling, and the world is a better place for what he left for us.”
“People need to remember Rick as a writer—by reading his work—but also as a standard-bearer for horror fiction,” Golden agreed. “I’ve never known anyone so proud of working in the genre.”
“This is the one thing that binds readers and writers of horror,” Hautala writes in THE HORROR… “We are aware of the horror of death…the emptiness of nonexistence. And we write stories that defy the notion that death ends it all.”
Judged by recent events it would seem Hautala struck closer to the truth with that line than he likely ever dreamed.