‘On Call’ by Dennis Etchison originally appeared in Fantasy Newsletter #22 March 1980. Fantasy Newsletter ran from 1978 to 1987. Over the years it was largely focused on reviews, interviews, and publishing news with the occasional piece of fiction. Paul C. Allen the editor at the time of ‘On Call’ says fiction “will receive a very low priority in terms of space. But it will receive a high priority with regard to quality–when I use it, it will be “different” and well written”. (FN 22, p.1)
Karl Edward Wagner was very familiar with Fantasy Newsletter. He wrote a semi-regular column called ‘On Fantasy’ sharing writing duties with Fritz Leiber from 1980-1984, then the column became infrequent and Wagner traded writing duties with Ramsey Campbell from 1984-1987. The column covered trends, authors they were reading, conventions, and various other genre musings. I would love a nice collection of these writings someday.
So it was in the pages of this periodical that ‘On Call’ first appeared. Drastically different from the other offerings in Year’s Best in its, to use a buzzword, nightmarish Dreamtime logic. Wagner had this to say when talking about where ideas come from in his introduction to the story:
“Occasionally, however, an author will experience some particularly vivid dream (or, if you will, nightmare) and will incorporate this into a story. Such is the case with Dennis Etchison’s disturbing Kafkaesque nightmare, ‘On Call.'” And what a nightmare it is.
Very simply put ‘On Call’ is the story of a man who is picking up his wife from the doctor’s office where she was picking up her x-ray results. This is merely a framework on which Etchison hangs the nightmare. As a reader, I find this style hard to approach because so much of the story is under the surface of any narrative. I’m often not sure if I “got” the story or not. Wagner has his own experiments in this dreamlike style with stories like ‘Cedar Lane’, ‘Shrapnel’ and ‘Endless Night’. Etchison opens his story with:
“‘Read it now,” called the blind newspaper vendor. “Many are dying and many are dead!”‘
This phrase is packed with the bizarre. The juxtaposition of the blind man selling a visual news source and proclaiming that “many are dying” when in fact we are all dying; or are at least headed that way. Could it be that we are living our lives blind to our impending doom? The story then proceeds in a realistic manner for a good page or two before the hints of nightmare start appearing. There is a motif of waiting from the inhabitants in the world Etchison created, and our protagonist keeps taking actions to find his wife. Ultimately, waiting or taking action, they all end up in the same place.
I should have realized:
A) this story is from Etchison a master of this style
B) this story is included in a best of the year
I shouldn’t have been too concerned whether I would “get” it. At least I found that it means something to me personally and ultimately that’s all that matters.
Next: ‘The Catacomb’ by Peter Shilston
More Dennis Etchison: YBHS VIII: ‘The Dead Line’