Richard Laymon (January 14, 1947 – February 14, 2001) was an American author of horror and suspense. He began his career writing mystery and suspense stories, but later became known for compulsively readable graphic horror novels. Laymon’s work rose to prominence in America and the UK in the 1980s. While he is sometimes associated with the Splatterpunk movement, it seems to me his work never fully fit into that category, outlasting the widespread popularity of that sub-genre by many years.
Richard Laymon was born January 14, 1947 in Chicago, Illinois.
He grew up in a traditional home; his mother was a homemaker and his father was a World War II veteran who won the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, his father worked for Chicago publisher Henry Regnery. The family, including Richard and his older brother, attended Methodist Church.
His parents encouraged and were deeply involved with their sons’ scouting efforts. As a result, their summers were spent camping, swimming, fishing and boating in the Wisconsin woods — memories of these times made their way into much of his fiction.
Laymon fans will no doubt be amused to know that his first published work appeared in 1962 in the Northbrook Methodist Church newsletter — it was a regular article updating the congregation on the activities of the church youth group. Later the same year, two poems and a short story were published in the Glenbrook High School literary magazine. His story won a $5 prize, and his English teacher named him “the most prolific writer in school.”
In 1963, the family moved to Tiburon, California. By this time, Laymon was determined to become a writer. He spent his final high school years at Redwood High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he studied the works of J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, William Goldman, and Edgar Allan Poe. He became editor of the high school literary magazine. He also explored much of the area in backpacking trips with friends, further fueling the well of experiences that would appear in his fiction.
Laymon attended college at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, took summer classes at the University of Iowa, and went on to work on a Masters of Fine Arts degree at the University of Arizona. A trip into the desert with a friend in Arizona led to his first professionally published short story, “Desert Pickup” which appeared in 1970 in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. He finished his MA in English Literature at Loyola University in Los Angeles.
In August 1975, he married Ann Marshall.
That Glenbrook High School English teacher spoke truth — Laymon was a prolific writer. He wrote short stories and novels for years, chipping away at the stone with more professional publications in mystery and men’s magazines.
His career finally got the lift he’d sought with all of his hard work. In 1979, he made two book-length sales. He sold a YA novel, Your Secret Admirer to Scholastic, writing as Carl Laymon. He had picked up representation by a couple of agents along the way, one of whom opened the door to a 3-book contract with Warner Books, starting with The Cellar, which was published in 1980.
Meanwhile, Laymon had forged a friendship with Gary Brandner through a local chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. Through an event hosted by Brandner, the Laymons met Dean and Gerda Koontz, which was the beginning of a long friendship that proved especially important. Laymon had a laundry list of trouble with American agents and publishers which could well have led to his work dropping into obscurity if not for a connection made by Dean Koontz, who introduced Richard to Koontz’s UK agent in 1985.
Laymon worked hard. He had developed a cult following in America — people who enjoyed his brand of horror were (and are) loyal followers of his work. There was something about it — clear, crisp prose, tense and genuinely scary situations, ultraviolence, sex, and that amazing readability despite the tough content — that became a trademark of his fiction.
Difficulties with agents made for a rough ride in the US, but his UK agent made quick strides in finding good homes for Laymon’s books in the UK. By 1989, he was able to comfortably begin life again as a full time writer. By 1990, that decision was confirmed; Headline in the UK offered Laymon a $135,000 contract for three novels — one hell of a far cry from the $5,000 he’d been paid for three novels by a US publisher a few years earlier.
In 1988, Science Fiction Chronicle named Flesh the Best Horror Novel of the Year. In 1989, Flesh was Nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. Another nomination for Funland followed in 1991.
By now, Laymon was landing a lot of short story sales in addition to his novels, and working with film agencies in an attempt to bring some of his novels to the screen. 1992, Tri-Star TV began development of an adaptation of The Stake, which apparently didn’t pan out. There was interest in his work in Hollywood, and many shopped screenplays of his work around to various financiers, but sadly, none of it came to much in the end. To my knowledge, there were only two low-budget, independent films made from his works — adaptations of his short story “The Tub” and his novel In The Dark.
Fiction-wise, however, Laymon was off and running. He kept up a constant stream of output. He had more than 40 novels and five short story collections published in his lifetime.
Laymon died of a heart attack in February 2001, the same year his novel The Traveling Vampire Show won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel. This was sad news to me as a fan and, of course, to everyone who knew him. He was, and still is, well-respected in the horror community.
My personal introduction to the work of Richard Laymon was a tattered copy of that first Warner edition of The Cellar.
Over summers when I was in high school, I would fly away from Colorado to visit my aunt and uncle in Missouri. They owned a painting business, so I would work with them over a six-week stretch to store up a little cash. Most of the jobs were in the St. Louis area or the smaller towns in the green hills to the south.
On this particular day, I remember sitting in the back of the Suburban we used to haul the ladders and tools. We’d taken a half-day off on a Friday so my aunt could run some errands. That afternoon, the Suburban was parked in the shade of a big tree outside an old strip of businesses. I ‘d rolled the windows down and sat reading The Cellar while I waited. I was completely immersed. I’d never read anything like it before. Everything I wanted from a horror novel was there, and then some. I continued reading the novel when my uncle went to a small airport for flying lessons that Saturday, and then finished reading it at their secluded home near a spring-fed pond surrounded by tall trees which cast me in their shade. By the time I was done, I was a fan.
As noted above, Laymon’s early novels were not wildly successful in America at first, so they were hard to find. There wasn’t even an easy way to know which books of his were out there to be found. In the days before the Internet, you really had to hunt. Laymon’s novels were at the top of my list of things to look for at any given bookstore.
A few notable book-hunt moments I recall — finding a copy of Night Show at Betty Books (a wonderful bookstore now a part of that dying mom-and-pop-shop history) and shouting about it over the shelves to my uncle. Another notable moment, bittersweet, seeing Quake on the shelf at Waldenbooks and being excited there was a new Laymon novel, but I didn’t have enough money to afford the hardcover. By the time I did, and came back, it was gone. A third notable Laymon book-hunt memory — shortly after moving from Colorado to Texas, I had a stack of Laymon novels collected and read over the years that I wanted to share with my uncle. I gave the box to some clown in the mail room of the company where I worked. He said he’d send it. The box never arrived.
Somewhere, someone got a box of treasures — or some romance reader was in for a nasty surprise.
Since then, I’ve managed to rebuild my Laymon collection. Laymon’s novels are near and dear to my heart. The collection is always a work in progress, but I’m getting close to finding the last few I feel I need. It’s my pleasure to share the scans here.
Note: Much of the biographical information in this article comes from Laymon’s book A Writer’s Tale. It is pretty rare, and expensive when you find it, but well worth the hunt for the avid fan.
To browse the list of Richard Laymon titles currently available in print and eBook editions, click here.
These cover scans are from the library of author Christopher Fulbright.
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