One of my writing heroes has passed away.
Dallas Mayr, aka Jack Ketchum was the giant in the industry you might not have heard of. He wrote suspense/horror classics like The Girl Next Door, Off Season, Peaceable Kingdom, and a huge number of short stories. He wrote what is unquestionably one of my favorite short stories ever, “The Box.”
Want some kismet? Jack’s story “The Box,” which went on to win a Stoker award in 1994 for best short story, first appeared in Cemetery Dance. As it turns out–and I didn’t realize this for a while–my short story “Three Silent Things” also appeared in that very same issue of Cemetery Dance.
I first met Jack back at the World Horror/HWA convention in Portland in 2014. I went alone, didn’t know a whole helluva lot of people yet. I was pushing The End in All Beginnings, my novella collection. Tony at Grey Matter had booked a reading for me and had sent me a box of ARCs to hand out as I saw fit.
I walked the little trade show part of the con one afternoon, and there, sitting alone at a table with no one around was Jack Ketchum. If you’ve met me, you know I am a friendly person by nature, approachable, garrulous, interested. But I am not generally the type to approach people I don’t know…especially people whom I respect or admire. But, screwing my discomfort to the sticking place, I walked up to Jack, introduced myself and told him I was a huge admirer of his, especially his story “The Box.”
Now, as old and impaired as I was–and continue to be–I did not realize that this story that I had an abiding admiration for was in the same issue as one of my own stories. But Jack was friendly, and we spoke for a while. I told him I was a writer just getting back into the industry, and that I had a book coming out. I had a copy of said book clamped in my hand, and he inquired about it.
I showed him the book and offered him a copy. He accepted it, then passed it directly back to me. “You have to sign it first.”
I wasn’t accustomed to this. Hadn’t signed too many copies of my own books at that point, and was a little flummoxed. I took the book back and hastily inscribed it, putting into print that I was disconcerted by signing a book over to him.
He took the book, we shook hands, and that was it. I’d met one of my writing heroes. Done. Great experience. He was a nice guy. It was definitely something I’d remember.
Cut to about two months later. I’d written something here on this blog about that meeting, and I got a notice from WordPress that I had to approve a comment left on the blog posting. I stared at the response in question for several minutes trying to figure out who the hell Dallas Mayr was.
The response was this: “In your inscription to me you wrote, ‘I feel funny signing a book for you.’ Can’t think why. THE END IN ALL BEGINNINGS is accomplished stuff, complex and heartfelt. There’s an attention to character and an access to feeling that’s very refreshing indeed. So thanks for the good read, John, and good luck with that Stoker.”
Then I saw the signature;
Best, Dallas aka Jack Ketchum
I nearly passed out. Really. Here this man who was an idol took the time to not only speak with me–and encouragingly, I might add–then had accepted a copy of my book, took it, actually read it, and took the time to hunt me down to leave me that note.
In the ensuing months, he also tweeted about the book at least twice that I saw, incredibly glowing things. In one of them, he called the book “the best novella collection I’ve read in years.”
Did I ask him if we could use these for blurbs for the book? Of course I did. And he agreed.
I met him a few more times. The pic above is me with him after the Stoker Banquet in Atlanta in 2015. I was a finalist in the fiction collection category for The End in All Beginnings. I didn’t win, but that was okay. I got the opportunity to have my picture taken with him. I will cherish it.
We talked a few more times over the years. He read a few more things of mine and was incredibly complimentary and incredibly gracious. I have a few things of his signed on my bookshelf…including a copy of that issue of Cemetery Dance with our stories in it.
When I finally remembered, I sent him a note about it, and he was pleasantly surprised. When I saw him next, which I think was also in Atlanta, I brought it with me, and he signed it. It will never leave my possession.
I may never be as big or successful an author as Dallas Mayr. But I hope I am as good a person. I try to be just as accessible, just as approachable, just as supportive to other writers as he was.
I’m sorry I won’t get to see him again. I’m sorry I won’t get that electric thrill of shouting “Dallas!” across a crowded room, as if speaking a secret code. I’m sorry I won’t be able to buy him any more promised drinks. I’m sorry for his family and friends. And for this industry, that’s lost not only a gigantic author, but a gigantically good man.