On March 21, 2013, Rick Hautala died suddenly of heart attack while walking his dog.
A Maine native, Rick lived in Westbrook and was a real New England liberal, a Yankee who championed the underdog and the disenfranchised. While he liked meeting new people and making new friends and was as gregarious and gracious as anyone, his frequent Facebook posts derided the mean-spirited and political charlatans. He wasn’t concerned about offending conservatives or their wealthy supports. He had a quintessential New England honesty that came with an intense and accurate bullshit detector.
Last year, the Horror Writers Association presented him with a Life Time Achievement Award, a very impressive honor. Much to my regret, I was unable to attend the Salt Lake City gathering.
In one his final interviews, Rick pointed out that he “grew up lower middle class (read: “poor”)” and that as a career choice writing was not a particularly secure one. Yet, for more 30 years, Rick was a working freelance writer, first and foremost. He didn’t care about awards or belonging to organizations (Rick once told me that the concept of a “writers organization is an oxymoron”), he simply wanted to tell stories and, hopefully, get paid for them.
I and thousands of others discovered him in 1981 when his first novel, Moon Death was published with a glowing cover blurb by Stephen King with whom he had gone to college. A werewolf novel, the book was brimming with energy and passion and I couldn’t put it down. When I finished it, I remember staring at the cover thinking two things: I wanted to write books like this one and I wanted to meet Rick Hautala.
I’ve never been able to explain it, but I felt a keen affinity with him through his writing after reading Moon Death. I think I told that him when we first met in Providence, Rhode Island at the Horror Writers Association annual confab in 1990. He only laughed and invited me to join a clutch of other writers for pizza and beer. That was so typical of Rick.
As Maine’s “other horror writer,” as he was often dubbed, Rick offered his readers something honest and genuine in his writing. No pretense, no obvious effort to be slick and crafty; Rick wrote to tell the story, not wow the reader with gimmicky literary tricks, flowery phrases and obvious devices. In a tribute to him, his youngest son’s fiancé, an aspiring writer herself, wrote that he would tell her that if she wanted to write, “just sit down and start writing for f—’s sake.”
Many others knew Rick far better than I did. We met in Providence and the next summer in Redondo Beach, California, and then in 1992 in New York City, where we walked around Manhattan with fellow writer and Rick’s closest friend Matthew Costello, a Big Apple native. I recall Matt sticking out his thumb when we met a guy going the other way. “That was Joe Walsh.” Rick and I gawked like country bumpkins.
To be sure, Rick was not a country bumpkin. He earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English from the University of Maine in Orono. He was exceptionally well-read and counted among his friends the cream-of-the-crop of contemporary horror writers including such luminaries as Peter Straub, Joe R. Lansdale, Tabitha King, Harlan Ellison, and, of course, Christopher Golden and Matt Costello. Those are just ones I can recall off the top of my head; literally, he knew everybody.
Before emails, Rick and I stayed in touch by letter and telephone. Not constantly, but occasionally. Talking with him was always a pleasure, like a blast of cool, fresh air. He was funny and smart and disarmingly self-deprecating. He liked to laugh and he liked to make others laugh, too, and he was insightful; so very, very insightful.
My last communication with him, not too long before his death, was an email. I happened upon an online page from Leisure Books. They were going out of business and returning book rights to authors. One of Rick’s books was on list in which they claimed not to know to whom the work belonged. I let him know he needed to contact them.
Now, of course, I wish I had called him; I wish we had talked one final time…
I learned of his deaths months after it occurred. I had been playing at hermit and when I finally discovered he was gone, it was like being punched in the face.
The thing is, the last time I saw Rick was 1992, yet the affinity I felt for him when I first read his work has never faded. I had a visceral connection with him and I honestly don’t believe death can severe it. Of course, I am sad that he’s no longer in this world, no longer among us, no longer contributing his words and his stories to the ever-expanding body of literature.
While I trust he is resting peace, there’s a part of me that believes wherever Rick is, he’s either spinning a yarn or getting in the face with some overwrought bully. Either way, I’m certain he’s in his element.