About two months ago, we lost two wonderful writers in the space of mere days: Jack Cady and William Relling, Jr. Jack Cady died of cancer at the age of 71; Bill Relling was a suicide at age 50. To lose any writer of these men's quality is a tragedy at any age; to lose one to a death at his own hands makes the tragedy only more hurtful.
I met Bill Relling a couple of times at conventions -- mostly back in the 1980s when he was riding the "horror boom" with excellent novels like Brujo and Silent Moon. He and I once spent a terrific forty-five minutes sitting in a hotel bar talking about the work of one of our mutual writing gods, William Goldman. I found him to be an upbeat, intelligent, thoughtful, instantly likable man who treated me like I was an old friend. That someone whose writing I so admired treated me, a newcomer, like one of his comrades-in-arms, made my day.
I'm not going to pretend that he and I were friends, because I hardly knew the man, save for our appearing together in some anthologies and, of course, my learning of some part of him through his wonderful novels. But in the hours and days immediately following his death, there was much discussion on certain boards concerning the reasons why -- and this of course sparked controversy, especially when other writers who were his friends, who did know him well, and who had spoken with him as little as five days before his suicide, chimed in to try to say a few words about their fallen comrade. These fellow writers were in a great deal of pain, and trying hard not to let too much of it come through. They, like everyone else, couldn't figure out why he'd done it.
Then -- as more and more details about his suicide began to emerge -- these questions of "Why?" raised by everyone (both those who knew him and those who didn't) started turning into "How could he?" And, finally, at a message board that I will no longer frequent, one especially sensitive person, upon finding out that Relling left behind a family, made the following statement: "Well, I sure as hell won't be reading him anytime soon. I refuse to spend my money on books written by some coward who'd do that to his wife and children."
There is an unbelievable amount of arrogant ignorance in that statement, and that was not the only time the "cowardice" of suicide was brought up during the days immediately following Relling's death.
I would not purport to speak for the friends and family of Bill Relling, but as a horror writer who has struggled with depression since he was in high school, and who has thrice during his forty-three years on this earth attempted to keep an appointment in Sumarra, I would like to say a few words about the so-called "cowardice" of suicide.
Take this at face value: most of you (thank God) will never know what it's like to reach a point in your life when it feels like all you're doing is breathing air and taking up space, and even that hurts so goddamn much it's all you can do to lift your head off the pillow in the morning.
It doesn't matter if you've got a successful career, money in the bank, people who love you; it doesn't matter that, everywhere you look, there's irrefutable evidence of your life's worth -- a loving wife, kids who worship and respect you, life-long friends who've seen you through thick and thin, even readers who admire your work and flock to conventions in the hopes of getting your signature -- none of it means squat, even though you know it should mean the world, because all you know, all you feel, all you can think about is the gnawing, constant, insatiable ache that's taken up residence in the area where your heart used to be, and with every breath, every action, every thought and smile and kiss and laugh -- things that should make this ache go away -- you begin to lose even the most elementary sense of self, and the floodgates are opened wide for a torrent of memories, regrets, sadnesses, and fears that no drugs, no booze, no loving embraces or tender kisses or hands holding your own in the night can protect you from.
You become the ache, and despite all your efforts to do something to make it better, eventually the ache takes over your entire universe, and it never goes away, and you feel useless, worthless, a black hole, a drain and burden on everyone and everything around you and try as you might you can't see any way out of it except...
And if you're a horror writer, if your work involves your dwelling on the details of death and violence, the darknesses that come out of these floodgates can be crippling. I know what I'm saying here; I've been there, and hope I'll never have to face down that kind of darkness again.
When you reach the point of "except", there's isn't a question of cowardice; cowardice doesn't even enter the equation; to be in that kind of pain where only Death offers relief, and then choose to end your life...if this offends you, I'm sorry, but that takes the darkest form of courage there is.
I'm not defending Bill Relling's actions; I did not know the man. I have no idea how this has affected his family or his friends. What I do know is that I have been in that place he found himself that day he closed up the garage and started the car's engine, and insomuch as I can do while respecting the feelings of his friends and family, I wish him peace from whatever darkness followed him not-so-gently into that good night.
As to those folks out there who did not know Bill Relling and others like him and are still asking their questions, offering their theories, or scattering about moral declarations like handfuls of rice at a wedding, I've got your answer: It's none of our damned business.
The man is dead and no longer has any use for our uninformed theorizing. Be thankful that we who did not know him have the wonderful books and stories he left behind for us. If ever I do some day keep one of those appointments in Sumarra, my sincere hope is that people will remember me for being a writer who tried to make his fiction both entertaining and emotionally substantial.
For those of us who didn't know him, I'll bet -- or, rather, I hope Bill Relling feels the same way.
Rest in Peace, William Relling, Jr.; you were one of the good guys, and I'm grateful for the brief time I spent with you, and for the marvelous work you leave behind.
For the rest of us...to each his darkness, in his own way, in his own time.