The first part of a feature on the work of Richard Chizmar that originally appeared in Black Static #58:-
DARK SHADOWS AND DIRTY CORNERS: RICHARD CHIZMAR
To most UK readers, Richard Chizmar will be familiar as head honcho of Cemetery Dance Publications and editor of their flagship magazine Cemetery Dance. His work as a writer is probably not as well-known, but I suspect all that is about to change with the May 16 release of Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella written in collaboration with Stephen King, which is pretty much guaranteed to raise anyone’s profile.
For those who can’t wait, Chizmar’s collection A LONG DECEMBER (SST Publications pb, 520pp, £18.95) contains thirty five stories, two of which are previously unpublished, including the title novella. It could easily be pitched as a career retrospective, the work spanning some thirty years of Chizmar’s writing life and containing his very first story (though not the first published), which aptly enough is titled ‘Cemetery Dance’. Originally published in a hardcover limited edition by Subterranean Press and sold out, the book is now available in a paperback edition (and also digital format) from the UK’s Short, Scary Tales Publications.
As a token of the high esteem Chizmar is held in by those in the know, this volume opens with several pages of author blurbs, and the list of contributors reads like the ToC of some Platonic ideal of the horror anthology – King, McCammon, Matheson, Bloch, Keene, Straub, O’Nan, Armstrong, and so on and so forth. It’s impressive, but does the work justify the praise?
Kicking off is ‘Blood Brothers’, the story of Hank and younger brother Billy, who once saved his life when they were children but then turned rotten. After several years out of state, Billy returns to ask for money and is unwilling to take no for an answer, presenting Hank with a problem. This is the story that sets the tone for much of what follows, a leisurely tale, one where Chizmar takes his time drawing his characters, giving them a back story and the motivation for what happens, and then pulls the rug out from under our feet with a surprise ending that seems perfectly credible in the circumstances. ‘The Man with X-Ray Eyes’ is the confession of a serial killer, one who seems entirely amiable and friendly, with his matter of fact narration, and who has an entirely logical justification for the crimes he is accused of committing. For the reader though, the trick in the tale lies in our not knowing, having only the words of this possibly unreliable narrator to go on. At the end there is the suggestion of something terrible having taken place, something more than murder, but at the same time we have no idea if he is telling the truth, or simply so convinced of what he is saying that he feels his reality must be shared by everyone. In many ways the story brings to mind the film Frailty.
Many of these stories focus on family dynamics, with a parent or child learning that a loved one is not precisely the person they believed them to be, and ‘The Box’ falls into that category. Chizmar deftly lays out the life choices of a regular and loving suburban mum, one who wants to believe that her children are good people, even as she is confronted with a revelation of the most horrible thing imaginable, the story offering a contrast between the business as usual air of family life and dread at the thought of what might be found behind the door of the locked garden shed. ‘Heroes’ touches on one of the horror genre’s most cherished tropes, but only as the catalyst in a story about the relationship between a father and son. I’ll admit that I wasn’t really convinced by the back story, with details that all felt a little too pat, but to be fair it’s not really necessary for those details to be convincing as they are simply the means to an end. The polished and urbane tone of the piece and the picture of a love that will do anything for the object of that admiration was compelling, making this a memorable piece, one that dares to do something different with familiar material.
One of the two stories original to this collection, ‘Ditch Treasures’ draws the reader in through the unusual device of a list of found objects, then seguing into an account of the life of a roadside clean-up crew, ending in the revelation of their latest discovery, one with horrific implications. The picture of blue collar work and its idiosyncrasies is cleverly and engagingly done, with the final twist coming as something of a shock, a bolt from the blue, one that will leave the reader cogitating as to its rightness. A man makes a terrible discovery in ‘The Silence of Sorrow’ when clearing out the house of his deceased son, one that forces him to completely re-evaluate his ideas about his progeny. Like ‘The Box’ it’s a story that centres on a moment of revelation, one that is a game changer, and Chizmar gets the tone of the piece just right and scores with the open ending, which underlines the fact that for Frank things will never be the same again.
Society ‘After the Bombs’ is the subject of the next story, with an elderly man who lived through many years of conflict telling the story of the past to a young man. It’s a piece that beguiles, Chizmar’s fluent and liquid prose, his ear for dialogue, capturing perfectly the feel of nostalgia, regret for things lost and never to come round again, but at the same time marking the sense of hope that underlies the narrative, the realisation that even if the world has changed irrevocably there are still good people in it and good times to be had, that simple companionship and fellow feeling can replace all that has been lost. It’s a story about true colours and true values. ‘Night Call’ deftly interweaves the personal problems and professional challenges faced by two homicide detectives on New Year’s Eve, the story having about it something of the bromance and offering an open end in lieu of any real closure. The subtext of the story relates to the contrast between the madness and mayhem of their daily grind and the far more toxic and harmful things that happen in the real life they hope to have.
‘The Lake is Life’ gives us an account of the incidents leading up to a late night game of hide and seek in the woods intercut with text from a police interview, so we know that something has gone terribly wrong, have only to discover exactly what. Similar in some ways to King’s Carrie it’s the tale of a damaged personality and how ill-intentioned attempts at reaching out result in feelings of betrayal and bloody revenge, though Chizmar is too canny to give it all to us on a plate, leaving readers to fill in the missing pieces. In ‘Grand Finale’ a young playboy with a penchant for surreptitiously taping his sexual encounters finds that they have all been transformed into snuff movies, with himself as the victim. This is the type of story where you take a vicarious pleasure in seeing a nasty piece of work get his just desserts, with the delivery method the original note that pulls it away from the formulaic, and as a story it is well told and certainly entertaining, even if somewhat slight.
Presented as a found document, ‘The Artist’ tells of the last moments of an infantry squad facing extinction in WW2, and how each of them developed a creative ability. It’s a moving piece, one that effectively captures the mood of men desperate for a reason to hope, made all the more so by the way in which Chizmar cleverly incorporates text from an earlier story into the narrative. Co-written with Barry Hoffman, ‘Family Ties’ reprises the material of ‘Blood Brothers’, with another brother gone bad, his behaviour threatening the family unit. It’s a powerful story, catching the reader up in its depiction of an idyllic sibling relationship, one that will ring bells with many, and then showing how easily it can all get torn down with happiness transformed into meanness and misery, demanding sacrifices for some nebulous greater good and asking the reader to agree or not. Once again there are echoes of King’s oeuvre in ‘The Tower’, with a small town the setting for a series of murders and the story’s narrator, who knows more than he is letting on, connecting them with the evil influence of the eponymous water tower. Beautifully paced and told, with a slant away from the obvious and veering into territory where the nature of evil itself is the story’s subject matter.
One of the longer pieces and co-written with Ed Gorman, ‘Brothers’ tells of Chet and the way in which he looks out for younger brother Michael, finding him a job on the police force and helping keep him on the straight and narrow after the wild years of his youth. But at what point does a helping hand become interference? In his efforts to control how Michael acts, Chet becomes his brother’s gaol-keeper. It’s an absorbing tale, eloquently told and getting under the skin of the character, so that we sympathise with Chet even as we realise that he has lost the plot. The moral of the story, if it needs one, is that you can only do so much to help people, and if you go too far then you create more problems than you solve, and the writers have a ball showing how that could play out in this scenario. I should mention that this novelette was published as a standalone book by Short, Scary Tales Publications back in 2015.
‘Blue’ was raised in an abusive environment and her mother murdered her father to protect her, but she sees the same patterns recurring in her own life and takes the appropriate action to protect her children, only reading between the lines we wonder if she is in fact misinterpreting things entirely. It’s a story in which those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them, except in this case those very lessons that Blue learned are the reason she can never feel truly happy, the story underlining that there are many victims in abusive homes, not just those who are the obvious candidates. ‘A Crime of Passion’ sees the author of a controversial book and even more controversial film, become the target of a gang of fanatics who want to make an example of him. As Drake fights for survival against the members of Mother Earth we sit on the edge of our seat, Chizmar coincidentally raising questions about authorial culpability and how responsible we are for what we write, the philosophical speculation underpinning the more thriller oriented aspects of the plot, and at the same time showing that evil things can be done for the best of reasons, at least from the perspective of those committing such atrocities.
‘Devil’s Night’ is the night before Halloween and in this story a high school teacher witnesses a body dump and gets drawn into a teenage love triangle. It’s a well told story, even if much of the plot hinges on the teacher not calling the police as any right thinking person would do, but what makes it stand out is the self-doubt the character has about what he has done, the misgivings that will taint his life forever after. In ‘The Season of Giving’, co-written with Norman Partridge, a department store Santa Claus responds to a young girl’s plea for a new father, in doing so making amends for the mistakes in his own past. It’s another heartfelt story, one that solicits our sympathy for this poor girl and all she has gone through, and makes us applaud the protagonist’s decision to take matters into his own hands even as we realise that in doing so he is crossing all sorts of lines.
A journalist steals the Holy Grail from a cult’s compound in ‘The Sinner King’, but the stranger who shelters him in the woods has an agenda of his own. There’s a lot of back story to this, and overall I found it rather stretched credibility though some of the detail was fascinating and the writing held my attention all the way. It ended on a weak note, as if the story simply ran out of steam rather than reaching a conclusion. ‘Midnight Promises’ is another story that tugs hard on the heartstrings, the account of a woman bearing witness to the death from cancer of the man she has loved, each step in his decline meticulously recorded. Intensely moving and reminiscent of King’s ‘The Woman in the Room’, it was a story that makes the case for euthanasia far more eloquently than any expert or talking head could possibly manage. Two homicide detectives encounter an unusual crime in ‘The Night Shift’, Chizmar telling the story obliquely, with only dialogue and hints for the reader to go on, so that our interpretation of the action is probably more unnerving than anything he could commit to paper. It’s a clever piece and well executed.
In ‘Only the Strong Survive’, co-written with Barry Hoffman, Thera is one of the do-gooders who feed homeless people living in the subways under the city, but she has motives for her actions that are far from altruistic. Written with an almost cinematic feel to it, this is an intriguing story with an original monster, one that is memorable for the way in which it preys on its victims, which coincidentally has echoes of horror fiction itself in the method, introducing something akin to a metafictional element into the mix. A police detective conducts ‘The Interview’, solving the case of who murdered the young boy who has gone missing from the neighbourhood. The real mystery though is why, and that may or may not be revealed in a final piece of dialogue. Again, as with many of these, it’s a clever piece of storytelling, with masterly misdirection and a slow drawing in of the reader. ‘The Poetry of Life’ is a story working by suggestion, the first person account of a music teacher in love with the sound of children’s laughter, but the story ends on a dark note, leaving us to guess exactly what has gone wrong in this man’s life. It is an almost pitch perfect example of flash fiction, one in which not a single word is wasted or unnecessary, each adding to the whole and bringing to life on the page a feeling of quiet desperation, giving us a protagonist who would have been an asset to society if he had only been left alone.
Finally we have the longest piece in the collection, titular novella ‘A Long December’, which takes a different approach to the subject of the serial killer, looking at the effects on the life of the killer’s best friend and neighbours when his crimes come to light, with at first the certainty that somebody has made a mistake, and then disbelief turning to horror and the idea that he must have known, the wondering and second guessing as to whether there were clues they should have picked up on. Gripping as this all is, Chizmar has another twist in the story, with the revelation as to why the killer befriended our protagonist. It was quite simply a tour de force of storytelling and invention, the ideal end to this substantial collection. Except it isn’t quite the end as Chizmar then delivers nearly thirty pages of Story Notes, giving us crucial information about how each story came to be and the intentions he had when putting pen to paper, the kind of insights and nuggets of inspiration that many readers, and certainly those readers with literary aspirations of their own, will find as invaluable as they are fascinating.
(TO BE CONTINUED)