Filler content with dark stuff – Part 2

Following on from Monday’s post, the second part of a feature on the work of Richard Chizmar that originally appeared in Black Static #58:-

DARK SHADOWS AND DIRTY CORNERS: RICHARD CHIZMAR (continued)

As careful readers of the above will have noted, collaboration seems to be a regular thing in Chizmar’s career. The novella DARKNESS WHISPERS (Scarlet Galleon Publications limited edition hc, 160pp, $35), co-written with Brian James Freeman is another case in point. Benjamin Logan, the Sheriff of Windbrook, a rural community in western Pennsylvania, has an intuition that something is not right with his world, and it turns out he is not wrong. Heading towards Windbrook is an elderly man dressed in a black suit, with a fedora on his head and an ornate walking stick in his hand, though he doesn’t have a limp. The old man will offer the people of Windbrook the thing they most desire, but at a price. As law and order falls by the wayside, as chaos reigns and violence erupts on the streets, with fire raging all around, Ben Logan is faced with the hardest choice he will ever have to make.

This is a story that put me very much in mind of Stephen King’s oeuvre, with echoes of Needful Things and The Dead Zone in the workings. As a picture of a community in crisis, it works rather well, with the authors cranking up the tension at every twist and turn, and everything going to hell in a handcart at Mach One. I could have done with a bit more by way of introduction to the people of Windbrook – we learn a fair bit about Ben Logan and his immediate family, but the rest of the dramatis personae are thumbnail sketches at best, which undermines slightly our ability to care what happens to them. Of course the focus of the book is rightly on Logan – ultimately this is a tale not of a community undone but of a single man faced with a hard choice, with all the rest simply the machinery that gets him to that moment. An Iraq War veteran, Logan comes across as a decent, honourable man, one who is trying to do his best for everyone, someone who loves his wife and cares deeply about what happens to his children. Another thing that comes across very clearly, is the sheer banality and anonymity of evil. While he is the prime mover in all that takes place, the man in the black suit is unremarkable, his sinister qualities rooted in his actions rather than any outward show of the monstrous. He is, in a sense, simply the embodiment of a process. As somebody else remarked, for evil to triumph it only remains for good men to do nothing. The choice for Ben Logan is in somewhat starker terms, but it is a choice all the same. While not a classic, this was a fine story, one that holds the interest and offers the reader some insight into his or her own character as we consider how we would have acted in Ben Logan’s shoes.

Although I’ve only seen a proof copy, my impressions are that this is going to be a very nice book. There’s an evocative cover by Tomislav Tikulin and some impressive black and white interior illustrations by Jill Baumann, all of which make for a very pleasing and no doubt eminently collectable product. By way of a bonus, we get separate stories from each of the authors. Chizmar’s ‘The Meek Shall Inherit…’ has a Fright Night vibe going on, with two young boys convinced their neighbour is a serial killer, but the truth is actually somewhat worse than that. It’s a good piece, well written and with the young boys brought to convincing life on the page, and with a neat end twist. Freeman’s ‘What They Left Behind’ concerns a haunted factory, the scene of a tragedy in the past, and is entertaining enough for what it is, but treads familiar ground and doesn’t really do anything you won’t have seen before.

I’ve mentioned Stephen King several times in commenting on Chizmar’s work, and it feels like he is a huge influence. The two writers seems to be coming from the same place, with an emphasis on small town settings and family values, a homespun prose style that treats the reader like an old friend and confidant. Given all that it should come as no surprise that their collaboration on GWENDY’S BUTTON BOX (Cemetery Dance Publications hc, 168pp, $25) is a pure pleasure to read.

With Chizmar as his travelling companion, King returns to the Maine town of Castle Rock, the setting for so many of his previous works. The year is 1974 and every day twelve year old Gwendy climbs the Suicide Stairs up to Castle View as part of her weight loss regimen. One day there is a man dressed in black waiting for her, and although she has been warned not to speak to strangers Gwendy can’t help but get drawn into a conversation with him. The man gives her a box with levers on the side and various coloured buttons on top, and instructs her in their proper usage. Gwendy has been gifted the means to make her dreams come true, but also the power to cause much hurt, both in the lives of those around her and on a global scale. And so we follow Gwendy’s life down the years, watch as she grows into a fine young woman, bear witness to the triumphs and tragedies in her life, and just like her we are always aware of those buttons and the possibilities for good and evil that they control. And we wonder what any of it means.

In essence this is a modern reinvention of the Pandora myth, with Gwendy as the one challenged not to open the box and unleash all the woes of mankind. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the main thrust of Darkness Whispers. As with Ben Logan, Gwendy has to make a choice about what she will do, whether or not to give in to temptation, but the man in black nemesis here is simply a catalyst, one who provides an opportunity for evil rather than positively promoting it. In many ways he is an impersonal force of nature, or perhaps even an agent of redemption.

Beyond that, strip away the supernatural aspects, and you have a compelling rite of passage story, one in which a girl grows into a young woman, with all that entails. Gwendy’s life is eventful, but not surprisingly so aside from the matter of the box, and the authors have the skill to make the details of her day to day existence compulsive reading. She is an eminently likable protagonist and the people in her life and the things that happen to her all engage the reader’s attention, because we know that she could so easily represent any one of us. We follow all her struggles to lose weight, to become popular, to take advantage of all the opportunities that come her way. And such is the ability of the writers that we come to be invested in her future, root for her to succeed and take an almost paternal delight in her achievements. And overriding everything else, we wonder if she will give in to temptation regarding the box, and what will happen when/if she ever does, that threat implicit in every page of the narrative and adding an underlying tension and feel of the portentous to the events that take place.

King and Chizmar have gifted us a novella that ultimately is about character, about trying to do the right thing no matter the cost and to resist the temptation to do wrong, even when it offers short term gain. Though I’ve no idea if it was the authors’ intention or not, it’s easy to find a metaphor here for technology, with its power to enrich our lives or destroy, and with Gwendy as representative of the human race, choosing which course to take. Beguiling and almost effortlessly readable, with short chapters that skip by in a heartbeat, this is a deceptively simple book, one in which there are no heroes as such, just people doing the best and worst that they can. And, to inject a topical note, in the current political climate we must all be hoping that unnamed others can resist temptation when it comes down to the matter of pressing buttons and suffering the consequences.

Ben Baldwin provides the cover art and Keith Minnion the interior illustrations (not present in the proof copy I read for the purposes of this review, but I’m sure they’ll be of as high a quality as everything else here).

First and foremost, whether in tandem with another talent or flying solo, as these three books ably attest, Chizmar is a storyteller, someone who identifies glitches in the human psyche, our propensity for good and evil, and constructs fables out of those potentialities. His work is filled with compassion and quiet understanding, written in an engaging prose that gets at the truth of his characters, giving them a heart and a voice, a unique identity. Chances are you are going to enjoy anything he writes, even though on occasion the experience will of necessity be a bittersweet one and raise questions that make us feel uncomfortable. It’s all part of the deal, the author’s artistry, and ultimately it all serves its purpose.

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