Richard Chizmar on the creepy winter tales of 'A Long December'
Also: The future for Cemetery Dance magazine, and the latest on 'Stephen King Revisited'
As the short days and long nights of winter deepen, there’s nothing like a deep chill as you read by the fire. Halloween and Christmas mingle in a satisfying blend of horror and hearth.
Richard Chizmar has a perfect new short story collection for that – A Long December, which amasses 35 of his own stories from the past two decades.
As the founder and publisher of Cemetery Dance magazine, Chizmar has been a life-long procurer of the bizarre and unsettling, but with A Long December, he is putting on display some fine shadows of his own making.
Each tale in The Long December is a magic trick, luring you toward the light while leading you down an ever-darkening path. There is hope mingled with horror, and that’s the author’s secret power. His storytelling always beats with a huge, passionate heart.
It’s just that sometimes that heart has been extracted by a madman.
Stephen King himself has said of the collection: “Richard Chizmar writes clean, no-nonsense prose, and sets his tales in no-nonsense, middle-class neighborhoods I can relate to. [He] writes terrific stories served with a very large slice of Disquiet Pie.”
Around the holidays, I always think about scary stories, everything from The Nightmare Before Christmas to A Christmas Carol bring ghosts into the holiday vibe. Your book is not full of holiday stories, but why was A Long December the right title?
It’s kind of a thoughtful, melancholy title, and it fits the other almost three dozen stories in the book pretty well. It’s funny because I just had a discussion with my wife yesterday about Christmas songs on the radio. I said, “Maybe it’s just me and my usual morbid side, but a lot of Christmas songs are actually tinged with sadness.” And she said, “Yeah, some of them.” So I started listing to them, and she’s like, “Okay, maybe more than some.”
Your stories always have a warmth to them, a humane side, even when they deal with the inhuman.
That’s where I come from when I sit down to write it. I’ve never been able to write a big monster story that is more about the monster than it is about the people. For me, it always starts with the people. And yeah, those winter months can be dark times, there’s not as much daylight, it’s a time that people are more depressed. I love the snow, I love the bare tress, the whole Ray Bradbury-esque fall, the Earth dying and turning into winter.
I wanted to ask you specifically about the story “Midnight Promises” in the collection. It’s about a man who’s in the hospital, dying from cancer. I don’t want to give too much away…
It’s actually a love story.
But it’s a realistic story too. Another one that has tremendous soul and then takes an icy turn. I was surprised to learn that this had a personal connection to you.
It did. When I was 29, I was diagnosed with cancer, and then when I was 30, the cancer came back. It was in my lymph nodes, both lungs, liver, my stomach. And I was in pretty bad shape, and the doctors said, “At best you have a 50-50 chance.” Fortunately, I was young and strong, so I underwent 12 weeks of chemo. Lost a ton of weight, but was fortunate enough that it worked and I survived it, and I’ve been healthy ever since — and I’m crossing myself right now as I say that! So I wrote that story shortly after I was finished with chemo. The dreams that I talk about in that story are real; they’re dreams I had of looking at X-rays and it looking like an apple tree with all the tumors, and I was the conductor of a train with black smoke exhaling that roared through a radioactive landscape.
It’s also about the dark cloud that surrounds someone who has to care for a dying patient. So how did the people in your life feel about this story?
My wife, who took great care of me when I was sick, she read that story — and I didn’t let anyone read it until the book came out — but she read that story in our bedroom and literally threw the book across the room and was very angry at me, which when people sit down and read the story, I guess they will understand why. She hasn’t read that story since. I actually suggested that — I said, “Maybe you should read it again 20 years later with new eyes and see what you think.” And I did not get a good response to that. [Laughs.]
I know it’s always hard to choose favorites — every story is like a writer’s child — but do you have any particular favorites in this collection?
Probably a story called “Heroes,” which I wrote about my father when he was still alive. Today is my father’s birthday actually, so it’s kind of fitting to talk about it. But my father passed away back in 2007, and this story was written probably 15 years before that, when he was healthy and out mowing the lawn and doing everything else himself. But it was essentially… again, this was kind of a father-son love story, about a son who’s started just beginning to see the deterioration of his father’s health and didn’t want to loose him and the extremes that he was willing to go to to keep his dad with him. There’s a twisted element to it, but it all comes from love and [my] history.
There’s a novella in the book, which gives the collection its overall title. Tell me about the inspiration for “A Long December.”
Without giving away too much, because this is all occurs in the first couple of pages, a suburban husband and wife, who have good jobs and a grown kid just starting college, struck up a very close relationship with their elderly next-door neighbor. The story opens with police lights reflecting off the main character, the husband’s bedroom ceiling, and he goes to the window, and he sees all these police cars and evidence vans parked along the curb next door. He goes out, finds out that they have been investigating his neighbor as a possible serial killer for a while and that he is on the run. So it’s essentially he’s kind of a father figure to this guy, they’ve shared a lot, and he’s become part of their family. And then they find out that he’s not who they thought he was, and the rest of the story is kind of a cat-and-mouse, kind of a Hitchcock story, but with a very brutal, heartbreaking ending.
The second story in the collection is “The Man with the X-ray Eyes,” which I know is the famous B movie. Clearly you took some inspiration from that, even though the story is very different from the film.
I think that was written for an anthology of alien stories. Back in the ‘90s, Marty Greenberg and Ed Gorman, two editors who were very, very kind to me and asked me to participate in a lot of their books, they just had a different theme for anything you could think of: aliens, horror stories set in the White House, the Holy Grail, it was pretty much endless. And I remember, that was my take on this small town everyman, who on the surface is the kind of guy you want to live next door to and you want to have help you put your fence up in the backyard or build your shed.
But he’s seeing visions of creatures disguised as people. And we aren’t sure whether he’s the only sane one or simply barking mad.
He’s different, and we just don’t know it. The point of that story was just, “Alright, is this guy crazy and not a good guy, or does he maybe really see things we don’t?” Because based on what happens at the end, it could go either way. And again… it’s almost like an old Twilight Zone story. I had a lot of fun writing that.
You’re also the publisher Cemetery Dance magazine, one of the real pillars of the contemporary horror scene. Your latest double-volume edition is a Joe Hill special issue. Tell me about putting this one together.
This one was a beast. We’ve always done special author issues from time to time. We’ve done Joe Lansdale special issues and some others. I’m just a big fan of Joe Hill’s, and we pitched him the idea probably a year or so ago, and we knew how busy he was, so we just said, “When the time’s right that you might be able to get us something original, we can print a news story, a reprint, do the interview, get some essays, the whole thing.” And he just embraced the idea and had some great ideas, and he told us about his next book from his New York publisher was going to be a collection of novellas, four different original novellas and would we want to use one of those, “Snapshot 1988.” Then he gave us an excerpt from [his new novel] The Fireman that was actually slightly revised, so that was something new.
It’s different from the book?
I believe so, yeah.
Significantly, or just the tinkering that all writers like to do with their work?
I think so. Joe’s a tinkerer. When he sent me “Snapshot,” I remember he actually sent it to me probably three different times because he’d say, “Oh, here it is, I worked on it a little bit more.” And I tried not to read it until I knew it was going to be the final draft, but as soon as I read it, I was floored. Again, Joe carries his own weight.
You give the stories room to breathe, too. This is a massive issue. Can we expect to see more like this?
We knew the issue would be jumbo sized and we’d have to do something different. So that’s how it went from the usual newsprint 104-page issue to this jumbo, almost 200-page perfect bound that looks like a catalog. Now we are thinking, how we can go back to the usual 104 stapled newsprint pages, so we may end up just sticking with this format and going with bigger issues.
It’s almost like a book itself.
It is. That’s the interesting thing with the magazine. I like whatever will keep us around. The magazine business is not the wisest business to be in if you’re in it to make a buck, which shows why we’re still in it. It’s never been about making a buck. I started publishing Cemetery Dance when I was in college, 28 years ago last week. So it’s been part of my life for almost three decades. And despite when you sit down and look at the numbers as far as profitability, it’s just something that I love to do and I can’t see the genre without it right now, so I keep it going. If it takes these big double issues to maybe centralize the work to a couple different times a year instead of six times a year, then it might be something we have to consider.
Stephen King has always been a major presence in Cemetery Dance, both as a contributor and a subject. Did you know Joe through him?
The story of Joe Hill being Stephen King’s son, most everyone knows that story, and that was actually one of the fun things about the issue, to kind of branch off for a second. I got a chance in my editorial to write my background story of Joe Hill being Stephen King’s son, because it’s not something that anyone with the exception of Joe, Steve, and the people in this office knew.
What’s the story?
That Joe submitted a story to Cemetery Dance many years ago. I read the story, I really liked it, I looked at that name, “Joe Hill. Joe Hill.” It just kept striking… So I had to come clean because obviously I knew he was trying to go under the radar, but I didn’t want to play dumb. It felt wrong for me to be on one hand excited that I found this great story from this new writer, but it felt wrong to play dumb when I knew who he was.
Right, he was trying to make his own name, avoid his dad’s shadow. So what happened next?
I just went back to my desk and emailed him and said, “Hey it’s a great story, I’d love to use it. But I have to ask you, ‘Is Steve your dad?’” He came back and said, “Yes, I’m so glad you like the story, but unfortunately now that you know Steve’s my dad, I really don’t feel comfortable, because I’m trying to do this completely on my own. And while I don’t believe that’s the reason you bought it, it’s just kind of my guidelines that I’ve set for myself.” So that’s what I always say, is, “Son of a bitch!” Years later, the rest is history.
The whole family is full of great writers. Owen King, I really love his work, the graphic novel Intro to Alien Invasion and the novel Double Feature. And Owen’s wife, Kelly Braffett wrote Save Yourself and Josie and Jack. The whole family is this amazing group of storytellers.
And [King’s wife] Tabitha is a great writer. Their family dinners must be fascinating.
Speaking of King, one of your long-running projects is the website “Stephen King Revisited.” You go back and read his novels, and you’re doing it in chronological order. Tell me a little bit about where that started and where you are now.
I approach it from a very personal side. The idea just kept itching in the back of my brain, and one day I mentioned it in an email to Steve, and he essentially said, “You’re crazy, but that could be fun maybe.” The best thing about it are the comments and the emails that I get each time I post a new essay, hearing about other people’s reactions, whether they agree with me, disagree with me, whether they had a similar experience, which a lot of them have. That was kind of my basis: When and where I read each Stephen King novel formed kind of a road map in my life. I could remember reading this one when my brother-in-law was in the hospital following an accident, sitting by his bedside. I remember reading this one when I myself was sick with cancer. I can remember reading this one when I was in college and had just gotten surgery on my ankle, that kind of thing. And it was amazing how many other people had similar stories.
Where are you now?
I think I’m through almost 20 books. I’m up to The Talisman by Steve and Peter Straub. I’ve reread it, and I have some notes; I just need to sit down and finish the essay, which I am sorely behind on. But it has been fun, and one day they will all be collected into a mammoth book. It’s just been a neat experience. I send each one to Steve when I’m finished. He usually has some very kind words, and I get to hear some neat back story that I’ve never heard before, so it’s a very personal project, and it’s a very honest project.
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