Stephen King at 70: Cemetery Dance's Richard Chizmar hails the master of the macabre
Stephen King celebrates his 70th birthday on Sept. 21. In honor of the author’s milestone, EW is presenting tributes to the man whose Constant Readers think of as “Uncle Steve.”
First up is Richard Chizmar, editor and publisher of Cemetery Dance magazine, and author of the short story collection A Long December. He and King have known each other for years, and they recently collaborated on the novella Gwendy’s Button Box.
How do you say a proper thank-you to the man who handed you the key? How do you when words aren’t enough?
Fiction is the truth inside the lie.
I was a sophomore in high school the first time I met Stephen King. It was October of 1981 and my English teacher, a lovely man named Richard Gallagher, showed up for class one afternoon with a stack of photocopies in his arms. He asked several students to pass them out and announced that we would be spending the next couple of days reading a short story he had recently stumbled upon in an obscure magazine.
The story was a nasty little shocker called “The Monkey” by an author I had never heard of, and initially I was just thrilled to have the opportunity to read the word “fart” out loud in class (that’s pretty much a rule, by the way; all 15-year-old boys love to talk about farts). But the deeper we got into the story, the more I realized that something else—something far more significant—was happening.
By the time we’d finished reading and discussing “The Monkey,” my path was crystal clear. It was as if a secret door had been opened and I had caught a glimpse of my future in the landscape beyond. I wanted to spend my life doing to others what this Stephen King fellow had just done to me: he’d somehow managed to make the real world around me disappear and replaced it with a fairy tale. A dark and frightening fairy tale, to be sure, but that’s exactly what the whole experience felt like to me: it felt like magic.
Sometimes when you’re young, you have moments of such happiness, you think you’re living on someplace magical like Atlantis must have been. Then we grow up and our hearts break into two.
—Hearts in Atlantis
You forget when you’re young. The world is too big, the sky too bright, the days and nights filled with too many possibilities. So you go where the wind carries you, and you forget. Sometimes even magic slips away.
Books are a uniquely portable magic.
Fast forward five more years: it’s 1986 and I’m in the middle of my junior year of college. And I’m completely lost.
Despite the transformative experience of reading “The Monkey,” I’ve not spent the past five years creating my own form of literary magic. Instead, I’ve devoted my days to playing college lacrosse and attending countless parties and even managing to take in the occasional class or two (if it wasn’t raining). I was majoring in business and the year before I’d been named an All-American midfielder, and it felt like I was holding the world in the palm of my hand.
And then everything changed.
Shortly into the new season, I injured my ankle and re-injured my knee, and before I knew what was happening I was out of the game. For good. I spent the dark days that followed sitting alone in my apartment, drifting aimlessly around campus, dragging myself to physical therapy appointments, and trying desperately to find something—anything—to feel happy about.
And then one day, while wandering around the mall to waste time, I bumped into an old friend — and my world turned upside down again.
I remember stopping in front of the bookstore and staring at the biggest display of books I had ever seen. There had to be at least 50 copies stacked in a spiraling tower. The cover art grabbed my attention first: a cracked gray sidewalk and a paper boat gliding down a rain-filled gutter, and my God, that sharp green claw reaching up out of the sewer grate. Then my eyes moved to the bright red title: IT. And the author’s name above: STEPHEN KING.
I grabbed a copy from the top of the tower, savoring its weight in my hands. I opened the book to the first page and scanned the opening sentence:
The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years — if it ever did end — began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.
I felt a familiar stirring in my heart. The whispery kiss of a resurfacing memory. I stood there, transfixed, and read to the bottom of the page, and then the next page, and the one after that. The bookstore disappeared. The world disappeared. I was no longer standing in a shopping mall in Maryland. Suddenly, I was walking the stormy streets of Derry, Maine, with Georgie Denbrough at my side and Pennywise the Dancing Clown waiting for us down below.
Pennywise was terrifying and grotesque, and he wanted me to float with him down there in the dark sewers of Derry.
But I didn’t care.
I was home again.
The place where you made your stand never mattered. Only that you were there…and still on your feet.
To this day, I believe that IT saved the life of a very lost and confused young man. At the very least it carved the path for my writing and editing career, and gave me something to dream about again.
I spent two weeks devouring the novel, savoring those final hundred pages, rationing my daily page count because I didn’t want the story to end.
And, along the way, I rediscovered the magic.
Shortly after I finished reading IT, I landed a part-time gig at the college newspaper writing Sports and Feature articles. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but that didn’t matter. I learned as I went. Rediscovering the magic had given me courage I didn’t know I possessed.
Within a few months, I was writing and submitting my own short stories to small press magazines. The rejection letters piled in, but so did the acceptances (okay, they didn’t so much as pile in as much as trickle, but those scattered acceptances were more than enough to keep me going).
I remember driving away from the post office one winter morning, a publisher’s check for $25 sitting on the passenger seat beside me, and thinking: I’m a writer. I’m a writer. I’m a writer. The words echoing inside my head the whole way home.
I was 21 years old. Six months later, I started Cemetery Dance magazine. It’s been my life ever since.
Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.
The debut issue of Cemetery Dance magazine was published in December of 1988.
In late 1989, a small envelope postmarked Bangor, Maine showed up in my P.O. Box. I opened it and found a promotional blurb for Cemetery Dance. It was signed Stephen King. I stared at the letter for a long time, thinking: I’m not dreaming, am I?
Two years later, a thick manila envelope arrived in that same P.O. Box. Inside, a brand new short story called “Chattery Teeth” by Stephen King. Once my heart recovered from the shock, I hurried down the hallway of our apartment to show my wife, Kara. There were smiles and whoops of joy. And there were tears — from both of us. She understood. She knew.
Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.
—Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption
Fast forward again. It’s 1996. I’m 30 years old, and the doctor has just told me that the cancer I beat six months earlier has come back. It’s in both of my lungs, my liver, my stomach, and my lymph nodes. I’m staring at 12 weeks of chemotherapy and 50-50 odds of surviving.
My family and friends rally around me. Phone calls. Visits. Cards.
Late one night not long after, the fax machine in my office buzzes: a lengthy handwritten letter from Stephen King.
He’d heard the cancer had returned and wanted me to know that he was thinking about me. He wanted me to know that he believed I could beat it.
I’m still here. And I still have that letter.
Life was such a wheel…and it always, at the end, came round to the same place again.
I could tell you a hundred more stories like these. Each one of them a priceless jewel from a treasure chest of dreams-come-true.
I could tell you what it felt like when the manuscript for From A Buick 8 showed up at my office (talk about a Monday morning surprise!) with a note explaining that Stephen wanted to know if I would be interested in publishing a limited edition.
I could tell you what it felt like when Stephen and his agent extraordinaire, Chuck Verrill, sent me a novella called Blockade Billy, and the three of us shocked the publishing world with a secret-release Stephen King hardcover to mark the start of baseball season.
I could tell you what it felt like to collaborate on Gwendy’s Button Box, and how when a reporter asked me if working on the book with Stephen King was a dream come true, my answer was honest and direct: “I’ve been a dreamer my entire life, but I never dreamed this big.”
I could even talk about how a surprise business relationship grew into a surprise friendship as the years passed. Thousands of emails and texts exchanged. The occasional baseball game or movie premiere. Rarely talking about writing, business even less.
My favorite conversations centering on our families, our dogs, the people and books and movies we most admire. How I often find myself asking for advice and guidance, not just professionally, but as a father of two boys of my own. And how Steve listens with a generous and patient ear, and usually knows the words I most need to hear.
Finally, I could tell you about the endless kindnesses that Steve has blessed my family and me with. Laughter shared with Billy and Noah across a dinner table. A voice cameo in a Billy-directed student film. Countless opportunities for all of us to chase our dreams. And much more.
The most important things are the hardest to say…because words diminish them.
There is a brief scene near the end of the movie, Tombstone, which I think about often. It’s my favorite moment in the film, and I can’t think of any other scene in any other movie that better encompasses my own personal view of friendship and loyalty.
Turkey Creek Johnson: Why you doin’ this, Doc?
Doc Holliday: Because Wyatt Earp is my friend.
Turkey Creek Johnson: Friend? Hell, I got lots of friends.
Doc Holliday: I don’t.
I’ll tell you a secret: I don’t either.
I’m the kind of guy who surrounds himself with a very small group of trusted friends, most of them I’ve known since the long-ago days of childhood. A ka-tet, if you will.
I’m blessed and grateful beyond words that Steve King is one of those friends. People often ask me what he is like in “real life” (their words, not mine). I usually respond briefly and protectively. I simply say that he’s smart and kind and funny as hell. And that’s all true.
But he’s more than that.
He’s the most talented and generous man I know.
Happy 70th, Steve.
May there be many more.
I love you, brother.