A few years back, I was waiting for a connecting flight in Atlanta. I had about two hours to spare and a handful of crumpled dollar bills in my pocket to burn so I did what any self-respecting horror fan would do with their last few bucks when traveling across the country- I bought a Snickers bar and an issue of Cemetery Dance magazine that I found in a magazine nook. I fell in love with the publication immediately and devoured the issue before I even got to my final destination that day. Within the week, I had covered the issue in highlighter ink as I created a list of new authors I had to discover and notes throughout. I instantly had a new favorite magazine and recently, I had the chance to chat with CD founder Richard Chizmar.
Not only is his company still churning out fantastic content and incredible collector items nearly thirty years after the company began, but Mr. Chizmar himself has found himself on a whole new plane of recognition now that’s written a story with a gentlemen from Bangor, Maine that has made a legendary living off of writing horror.
When Cemetery Dance Publications started back in 1988, the publishing world was completely different than it is right now. There wasn’t the instant gratification factor that exists these days, which comes thanks in large part to the bevy of self-publishing options that litter the literary landscape. As the years have gone by, so too have several beloved independent publishing houses. To see CDP preparing to celebrate its thirty-year anniversary is no small feat from where the company started, and Mr. Chizmar knows it.
“It’s funny, I had a pretty clear vision of where I wanted Cemetery Dance to go right from the very beginning, but I never looked this far into the future. I couldn’t. It was truly a day-to-day approach for those first ten years or so – a lot of 12-14 hour work days, seven days a week usually.”
Chizmar is truly a gentleman who has not forgotten where he came from or what brought him to this point.
“To still be publishing – and thriving – almost thirty years into the game is a blessing to be sure. Trust me, we made a lot of mistakes along the way – more than our share of them – but we always believed in our vision and had real passion for what we were trying to do. Plus, we were stubborn.”
That determination is etched into Chizmar’s DNA and has gone a long way to ensuring that CDP kept afloat, especially during the first decade of the company’s existence. Failure was never considered an option for Richard when it came to producing quality horror literature and he used an athlete’s mindset that served him well earlier in life to make sure Cemetery Dance Publications would become the leader in horror literature that it is today. As of this writing, CDP has published over 200 books.
“Despite being a lifelong bookworm, I also came from a sports background. I played lacrosse in high school and college, and I carried a lot of those athletic-based philosophies over to building my business. I refused to let anyone else outwork me. I was always in a learning mode and asking a lot of questions (Dave Silva, rest his soul, would attest to this). I believed in myself and put a lot of faith in the team that was assembled around me. I tried my best to learn from my many mistakes and never make the same mistake twice. Of course, this didn’t always happen, but I tried. Perhaps, most importantly, I was never afraid of failure in the short-term; in fact, I learned to embrace it as part of the process. I had no fear when it came to falling down because I knew that, no matter what, I was getting up again. Looking back, I’m sure it was a combination of a strong work ethic, a lot of luck and a whole lot of naiveté.”
Cemetery Dance is widely considered one of the top literary presses going today, and rightfully so. However, things didn’t always work so smoothly when it came to acquiring stories. In fact, Mr. King himself plays a part in one of Chizmar’s favorite stories from the early days.
“In the spring of 1990, my wife and I were headed out to the very first Baltimore Orioles game at the newly opened Camden Yards. On our way out the door, I checked the box for mail and pulled out a postcard from a guy named Chuck Verrill. I had never heard of Chuck before and we were in a big hurry, but I gave it a quick glance. It read something like this: Hi, Rich, I am Stephen King’s agent and Steve asked me to send you a new short story about five or six weeks ago. I’m following up today to see if perhaps the story is sitting in a slush pile somewhere. Steve is a big fan of Cemetery Dance and would love to see the story in its pages.
Well, I almost had a heart attack right then and there, but I gathered myself enough to run (yes, I literally ran) back inside our apartment and down the hall and into my office. I dropped to a knee and sorted through what were probably two or three hundred submissions. Sure enough, there it was near the bottom of the pile: a large manila envelope with the return mailing label of Chuck Verrill in New York City. I ripped open the envelope, pulled out the manuscript, and sat on the floor of my office and read “Chattery Teeth.” When I was finished, hands shaking, I called and left a message for Chuck explaining what had happened and telling him how much I loved the story. My wife and I went to the Orioles game in a daze, celebrated with hot dogs and cotton candy, and later when we got home, there was a message waiting on the answering machine. It was from Stephen King, thanking me for liking his story.”
In this writer’s opinion, what truly makes Cemetery Dance such a force in the industry and such a beloved outlet for terror for those of us who eat, sleep and breathe the genre is that CDP never rests on its laurels. There is always something new to be created, someone new to be highlighted, something classic to be restored and presented entirely differently. Of course, our favorite thing about Chizmar’s pride and joy is the fact that the best of the best that horror has to offer is usually presented via CDP. This took a whole new life of its own earlier this year when it was announced that Chizmar would be joining forces with Stephen King on a project titled Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella that has drawn positive reviews across the board.
Imagine, if you will, opening your inbox one day to find an email from Stephen King. I often daydream about this and it usually ends with me wondering if my fanboy squeal of delight would shatter the windows in my home. Richard has had the pleasure of befriending Mr. King over the years and the two often exchange correspondence. But things took a fascinating turn one day as King was working on a new story.
“Steve and I email and text a lot, usually about movies and books and family stuff. Sometimes, writing creeps into the conversation. One day in early January, I mentioned collaborations and round-robin writing projects and Steve responded that he had a story he’d started that he hadn’t been able to finish. I told him I’d love to read it if he felt like sending it over. Gwendy showed up the next day with an email that read: Do whatever you want with it. I immediately read the story and emailed him back. We finished the novella exactly one month later.”
Can you imagine? Having the master of terror, the King of horror, the macabre maestro give you the chance to finish one of his stories. It must have been an incredibly emotional experience, as a fan of King and as an author in Chizmar’s own right. I can’t imagine not shouting from the rooftops with news so exciting. Kudos to Richard for being a stronger-willed man than I may have been!
“It was such a surreal experience. I received the story on a Friday and spent the weekend in mild terror at what I was about to do. When I sat down to write some notes on Monday morning, mild terror transformed into sheer terror. My hands were shaking. Fortunately, once I opened the laptop and actually started writing, all the nerves disappeared and I became lost in Castle Rock. As for shouting from the rooftops, I didn’t even tell my wife and kids about Gwendy until that Sunday evening, a full forty-eight hours after I first read the story. Later that week, I told everyone at the office. I held onto it for a while.”
The art of writing a book is what truly makes it worthwhile for authors. Given the chance to work alongside arguably the greatest horror writer of all time, not to mention one of the best American writers ever, was one that Chizmar will always remember fondly.
“The process was wide open and fun. We both took a free hand in rewriting or tweaking each other’s work. We rarely discussed where the next scene was going; we just sat down and wrote and left it to the next guy to pick up where we left off. I believe we played ping-pong with the script three or four times, emailing it back and forth. It was fascinating to see up close the choices that Steve made. I learned a lot.”
Chizmar is certainly no amateur when it comes to putting pink to paper. He has won the Horror Writers Association Board of Trustees Award, as well as two World Fantasy Awards and four International Horror Guild Awards. The process of writing can be a daunting one at times, even for the most battle-tested author. Chizmar didn’t let the magnitude of Gwendy’s Button Box detract him from following the same writing formula as he always has – he simply doesn’t have one.
“No set schedule. I write when time permits. Sometimes at the office, but usually at home. Most often in the mornings and late at night. In the case of Gwendy’s Button Box, I burned through about 10,000 words in three days (fast for me) and sent them off to Steve before I had time to chicken out. After that, the manuscript went back and forth.”
Chizmar also boasts an impressive list of screenplays on his resume, including one in particular that I can’t for the life of me figure out why it hasn’t seen the light of day yet. One of Stephen King’s lesser heralded but nonetheless excellent novels, From A Buick 8, seems long overdue to receive the film adaptation treatment. In fact, Chizmar just so happens to have created a fantastic screenplay based on the book. As soon as King fans across the globe caught wind that Chizmar was co-writing the screenplay with his screenplay comrade Johnathon Schaech, the excitement rose to fantastic levels. Unfortunately, the excitement was deflated slowly as studios passed on the film, preferring “horror King” as opposed to the “blurred genre” King works that seem to make the best film adaptations anyways, such as The Green Mile or The Shawshank Redemption, and potentially Buick 8. Fans like myself weren’t the only ones frustrated by the lack of interest in the script.
“I don’t get it either. John and I also wrote a cool adaptation of Black House for Akiva Goldsman, but we knew going in that it would be a long-shot because of all the complications attached to The Talisman film. From A Buick 8 was a different story. I loved that story and it broke my heart when it didn’t happen. We came close several times. Great directors attached. Wonderful actors interested. It just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe one day…”
Random Richard Chizmar Fact:
If he were to choose his three most prized possessions from his bookshelves, he would grab his signed copies of Stephen King’s IT, Ed Gorman’s Moonchasers and Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life.
As far as screenplays go, Chizmar doesn’t have anything he’s currently working on, but he does have a “throwback slasher script on deck” that he plans on writing at some point and there’s also been talks of a Cemetery Dance television series. Those talks are still in the very early stages, however.
Make no mistake, Richard Chizmar has no plans of slowing down anytime soon, nor does Cemetery Dance. The next issue of the magazine will be out later this summer and a handful of hardcover releases are still on the docket for 2017. King’s next project, a novel called Sleeping Beauties that he wrote with his son Owen, will be released in a limited edition form this fall. Joe Hill, the oldest King son who also happens to be a hell of an author, will see his upcoming novel Strange Weather released as a limited edition variant through CDP, too.
As a die-hard fan of Cemetery Dance magazine, I owe a lot to Mr. Chizmar, as he introduced me to the likes of Bentley Little, Joe Lansdale, Richard Laymon and so many others. Mr. Chizmar let his love of horror literature blossom while growing up and that opened his eyes to a number of authors.
“Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Robert McCammon were the big ones for me. Then, once I discovered magazines like Fangoria and The Horror Show, I fell in love with folks like Joe Lansdale, Charles Grant, Richard Laymon, and Ray Garton. Thanks to my father, I also read a lot of crime writers like John D. MacDonald and Ed McBain.”
The company continues to grow as does the world of horror literature. The thirtieth anniversary of CDP is fast approaching and Chizmar has a deep appreciation for the classic authors as well as the names that may not be quite household names- yet. There are a ton of fantastic authors putting out excellent quality these days and Chizmar never hesitates to acknowledge those who are worthy of King-sized love.
“Not all of these folks are brand new (at all), but here are a handful of authors who I can see becoming superstars- Greg Gifune, Rio Youers, Bracken Macleod, Paul Tremblay, Lisa Morton, Sarah Pinborough, Eric Rickstad, Brian Freeman, Norman Prentiss, Philip Fracassi, Josh Malerman, Sarah Lotz, Michael Wehunt, and about a dozen others I will remember as soon as I finish this interview.”
Richard is currently working on his first full-length novel, a brand new novella, an assortment of new short stories and an essay for his Stephen King Revisited blog. It’s a busy time in the world of Richard Chizmar- horror fans are just lucky to be living in it!
Be sure to keep up to date on everything going on with Cemetery Dance!
Check out Stephen King Revisited for tons of King-sized goodness!