Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Richard Chizmar

In 1988, a college student named Richard Chizmar decided to start a horror magazine. Now, more than a quarter-of-a-century later, that magazine — Cemetery Dance — has become one of the horror genre’s longest-running print magazines, and Chizmar has become a respected publisher, editor, author, and screenwriter. Cemetery Dance Publications recently published its 300th book, and Chizmar’s Hollywood work (with co-writer Johnathon Schaech) includes an adaptation of Bentley Little’s “The Washingtonians” for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series and (as-yet-unproduced) feature film adaptations of Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 and Douglas Clegg’s The Hour Before Dark. Chizmar remains hands-on with Cemetery Dance — both the magazine and the publisher — and also pens his own fiction.

When you started the magazine Cemetery Dance in 1988, you were still in college. Was it originally envisioned as more of a fanzine? Or did you see it as a professional publication right from the start?

Well, I wanted it to be a professional magazine right from the start, but that took time. Our first couple issues definitely looked like they belonged solidly in fanzine territory. But, yes, right from the start I envisioned Cemetery Dance as a mix of both fiction and nonfiction, from both up-and-coming writers and seasoned pros. I had a very clear picture of where I wanted to take the mag.

The Horror Show was my original inspiration. Once I discovered that Dave Silva did most of the hands-on work by himself, I realized it was possible, and I was sold. His magazine and his kind support gave me all the inspiration I needed.

You’ve spoken in the past about how much you love working with your favorite writers (like Stephen King or Richard Laymon). How easy was it to reach those writers when you started the magazine?

We featured some really talented and well-known authors right from the beginning — folks like Dave Silva, Bill Relling, Steve Rasnic Tem, R.C. Matheson, Rick Hautala, and Richard Laymon, and they were all amazingly trusting and supportive. Not only that, they were also very communicative and eager to work with us, often times even suggesting ideas or offering fiction and nonfiction that I hadn’t asked for. Many of them claim this was a result of my early professionalism and vision, but I know the vast majority of it is owed to their own kindness and generosity.

As for Stephen King, I sent a couple copies of the premiere issue of CD up to Steve’s office way back in December 1988, and I kept doing that with each new issue. His assistants were always very gracious and kind to me, and those complimentary copies eventually led to Steve sending us a promotional blurb to use for advertising, then an original short story called “Chattery Teeth” a couple years later, and eventually some books to publish and a cherished friendship.

Given how much you enjoy working with writers, would you say that the sense of camaraderie or community is a big part of what you do?

I definitely would. We are blessed in that many of the authors and artists we work with have become good friends. The sense of community is something I find very special within the genre. Sure, there are the fights and feuds and arguments (mostly, it seems, online), but we have been fortunate enough to avoid most of that stuff. A lot of busy publishers and writers and artists helped me out in the beginning, in a lot of different ways, so we definitely try to pay that forward.

At what point did you realize Cemetery Dance could be a career?

Believe it or not, I never really had a fall-back plan. I graduated from the University of Maryland’s prestigious Journalism College, but I never put together a resume or assembled and sent out my clippings. I just started working on the magazine and never looked back. I used to tell people that CD was financed on twenty-one-percent interest and that was true. I was a new graduate, so I was getting loads of credit card offers in the mail. I accepted four or five of those puppies, and that was my seed money. How much money I was making — or not making, to be honest — was never really an issue. I was young and single and working my butt off; it wasn’t a matter of if this would work for me, just a matter of when.

Looking back, yes, I realize how crazy it all was. I am so fortunate it all turned out this way.

What led to Cemetery Dance Publications (the book publishing arm)?

Even back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the magazine distribution business stunk. I knew we would need to expand in order to make things work on a larger scale, and I also recognized that the magazine could serve as a really strong foundation for something bigger. I was really impressed with what publishers like Dark Harvest and Ziesing Books and Borderlands Books were doing, and I wanted in. So, I queried Ed Gorman about a collection, Joe Lansdale about an older reprint, and Dave Silva about a comprehensive Best of The Horror Show — and we were off and running.

Over twenty-five years and 300 books later, we are still learning the ins and outs of book publishing. It’s been a long — but rewarding — process.

Cemetery Dance Publications has always been known for its fine quality limited edition books. Were you a big collector of those books from other publishers before you started your own company?

I wish! I could never afford many limiteds — almost every penny went back into CD — but fortunately I did receive some for review in CD, and I splurged from time to time. I remember the day I received the Ziesing trade edition of Book of the Dead and opening it in a parking lot at college and being blown away by the presentation. Shortly after, Tom Monteleone gave me a copy of his edition of Lansdale’s The Magic Wagon. I remember smelling the paper, examining the binding, really just drinking it all in . . . and I knew I was going to be a book publisher.

When did you decide to get into screenwriting? And was it a difficult lateral move?

Screenwriting was really just one of those happy accidents. One of my childhood buddies from our old neighborhood went on to become a well known actor in Hollywood. His name is Johnathon Schaech and he starred in films with Tom Hanks, Gwyneth Paltrow, Harvey Keitel, and a bunch of others. He was also interested in doing some writing and directing, and he knew of my writing and publishing career, and wanted to connect at some point, but he was swamped with acting roles and it never happened. Until one day I saw him running back in our hometown and pulled over and talked to him on the side of the road for a few minutes. Later in that visit home, he stopped by my house and we discussed writing together. I gave him a copy of my first book, Midnight Promises, and off he went back to Los Angeles.

Like myself, John is very close to his father, and he took a strong liking to my short story, “Heroes,” and asked if we could adapt the story into a short film. I loved the idea, so we co-wrote a short script and before I knew it, I was on a plane to LA for the first time to co-produce a short film based on my story. It was a surreal and challenging experience, to say the least. John took a role in the film and also directed. Djimon Hounsou and Christina Applegate accepted roles, and we filmed it over two nights in the Hollywood Hills. It was a learning experience on how to — and how not to(!) — make a small independent film, and it made us hungry for more.

We quickly realized that because of Cemetery Dance we had access to a treasure trove of quality material, so that’s where we looked for our initial projects.

You’ve adapted a number of projects — King’s From a Buick 8, Douglas Clegg’s The Hour Before Dark — that haven’t made it to the screen yet. Can you talk about those or other unproduced screenplays?

The heartbreak of Hollywood! We were very fortunate in that many of our initial adaptations made it to the screen — episodes of Showtime’s Masters of Horror, NBC’s Fear Itself, and independent productions like Ed Gorman’s The Poker Club. Not to mention some cool rewrites for Sony and United Artists and a couple other companies.

But the ones that don’t fly are the ones that hurt the most, of course. We came so close, so many times with From a Buick 8. The response to the script and source material was tremendous, but it came at a time when companies wanted more “scary” Stephen King and less “blurring the genre lines” Stephen King (think The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption). Several top directors — including George Romero and Tobe Hooper — were attached to it at different times, and it was so darn close, but it just never happened. That book is very special to me for personal reasons, so it still makes my heart ache today when I think about it.

Doug Clegg’s The Hour Before Dark is still one of my favorites of all the things John and I wrote together, and it too came close a couple times — the first time at United Artists and then as an independent from Pen Densham’s production company. Pen is a wonderful man and artist, and it would have been a dream project to be involved with.

I still believe that maybe the best script we ever wrote together was a version of King and Straub’s Black House for Akiva Goldsman. Akiva loved it and wanted to make it, but it got caught up in all the red tape related to The Talisman.

Here’s a somewhat cryptic recent Facebook post: “Think I’m making two movies this year. Maybe three. Then again . . . maybe none.” Does that imply you might be producing and/or directing as well as writing?

Ha, great catch on your part! It means I could be doing all three in 2015, or maybe none! My fingers are crossed, and I should know more in the next couple months.

Do you think King is difficult to adapt to screen? Or, more specifically: Why do King films often not work as well as the source material?

I haven’t found it difficult at all. The source material is ripe with good dialogue and tension. There is a lot to choose from, and unlike some authors, Steve is not at all heavy handed when it comes to the tough decisions involved in taking a book to the screen.

As for why some King films often don’t work as well as the books did . . . my semi-educated guess is: PRODUCERS!

Do you have a dream film adaptation you’d like to write?

King’s From a Buick 8 (sigh).

McCammon’s Boy’s Life.

O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying.

A scary Halloween film!

Your magazine has now been around for over a quarter-of-a-century, and you’ve branched into all these other areas. How hands-on are you still with the magazine’s content?

I still read and approve all of the stories that make it into the magazine, but I no longer read a lot of the slush pile, and I’m often not the first reader on some of our published stories. Brian Freeman and Norman Prentiss are wonderful at bringing me great stories for the magazine, and I trust their input completely. That’s not to say we don’t sometimes disagree, but we really do make a great team. I still love receiving stories from authors, kicking back and reading them at my desk, and thinking: this is the one! This is going in the mag!

How about Cemetery Dance’s books — do you still choose most of them yourself?

I do. Until recently, with the hiring of Norman for our ebook line, I have chosen most of our books myself, but often times with great insight from Brian Freeman. Again, it’s a team effort and something I’m really pleased with.

Cemetery Dance Publications recently published its 300th book (a new edition of Carrie). Why have you outlasted so many other specialty presses?

So many reasons, I think.

Passion. Drive. Pure stubbornness. Luck. Hard work. The ability to make a lot of mistakes and learn from them (sometimes the hard and slow way). The immense generosity of others. And an amazing and hard working staff comprised of Mindy and Brian and Kate and Dan and Norman and a slew of talented freelancers.

You’ve now published short and long work from hundreds of writers through some pretty big changes in the horror genre. Are you ever conscious of the fact that Cemetery Dance may in fact be at the leading edge of some of those changes?

It’s funny. I never really give much thought to it. I buy the stories and books I like, and turn down the stories and books I don’t. That’s not to say that I don’t have to sometimes reject books that I really liked, based on other editions, publishing deadlines, agent demands, budgets, etc. But, for the most part, it’s that simple to me. I’m not interested in setting or following trends. I would probably be horrible at that! I really just follow my heart.

I used to laugh in the early days when critics would sometimes accuse me of publishing big names for the sake of advertising and promotion. I would tell those close to me: nope, I really do just like those stories, so it’s pretty much a double insult!

For better or worse, I follow my own path. I always have.

If you could change one current thing about the genre, what would it be?

It’s a purely nostalgic answer — and probably not a logical one — but you asked, so here goes:

I wish there were more small press magazines like the old days. Real, hold-in-your-hands, quality magazines. Back in the ’80s and ’90s you had publications such as CD, The Horror Show, Deathrealm, Grue, 2AM, Eldritch Tales, Iniquities, and so many others. I loved those mags, both as a reader and a writer, and I believe they served as a valuable proving ground for most of us young writers.

That’s something I think is missing today.

Cemetery Dance seemed to be active early on in the ebook explosion. Was there a day when you said, “This is breaking big — we need to be on top of this”?

Brian Freeman is responsible for that. He saw it coming and made sure I saw it, too! And now that we have hired Norman Prentiss to head up our electronic imprint, we will only continue to grow that part of the business.

You and Brian James Freeman (who also works for Cemetery Dance) are now editing a new anthology series for Random House ebook imprint Hydra. How did Dark Screams come about?

The good folks at Random House actually came to us with that idea, and I’m sure glad they did. It’s been a fun and exciting ride so far. The initial volume did very well, and we have a lot more good fiction in store for future volumes.

You seem to be on a recent streak of selling your own short fiction to other markets. Has working with all the other writers as an editor made you better at critiquing your own work?

I definitely think so. Also, reading as much as I have read in the past couple decades has helped immensely (without me even realizing it), as has writing for the screen (it helped me learn even more about economy of words and rhythm and pace). I think it has all contributed to making writing fun for me and making me hungry to tell my own stories again. I missed writing fiction, but there just wasn’t enough time until recently. 2015 should be my most productive writing year in over twenty years!

Family is also important to you. Given how many projects you’re always juggling, do you ever have a hard time backing away from the business to be with your family?

Only when people are really depending on me or when I am on a tight deadline. Otherwise, my family always comes first, and considering I used to be a first-class workaholic and control freak, this is nothing short of a miracle! But that’s the change that occurred pretty much from the moment my first son was born.

What is your ideal future for Cemetery Dance, both the magazine and the publishing company?

Just more of the same — lots of books and issues of the mag and other fun projects — but doing a better job of it. Better schedule management. Better distribution. Rewarding the faith and trust and enthusiasm shown to us by thousands of our readers. That’s our primary goal.

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.