Life intrudes on plans, as they say. While I had every intention of getting a review of Donald E. Westlake’s KAHAWA for this week, it just did not happen. I am immersed in that book at the moment, and will need a bit more time to finish reading it and assemble my thoughts. Instead, this week, I will offer a look at a slender novella from Richard and Billy Chizmar, a father and son collaboration about an investigator venturing into one of those spooky places and getting the chance to find out first hand just how thin the veil between the everyday world and a place of supernatural wonders and terrors can be . . . That place is WIDOW’S POINT.
Not far from the town of Harper’s Cove stands the Widow’s Point Lighthouse, a place with a ghostly reputation. Thomas Livingston, a best-seller writer of thirteen volumes of non-fiction about supernatural events and places, has made a deal with the laconic present owner of the place to spend a weekend locked inside. Ostensibly such a stunt is a way for him to collect information for a new book, of course. He knows the history pretty well, and although he’s a writer of the supernatural he is also something of a skeptic. This will change.
“There is little doubt that the Widow’s Point Lighthouse led to a sharp decrease in the number of nautical accidents off her shoreline—but at what cost? Legend and literally centuries of first-hand accounts seem to reinforce the belief that the Widow’s Point Lighthouse is curse . . . or perhaps and even more apt description . . . haunted.” (page 18)
The Widow’s Point Lighthouse has been one of those places that was born bad (ala the titular domicile from Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE) and has just gotten worse over time. It has been the home of numerous murders, suicides, and disappearing children. Several key tales from the history of the place end up in Livingston’s narrative, recorded via video camera and voice recorder, as he settles down for a nice little visit to what should be a quiet, spooky place that turns out to be an exercise in increasing dread.
WIDOW’S POINT brings the epistolary work up to date, allowing readers to follow events as witnessed by a first-person narrator in nearly real time thanks to technology. Instead of assembling journal entries and other recorded documents, the book “assembles” transcriptions of time stamped (and sometimes corrupted) video and audio entries along with a police report, psychiatric evaluation, and more to present a look into what happened during Livingston’s visit, how events unfolded, and what the aftermath looks like. It also allows a talking head narrator to deliver his skewed perspective on historic events as well as the present ones.
One of those older style information sources shows up in the text, as well, in the form of a journal kept by a young Delaney Jane Collins whose family found a terribly end in the place some decades earlier. Livingston reads these artifact edition entries aloud into his records, offering some commentary on their quality and the way that quality improves as the author transitions from the childish observations of no real import to the more mature perceptions of supernatural events and presences that she alone can see.
I was right. I told [Mother] everything. About how my bedroom gets so cold before it happens and how sometimes I can see my breath. I told her about the lady with the curly hair in the white nightdress and what happens to her on the floor. I even told Momma how I watched her disappear the other night. None of it mattered. You’re too old to be having nightmares, Delaney Jane, no more Legend of Sleepy Hollow for you. There is no such thing as ghosts. Why didn’t your brother see her too when he sleeps in the same room as you? I should have known better.
For my money, these journal entries offer the most harrowing material in this book. Young Delaney’s story is spare but gripping in ways Livingston’s cannot be. She is a child who is not believed, she is truly alone and trapped in the place that will influence her own murder. Livingston chose to be here, and whatever fate he finds is something he has brought upon himself.
The writing style for Livingston’s present day material is told in present tense, but done so in a believable fashion. Video sequences read like fictionalized screenplay scenes. The audio-only stuff reads like material that could have been taken from a radio drama complete with parenthetical sound effect notations as well as brief notations from the unknown transcriber offering contextual asides, such as letting us know that Livingston cannot hear certain recorded elements such as laughter and whispers. The effect is certainly immersive, and it allows the authors the chance to play with expectations. Nothing too dreadful can happen to the traditional first person narrator since she/he has to survive to write the final letters or speak the story. This work veers closer to the found footage school, however, so there are no guarantees that the narrator will make it out and no guarantees that the transcriptions we are reading are not hoaxes themselves . . . This makes for a fun little reading experience, delivered at just the right length. A full on novel of this stuff could be annoying after too long. The novella size lets the narrative spin out at a more leisurely pace than a compact short story would allow, and yet it does not overstay its welcome.
Livingston himself is a psychologically troubled character, of course, which is to be expected. This novella is a Gothic work at heart, and the psychologically traumatized protagonist is such a place’s bread and butter. The lonesome lighthouse perched on the rocky Nova Scotia coastline, gazing out upon the might ocean is a perfect setting for a haunting tale of ghosts (or perhaps something else), and a person with all his marbles aligned is not the most likely character going to be drawn to such a place. His past issues will come to the fore over the tale’s course, used by a malevolent location or the strange Presence that haunts it, as a way to try and break the narrator. What begins as little tricks, a camcorder that loses its ability to record images—a result of falling over or otherworldly intervention?—or the hint of movement where no movement should be escalates over the course of the weekend, building like a thunderstorm to an imminent release, carrying Livingston through the Widow’s Point Lighthouse’s history with trauma and into his own.
The writing style is spare, but it does a solid job of establishing and maintaining mood. The video and voice recorder stamps provide plenty of section breaks that give a sense of passing time, and offer some clues to the influence the supernatural exerts over the investigator that has come to it in search of truth. The authors show a clear experience with penning screenplays. There is a solid use of visuals, particularly in the transcriptions of the camcorder footage.
One of the more surprising touches are the little nods to other works of supernatural horror. The narrator lives in a world that seems to include elements from other author’s works. He is a modern day Ghost Breaker, a character archetype that has seen plenty of incarnations from Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence and the comedic THE GHOST BREAKER play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard through the Harry Dresden series from Jim Butcher, and the premise of this book plays off a similar setup for Stephen King’s short piece “1408”. But there are more . . . Livingston makes passing mention of having stayed at the Belasco House, which of course cites the house from Richard Matheson’s HELL HOUSE. One of the briefer audio quotes is a recitation of the little ditty from the opening of Stephen King’s THE TOMMYKNOCKERS. Of course, there are allusions to Shirley Jackson’s HILL HOUSE—though whatever walks in the Widow’s Point Lighthouse certainly does not walk alone—as well as to William Hope Hodgson’s sea stories, and there’s even a bit of a nod to Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn” . . . Readers looking for such Easter eggs will find plenty of things to savor and enjoy, while those readers not versed in horror fiction’s history will not be troubled by missing this or that reference.
WIDOW’S POINT is a tale that evokes the genre’s past without being too cute about it, and which manages to add in elements of the modern day (circa 2017) without robbing the narrative of its chills or having to jump through hoops to render our near immediate access to communication lines useless. The key theme to WIDOW’S POINT is isolation. The Lighthouse is not far from a town in a literal physical sense; however, it is remote in a spiritual and metaphoric sense and every element in the work points to this. In fact, Livingston’s journey can be charted as starting out in a kind of self-imposed isolation, standing apart from the world because of a conscious choice, to an externally imposed isolation. The Lighthouse has called to him as it has previous victims, and once he makes the choice to cross the threshold he can no longer return to the world he knew in quite the same shape he left it. This is akin to the fondest wish for many horror readers, to encounter a work that will invigorate that rush of emotion, fear, longing, that called us to the genre; while WIDOW’S POINT might not be all of that for me, it was an entertaining way to spend a few hours. Though I am perhaps too jaded or desensitized to have been chilled to the marrow by Livingston’s narrative, Delaney’s came closest to taking an ax to my frosty spirits and striking gold. I expect there will be plenty of readers out there who will receive a shiver at some of the spookier moments.
WIDOW’S POINT is available in trade hardback and eBook editions. I rather enjoy Bob Eggleton’s moody wraparound cover for the piece. Nobody paints storm tossed oceans quite like Eggleton. It’s worth getting a copy for the cover painting alone. Of course, a limited hardcover edition with alternate cover art was also available from Chizmar’s own Cemetery Dance Publications. For the dedicated Richard Chizmar fans, this novella also appears in the pages of his latest collection THE LONG WAY HOME, a hardcover release from the wonderful UK publisher PS Publishing. As of this writing Cemetery Dance has released the news they will be republishing the new collection in a trade edition. A film adaptation is also in the works.
Chizmar, Billy and Chizmar, Richard. WIDOW’S POINT. Cemetery Dance: 2018.
“We Are Still Here: Widow’s Point” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes and cover art are taken from the Cemetery Dance trade hardcover edition.