True crime and horror exist one fine, fuzzy line away from one another. Sure, many people assume horror is the stuff of slasher movies, stories about people doing their damnedest to keep themselves and their kids ahead of ogres or monsters in small towns, or maybe tales about the intrusion of the supernatural/otherworldly into the lives of seemingly normal people. However, as Douglas E. Winter once opined: Horror is an emotion, not merely a genre. True crime is built upon a fascination with the horrific. Crimes happen, we are curious to find out about them, about the people responsible for them, and about what happened when the law caught up to them. Or didn’t, in the case of such folks as Jack the Ripper or Zodiac, neither of which has killed in decades (or over a century for old Bloody Jack) but who continue to fascinate. Anyone doubting the fuzzy line between true crime and horror need look no further than Jack Ketchum, who made a career out of taking true incidents, fictionalizing them, and emphasizing the horrific.
My mom read a fair number of books when I was growing up. Some horror, and plenty of true crime. It helped that ours was a family fascinated with crime. My dad was a police officer (now happily retired), and my mom taught me to love horror and enjoyed a good true crime flick or read. I well remember the cover to the paperback edition of The Shoemaker: Anatomy of a Psychotic from Flora Rheta Scheriber (author of Sybil, the cover proudly proclaimed), which lived in the bathroom for a while when I was nine (this would be back in the early to mid-80s). Anytime I would go in there to do my business, I would see the image of a window shade raised up just enough to show a young man’s hand holding a knife, and I would have to open it up. This was the days of the full color picture on the page just under the cover, a poor man’s 3D. When I opened the cover, I’d see a young man’s back, the knife held ready for use, and a couple of other people—teens or twentysomethings—completely unaware that the knife would be seeking them out in a moment. That cover creeped me the hell out, and yet I was drawn to it. The same way I was repulsed yet drawn to Fangoria, a magazine that made me physically nauseous to the point that I would only flip through it once before hiding the issue in a drawer. And yet the next time we headed to the Arbor Drugs, I’d scope the racks for another issue … Ah, the good old days. I had what some people called a morbid fascination, and as the 80s passed, that morbid fascination would become something altogether different: A hobby verging on an obsession.
Several recollections of those days popped back into my headspace while reading Richard Chizmar’s Chasing the Boogeyman, a novel that merges creative non-fiction, true crime, and horror fiction into something that reads like fiction, along with the confessional quality of memoir, mashed up with one of those true crime books my Mom used to keep around the house. It’s a gripping little yarn that borrows from the author’s experiences, borrows a real situation that occurred in his home town, and also merges in a chilling tale of a psychotic who abducts teen girls from their homes, abuses and murders them. It’s a chiller, all right. Not quite the sort of tactic that Jack Ketchum would apply to a book like The Girl Next Door or a novella like Weed Species, which use a more traditional narrative, but the two authors share a ken with looking for the underlying emotional impact of a subject and exploring it.
In fact, what Chizmar seems to be doing is a variation on a theme of what he and his coauthor son Billy Chizmar did with their novella Widow’s Point. He is playing around with the entire concept of information conveyance. When we think of epistolary novels, we probably think of the traditional mode of telling a story through letters and journals. Maybe we consider a work like Dracula. In fact, the entire concept needs a revamp if it is to continue to be relevant to the contemporary settings and stories. Sadly, the days of lengthy handwritten letters or journals are far behind us. There are some diehards, of course, but these days folks (in urban settings at least) are more likely to write blogs, creative vlogs, send emails, and tweet that sit down to compose a big old, handwritten letter. Once upon a time, I wrote a review of Bentley Little’s novel Dispatch, arguing it was an advance upon the epistolary form. The stuff writers like Chizmar or Stephen Graham Jones (in his book Growing Up Dead in Texas) as doing is taking it to the next step. Widow’s Point make a point of applying a traditional prose narrative for its investigation framing story and then using the transcript of a fictitious film for its scary parts; it was an upgrade to the epistolary novel. In Chasing the Boogeyman, we get a collection of recollections, “published” newspaper interviews, personal interviews, and a bevy of photographs of scenes of the crime, victims and perpetrators. It’s a medley of elements that add verisimilitude, that play around with the concept of “I saw it happening, here’s what I saw” that generates a lovely sense of intimacy with the reader. This is the quality the best epistolary works and memoirs accomplish. They forge a close bond between reader and narrative that is unlike our relationship with typical third person or first person points of view. No matter how well written or conceived an internal monologue might be, there is something unique about reading a person’s personal recollections in letter or journal form. It’s all illusion of course, but it is nevertheless somehow more convincing. At some points in Chasing the Boogeyman, it is almost impossible to tell where memoir ends and fiction begins, so cunning is the interweaving of fact and fiction. The author spills the beans in a general way in his Author’s Note, but the magic trick is certainly an effective one throughout the text itself. And a good part of that is the way the author toys with his text with the express intent of seducing us.
The forward treats the book as an updated edition of an earlier book. The opening chapters welcome us into the world of Richard Chizmar (the character) with a medley of the setting of the book as it relates to the character at several stages of his life. There’s the child, the teenager, and ending with the grown man returning home from college. The place does not necessarily change all that much, and yet our perception of it changes along with that of the character. It’s the same with our own hometowns or blocks. As kids we take a lot for granted, as we (hopefully) mature then so does our understanding of the place we live. Leaving it provides the impetus for one of the biggest shifts in perspective. What was once vast seems somehow miniaturized when we return.
All of this recollection is afflicted with a slow-moving poison, however. A series of terrible crimes will manifest in the town in the tail end of 1988. There was crime before, the author assures us, but they were not as striking:
Despite my somewhat biased viewpoint, my vision of Edgewood was not entirely colored by the haze of nostalgia r the golden-tinted memories of Norman Rockwellian American bliss. As in most small towns, there was crime and violence, treachery and secrets, tragedy and disappointment. There was a wrong side of the tracks to live on, and places where you didn’t want to find yourself alone after dark. When I first got to college, I was shocked to find that most of the guys in my dormitory had never been in a fistfight before; I’d been in dozens or more by the time I graduated high school. Speaking of which, the principal had been arrested for embezzlement during my sophomore year and actually sentenced to real prison time. A couple of years earlier, a middle school teacher had been arrested for a string of armed bank robberies in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware, crimes committed during his days off.Chasing the Boogeyman, 28
The more striking crimes start out with repeated offenses of a creepy, violating, but not life-threatening nature. The Phantom Fondler is an unknown individual who sneaks into women’s bedrooms after dark to touch them, fleeing whenever his victims wake. These take a more sinister turn when teenage girls are stolen from their safe spaces and victimized:
But then there was the bad the unimaginably, indescribably bad, hovering above all those wonderful memories like an angry, slate-gray thunderstorm sky. Four innocent girls murdered. Four families ripped apart. And a town held hostage by a faceless madman, a monster far more frightening and evil than anything I could imagine in one of my stories.Chasing the Boogeyman, 7
These passages showcase the author’s writing style, a little chummy, somewhat confessional, and rather enthusiastic. Each of these qualities could quickly escalate into the realms of too much, and it takes a seasoned writer to know how to leaven the mix. Moments of the book, particularly a couple of precious memories about a Richard Chizmar’s childhood experiences in Edgewood, tread a little too close (or take a step or two over) the line between honest narrative and little darlings, but the author himself provides a rationale for these inclusions. This is the expansion of a younger man’s book, after all, and the author made the conscious choice to keep it as it was “originally” written in a warts and all approach. It’s a charming rationale for including one or two precious moments and also a comment upon how authorial interests change over time.
Where the book really sings is in evoking the 1980s in general and Chizmar’s recollections of it in particular. The period details might not all be 100% accurate (I’m sure some history obsessed internet persona has already started amassing details that don’t quite fit), but it feels right, it sounds right, it rings just true enough for us to forgive it errors. No clocks in Ancient Rome, after all. Chizmar’s approach is one that does not eschew the embarrassingly human details of his life, such as a penchant for chucking snowballs and whatnot at passing cars while a young man. He’s at a loss now for exactly what the attraction for doing so, but he cops to doing it. This is not a Mary Sue version of the author, it’s one that makes mistakes aplenty in his pursuit of a morbid fascination that arose during his post college days and just before he launched Cemetery Dance, the magazine that would put his name on the horror fiction map.
The look at Edgewood, Maryland is a textured one, employing enough setting details to paint a good picture of the place without overwhelming readers with minutiae. Chizmar’s approach is intriguing. He was born there, came back from college as a writer and publisher looking to start his career, and therefore has both an insider’s view as well as an outsider’s strangeness. In a sense, that aspect of the book is a tip of the hat to Ben Mears, protagonist of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. Another tip of the hat to King comes in the repetition of the phrase “a storm is coming,” which brings to mind King’s epic, The Stand. These are clear nods, and quite accurate for the fictional Chizmar’s mindset (he reads a lot of King and horror paperbacks; such things get up in your noggin and refuse to go away).The fictionalization of the real individual owes a bit of a nod to some of the books from J. G. Ballard—Crash employs a Ballard that one assumes has little to nothing to do with the actual author—as does some of the more playful areas melding styles/genres. In addition to touches of Ray Bradbury’s themes and style, there’s a whole chapter which shares a name with Bradbury’s spooky and seminal October Country collection.
Chizmar knows his history of fiction and authors, all right, and he is not afraid to show off that knowledge while also trying to build something much more personal. The resulting novel is a unique treat, and though it spans several seasons, it’s a pitch perfect addition to autumn reading lists.
In the final analysis, Chasing the Boogeyman is a terrific read, engaging and eerie in its evocation of setting, character, and the crimes that plague both of these. The book delivered a lovely little nightmare on the first night after I got through the first killing, and what can a reader ask of a horror/thriller than that? Chizmar’s craft is good, and I look forward to seeing where it takes him in the future.
Next week, we conclude our survey of the Blanche mysteries from Barbara Neely with the fourth and final book, Blanche Passes Go. That book is available in standalone eBook, paperback, and audiobook editions. It is also collected in the Blanche: All Four Novels eBook omnibus from Brash Books.
Chizmar, Richard. Chasing the Boogeyman. Gallery Books: 2021.
“More Than A Morbid Fascination: Richard Chizmar’s Chasing the Boogeyman” is copyright © 2021 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image and quotes taken from the Gallery Books hardcover edition, released in August 2021.
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