In December of 1988, Richard Chizmar decided to publish a horror magazine called Cemetery Dance. A few months later, he did.
In October of 2013, Chizmar decided to publish an anthology called Turn Down the Lights celebrating the 25th anniversary of the magazine. A couple of months later, he has.
Chizmar, clearly, is not the kind of guy to back away from a challenge. It’s that kind of attitude that’s enabled him to build a veritable empire on the foundation of that first issue of Cemetery Dance, and to turn that unlikely name into a recognizable, trustworthy brand.
That first issue of Cemetery Dance featured a lot of names new to the horror genre, some of whom would go on to carve out big careers, some of whom would fade into obscurity. There are no obscure names in Turn Down the Lights – this is the cream of the horror crop, top guys that Chizmar credits with helping his magazine become an institution. Likewise, many of these guys would probably give Cemetery Dance credit for helping them find an audience. Out of this mutual admiration society comes a true gem of a collection, a slim volume of powerhouse tales (all original to this collection) that is a great unexpected Christmas gift for horror fans.
It kicks off with “Summer Thunder,” a brand new post-apocalyptic tale courtesy of Stephen King. King takes a different path than you might expect – there are no roving bands of nuclear mutants, no cannibals, no zombies. Instead, there are a couple of lonely old men and a dog, wiling away their days in a peaceful lakeside community, waiting on inevitable death via the radiation left behind by a few hundred warheads. It’s the end of the world and there’s little hope, but in the midst of the bleakness King unearths a surprising amount of beauty.
Norman Partridge checks in with “Incarnadine,” a strange little story about a dark night in a small town. Bad things have happened, and there’s magic on the wind and a killer’s sweat on a gun, and when those two things collide a monster is born.
Ronald Kelly takes us to “The Outhouse,” where three bored country boys spend their Halloween night drinking and looking for trouble. When they tip over an outhouse on an old man’s property, they unleash much more than they were expecting.
Clive Barker’s “Dollie” starts out on a somewhat familiar path before taking a patented Barker turn. Ellie is a young Wisconsin girl who seeks to escape her hardscrabble Wisconsin life where she’s under the thumb of her father, a man she and her siblings fear more than love. She takes a husband who isn’t much better and seems resigned to a life of abuse when she gets an unexpected visit of sorts from an old childhood friend. Vengeful dolls may not be anything new in the horror genre, but Barker takes this one to places that, quite literally, vengeful dolls rarely (if ever) go. You’ll see what I mean.
I could easily recite every story in this book and sing their praises – there are contributions by Jack Ketchum, Steve Rasnick Tem, Ed Gorman, Peter Straub, Brian James Freeman and Bentley Little in addition to the ones I’ve discussed here – but enough is enough. You get the picture. If you read horror fiction, you’ll want to read this book.
Turn Down the Lights doesn’t just celebrate Cemetery Dance magazine; it illustrates why the magazine is still such a vital publication a quarter of a century later. Chizmar’s eye for talent is impeccable, and his appreciation for all kinds of horror is essential to his success. These stories flow from the quiet to the surreal, from esoteric experimentation to Saturday matinee funhouse-style horror. For authors, an outlet like Cemetery Dance is a godsend. For readers, Cemetery Dance – including the magazine, this anthology and whatever projects come our way over the next 25 years – is a goldmine.
[Stay tuned for a second, alternate look at Turn Down the Lights from reviewer Kevin Quigley, coming soon.]