Review

Review

A Second Look at 'Turn Down the Lights' Edited by Richard Chizmar

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In October of 2013 – mere months ago – editor Richard Chizmar spontaneously decided he wanted to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Cemetery Dance magazine with an anthology, and that he wanted to bring his friends in horror along with him. The fact that, in mere weeks, Chizmar was able to assemble a collection that included new work from writers like Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Peter Straub, and Clive Barker, merely cements the ongoing importance and vitality of Cemetery Dance.
 
Turn_Down_LightsTurn Down the Lights functions as both a celebration and a summation; aptly, quite a few of these stories are about endings, quiet and loud. Stephen King’s “Summer Thunder” kicks things off with a bleak slice of post-apocalypse. While King has been exploring the end of the world for six decades now – from 1969’s Stand prologue “Night Surf” to, most recently, 2008’s “Graduation Afternoon” – he continues to find new angles of interest. Here, he achieves a deliberate, calm tone far removed from the feeling of detached shock in “Graduation Afternoon,” all while marching toward its inevitable, harrowing finale. Still, “Summer Thunder” is not just an exercise in dreariness: while it may be one of King’s most hopeless stories, within that hopelessness, he finds unexpected grace.
 
Brian James Freeman’s “An Instant Eternity” similarly finds its characters in the aftermath of mass destruction, managing to capture the feel of a society that believes it has put its tragedies in the past. Unfortunately, tragedy doesn’t die as easily as people do, and one of Freeman’s most haunting messages is that trying to save a life can take as much out of a man as ending one. A worthy companion to Freeman’s recent “Walking With the Ghosts of Pier 13” (indeed, it may be set in the same world), “An Instant Eternity” succeeds because Freeman, like King, focuses on the small human stories against the backdrop of global wreckage.
 
Other stories seem paired by theme, giving Turn Down the Lights the feel of something cohesive beyond the authors’ significance. In “The Western Dead,” Jack Ketchum tackles zombie horror for the first time since 2003’s “Eyes Left” (written with Ed Lee). The Wild West setting distinguishes it from the current spate of zombie fiction, and the back-story – so much unsettling, taboo sex – makes it pure Ketchum. Clive Barker’s prairie story, “Dollie,” also deals with outrĂ© sex, but in Barker’s hands, it’s used as salvation rather than destruction. Both stories also function as cautionary tales about what happens to men who abuse women, a subject handled more prosaically – but just as satisfyingly – in Ed Gorman’s oddly sweet and elegiac “Flying Solo.”
 
Creatures proliferate beyond Ketchum’s zombie cavalry: Norman Partridge’s “Incarnadine” offers … well, something, that “doesn’t laugh like a man.” It’s joined by whatever’s inside Ronald Kelly’s “Outhouse,” and the things that look like men at the center of Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Lookie-Loo.” In these stories, we are offered glimpses of a dark nature that exists alongside our own, ready to strike and kill if it’s interfered with. “The Outhouse” seems to offer a standard E.C. Comics-type story of supernatural revenge … until a misheard pronoun changes the game. “Lookie-Loo” is flat-out terrifying, misleading the reader into believing it’s going to play in the classic horror sandbox before soaring into a new direction. The imagery might be silly without Tem’s absolute conviction in telling the story, or those final paragraphs that manage to frighten implicitly.
 
The collection closes with Peter Straub’s homage to/satire of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and the people who study it. The overly serious introduction can be read as a parody of all fiction critics, who make their work finding themes and intent in stories that may be either unintended or just plain wrong (which makes this review a little metatextual, if anyone could agree on the definition of metatextual). The idea of a study devoted to the fiction of a “genius” young boy is knowing and hilarious, until we’re presented with the stories themselves. What could have been a winking gimmick becomes a deeply unsettling narrative. As in much of Straub’s fiction, subtlety is key; paying attention to names and titles is as important as trying to follow the deliberately complicated stories.
 
Richard Chizmar’s introduction to Turn Down the Lights explains the genesis of Cemetery Dance from the creator’s viewpoint, that of a twenty-two year old college student who decided to develop a magazine devoted to horror fiction. Thomas F. Monteleone puts the magazine’s story in a different context in his Afterword, that of a horror writer “being towed along in Stephen King’s wake” in the late 1980s watching Cemetery Dance take off, and being asked to be a part of it. These are perfect bookends for this sort of collection, looking from the inside out and from the outside in at the humble beginnings and continuing influence of what may be the most major force in horror short fiction today.
 

Kevin Quigley is an author whose website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including a book on comics and Stephen King, Drawn Into Darkness, as well as Chart of Darkness, Blood In Your Ears, and Stephen King Limited, and co-wrote the recently released Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming. Find his books at cemeterydance.com.

 

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