Maybe the most frightening moment in Richard Chizmar’s 25th-anniversary anthology, TURN DOWN THE LIGHTS, comes in the celebrated editor’s account of producing the first issue of his famed horror magazine, CEMETERY DANCE:
“I can also remember [illustrator] Bill [Caughron] and I hitting the PRINT button in the University of Maryland computer lab and running out of the room. You see, there was a very large sign posted above the printer that clearly stated: do not print more than 10 pages at a time. Laser printers were fairly slow back in those days, so suffice to say we were not very popular with the other students when we returned an hour later …”
A small shudder ran up my spine as flashes of ye olden days of printing technology recalled old trauma. (A brief sound-memory of dot-matrix printers made me gibber in a dark corner of my office for half an hour.)
It would be hard to overestimate the impact of CEMETERY DANCE on the horror scene, and it’s just as difficult to underestimate the chutzpah and practical sweat-and-shoe-leather needed not just to publish a ‘zine, but to publish the horror ‘zine. Chizmar’s recollections provide a charming, casual snapshot of the magazine’s inception — very “let’s put on a show, my dad’s got a barn” in nature — and it is as casually unassuming (and compelling) as the magazine has been. Slow-mo printing, young artists not knowing any better than to think they could make something professional out of their dorm rooms, a DIY vibe that will often leads to projects of immense heart and little value … and then a table of contents that includes genre heavyweights presenting fresh work.
TURN DOWN THE LIGHTS is — like the quality work Chizmar has championed and produced for 25 years now — a knockout anthology without pretense. It’s just damn good horror, done by experts. The lineup includes a who’s-who of the ’80s heavyweights Chizmar talked into publishing with him (Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker — as well as mass-market paperback phenoms like Jack Ketchum, Ed Gorman and Bentley Little). And the collection can feel like an archaeological find, as if Chizmar had squirreled away some stand-out work by each author until this big reveal after a quarter-century.
King’s “Summer Thunder” is a small story of the end of humanity, full of lived-in details about warm (unrefrigerated) beer and bodies breaking down (rather than blockbuster apoca-spectacle). The collection segues from King’s humanism to unabashed gory monster showdowns (by Ketchum and Ronald Kelly), genre-twisting pleasures by Barker and Norman Partridge, and less-classifiable wonders by Little and Steve Rasnic Tem. Each piece seems to reveal something wholly specific and yet still surprising about its author; the strongest marker of Chizmar’s skills as an editor is implicit in his ability to tease out the essence of — and best performances by — writers whose familiarity might in less capable hands breed contempt or a casual indifference. Instead, you feel like you’re reading them for the first time, again.
The best example — and a stand-out from a strong collection — is Straub’s sui generis “The Collected Stories of Freddie Prothero, Introduction by Torless Magnussen, Ph.D.” Reading this was like tossing back a distilled shot of Straub’s whole oeuvre: a quasi-academic opening argues the merits of a child “prodigy” who allegedly produced the greatest horror ever written in America. The opening paragraph notes the boy’s death, and carefully catalogues his outfit (“a green-and-blue plaid shirt from Sam’s; … Jockey briefs, once white, now stained lemon yellow across the Y-front”). Narrator Magnussen prattles on with brief quotes from the stories and casual sketches of the works’ import, as if merely tracing the outline of some subject all of us readers already know. And the story closes with the works themselves — semi-grammatical, baroquely childish. It sets up a weird detachment, relies upon an off-putting flat language and oddly specific yet vague detailing, moves to a “reveal” that is confusing and eccentric and ambiguous and … unnerving in a way that’s hard to pin down.
TURN DOWN THE LIGHTS is the best original horror anthology of the year. —Mike Reynolds