It's a good year to be Stephen King. The movie It has raked in more than $650 million. Sleeping Beauties, a book King co-authored with his son Owen, hovers near the top of bestseller lists. A Netflix production of the novella 1922 is a critical favorite. The film version of The Dark Tower ... well, Stephen King can cope with the occasional nightmare.
It's also a good year to be Richard Chizmar, founder of Cemetery Dance Publications, a six-employee publisher of horror fiction whose flagship magazine has been tingling spines for three decades. In January, Chizmar, also a writer, realized a lifelong dream when he collaborated with King on the short novel Gwendy's Button Box. It's the story of a 12-year-old girl who receives from a mysterious stranger the power to rain down mayhem and destruction by pushing a button. Like many King tales, Gwendy is a disturbing supernatural confection wrapped around a bittersweet coming-of-age center.
Inc.: You've been rereading all the Stephen King books and blogging about them. In the process, you've invited people to share their first experiences with his work. What was your first experience with King?
Richard Chizmar: My very first exposure was the short story "The Monkey" in 10th grade. It's about a man who finds in an attic this old wind-up monkey holding a pair of cymbals. In typical Stephen King creepy fashion, it comes to life. Not in the running-around-killing-people way Chucky does. But every time it claps its cymbals, there is a tragedy--a death or an accident. My English teacher brought in photocopies to class, and we read it out loud. By the time we finished, I knew that I wanted to write. It was the first time I'd read something that felt like it was about the people next door. That's a huge part of Steve's popularity. He took scary stories out of castles and put them into the kinds of small towns many of us grew up in.
What role has King played in the growth of Cemetery Dance?
He's a huge reason we've been as successful as we have. I sent him copies of the magazine right from the very beginning. As early as year three, he sent me a nice promotional blurb that I could put in our ads. It really helped to have an endorsement from the king of horror. A couple of years later, in 1991, he sent me a new short story called "Chattering Teeth" to be published exclusively in Cemetery Dance. That put us on the map with distributors. Over the next 10 years, he allowed us to reprint some of his older stories. In 2001, we did a limited edition of "From a Buick 8," and since then we've done eight or 10 more limited editions and two more original stories.
You've said that these days fewer young people seem to have read King. Has the blockbuster status of the movie It earned him new popularity and, if so, has your connection with him raised the profile of Cemetery Dance?
It kind of changed the landscape and exposed him to a new, younger audience. The book itself was thrown back on the bestseller lists. And part two of the movie will come out in a couple of years. Also, there has recently been a big influx of other Stephen King properties. Has there been spillover to Cemetery Dance? Absolutely. When any kind of high-profile horror project lands, there is some spillover. We did a 25th-anniversary edition of It a few years back, so that is directly connected to us. And the Gwendy collaboration has only strengthened the connection.
How did Gwendy come about?
Steve and I text and email a lot, and in January I brought up the subject of round-robin projects where six or seven authors each contribute a section of a story. He mentioned that he had a story he couldn't finish. One of the nice things about being friends with Steve is that from time to time I get to read his work in manuscript form, even when we're not the publisher. The next day, he sent me this fragment of a story. All it said in the body of the email was something like "Do with it what you will." I remember I got it when I was leaving my son's hockey game and read it in the parking lot at the ice rink. I immediately emailed back and said, "I think it's wonderful, and I'd like to take a crack at finishing this."
What was the collaborative process like?
I spent that weekend thinking, What have I done? How do you collaborate with the best-selling author of all time, who also happens to be your literary hero? On Monday, I sat down to write some notes, and my hand was shaking. I thought the only way to do this is to jump right in. So I opened my laptop, called up the file, and started writing. And within half an hour, I was in Castle Rock with Gwendy Peterson and her family and friends. Three days later, I sent Steve an additional 10,000 words, and then we played ping-pong, back and forth, with drafts. We had a finished novella exactly one month from the day he sent me the email.
King's horror is often very individual, manifesting literally as people's personal demons. I would guess that is more satisfying to write than the more general oh-my-god-the-zombies-are-surging-through-the-parking-lot approach. Do they produce different kinds of scares?
It certainly is more satisfying for me. And some of Steve's strongest work comes from that. You can relate much more when you are talking about personal demons and secrets and regrets than if you are writing about a killer clown. In It, there is one character whose father is abusing her, and that was more frightening for many viewers than anything with Pennywise. Steve has always talked about how you have to tell your own truth for it to be believable. That said, I still don't like clowns.
Clowns don't scare me.
If you wake up at 2 in the morning and glance out your window and there, standing in your front yard in a shaft of moonlight staring at your house, is a clown, then I think you'll be scared.
Was Gwendy conceived as a political statement? It is, after all, about someone who can destroy the world by pushing a button.
I never did ask Steve that. It's about someone having this immense power put in his or her hands--in this case a teenager, without fully formed maturity and thought processes. I think Trump supporters would say there is no metaphor there. And people who are hurting these days would say absolutely.
Will you and King collaborate again?
On Amazon and message boards and elsewhere, people have said they'd like us to collaborate again. A lot of people want a sequel to Gwendy. They want to know whom the button box goes to next and what happens. Do I think there will be a sequel? Probably not. Do I think we'll ever write together again? Hopefully.