Blog

Review of Conversations With Dead Serial Killers by Ashley Lister

Hello my dear friends, and welcome to the New Year. I hope 2023 is going to be a blessed, productive, and rewarding one for you. Let’s make 2023 the year of magic. And speaking of magic, there are few things more magical than a great book. Today, I am reviewing Ashley Lister’s Conversations With Dead Serial Killers, a black as night horror-comedy with layers of Dantean symbolism to boot.

I’ve written previously that one can tell the merits of an author’s work often by the first line alone. If what I’ve said is true, and not just pretension on my part, then Lister’s work is clearly up there with the greats, because his opening line is an absolute humdinger:

The thing that few people appreciated about Ed Gein was his skill as a seamstress.”

That pretty much sets the razor-sharp, blackly comic, and morally grey tone of Conversations With Dead Serial Killers.

Stylistically, Ashley Lister reads like grimdark Terry Pratchett. He shares Pratchett’s flare for comedic timing (which is exceptionally difficult to pull off in prose), as well as Pratchett’s ability to marry the perfect character to the perfect environment to generate organic hilarity. However, unlike Pratchett, Lister is also a master of gut-wrenching body horror, who has taken more than a few tips out of Clive Barker’s handbook. As a result, you have an interesting juxtaposition of laugh-out-loud humour and scenes that will remain indelibly imprinted on your mind’s eye for their sheer visceral horror.

The premise of Conversations With Dead Serial Killers is a stroke of genius. Derek and Clive are two brothers working in business together. Derek is a charlatan medium who does live performances, communicating with dead loved ones. Clive is his “behind the scenes” guy who drip feeds him researched information to make the cold readings sound authentic. However, Clive is also a serial killer (don’t worry, we find this out in chapter one, so it’s not a major spoiler). And not only this, but Derek is about to encounter his first real spirit, who has come back to the land of the living to set Derek straight and help him stop his brother.

Clive is a copycat killer. In other words, he emulates the works of his “personal heroes”, the famous serial killers of the past. He’s an obsessive who’s memorised the name, deeds, and dates of virtually every serial killer across the globe who ever lived. The sheer amount of work and research Lister has put into Clive’s hobby is quite frightening; as a horror author with an obligatory interest in serial killers I considered myself fairly well read on the subject, but Lister not only displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the most infamous serial killers (through the mouthpiece of Clive) but also of killers so obscure you wonder how deeply and darkly he had to delve to acquire such knowledge.

Needless to say, I was hooked from page one. Lister expertly sketches out the two brothers’ more-than-shady characters but also provides compelling insights into why they are the way they are. Perhaps one of the most innovative strokes of brilliance in this is Clive’s motivation: which is simply that the process of brutally murdering people gives him pleasure. Rather than glamorising Clive by trying to make him seem deep, philosophical, or complex, Lister hits home with the simple and ugly truth: most killers are not particularly interesting people, nor particularly complex. Yet, because Clive’s heinous (and primitive) acts are juxtaposed with Derek’s far more complex moral greyness and the spirit Sam’s running commentary, Lister’s story is anything but simplistic. There are times we feel immensely sorry for Derek. Yes, he’d a fraudster and philanderer of the lowest order. Yes, he’s morally bankrupt. And yes, we suspect there is more he’s not letting on. But, he’s also an intelligent underdog battling his environment, and we can’t help but sympathise with his plight.

Perhaps one of the most interesting threads in the book is Derek’s “coming to terms” with the existence of the supernatural. This is done through his encounter with the ghost / spirit, Sam, who also plagues Derek with dreams in which he descends through the circles of Dante’s hell—a place Sam assures Derek he will end up if he doesn’t change his ways. If you’re getting A Christmas Carol, or perhaps even more accurately Bill Murray's Scrooged, vibes from this, you’re not far off. And as is certainly the case in Charles Dicken’s masterpiece, there is an argument to be made that Sam represents Derek’s conscience, perhaps even his super-ego. There are moments in the book where Sam is actually able to “control” Derek and force him to admit things—and expose truths—that he otherwise would never have done or been able to do. I had to wonder at these times whether Lister were not ever-so-subtly using the supernatural device as a metaphor for the human tendency to externalise and compartmentalise our psyche. In this way, we have the full trifecta. Clive represents Derek’s id, his base urges. Derek even confesses that at times he’s found thoughts of violence vaguely arousing, but it’s a precipice from which he’s never leapt, more for lack of courage than moral compunction. Sam is his super ego, as we’ve already established, trying to morally reform him. And Derek himself is the ego lurking in the middle, a morally grey specimen torn between two polarities of psychic force. I’m not suggesting this is the de facto interpretation of Lister’s work, but great writing stimulates deeper thinking, and Conversations With Dead Serial Killers is undoubtedly great writing: intellectually razor sharp, thought-provoking, and passionate too.

If I have one criticism of Conversations With Dead Serial Killers it’s that it ends quite abruptly (in other words, I wanted more!). A startling revelation comes to light, and the novel then ends before I fully had time to digest its import or meaning. I also think that the big softie in me was looking to see more of a transformation in Derek. This isn’t really a criticism, more a matter of personal taste. I’m a sucker for a big redemption arc, and what we get here is perhaps grittier and some would say more real, which is very fitting given the tone of the book. As a last thought, I honestly would love to read a sequel to Conversations With Dead Serial Killers. I think Derek and Sam in particular have a lot more story in them. That’s how you know a book is not just an intellectual creation, but inspired and inspiring. Lister has created something unique, not a genre-hybrid but a stylistic chimera, and I can’t wait to read more of his work.

You can purchase Conversations With Dead Serial Killers here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

If you enjoy these reviews, then please sign up to my mailing list to receive updates whenever a new review goes live.

Books

Review of Chasing The Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar


Chasing The Boogeyman is a unique horror novel that transgresses the boundaries between fiction and reality. Set in the humble town of Edgewood, where the author Richard Chizmar grew up, the novel follows the account of the author’s early life as the shadow of a serial killer threatens the peace and prosperity of his once-innocent home. As the killer, known as “The Boogeyman” for how he seems to disappear without a trace, begins to kill young women, Edgewood is plunged into darkness and suspicion. This novel might be described as a meditation on evil and on how that evil changes all who come into contact with it, however obliquely. 

I was fascinated by the premise of this novel – with Richard Chizmar as the narrator and central character of the story. I had attempted to write my own meta-fictional account of my battle with suicidal depression in 2017. Whilst I did finish the book, I ultimately do not deem it publishable; the book was more of a therapy than a story, and while there is nothing wrong with that and it was important to write, I ultimately did not want to subject other people to it. I mention this only to explain why I had—shall we say—an almost personal interest in how Richard Chizmar would approach writing about himself, and the potential traumas of his childhood or young adulthood. Suffice to say, there were more than a few surprises in store with this book. 

The closest parallel I can give to Chasing The Boogeyman is in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. In the Divine Comedy, Dante inserts himself into the epic narrative, and goes on a journey into Hell guided by his mentor Vergil. It’s worth noting that many contemporaries of Dante actually believed he had been to Hell: the vividness of his descriptions, as well as the force of his personality, suggested an authentic mystical experience. Indeed, Dante was inundated with letters from occult readers asking that he teach them the “black magic of Hell” in order to assassinate corrupt officials. Whilst this may seem ludicrous, anyone who has actually read The Inferno or indeed The Divine Comedy as a whole will testify that there is a strangely convincing reality to the whole experience. Dante gives us ageography and psychology of Hell that feels cast-iron; Hell and its circles are very specifically mapped in a way that seems compellingly “real”. There are many NDEers who testify that the Hell they entered on death resembled Dante’s work! This total verisimilitude has endured for 700 years. 

Likewise, Chizmar’s narrative in Chasing The Boogeyman seems frighteningly real. We believe every word, every interaction, even though Chizmar warns us at the start of the book that elements are fictionalised. The book takes after true crime narratives and provides photographs of various people and places in Edgewood, and this furthers the sense of absolute reality. Verisimilitude is especially important in horror, hence the existence of epistolary novels (such as classics Frankenstein and Dracula) and found-footage horror movies; we have to believe in order to feel fear. And this is so: the “reality” of Chasing The Boogeyman augments the spine-tingling dread pervading the narrative. 

But if we step back from how “real” it all feels and just look at it as a novel, for a second, there is brilliant work here. Chizmar’s first person narrative is compelling. He never allows the narrative to be carried away by cleverness or too much introspection. There are moments where he allows the symbolism of the text to soar. For example, Chizmar describes his father as the wizard from Fantasia in his workshop of mechanical wonders, and the two of them watch a storm roll in over the town of Edgewood with a mixture of dread and awe. This moment evokes mythic archetypes, an almost Arthurian confrontation with oncoming evil. Yet it is not so poetically done that it loses the grounding of the story. 

The account is gritty enough but Chizmar also leaves lots to the imagination. This space for the reader’s imagination to go wild is perhaps the greatest strength of the novel; Chizmar shows incredible restraint and control in “holding back” from the desire to give us all the answers or to spell out the whys and hows. Thus, we fill in the blanks with the worst possibilities, and because of this, the Boogeyman becomes genuinely scary. To illustrate: there is a scene in which a young girl tells their parents that a monster was tapping at their window, and their concerns are dismissed as idle fantasy. We don’t think anything of it, until a moment later where we put two and two together and realise it was the boogeyman—he was right there, we literally just missed him—it makes the heart plummet through the bottom of one’s stomach. 

The character of the Boogeyman is fascinating. They represent a duality that runs through the whole novel: a night and day cycle that seems to represent the alternation between the conscious and unconscious mind. When darkness falls, the unconscious, in all its horrid splendour, comes forth. So, the killer has a “conscious” identity, someone in the town going about their business, though we don’t know who—and this forms a big reveal at the end—but the Boogeyman himself also has a personality. Sickeningly, we almost—almost—begin to admire his cunning and skill: how does he keep getting away with it? why can’t they find him? Chizmar does not shy away from admitting his own fascination with the macabre began to lead him down this dark rabbit hole, and this is perhaps the truer “descent” of the narrative, as we are drawn inexorably towards an admiration of total evil. Thankfully the ending is redemptive of this. 

And speaking of endings, as the killer takes more lives, we sense an awesome and hair-raising confrontation approaching. Whilst we don’t get anything so overtly dramatic as, for example, the ending of Stephen King’s underrated masterpiece Joyland, like Dante, we do get a confrontation with pure evil, a moment where we look the Devil in the eye at the nadir—the inverse apex—of existence. This final “interview” is harrowing reading, brilliantly written, and clearly inspired by the likes of Bundy and Gein. One also senses a Tolkien-esque philosophy behind the narrative: that evil is ultimately a form of nothingness, an absence rather than a presence, where meaning, love, and understanding are void. 

Chasing The Boogeyman is described as “meta-fiction” but it is deeply unpretentious. It is a harrowing journey into the circles of a modern Hell, leading to a confrontation with darkness. It is masterfully written, and the plotting is so watertight that not a single droplet of blood spills. Chasing The Boogeyman will leave you questioning what and who is real, and will have you checking your window is locked more than once during the long night. 

Amazon US

Amazon UK