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. 

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Why I Had To Return To The Black Gate, One Last Time

Freud once described a phenomenon known as “the return of the uncanny”. Though we may try to banish our repressed fears and memories, they have a knack of coming back, often in a different form. They resurface, like dead bodies made buoyant by the swelling of gas inside the intestinal tract. We can’t quite keep them down and out of sight.

I am obsessed with “endings”. For me, a story is an ending. Everything that happens in a story, right from the opening line, is all part of building up to a conclusion, a moment where everything adds up, and everything obtains new meaning. If a story doesn’t end well, there’s no point to it. I can’t re-watch or re-read something if I know the ending doesn’t satisfy. I won’t name and shame various TV series, but you know who you are. Bad endings render everything that came before pointless.

These two ideas have been at war within myself for some time. On the one hand, my old demons and fears keep coming back, nudging me, telling me to write about them a little more. On the other, my artistic sensibilities, my desire for closure, prods me to do away with them, to end the story. What has emerged from these two polarities is a kind of saga of self-contained works that interrelate, telling one story in sporadic bursts of imagination. Frequently, the books in these sagas purport to end the story. Then, they don’t.

I am thinking of calling these books the Sevenverse Saga.

Another thing about me: I love tangents. Anyone who has held a conversation with me knows I dance from one issue to the other, like a bee excited by the smell of different flowers. I call it the “pursuit of threads”. I love following a train of thought to its bitter end, no matter how bizarre. Nothing pleases me more than a conversation that derails and goes into weird territory. When I used to work for “the man” I would play a game in the office – how quickly could I change the topic to something imaginative or weird? How quickly could I get people who wouldn’t watch Star Wars if you paid them money talking about telekinesis or pyromania or serial killers? It was the only way I could stay sane.

Nothing bores me more than polite-society chit-chat. Tell me about your fears, your hopes and aspirations, your secret ambitions. I’ll tell you mine. We’re all human. Let’s do away with the masks.

After years of publishing fiction, and a growing number of titles out in the world, I realised that other people actually liked my tangential tendencies. It was part of my storytelling aesthetic. So, I leant into it, embraced it, used it to explore my weirdness in new ways. It’s clear to me now that sometimes the most interesting bits are the tangents. But it wasn’t always. I was caught in the trap of trying to write stories I thought other people wanted to read, rather than writing stories I wanted to read that didn’t yet exist in the world.

Take Star Wars. An incidental line from Revenge of the Sith from Palpatine: “Have I ever told you the story of Darth Plagueis the wise?” has become an object of fascination for millions. And yes, it’s also become an internet meme, a joke. But the fact remains that the story of Darth Plagueis, who never appears on screen, has titillated the imagination of fans more so than many of the major characters, to the extent many people wanted certain major characters (coughSnoke cough) to actually be Plagueis. It’s no surprise that Disney have finally capitalised on this interest, releasing a novel entitled Darth Plagueis, which fills in some of the gaps. My point here is that sometimes it’s the small things, the side issues, that are most interesting to explore. Community and Rick & Morty creator Dan Harmon knows this all-too-well. His shows are always about the stuff happening around the story, not the story themselves. Who cares about the actual community-college classes in Community? That’s sundry stuff. It’s about what happens to “the group” around that. Jeff is allegedly interested in Britta, but the real love story is with Annie – yet that love-story is never consummated. It simmers beneath things, a constant through-line. It’s not the story.

Or is it?

Similarly, nine times out of ten, Rick & Morty is about the aftermath of an adventure, or the preparation for one, never about the actual “adventure” itself. The show regularly self-deprecates on this theme, expressing a desire for more “self-contained classic adventures”. But that would be boring. Shows like Elementary, as fun an inventive as they are, inevitably run out of steam following the formula (in the case of Elementary: self-contained 40-minute detective stories). They fail to recognise this simple fact: sometimes the best stories are not the stories. We don’t care about murders in New York, they happen every minute (tragic though that is). We’re interested in Holmes and Watson, this unique frisson between them, how the gender-swap transforms the dynamic and makes a new commentary.

The same is true, to an extent, of my own work and philosophy, and never is it more true than with Craig Smiley. Smiley was not intended to be the main character of Gods of the Black Gate. Caleb was. It’s Caleb’s tale of rectifying a wrong and coming to terms with his own hatred. But the more I wrote, the more Smiley there was, until the two characters kind of ended up sharing a double-billing. Smiley got out of hand, because once I created him and could see him in my mind’s eye, he had a will of his own. I was merely recording what he was doing and saying, not directing it.

In Beyond The Black Gate, Smiley fully took over, relegating Caleb to a smaller role in the narrative. It was now Smiley’s redemption story. Smiley’s arc. In order to make this work – because let’s just say I created some pretty major obstacles to a sequel – I had to do some of my most imaginative world-building to date. My fixation on the tangent, on the stories behind and between the stories, paid off in a weird way, because it pushed me to create something that feels, though I say it myself, pretty unique. That’s the thing: tangents, or these points of interest that seem irrelevant, allow us to explore ourselves. Many people have a fascination with serial killers, and there are a million-and-one amazing serial-killer books out there, but how many of them depict that killer in a fantasy world, and how many of those fantasy worlds smash modern technology with face-wearing assassins living in a flesh-forest? How many of those are also love-stories? The tangents make the story mine.

There is, however, a danger with this: tangents can create more tangents. Looking at this another way, questions create more questions. I answered a question of what lay beyond the Black Gate, but that led to another question, what lay beyond that. Welcome to infinite regression!

I thought it was a question I would never answer, that I would leave buried, but like Freud’s “return of the uncanny”, it kept coming back to me, waking me up in the dead of night, interrupting me as I tried to work on some other project. It grew infuriating, because I didn’t know what to do. I was paralysed by the overflow of my own creativity, startled by a hundred different directions it could go. None of them seemed right.

I remember taking a walk up a place near where I live unimaginatively named “The Mount”. It’s a huge hill that overlooks the city and the cathedral. I often go up there, some kind of meditative pilgrimage, and stand looking out over the city and into the distance and thinking. I get some of my best ideas here. This time, I had gone with my wife, Michelle. We were talking about books, films, creative stuff. I confessed to her I felt blocked and troubled by this “uncanny” return. Should I bother with a third book? A few people had messaged me directly asking for one, but could I pull it off? The story wanted to come out, but everything I came up with seemed wrong. I told her about where the story stood at the end of Beyond. She listened incredibly patiently, and it’s then she had a startling observation: “To me, the most interesting part of what you’ve just said is Caleb’s story. I want to know more about what happens to him, what he’s going through.”

It clicked. I had been ignoring my own advice, telling myself about who the major players were. Smiley took over Beyond The Black Gate, but this next story wasn’t his, it was someone else’s. Caleb was finally going to have his day.

At the end of Beyond The Black Gate, I linked the universe of the Black Gate with another, that of Nekyia and The Prince. This was a story I “ended” in 2017. In my wife’s trepidatious words upon learning I had re-opened that can of worms: “Erm, it felt pretty final at the time…” Again, with another return of the uncanny, some prompting of my inner subconscious had led me to write an ending in which something came back from the grave: this other world was resurrected and joined with the Black Gate’s mythos. It had felt right. However, now, I was faced with writing a book that essentially drew together two universes and brought both of them to a satisfying head. Although without the pressure of Game of Thrones’ insane mass-appeal, I thought I knew an inkling of George R. R. Martin’s problem – the Gordian Knot of narrative that I was now faced with unwinding. I had made it difficult for myself. A sensible person would have written two separate trilogies and planned them both out from word go. A sensible person would just let the dead stay dead.

I am not a sensible person.

I realised that I had grown a lot as a person and writer since I published Nekyia in 2017. A lot can change in 3 years. If I was writing that book now, I thought, I would do so many things differently. So, I decided to embrace that, too. I began a process of “re-writing” elements of Nekyia, re-imagining my past. Return to the Black Gate, as the third book is entitled (which is really the seventh book if you take it in the whole of the Sevenverse Saga), was originally titled The War For The Black Gate, but that didn’t sit right. Just as Smiley had to go back, so too did I. It was about me once more wandering through the worlds and meeting the characters I had inhabited for more than five years.

Those who liked Nekyia are in for a few surprises. There were threads (tangents!) I discarded from the book (not having the skill or space to weave them in), but I’ve now picked them up again, like old tools I’ve re-learned the value of. You will see the return of several players from that story, some of them unexpected. But if you haven’t read Nekyia, don’t worry, I make all of it new. Or at least, I try.

The threads and tangents spread wider still, expanding far beyond simply two books. I went all the way back to my first published title in 2014, The Darkest Touch, drawing on unresolved arcs, unfinished business. All beginnings serve endings, remember? There was a surprising amount there, stored away in my brain. Ideas within ideas, places I’d longed to go that for whatever strange reason I never went. It was like the ghosts of the past returning to help me fight a final boss.

As the stories came together, forming one, I began to realise what my book was really about, and that it was unlike anything I had ever written before. When I realised that, I found faith in the project, and knew I had to finish it. In more senses than one. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so many times writing a book. Some scenes broke me. They still do thinking about them.

Return To The Black Gate may not be the best book I’ve ever written, but it is possibly my favourite. I doubt it will be read by legions, but if it resonates with the few people that have been following the tangents, looking for the stories between the stories, then I will have succeeded – and it was worth every second.

Writing Return To The Black Gate will stay with me as long as I live and no matter how many books I write, of that I’m sure. It is a book that says farewell to a lot of ideas, characters, and worlds that I love. It is a book that says farewell to my former self. It is a book that says farewell to the Black Gate forever. This time, I really mean it.

But, the beauty of all true farewells, is that we get to give and receive a final parting kiss.

I hope it’s as sweet, if not sweeter, than the first.

Return To The Black Gate is coming March 2020. If you want to be kept updated, why not sign up to the “The Mind-Palace”, a monthly newsletter full of fiction-advice, stories from the cavernous vaults of the mindflayer’s lair, and freebies.

If you wish to begin your journey through the multi-verse, why not look at one of the following titles:

The Darkest Touch (2014)

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Nekyia (2017)

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Gods of the Black Gate (2018)

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Beyond The Black Gate (2019)

Amazon UK

Amazon US