On the heels of reading Cemetery Dance’s recent publication of Stephen King: Revisited Volume One, I was loaded up with tons of questions, the first of which was who would be daring enough to go back in time and re-read every Stephen King book in order of publication? Richard Chizmar, that’s who. As a best selling author and publisher of Cemetery Dance, Chizmar has published several King stories and books over the years and would not only become a friend of King’s but also a collaborator who’s written books with King — the Gwendy trilogy. So yes, I was curious to chat with Rich about his take on King over the years given his unique perspective.
Rich was kind enough to join me for a video call as we discuss tracing his own life through the years by way of King’s books, which ones new readers should start with, what he’s running out of the house with in case of fire, and more.
I hope you all enjoy the ride as much as I did. When you’re done, please do yourself a favor and grab a copy of Stephen King Revisited Volume One for Chizmar’s then-and-now discussions, Bev Vincent’s historical contributions on each book, and a bevy of special guest authors who lend essays detailing how each book impacted them.
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: Richard, I appreciate you taking some time away from the sequel to Boogeyman to talk about Stephen King Revisited. It’s an incredible, insane journey you decided to embark on with reading all the books Stephen King wrote in order of publication right up until, I guess, your head explodes. When did you start thinking it was a good idea to not only re-read King’s books in order, but to chronicle your journey along the way?
RICHARD CHIZMAR: You know what? To answer that question, I wish I’d had pulled the original email that I had written to Steve because when I sent him that email saying “Hey I’m thinking about doing this” that was precisely the same day that the idea came. I didn’t really let the idea marinate or anything like that. What the catalyst was is I re-read one of the older books, and I don’t remember now which one it was but it was one of the earlier Doubleday books, and then the idea kind occurred to me. I’m like, wow, it’d be interesting to start at the beginning and kind of, you know, step into a time machine and be one of those folks who read Steve from the very beginning and experienced his books in order because I’ve always envied those readers. So that’s kind of where the idea came from, and I expected Steve to talk me out of it, and he did think I was crazy but at the same time was really encouraging and was like, “Yeah, you can write about it.” So, that’s where the idea came from.
What we did is Brian Freeman and Kate Freeman helped me develop this website where we posted it, and it was linked up with the Cemetery Dance website, and it was a lot of fun. We got a lot of viewers, a lot of readers. Then I just got so busy and there was a long delay. God bless Bev Vincent who always had his accompanying historical essays ready before mine, sometimes days, sometimes weeks. He’d probably poke his head in right now and say, “Sometimes months.”
I’ll address the elephant in the room for anyone who knows about Stephen King Revisited. This is volume one and it covers the first nineteen books, and I haven’t updated it for years. But one day I will return. I might have to be a little older and greyer when my schedule allows it. It’s interesting, when I started writing these essays and when I finished writing these essays, Gwendy’s Button Box and the idea of me collaborating with Steve were not even a piece of dust floating through the air. That was not a possibility, so the idea that one day I might write an essay saying “Hey, I was reading this Stephen King book when Steve and I decided to collaborate” — it will be an interesting and a fun essay to write. So, yeah, way behind but I had a blast going back and reading them again in order to have them ready for the book, and I purposely tried my darndest to not change much, to leave all the words there ’cause they’re really personal essays. Bev did the more historical, academic approach, which he’s wonderful at. Actually, he’s wonderful at everything. He’s a really good writer. And mine are very much just personal remembrances. It’s been fun from the beginning.
Cool! And it’s interesting you mentioned the word personal because what blew me away is how personal of an experience it was for each and every guest writer who re-read the King books and then essayed what kind of impact the book made in their life at the time of reading it. Did you already know who it was you wanted to invite along for the ride? I’m curious how your guest writers got involved with you on this project.
In some cases, I knew exactly who I wanted to ask, and there were personal reasons for that, that I already knew. I knew I wanted to ask Josh Boone to write about The Stand because it had such a huge impact on his life, and there were several cases like that. But I’ll tell you, once I started doing this, people came out of the woodwork emailing me, texting me, asking if they could do this book, if they could do that book, and that’s one of the reasons I really do want to continue this in the future is because so many people have volunteered to write pieces to accompany specific books. The interesting thing is the idea of doing that was kind of twofold. First and foremost, it was me saying “Ah, I don’t want it to just be me and Bev” — as interesting as Bev is, you know — “This’ll get boring after awhile.”
But the other thing is I really wanted to enjoy those essays very much. Underwood and Miller did a collection of essays about specific Stephen King books or aspects of his writing. I can’t remember the title of the book. I think it was Bare Bones actually. No, that might have been interviews. I really wanted to read these things myself, these accompanying pieces, so it was a pleasure to ask these guys.
But then going through to see what those books meant to each of those special guests whom you brought on board, what did that mean to you to see how those same books which meant so much to you, meant to your colleagues and friends?
What it really shone a spotlight on, a bright spotlight, was the idea that Stephen King didn’t become Stephen King just because he’s an entertaining writer. He’s a once in a lifetime phenomenon; his books and the connection readers feel to them, these constant readers. You can pick up a good thriller or a good horror novel or a good mystery or pretty much anything and enjoy it for a couple of days, and then you put it down you walk away. Did you get your money’s worth? Yes. Was it completely enjoyable? Yes. Will you remember it two months down the road? Probably not. There’s a lot of books like that. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You know what? It’s just like you go in and pay however much for a movie ticket. You sit in the theatre. You watch it for two hours, you eat some popcorn, and you come out. If you’re satisfied, you got your money’s worth; that’s awesome. That’s the deal, you know, that’s what you pay for. Same thing with a book. But to become this mega literary star the way Stephen King has, there’s gotta be more. And what all these other people had to say just reinforced that for me because, like you said, a lot of ’em echoed my own thoughts, sometimes in different ways, sometimes in very similar ways, and there was such a personal connection. There was such an emotional connection. In some cases, there was a sense of awe. In some cases, there was a sense of such deep emotion that it brought tears or anger, and that’s the key. That’s the secret for Steve’s success is that you have all these people from a variety of places and a variety of backgrounds who all had this shared experience because of his work, and that’s pretty damn neat.
A hundred percent. It was incredible how some of them wrote really wrote from a place of sadness, a place of loss, a place of anger. It seemed Stephen King very much shared that same space with them and wrote about it brilliantly so readers feel they’re not alone.
That’s actually a really good point because what’s interesting is (when it comes to Steve’s work) I think the only real comparison is music, is when certain songs came out, when certain albums came out back in the day, or CDs.
They form a road map for a lot of people’s lives, and for me sometimes it was music certainly. I still remember Billy Joel was the first cassette tape I bought back in the day. I’m old, folks. I remember the first concert I saw was this and that, so yeah, people they can draw those personal road maps with different pinpoints on that map.
But something I noticed about Stephen King readers is that so many of them can say “Yeah, you know what I remember? I was a freshman in college when I was reading that book and I read it on the bus to a game” and somebody else will say, “Oh my God, I’d just gotten married.” So many constant readers have that experience, and it’s just another shared experience that you can only have with certain people, certain entertainers., and that’s something that again, I realized very quickly, is that made it even more interesting to me, Steve’s books and when I read them and where I read them did form this really personal road map of my life, and I knew already just through casual conversation that his books did the same for so many others. So that was another neat thing that you just pointed out in reading these guest essays is that we learned where a lot of these people were in their lives, and some were happy, some were sad, some were coming off disappointments or tragedies. Yeah, it’s a neat thing.
Regarding Bev Vincent and all the historical tidbits he included, considering journey from Constant Reader to friend and eventual collaborator with King, were there any surprises which had you thinking, “wow, I didn’t know that?” I’m guessing you probably know almost as much as Bev does at this point.
Here’s the thing: I can’t even list one because it’s been awhile since I read it. I should’ve went through it before I sat down with you. I’ll always remember there’s a blurb I think for one of the Dark Tower companion things that Bev wrote where Steve says essentially, “You know, Bev Vincent knows things about the Dark Tower where I don’t even know, or that I don’t even remember.” That’s certainly the same for me. The guy is a deep well of information, and as a matter of fact, and again I can’t remember the exact points, but I do know that on more than one occasion I texted Steve and I said, “Hey, I never knew this.” Thanks to Bev, I just found out. That kind of thing. Bev knows his stuff. Bev’s the first guy I turn to when the Gwendy gig happened, and I needed to make sure I was speaking about Castle Rock properly. In all three books, Bev was my guy on all three.
So he was your tour guide of Castle Rock and made sure everything’s where it’s supposed to be
He prevented me from looking dumb, which he’s done a few times.
I mentioned this to Bev as one of the things I don’t know if I wanted to know about Stephen King. It was about the time King sat writing in his own blood following a recent surgery that decided to rear it’s ugly head, and he refused to let his wife Tabitha drive him to the hospital because he just had to finish writing that paragraph. At some point in Stephen King: Revisited, you mention you were in in a similar situation. being sat in a pool of your own blood and had to finish some writing before being taken anywhere to deal with the blood.
Well, I was like two minutes late getting on this call today because I was working on a paragraph of Becoming The Bogeyman, the sequel Chasing the Bogeyman. Yeah, when you’re in it… I don’t understand it to the degree of Steve, obviously, or maybe I do because when I’m deep into a project my laptop goes with me everywhere, including in the restaurant in case I need to pop it open it or write something real quick. I mean, there’s no comparison. The guy’s a marvel. He’s seventy-something years old. He’s still doing his thing. I’ll text him, he’ll get back an hour later; I know it’s because he was writing. I hope I’m doing that, and I hope you’re doing that, I hope Bev’s doing that, when we’re all in our seventies.
A hundred percent. I was talking to Joe Lansdale a little while back, I think recently after his seventy-second birthday, and he made a claim he’s in the peak of his writing life right now. Talk about magic moments. What an incredible feat where you still feel like you’ve, got the engine firing on all cylinders. I think we should all be so lucky.
Yeah, and Joe’s another guy who I don’t think has ever waited for the magic to occur or for the inspiration to strike. He’s a lunch pail guy, who’s sits his butt in the chair and goes to work. Some days it’s good stuff and some days not so much, but you stay. Something I learned from Joe, people like Joe and Ed Gorman and Steve, you pile up enough pages and eventually you have something, and then it’s your job to make it better for the readers. So yeah, Joe’s always been an inspiration, too.
Has Stephen King ever mentioned going back and re-reading any of his books for any reason at all? I mean, I’m sure he’s read passages for continuity because he’s written sequels series and wants to make sure everything’s where it supposed to be in his universe, but do you know if he’s ever gone back to see what he thinks now about any of his stuff now?
No, you know what? I don’t think we’ve ever had that conversation. We don’t talk about the work too much. The interesting thing is we’re just usually shooting the shit about other things. But it’s a really good question and it actually makes me wanna ask him sometime, “Hey, did you go back and re-read The Shining before you wrote Doctor Sleep?” for example, and see what he thought.
Some time ago I can remember chatting with the late, great Jack Ketchum, regarding his movies and did he watch them every time he tours with them. He used to think of it as kind of a mental masturbation, and he saw no point in that, but at the same time, I think that would be kind of a cool experience to go back and re-read stuff you’ve written so long ago to compare how you feel about it now.
I would actually love if he would go back about three or four novels and then wrote about it and wrote about his feelings. I think that’d be fascinating.
When you think back at his whole body of work and having re-read a lot of them or maybe even most of them at this point, are there any particular eras or decades of King you found were your favorite? I realize this might be like asking you which birthday was your favorite of your kids?
Yeah, it kind of is like asking that, to be honest. I’ve never been one of those folks who will say, “You know, I don’t like the old stuff.” or “I really prefer the old Doubleday stuff.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people are more attracted to the overtly scary stuff, and they’re not interested in the stuff that may be a little bit more experimental or as I wrote about in Stephen King Revisited, I was one of those guys who wanted nothing to do with Eyes of the Dragon. I wanted nothing to do with the Dark Tower books for a long time because I wasn’t into talking trains and weird names and characters. I’ve never been that guy. And again, I struggled with it because I was always like “Rich, you’re a big western fan, and Rich, you love these Mark Twain kind of adventure stories, so why aren’t you reading The Talisman or The Dark Tower with the western aspect.”
I’m pretty convinced if I had read them at that point in my life, I probably would not have finished them. But you know what? I read ‘em later, when I was kind of a different, more experienced mature reader, and lo and behold, I really enjoyed them. I loved them. But yeah, I’ve never had a preference. I look at it and for me it’s always about timing and place. Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne, I liked those books when they came out. I didn’t love them. Now I look at those and in a lot of ways these are two of his stronger books. I’ve always kind of worn it on my sleeve, you know. Did I like those early books? Absolutely. You know, The Shining is such a dark, angry book and I’m actually to the point where I kind of want to go back and re-read it some time. I think Salem’s Lot is still one of the scariest books. Billy, my son, he started to read that book maybe five or six years ago. You know what? He was too young. I remember him, he was going very slowly in the beginning, and I remember I said, “Billy, do you think it’s a little slow?” I said “’cause it is kinda dated and there’s a lot of set up with the town.” And you know what? When you’re a busy college guy always going to class, it just didn’t keep his attention. He’s read it since then and is blown away, and share’s a lot of my own similar feelings, which is that the town itself and the townsfolk are every bit as interesting as the scary part of that book.
But yeah, I don’t really have a favorite era. I would love to see a round-robin interview with twenty different authors and readers and see their opinions because I think the answers would be all over the place. I think we would have some people saying, “Man, I don’t think he’s done anything as good as Hearts in Atlantis.” “It was during that ten-year period, that five-year period, where I really fell in love with this work again.” And then there’s gonna be those people whose favourites are the Double Days, or their favourites are the collections, so they spawn his entire career. it’s a neat question.
Absolutely. I think that would be awesome to have a a round robin conversation. I it could get out of control but I think it also would be pretty awesome too, as long as there’s not too much alcohol involved with those twenty people together, all chatting about the different books.
I love, too, Rich, that not only do you discuss the books, but you also include excerpts from the books to give folks a sense of the writing style of each book mentioned. I’m in the same boat you were in regarding The Dark Tower. I haven’t read it because of the same reasons you mentioned, but reading some of the excerpts, I’m intrigued by how poetic and beautifully written it is. I’ve now got my work cut out for me, now, so now as I’m now going to need to start reading them.
Just be prepared. Trust me. When I started, once I got into, I don’t know, book three, it all gained momentum, and I remember there was probably a six month period, maybe less than that, maybe three or four months — I don’t remember actually — where I would walk in the front door of the Cemetery Dance office every day and spew, “Oh, my God! I can’t believe (this happened)…” in talking to Brian. Once you get in, you’ll be hooked.
And Rich, I asked this question to Bev Vincent, and I got a surprising answer that I really enjoyed and I’d like ask you the same question too before we wrap before I let you get back to the writing we’re all anxious to read.
If, God forbid, a fire were to break out in your house — and we’ll assume you’ve already saved the fur babies and the kids and your wife — and you’ve got time to run back to grab just one possession from your King collection, what are you running out the door with and why?
Oh, wow. You know what? My answer is my copy of It that I bought back in college, that has since been inscribed and doodled in by Steve because if you read Stephen King Revisited and you read my It chapter.. Is there an It essay in there? Is that one of the first ones?
Not in this one. That one is published a little bit after this volume, I believe.
Yeah, I think so too. I’ve written several essays about It, so that’s where the confusion is. it’s a book that I look back on and I’m like, yeah, that book saved me. It was published in hardcover at a time when I was really lost. I’d just finished my lacrosse career in college due to injury. (Lacrosse) was kind of my identity. I was a student athlete, man. I was a lacrosse player, and that was what I was doing first and foremost. And that’s when that book came out, and reading that book over the course of a couple of weeks, you know, and I tell people and I’ve told Steve this, I told his agent Chuck Verrill, and that’s actually how the 25th anniversary edition of It came about for Cemetery Dance to publish, but I told him I said, “You know, reading It, it reminded me what I was supposed to do,” because I felt all these things for the first time back in high school and then you know what? Life gets fast, man. You start liking girls and you start going to parties, playing sports and you’re going to college and then things fall in the background a little bit, and I went from being very lost to knowing exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, within that two week period I read It. My gut says I’d grab my copy of It but then there’s a lot of cool stuff in these shelves of mine. The marked-up copy with Steve’s edits of Gwendy’s Magic Feather that I kept to give to my kids one day. There’s a lot of other cool stuff, some gifts that Steve has given me and other writers. So, if we’re talking about the Stephen King books, I would grab It.
Maybe after this conversation, you’re gonna put ’em all into a nice little safe so you could just grab that one thing with all of them inside.
What do you hope overall folks will get out of King Revisited? What do you think it’s gonna mean for both the constant and the new readers to the kingdom of King once they’ve put down this book?
I hope it starts conversations. I hope they read something; it strikes a cord with them, that they read something I wrote or that Bev wrote about where we were and what we were doing and what we thought, and they think “Oh no, no, no. I was thinking this about that section.” or “Yeah, that’s a great section. That is a scary scene but for me this is always going to be the scariest scene.” Those kind of things. I hope people who read it feel like I stopped by and talked books for a couple hours and then left, and the conversation’s still going with their family or their friends or reading groups or even just inside their heads, that they’re remembering.
I found for me personally there’s a lot of surprises in there. With a lot of the books you talk about like Cujo, I expected your favorite which stood out most for you would have been the scary parts. But, you often honed in on the beautiful aspects of a book and the family dynamics and the coming together of characters who had to work through those terrifying moments. I think there’s definitely a lot that will surprise people and get them talking.
And finally, for those who may be new to King they’re looking at his forty years worth of books and are thinking “Where the hell do I start?” — what are a few you recommend they start with? In other words, how do we hook them on King, Rich?
Oh, man. What’s interesting is I don’t even point to my tops. It is my favorite Stephen King book, but I wouldn’t tell them to read it. It’s 1200 pages, it’s pretty damn scary, and I know there’s a lot of readers out there who don’t want the scary stuff. What I’m approached more often is by people who aren’t overtly, they’re not fans of the scary stories, but they’ve heard rumblings that Stephen King is just this great storyteller, or they’ve heard me say it. 11/22/63 is one even though that’s another long one, but I feel like it’s just such great storytelling. Hearts in Atlantis is another one as long as the person I’m talking to isn’t eighteen years old, but even with that said, it’s one of Billy’s favorite books and he’s a young guy. But he’s interested in music from different eras around the world. I still contend that Hearts of Atlantis is some of his best writing ever, particularly the Hearts in Atlantis novella about the college kids playing cards in their dorm building and the draft and all that’s going on in the world.
Then you know what? If I’m just trying to get in with something a little shorter and punchier, man, that’s one where I might hand somebody a Salem’s Lot or something like that. But the big one that I’ve suggested to a lot of people is 11/22/63 because I feel like by the time they’re finished, they’re not going to believe that it was a Stephen King book and it didn’t have killer clowns or a vampire.
Very cool. Once again, I’m surprised by the answer. I wasn’t sure what kind of answer I was going to get, but that makes a lot of sense.
I’m going to sign off and think of three more, you know.
Wait a minute, I forgot about … I can easily turn back here and look. (Rich turns in his chair to look over his impressive bookshelves behind him.) My suggestion might be the Bill Hodges books because again, they’re just story. I’m looking at my list. I’m one of those people who loves Insomnia, but that’s not what I’d suggest. It’s a little bit out there. It’s a long book, but I love Steve’s elderly characters, so for me that’s one that’s always near the top of my list. You know Bag of Bones might be one, as long they’re patient with it because that’s a book that rewards patience, I think. So yeah, there you go, I’m already going…
… And Revival.
Yes, yes, Revival will knock some people in the dirt.
Yeah, I mean it’s got such a long buildup but then the end of it I think is some of his most terrifying stuff. That scene with the ants…
Yeah, I think the end –
In the end it gets much scarier.
Any final words before we part ways here?
No. You’ve asked a bunch of good questions and like I said, hopefully people will enjoy the book and have some conversations about it and go from there.
Rick Hipson is a Canadian genre journalist living in Kitchener Ontario with his partner in crime, young spawn and two cats who insist they aren’t vying for world domination. For over twenty years Rick has written for a variety of small press publications in print and online which no longer exist through, assumably, no fault of his own. He continues to share his love for dark culture entertainment through his film and book reviews, interviews and articles, which can be found through Rue Morgue Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Hell Notes.