Chasing the Boogeyman By Richard Chizmar
A Book Review by Tony Jones
After ten pages you’ll be ‘Chasing the Boogeyman’ along with Richard Chizmar!
Although Richard Chizmar has been involved in the horror world since the late 1980s, the fascinating Chasing the Boogeyman is only his third novel, however, he’s no slouch and has edited numerous anthologies, written many short stories and novellas over that lengthy period. To the public at large he is undoubtedly best known as the co-author of Gwendy’s Button Box (with Stephen King) and has since flown solo on the two sequels. However, his greatest contribution to the world of horror is undoubtedly Cemetery Dance, which started life as a small press magazine before expanding into a highly successful publisher of quality genre fiction which often lures the biggest names in horror into its hallowed pages. Some years ago, I cheerfully (maybe I’m exaggerating!) paid a three-figure sum for a signed Robert McCammon limited edition hardback of The Border which was one of their titles. It was most definitely worth the hefty sum paid.
The last time I read Chizmar was the excellent novella Widow’s Point (2018) which had some very slight similarities to Chasing the Boogeyman with an author spending a night in a supposedly haunted lighthouse, and the reader following the transcripts of the event. This latest work, however, takes this a step further, tracking an aspiring author caught up in a serial killer mystery in the small town in which he grew up. What makes this work slightly different from most thrillers of this type is the fact that the main character is called Richard Chizmar and although it is made clear this is a novel, he notes that some of the characters and locations are real, but not the serial killer. Fans of Chizmar, Cemetery Dance and knowledgeable horror readers will undoubtedly find this book significantly more interesting that casual readers who may be slightly perplexed by the blurring of fact and fiction. Set in 1988, in the backstory Richard is writing the first issue of Cemetery Dance and is dealing with the routine rejection letters of his short stories and is equally buoyed by the odd success. These genuine facts helped make the story more realistic and in a strange way also made the whole reading experience more compelling, particularly for knowledgeable horror fans.
Chasing the Boogeyman is very skillfully presented as a true crime story and this works incredibly well. At various times I found myself forgetting that this was a novel and had to stop from reaching for Google to pick up any further morsels on the ‘true’ story of what genuinely happened. Along the way, the book is populated by very convincing black and white photographs of those killed, the settings and the police involved in the investigation. This only made the story more convincing and even though the ‘Boogeyman’ is mentioned in the title, there is never any effort to present this as anything which is supernatural in nature.
How often do authors insert themselves in their fiction is an interesting question. The answer is relatively few, particularly with headline roles, with cameos being the norm. Stephen King appears in his Dark Tower series and others include Bret Easton Ellis, Clive Cussler, Douglas Coupland, with even HP Lovecraft having an alter-ego in his fiction. However, I cannot think of any who have effectively and ambitiously built a horror novel around themselves, with this ingenious level of accurate biographical detail thrown in for good measure. Other honourable mentions must go to Darren Shan who starred as himself in the twelve book YA series The Saga of Darren Shan and I Am Alive and You are Dead: A Journey Inside the Mind of Philip K. Dick, which was a truly bizarre biography of Dick, written as a novel by Emmanuel Carrère. When it comes to originality, Chasing the Boogeyman matches the wildly creative I Am Alive and You are Dead, and that wasn’t easy. I doubt the world was ready for the Carrère novel when it was published back in 2006 and is ripe for cult reappraisal and rediscovery.
One of the major strengths of this novel is the fact that it is completely non-sensationalist and on-the-whole avoids all the tropes you might associate with a serial killer terrorizing a small town. In would have been very easy, tempting even to drift into either Halloween or standard Final Girl territory, or both even. Instead, Chizmar builds his story around very well drawn characters (they should be, as they included his genuine family, fiancé and journalist best friend Carly Albright!) and a story which slowly escalates from a single murder to a serial killer at work. Although Chizmar inserts himself into the plot, he cleverly does not make himself a hero. Although readers of blood thirsty horror might find the ending slightly low key, on closer inspection, it was perfectly pitched for a work which was presented as non-fiction. Nor was it unrealistic, with the manner in which things conclude for readers in 2021.
The action begins with Chizmar returning, after college, to the small Maryland town of Edgewood, his childhood home. With his impending marriage on the horizon, he dreams of becoming a professional writer and supported by his parents, begins his journey. Around the same time, a teenage girl who lives locally is murdered and he starts his own investigation into the killing and the others which follow, with the culprit soon being known to the locals as the ‘Boogeyman’ due to his ability to avoid the police and leave zero clues. To make things worse, each victim has been found missing their left ear and has been artfully posed after death.
Overall, Chasing the Boogeyman was a beautifully constructed piece of metafiction which has an outstanding sense of time and place. The fact that the author knew the setting of the story so well helped him to recreate every aspect of the landscape and therefore amplify the horrific nature of the crimes in this small town. Blending thriller with true crime into an both an immersive and nostalgic reading experience is exceptionally difficult and Richard Chizmar totally nails it.
– Tony Jones