Sitting in his tenth-grade English class at Edgewood High School, Richard Chizmar’s teacher starts the day by reading a recently released short story to the anxious students. Chizmar’s attention is grabbed immediately. The story is “The Monkey” by Stephen King.
“Listening to my teacher read ‘The Monkey,’ it really cemented storytelling for me, and it was part of my identity,” Chizmar said. “That’s when I knew, that this is what I wanted to do.”
Born in 1965, growing up in Edgewood, Maryland, Chizmar said he was always surrounded by books and loved the library. From a young age, he wrote and told stories, mostly of the horror variety, to his friends and his parents. He said his friends found it cool and his mother would even pay him ten cents or a quarter for each story.
Chizmar graduated from Edgewood High School in 1983 and went to the University of Maryland Baltimore County to play lacrosse. In his first years at the university, he didn’t write as much as he used to; time was difficult to come by with lacrosse and classes. In 1986, Chizmar was injured playing lacrosse. During his rehabilitation, Stephen King’s famous novel IT was released, and he read the whole thing.
“It was a slap in the face,” Chizmar said. “Reading IT made me realize this (writing) is what you are supposed to be doing.”
After rehab, Chizmar quit the lacrosse team and took his love for sports to the school’s newspaper. He wrote for the sports page and eventually became the sports editor. To further pursue his journalism degree, Chizmar transferred to the University of Maryland College Park. While at UMD, Chizmar began writing fiction again and submitting his stories to magazines.
“There was a bigger market back then, a sprawling network of smaller magazines,” Chizmar said. “If you had 20 stories, you could send them all out and they would all get purchased.”
The only problem with the huge network of magazines, Chizmar said, was the quality. To combat this, Chizmar started his own magazine: Cemetery Dance in December of 1988.
“I had a long winding road through college,” Chizmar said chuckling. “Once I finished at UMD (June 1989), I focused solely on Cemetery Dance. I wrote for the magazine and was poor for 10 years.”
Tom Monteleone, a writer for Cemetery Dance magazine for the past 25 years, has known Chizmar since the beginning.
“He started a small press and turned it into an empire,” Monteleone said. “Starting a magazine is a crazy thing, 90 percent of the time you’re doomed for failure. Rich on the other hand, has a determination and a will to succeed. When he makes up his mind, he doesn’t stop. He’s driven, he has visions, dreams and plans.”
Monteleone writes a column for the magazine entitled “The Mothers and Fathers Italian Association.” In it he talks about weird experiences and life as a writer. Monteleone describes Chizmar as a “dynamo” and a “really fascinating guy.”
“I admire his incredible energy,” Monteleone said. “He has an ability to will things into existence and he gets shit done. He built CD from nothing and has managed to attract a massive clientele to what is a niche market industry. I am proud to call him my friend.”
Chizmar’s whole idea behind Cemetery Dance was to publish a high-quality horror themed magazine that packaged well-known authors with lesser-known aspiring writers. Each issue, he would send out to big-name authors and writers to put the name out there and in the hopes of getting support or submissions. One of these big-names was Stephen King.
“I would send him copies regularly saying, ‘I’d love to work with you, check out my magazine,’ stuff like that,” Chizmar said. “Then in 1990, he replied with a very nice promotional blurb for CD and obviously I was excited.”
In 1991, King sent Chizmar a copy of his newest short story “Chattery Teeth” wanting it to be published in the magazine. This was the start of their relationship and King allowed Chizmar to reprint other stories and scripts for the magazine. At this time, Cemetery Dance had expanded to printing limited editions of novels as well as the magazine.
In 2001, King’s assistant sent the manuscript for his upcoming novel From a Buick 8 to Chizmar asking Cemetery Dance to produce a limited edition.
“Slowly our relationship expanded from just business to more of a friendship,” Chizmar said. “We would send each other our works, read them over, and send them back. We emailed back-and-forth pretty regularly.”
One day in 2016, following the release of his hit short story collection A Long December, Chizmar received an email from King. It contained an idea for a story titled Gwendy’s Button Box with a note saying he was having trouble finishing it.
“I told him I’d love to read it and he replied saying, ‘Do with it as you wish.’ I asked him if he wanted me to finish it and he said, ‘absolutely,’” Chizmar said. “I agreed I’d finish it. My hands were shaking, I was a nervous wreck, I couldn’t believe I was tasked to finish a Stephen King book.”
Once he finally sat down to write, Chizmar said the story flowed and he just started cruising, “I was transported to Castle Rock.” Within two hours, the nerves were gone. 10,000 words later, he had it attached in an email with his mouse hovering over the send button.
“I got all nervous again and started second guessing what I had done then finally said ‘screw it’ and hit send,” Chizmar said. “We played ping-pong with drafts of the story over email and finally came to a finished product. It was a happy accident emailing back and forth but writing with him was a wonderful experience.”
Gwendy’s Button Box was released May 2017 through Cemetery Dance Publications and spent six weeks on the bestseller list. King and Chizmar have worked together on other projects as well. Recently, they wrote a script for a movie Trapped. Chizmar’s oldest son has been tapped to direct the film.
Chizmar has two sons, Billy, 20, a student at Colby College in Maine, and Noah, 15, a sophomore at St. Paul’s High School. Both play lacrosse, but, Chizmar said, Billy got more of the reading and writing genes.
“Growing up with my dad being a writer and publisher has been a really cool experience,” Billy said. “I remember one day when I was little we didn’t have a babysitter, so dad took me to work with him. The Cemetery Dance warehouse is in Forrest Hill and I remember just being amazed walking around this huge warehouse and looking at all the cool artwork and the books. I fell in love immediately… it was hard not to.”
Billy said the Chizmars had a library room in their old home where he would always find his father reading and naturally he picked up the hobby. Billy describes his father as “someone I look up to a lot.”
Chizmar and Billy have produced multiple films together, including Murder House based on the home the Chizmar family recently moved into. The duo also published a novella, “Widow’s Point,” in February 2018.
“Writing ‘Window’s Point’ with my dad was an awesome experience,” Billy said. “I was nervous and excited. I’d written a few short stories myself, but when he asked me to help work on something of length, it was daunting but fun.”
Billy said his father asked him to finish it and their style differences worked perfectly for the structure of the story. What started as a short story quickly grew to a short novel.
“We had a moment where we realized we had more to say,” Billy said. “We were both on the same wavelength and just started going back and forth, adding things and editing parts. It was an absolute delight.”
The father-son duo are getting ready to work on a sequel to their hit novella. Both said they plan to start writing in November. Chizmar, meanwhile has a new book, The Long Way Home, coming in December and over the weekend, Chizmar was inducted into the Edgewood High School Hall of Fame.
Chizmar went from writing because of King, to writing to him, then going full circle and accomplishing what every constant reader and aspiring horror author dreams of: writing with him.
However, like Monteleone said, “There is life (in horror) outside of Stephen King.” Chizmar is part of that life and fostering some of that life at Cemetery Dance. Keep an eye out for the Chizmar name because it will be appearing more frequently in the coming years.