The Spookiest Little Publisher in the World
A Hallow's Eve visit to visit Cemetery Dance Publications, one of the unlikeliest--and scariest--small-business success stories in publishing.
To a casual observer, Forest Hill, Maryland, is light on evil. Corn grows tall in the fields, but no vacant-eyed, scythe-wielding juveniles lurk among the stalks. Campaign-season lawn signs promote the ominous sounding Sheriff Bane, but--judging by the photos on his web site--this guy is no one’s idea of a demonic enforcer. At least the local Waffle House is good for a quick gut-curdle.
But Forest Hills is home to Cemetery Dance Publications, the country’s leading specialty publisher of horror and dark suspense. For years its flagship magazine has arrived quarterly in my mailbox, delivering even on the brightest day in May a whiff of autumn decay. All the dark stars--Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Gillian Flynn, William Peter Blatty, Joe R. Lansdale and many more--have appeared in the magazine or in the company’s trade or limited-edition books. My basement shelves--my literary id--are crammed with this stuff.
As many as a thousand independent magazines have come and gone in the decades since “Rosemary’s Baby,”“The Exorcist,” and “Carrie” ushered in a horror renaissance. To put Cemetery Dance iit in horror-film tropes, Cemetery Dance is the virtuous-yet-smokin’ brunette who survives the slaughter. Contributors have praised it for sustaining the genre even during the depths of the ’90s, when horror was often played for laughs (“Scream”) or thinned down to juvenilia (“Goosebumps”). The company’s line of hardcover books-;many illustrated, signed by the authors, and sheathed in elegant covers--helped elevate disposable paperback fodder into the realm of collectibles.
Like most genre fiction, horror is sometimes art, often craft, and too often (thank you, Internet) crap. Since its early days, Cemetery Dance has had pick of the litter: it receives more than 5,000 stories every time it opens submissions. Recently, founder Richard Chizmar posted a call for Halloween-themed entries on his personal Facebook page: in two weeks he had 150. The publisher spurns trends (Splatterpunk, swoony vampires) in favor of atmosphere, storytelling, and freshness. “We don’t buy a lot of zombie stories,” says Managing Editor Brian Freeman. “It’s rare to find something where by page two you’re not like, ‘OK, they’re going to end up at the Walmart.’”
Chizmar and Freeman are also admirably democratic: selecting first-rate submissions from no-names over second-rate submissions from names. The result is more and more-varied voices than mainstream publishers typically corral. “Every issue of Cemetery Dance has the kind of wild-eyed, freewheeling quality that Hunter Thompson used to call ‘gonzo,’” says Peter Straub, bestselling author of 17 novels, including the seminal “Ghost Story.” The editors “have always been open to the whole range of the genre they love and, even more importantly, appreciate.
“Chizmar and his crew are willing to gamble, and they are right more often than not,” says Straub. “In any case, whatever they choose to publish is worth reading.”
Cemetery Dance Publications lives in a featureless office park around the corner from a logistics company. A pair of office dogs greets me with boundless enthusiasm and no Cujo-esque ‘tude whatsoever. They are followed by Freeman and his wife, Kate, who handles production and design and is cradling their 11-month-old son, Charlie, and here is where I give up on looking for Forest Hill's heart of darkness. As family businesses go, this one is more Waltons than Addams.
An upcoming Halloween anthology from Cemetery Dance—available as a hardcover and as a $500 limited edition featuring autographs from luminary contributors.
Dressed in a faded T-shirt and Under Armor cap, Chizmar, 49, looks like a suburban dad who coaches his kids’ sports teams, which is what he is. “We adapted the story ‘Eater’ for [the NBC show] ‘Fear Itself,’ and at one point we had a guy frying up a human tongue,” says Chizmar, who also writes horror fiction and screenplays, the latter with his actor friend John Shaech. “What I always hear is, ‘you are so normal. I can’t believe you do this stuff.’”
Cemetery Dance was a typical college startup, launched by Chizmar in the late 1980s while he was studying journalism at the University of Maryland. Sidelined from lacrosse by an injury, he spent his newly free time writing horror stories and peddling them to small magazines. “There were a bunch of them-;New Blood, Death Realm, Grue. I could have 20 stories out at one time,” Chizmar says. “I would get the magazine in the mail with a check for $5. A lot of them I didn’t even want to show to anybody, because they were stapled, poorly photocopied, no thought to design. I kept thinking, ‘I can do better than this.’”
At first, Chizmar reached out to potential contributors through writers’ organizations and personal contacts. The author and editor David Silva, who at the time was shutting down his own revered magazine, The Horror Show, became an advisor. Even in the early days, rising authors like Bentley Little, R.C. Matheson and Steve Rasnic Tem appeared in Cemetery Dance’s pages alongside unknowns. Meanwhile, Chizmar made sure the titans of the terror trade received each new issue. “In the small presses, people were really stingy with giving copies away, which I understood because of the finances,” says Chizmar. “But I knew from the beginning Steve King, Peter Straub, Bill Blatty--these guys are not going to buy my little magazine. I sent it free to anybody and everybody who was a prominent figure I would eventually want to work with.”
Within three years, the mountain came to Mohammed. Chizmar received a postcard from Chuck Verrill, a literary agent. “Dear Rich,” it read, “I hope this finds you well. A couple of months ago I sent you a manuscript from Stephen King, and we were wondering if you had had a chance to read it yet?”“I sprinted down the hall of my apartment, tore through the slush pile, and found one with the agency sticker on it,” says Chizmar. “It was nice and fat.”“Chattery Teeth,” an unexpectedly touching tale about an oversized wind-up toy that dispatches an evil hitchhiker, debuted in issue 14. Cemetery Dance was firmly planted.
In the early ‘90s, a few presses were publishing hardback horror. But the market was dominated by mass-market paperbacks that could be purchased in an airport store at trip’s beginning and ditched in an airport trash receptacle at trip’s end. With a growing stable of authors who trusted him as an editor and a growing base of readers who trusted the Cemetery Dance name, Chizmar decided to create his own book imprint. His first title was an original: “Prisoners & Other Stories,” by the crime writer Ed Gorman, with an afterward by Dean Koontz. Both writers signed all copies. “’Prisoners’ is still the best-looking book to ever appear under my name,” says Gorman, a frequent contributor to the magazine. “It also brought me a kind of attention I’d never had before. And that was all Richard’s doing.”
Today Cemetery Dance publishes as many as 20 hardcover books a year, ranging from original anthologies and novels to autographed limited-editions of popular titles from such authors as Gillian Flynn, Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, and Frank Darabont, who developed “The Walking Dead” for cable. Prices range from $18.95 for trade books to well over $150 for what Chizmar calls the “super-fancy-crazy-deluxe-lettered editions for the super-collectors." The collector gene is a common mutation among horror fans, he notes. “A lot of them grew up collecting those Aurora monster model kits, and they had to have them all.”
The company’s biggest seller to date is “Blockade Billy,” a 2010 baseball yarn by King--packaged with a special baseball card--that the author offered first to Chizmar. The company printed 25,000 copies-;many of them for libraries--an unprecedented run for Cemetery Dance. Then Sports Illustrated, the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine and others wrote about the book, and major retailers like Amazon started clamoring for huge orders. Unable to meet demand, Chizmar stepped aside and Scribner stepped in.
Cemetery Dance remains a small business with under $5 million in sales, and most of that comes from books. “If we looked at it from a straight business standpoint we would stop publishing the magazine,” says Chizmar, who estimates he has a subscriber base of 10,000, and that each issue sells another 5,000 copies at newsstands. “A big company would have shut it down years ago because it’s not profitable enough. But I’ve got such a sense of nostalgia and affection for it. It’s the company’s beating heart.”
The boogeyman under Cemetery Dance’s bed is the same one haunting virtually all publishers. Cemetery Dance’s loyal fan base is aging, in some cases dying off. And while people return from the grave from all kinds of reasons, renewing magazine subscriptions isn’t one of them. “There’s a lot more visibility of horror these days in television and movies, but not so much in books,” says Chizmar. “At a couple of schools I went to recently I said, ‘Raise your hands if you know who Stephen King is.’ Ten years ago, all the hands would have gone up. Now, maybe a third. So I’ll say,’ raise your hands if you’ve seen the remake of “Prom Night.”’ Now you see hands.”
Freeman, also a horror writer, is 14 years Chizmar’s junior. Since joining the business in 2002 he has been nudging Chizmar toward a digital future by building out Cemetery Dance’s e-commerce function, exploiting social media, and--most recently--experimenting with e-books, of which the company offers 60. Freeman is also working on a digital edition of the magazine, “although a lot of feedback we get from people is that they really like having it show up in their mailbox,” he says.
“We have a lot of customers who are 25 to 30 years old, although it’s still a small percentage of the base,” says Freeman. “But every year I’ll hear from people who found us online while they were looking up a new author they just discovered.”
One of Cemetery Dance’s most creative experiments in social media kicks off on Halloween, when Chizmark plans to embark on a quest to reread the entire Stephen King oeuvre in order and blog about each book. The effect should be something like Julie Powell’s episodic recounting of how she prepared all the recipes in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” only with pig’s blood instead of onion soup.
Chizmar will also invite visitors to the blog to describe the circumstances under which they first read a particular book. King fans, he says, tend to remember those experiences. He may be right. I started “The Stand” as a freshman on my first train trip to college and finished it later in my dorm. One night, Steve Lewis, who lived in the room next to mine and had noticed me reading it, hid in my closet and lurched out at me when I opened the door. I do not blame Stephen King for this. I do blame Steve Lewis. Chizmar reminds me that EC Comics is a great source for revenge ideas.
I ask Chizmar and Freeman if, after all these years, anything they see or read still scares them. All the time, they say. Freeman’s weak spot is zombies: “this idea of people you know-;your friends, your family, your neighbors-;trudging along and they’re them but also not them,” he says. “There is something primal about being 10 years old and there’s mom and dad and they are going to eat me.”
Chizmar cites the last 30 pages of “Revival” (the new King novel being released next month) and then starts reeling off movies: “28 Weeks Later,” (rage virus) “The Descent” (cave monsters); “30 Days of Night” (Alaskan vampires).
“The first ‘Paranormal’ movie didn’t scare a lot of people,” he says. “But I watched that with my son at night, with the lights off. Halfway through I said, ‘Billy, let’s finish this tomorrow in daylight.’ And he said, ‘OK.’”