“It’s like the guy sliced open a hole in the night,” one state trooper complained off the record, “and disappeared back into it.”
this book is a whole new thing; a gripping metafictional mélange of true crime and crime fiction, memoir and horror, and chizmar pulls off this ambitious undertaking seamlessly.
the phrase one always hears when it comes to popular narrative nonfiction is that “it reads like a novel.” this one is just the opposite—it’s a novel constructed to read like narrative nonfiction, and it is breathtakingly convincing.
it’s shaped a bit like I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, blending the elements of the (let’s call it) true crime story with memoir, as the author/character becomes more personally invested in the series of murders plaguing his hometown and more involved in their investigation. but it also borrows from the structural conceit of found footage horror movies, incorporating photographs and interviews with key figures involved in the case, suffusing the story with authenticity.
it’s framed as a new edition of a book previously published by chizmar in 1990, about the murders of four teenage girls from june-october 1988 in his hometown of edgewater, maryland. at the time, he was a 22-year-old recently-graduated journalism major living back home with his parents waiting for his fiancée to finish her degree before embarking upon their espousèd life together. chizmar used this little limbo period to make a go at becoming a writer of horror and mystery stories, and starting up his own horror ‘zine, cemetery dance.
the murders began soon after his return, and when he wasn’t writing fictional tales of horror, he became increasingly consumed with the real-life horror-mystery unfolding in his previously-idyllic small town, teaming up with his fiancée’s childhood pal courtney; a working journalist unofficially investigating the case.
the 1990 book ended with the crime still unsolved, and this updated version provides closure: an arrest, a confession, and an interview with the killer.*
and that is all well and good, but for me, the closing of a cold case, the serial killer mystery thread, the procedural/amateur sleuthery, that was all background for the more compelling part of the story, which was the tainted nostalgia of a man forced to re-examine his cherished childhood memories as an adult and come to terms with the whole das unheimliche of girls being found savagely murdered in the places that had previously been home to his fondest memories—the formative experiences and locations that made him who he was.
because this book is also a love letter to edgewater, and chizmar knows every inch of this neighborhood; its geographical shortcuts and residents and history, and he brings it all to life down to the smallest details with the insights of someone intimately familiar with the physical terrain and social mores.
I believe that most small towns wear two faces: a public one comprised of verifiable facts involving historical timelines, demographics, matters of economy and geography; and a hidden, considerably more private face formed by a fragile spiderweb of stories, memories, rumors, and secrets passed down from generation to generation, whispered by those who know the town best.
chizmar is privy to both, and here, the past encroaches on the present in a truly visceral way:
Every time I took a break from the computer screen and glanced outside, I imagined the ghosts of my childhood friends sprinting shirtless across the lawn, whooping with laughter and disappearing into the wavering shadows, beneath the towering weeping willow whose spindly branches had snagged so many of our taped-up Wiffle balls and provided hours of cooling shade in which to play marbles and eat pizza subs and trade baseball cards.
his hometown slowly darkens into a haunted space, supplanting and overwriting these cherished memories with new ones; of strangled girls with bite-marked bodies, search parties, funerals, and memorials to the victims, bearing witness to his neighbors succumbing to suspicion and fearful gossip, to women cutting off their long hair so as not to resemble the killer’s evident type.
drawn by his horror writer sensibilities to investigate the actual horror unfolding, chizmar and carly likewise seem to be drawing the killer to themselves, experiencing creepy phone calls, acts of vandalism, and the feeling of being watched, hunted, in their most private spaces.
the creepy parts’ll get under your readerskin, but equally praiseworthy are chizmar’s recollections of the carefree americana childhood spent knocking around this small town. it’s sweetly-encapsulated boylife at its finest; all wholesome rambling and gentle mischief, the details of which are presented with the vivid perfection found in the works of his literary influences ray bradbury and stephen king, whom he invokes both by name and in the style of his prose:
Ever since I was a child, it was my favorite time of year—a season of absolute magic. The air smelled of ripe apples and dying leaves and wood smoke. The wind made you ache in some place deeper than your bones. The sky overhead was layered with rich shades of orange and yellow and purple and red and a host of swirling colors too beautiful to be named. The harvest moon—swollen and magnificent, and so close on the horizon you could almost reach out and touch it—paid its annual visit and left you yearning for more. Clouds drifted by, peeking over their shoulders, reluctant to make way for winter’s footfalls. Naked tree branches reached out as you walked past, skeletal fingers hungering for your touch, and packs of fallen leaves crunched beneath your wandering feet, their boundless brethren skittering past you in the chill autumn breeze like miniature ghosts haunting the landscape. Dusks and twilights lingered. Midnights stayed forever. Fat jack-o’-lanterns flashed jagged grins from porch railings and windows, flickering orange eyes tracking your every move.
it’s a successful genre mashup and brilliant tonal chimera, by turns lovely and unsettling, intense and meditative. and james renner, master of both of these balancing-act skills, is the perfect fellow to virgil a reader into its pages.
* whose identity probably would have surprised me if, when i was only about three chapters in, i hadn’t stuffed my goddamned mail into the book in the foyer on my way up to my apartment, inadvertently bookmarking the page where the killer’s photo appeared and, upon retrieving my stupid bills, my fast eyes tractor-beamed to the caption and ruined it for me.
when i first heard about this genre-blendy true crime/crime fiction mash-up, my first thought was “i wonder if james renner knows about this book?” since that’s his whole wheelhouse. i forgot to email him to put it on his radar, which oversight worked out just fine, because once i finally got my hands on a copy, i opened it up to discover that james renner wrote the dang introduction!
begging the question, why didn’t he tell ME about this book, hmmmm?