Book Review: Chasing the Boogeyman by Richard Chizmar
Like any kind of writing, literary criticism must strive to find the most precise words to communicate what it wants readers to see as it deconstructs a narrative. That’s why vague words like “special” and “unique” are frowned upon; they fail to be specific. That said, both of them apply perfectly to Richard Chizmar’s Chasing the Boogeyman. An outstanding metafictional narrative that inhabits the interstitial space between true crime, memoir, and horror novel, this is a bizarre hybrid that somehow works beautifully and feels like much more than the sum of its disparate elements.
Back in the summer of 1988, Richard Chizmar was fresh out of college and living with his parents in the small town of Edgewood, Maryland while waiting for his wedding day. He was ready for a whole summer of writing and editing short stories, hanging out with his parents, seeing old friends, and working on the launch of his new magazine, Cemetery Dance. However, summer quickly turned into a living nightmare that changed everyone’s lives: a few local girls went missing, their bodies later found, mutilated and posed, in different parts of town. Edgewoods’s usual small-town peace was shattered: they had a serial killer roaming its streets at night and preying on young, pretty girls with long hair. The growing number of bodies, along with the chaos caused by a man breaking into houses at night to fondle women in their sleep, created mayhem in the town and soon rumors, paranoia, baseless accusations, and anger took over Edgewood. Law enforcement struggled to make sense of the case, and Chizmar and a friend started their own investigation. That investigation led to a book and then to a newer edition that updated the case. That second book is what readers get: Chasing the Boogeyman.
The mix of fact and fiction here is continuous and blends everything together. The serial killer was created for the novel, but the man who fondled women at night—appropriately nicknamed the Phantom Fondler by the media—was real. The serial killer’s victims and law enforcement members who deal with the case are characters created by Chizmar, but almost everyone else in the book is real. The list goes on and on, but what matters is that Chasing the Boogeyman is written in a personal, engaging tone that pulls readers in and keeps them glued to the pages because everything feels equally real, and that’s something all great fiction should attempt.
Chizmar did a lot of little things right in this novel/memoir, but it’s the mixing of both that makes it a truly standout read. On one hand, readers get a creepy true crime book that’s not actually true and, on the other, they get a real account of Chizmar’s town, childhood, family, and the beginning of his career all the way to the success of Cemetery Dance and his career as a writer, which includes appearances in the New York Times bestsellers list and co-authored novels with horror maestro Stephen King, who also gets a few tips of the hat throughout the book.
Chasing the Boogeyman is a love letter to true crime books, to the town of Edgewood, and to horror. From A Nightmare on Elm Street to Jaws and from Halloween’s Michael Myers to the work of Stephen King, Chizmar packs his narrative with horror culture icons while simultaneously serving up a slice of Americana. Then he counterbalances all that goodness with darkness, and besides a serial killer who cuts off ears and rapes its victims, the story explores how true horror tends to expose whatever darkness hides in people:
“There was, Carly explained, one interesting trend beginning to emerge in Edgewood, and, just as the satanic panic and multiple serial killer theories could be attributed to a recent increase in gossip—somewhere along the line, suspicion had begun to replace caution—so to could this new pattern of behavior. In the days following Madeline Wilcox‘s death, there’d been a sudden sharp increase in the number of verbal arguments and physical altercations occurring between local residents. Loose lips and drunken slurs lead to fistfights in parking lots and front yard. Joking around turned serious and then violent. Old feuds where rekindled, and new ones started. A rash of false accusations broke out, and it took an official warning from police to tamp it down. The tip-line took in calls at a record pace, but most of them more trivial nonsense, and law enforcement was considering shutting the whole thing down.”
Horror fiction tends to fail in the absence of empathy, and Chizmar knows that well. The killing and subsequent descriptions of the serial killer’s victims are there, and they will make fans of true crime very happy, but the author also takes time to painstakingly present the town of Edgewood and its residents in a way that makes readers care for them. These are mostly good people—good parents, friends, and neighbors—living through a nightmare. Readers see that, and they feel their pain… and that makes them care much more about what happens in the story, both the real one and the fictional.
Lastly, there is a level of brutality in these pages that makes the rest of the story stand out. People play basketball, go to school, celebrate the Fourth of July, plan for Halloween, and share meals with friends and family, but right below that wholesomeness are the terrible acts of the Boogeyman, and everyone hears about them:
“Still dressed in the matching light blue shorts and tank top shit worn to bed the night before, Natasha was propped up against a tree with her ankles crossed and her hands resting in her lap. She’d suffered severe bruising and swelling around her neck, a fractured cheekbone, a pair of black eyes, and the thumb and ring finger on her right hand had been broken. The coroner determined that the majority of her injuries most likely occurred during a prolonged struggle. What hadn’t occurred during the struggle was this: at some point, her left ear has been sliced off by a sharp blade of unknown origin.”
Chasing the Boogeyman is the bizarre offspring of everything Chizmar brings to the table as a horror writer, true crime narratives packed with grainy black and white photos that capture the imagination, and the ghost of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. This is a fresh take on serial killers that doubles as a memoir and makes both things work in ways that will satisfy readers across genres.