Reign (Dark Harvest, 1990)

I loved writing Reign, which was published in hardcover by Dark Harvest in several collectors’ editions. It was a novel set in world of the theatre, where I’ve lived a goodly portion of my life. I got into writing as the result of being a professional actor (a long story that I’ll blog about someday), and have, in the past few years, reinstated my Actors Equity card and am trodding the professional boards once again, to my great pleasure.

Reign is the story of an actor based on Yul Brynner, who plays the same stage role for so many years that he becomes identified with it. In my novel, however, the character takes on a life of its own, becoming a malevolent doppelganger. The scenes with “The Emperor” are written in play form, a harbinger, I suppose, of the actual plays I would later write. Reaction was strongly positive. The novel was nominated for a Stoker Award, and Publishers Weekly called it “believable, elegant (and) thoroughly enjoyable,” while Gauntlet said, “honest, uncompromising and emotionally charged in a way that is too uncommon in works of horror fiction.”

John and Laura Lakey did the beautiful wraparound dust jacket and interior illustrations. But that dust jacket proved a bit embarassing when my ole pard Joe R. Lansdale’s blurb was credited to Joe B. Lansdale. 20 years down the road, and I’m still apologizing…

The book has never been published in paperback, and I think it’s damn well about time…

Night Visions 7

Night Visions 7
Night Visions 7 (Dark Harvest, 1989)

Every volume of the Night Visions series from Dark Harvest allowed a different editor to ask three writers to come up with 30,000 words each. Stan Wiater recruited Dick Laymon, Gary Brandner, and me for the seventh volume. I wrote a novella ( The Confessions of St. James), a short story, “Blue Notes,” and a tiny short-short with a really long title (“Assurances of the Self-Extinction of Man”), so I really spanned word lengths.

The Confessions of St. James, which was nominated for a Stoker Award, was great fun to write, the tale of a cannibalistic clergyman who takes the concept of Holy Communion a bit too seriously. His fictional church was based on Donegal Presbyterian Church near my home. It has a marvelous old cemetery with graves & tombs dating back to the Revolutionary War.

I think the novella is my favorite length of story when I wrote horror. It really allows you to expand ideas and characterization without necessitating subplots and extra characters that can often make novel-length works lose that intense focus which is so imperative to a mood of terror. It’s too bad there are so few markets for that length of tale…

The House of Fear: A Study in Comparative Religions

The House of Fear
The House of Fear (Footsteps Press, 1989)

“A Study in Comparative Religions” was the original title of this chapbook, but when publisher Bill Munster suggested that the title might lead readers to think it a piece of non-fiction, I retitled it.  It was limited to 500 copies, and contains beautiful interiors by Douglas C. Klauba. My old friend Steve Bissette was going to do the illos, but ran into some scheduling problems, and Doug’s work fitted the story perfectly.

It’s a fairly bizarre allegorical tale about superstitious behavior, and was reprinted in 2002 in my short story collection, Figures in Rain, complete with notes from me explaining the story’s sources, and talking more about it.


Dreamthorp (Dark Harvest/Avon, 1889)

Published simultaneously in hardcover (from Dark Harvest) and paperback (from Avon) I’ve chosen to show Bob Eggleton’s terrific dust jacket rather than the well-painted but “horror-novelly” clutching tree-man cover from Avon. Bob did some fine interior illustrations as well.

Dreamthorp‘s working title was The Little Houses, and it wasn’t until I finished the first draft that I found the 19th century book of essays, Dreamthorp, that gave the novel its theme and chapter headings. I tended to go a bit overboard on the violence with this one. One reviewer accused me of “excessive pornoviolence,” to which I can only reply, Don’t tell my mom… But most reviews were good, calling the book “a wonderful piece of dark American fantasy” and “a near-perfect novel.”
The village of Dreamthorp is based on Mt. Gretna, an old Chautauqua community just a few miles from my home, and a lovely place to spend a summer day or evening. Really.

Lowland Rider

Lowland Rider
Lowland Rider (Tor Books, 1988))

Lowland Rider was published as a paperback original, and was my “New York Subway System” novel. The cover painting has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, which concerns a man who buries himself beneath New York City after his wife and child are brutally murdered. He becomes aware of a dark supernatural plot brewing that threatens to undo the delicate balance between good and evil in the world. Naturally, hilarity and a lot of bloodshed ensue.

I wrote a faux Scottish ballad that I used in between sections of the novel to comment on the action, and several reviewers believed that it was an actual old ballad…always fun to fool people.

Reviews were good. My favorite was from Fear, which said: “He injects Lowland Rider with a humanity rarely seen in comparable horror novels. Commendably mature, unlike so many authors who sacrifice plot for excessive visceral sensationalism…A highly innovative and original novel (and) the bleakest and most downbeat horror novel of 1988…”

The cover of the British edition was much better than the U.S. edition, since it actually had something to do with subways…

McKain’s Dilemma

McKain's Dilemma
McKain’s Dilemma (Tor Books, 1988)

My first suspense novel, McKain’s Dilemma, was published in hardcover as part of Tor’s new but quickly aborted mystery line. After the editor left the house, the book was orphaned, and the line quickly vanished. I doubt if 500 copies of the book were sold.

It was a shame, as the book was my attempt at a more realistic mystery novel, with the private eye protagonist being a family man who stumbles into a murder somewhat by accident, and writing the first person narrative for a definite reason. I alternated the first person sections with third person segments dealing with various characters to deal with various points of view. Another plot element of interest was that the private detective was suffering from a terminal illness (which somewhat diminished the possibility of a series). The novel, though it received positive reviews, was never published in paperback, has long been out of print, and is available in the used book market.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday (Tor Books, 1987).

This was my second novel, published by Tor Books in hardcover and then in paperback.

It was an attempt at a “passive” horror novel, in which people in a small town (modeled after my own Elizabethtown) wake up one morning to discover that the dead are now visible as naked, semi-transparent blue forms, in the position that they were at the moment of death. They don’t move, they don’t speak; they are merely grim reminders of mortality. The action of the novel stems purely from the townspeople’s reactions to these ghosts. The plot also bears numerous parallels to Conrad’s Lord Jim.

The book was a final nominee for the 1988 Horror Writers of America’s Stoker Award. In The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card wrote, “Chet Williamson has done something powerful and new. You will be haunted by this book.” Library Journal: “a fine psychological thriller…and a richly textured and satisfying novel.” Fantasy Review: “a rich, carefully constructed novel about the ravages of guilt and about the real horror of life.” Rave Reviews: “a riveting, descriptive account of the effect the dead have on the living…both thought-provoking and entertaining.”

Fritz Leiber, who was one of my literary idols as I grew up, wrote: “By following the science-fiction precept of examining realistically and carefully the results of a single change in the circumstances of existence, Williamson has built a strong if necessarily macabre and uncomfortable tale of moral import.”

The novel has received a separate entry in the three-volume Supernatural Literature of the World, which declared it imbued “with a poignancy most horror novels only hope to achieve.”

An interesting footnote is that the final chapter was removed by editorial suggestion, and printed for the first time in Issue # 9 of Bill Munster’s magazine, Footsteps, in 1990.

One more item of interest is that the first dust jackets printed were embossed, but the name of the author was misspelled “Chet Willimson” everywhere on the jacket. The corrected jacket bore no embossing. I donated a copy of the book with the first state, never released dust jacket to an HWA auction, where it sold for over $300.

The book is now out of print, but is easily found in the used book markets. As for the first state jacket, not so much…


Soulstorm (Tor Books, 1986)

My first novel, a paperback original from Tor. The three pages of maps and floor plans at the front of the book were drawn by my father.

To make the transition from short story writer to novelist, I wanted my first book to have a fairly limited cast of characters, and small number of settings. The traditional haunted house story filled the bill perfectly. The plot concerned a small group of people locked into a haunted house for a month with the goal of ascertaining proof of the supernatural entities there.

It was scarcely an original idea, but I tried to weave enough variations on a well-known theme to make it fresh and interesting, including a mercenary soldier who happens to be gay, a fairly uncommon concept in genre fiction at that time.  A columnist for SF Chronicle called the book  “the best horror novel of the year,” and the reviewer there labeled it “one of the most intense variations on the haunted house story that I have ever read.” West Coast Review of Books said, “a dark gem of a novel,” and under my entry in the three-volume Supernatural Literature of the World, it states, “The emotional and moral dilemmas the characters face…gives uncommon depth to what is essentially a conventional genre story.”

I loved the bizarre, surrealistic cover art, but was later told by someone at Tor that it was thought so grotesque that it had hurt sales.

The novel is out of print, but used copies are easy to find…

“‘And So Will I Remember You…'”

Here’s the beginning of a story of mine which appeared in Barbara & Christopher Roden’s anthology, At Ease With the Dead. I hope it intrigues you enough to avail yourself of the book and the many wonderful stories therein…

“And So Will I Remember You…”

by Chet Williamson

          I don’t recall when I bought the book. It must have been on my shelf for years before I read it and found the inscriptions.

How I ever came to have a copy of The Peep of Day; or, a Series of the Earliest Religious Instruction the Infant Mind is Capable of Receiving, I’ll never know. I had to have picked it up from Kerry Baker, the book dealer, since it had his code in it: “$1-“ with “xx” below it, showing that he’d paid nothing for it, probably having gotten it in a box lot at an auction. I suppose I bought it on a whim, due to its cheapness and age.

It sat unnoticed in the lawyer’s bookcases in my bedroom for twenty years, until the evening I lay in bed reading Todd Pruzan’s piece in The New Yorker about Mrs. Favel Lee Mortimer, the author. Perhaps I should say authoress, since that stuffy, tight-laced woman would no doubt have referred thus to herself. She was among the most Victorian of British Victorian writers, was the redoubtable Mrs. Mortimer, slinging moralistic platitudes and nationalistic chauvinism about like some precursor to the Evangelical one-minders who’ve cast a similar blight on the current cultural landscape.

The simultaneously amusing and nasty thing about Mrs. Mortimer was that she wrote for children. Her withered literary soul found fertile ground among her parental collaborators who foisted upon their hapless offspring such titles as The Countries of Europe Described, Reading without Tears, and the aforementioned The Peep of Day. When I read her various descriptions of those unfortunate enough to live outside of England – “…it would almost make you sick to go to church in Iceland” is one of her kinder judgments – I knew I had found a true monster of popular literature, and was assured of it when I unearthed my own copy of The Peep of Day.

I have a memory for books, if for nothing else, and although Mrs. Mortimer’s name meant nothing to me, the book’s title did. I set down the magazine on the nightstand, muttered a brief explanation to my wife Linda, and starting rummaging through the bookcase on the other side of the bedroom. After several minutes I came up with the sad little volume. Its cover was worn, the cheap pseudo-cloth covering the heavy paper boards was chipped, and the dark threads and white binding cloth of the spine lay exposed like muscle and nerves under skin.

I climbed back into bed and found that the edition was published by The American Tract Society, always a promising sign, and gave no author’s name. “Anna B. Huber’s book 1860” was written on the front flyleaf in an ink that time had browned. I turned to the text, hoping for outrage, and was not disappointed.

The first chapter, entitled “The Body,” describes the same in simple and non-technical terms:

God has covered your bones with flesh. Your flesh is soft and warm…I hope that your body will not get hurt…

If it were to fall into a fire, it would be burned up. If hot water were to fall upon it, it would be scalded. If it were to fall into deep water, and not be taken out very soon, it would be drowned. If a great knife were run though your body, the blood would come out. If a great box were to fall on your head, your head would be crushed. If you were to fall out the window, your neck would be broken. If you were to not eat any food for a few days, your little body would be very sick, your breath would stop, and you would grow cold, and you would soon be dead.

You see that you have a very weak little body.

          Thank you for all your many kindnesses, Mrs. Mortimer. Her eventual point was that the child should pray to God to keep its little body safe from harm. I suppose it’s merely a more explicit version of the old bedtime prayer, “If I should die before I wake,” but I wondered about the effect such a list of horrors would have on an impressionable child of “five or six,” Mrs. Mortimer’s target audience, as revealed in her preface.

          I couldn’t help but share Mrs. Mortimer’s deathless prose with Linda, though she’s never been as fond as I of such literary cruelty. Being an elementary school principal makes her even more sensitive toward the feelings of children, and she was properly horrified and disgusted to the point where she gave a theatrical shudder, closed her own book, and turned off the light on her side, a cue that I should do the same, and one to which I responded as desired.

          Nothing alarms me at night. When I close my eyes in the darkness I’m able to close them on the concerns of the day, even my current inability to create a solid outline for a new novel, which drove me mad whenever my eyes were open. Nor am I affected by any filmic or literary horror I might have ingested before bedtime. In short, I sleep well and heavily, and am awakened only by the twin orbs of the morning sun and my bladder when full. That bladder alarm usually wakes me around four in the morning, as it did on this particular night, so I got up quietly, traversed the darkened bedroom with the assurance of one who knows every toe-stubbing bedpost and nightstand by heart, and made my way to the bathroom.

          When I stepped into the hall on my return, however, I felt suddenly ill at ease, as though if I turned and looked through the doorway into the living room, I might see a dark shape sitting in one of the chairs. It was surprising. Usually I’m as at home in the dark as a cat.

          So I confronted my fear, and turned and looked directly into the room, lit only by the pale glow the street lights cast through the thick curtains. There was nothing there, of course, but I thought that I heard just the wisp of a sigh, high and feminine. I took a few steps to the doorway, reached in and turned on the light.