I first heard of Chet Williamson in 2010, when I went to the annual Horrorfind convention in Gettysburg, PA where he was a featured guest. Williamson read his short story “Jeaves and the Deteriorating Relations,” which was originally written for the anthology Joe R. Lansdale’s Lord of the Razor, a collection of stories inspired by Lansdale’s demonic creation. Williamson’s story is a riff on PG Wodehouse, mixing Wodehouse’s drolly comic writing style with graphic bloodshed. It was the perfect introduction to Chet Williamson, and I was glad to see it included in The Night Listener And Others (Amazon), a recently published collection of Williamson’s short stories. Spanning over thirty years, the stories included in this collection are a fine introduction to Williamson’s work.
The title story concerns a husband and father, our narrator, who begins hearing strange noises in the middle of the night. We’re left in the dark for much of the story about whether there truly is something supernatural prowling outside, or if we’re simply in the hands of a paranoid, unreliable narrator. I won’t spoil the outcome, but Williamson does a great job of teasing out the answer and keeping us in suspense throughout. As with many strong genre writers, the extraordinary and the mundane coexist very comfortably in Williamson’s work, and the author’s wild imagination and his healthy sense of skepticism inform these stories equally.
In a story like “The Swing of a Knife,” a plane crash may be confirmation of the titular tool’s prophetic power, or perhaps our narrator’s fate is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are spirits, ghouls and visits to the land of the dead in Williamson’s stories, but many of his scariest monsters are entirely human and corporeal.
Reading more than twenty of Williamson’s stories in quick succession gave me a greater appreciation for his classical approach to narrative structure. There are few last-minute plot twists here; instead, he establishes a character and setting quickly, then introduces the extraordinary element of the story in an offhanded fashion that invites the attentive reader to guess how it will pay off. With a few exceptions, most of the stories included here fall into the horror genre, but Williamson’s approach to horror is quite eclectic.
In some, like “Season Pass,” he favors subtle chills, but he’s just as comfortable with a pure gross-out tale like “The Pack,” about a murderous group of undead (but still decaying) dogs. While Williamson tends more towards romantic (in the way that, say, Ray Bradbury is romantic) supernatural stories about beings who steal small fragments of time from others’ lives or prey upon their sense of nostalgia, some of the stories included are perverse enough that it was hilarious to reach a very gentle holiday story, “Scrooge’s Cat,” that Williamson wrote for his wife.
My favorite story included here is a novella titled “The Confessions of St. James.” Its narrator is a small town pastor who confesses, at the beginning, that he has a taste for human flesh. As he explains how he came to accept his calling to a very literal holy communion and details the process by which he procures and prepares hosts taken from his recently deceased parishioners, the story plays like an extended and dryly hilarious sick joke. The story builds to a confrontation between the pastor and a teenage boy he suspects of vandalizing his church and, possibly, worse; it’s a wonderfully macabre tale with a chilling ambiguity at its core.
And I also have a soft spot for “Appointed,” about an aging actor signing autographs at a horror convention. As I was reading it, I wondered if the Horrorfind convention I attended provided any ideas, only to discover, in Williamson’s notes at the end of the book, that it was that very one that inspired the story. It’s a lovely coincidence that, for me, brought things full circle in the manner of one of Williamson’s stories.