007) CD Review #2: “A Breathe of Fresh Air” & “Down There”

Last week I gave you my first two reviews from Cemetery Dance Magazine. This week I’ll do it again. And even though it’s very early in this series of posts, I’ve already made a prediction. Old CD stories are “old horror”, ie: simple storylines but with gruesome, powerful visuals., and new CD stories are “modern horror”, ie: complex stories relying more on the psychological than the visceral.

Let’s see if that pattern continues…

(Oh yeah, in case you missed it, here’s an intro to CD from an earlier post.)


THE OLD: “A Breathe of Fresh Air”

Author blurb provided by CD in front of Edgar F. Tartro's story.

Author blurb provided by CD in front of Edgar F. Tartro’s story.

AUTHOR: Edgar F. Tartro

APPEARANCE: CD Issue #1 (Dec. 1988), story 2 of 12

PLOT, (with spoilers!):

Benji Drummond is a little guy who’s been in the local lockup for 6 weeks, and he’s been complaining about the heat and smell in the place. Sheriff Olsen knows it’s bad. He’s seen the black phlegm Benji has been hacking all over the walls & even requested an air quality report.

When screams come from his cell the night before Benji’s release, the sheriff finds the face & chest of Benji’s mammoth-sized cellmate “shredded like jello slashed with razor blades.” Meanwhile, Benji himself is gone and the small air vent is ripped open like a piece of cardboard.

Captain Coyle arrives the next morning to inspect the situation and is convinced Benji escaped through the open cell door when the sheriff attended to the wounded man. But Olsen insists his back was never turned. Also, he points out, Benji was scheduled for release in only a few hours, making escape an implausible choice of action.

While Captain & Sheriff continue to argue the logistics, the mailman delivers the air quality report, which conveniently explains everything: it cites high levels of carbon dioxide, poor circulation, and the presence of animal feces. The sheriff reads it was specifically Desmodus Rufus, and dramatically reveals this is the scientific name for a Vampire Bat.

In the story’s final paragraph, readers see the “former Benji Drummond” in his new home: hanging upside down in the air vent of a nearby Day Care facility. Beneath him lay a pile of fresh droppings.

MY GRADE: B-

MY REVIEW: Tartro’s story is good, if not a tad predictable. The descriptions are solid and despite the brevity of the piece we can actually see a complete (if simple) arc in Benji’s character. He begins as an annoyance, transitions quickly to a problem, and eventually becomes a horrible killing monster. Best of all, the ending paragraph pushes the story to a darker level than expected, which is a nice touch.

Yet Tartro’s story does suffer from two significant flaws:

Cemetery Dance, Issue #1

Cemetery Dance, Issue #1

First (and worst) is the title. I was convinced the use of ‘breathe’ instead of ‘breath’ would be explained, but guess what… no dice. It’s an actual typo. In the title. Yes, goofs like this are part of the writing process & we’ve all found mistakes in newspapers or first editions, but I still have a hard time getting over this one. I mean, it’s the first five words readers see. The best I can do is chalk it up to Chizmar’s youth (he was just 23 at the time) & the fact that he was publishing this premier issue pretty much alone. Strangely, however, it’s something I find kind of quaint, to be honest. I’m neither upset nor turned off by it. Rather, I’m endeared to the situation. It reminds me of my own early days of glaring typos that made it to print even after trusted editors scoured the piece with their proverbial fine-toothed combs. Still, to be fair I did have to knock the story’s grade down a bit because of it.

Second, the pacing is goofy. The opening moves along at a nice clip but is suddenly derailed by the dialogue between Captain Coyle Sheriff Olsen, something which could have been done in a few paragraphs rather than a full third of the story. It’s pretty clear Tartro was establishing a source of superiority & a reason to doubt Sheriff Olsen’s competence, however this point simply isn’t worth the space it takes up.


THE NEW: “Down There”

Author blurb provided by CD at the end of Keith Minnion's story.

Author blurb provided by CD at the end of Keith Minnion’s story. (I like this guy’s name!)

AUTHOR: Keith Minnion

APPEARANCE: CD Issue #73 (March 2016), story 2 of 5

PLOT (with spoilers!): Declan Curragh is a upper-ranking Naval officer going on a mysterious mission to Adak, Alaska. (For reference, that’s one of the furthest-reaching islands of the enormous, south-west-sweeping archipelago that separates the U.S. from Russia). Declan doesn’t talk much on his long, stacattoed trip, though he is polite to the various ticket agents, stewardesses & other passengers he meets along the way.

His semi-stoic calm, however, is replaced with frustration when he reaches Adak & what’s left of his on-site team. He explains to his chief paleontologist that his excursion to the higher-ups was useless. “They just didn’t believe it,” he explains simply.

The remainder of the story is of Declan, alone, completing his journey. He enters an old, unobtrusive volcanic vent, taking an arc lamp with him down the long tunnel. He reaches the end point of excavation & steps into the other tunnel- a perfect trapezoid with sharp edges that nevertheless reveals no evidence of any tool work despite having been there since the Proterozoic Era.

Illustration provided by CD for "Down There".

Illustration provided by CD for “Down There”. A 2-page spread! Pretty cool, huh?

When the walls open to the final, large cavern with “wild, unnerving geometries”, Declan sees the altar there has a still-fresh carcass of a sea lion with collected buckets of blood underneath. He removes it, takes a leather-wrapped parcel from his pack, and turns off his arc lamp. Then, quickly and before he can think his way out of it, Declan removes his clothes, pours the buckets of blood over his naked body, lays upon the altar, unwraps a stone knife with “insane, etched glyphs that glowed faintly”, and slits his own throat.

The story’s final sentence tells readers that a collective of “bellowing, shrieking” things “like vast, black locomotives” of unknown definition or origin approach with gathering speed.

MY GRADE: A

Cemetery Dance, Issue #73

Cemetery Dance, Issue #73

MY REVIEW: This is an odd story in that the Horror element literally doesn’t appear until the final few paragraphs. While the pace is slow (perhaps excessively so at times), this is also a common design of modern Horror. We know something nasty is going to go down eventually, yet we are lulled into complacency by watching Declan’s slow progress towards his downfall. We grow to like him quickly and almost forget we have no idea where he’s going or what he’s doing. We simply know his quest is important (monumentally so, though we don’t pick that up until near the end), and that we are rooting for him.

And yet, the tone of Horror is there throughout, which is what makes Minnion’s story such a fun read. Allow me to elaborate with just a few of the story’s many examples…

1- The opening sentence includes a stewardess pointing to Adak and telling Declan, “…And this is where it ends.” She means his trip, of course, but Minnion is already teasing us with ominous verbiage.

2- One of the fellow passengers Declan connects with is a precocious girl of about ten who is happy to see that “people in the Navy are [both] officers and gentlemen.” This description coming from the most innocent of the story’s characters prepares us for the tragedy of Declan’s sacrifice. He’s not just some pawn-like chump. He’s a great guy who is nice to kids, and he’s a true hero, dying horribly to save (we assume) us all.

3- There are numerous poetic lines that collectively cast a shadow of gloom over Declan’s travels. My favorite is, “Solid dark clouds rushed by above, and the wind was a constant, keening wail.” The movement of the clouds = Declan’s doomed travels. The sound of the wind = Declan’s moaning heart. Yep. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Meanwhile, when we are (finally) given the truth of Declan’s situation (ancient beings- either alien or demons- are living in the remote bowels of an Alaskan volcano and their power and hunger is pacified only by repeated sacrifices of blood and flesh), we suddenly realize Declan’s excursion to his superiors was an attempt to end it all. We don’t know if the plan was to nuke the mountain, plug the exit, or merely fund the slaughter of untold wildlife as continued payment. We only know the higher-ups have incorrectly deemed the ‘timing’ to be wrong. As such, Declan decides to take matters into his own hands.

We never find out if Declan was right or wrong, if the volcano’s monsters are satiated or killed or only more enraged. We are left, instead, with one of modern Horror’s most powerful emotions: unfulfilled hope. We hope Declan was right. We hope he saved the world. And depending on what kind of reader you are, you’re free to interpret it that way. But no matter who you are or how you read it, your hope will remain without true answers. And that, my Horror-loving friends, is solid, scary stuff.


FINAL THOUGHT

Did my observation hold true? Yep. Dead on. The older story was once again simple but descriptively memorable while the newer one was complex, subtle, and of the mind-screw variety.

But I know this won’t be a perfect formula. Somewhere along the way there will be a transition. And some of the older stories are already indicative of what is to come, even if they haven’t yet mastered the new mode of Horror storytelling. And some of the newere stuff does revert to the old ways, reminding us all of what our foundations are… and why they are so important.

Who knows, maybe my next CD review will have one of each.

Agree or disagree with any of this?


I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

-K. Edwin Fritz

K. Edwin Fritz

K. Edwin Fritz

Official Horror Blogger of the Fiction Vortex

Keith Edwin Fritz entered this world on Halloween. The year, 1974, was the same as when Stephen Edwin King published his first novel. Keith prefers to think neither the date nor their middle names were a coincidence.

Today Keith teaches 7th Grade Language Arts and writes to his heart’s content during his "spare time". The best of these moments are nearly always by moonlight. The worst of them are also by moonlight.

Keith lives with his wife, Corina, in Lawrenceville, NJ.

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