It’s been several weeks since the last Bone Pile post. Thankfully, the awesome dudes at Fiction Vortex have been working like mad to fix a number of website bugs, so we should be ready to rock & roll from here on out.
This week’s post is #3 in an ongoing collection of double short story reviews published in the great Cemetery Dance Magazine. If you have no idea who Cemetery Dance is, first: shame on you… go read this then come back here.
Why “double” reviews? I’m showcasing the change within the genre over time by reviewing one Old story (from the 1980s) & one New story (from the 2010s).
If you end up liking what’s below & haven’t yet read the other posts, here they are:
CD Review #1: “Body Perfect” & “A Devil Inside”
CD Review #2: “A Breathe of Fresh Air” & “Down There”
Ok then… on to the goods!
THE OLD: “Forever Angels”
Cemetery Dance, issue #1
AUTHOR: Ronald Kelly
APPEARANCE: CD Issue #1 (December 1988), story 4 of 12
PLOT (with spoilers!):
New to the 2nd grade at Glover County, Deanna falls easily for a bully’s prank. While visiting the local graveyard’s special ‘children’ section, she is teased that her house is so close (indeed, it’s visible from where they stand), that the dead babies will come for her. Then the bully’s friends rustle some bushes and call ‘Mama’ & ‘Dada’ in infantile voices.
Cover “art” for “Forever Angels” (not much to enjoy here, but better than nothing I suppose)
That night, the incident sparks a horrible memory from her grandfather’s funeral two years before: Deanna had wandered into another mourning room where she saw a tiny coffin with an infant boy inside the same age as her little brother, Timothy. Worse still, when turning to leave she heard the dry sound of the plastic rattle in the dead boy’s hand.
Unable to sleep, Deanna hears a baby’s soft cry coming from the woods. She looks outside and sees a dozen, small, hairless heads “bobbing through the tall grass and honeysuckle like dolphins cresting the waves of a stormy sea.” [What a great simile, btw] Yet when she screams and her parents come running, they see nothing.
Days later, she & her family are at a community picnic when a drunken Cherokee chief, Redhawk, tells her the children’s cemetery was placed on top of sacred indian grounds. That night, Deanna has the worst nightmare of her life: Alone in the cemetery under the full moon, Redhawk and the rest of his ancient tribe arrive and perform a chant whereupon the ground rips open and dozens of dead children crawl out and come after her. Quickly surrounded, Deanna climbs a tree to escape and sees Timothy is already in the highest branches, though his face is “deathly ashen.” As he reaches for her, she falls… then wakes, drenched in sweat.
Downing cold water in the kitchen moments later, Deanna hears a noise like a plastic rattle at the back door. She looks, sees nothing, but goes outside and finds an old, dirt-strewn, bootie covered in maggots. She looks to the lawn beyond and again sees the dozens of pale heads, but this time they are retreating from her house. Her mother is there then, and they discuss her nightmare before going upstairs to check on Timothy… who is dead in his crib.
The pediatrician diagnoses it as “crib death”, something Deanna doesn’t understand but learns happens every now and then in Glover County. And despite Deanna’s cries and screams, her parents bury Timothy in the children’s cemetery. She is thenceforth subjected to nightly visits by a single, tiny shadow that makes low cooing sounds from the other side of her window. And though she never once opens her eyes to look, each morning another toy is missing from Timothy’s crib.
MY GRADE: A-
Author blurb on Ronald Kelly provided by Cemetery Dance.
Ok, first of all, this is as creepy as creepy can get. Dead children? Crawling from the grave? And killing other children? Yeeks! But once again, I need to consider the possibility of these events being proposed as real vs. being symbolic- in this case, in Deanna’s imagination.
For this story, it’s actually quite easy to conclude that everything is in Deanna’s head. After all, she’s just 7 years old herself and particularly susceptible to imaginary terrors. Add to that her experience at her grandfather’s funeral, her house’s proximity to the children’s graveyard, the prank played by the class bully, and the drunken rantings of an old Indian chief… well, how can you blame her? We even have direct *evidence* that Deanna is seeing things: her parents are there the night she sees the dead children coming through the tall grasses, but they see nothing.
So, yes, all of it could easily be interpreted as nothing more than the vivid terrors of a girl who doesn’t like her new home and hasn’t gotten over the lingering creepiness of seeing a boy her brother’s age in a coffin- something no 7-year-old should ever have to see.
And yet, in the Horror genre, we are often (usually?) asked to take things as real. We are asked to believe in monsters and zombie-like babies rising from their graves. And if you’re looking for evidence for this as well, answer me this: Why have so many kids died from ‘crib death’ in that town? And who is taking those toys from Timothy’s crib each night… the bully?… Deanna’s parents?…maybe even Deanna herself in some kind of fugue state or super-short amnesia? Meh. Unlikely solutions, all of them. No, in this case, we are more likely to feel for Deanna precisely because we believe it’s all really happening and because her suffering isn’t only being chased by dead children… it’s in not being believed. She’s alone, and will be for the forseeable future.
*NOW* how messed up is this story?
And how horrible is that ending?
Yep. I gave it a high mark for a reason. As I’ve said before & will undoubtedly say again, this one resonates. I just love that.
2 Other Quick Thoughts:
- ONE CRITICISM: 2nd Graders? Really? I know kids back then (1988) had more freedom than kids of today, but for my money taking an impromptu trip to the local cemetery at that age is still a bit much to swallow.
- ONE QUESTION: Why do the new kids in town always seem to get picked on in these stories? An Answer: Because they are easy targets, both in real life and for authors. 😉
THE NEW: “Citizen Flame”
Cemetery Dance, issue #73
AUTHOR: Nik Houser
APPEARANCE: CD Issue #73 (March 2016), story 4 of 5
PLOT (with spoilers!): -WARNING: This story has graphic details. Read at your own risk!-
An unnamed narrator- I’ll call him ‘Citizen Flame’, or ‘CF’ for short- is driving angry and lost. He’s thinking about his wife (divorce papers the day before)… about his daughter, Katie, (left home 2 years back)… about Katie’s ex-boyfriend (just uploaded their sex tape online)… about his business partner (screwed CF and, apparently, was also screwing his wife).
In frustration CF tells his GPS to “Go to Hell.”
Cover art for “Citizen Flame” (So much more detail these days, huh?)
It pauses for a bit, ‘thinking’, then asks if he’d like the scenic or direct route. CF laughs, opts for the direct route, and follows its guidance. Thirty miles later, the green dot of his car is hovering over the red dot of his supposed destination: a little gas station in a town labeled ‘Hell’. A nearby road sign reads: Thanks For Abandoning All Hope.
Parked there is a man in a minivan screaming at his fighting children. The prices of gas are “Unleaded: ARM. Plus: LEG. Premium: THE REST”. CF asks the attendant for the bathroom. He is given a key ring pierced to the ear of a rotting cat.
In the bathroom CF finds Mrs. Minivan giving a “vigorous blowjob” to a biker. The biker points to & offers her bare rear end to CF. He escapes & sees Mr. Minivan now has his hands down his pants while his children scream & throttle each other.
CF tries to steal gas just to get the hell out of town, but urine comes from the nozzle. Back inside, he finds a phone book but the only listings are for names like Destroyer, Azzathoth and Devourer, Cthuugoth.
He walks to town & overhears a pharmacist prescribes shards of broken glass to stave off pleasant dreams. The customer says to tell his slut wife hello. Pharmacist suggests her husband should “[email protected]#k his little leaguers”.
CF runs & finds himself following a crowd to a movie theater clamboring with people angry at the Sold Out sign. The marquee lists the feature to be: “KATIE [email protected]#KS A FRAT BOY… IN 3-D!!!” CF sneaks inside only to learn it isn’t just 3-D, but live. Katie & her ex are on stage & start kissing & undressing in front of the hundreds of people, one of whom happens to be CFs younger self which, in turn, is happily fondling a six-year-old version of Katie.
[NOTE: CF’s honest reaction to this is, “No! I never!” which tells me he did NOT, in fact, engage in incestual pedophilia. Hooray for small favors.]
More art for “Citizen Flame”
CF charges the stage, interrupting the ‘movie-goers’ show, so they charge at him with knives. He runs back to his car, determined to drive on fumes as far as possible. Mr. Minivan is still there, but his children are finally quiet, their throats slashed with his keys.
CF’s car won’t start. The mob catches up. Is pounding on his windows. CF pleads to go back home to how it was before. Katie’s voice comes through the GPS speaker, telling him that destination is not in her database. CF screams & blubbers through snot & tears that he’s sorry. As the windows crack into so many spiderwebs, he remembers the gun he brought with him to take care of the jerk who defiled his daughter. He takes it, presses it into the soft pallet at the roof of his mouth…
…and Katie’s voice tells him to make a U-turn.
CF blinks. Drops the gun. Tries the engine, which turns over immediately. He shreds rubber, driving through the mob. He follows the GPS directions. They are simple & clear. He never runs out of gas. He eyes the red dot the whole way home, expecting it to vanish or to wake from a nightmare. Neither happens, and he knows both the red dot and the road to it- paved with good intentions, he has no doubt- will always be easy to find with its lanes always open.
MY GRADE: B+
Author Blurb on Nik Houser provided by Cemetery Dance
You can’t actually tell it from the above summary, but this one was actually quite funny. There must have been a half-dozen times I literally snorted with joy. Here are my favorite 3 moments to prove my point:
1- “When I told the GPS on my dashboard to go to Hell, I didn’t expect it to take me seriously.”
2- “The only other cars I’d seen in the last hour were a minivan tailing a motorcycle like it was a few rpms away from f—ing it.”
3- “The guy behind the counter [at the gas station] weighed a little less than my car.”
The humor- and thank God for it- helped me to endure the rest. Because as I’m sure you CAN tell from the above summary, this story is also quite crude, which is never to my particular taste. If you want to know more about why I feel that way and (more importantly) why this is nevertheless part of the Horror genre, you need to look at my original post from this blog: ‘What Horror Is’, as well as it’s counterpart, ‘What Horror Isn’t’.
In the meantime, let’s finish off by acknowledging the elephant in the room…
Despite how distasteful much of this story is, it’s also a classic Uncomfortable-to-Bad-to-Worse-to-WTFDidIJustRead?! type of Horror story. Like it or not, this design works. Every paragraph is worse than the last. Every scene makes you wish you could go back a column & enjoy the relative tame-ness of what you’d once thought was so bad. And the elephant in the room is this: Sometimes, that’s the point of Horror… to put readers on edge. To make them not just uncomfortable but downright squeamish.
Dante’s Inferno, as depicted by famed Renaissance artist, Sandro Botticelli. Seriously… zoom in & just LOOK at all those brutal details!
After all, if this ‘Citizen Flame’ guy really did manage to find his way to Hell itself through his own angry perceptions & decisions in life, isn’t it SUPPOSED to be a truly horrific experience? And before you (or I, to be perfectly honest) judge too harshly, lets reflect briefly on Dante’s “Inferno” or the thousand other depictions of Hell that have popularized the famous written works of the past. Honestly, this story is perhaps more descriptive, but still pretty mild compared to Dante’s overall vision.
As much as I don’t like the grotesque nature of this version of Horror, I couldn’t turn away either. In fact, I read faster & faster as I got towards the end. Maybe this was to get the darned thing over with as soon as I could, but it was also to find out what happened to this guy. Does he escape?! Does he learn?! Will any of us?
In other words, it’s compelling stuff.
And for that, I give a nod of respect to Mr. Houser.
Wondering where stories #4 for these 2 issues of Cemetery Dance went? Think I’ve gone prematurely old & senile & somehow forgot/ skipped them?
They’re being published separately… on Cemetery Dance Online!!!
Yep. I’m actually going to be one of their columnists doing pretty much what I do here, only over there I’ll be concentrating much more heavily on the CD reviews (obviously). This is both because of their natural fan base, and also because every so often a story or two catch me so unawares with HolyCowThatWasAwesome that I need to write a whole heck of a lot more about them.
Over on Cemetery Dance, that’s where I can unleash and get *really* in depth about a pair of stories that *really* rocked my world.
Right now that column is yet untitled & the first publication is slated for sometime in October. But for now I can tell you the first column is written & both the stories I’ve reviewed were friggin’ amazing.
LMK if you are as stoked as I am to get that column moving.
Agree or disagree with any of this?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
-K. Edwin Fritz