The horror blog of K. Edwin Fritz.

015) CD Review #6: “Snapshot, 1988”

Hello again Bone Pile enthusiasts. You’ll have to forgive my lack of production on The Pile lately. My other work here on Fiction Vortex (aka: My ASH FALLS story, “The Perpetuals” [blatent plug: it goes live with Episode 1 on March 14th]) has taken priority of late. It’s been awesome fun to write, but wickedly time-consuming as well.

But I’m back & this month I’ve got something special.

Really special.

As in… Cemetery Dance has been publishing stories for 28 years & have eclipsed 560 original stories in that time, but of ALL of them, the one (yes, just one) that I’ve reviewed below is by far the longest of them all.

Well, sort of.

CD has published a pair of novella-length stories before, but in both cases they spread it out over three separate issues.

-“Mr. Hands”, by Gary A Braunbeck, was published in CD Issues #31, 32, & 33.

-“The Innocents at the Museum of Antiquities”, by Douglas Clegg, was published in CD Issues #61, 62 & 64.

They also published perhaps two dozen novel excerpts in their time, as well. But never, ever, have they published a single, complete, original piece of fiction of such length in a single volume.

Title work provided by Cemetery Dance.

Title work provided by Cemetery Dance.

Joe Hill’s “Snapshot, 1988” comes in at a whopping 33,000 words. That’s nearly double the accepted minimum for a novella (17,500 words), and just shy of the 40,000 words needed to squeak in at the minimum for a ‘full novel’. By comparison, the average Cemetery Dance story is somewhere between 5,000 & 10,000 words. Many of them are even less thank 5k while precious few have been over the 10k mark.

Translation: This CD exclusive story is BIG.

And thus my review of it is going to be big too. Perhaps you want to break it into multiple readers. But I can promise you reading through it will be worth your time. That’s because Hill’s story is truly fantastic (spoiler alert… I gave it an A+ grade). This is one of those that lingers in your mind days and weeks after you’re done reading it, and it’s one that I’m immediately proud to own in its original, first-edition printing.

To help organize this massive piece, I’m sectioning the plotline into the same 18 segments the author presented it to his readers.

Enjoy!


Cemetery Dance # 74/75

Cemetery Dance # 74/75

TITLE: “Snapshot, 1988”

AUTHOR: Joe Hill

APPEARANCE: CD Issue #74/75 (October 2016), story 2 of 11

PLOT (with spoilers!):

1

The year is 1988 and Shelly Beukes is an elderly neighbor lady of thirteen-year-old Michael Figleone, our protagonist. The story is being told by the adult Michael many years after the fact.

Shelly Beukes looking very lost and frail.

Shelly Beukes looking very lost and frail.

Shelly appears one day at the end of Mike’s driveway & is clearly confused about where she is & how she got there. She thinks she is still employed as the Figleone’s cleaning lady, though she retired from that job more than five years ago. Her speech is strange, too. She curses several times, something she has never before done in front of Mike. When she turns to go home, she turns the wrong way, prompting Mike to take her elbow and guide her home.

Along the way, Shelly warns Mike of a man driving a white Cadillac. She calls him The Polaroid Man and insists that whenever he takes your picture, he “takes things away.”

At Shelly’s house, Mike sees that the lawn is noticeably unkempt, an oddity for her fitness buff of a husband. When Mr. Beukes– Larry– pulls his car screeching into the driveway, he is immediately relieved to see Shelly safe. As he ushers his wife back inside, he turns and tells Mike not to move, that he has something for him, then disappears inside the house.

2

Adult Mike interjects a self-deprecating interpretation of his 13-year-old self… Mike is fat. So fat he stands out in every group photo and has several accompanying nick-names. As such, we are not surprised to realize he has no girls to chase or friends to hang out with.

When Larry returns, he is quelling tears and offers Mike money. Mike at first refuses the tip until Larry explains it’s payment-in-advance for future assistance. Because of Larry’s busy position as owner of several local gyms, his occasional absence (and the need to watch over Shelly) is something they both know is inevitable. The scene ends with Larry maligning his & Shelly’s circumstance and asking Mike to one day invent a way not to get old. They also talk, briefly, of Shelly’s Polaroid Man.

3

Call him 'The Polaroid Man' or 'The Phoenician'. Either way, he's not from around here.

Call him ‘The Polaroid Man’ or ‘The Phoenician’. Either way, he’s not from around here.

Mike decides to get rid of the ten dollar bill burning a hole in his pocket & heads to the nearby Mobil station with its convenience store Slushies. As he crosses the parking lot, a distinctly ugly man in all black by the pumps calls to him. Calls him “Pillsbury” and later “Land o’ Lakes,” actually. The man asks Mike to tell the clerk inside to turn on his pump, but Mike is too preoccupied to hear either the insults or instructions because sitting on the trunk of his white Cadillac is a Polaroid Instant Camera. When the man sees Mike eyeing the camera, he covers it protectively with one hand before giving Mike a twenty-dollar bill and repeats his instructions, adding that Mike could keep any change after his tank is full.

As he takes the money, Mike notices a tattoo on the man’s forearm but doesn’t recognize the language. “It’s Phoenician,” the man explains. “It says don’t fuck with me. More or less.” As he backs away, Mike sees a collection of photo albums in the back seat of the car. The man claims he has the photos because he is a film scout. His job is to look for interesting people or places and photograph them for later inspiration. One of the photos Mike sees is a hugely-muscled young man who looks vaguely familiar.

Inside the store, Mike give the money to the clerk and fills himself an Arctic Blu Slushie. Just a minute later, though, the Phoenician (as Mike is now thinking of the man) bursts into the store in a rage, camera in hand. The pump was shut off after only ten dollars, and Mike realizes instantly he had given the clerk the wrong bill from his pocket. In his clumsy attempt to quickly apologize and explain, he drops his cold drink to the floor. Blue slush sprays all over the store and the Phoenician’s dapper pants. In his desperate attempt to clean the mess, Mike picks up the camera to clean the counter where the Phoenician set it down. In doing so he accidentally squeezes the camera’s big red button. It’s facing the clerk, 17-year-old fellow circuit-head and nice-guy-who-sometimes-loans-Mike-one-of-his-magazines, Matthew, when it goes off.

The Phoenician speaks in a calm but terrifying voice when he asks for the camera. Mike complies without dropping it, and the Phoenician asks for the picture which had vaulted out of the slot. But Matthew is oddly dazed and not following the conversation, and his mother (the station owner) who was standing right next to him cannot find the picture anywhere on her side of the counter. By now, however, other customers have entered and formed a line, and the Phoenician leaves, happy to be rid of the station and the entire town. In an angry huff, he shouts a warning to Mike: “I won’t forget you, kid. Look both ways before you cross the street, know what I mean?”

Mike reads 'Popular Mechanics', just like Matthew always thinks of him.

Mike reads ‘Popular Mechanics’, just like Matthew always thinks of him.

Mike finishes cleaning the mess through a constant runnel of tears, but when he goes to throw away his mass of blue-tinted paper towels, he sees the lost Polaroid photo behind the trash can. Matthew’s mother sees it too. She retrieves it, looks at it with great confusion, and shows it to Mike. Instead of a close up of Matthew’s startled face, the photo is of Mike… but not even of Mike awkwardly pressing the camera’s button. It’s of Mike from several weeks prior, sitting in a chair in the corner of the room reading an issue of Popular Mechanics. Even more confusing, when Mike offers to pay for the mess with his ill-gotten twenty, Matthew looks at him oddly and says, “You talk like we know each other. Have we met before?”

4

On the way home, Mike envisions the Phoenician killing him in various horrific ways. But he arrives home safe and sound and we meet his father, a man who can’t cook but has an excellent relationship with his son thanks in part to inventive meal names such as tonight’s offerings: “Battle of Stalingrad” and “Panama Thrill”.

We also learn that Mike’s mother isn’t there. Mrs. Figleone is a scientist who lives her life abroad and rarely comes home. When she does, her conversations with her only son are on topics Mike finds extremely awkward: feminism, socialism, Mike’s sexual identity, & genital mutilation are a few examples. Mike believes that his mother is brilliant- he knows because he’s read all her books- and suggests to the reader that she’s not a bad person, though she is inadvertently a bad wife and mother.

He sits in the living room and looks at the Polaroid photograph, remembering Shelly Beukes’ warning. He realizes, though, that the Phoenician hadn’t taken his picture at all. In fact, Mike had been the one to take the picture.

Mike grabs a random photo album from a shelf & finds himself looking at old family photos. He’s seen these pictures a hundred times, but now he suddenly realizes that even as far back as the black-and-white pictures from his infancy, his most frequent companion most certainly isn’t his mother, but it isn’t his father either. It’s Shelly Beukes. Mike feels shock, guilt, and an easing towards maturity as he comes to realize he had felt nothing upon her retirement five years earlier. With all the time she’d spent with him during his first eight years of life, he should have felt something more, right?

Moreover, the pictures Mike sees clearly indicate Mrs. Beukes was far more than just a stand-in mother figure. She held him on her shoulders, she posed for comical photo-ops with him, she was there for every blow onto every birthday cake, and in photo after photo she is grabbing his arm or tossing his hair or feeding him another of her famous date-filled cookies.

He is immediately wracked with a powerful sense of loss and unfairness. [more on this scene later]

But as he thumbs through the album he comes across a hugely-muscled young man lifting both he & Shelly while sitting in a pair of chairs… and he has a flash of a memory. It’s the same man– a man he doesn’t know– whose photo was in the album in the back of the Phoenician’s car. Mike’s father wander in, sees the picture, and explains the young man was Shelly’s son.

The scene ends with Mike telling his father he ran into Shelly that morning and that she wasn’t doing well.  He refrains from saying anything about the Phoenician or what happened at the Mobil station, though. His father tells him, quite kind-heartedly, not to take offense if she doesn’t know him or says things that don’t make sense. He explains people with dementia are like a house after someone moves out and that all that’s left is the empty shell… “That and what’s in old photographs,” he says.

5

Mike’s dad, who had recently been moved to the night shift, gets ready to leave for work. Looking forward to the prospect of the remainder of the evening alone, Mike is reminded how he’s been having nightmares lately. He is not looking forward to that night’s edition. His father sees his concern and asks about his “Party Gun”- Mike’s latest gadget meant to shoot confetti while blasting an air horn and flashbulb lights- and comments he should hurry up and finish it, make a million bucks, and allow his old man to retire.

Most of the rest of this short section comes to us in Mike’s older voice looking back.

First, we are told his father never did retire. He’d died on the job, electrocuted in fact, only six years later. But this was four years longer than Mike’s mother had lasted. Her death had been big news. She and her lover (a Frenchman whom neither Mike nor his father had known about) had been machine-gunned on a mountain road in the Congo by the Lord’s Resistance Army. That was just two years after the strange events of 1988. Mike’s father- still four years away from his own unexpected dead- had taken the news in quiet solitude and had read all of his dead wife’s books despite not understanding much of what she’d written.

Mike thereafter spent the years after his father’s death resenting the other young 20-somethings who were still complaining (or, worse, bragging) about their own parents. Though fully an adult by then, his sudden orphan status affected him both emotionally and physically. He entered college at 300 pounds but ten years later was half that weight.

Back to 1988, Mike stands in the driveway watching his father leave while rainless thunder and distant lightning fill the sky overhead.

6

Mike takes the Polaroid photo of himself into the garage where he does his tinkering and pins it to a spotlighted cork board. He tries to work on his Party Gun but is distracted by the impossible photo on the wall. He consciously realizes that though he took a photograph OF Matthew, the picture that came out was of something in Matthew’s mind: an identifying image of Mike himself, in fact.

As he finishes working on the Party Gun and the thunder outside continues building toward a whopper of a storm, someone leans on the doorbell. Now the fear comes. Mike is suddenly convinced it’s the Phoenician, but it’s only Mr. Beukes asking for Mike’s help. His wife is asleep but a fire has damaged one of his gyms which he must go inspect. Mike is happy to help and offhandedly asks what kind of fire it was. Mr. Beukes says he doesn’t know yet but thinks it must be from the lightning. Secretly, Mike thinks it must have been the Phoenician.

Mike has a flash of fear and an imagined conversation where he tries to convince Mr. Beukes not to go to his gym. He imagines telling the police about the Phoenician and the camera and the impossible Polaroid photograph.

Then, just as quickly, he snaps out of it and Mr. Beukes is offering to drive him over to his house.

7

Mike explains he can easily walk to the Beukes’ house and Mr. Beukes leaves. Mike pauses only to call his father, figuring he was likely to spend the night at the Beukes’ house, but discovers that all the power has gone out in the house. Looking outside, he realizes it’s out in the whole neighborhood. He thinks this, too, is because of the Phoenician.

Mike considers telling another neighbor of his concern but knows how it’ll look… a fat kid with a head full of horror movies getting hysterical because of a little thunder. He considers not going to the Beukes house at all. He reasons that because of Shelly’s condition, Larry Beukes would never know for sure if he had ever gone there or not. That way, Mike reasons, if the Phoenician shows up to murder Shelly, Mike would not end up collateral damage.

Mike weighs the choices seriously but ultimately finds his guilt is far stronger than his fear. He finally decides he can sit in the kitchen with a knife in one hand and his Party Gun in the other, ready to run like hell out the back door if anyone shows up.

Before he goes, though, he leaves a note for his father because he is suddenly worried he’ll never see him again and wants to tell him all the things he might never have the chance to say again. But he’s also worried he’ll leave an embarrassing gush of words if all he ends up doing is doing crossword puzzles all night. His note ends up reading, “I’M OKAY. MR. BEUKES ASKED ME TO SIT WITH SHELLY. THEY HAD A FIRE AT HIS GYM. WOW, HAS HIS DAY BIT THE BAG. LOVE YOU. THE PANAMA THRILL WAS GREAT.”

8

The storm is nearly upon them all as Mike walks to Shelly’s house. The wind is so strong it blows a realtor sign out of its posts and makes Mike feel like he’s being blown toward his destination more than he’s talking there of his own accord. Moments later the rain itself arrives in a sudden, torrential wall. One second there are a few fat drops on the asphalt in front of him; the next Mike is covered in buckets of cold summer rain.

He stumbles across yards and finally into the Beukes kitchen. The wind yanks the screen door behind him wide open and Mike immediately begins to dirty the floor with water and mud. His violent entrance was the precise opposite of the stealth had planned on using, and immediately he is afraid the Phoenician is already there, waiting for him. What gets Mike moving is simple manners. He is appalled at the mess he is creating and gets to work with a nearby dishtowel.

Cleaned but still wet, Mike slowly investigates every room of the house. He looks into every closet and behind every curtain with the kind of horror that only a teenage mind can produce: he sees the Phoenician at every location.

In the final room– the master bedroom– Mike finds Shelly Beukes sound asleep, her snores barely audible over the rumbled downpour from outside. He checks that closet and behind those curtains as well, then feels finally better as he moves into the adjoining bathroom to remove his soaked clothes, towel himself dry, and don the fluffy white robe he finds hanging on a hook. As he does this, three times the bathroom is blinked with white light. It’s only at the third instance that Mike realizes each had come with all of the light of lightning but none of the sound of thunder.

The white glare flashes again, and this time he realizes its coming not from outside, but from the bedroom. He peers around the corner, Party Gun in hand, and sees the Phoenician standing at the side of Shelly’s bed. He is bent over with his camera in hand. Shelly’s sheets are pulled down. She is laying there, either still asleep or too confused to appear fully awake, with one hand over her face. The Phoenician casually moves it aside and takes another picture.

A photo pops out of the camera and joins the small pile of pictures already on the floor. Shelly raises her hand to her face again, and again the Phoenician grabs it and tosses it aside. He takes another picture and though Mike had been thinking of nothing but running, the indecent actions toward Shelly offend him so much it is words that tumble from Mike’s mouth rather than his feet tumbling him towards the door. “Stop it,” he says.

The Phoenician looks and laughs. “It’s the little fat boy. I thought the old bastard might send someone by to sit with her. Of all the people in the world… I would’ve picked you.” He threatens Mike not with death but with the erasure of his mind.

The Phoenician turns his camera toward Mike and Mike raises his Party Gun. The gun goes off first. The air horn shrieks. Confetti explodes. The flashbulbs ka-pow. The Phoenician goes backward like he’s been physically hit. He bounces off the nightstand and moved immediately forward. Shelly’s hand reaches out and grabs his pants leg and yanks, and the Phoenician stumbles forward, off balance, which makes it easy for Mike to knee him weakly in the groin. The added offense, though clearly not painful, conjoined with the blinding effect of the flashbulbs allows Mike to take the camera from the stumbling man.

The Phoenician finally comes to a stop by the bathroom door. Mike is already behind him. “You can’t imagine what I’m going to do to you,” the Phoenician says. “I’m not even going to hurt you. I’m going to fucking erase you.” Then his eyes shift and he sees the camera in Mike’s hand. “Put that down you fat piece of shit. Do you have any idea what that does?”

“Yes,” Mike tells him, and lifted the viewfinder to his eye. “Yes, I do. Say cheese.”

9

Mike takes photo after photo of the Phoenician. The magical camera never ran out of film. Each picture dazed him into stunned stillness. Soon he was curled on the floor in the fetal position, a sly smile on his face.  

After perhaps fifty pictures, the Phoenician begins to hyperventilate. Mike thinks he’s on the verge of a seizure and stops, allowing the man to get his breath back. As he waits– and knowing fully well it’s probably a mistake to do so– he stoops and picks up a handful of the new photos on the floor. He sees:

A little girl with her lolipop and her Paddington Bear.

A little girl with her lollipop and her Paddington Bear.

1- A man in his 50s, crying, naked and with slashed cuts all over his face.

2- Another naked man. Could or could not be the same one. He is face down in the road. A garden trowel is sticking out of his back. He is dead.

3- A girl of about six clutching a huge lollipop and a Paddington Bear.

4- The same girl, now in a coffin. Paddington Bear is clutched in the same hand. A hand is reaching into the frame to push a curl of hair away from her face.

5- A dark basement. Three overlapping rings of ash are drawn on the floor. In the left ring is a smashed mirror. In the right ring is a Paddington Bear. In the center ring is a Polaroid camera.

6- Handfuls of pictures of varous old people. A scrawny old man with an oxygen tube in his nose… a baggy short fellow with a peeling, sunburnt nose… a dazed fat woman with a twisted, permanent, stroke-induced snarl.

7- Mike himself, standing beside Shelly’s bed, holding the magic camera up, the burst of light from the bulb caught mid-flash. This is the last thing the Phoenician saw before Mike started shooting.

Sparrows. Dead ones. Hundreds and hundreds of dead sparrows.

Hundreds upon hundreds of dead birds.

Mike collects all the photos into the pocket of the robe. He realizes the rain has been stopped for some time. Mike talks to the strange, evil man curled on the floor, but the Phoenician doesn’t know Mike. Mike coaxes him to his feet and slowly towards the front door. When they get outside, though, Mike is shocked to see thousands of dead birds and circular pebbles of hail covering the lawns and roads. The birds themselves are frozen solid.

Mike leaves the Phoenician in the yard with Shelly to look for his Cadillac. He also tells the reader he isn’t worried because he knew by then that the camera left permanent damage which only multiplied with each photo. He confides that this is sad news because Shelly never recovered despite what we might have been hoping. “Not one of those birds got up and flew away,” he tells us, “and not a bit of what [Shelly] lost was ever returned to her.”

Mike cries as he walks. At first he tries to avoid stepping on the dead birds, but soon he admits defeat. Their sheer numbers are too difficult to overcome. “They made muffled snapping sounds underfoot.”

He finds the car right around the corner and returns to bring the Phoenician to it. The man is sitting on the curb holding a dead bird by the leg. Shelly is sweeping avian carcasses from the stoop. The Phoenician puts his selected corpse in his shirt pocket and obediently follows Mike back to his car.

As the Phoenician sits in the driver’s seat, unable to remember how to drive, Mike smells the gasoline in the back seat which he realizes was used to set fire to Larry Beukes’ gymnasium. He briefly considers using the car lighter to end the Phoenician’s life, but the adult Mike telling the story reminds us he was just a thirteen-year-old kid who still got teary-eyed watching E.T. He was no killer, and instead found the car key and started it.

Mike tells him to drive away, anywhere is fine as long as it isn’t here. The Phoenician says he has a feeling he won’t remember any of this in the morning. Then Shelly, who has been following them both all along, offers to take his picture. He says that’s a good idea and smiles wide for her. But Shelly proffers the handle of her broom rather than the camera. She uses it to pop him hard in the mouth. He comes up spitting blood and threatening her. “You better watch out. I know some real bad men.”

Mike tells him, “Not anymore,” then slams the car door shut and walks Shelly back toward her home. He doesn’t even turn to check that the Phoenician drives away. But he does. Minutes later the big white Caddy rolls slowly past the Beukes’ home. Inside, the Phoenician is looking intently left and right, his eyes “shiny with anxiety.” He is scanning for something familiar, just like Shelly had that morning. At the next intersection he turns right, towards the highway, and drives out of Mike’s life, forever.  

10

Mike tucks Shelly into bed.

Shelly comments that she has tucked him into bed many times.

This ultra-short scene ends with adult Mike telling us this was the last time she ever spoke his name, that her memory of him came and went in her remaining days, but that he was “certain she knew me at the end. Not a doubt in my mind.”

11

Mike takes the intervening hours before Mr. Beukes comes home to clean up, even going so far as to rake the dead birds from the yard. But Larry doesn’t come home until two A.M. and Mike soon finds himself turning through the pages of the photo album he had stolen from the Phoenician. It has “S. BEUKES” sharpied onto the inside cover.

He sees photos from Shelly’s childhood- a wooden hobby horse, her mother cooking dinner, a chubby child’s hand reaching up to a distinctive cat-shaped cloud. The progression of age moves forward. Shelly is in her twenties now. MIke knows this because of the photo of Shelly admiring herself in a mirror, and why shouldn’t she have that appreciative look on her face? She’s a knockout, and she’s wearing only white underwear. Behind her in the mirror’s reflection is a young stud, sitting fully naked on the bed, admiring her as well. It takes Mike a moment to realize this is Larry Beukes and the memory is from that fleeing time period during their courting.

But then Mike stumbles upon a mini-collection of four photos that genuinely shock him. They are of the girl with the Paddington Bear. The first three photos are perfectly normal but for the subject. Shelly’s hands reach into the photos frame to apply a Band-Aid. Shelly’s fingers are stitching Paddington Bear’s hat. The girl sleeps peacefully in a little rich girl’s bed surrounded by stuffed bears, though Paddington is the one she clutches. The last photo is of the little girl, dead at the bottom of a steep, stone staircase. Blood is still pooling from her cracked head. Paddington Bear is halfway up the steps.

Adult Mike theorizes that the unknown connection between the little dead girl and Shelly Beukes may be only because they had both known the Phoenician and he had spent years trying to remove his existence from the memories of everyone he’d ever met. In this instance, Mike implies (and we conclude), Shelly had been the nanny of a little girl the Phoenician had known and murdered through some form of dark magic.

The section ends with Mike turning through the rest of the album, heartbroken again and again as he sees images of himself, each a cherished memory Shelly had once held of him… “And she adored me with all the enthusiasm of a woman who has won the new car on The Price is Right. Like she was the lucky one, to have me, to have the good fortune to bake me cookies, and fold my underwear, and endure my grade school tantrums, and kiss my booboos. When really I was the lucky one and never knew it.”

12

Mike helps Larry take care of Shelly for the next 18 months. Most of those days were bad. Some of them were even worse. She didn’t know Mike at any point during that time. Usually she thought he was a TV repairman, which excited her because she wanted to watch The Mickey Mouse Show.

Sometimes Mike showed her the photos from the Phoenician’s album, hoping to give her back her lost memories. But only once had she responded. It was the image of the little dead girl at the bottom of the stone stairs. “Pushed,” Shelly said. And when Mike pressed her, asking who had pushed, she’d said only “Disappeared” and made an exaggerated poof gesture before asking if he’d come to fix the TV.

Those 18 months end shortly after one night in Mike’s sophomore year when Shelly wanders out of the house while Larry indulges in a mid-afternoon nap. The police find her four hours later several miles away clawing through a dumpster for food. Her wedding and engagement rings are gone. She doesn’t remember her own husband when he comes to pick her up.

The next day Hector Beukes, Larry and Shelly’s muscle-bound son, convinces Larry to put her into a full-care facility called Belliver House. Larry spends the day crying.

Hector tells Mike he had used to be jealous of him because Shelly was always bragging about his accomplishments. They ate date-filled cookies just like Shelly used to make. Hector explains he had found the recipe in his mother’s notebook under the nam “Mike’s Favorite”.

13

Mike visits her at Belliver House over the next few years. At first she is excited to see him, though she still thinks of him as the TV repairman. Later, she doesn’t acknowledge him or anyone else at all. The only thing that seems to hold her attention is the TV. But watching the TV itself isn’t what gets her excited, though doing so is what she does most of her hours of the day. What does excite her is whenever someone changes the channels. Every flickering exchange of the screen causes her to hop up and down in her seat. Her most common mumbled phrasings are “Next channel, next, next, next.”

A month before Mike leaves for college (M. I. T., surprise, surprise), he stops in and is angered to find Shelly neither in her room nor sitting in front of the TV. He eventually finds her sitting in a wheelchair in a forgotten hallway, staring at a vending machine.

When she sees him, though, Shelly remembers Mike. She uses her nickname for him: ‘Bucko’, and mumbles that she hates this and wishes she could forget how to breathe. She even asks him whatever happened to that camera and wouldn’t he like to take her picture to remember her by?

Excited she is ‘awake’ but angered she had been so easily forgotten, Mike wheels her back to the head nurse’s counter and yells repeatedly, asking why his mother was left unattended and how often this happened and how long she would have been sitting there if he hadn’t randomly stopped by.

The whole time he is yelling, his frustrations at his *actual* mother’s recent death are finding a much-needed outlet, but Shelly’s head is lolling back. She is as forgotten right under his own nose as she had been while sitting in front of the vending machine.

14

That night, a hot wind blew with no accompanying rain, and Mike finds a single dead bird on his car’s hood in the morning where it had been clubbed to death against the glass.

15

Mike’s father asks if Mike intends to visit Shelly again before he leaves for college. Mike says he thinks he will.

16

Mike has momentary doubts that he’ll find the camera where he hid it in the back of his closet where he hid it years before. His doubts spread to include the existence of the camera or even the Phoenician himself. But the magical camera and all of the ill-gotten photos from both Shelly’s and the Phoenician’s mind are still there.

He brings te camera to Belliver House, timing his visit to a few minutes after Larry and Hector would be done their weekly Saturday visit “… so they would have had a last chance to be with her.”

He finds her sitting in her bedroom with headphones over her ears and a walkman on her lap. Hector liked to leave her like this, deliberately playing the Buddy Holly-esque music which she and Larry had danced to back in their courting years. The music is stopped now, though, and Mike turns her to face him.

She sees him and asks whose birthday it is. “Yours,” Mike tells her. “It’s your birthday, Shelly. Can I take your picture? Can I take some pictures of the birthday girl? And then– then we’ll blow out the candles. We’ll make a wish and blow them all out.”

Shelly agrees, and wonderfully she calls Mike ‘Bucko’ one last time, adding support to his earlier claim that she did remember him at the very end.

Mike takes picture after picture. They fall to the floor and develop into the last of Shelly’s struggling memories: Her grandmother, bent and pulling cookies from an oven… The Mickey Mouse Club on TV with all the children in the audience wearing mouse ears… The name ‘Beukes’ scrawled on her palm with a phone number beneath… A fat baby Hector with raised fists and jam smeared on his chin.

The last of these photos don’t develop into anything but remain gray clouds of nothingness, which is how Mike says he knows he was finally done. When he looks at her one last time, he is crying silently and furiously. Shelly is a drooling, slumped figure with labored breathing.

Mike thinks that “If I was wretched in that moment, it was not because I had pointed the camera at her… but because I had waited so long to do it.”

He kisses her, collects the photos, and leaves without looking back. The next morning Hector Beukes calls to tell Mike Shelly has passed away during the night. Mike doesn’t care about the cause of death because he knows it already, but Hector claims “Her lungs just quit. Like her whole body suddenly forgot how to breathe.”

17

Mike hangs up the phone, retrieves the camera, and takes it outside. He places it behind the wheel of his Honda Civic and backed over it, a satisfyingly loud plasticky crunch emanating from it.

Yep. That's a creepy yellow eye looking out of that black ooze. Yikes!

Yep. That’s a creepy yellow eye looking out of that black ooze. Yikes!

When Mike goes to look, though, he sees the innards of the camera has no machinery at all. No gears, ribbons, or electronics of any kind. Instead, a black, tar-like soup is pouring out and across the driveway. Inside that horrid goop is a single, yellow eye that watches Mike as the black soup slowly hardens at the edges.

The hardness spreads inwards, eventually freezing the whole black splash- eye included- into a solid disc the size of a manhole cover. Mike picks it up and instantly hears the promised ramblings of pure evil: “Melt me down and build me into a computer, Michael. I will teach your everything you want to know. I will solve every riddle I will make you rich I will make women want to fuck you I will–”  

Mike throws it away. Later, he picks it up with tongs and places it into a garbage page. Later still, he throws the garbage bag into the ocean.

18

The story ends with a final scene told to us in the present day. It’s been more than a quarter century since Shelly Beukes has died, and Mike tells us none of his father or either of his mothers lived long enough to see him marry or sire two sons of his own.

Every year, Mike says, he gives away more money than his father made in his entire lifetime. He made his fortune developing computer memory systems. “If you have three thousand songs and a thousand photo on your phone, you’re probably carrying some of my work in your pocket. I’m the reason your computer remembers everything you don’t.”

The story’s final scene is in itself a miniature flashback from perhaps a year or three prior to Mike’s current day, but a day well after the events of Shelly Beukes, the Phoenician, and his horrible, magic camera. In it, the land where Belliver House once stood is being re-dedicated as a soccer field alongside a professionally landscaped park, pond, and playground. Mike, of course, paid for most of it.

He tells of the fine spirit that day. It was August, the weather was great, and the town had put on a good show with food, music, cheerleaders, and balloon-animal-makers.

His two sons’ favorite attraction, though, was the magician who made everything disappear. Burning torches he juggled? Vanishes as they came down. Egg in his hand? Gone, shells and all. Straight-backed chair he is about to sit in? Poofs out of existence under his rump just as he moves to sit in it. The little show’s finale comes when the magician himself stepped behind a tree and never returned.

Mike’s boys run to him and prattled on about the show, but Mike hadn’t seen any of it. He had been busy watching the sparrows. There was a flock of them, live and picking contentedly at the grass. His wife was nearby taking photos– on her phone, not a Polaroid.

Mike jokes that he can make ice cream disappear just as easily as the magician, and the family takes hands and moves toward the soft serve truck.

His son asks if they can always remember that day. He says he doesn’t want to forget the magic. The story ends with Mike’s split dialogue & narrative: “ “‘Me neither,” I said– and I haven’t yet.”  

MY GRADE: A+

Author Blurb on Joe Hill provided by Cemetery Dance

Author Blurb on Joe Hill provided by Cemetery Dance

MY REVIEW:

I started this long post by telling you this story was special. Really special, and not just because of it’s length. The A+ grade I gave it came as an easy decision. The challenge is that I’ve pressured myself to prove it to you.

I’ll start with the big picture, which is simply that every scene drips with reality and clarity. The theme of ‘Memories Are Treasures’ is strong throughout. The symbolism of Polaroids being an instant record of a cherished event, but one that removes the human connectivity is clear. The message of under-appreciating the important people in our lives is potent and heartbreaking. Best of all, the writing itself is great. What I mean by “the writing” is that Hill’s sentences, descriptions, & word choice are top-notch. He doesn’t over-simplify the important stuff, and he doesn’t belabor us with long-winded useless drivel for the stuff that isn’t. He even gives us many memorable, even profound one-liners.

Here’s an early example of what I’m talking about from when we first meet Larry Beukes:

“He had his flaws– he voted for Reagan, he believed Carl Weathers was a great thespian, and he grew emotional listening to Abba– he he revered and adored his wife, and balanced against that, his personal blemishes were no matter at all.”

Folks, that right there is great writing. In a matter of just 42 words, we know exactly what kind of a guy Larry Beukes is (a bit of a social dolt, but honestly in love with and dedicated to his wife), and everything he does from there out will fit that first impression perfectly. Moreover, we don’t just learn about Larry Beukes, lines such as the quip against Reagan teach us about both Larry and the adult Mike. The oddity of this gym-owner/ bodybuilder being moved to near tears by the likes of a Swedish band shows us he isn’t the stereotypical, hard-hearted muscle-jock we could think him to be, though his high appreciation for the acting prowess of Carl Weathers’ (aka: Rocky’s Apollo Creed) solidifies to us that he is certainly somewhat lacking in the cognitive department. All of this is what great writers do. They give the perfect collection of little details that showcase who the characters (or objects, or places, or events) are at their core, which cements them into our brains for all future scenes.

As mentioned above, Hill’s story is also rife with great one-liners, each of which are fantastic descriptors or as much literature as they are entertaining, or both. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. “For children, anger usually requires proximity. That changes.”
  2. “Arctic Blu was [a fountain drink] the color of windshield wiper fluid and tasted a little of cherry and a little of watermelon. I was mad for the stuff, but if I came across it nowadays, I think I’d hesitate to try it. I think to my forty-year-old palate, it might taste of adolescent sadness.”
  3. “The parking lot had recently been paved with fresh tar, black and thick as cake.”
  4. “I returned home in a state of persistent, low-grade panic. It took me ten minutes to cross the distance between the Mobil and my house on Plum Street. I died seven times on the way.”
  5. “I opened the fridge looking for Kool-Aid and found [my father’s] Panama Thrill, a mountainous sculpture of Jell-O, cherries suspended within its quaking mass.”
  6. “Maturity is not something that happens all at once. It is not a border between two countries, and once you cross the invisible line, you are on the new soil of adulthood… It is more like a distant broadcast and you are driving toward it and sometimes you can barely make it out through the hiss of static, and other times the reception momentarily clears and you can pick up the signal with perfect clarity.”
  7. “Resentment is a form of starvation. Resentment is the hunger strike of the soul.”
  8. [CONTEXT: Mike is in his garage. He has pinned that first Polaroid photo of himself– the one stolen from Matthew’s memory– to a cork board and spotlighted it. He is about to take on the difficult task of inspecting the impossible, frightening thing.]  “To add to my feeling of confidence and control, I unbuttoned my pants and let them fall around my ankles and stepped out of them. I had discovered some time ago that nothing frees the mind like dropping the pants.”
  9. “All the funny things he talks about building. Beware [Larry]. I will ask him to build me a new husband, one who doesn’t shave in the shower so it looks like a ferret exploded in there.”
  10. [CONTEXT: A massive thunderstorm is upon Mike.]   “I began to hurry, but what was coming couldn’t be outrun, and in three more steps it caught me. It came down so hard, the rain bounced when it hit the road, creating a shivering knee-high billow of spray.”
  11. “The sky to the west was a bright burning gold, darkening to a deep red along the horizon… a hideous shade, the color of the human heart.”
  12. “Lives have bookends, but you have to keep your eyes peeled if you wanna see ‘em.”
  13. “I shot a little over thirty pictures, but the last three didn’t develop, which is how I knew I was done. They were gray, toxic blanks, the color of thunderheads.”

Some of these are funny. Some of them are so picturesque as to pop into your mind like a completed painting. Some are simply Wow-worthy because in just a few words they teach us or clarify for us something about life itself. Lines just like these are sprinkled throughout the story, adding slowly to a comprehensive collection of beauty and intelligence and anticipation for what we’ll find on the upcoming page. Again, that’s great writing right there.

There’s something else Mr. Hill does exceedingly well, and I have no doubt he either learned it directly from listening to his parents’ advice or perhaps had it born into his genes (Hill’s mother, Tabitha King, is a great writer as well, if you didn’t already know)… his characters are spot-on perfect. Every one of them are believable and lovable and approachable. Well, except for the bad guy. He’s the kind of character you steer away from as you read, hoping secretly there’s never going to be someone like him in your own life.

My favorite example of this is the short scene when we meet Mike’s father for the first time. Mike has just come home from collecting the photograph of Matthew the clerk & is quite ruffled about it. His father is making dinner. Joe Hill sets the stage by telling us his father isn’t a great cook but is wonderful at naming the dishes, then provides a handful of excellently curious examples: ‘Battle of Stalingrad’ (mashed potatoes with shaved steak & a gravy-and-mushroom sauce), ‘Chainsaw Massacre’ (a weird mess of white beans & meat in a bloody red sauce), ‘Fidel’s Cigar’ (a brown tortilla with shredded pork & pieces of pineapple in it), & ‘Farmer Pizza’ (an open-face omelet with cheese & random chopped leftovers on top). This is great stuff & likens us to his dad instantly. The guy is creative in a way that entirely makes up for his lack of culinary skills. But the scene doesn’t end there, and it’s the next few paragraphs that really drive home Hill’s characterization skills…

As Mike leaves the kitchen, still reeling from his recent adventure & feeling sick to his stomach at the dogfood-like smell of the upcoming ‘Battle of Stalingrad’ for dinner with ‘Panama Thrill’ for dessert, he tells his father an obviously-fake story that he is going to sit in the dark to cool off because “I haven’t been this hot since I was fighting off the Cong outside of Khe Sanh.” His father replies with a made-up quip of his own: “Let’s not talk about that. If I start thinking about the boys we left behind I’ll start crying in the whipped cream.” This, apparently, is a standard style of conversation between them. They’ve been doing it for years despite neither of them having ever stepped foot outside California.

This little exchange… is fantastic. Not only does it show a wonderful ongoing game between father and son, but it also connects directly to Mike’s conspicuously missing mother. But as was mentioned in the plot description above, Mike can’t talk to his mother the way he does to his father. She’s brilliant, but she’s never home and she can’t relate to her son. She’s not dismissive or mean in any way, but she’s also not a loving mother. So on top of the great characterization of Mike’s father, this implied detail of the mother is stereotyping-role-reversal done right. Hill doesn’t smack us in the face with it, but we get it. The typical lonely-child story is a father who abandoned the family. In this case it’s the mother, but instead of simply making her the drunk or the criminal, Hill gives us a genius humanitarian who simply doesn’t understand children, not the least of whom is her own son.

You want more? I’ve got more.

Try the following passage on for size. It occurs in the scene in section 4 when Mike realizes both that Shelly Beukes was his true mother and that she’s been slowly losing her mind…

“The idea that these days had been taken from her struck me as vile. It was a swallow of curdled milk. It was indecent.

There was no justification for the loss of her memories and understanding, no defense the universe could offer for the corruption of her mind. She had loved me, even if I had been too witless to know it or value it. Anyone who looked at the pictures could see she loved me, that I delighted her somehow, in spite of my fat cheeks, vacant stare, and tendency to eat in a way that smeared food all down my bad tee-shirts. In spite of the way I thoughtlessly accepted her attention and affection as my due. And now it was all melting away, every birthday party, every BBQ, every plucked ripe peach. She was being erased a little at a time by a cancer that fed not on her flesh but on her inner life, on her private store of happiness. The thought made me want to fling the photo album. It made me feel a little like crying.”

I cannot express how powerful this scene is in the full context of the story. I felt a little like crying myself. The sadness of it, the honesty of it, and the helplessness of it seeps into us sentence by sentence like a spreading pool of lost blood. It’s a description of death, only one of the mind rather than the body. It’s simultaneously beautiful and horrible.

Folks, not enough writers write like that. Not enough writers put that kind of time and energy into what other might consider a throw-away paragraph. But Joe Hill does it here and he does it a few dozen other times, too. Individually, each expanse of his emotional descriptives gives us the chills. Collectively, they give us fulfillment. This is because each passage such as this one is poignant and memorable and creepy. They stand alone and they stand out. But they also work together to shape the reality of a character (in this case two characters… Mike’s sense of nostalgia-wrapped maturation that summer, and Shelly’s selfless life of servitude). This is the kind of thing that makes a good writer great, that makes a good story fantastic. It’s the “+” at the end of the A-grade which I can so rarely justify but which Joe Hill makes easy to find.

More? You want even more?

Ok, here’s even more.

There was a funny line or two, sure, but what you don’t get in my overall plot summary is that there were a couple whole scenes that were funny too. Not too many, but enough to make us lift the corner of our mouths and eagerly read on. The best moment, though, is nearly laugh-out-loud funny, and it comes during the most unlikely of moments… right in the midst of the climactic confrontation of Mike and Phoenician in Shelly’s bedroom. Here’s the line that honestly made me laugh out loud:

“He made a sound between a snarl and a roar. Glitter spackled his cheeks, flecked his eyelashes. He even had some in his mouth, bright gold flakes on his tongue.”

Yep. I literally lol’d. The image of all that glitter- and on the bad guy’s frickin’ tongue– was just too much for me. But what I’d really like to point out isn’t so much about how funny that line is or even why. It’s about when it shows up in the story. That image… gold glitter stuck to the tongue of Mike’s would-be assailant, is so jarring in its offbeatedness, and it’s absolutely wonderful. Any fear we might have on behalf of Mike is gone in an instant, and we are immediately and permanently at ease through the rest of the scene, through the rest of the story, even. So, too, is Mike. The rest of that section of text plays out with Mike fully in control of the situation. Which is, I propose, exactly why Joe Hill added a line of humor in the middle of his Big Action Scene. It diffuses the tension for the reader, putting us in exactly the same emotional state as Mike is in that moment. We are no longer worried and almost casually enjoying the events as they unfold. We are unworried that anything genuinely bad will happen after that. How could we? The bad guy has fucking *glitter* on his tongue!

Just one ore? Really? Ok. Cause there’s just one more. It was easy to find, actually, and one of my favorites.

Do you like a good reference? I do. Most readers do too. Some authors reference their earlier works. Some reference other great works of literature through the ages. Some reference musicians or artists or historical events that help shape the fabric of our era. We like them because we have an instant understanding of that thing without any further description being necessary. And writers like them because their own works gain from that instant recognition. Moreover, there is an emotional addition to the reading process. It’s a cute little trick lots of writers employ (I’m guilty of it myself), but Joe Hill has a unique advantage the rest of us simply cannot employ. He references not one but two great works connected to his own father, the great Stephen King.

To my mind, Hill isn’t just dropping a reference, either. He’s nodding a literary Thank You to the man who raised him. That’s what he can do that the rest of us can’t.

The first one is subtle. It’s nothing that hangs like a neon sign from his dad’s coattails but nevertheless says “Thanks, dad” with all the might of shouting through a bullhorn. Also, it’s totally bad-ass to true fans of The King. You’d have to be somewhat obsessed to even pick it up. Either that, or you’d have to be the man himself. Here’s the text Hill writes. See if you can pinpoint it yourself:

“I steered him down the hall and to the front door. I thought I had absorbed all the shocks the night had to offer, but there was one more waiting. We got as far as the front step and then I caught in place. The yard and the street were littered with dead birds. Sparrows I think. There had to be almost a thousand of them, stiff little black rags of feathers and claws and BB-pellet eyes. And the grass was full of find glassy pebbles. They crunches underfoot as I walked down the steps. Hail. I sand to one knee– my legs were weak– and looked at one of the dead birds. I poked it with a nervous finger and discovered it was flash frozen, as stiff and cold and hard as if it had just been pulled out of an ice-box. I rose again and looked down the street. The feathered dead went on and on, for as far as the eye could see.”

The reference is Hill’s decision to make the birds sparrows. He could have chosen any breed of bird, but he specifically chose sparrows. Sparrows figure prominently in King’s best-selling novel, The Dark Half.  

Why is this so bad-ass? Because beyond simply giving a little nod toward one of his dad’s more memorable books, TDH actually has a special connection to “Snapshot, 1988”…

First, TDH was published in 1989, which means King was most certainly writing it in 1988.

Second, TDH is a story about an author who is plagued by his own pseudonym which has come alive & is trying to take over his life. Thus both stories are about monsters stealing someone’s identity.

Third, TDH is also the last book King wrote before finally being subjected to an intervention by his wife & family and sobering from several years of drug and alcohol abuse. Though this detail doesn’t have a direct connection to Hill’s story, there’s no doubt that TDH marked the end of a bad era for King, and the beginning of a new, much better one which almost assuredly meant a better relationship with his family, including young Joe.

Lastly (and most interesting, in this writer’s humble opinion), is the symbolism created of sparrows in TDH and how they, too, relate to Hill’s story. Sorry to sorta-kinda “spoil” this one if you haven’t already read it, but the bad guy in TDH– that evil personification of the protagonist’s pseudonym– is some kind of demon. This is something that’s pretty evident before you reach halfway through the book. Indeed you’d probably guess it just reading the dust jacket. And (actual spoiler now… skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know!) at the end of the book, just as the pseudonym-demon-thing rises again to kill the hero’s family, a giant flock of sparrows bursts through the windows and tears him/it limb from limb. The book’s final scene shows the hero, his family, & the local police chief watching the black horde of birds disappear into the night.

In King’s book, sparrows aren’t simply symbols of death, they are the literal saviors. Symbolically, they are nevertheless agents of either God or Satan, come to collect evil souls that were not supposed to inhabit the world of the living. In Hill’s novella, the Phoenician fits that description rather than the sparrows, but the similarity is nonetheless obvious.

The second reference Hill gives us to King is a bit more in-your-face, but no less entertaining because of it. In the final scene where Mike takes those final, fatal photos of Shelly, Hill makes a more blatant reference. I told you earlier that Mike found Shelly sitting in her room with earphones over her head and a walkman in her lap. I also mentioned that her son, Hector, had set it up to play the music of Buddy Holly and others from that era. What I didn’t tell you was specifically what Hector had played on that walkman. It was the soundtrack to one of the great fan-favorite films based on a Stephen King story. The film, Stand By Me, is the 1986 Rob Reiner adaptation of King’s 1982 novella, “The Body”, a coming-of-age tale that takes place in the 1950s.

Hill could have chosen virtually any soundtrack that referenced that time period to fill in the details of this scene. The kind of music Shelly is listening to, after all, is hardly the focus of the story at that point. All we needed to know what that Shelly and Larry Beukes used to dance to great music from the ‘50s. But Hill gives that distinct nod of approval to his dad’s and director Rob Reiner’s taste in music. It’s a nice little moment where readers get to go “Ha! A Stand By Me reference. Nice.” and then move on. Though far more blatant than the sparrows/ Dark Half reference, it’s quick and pleasing to any fan of King.

And yet, there’s something more if we take just a moment to look a little deeper. In case you’ve been living under a rock & don’t know it already, Stand By Me features no less than FOUR fantastic childhood actors: Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Cory Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell. Also prominent are a pre-24, 19-year-old Kiefer Sutherland, and, finally, the voiceover talents of Mr. Richard Dreyfus.

It’s the Dreyfus detail that catches my attention the most. His role in the film is to frame the story as a long flashback of his own childhood. You see, Dreyfus plays the adult version of Will Wheaton’s character, and he is narrating his memories of one important summer of his life many years after the fact. Sound familiar? Yeah. This is precisely what Joe Hill has done with Mike’s character in his own story.

You know what else? Many people forget or overlook this, but the Wheaton/ Dreyfus character is a natural storyteller who grows up to be a full-time writer. In fact the final scene of the film depicts Dreyfus writing the last page of his autobiographical manuscript and staring at the screen, taking it in, tryuing to find the perfet way to end it. Then his son walks in, asking if they can go now (he & a friend are decked out in pool attire). Dreyfus asks if they’re ready to go. The kids explain they’ve been ready for an hour. Dreyfus finally looks over, laughs at himself, and says he’ll be right there. The friend says “He said that a half-hour ago,” and Dreyfus’ son says “Yeah, my dad’s weird. He gets that way when he’s writing.” Dreyfus laughs again, thinks for a moment as he watches his son walk away, and decides upon the right ending to his tale: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?“ Dreyfus stands, admires his work, then turns off the computer and goes to spend time with his son.

This perfect, famous line relates to Stand By Me’s overall theme of friendship and does not therefore relate to “Snapshot, 1988”, but the structure of the scene itself– distracted author interrupted by his patient yet frustrated kid– never failed to make me think of King in his home as he writes. How many times did young Joe wander into his dad’s study and get that exact, distracted, blank attention? How many times has the adult Joe done it himself to his own kids. I don’t have kids myself, but I’ve done this to my wife countless times, and while I’m no Joe Hill or Stephen King (not yet at least), I can attest to what I think is going on in that moment.

You’re proud and your’re content because you’ve done something good and you know it. And you don’t feel guilty either. Not quite. Because despite the hours you’ve spent alone and despite the sacrifices your family has had to make while you talk to yourself for hours and days on end, this is the way things are sometimes meant to be. To have created something good while having the support of a loving family… it’s the kind of life moment any writer cherishes.

Jesus, doesn’t everyone?

Thus, Hill’s choice to reference his father’s coming-of-age tale is reflective of both the structure of his own and, quite possibly, the understanding about what it means to be a writer.

At least, that’s this writer’s humble opinion.


FINAL THOUGHT

Throughout the reading of this story & the writing of it’s review, I happened to come across 3 other stories with oddly specific connections to “Snapshot, 1988”. I offer to you their basic connections not to add to the literary analysis of Hill’s tale, but to share with you how creepy life’s little coincidences can sometimes be.

  1. “Memento”.  Probably my favorite film of all time (certainly it’s in my top 5), I was telling a co-worker about it the other day, loaned her my Special Edition DVD, and ended up re-watching it again just for fun. “Memento” features the use of a Polaroid instant camera prominently in the film. It was a day later I started reading “Snapshot, 1988”. I had no idea Polaroids would feature so prominently in the story.
  2. Thanks to my day job as a teacher + my own passion for writing, I rarely find the time to read paper or even ebooks these days. As such, I read a LOT of audiobooks as compensation. Halfway though “Snapshot” I attended a writing group which hosted Fordham University professor & Sci-Fi author Paul Levinson. Naturally, I found myself grabbing whatever Levinson audiobooks were available. Sadly, there were only 3. I read them all. The last one, The Consciousness Plague has a great deal to say about what consciousness has to do with a person’s identity, how memory has played a key role in developing that unique consciousness, and how damaging it can be for a person to lose their memories. Again, I had no idea what Levinson’s book was about before reading it.
  3. Scrolling through Netflix the other night, I came across a recommendation for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. I’d never watched it, though it has been on my To Watch list for years. I smiled, indulged, and was suitably blown away. (Spoiler alert!) Immediately thereafter I found myself scouring the internet for interpretations about the fantastic, controversial ending and came across one which suggested the character of Judy had committed suicide rather than having falling accidentally to her death. I thought about it, re-watched the last few minutes with a meticulous eye a full dozen times, and came to realized the nun who suddenly appears and acts as the catalyst for Judy’s final plunge is shrouded in shadows and is clearly meant to be seen as an agent of God. The following morning I read the scene in “Snapshot, 1988” in which the thousands of dead sparrows appear.

So, two stories using black figures as symbols of agents of God… two stories discussing the importance and devastation of memory loss… and two stories using a physical Polaroid instant camera as an object of useful importance. And in all three instances, “Snapshot, 1988” was one of the two stories in question.

I don’t know that that means, but it’s been creeping me out, so I’m writing it down so that I’m not the only one who has to worry about it anymore. 😀


That’s all, folks.

Thanks so very much for reading it all the way through. (I feel like I just finished a college-level class! Geeze. I hope I get a good grade).

I know it was asking a lot of you to read through it all, and as such please know I’ll appreciate any thoughts or comments even moreso than I normally would.

Thanks in advance should you decide to write even a single sentence about what’s in your thoughts on this one.

Until next time…

-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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014) CD Review #5: “How We Got Out of the Furnace” & “Matter”

My Cemetery Dance reviews have really taken off. Over on ‘Exhumed’ column, I already done 3 (you can find them here, here, and here), and here on ‘The Bone Pile’, this will be my 5th (the first 4 can be found here, here, here, and here).

Cemetery Dance # 74/75

Cemetery Dance # 74/75

This time around, I’ve got 2 stories from the newly-released (and hotly anticipated) CD #73/74.

Why so anticipated?

Well, 1) Take a look at that cover. Amaze-balls, right?

And, 2) It’s friggin’ HUGE. As in, 200-damned pages, huge.

And, 3) It’s a Joe Hill special issue.

[SIDE NOTE: Joe Hill = son of Mr. Stephen King… and, oh, by the way, also perhaps the only author who ever turned down publication in Cemetery Dance. Yeah. You read that right. Quick Explanation: He sent in a story a couple years ago. Richard Chizmar read it, loved it, wanted to publish it, but thought the unknown author had an oddly familiar name. He took it to Brian Freeman, his co-editor, & Brian managed to remember and pull from a nearby shelf King’s dedication to his son– Joe Hill King– from the innards of The Shining, a book published no less than 35 years earlier (how’s that for being a fan?) But when Chizmar offered to buy & publish the story then absently asked Hill, ‘By the way, are you Stephen King’s son?’, Hill wrote back, ‘Thanks. Yes I am. But I cannot accept publication.’ You see, Mr. Hill didn’t want to get published b/c of his connection to his famous father. He wanted to earn it on his own. And he did so not that long afterwards. In the meantime, the boys at CD knew who ‘Joe Hill’ really was but couldn’t say anything about it & early fans like me had their respect for Joe skyrocket upon reading Chizmar’s explanation of this situation in the beginning of CD #74/75. So, yeah. They’ve been excited to finally get to publish a guy they rightly felt they had ‘discovered’ but hadn’t been able to showcase to the world… until now].

So anyway, this issue has an exposé on who this Joe Hill guy is, two Joe Hill stories (one of which I’ll be reviewing below), an interview with Mr. Hill, and a feature review of Mr. Hill’s newest novel, The Fireman.

So let’s get to it….


STORY 1: “How We Got Out of the Furnace”

Joe Hill author blurb provided by CD.

AUTHOR: Joe Hill

APPEARANCE: CD Issue #74/75 (October 2016), story 1 of 11

DISCLAIMER: Before I jump in, you should know that this is an odd ‘story’ to review because technically it’s not a complete story– it’s merely an excerpt from Hill’s newest novel, The Fireman– and it’s not even from the beginning of the novel, which is an odd way of doing it. This scene/ ‘story’ appears somewhere around the halfway mark. The CD story, therefore, includes a few stage-setting paragraphs up front…

PLOT (with spoilers!):

FIRST, the situation: An incurable spore called Dragonscale has decimated America. The infected develop delicate black lines on their skin which smolder in times of stress or anxiety. Those who can’t control their fear die horribly of spontaneous combustion. Our protagonist, Nurse Harper Willowes, is infected, is pregnant, and has found the haven of Camp Wyndham where people like leader Carol Storey have learned to suppress and, in ways, control their sickness. But Carol herself is becoming increasingly paranoid, haunted by threats both real and imaginary. She has even come to fear “the fireman”, an outsider to their group who is viewed as a legendary hero because of his ability to control fire. When 2 infected convicts join their group and 1 quickly proves to be dangerous, it isn’t long before Nurse Willowes is summoned in the middle of the night and finds an ‘interview’ is already underway.

NEXT, the actual ‘story’:

The secretive meeting includes six people: Camp Wyndham’s leader (Carol Storey), an ex-cop (Ben Patchett),  a kid with a big knife (Bowie), another teen guard (Mindy Skilling), our fearless protagonist (Harper), and one of the prisoners (Gilbert Cline). The other escaped felon, Mark Mazzucchelli (or “The Mazz”, according to Gil) is not there. The Mazz is the one already in trouble with Camp & hence the reason why Carol has asked Gil to explain how the two of them escaped from the Brentwood county lockup, a place the prisoners there had called ‘The Furnace’.

[Gil’s answer constitutes the vast majority of this ‘story’]

Gil goes on to tell of a world where Dragonscale has reached a point where fear has taken over the lives of even the good guys. Brentwood was a very small prison, originally designed to hold no more than 40 inmates. When Gil met The Mazz there, a full hundred were already in its walls. Most of the prisoners were there for minor crimes & should have been there only temporary until their trials came… which never happened. Meanwhile the guards had rolled in a TV in the hall and put a pair of kids movies on loop– something which soon drove the prisoner’s mad. They were also underfed and physically punished if they complained. It did not take too long before Dragonscale appeared on one of them.

The first guy to come down with it was beaten to death by his fellow inmates. But that didn’t prevent three more men from coming down with it the following day. Soon the guards had all the Dragonscale prisoners herded into a single cell, after which several days passed when everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen. Then it did. One morning, one of the infected started yelling that he was burning up and literal fire spouted from his throat. He may have died from the fire, or he may have died from the guards’ bullets. All anyone knew was that more than 300 rounds were pumped into that cell and every one of the prisoners was dead a minute later. After that, the other prisoners started getting creative about hiding any newly-formed tell-tale black lines on their skin. The primary method was to mix saliva with the mortar residue that could be scraped from the walls to make a concealing paste. Some of the others ripped their own flesh apart and claimed they’d gotten into a fight during the night.

The story finally comes to a head the day most (or all?) of the prisoners are infected yet none are showing. Close to a hundred men still populated the small prison at that time. Knowing some of them were lying but unwilling to get too close to check, the head guard, Miller, comes in one morning claiming that an executive order has come down through the pipes to transfer anyone with Dragonscale to another prison where they’d be treated to wider spaces, the best available medical treatment, and best of all a return to three square meals a day. More than half of the prisoners end up outing themselves, and Gil himself nearly went and would have it not for The Mazz’s firm grip & subtle head shake.

The resulting massacre is heard from outside minutes later. Gil describes hearing nothing but gunshots loud enough to shake the walls for a full half-minute. And these weren’t pistols but fully automatic rapports. When Miller came back, he claimed they’d tried to escape. No one left dared contradict him.

Gil explains that his own escape came when he & The Mazz volunteered to clean up the mess. As horrid as it would be, Gil explained, it was worth it to get some fresh air. Outside, another of the guards, Devon, was there with a clipboard keeping track of names. Gil & The Mazz were two of ten men who slowly loaded bodies into a flatbed truck. At first it had been easy, but soon enough the two of them had had to get into the truck itself to rearrange the bodies to make room for more. Gil says he figured there were maybe 40 bodies stacked up when– with no warning and if if they’d both planned it all along– The Mazz grabbed Gil’s arm and pulled the two of them down and under some of the other bodies, which is how they later escaped. Under the dead bodies of their murdered mates. Devon helped, of course. Gil explained that when the job was done and he came onto the truck with his clipboard, he & Gil locked eyes for a few seconds. And whereas The Mazz had earlier saved Gil’s life with a subtle head shake, now it was Devon’s subtle head nod which did the deed. Minutes later, the truck rolled away and Gil and The Mazz were free.

Hill’s ‘story’ finished up with a reminder that this is a story-within-a-story. Carol asks how they got from the truck to their camp and Gil explains simply that later that night when the truck was parked they slipped away but got caught between a parking lot and a large pond, which is where ‘the fireman’, whom everyone already knows, found them.

[This was something I had guessed was in reference to a moment when readers of the novel would have first met the pair earlier in the novel. I have since read a scene confirming this suspicion.]

But the story has one final nasty little bit to leave with us. Carol thanks Gil for his tale then, almost regretfully, asks Mindy & Bowie to return him to lockup. Gil chuckles, saying he had thought to ask to be transferred out of their makeshift prison and into the general population now that his trust had (hopefully) been established, but admits that it’s obvious that would be the case.

“As you said yourself,” Carol tells him, “the people in charge can always justify doing terrible things in the name of the greater good.”

“Ma’am,” Gil responds with a smile at the corners of his mouth, “I hid under dead bodies less cold than you.”

MY GRADE: A+

Black & White interior image provided by CD.

MY REVIEW: This story has it all: Action. Intrigue. Corruption. Kindness. Escape. Distrust. A mysterious, deadly, horrifying virus. And all placed into a backdrop of a formerly civilized society slowly degrading into anarchy. The only thing it seems to be lacking is love. (And for the record, the novel itself has enough of that to keep your romantic heart at bay).

But I think the most powerful aspect of “How We Got Out of the Furnace” is how effective it is as an advertisement for the rest of Hill’s novel. The point of publishing it separately is to get you to buy the rest of the story. I’ve done this as an author myself, and Amazon & other publishers do it routinely: ‘Here’s a free sample. Want more? Just click here!’ It’s an effective tool that everybody– readers & writers & publishers alike– are pretty happy to indulge in.

But what sets this one apart is that this novel excerpt doesn’t come in the novel’s opening chapter. Yet it stands as a representative for much of what the rest of the novel repeatedly dives into. And the best moment of this ‘short story’ (if you can accurately call it that) comes in Gil’s opening monologue– the one when he explains how the world had gone batty, how even reasonable folks like cops just trying to do their jobs had lost all reason and had instead fallen slowly into an existence of paranoia and fear. Even though I’ve only read about half of it thusfar, it’s a clearly repeated theme of The Fireman.

We even see that theme repeated in “HWGOotF” itself… at the end, Carol Storey admits she can’t afford to allow Gil to go around their camp freely. She has to lock him up again. And while her crew aren’t afraid of the Dragonscale spore like the rest of America & the guards at the Brentwood county lockup are, she is afraid of the reputation that comes along with the colored jumpsuits Gil & The Mazz are wearing.

The whole story reeked of fear. Fear of what a convicted felon will do if left to his own devices. Fear of getting infected with a deadly disease. Fear of suddenly bursting into flames because you’re one of the infected. And yet it also reeks of hope and kindness as well. Devon is kind and helps the two men escape. The titular character of the novel, the ‘Fireman’ himself, somehow found & helped the two men finish their escape, and even Carol Storey herself– though in this scene is both described as and is showing signs of paranoia– has helped create a sanctuary for those who are infected like herself.

Kindness exists. Even in the darkest days.

But fear exists, too. In ever more destructive and creative ways.

I suppose one of Mr. Hill’s messages to us– seen in both the novel & this excerpt– is that both are parts of what makes us human and will always be here.


STORY 2: “Matter”

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Josh Malerman author blurb provided by CD.

AUTHOR: Josh Malerman

APPEARANCE: CD Issue #74/75 (October 2016), story 4 of 11

PLOT (with spoilers!): George is six and easily frightened by his Aunt Muriel’s odd behavior. For several hours each day, she stands a few inches from the wallpaper, contemplating how to walk through it. She always wears one of three dresses when she does this: a red one, a white one, and a cream one. For no reason he could understand, George had always thought she’d be wearing the cream one when she finally did it. Usually she was barefoot, though sometimes she also wore shoes. Sometimes she even wore a hat.

Once, in a moment of rare coherence, she’d explained herself to George. “We’re made of molecules and the wall is made of molecules and there’s infinitesimal spaces between the molecules that make up us both. If I can control my own molecules, I can slide them between those of the wall.”

George liked the idea of controlling the matter of your own body and even secretly rooted for her, but it still scares him because he also has nightmares where she’d get stuck halfway through the wall or sometimes with just her fingertips embedded and unable to get free.

When a teacher convinces George he could accomplish anything he puts his mind to, his inevitable response of ‘Anything? I want to walk through a wall,’ failed to impress the teacher and, later, his parents. His punishment was to spend time in his room thinking about what he’d said, and George did. He even looked up ‘molecules and the spaces between them’ on his computer. He didn’t understand most of what he found, but he did manage to pass his sentence by trying to pass his hand through the top of his desk… which his mother caught him doing, of course.

This spurns yet another talk with his parents. This time, however, they openly explain that George’s Aunt Muriel wasn’t well. She had been deeply in love with a man and engaged to be married, but he’d left her a week before the wedding. George learns enough from that talk to keep his encouragement for his Aunt Muriel more quiet in the future.

One day not too long after, George invites his friend Delano– who apparently knows all about his Aunt Muriel– to his house. They discover the house is empty, however, and find only Aunt Muriel’s unused, white wedding dress on the floor in the kitchen at the very spot where she usually stands facing the wall. When they turn around, however, there is Aunt Muriel, naked, shaking with energy, and smiling. George goes to her, overjoyed, and hugs her while Delano quietly leaves. “I did it!” she tells him while stroking his head, and George doesn’t mind her nakedness or her fingers scratching through his hair. They were fingers that had walked through a wall and that understood matter and what mattered in life, too.

The story ends with George fetching Aunt Muriel’s cream dress to wear, where she stands in the kitchen where he always envisioned her coming through the wall. Then the two of them go outside and she begins telling him about herself when she was young before she learned about the spaces or how a person is made up of pieces, all of which are under control.

MY GRADE: B

Black & White interior image provided by CD.

Black & White interior image provided by CD.

MY REVIEW: First off, like many stories published in Cemetery Dance, we have an interpretive ending. One which doesn’t quite tell us if she did or didn’t actually walk through that wall. And I’ll come back to that in a minute, but for now let’s also recognize the purposeful multiple uses of the words ‘matter’ and ‘control’…

‘Matter’. It’s the story’s title. It’s the physical state of things such as a wall or a human body. And it’s an emphasis of the important things in life such as family.

‘Control’. It’s being in control of your life (Muriel has lost it/ George is a child & wonders what it’s like/ George’s parents just want more normalcy). It’s also being in control of your body, as far down as the molecular level. It’s also Aunt Muriel’s inability to control her fiance’s actions.

I like that kind of stuff. I’ve done it myself, with both of those words, actually. I also like that the real meaning of the story isn’t whether or not Aunt Muriel actually walked through the wall, but that she finally found a way ‘through the spaces’ of her muddled life and to rejoin society.

But…

This story didn’t impress me the way that an A-level story would.

I wasn’t excited.

I wasn’t intrigued.

And to be quite blunt, I wasn’t left thinking or wondering if Aunt Muriel really walked through that wall or not.

Perhaps a lot of my disappointment is because whether or not she pulled off the impossible turns out to be irrelevant in this story. That’s kind of disappointing, both to my reader’s sense of wonder and also to my likeness to the 6-year-old protagonist who should have been obsessed with his Aunt’s crazy idea.

And I think that’s the greatest heartbreak of all here. George is six. His crazy aunt thinks she can walk through walls. His parents are worried about it. He dreams about it. He gets in trouble because of it. That’s all pretty cool stuff and right in the wheelhouse for any 6-year-old behavior. So why is it that when the big moment happens I get the feeling George is acting more like his father than a little kid? He’s ‘overjoyed’ that she “finally did it,” sure, but he didn’t see it happen, and immediately he’s involved in yet another heart-to-heart talk like grownups do so often. Don’t you think a little kid who was secretly obsessed with such a thing would demand his aunt do it again just so he could watch? Don’t you think he’d want to know HOW she did it so he can try himself? George does none of these things but is instnatly transformed into a young adult. Sure, moving on/ growing up is clearly a theme in the story, but the joy & sense of wonder of childhood was right there for the picking, and it was never picked up.

There’s one other thing, too. The character of Delano serves no real purpose other than a slight change of pace. He doesn’t add to the protagonist’s difficulties or abilities to overcome anything. He appears late in the story but has all the knowledge we do about Aunt Muriel which feels a little anticlimactic since it’s apparently no big deal. Worst of all, he literally sneaks out just when the denumont comes. Yes, it was creepy awkward being there with your friend’s naked aunt in the kitchen, so I get that he’d sneak out. But the point here is that while his actions are perfectly natural (and I include the earlier dialogue & descriptions leading up to this scene), there’s no real reason for him to be there in the first place. Question: How would the story be different if George came home alone that last day rather than with Delano? Answer: It wouldn’t be different at all… other than the reading audience wouldn’t be distracted for a few moments first. For Delano to have mattered, he would have needed to be introduced earlier in the story and have had SOME kind of critical role in George’s appreciation/ connection with his Aunt. Maybe Malerman couldn’t figure out that role, and that’s fine. But this only begs the repeated point: Why bother having him in the story at all?

All of this feels like a long poo-poo on a story that I must have hated a whole lot. Sorry about that. I didn’t hate it at all. I was entertained, and as I started out, I also enjoyed the use of words with multiple meanings. It’s a fun idea, and the opening line was a shocker & definitely caught my attention. If I really didn’t like this one, I’d give it far less than a B rating. But overall it comes out as a simple story that stands like a weakly- acted one-act play, something to enjoy for the moment and then forget.

Agree or disagree with any of this?

Have a Cemetery Dance story you’d like me to review?

Have any questions or comments about CD in general?

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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013) Poem Review: “The Raven”

Last time here on the Bone Pile I added to my growing collection of Cemetery Dance reviews. Have you read all 5 of them yet?

YOU: “Wait. I only count 4.”

ME: “You must have missed the one published by Cemetery Dance.”

YOU: “Published by…!!!”

ME: [stone face]

YOU: “I can’t keep up with all your blogging.”

ME: “Here’s a complete list, with links.”

YOU: “I’ll get back to you in a month.”

ME: “I love you.”

YOU: “So this time is another CD review?”

ME: “No. ‘The Raven’”

YOU: “I know that one already. Pass.”

ME: “Oh, you’ve studied and memorized it too?”

YOU: “Well… no.”

ME: “Then you’re missing stuff. Lots of stuff. Trust me.”

YOU: “Fine. Fair enough. Ok, I’m ready. Hit me.”

ME: “Let’s take a ride…”


PERFECTION

Let me start with this:

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is the greatest work of literature ever written. Period.

Edgar Allan Poe. -Inventor of the Mystery genre (no, really!) -Father of the Macabre. -Author of the greatest literature ever?

Edgar Allan Poe.
-Inventor of the Mystery genre (no, really!)
-Father of the Macabre.
-Author of the greatest literature ever?

Did that catch your attention?

I hope so, because I really think I’m going to prove it to you.

Let me continue with this:

Yes, if we want to have a really good conversation, we’ll have to involve other names like Shakespeare and Chaucer and Hemmingway and Joyce. Probably another two or three dozen, as well. I’ve read many of them. I’ve been impressed by all. But to be perfectly honest, as great as these authors are, for me “The Raven” shines above each and every work by all the other masters. There’s just something genuinely magical about it. There’s something deeply satisfying with how well designed it all is. Admittedly I did have to hesitate in the use of the word ‘perfection’ because in writing there’s really no such thing… but I’ve personally never come across a single written work which comes closer.

Let me finish with this:

“Perfection.” Or in the very least “The greatest ever.”

Today’s post is all about me attempting to prove that magnificent claim. And I going to do it by begging of you one single, imaginary, action. I want suggest that you write a hypothetical ‘perfect poem’ of your own and compare the two.

All you have to do is manage all the feats that Poe manages.

Good.

Effing.

Luck.

Let’s start with a few stats…


THE STATS

Just some cool wordplay.

Some cool illustrative wordplay.

-Published in 1845, it vaulted this relatively unknown author from Baltimore, MD into instant fame.

-1,094 words

-108 lines

-18 stanzas

-Nearly a hundred ‘50-cent, high-quality’ words considered well above the vocabulary of the standard reader.

-170 rhyming words

-230 alliterative words

-A prominent U.S. congressman was so impressed with the poem’s beauty that he memorized it so he could recite it to friends & family. That congressman’s name was Abraham Lincoln.

-Poe was only 35 years old when he wrote it.

How are you doing so far?

Can your perfect poem flood the page with that many figurative words?

Can it impress the likes of probably the most respected president our country has ever had?

Can you do it before turning 40?

I’m already past that milestone myself.

*sigh*

Moving on…


THE LYRICISM

Check out the first line. Maybe even speak it aloud if you care to indulge me (it’s worth it)…

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary”

Beautiful, huh?

For me, the most notable and impressive aspect to “The Raven” is its stunning yet haunting lyricism. If you’ve ever heard the whole thing read aloud, you have no choice but to feel those melodic cadences. That drumbeat or heartbeat of the macabre. It’s almost like the whole thing is actually a song and the words themselves provide the music.

Why does this happen? Well, the form & meter Poe created is actually quite complicated– it’s called “Trochaic Octameter” (more on that later)– and yet despite its overall complexity the words simply flow from the tongue with very little effort. There’s no doubt Poe used all his efforts & stretched the limits of his vocabulary to make it all move with such fluency. It’s… amazing, to be honest.

Let’s take a look at how this lyricism shapes up through the entire first stanza…

Line 1:  Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary    (AA)

Line 2:  Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.                    (B)

Line 3:  While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,     (CC)

Line 4:  As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.           (CCB)

Line 5:  “‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door.            (ddB)

Line 6:  Only this and nothing more.”                                                                         (B)

First, hear those rhymes. They’re in bold & I’ve marked the pattern at the far right.

There are 12 rhyming words in all.

Note that Lines 1 & 3 each have words that rhyme in the middle of the line (called “Internal Rhyme”).

Just some cool wordplay.

More cool wordplay.

Side Note: The words “‘Tis” and “visitor” are kind of cheats in that the rhyming sound comes in the middle of one of those words. This is technically a combination of what’s called “assonance” (repetition of a vowel sound) and “consonance” (repetition of a consonant sound), not “rhyme” (repetition of any sound at the end of a word), but it does the same thing for our ears so I’m including it along with rhyme.

Meanwhile, the most notable rhymes come in lines 2, 4, 5, & 6. They’re easy to pick out b/c it’s always an “-or” sound (“lore”, “door”, & “more”). Later stanzas include: “Lenore”, “floor”, “before”, “implore”, “explore”, “yore”, “wore”, “shore”, “bore”, “outpour”, “store”, “core”, “o’er” (a purposely misspoken version of ‘over’), “adore”, and–  most famously– “nevermore.” What’s most striking is that this flurry of “-or” words ALWAYS appear in the  lines 2, 4, 5, & 6 and in the exact. same. spots.

For all 18 stanzas.

That’s not easy, folks.

Go ahead and try it in your mythical poem.

You’ll see.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

Next, there’s the alliteration. I’ve underlined those above.

Note that line 1 has friggin’ FOUR of them.

Line 2 has a pair.

Line 3 has four more.

Line 5 has another pair.

Again, that’s not easy folks. Go ahead and try.

But make sure you haven’t lost those 12 rhymes in the process.

Also, did you notice that ‘weary’ and ‘napping’ are simultaneously both rhymes AND alliterations.

Wow. Impressive!

How’s your poem doing?

Mine is… lacking already.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

I skipped talking about the meter. It’s called “Trochaic Octameter” & here’s the nutshell version of how it works:

1- Each line except the last has 8 pairs of syllables. (We call it “octameter”)

2- Each of these pairs stresses the first of the syllables. (ONCE-U… PON-A… MID-NIGHT… DREAR-Y) (We call this a “trochee”).

3- Hence: “Trochaic Octameter”.

But, check this out… There’s something not quite right with lines 2, 4, 5, & 6.

(Or is there?)

In each, there is an ODD number of syllables (15, 15, 15, and 7), which means there’s a broken pairing at the end. What has happened is that Poe has left each “-or” word at the ends of these lines hanging all alone without a syllabic partner. Each one then tends to draw itself out in our ears (“As of… someone… gently… rapping,… rapping… at my… chamber… doooooor.”) This is not a mistake. Not when it happens each and every time. It’s purposeful, and Poe is putting extra emphasis on those words, on that sound, because he wants to make it stick. He wants us to feel that sound four times in six lines.

Did you add that to your poem?

Without losing any of your other rhymes?

Or your alliterations?

Just for fun (and because I really want to impress you with Poe’s genius), here’s my favorite pair of lines in the whole poem. Check out how MUCH is going on here:

“Then, methought, the air grew denser, perFumed From an unseen censor

Swung by seraPHim whose FootFalls tinkled on the tuFted Floor.”

That’s 2 rhymes, 4 “t” sounds, 7 “suh” sounds, and 7 ‘F’ sounds.

In 21 words.

It’s not even half a stanza.  

In the words of impressed people everywhere:

“Daaaaaaaaaaaaamn!”

Now before I make one final statement with which I hope to blow your mind & move on to the less-dense stuff, try to put into your head all of the above:

-complicated rhyme scheme

-loads of alliteration

-purposeful hanging syllablic pairs of the all-important “-or” sound

You got it? Ok. Good.

Here’s that last mind-blowing thing…

Poe does all of this, over and over again, for SEVENTEEN MORE STANZAS.

Yeah. He’s pretty amazing.

And we haven’t even talked about the *story* yet!

(I’m saving that for last).

For now, let’s talk symbolism!


THE SYMBOLISM

On top of all that lyricism, Poe also manages to work in a bunch of symbolic objects & concepts, each worthy of a paragraph or four of detailed analysis.

I won’t do that here.

(You’re welcome).

Instead, here’s a bulletted list to get you thinking in the right direction…

SYMBOLIC THING (it’s basic meaning)

-NIGHT/ DARKNESS (darkness/ black things in general = fear/ death/ pain)

-LENORE (the narrator’s dead wife/ lover = more death, more pain… later she represents irrational obsession since he wonders if she’s in Heaven even though the raven just told him there IS no Heaven)

-THE RAVEN (narrator treats it first like royalty [“In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.” & “And with mein of Lord or Lady perched above my chamber door,”]… & later like a prophet [“ ‘Prophet!’ said I. ‘Thing of evil! Prophet still if bird or devil!’ ” … it’s also black (see above)… it “speaks” = personification (side note: ravens really do repeat any sound they hear with sickening accuracy. Check Youtube for 5 minutes & you’ll see)… and intelligence (they’re actually very smart birds too).

-BUST OF PALLAS (“Pallas Athena” = Greek Goddess of Wisdom… sometimes referred to as the ‘perfect woman’… is a ‘bust’, aka: sculpture from the chest-up, so more 3-dimentional [aka: real] than a painting… is white, which offsets the very black bird that sits atop it through the back half of the poem)

-PLUTO (Pluto = God of the Underworld, aka: Satan, aka: Hell, aka: more blackness & more grief)

-HEAVEN (the line “balm in Gildead” refers to a healing salve the narrators hopes to find in visiting Heaven… he is also obsessed with learning if poor, dead Lenore has made it to Heaven)

-NEPENTHE (a mythological drug that supposedly makes you forget your pains)

There are others, to be sure. These are just the big ones that stand out.

So go ahead and add that list (plus a few I didn’t dig deeper to expose) to your hypothetical poem.

I’m guessing you’ve probably given up by now.

If not, you’re probably a writer like me.

Either that or just stubborn.

Ok. Not a problem.

Let’s add another couple more pounds of meat to your plate…


THE STORY

The first time I read “The Raven”, I thought it was a story about love.

It’s not.

It’s clearly a story about insanity… about how a sad man misinterprets a serendipitous visit from a semi-tame bird, and loses his mind in the process.

Poe give us more than enough evidence of this, but the best of it is in the constant, macabre tones delivered and accelerated throughout.

The opening stanza sets the tone immediately. Here’s what is gifted to us:

-It’s midnight.

-He’s dreary.

-He tired.

-He’s been pouring over old books of unknown origin.

-And then there’s a knock at the door which, understandably, freaks him out.

-He *hopes* it’s just a visitor (aka: Not a ghost, goblin, demon, or maybe even Satan himself).

As the story continues, we get even more details which continue to add to that creepy tone…

Stanza 2:      “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.”

Stanza 3:     “And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me– filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.”

Stanza 5:      “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

The room this poems takes place in feels like the perfect place to brood over your pains. It’s probably a library or a study with unique, expensive objects on the shelves. It’s all-too easy to imagine a glass of brandy and a pipe on the table under lighting that’s a little too dim.

How about this… there are various objects that denote wealth such as the “silk, purple curtains” and, later, a “wheeled, cushioned seat” with a “velvet lining”. There’s the bust of Pallas– a true luxury item– which just happens to be placed above his “chamber door” (not ‘room’… ‘chamber’).

All of this lavishness in turn suggests this man lead a life of relative leisure… until recently.

Seen now in this somber setting, it emphasizes both what he’s lost and what he still stands to lose.

The first few stanzas set that tone, which means when the narrator opens the door to the outside & sees nothing but blackness (more symbolism… more tone), we are all fully prepared for the big reveal which takes us to Act 2 of our story.

One of several famous steel-plate engravings of "The Raven" by French artist Gustave Doré. Doré died shortly after completing his work on this poem in 1883. The 24 illustrations were published posthumously in 1884.

One of several famous steel-plate engravings of “The Raven” by French artist Gustave Doré. Doré died shortly after completing his work on this poem in 1883. The 24 illustrations were published posthumously in 1884.

When the narrator returns indoors & hears another knock, he opens the windows (much to his continued trepidation) and the raven flies inside and perches itself (again, symbolically) upon the bust of Pallas.

The narrator is smitten. He is happy. When he asks it what its name is, though, the raven speaks for the first time, (it will do so 6 times in total, always the same word: “nevermore”), and the poem’s tone returns in full…

“Much I marveled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,

Though it’s answer little meaning, little relevancy bore.”

Then the narrator mumbles to himself that his new pet will probably abandon him the following morning. His sadness returned, the bird’s 2nd response thus catches him unawares and he interprets the situation differently. He tries to reason that maybe the bird only knows that one word (a perfectly logical summation). And yet Poe’s language still creates in us an element of subtle fear…

“Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,

‘Doubtless’, said I ‘what it mutters is its only stock and store.”

So now the narrator is curious. He wheels that cushioned seat to give himself a better view. But the raven doesn’t speak again or even move until the narrator thinks perhaps God sent the bird to him as a kind distraction from the death of Lenore. The bird, of course, says “nevermore” and he is suddenly excited to think this is proof of his notion.

“ ‘Prophet?’ said I…”

When he then asks it a direct question, we know what the answer will be. The fact that his question is so loaded (he asks it if Heaven is real) suggests he is already losing his mind. The answer this time is ‘proof’ to him of its clairvoyance.

“ ‘Prophet!’ said I…”

He asks another direct question, but this one is even more loaded than the last: Is Lenore in heaven? When the bird says his predictable answer, the narrator (predictably) freaks…

“ ‘Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!’ I shrieked upstarting.

‘Get thee back into the tempest on the night’s Plutonian shore!

Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!

Leave my loneliness unbroken! Quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!’ ”

Going back to the tone for a moment… Can you feel the power of that moment? He’s literally shouting. It’s a potent, visceral image which in itself denotes death.

Is he insane now? Perhaps. Probably.

The final image of Gustave Doré's "The Raven" homage... and also of his career.

The final image of Gustave Doré’s “The Raven” homage… and also of his career.

But that’s not the tone we are left with, oh no.

There is one more stanza to go, and that stanza changes everything and leaves no doubt.

When the raven responds to the narrator’s demand to leave with one final iteration of ‘nevermore’, he surprisingly has no reaction at all. Instead, the poem’s next words tell us that great amounts of time have passed, slowing the pace to a crawl and returning us to the opening stanza with all its patient- if not ominous- overtones.

And yet the creepiest notion of all slams home moments later when we are told the raven is still there, still sitting on top of the bust of Pallas, and still watching him with its ‘demon’ eyes. The final line tells us the narrator’s very soul is stuck underneath the bird’s shadow and “will be lifted, nevermore!”


FINAL THOUGHT

So… about that perfect poem of yours….

Does it tell a complex, multi-layered, fully transformative story?

With strong emotional overtones?

What about that rhyme and meter?

The vocabulary?

The symbolism?

The alliteration?

The lyrical nature of the words themselves?

Yeah. When you add to AAAAALLLLLL of the above the fact that the story’s events pick up in both speed and intensity as the story nears its climax…

When we realize the whole thing is designed to build tension to a true crescendo then slam us hard right back from we came yet as mere husks of what we once were…

When we hear the many repetitive rhymes increasing in both speed and intensity until take on the sound of a demonic chant or incantation…

"The Simpson", 'Treehouse of Horror'

“The Simpson: Treehouse of Horror #1” (1990)

Yes. We have no choice but to see Poe’s masterpiece for what it truly is.

Perfection.

Or in the least, the best thing ever.

Hell, even The Simpsons respects it.


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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012) CD Review #4: “Leg Man” & “Voices Without Voices, Words with no Words”

If you’re enjoying my reviews of Cemetery Dance short stories, complete with both full spoiler summaries & my humble opinion of their value, you’ll definitely want to check this out.

Not only will it keep your collection up to date, it’s also published by Cemetery Dance themselves, which means I picked the best of the best stories to review, and I give them an especially detailed look.

For now, though, let’s look at some new stories & discover why ‘bad’ can also be ‘good’.


THE OLD: “Leg Man”

Cemetery Dance, issue #1

Cemetery Dance, issue #1

AUTHOR: Chris B. Lacher

APPEARANCE: CD Issue #1 (December 1988), story 5 of 12

PLOT (with spoilers!): [Warning! This one gets graphic!]

A guy named ‘Slash’ – a rock musician who fits *all* the stereotypes– takes a break from his set out in the alley behind the dive he’s been working. There is a girl there. She seduces him. Easily. Halfway through their impromptu make-out session, Slash bites at her nipples. The nipples first stiffen, then… ahem… bite back.

Yikes! Just look at that image! Ewwww!

Yikes! Just look at that image! Ewwww!

Izzy, Slash’s band-mate, pokes his head into the alley and discovers Slash moaning over by the dumptser. He is alone in the alley and, as he turns, Izzy sees his mouth is a mess of blood and hanging skin. He dies soon after.

Days later, Izzy is still having nightmares about his friend & the rumors of a girl that was seen leaving the scene. The weird thing is that despite the coronor suggesting that a high-powered drill of some kind had been used on poor Slash, the girl hadn’t been seen carrying anything, and Izzy hadn’t heard any drill. In each of Izzy’s dreams, he always sees Slash kissing a girl as she bites off chunks of his lips.

The door to his apartment bursts open and Axl, the third member of their band, staggars in with a pair of girls in tow. Axl tries to convince Izzy to indulge in the opportunity for wild sex. Izzy declines and goes back to sleep.

Izzy wakes to the sounds of Axl moaning. Izzy goes back to sleep.

Izzy wakes some time later and this time hears more moaning but also… chewing. Izzy goes back to sleep.

Izzy wakes one last time to hear no moaning, more chewing, and now also lapping sounds. Izzy thinks its another bad dream, but then he’s walking towards the stairway where the girls have escaped their apartment. Then he looks down and one of them is there, already engaged in giving him oral sex. When he looks down he is surprised to see her mouth is empty. His penis is actively moving in and out of her breast. Instead of nipples are a set of thin, brown lips. Understanding FINALLY hits Izzy and he shoves the girl backward, slamming her head against the wall and his naked buttocks through a window. Streaming with blood from the rear end, Izzy grabs the girl and heaves her through the broken window to the street below. He hears bones break and blood splatter even from his height, but then she stands up.

Izzy runs back into his apartment, glances at Axl’s bloody, unmoving body for the first time, and quickly stages a trap. He plugs in an electric guitar, turns the volume to zero, plugs the kitchen sink, and turns on the faucet to full blast. The girl staggars in just as the water crests the sink and begins to pool across the kitchen floor. She is topless. Her large breasts sway as she taunts him with more sex. Izzy gives her a single line: “Not much of a tit man,” and charges. He stabs her in the chest with the guitar and retreats beyond the boundaries of the pooling water. The girl fries, gugrling & screaming as she slowly burns to death.

From across the room, another bedroom door opens and Axl & Izzy’s two girlfriends poke their heads out. Izzy tells them to call the police. Axl’s girl obliges while Izzy unplugs the guitar & goes to his girl. He kisses her on the forehead. Her breasts graze his shirt when he does so, and he was nearly certain he felt them shift slightly.

MY GRADE:

C-.

No, wait. A-!

No, wait… um… C+?

No, B!

No…. aaaaaarrg! Uh…. ok… um… B-.

Yeah.

I give it a B-.

I think.

MY REVIEW:

Simply put, this story was so predictable–  

(Oh no. The other band member brings two girls home and one

of them turns out to be the killer alien-thing girl that murdered

the first band member? Gee. Nobody saw *that* coming!)

– so lame–  

(Really? Their names are ‘Slash’, ‘Izzy’, and ‘Axl’? Wow. Where’d you

get *those* ideas from… actual rock band frontmen, maybe? Also, how

many times can this guy fall back to sleep before he figures things out?

Also, wait… there were TWO girlfriends twenty feet away all that

time and they never heard anything?! Come ON man!)

…and yet, it was also so damned fun and unexpected!

Ok, here’s the part where you think I’m a little off my rocker. You may be right, but bear with me a second. I have a point here. First of all, there actually is some legit creativity here. Who would’ve ever put the mouth of the monster on the breasts? Surely not I. I’d have used the more conventional female, er, opening. And who would’ve ever thought a rocker would have the intelligence and forethought to stage an elaborate electrocution using an electric guitar to kill a monster from beyond? Again, not I. I’d have thought a rocker guy would’ve simply had a gun or a knife or maybe a well-used baseball bat behind one door.

The author blurb on Chris B. Lecher provided by Cemetery Dance.

The author blurb on Chris B. Lecher provided by Cemetery Dance.

Secondly, you have to understand that the tone of this story doesn’t come across in my simple summary. Thing is, it doesn’t feel serious. In fact, it borders on humor. Yes, it’s gross. Yes, it’s disturbing. But also the whole thing is so damned ridiculous & sad it’s also the kind of thing that you look at and think, “This is nuts. Am I supposed to be scared here? Or just grossed out? Because I’m actually neither. It’s SO crazy and SO stupid, I’m actually kind of… god, I’m really going to say it, aren’t I?… yep, I’m actually entertained.”

Full stop: This story was written and published in 1988, the hey-day of graphic horror. There were thousands of stories like these printed all over the world. None were meant to be viewed as literature. None were meant to make us think great, deep thoughts about life. All were meant to make us smile or cringe or perhaps even laugh as we ponder buying another throw-away magazine next month and not worry about the couple of bucks we just blew.

Kind of like “Sharknado”. Have you seen it? It’s so god-aweful bad it’s actually weirdly good. They even had movies like that back in the ‘70s. One comes to mind about a scientist who created a guy named Rocky. It was also Horror. It was also a well-known (and today, beloved) Picture Show.

I don’t think “Leg Man” is going to be remembered much beyond the pages of Cemetery Dance or this blog, but one does have to give credit where credit is due. For the few minutes it too me to read it– and perhaps for the few minutes it took you to read about it– we were undeniably entertained, albeit in a jaw-dropping manner.

Sometimes, that’s how things go.  


THE NEW: “Voices Without Voices, Words with no Words”

Cemetery Dance, issue #73

Cemetery Dance, issue #73

AUTHOR: Amanda C. Davis

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

PLOT (with spoilers!):

Jeremy has been down on his luck for some time. His electricity has been off for a while now. Yet his work is important and he continues it every day. Beside the phone– yes, the phone that doesn’t work b/c there is no electricity– he keeps a pad and pen. He picks up the receiver and hears the sizzle of white static and then, deeper, voices. The voices say Names. They say Numbers. They say Words. He writes it all down. It takes hours until the voices repeat themselves. That’s when he knows he’s ready for the second part of his job… panhandling for quarters.

Jeremy’s phone doesn’t work– well, not really– so he needs to use a pay phone for the final part of his job, and there aren’t many of those left these days. Yet Gordon’s Bar and Grill still has one, and he goes there again, much to Gordon’s displeasure. He saddles up to the phone with his bucket of quarters and begins calling the numbers from his notepad.

Cover art for "Voices Without Voices, Words with no Words"

Cover art for “Voices Without Voices, Words with no Words”

Each phone call is short. He doesn’t bother to explain himself anymore. He used to when this all started four years before. These days the conversations are likely to confuse people at first, though Jeremy believes in his heart of hearts that each recipient is hearing exactly what they need to hear:

“Carol, the number you’re looking for is eleven.”

“Mike, stop at two.”

“Ask for Veronica.”

“What would your mother have done?”

“Left. Left. Right. Wait for the squirrel to run.”

It goes on that like for hours until he reaches the last number and hears something he’s never once heard before: the buzz of a dead line. It makes no sense. EVERY call has ALWAYS gone through immediately. On the first ring. And always to the right person. He tries again. Still nothing. He looks closer and realizes it’s his own phone number. The one that’s been disconnected. The last message is for him.

Flashback to Beth. His girlfriend. Several years back. She’s asking why the weird voices don’t call these people directly. He patiently explains he’s the only one– the only one he knows of anyway– who can hear their messages through the static. They are voices without voices. They are word with no words. Beth is confused but allows his strange behavior. She’s still in love with him back then, after all, and she would rather make love than talk about this.

Back to the present, Jeremy looks at the final message. It reads: “It ends. Be at the side of the lost queen at midnight. Twenty-five twenty-one.” He has no doubt the ‘lost queen’ is Beth. He calls her. She rejects him. Asks to talk to Gordon, who stalls for time while the ambulance Beth has called from another line makes its way to the bar & grill. Jeremy hears the siren in time & runs.

Story headers provided by Cemetery Dance on Amanda C. Davis' story.

Story headers provided by Cemetery Dance on Amanda C. Davis’ story.

That night Jeremy lurks near Beth’s house until she arrives home. He meets her on her front porch. She threatens to call the police. Jeremy tries to stop her, tries to tell her about the final message, tries to tell her he thinks he’s going to die tonight. Beth calls the police, and Jeremy runs for the second time that night.

He scrounges a cheap meal at McDonalds, wondering what to do. Then he remembers the message said to be by the lost queen at midnight, and resolves to try again. At twenty-to-midnight, he leaves. On the way, he thinks of the numbers. 25 and 21. He was 21 when this had all started. He’s 25 now. The numbers left him no hope of seeing 26. “It ends” keeps returning to him.

He arrives at Beth’s house and sits calmly on her porch swing. In mere minutes, Beth opens the front door and comes out to him. She asks what he’s doing there. He tells her again about the final message. She tells him he needs to leave… and then the phone in her hand rings. The voice on the other end asks for Jeremy.

The woman on the phone is confused, but she dutifully relays a message. “It says, um… your shift is over. You’re dismissed. Um, then there are some numbers. Twenty-five twenty-one.” She goes on to say she did a Google search on those numbers and the first thing that came up was a Bible verse: Matthew 25-21, which states “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Jeremy is overjoyed. He gives the woman on the phone advice about her new duty: Use payphones to avoid getting callbacks. Don’t bother with an introduction, just give the message and move on. Let people do the Google searches themselves. And most of all, keep believing.

The woman on the phone asks Jeremy point blank if this is really happening and if it’s worth it. Beth, meanwhile, has come to sit by Jeremy. He tells the woman on the phone that he doesn’t know, that it is a duty and she just has to do it. Then, as Beth and Jeremy hold hands, he does what he always did: when an important message had been delivered and his duty was done, he hung up.

MY GRADE: A+

MY REVIEW:

My initial thought on this story was that it was an A, not an A+. Looking back over it now, I can’t tell you why I thought that. Maybe the sentence structure failed to wow me. Maybe the pacing was a hair too slow for my liking. But to be honest, those things– even if they are true– pale in comparison to this other thing which happens to be one of the rarest things of all in a Horror story: This one has a genuinely happy ending.

That doesn’t happen too often, as I’m sure you could guess. But please understand that a happy ending alone isn’t enough to earn my respect. If so, every feel-good story would get my nod of approval. No, what’s happening here is that Ms. Davis has manages to trick us into getting a happy ending we didn’t expect. And maybe that’s not so surprising. Jeremy didn’t expect it. And he was such a… well, for lack of a better word I’ll use ‘loser’… that we really didn’t expect it either.

At the outset of the story, we are thinking perhaps Jeremy is crazy. The ‘Voices Without Voices’ and the ‘Words with no Words’ just really might be in his head, after all. And the evidence of his social ostracism is all around. He’s lost his girl. He’s lost his job. He’s lost electricity in his house. One little detail I didn’t mention in my summary is that he’s living in his “dead parents’ house” and sleeping in his “dead parents’ bed”. This deail alone should (and does!) give us a certain sense of the heebie-jeebies. All around us is sadness, depression, and loss. So is it such a stretch to think he’s off his rocker? Nope. Not at all.

But this IS Cemetery Dance Magazine, after all, which means this is the Horror genre and it’s equally likely that something supernatural really IS going on. It’s equally possible– and by the end we are given proof– that the voices on the phone are real and that the duty he is performing is for the good of all those people. Yet he is made to suffer in spite of his good deeds. He is a true martyr. He’s already sacrificed everything for this duty of his, so why not end the story by going full-martyrdom and kill him off? It would certainly be within Ms. Davis’ rights to do so. It “fits the genre”, if you will.

The author blurb on Amanda C. Davis provided by Cemetery Dance.

The author blurb on Amanda C. Davis provided by Cemetery Dance.

But she doesn’t do that. Instead, she gives Jeremy (and us) a welcomed breath of fresh air, allowing him no only to live, but even getting his girl back in the process. It is a grand moment. A powerful and enjoyable ending. And it works all the more because we likely didn’t see it coming. We may say this is because the genre has taught us to be ever-wary, ever-alert, and get used to death and horrid endings. Sometimes, though, Horror is just the opposite. Sometimes our fright along the way is rewarded.

There is one other thing though…. a little tweak… one little stab to our hearts which, when it came down to it, is what I think solidified my confidence to the quality of this story. It’s perhaps the reason it truly deserves an A+ rather than a mere A. That thing…? The martyr and the duty goes on. The woman on the other end of the phone has just been thrust into a world of sadness and depression and loss. We know she’s about to spend the next few years suffering even while she continues helping even more hundreds and hundreds of other people.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s the biggest message of all.

Maybe each of use is supposed to be a martyr for at least one stretch in our lives.


FINAL THOUGHT

With the addition of “Voices…” I have finished reading and reviewing all 5 of the stories in CD #73.

To recap, their scores (with links to my reviews of each), in my humble opinion, were:

“A Devil Inside” by Gerard Houarner (A)

“Down There” by Keith Minnion (A)

“The Inconsolable” by Michael Wehunt (A+) [published separately over on my ‘Exhumed’ column]

“Citizen Flame” by Nik Houser (B+)

-“Voices Without Voices, Words with no Words” by Amanda C. Davis (A+)

CD #73 Table of Contents

CD #73 Table of Contents

Along the way, I also read all the other, non-fiction, stuff this awesome magazine had to offer which included:

-“The Rise of Modern Horror Fiction” by Christopher Fulbright

-“Feature Review: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King” by Bev Vincent

-“Feature Review: Finders Keepers by Stephen King” by Bev Vincent

-”Stephen King News: From the Dead Zone” by Bev Vincent

-“MediaDrome” by Michael Marano

-“The Mothers and Father Italian Association” by Thomas F. Monteleone

-“The Last 10 Things I’ve Read” by Ellen Datlow

[side note: I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Datlow at a recent

writing group I attended where she graciously talked about the

state of Horror today. Fascinating stuff. Fascinating woman.]

-“Fine Points” by Ed Gorman

-“Horror Drive-In” by Mark Sieber

-and finally, the standard collection of other Cemetery Dance Reviews. This time I learned about the newest books by:

    -Wrath James White (400 Days of Oppression)

    -Scott Nicholson (After the Shock)

    -Robert McCammon (The Border)

    -Benjamin Percy (The Dead Lands)

    -David Morrell (Inspector of the Dead)

    -Kristopher Rufty (The Lurking Season)

    -Foinah Jameson (Mostly Dead Melvin)

    -Jonathan Janz (The Nightmare Girl)

    -Clive Barker (The Scarlet Gospels)

    -Tim Lebbon (The Silence)

    -& Damien Angelica Walters (Sing Me Your Scars)

NOTE: Cemetery Dance does NOT give automatic glowing recommendations to all of

their reviewed books. In fact, these are non-sanctioned reviews which come from

outside sources. As such, we are given honest opinions which sometimes border

on warnings to stay away. Other times, they all but beg you to go spend your

money. In other words, CD isn’t paid to promote books. They are given

free copies by the authors, and they give genuinely honest reviews in return.

So what did I get out of all of these extras? In short, I learned a lot more about the design, the progress, the movies, the current state of, and the future of Horror fiction… and I also added another half-dozen new books to my To Read list.

Overall, I give this issue a solid A.

Nothing surprising there.


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.

Become an FV Insider!

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011) Vampires

Last week I add to my Cemetery Dance review collection with its third incantation. (You can check out the first two here and here, btw).

But as much as I love CD stories, the previous post about the age-old Horror trope of Haunted Houses got even more attention. I think people like reading about subgenres. Let’s test that theory & go for another of the most beloved ones out there…

VAMPIRES!!!


Why Are Vampires So Awesome?

SUPER-SHORT ANSWER: They’re the most powerful monsters ever created. Period.

Go ahead and do a Google search for "vampire powerful". There are DOZENS of awesome images. This is my favorite.

Go ahead and do a Google search for “vampire powerful”. There are DOZENS of awesome images. This is my favorite.

MODERATELY-SHORT ANSWER: People respond to powerful antagonists. Vampires’ speed, strength, & other supernatural abilities (more on that later) = more power, which in turn = more action/ drama/ suspense, which in turn = entertainment gold. It’s arguably why vampires stories, while having reached a certain saturation point in the past decade or so, will probably never go away completely.

MEDIUM ANSWER: Vampires are more than just powerful, actually. They are also exceedingly complex, which only adds to the shine of golden book- & ticket sales. On the surface, vampires are powerful, passionate creatures possessed with a primal hunger for blood. That’s pretty cool. But underneath- and far more important to any decent vampire story- vampires are smart! Think about it. Nearly every other type of monster out there is fundamentally stupid. It’s what humans can so often exploit in order to survive/ win the day. Go ahead. Pick any classic monster type and you’ll see instantly that only vampires make us fear them because of their cunning.

LONG, FAKE CONVERSATION TO PROVE MY POINT:

I think this is from The Walking Dead. *Definitely* going to have to do a post on that show one of these days.

I think this is from The Walking Dead. *Definitely* going to have to do a post on that show one of these days.

You: Ok, give me a moment to test this. Ok… ok… I get what you’re saying. I mean, obviously ZOMBIES–

Me: Dumbest of them all. No thought processing whatsoever. Just *walk* and *eat*.

Orc horde as depicted in the film "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King"

Orc horde as depicted in the film “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”

You: Right… I got that. They’re similar to GOBLINS, TROLLS, & ORCS–

Me: Muscle slaves. Herd mentality by the thousands.

If you look closely, you'll see *two* ghosts. Her humanity eeking through, perhaps?

If you look closely, you’ll see *two* ghosts. Her humanity eeking through, perhaps?

You: Right… That was my point. But how about… um, GHOSTS & GHOULS? POLTERGEISTS, even? Surely they can’t be–

Me: Remnants of weak humans who couldn’t bother to die properly. The entirety of their mental capacity is whatever they remember from their former lives, which usually doesn’t amount to much to begin with.

Silly cartoon. Not so silly monster.

Silly cartoon.
Not so silly monster.

You: Okaaaay. Fair enough I guess. What about MUMMIES then? The one in that Brendan Fraser movie–

Me: Straight-armed, staggaring, moaning morons. Don’t be fooled by Fraser’s nemesis. It was an exception to the rule & still wouldn’t measure up to any standard v

Michael J. Fox in 'Teen Wolf'. What a great film showcasing the essential problem of the werewolf... the human under the fur is a victim.

Michael J. Fox in ‘Teen Wolf’. What a great film showcasing the essential problem of the werewolf… the human under the fur is a victim.

ampire intellect. Most are as dumb as the blocks of stone that entomb them.

You: Fine! [pause] How do you explain WEREWOLVES then?

Me: Ok, we’re getting closer now, but only if you consider their human half. The cursed human hiding under all that fur and claws *could* conceivably be, say, a brilliant scientist–

[Woah. Cool idea… Einstein was a werewolf all along! I claim that story concept!]

— but that’s not really the monster, is it? The monster comes out while they’re transformed… so, yeah. Werewolves are just another salivating mouth with lots of teeth.

Not exactly accurate to the book, but seriously... Don Quixote. Nice.

Not exactly accurate to the book, but seriously… Don Quixote. Nice.

You: [pouting] [thinking] Ok, smart guy. What about FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER? Ah! See, I’ve actually read that novel, and despite its lame film depictions like the one that chases Abbot & Costello (real movie… look it up… *sigh*), I happen to know that the real Frankenstein Monster was actually quite the intellectual. He taught himself both to read and to write. His ultimate motivation was actually to fit into society at large. He was no dumb–

Me: Now you’ve got my attention. But the first problem we have here is that there is no “species” to speak of. The Monster in question was literally the only one (Yes, an exception = “Bride of Frankenstein” -but that was only in that one movie, so think of it like… exceptions = rule breakers). Yet even with his bride, the Monster’s one-of-a-kind nature means that in comparing him to the standard vampire we are comparing apples to oranges. He’s not a ‘type’ of monster. He is a unique entity, one that cannot reproduce and cannot therefore utlized with any degree of fair creativity by new writers. He is, in a word, not a ‘creature’ but a solid-state ‘creation’. In any case, that’s not even the wrench in your gears. Your bigger problem is that even with the Monster’s desire for knowledge- and I’ll admit he had an impressive amount of it… [post for another day, perhaps? Let me know & maybe I will!], he is still no match whatsoever for the likes of Count Dracula. Vampires’ immortality makes them very old, and very experienced in the ways of the world. This immense experience makes them not just smart, but truely wise. And that means they’re even more dangerous.

You: [silence] [and then…]


But You Said ‘Complex’, Not Just ‘Smart’!

Me: When I was in college, the film “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” came out. I went to see it on campus. It was a packed house. At one scene towards the end, Dracula falls from a height and gets himself impaled straight through the chest on a wrought-iron gate… one with all those giant spear-like spikes at the top.

Gary Oldman as Count Dracula. Fantastic film. Fantastic portrayal. And that hair!!!

Gary Oldman as Count Dracula. Fantastic film. Fantastic portrayal. And that hair!!!

I knew what came next.

The whole theater knew what came next.

And yet…

When Dracula inevitably rose from that gate and Kept Coming Anyway several moments later, one ignorant girl shouted (in honest terror, I might add): “Oh my God, he’s still alive!!”

It was at this point in the film that SOMEbody in that theater became the hero when he stood up, cupped his hands to his mouth, and shouted (at the top of his lungs, I might add): “Will you SHUT!… THE (expletive)!!… UP!!!!?

And it was at THAT point that the entire theater erupted into applause because said ignorant girl had been doing that type of thing the whole film and apparently said hero hadn’t been the only one who had had enough.

I can’t recall exactly who that wonderful hero may have been, but there’s a decent chance he was born on Halloween, loved all things vampire, and today writes a certain Horror blog for a certain awesome online magazine.

A-hem.

*GoldenMoment*

Moving on.

My point is, everyone knows that you need to impale a wooden stake through the heart to kill a vampire, right?

Vampire Kit. Not a movie prop. People actually made these things.

Vampire Kit.
Not a movie prop. People actually made these things.

I mean… right?

The thing is… that girl, somehow, didn’t know. I don’t know what rock she’d been living under up to that point in her life, but really… she didn’t know. And while that particular vampire rule is one I simply cannot forgive, the truth is no monster in the entirety of the Horror genre has more Rules and Regulations than vampires.

Sadly, many of them have been forgotten over the years, which is a shame because some of them are genuinely cool! Heck, I wrote a whole Award-Winning story thanks to one of them.

[A story that is being turned into a serialized novel
right here on Fiction Vortex, by-the-way-and-thank-you-very-much]

Fortunately, I’m here to help.

Below is a wickedly-cool list of 22 Rules that govern the vampire species. How many are you seeing for the first time?

SIDE NOTE #1: I’m not talking about physical traits here like pale skin, red eyes, or being cold to the touch. I’m talking about things that actually affect vampires or their human victims, aka: What Humans Need to Know to Fight Vampires. I’m also not talking about something that happened one time in one story by one author which went thenceforth ignored by other authors. I’m talking about the classic rules that took root and appeared again and again in dozens/ hundreds of vampire tales.
SIDE NOTE #2: Most of these Rules, by the way, were invented by Bram Stoken in his immortal (ha!) classic, Dracula. Several others, however, emerged thanks to the authors who came immediately after him.
SIDE NOTE #3: I researched for several hours on this, but I’m pretty sure I still missed a few. If I did, please let me know in the comments. (I’d love it if someone actually left me some comments).

You: Awesome! I’m ready to copy-paste for my files! Gimmie gimmie!

Me: Bless your little heart.

22 STANDARD VAMPIRES RULES

  1. vampires feed on the blood of any mammal, preferably humans (& very preferably, virgin girls)
  2. vampires cast no reflection
  3. vampires can only be killed in 4 ways: A) wooden stake through the heart, B) decapitation, C) prolonged exposure to sunlight, D) complete immolation (burned in a big fire)
  4. vampire skin burns when touched with any of: A) holy water, B) garlic, C) a crucifix, D) silver
  5. vampires can shape-shift into any of: A) bats, B) mist or fog, C) various canines, D) snakes (called ‘lamia’)
  6. vampires have super-enhanced senses of: A) hearing, B) smell, C) sight
  7. vampire fangs recede when not feeding to make them appear human
  8. vampires have super-healing for anything that doesn’t kill them
  9. vampires procreate by biting a human 3 times, usually on 3 successive nights, but while NOT drinking their blood
    [Shameless Plug Alert!]
    [This was the rule I used to write my Award-Winning story, “Bombardier”]
    [You should buy it. It’s only a dollar. Or just $2 if you want to hear me read it to you.]
    [What a fun bedtime story!]
  10. vampires can control the will of any weak-minded humans (possession)
  11. vampires can manipulate the dreams of any mortal
  12. vampires can create a half-vampire/ slave by forcing a human to drink some of their (the vampire’s) blood
  13. vampires can control whole hordes of lesser creatures such as snakes, rats, spiders & other insects
  14. vampires cannot cross moving water… unless encased safely in dirt
  15. vampires cannot enter the home of a mortal without first being given permission
  16. vampires can move small-to-medium-sized objects with their mind (telekinesis)
  17. vampires can climb any surface, no matter how vertical or slick
  18. vampires can lure their prey (humans) with their sheer sexuality (they also love sex, btw, but not as much as blood)
  19. vampires can be temporarily held at bay by reading Christian certain scriptures at them
  20. vampires can make themselves invisible
  21. vampires can control the weather
  22. vampires don’t die if they don’t drink blood, they merely get weaker & more miserable as the days & weeks go by. In truth, they can continue ‘living’ like that forever.

Seriously. Just LOOK at that list. Uh… yeah. They’re complex. Whole shelves on libraries have been filled for any ONE of the above abilities. And the standard vampire has them all. Yeowzers!

BRIEF FAKE CONVERSATION SUMMING UP ALL THOSE RULES

You: Wow, dude. I’ll admit it… that is impressive. But that doesn’t explain the whole Twilight craze! Those vampires break almost all of those rules. I think you’re missing something.

Me: No. I’m not. Because Twilight sucks. That damned story has been ruining vampire stories ever since it’s first publication, dammit, and I will not ignore its horrible influence. So get your gloves on, people. I’m going there…


Why So Angry?

Meh. Okay.

I’m sorry.

To be honest, Stephenie Meyer did a fine jo–

–blarg!–

–flahq!–

–hrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!–

Excuse me.

I nearly choked on my own vomit.

But I went and brushed my teeth, tongue, and tonsils with a metal file and month-old orange juice, so I’m better now. Let’s continue, shall we?

Listen, I really did read Twilight, and it’s bad, ok? And I don’t simply mean that it’s not “up to par” with what Bram Stoker or Anne Rice or Stephen King have done with this awesome subgenre. I mean… it’s BAD WRITING! Bad sentence structure! Bad dialogue! Bad storytelling! And just plain HORRIBLE for the whole vampire subculture.

Yes, I will admit it helped encourage a whole new generation of readers (…of pre-teen, love-sick girls. Big whoopdie-doo. J. K. Rowling did a far better job of that with a FAR better story in the Harry Potter series. Go read that to your kids instead, dammit).

Classy, brilliant lady with her 7th consecutive classy, brilliant book.

Classy, brilliant lady with her 7th consecutive classy, brilliant book.

Yes, I’ll also admit it helped make vampires more commercially acceptable (…for a couple years. But it also pushed vampires into and beyond a saturation point of publishing acceptability. The truth is, most publishers are sick of vampire stories these days, and a major part of it is just how many authors have been trying to cash in on that -ug!- “style” of vampire tale. Just ask the Fiction Vortex editors. It’s a damned wonder they published “Bombardier” in the first place.

[Heh. Ok, I’m done plugging that one. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself].

But seriously… those things don’t even matter. The point is that bad writing & bad influences aside, the treatment of vampires– the most awesome Horror monsters ever created!– was insulting.

Listen to me here and now…

Vampires!

DON’T…..!!!

SPARKLE!!!!!!

Also, they don’t play baseball during thunderstorms,

and they concern themselves with teenage angst and secret crushes,

and the prime vampires are ancient adults of pure evil, not teenagers struggling (weakly) with moral crises.

Meyer sucked all the bad-ass out of vampires and neutered them into emo high school cool dudes. She turned the Ultimate Bad Guys into Mediocre-at-Best Good Guys. That’s like turning Darth Vadar into a comedy character. It’s just not ri–

"Yes, I always have coffee when I watch radar. You know that. Everyone knows that!" "Of course we do, sir!"

“Yes, I always have coffee when I watch radar. You know that. Everyone knows that!”
“Of course we do, sir!”

Wait.

Rick Moranis was flippin’ hysterical as “Dark Helmet” in Space Balls.

Bad example.

But my point holds.

If it weren’t for the genius partnership of Mel Brooks & Rick Moranis, Dark Helmet would have been a true insult to & depravity of what is probably the greatest Bad Guy ever put to screen (ah, James Earl Jones… your voice is ambrosia to my ears).

But I digress.

Yes, Ms. Meyer was perfectly within her right as a creative person to do whatever she liked and change the Rules and exploit a popular subgenre to make her millions. The problem is, she succeeded.

Today, the Twilight “saga” (a word that will forever been dead to me thanks to this collection of driveling prose) has become synonymous with what vampires supposedly are. And that’s a shame. A real loss. What she wrote had virtually nothing to DO with vampire culture. What she wrote was actually a soap opera.

Come to think of it, I think Ms. Meyer did a pretty good job writing a teen drama. It has all the tropes & checked all the right boxes. No wonder it sold so well.

But as far as a vampire story, it sucked.

Ok. I got that out of my system. I feel better now.

But may I should go walk naked through a car wash a couple of times.

Just to be safe.  


FINAL THOUGHT

If you think about it, adding together vampires’ strength, speed, intelligence, and numerous other abilities, what we’ve really got here is the perfect monster.

Honestly, if there really were such things as vampires, guess what people? We’d all be dead. The whole planet. We’d have been sucked dry centuries ago. In fact, their only true danger would be falling victim to overpopulation. With all the humans (and eventually, the rest of all the other mammals too) gone, they’d have no warm blood left to drink. And even though they’d technically survive, they’d be miserable.

This is maybe why authors don’t have vampires take over by the millions. They (both authors & vampires alike, haha) are too smart for that.


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.

Become an FV Insider!

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010) CD Review #3: “Forever Angels” & “Citizen Flame”

 

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.

Joy.

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

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)

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-

MY REVIEW:

Author blurb on Ronald Kelly provided by Cemetery Dance.

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…

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

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"

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"

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+

MY REVIEW:

Author Blurb on Nik Nouser provided by Cemetery Dance

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!

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.  


FINAL THOUGHT

Wondering where stories #4 for these 2 issues of Cemetery Dance went? Think I’ve gone prematurely old & senile & somehow forgot/ skipped them?

Nope.

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

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.

Become an FV Insider!

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009) Haunted Houses

So far, this blog has been mostly about book reviews and Cemetery Dance reviews. Yet I’ve added the word ‘Introspectives’ to the subtitle, and I’ve only done two of those.

Today I’ll add a third.

NOTE: I have a whole list of these Horror-themed Introspectives lined up for the future. If there are any specific concepts you’d like to know more about, tell me in the comments & I’ll bump it to the top of that list.


SERENDIPITY… OR SUPERNATURAL GUIDANCE?

Bentley Little's "The Haunted" [Favorite detail: That the ghost was actually a collection of ghosts.]

Bentley Little’s “The Haunted” [Favorite detail: That the ghost was actually a collection of ghosts.]

I recently read my first Bentley Little novel (shame on me for waiting so long). It was a Haunted House story called “The Haunted.” I also recently read my first Clive Barker novel (shame shame again). It was also a Haunted House story, this time called “The Thief of Always”.  

Clive Barker's "The Thief of Always". [Favorite detail: It's straight Y.A. Horror from a respected adult Horror author].

Clive Barker’s “The Thief of Always”. [Favorite detail: It’s straight Y.A. Horror from a respected adult Horror author].

There was no particular reason I chose those books, although I do admit I specifically chose to add those authors to my repertoire. The fact that they were both about Haunted Houses was a fluke. I picked them based entirely on popularity.

The Haunted House ride at Knobles Grove Amusement Park. [Favorite detail: Can't decide between the Truck Horn that blasts you out of your seat at the end of the long, dark, silent tunnel... or the three strands of horse hair dangling from the pitch black ceiling as you ascend the final riser, the end literally in sight].

The Haunted House ride at Knoebles Grove Amusement Park. [Favorite detail: Can’t decide between the Truck Horn that blasts you out of your seat at the end of the long, dark, silent tunnel… or the three strands of horse hair dangling from the pitch black ceiling as you ascend the final riser, the end literally in sight].

Weirdly, halfway through the 2nd one, I had also had a conversation with an old college friend about a Haunted House amusement park ride we had once enjoyed… one in which I laughed my butt off while she screamed bloody murder.

What exactly pushed me to choose reading & chatting about Haunted Houses so recently is unknown to me. It COULD be pure chance, but of course there COULD be something more sinister going on. Who knows… maybe I’ve actually been possessed by a malicious spirit.

Either way, I’ve definitely had creepy houses on the brain.

And what I got to thinking about most were the things which seemed to be similar in all Haunted House stories.

Let’s begin with the most important thing…


IT’S NOT ABOUT THE HOUSE

The first thing that struck me about HH stories is that they are rarely about the actual house. They’re about people… and never a single person, either. HH stories are about groups of people and how they interact with each other. The house is a mere catalyst.

EXAMPLE 1) The Little story involved a family who was going through the difficult decision to leave their old neighborhood in search of a better one. We see the thoughts & perspectives of 4 different characters & how they dealt with that move & each other throughout the novel.

EXAMPLE 2) The Barker story involved a pre-teen who had become bored with life & wanted an adventure. Once he gets to the house in question, we meet other characters who have been there for a while and have already gone through the progression he is about to (from enjoyment of the adventure to the sadness of missing home).

Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" [Favorite detail: The opening paragraph. Truly one of the greatest, ever.]

Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” [Favorite detail: The opening paragraph. Truly one of the greatest, ever.]

EXAMPLE 3) The best ever HH story, in my humble opinion, is Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”. In it, a group of people have come to investigate rumors that a house is haunted. At no point in the story do we ever see a ghost. Yet the resonating eerieness I still feel to this day comes from the people who dealt with what may or may not have been supernatural events.

EXAMPLE 4) Even at the amusement park, it isn’t really about the scares built into the ride… our joy comes from how we interact with our friends & family… how they scream and jump at the gross mannequins, weird mirror warps, and sudden horn blares. Imagine sitting through one of these things by yourself, and you’ll instantly see how the entire experience would be changed. (For the record, I’d be bored. For my friend, however, that probably means she’d have a heart attack & die… my entire reason for being there was apparently to protect her from otherworldly harm).

To wit: Haunted Houses are about people.

In fiction, it means that some characters will believe quickly & thoroughly that the house is haunted. Meanwhile, others will deny deny deny until the horrible truth is thrust in their faces.

Also, some characters will flee the house (or try too… they are often locked inside, mwuhaha) while others will choose stay and figure out what’s going on/ vanquish or help the ghoul who resides there.


Also, some characters will show courage while others will be lost to their gut-wrenching fears.

All of it is just like in real life, in other words. Just like real people.

Only this is Horror, so all the regular life events have been amped up & shoved into a single, air-tight box.


THE MOST IMPORTANT CHARACTER IS THE DEAD ONE

If it’s true that HH stories aren’t about the house (and I assure that it is), and if it’s also true that there are all types & styles of people represented within them (and I assure you again that they are), then who is the most important character?

Conventional wisdom says it’s the protagonist. The guy or girl who has the strongest connection to the house & is the ultimate hero/ heroine/ tragic loss. But conventional wisdom would be wrong.

"The Others" was released in 2001. It is the first English-only film to receive the Best Film Award at the Goyas (Spain's National Film Awards).

“The Others” was released in 2001. It is the first English-only film to receive the Best Film Award at the Goyas (Spain’s National Film Awards).

Haunted Houses are always (ALWAYS) haunted by some kind of dead person or people. And they are always doing it for a specific reason.

Often they are stuck there, unaware they are even dead. (Think: “The Others”- great flick. Won no less than 8 awards… I didn’t know that before writing this post.)

"Beetlejuice" was released in 1988. It just might be the greatest non-scary ghost story of all time.

“Beetlejuice” was released in 1988. It just might be the greatest non-scary ghost story of all time.

Often they are stuck there b/c they truly belong there, as in: That house is their true home. (Think: “Beetlejuice”… Yes, I know it’s a comedy- and a great one- but the Maitlands are also ‘at one’ with their house. They belong there & at the end they continue living there quite comfortably alongside the Deetzes).

"Poltergeist" was released in 1982. Jesus... even this single image is freaking me out. And don't get me started on the clown scene. WORST. NIGHTMARE. EVER.

“Poltergeist” was released in 1982. Jesus… even this single image is freaking me out. And don’t get me started on the clown scene. WORST. NIGHTMARE. EVER.

Most most often, however, the dead people are horrible evil monsters using the house as a conduit to the living world so they can kill innocent humans on their way to reclaiming some kind of control over the world they no longer inhabit. (Think: “Poltergeist”. The greatest HH movie ever? Maybe. I still get creeped out when I see a TV screen filled with snowy static).

But whether the dead thing is benign or malicious, whatever happens & whoever needs to deal with it, it’s the dead entitiy(ies) who rule the roost. And at some point our human protagonist needs to figure out WHY they are haunting this house before having any chance of survival.

So next time you read/ watch a Haunted House story, pay careful attention to the dead guy. He’s the real story behind all the smoke & mirrors.


SOMEBODY GOES CRAZY

Another very common trope is that there is usually ONE character (maybe the protagonist… maybe not) who loses their sanity. This comes in 2 formats:

  1. He/she may be possessed by the ghost haunting the house
  2. He/she may be pushed to perfectly normal human insanity by the horrors presented therein.

Two different covers of Stephen King's "The Shining" [Favorite detail: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."]

Two different covers of Stephen King’s “The Shining” [Favorite detail: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”]

But whether this human character becomes an even smaller abode for a thing of evil or has been pushed to their own personal breaking point, that human is almost always going to do 1 of 2 standard things with their insanity:

  1. They will try killing off the other characters.
  2. They will try killing themselves.

Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they both murder & commit suicide. But trust me, somebody is going to lose it, and they’re going to go postal in the process. (I’m thinking of you, Jack Torrance from Stephen King’s “The Shining”).


THE HOUSE USUALLY “DIES”

One final observation I had is how often the climax of the story involves some kind of destruction of the house itself. Windows are shattered. Roofs are collapsed. Floorboards are ripped apart. Doorways are imploded. Sometimes the entire building is sucked into a vortex (“Poltergeist” again)

Ok, this single image can't do justice to the awesomeness of this implosion, so here's a gif of the whole sequence: http://giphy.com/gifs/poltergeist-oa2GCItMMQYyQ

Ok, this single image can’t do justice to the awesomeness of this implosion, so here’s a gif of the whole sequence: http://giphy.com/gifs/poltergeist-oa2GCItMMQYyQ

Whatever happens to the people in the story, the house is pretty much destined for complete demolition.

But… why?

Well, it’s an indication to the readers/ viewers that the ghost is truly gone & the evil within has finally been thwarted. (And take note when/ if this doesn’t happen… a sequel is therein certainly in the works).

But moreover the destruction of the house is also a metaphor.

Remember, it’s not the house itself that’s the problem. The house is simply a location that some spirit is either stuck in or using as a connection to the living world. In either case, when the house is gone, the prison/ connection is gone as well.

For the ghost who inhabits the house, the destruction of the building = the metaphorical secondary deaths of themselves. They may now either rest in peace or are forced to find another locale to bridge the gap to the living world. This one, however, is closed.


FINAL THOUGHT

I’m sure I missed not only a famous Haunted House story (or stories) to use as an example, but also some kind of essential theme/ common event within the HH story framework. But to my mind (and within the walls of this blog’s limited word count… which I’ve stretched to it’s limit once again), the above are the most important.

  1. It’s About People, Not the House
  2. The Dead Guy is the Most Important Character
  3. Somebody Goes Crazy
  4. The House Will Be Destroyed

The next time you read or watch (or RE-read/ RE-watch!) any great or even mediocre Haunted House story, trust that you’ll see them all.

You might even see it happen when you sit in that red cart, strap on that seat belt, and feel those metal wheels begin to roll you through the wooden doors into the darkness beyond.


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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008) Book Review: “20th Century Ghosts”

 

Last week I gave you my second round of Cemetery Dance reviews.

This week I’ll be reviewing a different collection of short stories… A complete collection by a single author!

Let’s get to it…


WHAT IS “20th Century Ghosts”?

20thCenturyGhosts 2

Original 2005 Cover for “20th Century Ghosts” as published in the UK

It’s a collection of 15 (er… 16! …more on that later) short stories, all by rising Horror star Joe Hill.

It was first published in 2005 in the UK.

Before this, I’d only read one of Mr. Hill’s books: “Horns”, and I loved it. (It was also made into a pretty good movie starring Daniel Radcliffe).

 

But when I found out afterwards that Joe just so happens to be the son of Stephen King…

 

And when I found out that he uses the ‘Hill’ moniker specifically to divert attention away from his famous father…

Ignatius wakes up one morning with horns that nobody else can see.

“Horns” = Ignatius wakes up one morning with horns that nobody else can see. His story involves learning why they are there and the abilities they give him.

And when I found out that his first publications came, like many of us, in the form of short stories…

Well, he’d instantly earned my respect, and I just HAD to check out those short stories, didn’t I?

The problem I’m going to have here is commenting on so many stories. And I will.

But it also means they’re all going to be brief. In fact, all you’ll get is a Super-Short Spoiler-Free Plotline, My Grade, and My Super-Short Review.

🙁

 

If you want more than that, I guess you’ll just have to read them yourself.

😉

Joe "Hill"...

Joe “Hill”…

 

...and his dad, Stephen King at roughly the same age. Do these guys look alike or what?

…and his dad, Stephen King at roughly the same age. Do these guys look alike or what?

 


STORY #1: “Best New Horror”

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: Eddie is the editor of an annual collection of Horror stories. He has a hard time tracking down the author of a particularly striking story which has revitalized his passion for the genre.

 

MY GRADE: A-

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: Scary. Makes me worry that some people really think Horror authors love violence. Or, worse still, that some of them do.


STORY #2: “20th Century Ghost”

Whoever made this is awesome.

This cover was made specifically to match this story. Cool.

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: An old movie theater is haunted by the ghost of a young woman who died there during a showing of The Wizard of Oz. Her appearances are infrequent but memorable. The tale is told by Alec, the theater owner, who worries what will happen to her when he retires because it’s probably the theater will then shut down.

 

MY GRADE: A-

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: Refreshingly atypical ghost story with a refreshingly satisfying ending.


STORY #3: “Pop Art”

Whoever made this image is awesome.

Whoever made this image is awesome.

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: Art is a human boy who happens to be made of inflatable plastic. His daily difficulties & successes are very different than the rest of us.

 

MY GRADE: A+

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: One of the most creative ideas I’ve ever come across. One part silly, one part weird, and one part tragedy. This one will stick with you.


STORY #4: “You Will Hear the Locusts Sing”

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: A boy wakes up to learns all the bugs he’s been eating for playground respect has turned him into a giant insect.

 

MY GRADE: A-

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: Far more violent & picturesque than I would have expected, yet with an ending that feels like poetry.


STORY #5: “Abraham’s Boys”

20thCenturyGhosts 4

Another cover. This one feels like a movie waiting to happen.

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: Abraham = Abraham Van Helsing. It is in the years after his dealings with Dracula & he is now trying to teach his sons about the dangers (and truth!) of vampires.  

 

MY GRADE: B-

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: Left me feeling wanting, like there was more to this story which was never quite written down. A fun idea, though, with some cute references to the original Stoker text, so not a true clunker.


STORY #6: “Better Than Home”

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: A boy with a less-than-awesome dad who is obsessed with baseball.

 

MY GRADE: B

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: Reads like a typical “battered child” story. Told well, but lacked originality.


STORY #7: “The Black Phone”

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: Thirteen-year-old John is kidnapped & is brought to a basement with a home-made prison cell. On the wall is a old, rotary-style black telephone who wires are cut. When the phone rings, John is surprised at who’s on the other end.

 

MY GRADE: B+

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: Any child kidnapping story is super creepy to me, and seeing this one done so realistically definitely hit a nerve. But it was also somewhat predictable, which left the ending feeling kind of lackluster.


STORY #8: “In the Rundown”

20thCenturyGhosts 1

Another Cover. Very ghoul-like.

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: A video story employee happens upon a horrible crime scene of violence while walking home.

 

MY GRADE: B-

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: No supernatural elements here, but plenty of violence, gore, & grue, all of which comes out of the blue & hits readers with a true shock. The ending, however, was very incomplete. I wanted more where Hill seemed to want readers to come to their own conclusions. For my taste, I needed more provided by the author.


STORY #9: “The Cape”

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: Little boy Eric learns his homemade “cape” gives him the literal ability to fly. Fast forward a dozen years or so & Eric now thinks he imagined the whole thing, until he finds the cape in his mother’s basement.

 

MY GRADE:  B+

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: Fanciful. Heartwarming. Exhilarating. Minus a point or two for slow pacing where I don’t think it was needed, it was nevertheless a fun read.


STORY #10: “Last Breath”

This cover was made to match the story 'The Last Breath'. Cool

Another cover made to specifically match this story. Still cool.

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: Dr. Allinger is the head of the “Museum of Silence” (pay attention… that’s sILence, not sCIence) wherein the last breaths of various dying people (some famous, some not) have been caught and stoppered and put on display. If you listen carefully to the glass jars, you can still hear their last breaths.

 

MY GRADE: A-

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: A truly original idea mixed with a truly creepy notion. Sadly, the complexity of where this one could have gone was left flat. The ending is partly predictable & partly satisfying nevertheless.


STORY #11: “Dead-Wood”

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: Trees are alive, therefore maybe they can have ghosts.

 

MY GRADE: B+

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: Extremely short, to the point of having felt like it was more of a blurb for a bigger story than a story within itself. Still, a cool idea with at least one great line: “Something that doesn’t know if’s alive obviously can’t be expected to know when it’d dead.”


STORY #12: “The Widow’s Breakfast”

Another cover. This one seems to suggest a demon-like atmosphere.

Another cover. This one seems to suggest a demon-like atmosphere.

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: A hobo jumps from a moving train to avoid the nasty watchman who is rumored to work at the station up ahead. Nearby, he comes across a family who meets many such homeless persons, and who offers good food and strange advice.

 

MY GRADE: B-

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: As with many of Hill’s story in this collection, it was the lackluster ending that killed this one. Also, the Horror elements felt fabricated. On a good note, the characterizations & dialogue felt as genuine as any story I’ve read. In short: It felt like Hill had accidentally created some cool characters but with no real story to put them into.


STORY #13: “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead”

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: Two former lovers meet accidentally while acting as background characters for George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead.

 

MY GRADE: A+

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: Absolutely fantastic. A stunning piece of narrative fiction. The only Horror is the fake setting of the movie being filmed, yet everything about it feels symbolic, from the complex relationship between the 2 main & 2 minor characters- which is all heartwrenchingly believable in its own right-, to the action scenes (aka: the acting the characters do on set), to the awesome cameo appearance by Romero himself. And that ending… God what a killer line. You should buy this book for this story alone.


STORY #14: “My Father’s Mask”

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: Jack is 13 and his parents take them to their cabin for the weekend. Mom keeps pretending to play a game where they need to hide from the evil ‘playing card people’, the best defense fom whom is to wear masks. But when Jack arrives & sees the multitude of masks hanging around the cabin, he begins to think his mom’s game is real.

 

MY GRADE: A+

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: Another 5-star winner. This story is creepy beyond belief. Hill builds us up slowly and step by step as we see the strange actions of Jack’s parents, then are thrown for a loop by the other kids he meets in the nearby woods. The ending has the kind of cyclical connection that reminds us more of a Science-Fiction tale than a Horror one. But you’ll walk away feeling sick to your stomach despite how much you loved reading it.


STORY #15: “Voluntary Committal”

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: Two brothers. The younger is mentally handicapped but has a penchant for building things (probably he’s autistic, or even an ‘idiot savant’) out of paper cups and, later, cardboard boxes. The older worries about his sibling, but is also in awe of the beautiful, almost magical, complexities of what he builds in their basement. Told from perspective of the older brother many years after the loss of both this brother & his neghborhood friend, who plays his own ill-reputed role in the story.

 

MY GRADE: A+

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: Yet ANOTHER mind-blowing story. This one grabbed me from the start and only got me more and more obsessed as it went on. The fact that there are only three major characters is astounding when you think how complex and layered these characters are. Throw into that mix even more fantastic creativity in the form of the younger brother’s magical boxes, and this one comes out as a story for the ages. I could see it becoming a great movie one day.


BONUS STORY!! (#16): “Scheherazade’s Typewriter”

This one is truly a bonus story. Not only is it not mentioned on the Table of Contents, but it’s literally wedged within the author’s afterword at the end of the book.

 

SUPER-SHORT, SPOILER-FREE PLOTLINE: A guy who used to write stories on an old typewriter but never published any of them dies. His daughter soon learns that every night at precisely 8pm, the typewriter will turn itself on & write 3 pages of new story. IE: Her dead dad is still writing from beyond the grave & the typewriter is the conduit.

 

MY GRADE: B

 

MY SUPER-SHORT REVIEW: A nice surprise


FINAL THOUGHT

In this collection, Joe Hill’s stories show a kind of pattern, namely that they are extremely creative, very well written, and sometimes have a disappointing ending.

Sounds just like his dad’s early days. Jeez!

But to be fair, Hill is not just the offspring of his father. He has his own distinctive voice, which I quite like. It was great to see the ‘foundation’ of where Hill got a significant portion of his start in the business, and to be honest some of those stories were way better than I was expecting.

Which means now I really have to read more of his novels.

Dammit. My TO READ list will never get smaller, will it?

Yeah, I know. First World Problems. Shut up, Keith.

Ok.


Agree or disagree with any of this?

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

-K. Edwin Fritz

 

 

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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