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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Wizards in Space Pilot Episode

Bildenploy’s Gambit

By Eugene L. Morgulis

Archmage Foster Bildenploy stroked his beard as he studied the image of the hulking prison ship on the bridge’s main crystal ball.  It was a Guild-commissioned astral vessel, like his own Ivory Scepter, so there wasn’t any obvious cause for concern. But Foster was too shrewd and too cautious to ignore the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Wards up,” he said.

Chief security mage Glindon Shafley nodded and whispered an incantation into his thaumaturgic transceiver. “Level 12 ward in place, Archmage,” he said with his second mouth, as his first finished the spell.

“Ms. Plink,” said Foster, “any abnormal intuitions about that vessel?”

The fairy tapped her ear points with two tiny fingers and furrowed her brow in deep concentration.

“Uncertain, Archmage.  The aura readings on board the Golem are normal. Crew and prisoners are all accounted for, but…” Bix Plink bit her lip and flew to the crystal ball, pressing her hands against its smooth milky surface.

“Strange,” she said under her breath.  “My intuition readings keep shifting randomly.  It’s like I’m getting some kind of stochastic feedback.”

Foster’s eyes went wide.  “Bix!  Get away from there!”

But it was too late.  Bix’s delicate body twisted violently, and her glow shifted from yellow to red to purple. In an instant, she was sucked into the orb, her high-pitched scream fading with her.

“I need a probability stabilization field around the entire ship!” ordered Foster.  “Anything you’ve got against chaos magic.”

Glindon looked at him incredulously. Chaos magic was dangerous and unpredictable, which is precisely why the Guild outlawed it ages ago. But Foster Bildenploy expected his crew to be ready for anything.

“Just do it, Glin!” he shouted.

Glindon swung back to his console and began whispering rapidly out of both mouths. Foster listened closely, offering corrections and variations. They just managed to sever the connection that had ensnared Bix when a dark cackle interrupted their enchantments.

“Not fast enough, Foster,” said a creaky voice. “Not fast enough.”

The mages on the bridge turned to the crystal ball, where the prison ship had been replaced by a horrible face.  Two blue eyes blazed inside a storm cloud of black and white hair, from which a long, thin nose shot accusingly. It was a face Foster had not seen for over two decades.

“Kroven!” spat Foster, pounding his armrest. “But how?”

“How did I escape?” said the old warlock with a bemused pedantic air. “Tell me, Foster, do you know what even a small chaos bubble can do when introduced into the brain of a dim-witted prison guard? Especially one with horns on his head that act like thaumaturgical antennae? No? Well, he becomes highly suggestible and most accommodating to even a prisoner’s demands. Before his mind shatters, that is.” Kroven chuckled. “Wonderful stuff, chaos magic. It comes at a price, of course.”

Kroven raised his left hand to reveal that three of his fingers were missing.  “But don’t worry, Foster, I’ve got something to help me with that.”

The mages gasped when they saw what Kroven held in his other hand.

Even with her glow dimmed and her wings crumpled, the fairy retained the delicate grace that immediately caught Foster’s attention when she first floated onto the Ivory Scepter as part of the Guild’s Fairy Inclusion pilot program. She was stronger than she looked, much stronger. But Kroven’s magic was stronger still.

“Bix!  No!” cried Foster.

“Did I detect a hint of sentiment for this creature?” said Kroven, smacking his lips. “Tisk Tisk, Foster.  I believe the Guild discourages romantic relations between an Archmage and his crew.”  He rolled Bix’s tiny body in his palm.  “I’m not even sure how you two would–”

“Let her go!” screamed Foster.

Kroven mulled the demand for several moments as he jerked Bix back and forth like a ragdoll.  “No,” he said finally, and crunched down on her skull like a carrot.

Glindon screamed out of one mouth and said a prayer with the other.  Aldorra Grunn, the Ivory Scepter’s chief healer, muffled a sob with her hands.  After a moment, the bridge fell silent, but for the faint hum of its illumination orbs and the bubbling of various navigational potions.

On the crystal ball’s display, Kroven grinned wide and waggled the fingers that had reappeared on his left hand, good as new, demonstrating fairy blood’s restorative effect on post-chaos appendage displacement.

Foster forced himself to put Bix and their shattered plans for the future out of his mind. He regarded the newly whole warlock with a steely, calculating gaze.  “What do you want, you monster?”

“Only what I am owed, Foster! I want to be reinstated as Archmage Supreme.  I want my own astral ship–Griffon class or higher.  I want my contributions to the field of interstellar sorcery recognized by the Academy.  I want …”

As Kroven listed various grievances and demands, Foster tucked his hands beneath his blue robes and began scribbling on his palm.  As he did, words appeared in the Ivory Scepter’s barracks: SECURITY TEAM TO TRANSPORTAL ROOM. WANDS ON STUN.

Foster glanced at the display to make sure that Kroven was still droning on.  “And most of all, so-called Archmage Bildenploy, I want you to suffer.  I want to you know the pain of losing your position, your life’s work, your…”

A tiny vibration from his signet ring told Foster that the security team had jumped through the portal. They had orders to make their way through The Golem, unenchanting or, if necessary, subduing her enthralled crew, and then to take down Kroven by any means.

“Foster, are you listening?” Kroven sounded annoyed.

“Yes, yes.  Fourteen centaur concubines.  Was that male or female?”

“Some of each. And here I thought you were distracted thinking about your strike team. You needn’t bother.”

Foster blinked, then hurriedly pulled out his owl feather and tapped it on his earlobe.

“Bildenploy to away team,” he whispered, “What happened? Where are you?”

There was no response, so Foster tapped his ear again and tried channeling Krom. Then Phineas. Then Kevin. None answered.

“What have you done to them?” he growled into the orb.

“Nothing at all,” said Kroven. “I did, however, encase this vessel in an outcome-refracting prism, so that anyone trying to portal onto it would be deposited in a random spot in the galaxy. A rather advanced bit of chaos magic that cost me both feet, but your delicious fairy girlfriend fixed that too.”

“Where are my mages?” screamed Foster.

“Well that’s the beauty of chaos, dear boy.  They could be anywhere. On some barren moon.  Inside a neutron star.  Look, there’s one behind you!”

Foster spun around, but saw nothing.  When he turned back, Kroven was falling out of his chair laughing.

“You looked!  I can’t believe you actually looked.” Tears streamed down Kroven’s hairy face. “Stars and moons, Foster, I don’t know whose wand you polished to get your own ship, but they must be regretting it now.  Not as much as your former crewmages, of course, most of whom are probably suffocating in the vacuum of space.  Does the knowledge that you’ve sent so many Red Robes to their deaths bother you?  Or are you used to it by now?”

Foster swatted over the crystal ball, and Kroven’s devilish face disappeared.  The warlock was only half-wrong. It was not that Foster was used to death, although, in his time as Archmage of the Ivory Scepter, he’d certainly seen his share. Rather, it was that Foster had, long ago, forgiven himself for the lives that would be lost under his command. Greatness had a price, though it was often paid by others. Any Archmage who failed to accept this was a fool.

TWO

Foster, Aldorra, and Glindon solemnly made their way to the situational tabernacle, where they gathered with the other officers to weigh their options at the Stone Alter of Strategy.

Engaging Kroven’s ship had been dismissed immediately. The Golem was practically a warship, and while the Ivory Scepter was no sitting goose, she had been designed for exploration beyond the limits of astral projection, not battle. Besides, as Foster was quick to remind them, there were still Guild personnel on board.  To complicate the situation, Kroven was somehow jamming the Ivory Scepter’s sub-ether communications, thus blocking any distress calls.  They were on their own.

“I know it’s not the most noble option,” ventured Ignatius Dee, the ship’s chief alchemist, “but we could make a run for it.”

“A possible option,” said Foster. “What do the tactical divinations tell us?”

All eyes fell upon Helga Moxley-Pox, as the wizened crone slammed a dusty tome upon the altar. After a scabrous lick of her thumb, she flipped through the pages, grunting when she had found the right charts. The others waited in silence as the witch fumbled in her robes, finally producing a bag from which she pulled several small lizards, slit open their bellies with a jagged fingernail, and spat in the wounds. She then smeared their entrails in two lines across the stone.

“The Golem’s too fast,” she whispered after studying the gore pattern. “She‘d overtake us before we reached the nearest Guild outpost.”

Foster cursed. The other mages sat in silence.

“We need to get Kroven off that ship,” he said finally, rubbing his temples. “And the only way to do that, is to offer him something he wants.”

“But you heard his list of demands,” said Aldorra. “They’re–”

“Insane!” interjected Glindon. Such an outburst would have gotten him reprimanded on any other ship, but Foster let it go. He valued his chief security mage’s loyalty as much his spellcasting.

“I was going to say impossible,” continued Aldorra. “But insane works too.”

Foster drummed his fingers on the alter. “Kroven was just toying with us,” he said after some thought. “What he really wants is me.”

The assembled mages began to chatter, but Foster silenced them with a raise of his hand. He then sighed and proceeded to recount how, years ago, Kroven had been his mentor at the Academy. He told them of Kroven’s secret laboratory beneath the witch-hazel grove where the old warlock tried to bring young Foster into his illicit study of chaos magic. Foster had been intrigued at first (that part he left out), but eventually reported Kroven to the Guild leadership, just as any young mage with half a brain would have. The scandal sent Kroven to prison, and put Foster on the path to the command he’d always dreamed of.

“Now,” said Foster, looking around the stunned faces of his crew, “I imagine Kroven is seeking his revenge. So I’m betting he’ll be eager to face me, mage to mage.”

“Archmage, that’s suicide,” said Aldorra.

Glindon nodded anxiously. “I have to agree,” he said. “Kroven could use his chaos magic to, well I don’t know, anything! Destabilize a whole planet maybe. Turn it inside out or into a ball of lava.”

“Potentially,” said Foster, rising from his seat. “Depending on how much of himself he’s willing to lose. But I don’t think he’ll do that, at least not right away.  He’ll play with me for a while. Maybe he’ll get cocky and give me an opening. In the meantime, you all work on getting through to The Golem and rescuing her crew. But be careful. Understood?”

The mages nodded.

“Merlin preserve you, Archmage,” said Glindon with both mouths.

THREE

Planet KD-78 was as nondescript as any lifeless hunk of rock with no name. It had an atmosphere of sorts, owing to a small ocean on its other hemisphere. But, from where Foster was standing, all he could see was a cracked yellow wasteland.

He was wearing every ring, charm, and amulet his crew could spare. Glindon had spent an hour putting every ward he could think of on him, as Aldorra filled his pockets with healing potions and elixirs. Foster had refused Ignatius’s offer of some serious-looking incendiary crystals, guessing that they could be more liability than asset. Still, he felt a rush of fear when the portal opened, and Kroven stepped onto the dusty ground.

“I’ve waited years for this,” said Kroven.

“Then wait no longer,” said Foster and hurled a massive fireball with all his might. The spell screamed toward Kroven, scorching the earth beneath it. He batted it aside and stabbed two fingers at Foster in riposte.

Nothing happened, but for a tiny pop.

“Brilliant, my boy,” said Kroven. “You remembered my affinity for lightening attacks, so you chose a planet with a negative ion atmosphere. Very clever. But it won’t save you!”

Kroven threw up his hands, and the ground beneath Foster’s feet erupted. He slid down the fresh crag, and landed hard on the ground, rolling away moments before the structure crashed down on top of him. Foster barely had time to drink a resetting elixir and massage his ankle bones back into place before the rock behind which he took cover exploded.

“I taught you better than that!” called Kroven.

Foster snapped his fingers and a blinding light shot out. He heard Kroven groan and rolled out from cover, launching a salvo of energy spikes from his fingertips. They zipped through the air, converging on Kroven, but exploded like fireworks before they could damage him. Foster followed up with a pair of fireballs. Kroven deflected one and dodged the other, but he slipped on the ice Foster had blasted below his feet.

Foster was starting to feel confident and preparing another attack when he felt the ether change. What came to his lips was not a spell, but a prayer.

“Protect me,” he uttered as the wave of chaos swept over him.

Several ward layers flaked off like confetti, and the others were struggling to hold their structure. But hold they did.

When Foster looked up, he saw that the chaos wave had cost Kroven a hand. But it hadn’t slowed him down. Before Foster could counter, Kroven sent a focused beam of noxious randomness at him. Foster knew he couldn’t take another hit head on, so he threw himself to the side. Kroven’s blast only winged him, but it was enough.

Foster screamed in pain. His side bubbled with stochastic disruption, as the living cells shifted wildly from state to state, giving off puffs of chlorine, ammonia, and cinnamon. Foster fumbled through his pockets, discarding vial after vial until he found Aldorra’s anti-entropic salve, which managed to negate the roiling rash, leaving the flesh scarred but intact.

“How long do you think you can hold out, Foster?” shouted Kroven, who was now missing his entire left arm.

“Longer than you by the look of it.”

“You should have joined me. Or at least kept your mouth shut. Now I’ll tear you apart atom by atom.”

Kroven growled as he gathered up entropic forces around him, causing the air to crackle with improbability. Foster lobbed a few magical attacks, but they each fizzled in the swirl of chaos surrounding the warlock. With a deep bellow, Kroven raised his remaining fist to the sky and called down a torrent of disordered reality.

 

Foster had managed to cast a few additional wards, but they only held for a moment. The stronger ones Glindon had set were collapsing quickly as well. Foster yanked an emerald ring from his finger with his teeth and swallowed it with a prodigious gulp. The added burst of power sent his heart racing, and he did his best to shore up the remaining barriers.

All around him, corporeality was boiling. Atoms split and bonded at random, creating a billowing lightshow as windows to other places, times, and dimensions opened for fractions of moments and then disappeared into the boundless chasm of possibility.

Foster’s strength was failing. He drank a fortifying potion and poured another over his head, but Kroven’s power was still too much. The wards were collapsing. The chaos was encroaching. And with a flash of light, it was over.

 

When Foster opened his eyes he saw that he was suspended above a mass of undifferentiated matter. But more importantly, that he was whole. Some of the chaos energy had made it through his shields, but thankfully, it had been absorbed by a very rare and powerful thermodynamic amulet produced from the recesses of Helga Moxley-Pox’s bottomless robe. The concentrated uncertainty had turned the amulet’s jewel into a burnt turnip.

Wearily, Foster floated to a patch of solid-looking ground, careful to avoid hanging bits of plasma. The sky, once green, was now lilac, and the air smelled of copper. He was lucky to be alive.

Kroven had not faired as well. Indeed, he was now no more than a head and torso, hovering uneasily in the air. Even his nose was gone. And yet, when Foster approached him, he saw that Kroven’s eyes were as calm as two glacial lakes.

“It appears you are out of protective trinkets,” said Kroven.

Foster laughed. “It appears you are out of limbs.”

“You continue to underestimate me, Foster. I’ll be whole in a moment. But you’ll still be defenseless.”

Kroven craned his neck and tongued something from a hidden pocket in the flap on his right shoulder. Foster squinted and saw that it was a tiny leg. It disappeared into Kroven’s mouth, which twisted unpleasantly as he swallowed what remained of Bix Plink and started to laugh.

Foster was exhausted. He sat on the ground and removed his boots.

“Giving up already?” called Kroven. “Not going to even attempt a last stand? I don’t blame you. As soon as I…I…” Kroven clammed up when he realized that he wasn’t regenerating.

“Do you know what I hate most about chaos magic,” said Foster, rubbing the empty space where his pinky toe should have been. “It itches like hell.”

Kroven’s eyes darted in panic. “You…you changed it. You transformed the fairy’s leg before I swallowed it. With chaos magic!”

“Sure,” said Foster. “I’ve been using chaos magic for years. Ever since you showed me. I had to be discreet, of course, but it got easier once Bix started providing me with doses of her fairy blood for regeneration. You would have liked her, Kroven. Ambitious. Loyal. Experimental. You weren’t supposed to eat her, you buffoon. Now I’ll have to find another one. Oh well. Plenty more fairies at the Academy since the Guild granted them equal rights.”

“You planned this?” stammered Kroven.

Foster smiled and shrugged. “Do you know how long it takes to rise through the ranks of the Guild? I mean, there’s no one on the leadership council under 250! So I got to thinking, if tattling on you helped me make Archmage, imagine what I’ll get by defeating you single-handed. They might even make me Archmage Supreme!”

“But I found you,” said Kroven, bobbing in bewilderment as he struggled to stay aloft. “I bested your ship.”

“Yes, and it took you long enough. I even had to get that horn-faced dolt a guard position aboard The Golem. His name was Grozzjack, by the way. Most incompetent mage I ever commanded, not that I said so in my recommendation letter. I figured he’d give you an opening, and you took the bait as expected. Of course then I had to make sure I’d have you all to myself, which is why I sabotaged the Ivory Scepter’s communications. Now, no one will doubt that I had no choice but to bravely face you alone.”

Kroven fumed, but said nothing. Foster could sense scraps of magical energies collecting around his diminished frame for a last desperate attack.

“Can I just ask you one thing?” called Foster. “And then I promise I’ll give you a free shot.”

Kroven grimaced. “Ask.”

“Out of all the random possibilities in the universe, what did the Bix’s leg turn into in your mouth? It didn’t look terribly tasty.”

Kroven narrowed his eyes and snorted. “Licorice.”

“Oh,” said Foster, disappointed.

“I hate licorice.”

“Oh!” said Foster happily and launched a magic missile that severed Kroven’s head from his torso.

 THE END

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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