In its illustrious 29*-year print run, Cemetery Dance magazine has published no less than 560 short stories and novel excerpts in 73** individual issues. As the super fan that I am, Exhumed is my humble attempt to read and review them all in monthly double reviews.
**there were also two “double issues” (#17/18 in 1993 and #74/75 in 2016), each of which squeezed twice as much content into a single magazine.
Last time I reviewed two Norman Partridge stories:
- “Save the Last Dance for Me” from Cemetery Dance #2 (1989), and
- “Slippin’ Into Darkness” (a novel excerpt) from Cemetery Dance #17/18 (1993).
If you missed it, you missed a particularly complex story (and a particularly “colorful” review).
This month is the 10th installment of Exhumed and, as promised, I present to you two Steve Vernon stories.
Let’s get to it…
THE OLD: “In Loving Memory”
AUTHOR: Steve Vernon
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #2: June, 1989. (Story #2 of 11)
PLOT (with spoilers!):
This story is both very short and very simple. As such, I run the risk of either plagiarism or copyright infringement in even a basic plot description. I’ve therefore elected to directly quote only two lines for reasons which I will explain later. Everything else I’m forced to paraphrase… badly…
A name on a tombstone.
Drainage problems have made it so most of the graves have been removed from the burial ground that rests at the bottom of a natural hollow. But his house is on the other side of the hill, so he uses it as a shortcut. It’s a pleasant walk by day, but by night it can seem to take forever.
Another name on another tombstone.
Tonight there is no moon. Even the stars are mostly hidden by clouds. The wind warns of a coming storm. He is walking with his head down and his hands in his pockets. She has found another man and he is going to an empty house, a drink, and maybe a razor.
Another name on another tombstone.
The darkness makes it so the only landmarks are the tombstones. They look like teeth in an old skull.
Another name on another tombstone.
The names leap out at him. He slows to read the inscriptions.
Another name on another tombstone.
The inscriptions are worn by time. The dates are from long ago. He must kneel to decipher some of them. Suddenly he is not in a hurry. Thunder rumbles overhead, which he ignores.
An illegible name on a tombstone.
This stone is worn to virtual smoothness. The name and date are both gone. All that remains is most of a three line epitaph.
GON B T N FO GOT EN
Gone but not forgotten. He wonders: “But who will remember a century old grave, when even the stone has forgotten?” He wonders who will kneel like he is and cry. He wonders who lies there, alone and unloved.
G NE T G D
Gone to God. The storm rains down like God’s tears. A bolt of lightning hits, shattering the tombstone. Nothing is left but the final two words of the epitaph.
Thunder rumbles and he cries aloud as he reads the final two words and tears flow down his cheeks. The ground he kneels on softens and he claws at the grass, hungry for the dirt below.
“A soundless whisper answers him. Soft, muted, a tongue long gone to dust welcomes him.” Bony arms burst from the grave and embrace him. He feels the earth split open beneath him. He smiles and laughs as the loose soil washes over him. The dirt is sweet in his mouth. Eternity doesn’t seem so long.
GO E HOM
MY GRADE: B
I found this story very difficult to grade. Mostly this was because it’s so highly subjective. I could see how people could argue it deserved a higher score… but I could also see how people could argue the opposite.
On the surface, “In Loving Memory” is a simple tale of a guy whose broken heart has pushed him to insanity. Below the surface, though,… well, that’s where we run into trouble. There’s not much going on. It’s not absent of additional value, though. It’s just a bit hard to get to it.
For instance, there’s no indication that the bones that grab the protagonist at the end are real or that he is literally dragged into that grave. It’s abundantly clear this is not a possibility. (The line which tells us he’s going home to a razor tells us he’s already suicidal, so insanity is clearly close behind.) This cements the story in reality rather than fantasy, which keeps it comparatively simple rather than complex.
But it’s also an emotional tale, and one that gives us a couple of really good lines…
“When even the stone has forgotten” is an awesome use of personification; and “Soft, muted tongue long gone to dust” is one hell of a visual way to get us to really feel the sadness of forgetting the dead.
The story’s best aspect is easily this very notion. The idea that we are all going to be forgotten one day, no matter how much we achieve or succeed, is a bitter pill to swallow. It brings to mind the central message of Percey Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (argued by some to be one of the greatest works of literature ever written—a bold claim for a poem only 14 lines long), which shows that even great political power will one day fall and be lost to time.
This is the protagonist’s great fear, but it has only hit him now, when his love has left him. This is a common fear of all humans, and likely a common time to feel it hit home. Why else do authors write, do leaders conquer, and do matriarchs continue the family line? We all want to leave our mark. We all want to be remembered.
But as true as this feeling is among all humans, it’s one that Vernon almost fails to bring to the forefront of our minds. It’s really more in the background of the story because we are concentrated more on understanding THIS man’s trudging through the graveyard and HIS falls into the metaphorical grave. It takes a bit of work (something I’m not adverse to, but also something any good writer should try to avoid whenever possible) to see this additional meaning to the story.
Another issue I had against the quality of Vernon’s story were the actual names on the actual tombstones. There are five, and you’ll notice I didn’t bother copying them in my plot description. That was a deliberate choice because those names don’t really do anything for the story, which is a wasted opportunity, in my humble opinion.
For the record, the five tombstone names are as follows:
WALKER HARRISON CROUCH
SKINNER DEMONE MOSSMAN
OXNER LOGAN HURST
NAYLOR MORTON BLACKWELL
CARVER McKAY HIMMELMAN
Granted, they are a bit odd… bordering on creepy, even. But mostly they’re just old, antiquated names. But other than fitting a description already given, what’s the value of adding them? Yes, there’s the break given between sequences. And, yes, there’s the continued suggestion that he’s moving, passing by yet another tombstone. But the same thing can be established with or without the names. The presence of the tombstones themselves provide these things. What’s the point in THOSE names, then?
Answer: There really isn’t any. Now if Vernon had told us the protagonist’s name was the same as one of these, we could add the detail that, perhaps, he didn’t know his own great-grandfather and would thus be equally unknown to his own great-grandson. Alternatively, we could be told the names were those of prominent people of the past… perhaps the graveyard or the local brewery or even the town itself shared a name with one or all of them (and my writer’s mind simply loves the idea of “Mossman Cemetery”). Alas, the five names on the tombstones don’t add these or any other extra elements to the story and, as I mentioned above, feel like an opportunity lost.
Overall, though, Vernon’s story is nearly as powerful as it is brief, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
THE NEW: “A Wiggle of Maggot, A Curl of Bacon”
AUTHOR: Steve Vernon
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #59: 2008. (Story #5 of 8)
PLOT (with spoilers!):
Battle Carmody (that really is his name) tells his grandson, Billy, not to pick a scab, and Billy asks ‘Why not?’ The question perplexes Battle for a moment.
They are on their sacred fishing trip to the Fence Woods, a place his own grandfather took him when he was Billy’s age. He is making sure to make the most of it. His time in the Korean War taught him the fickleness of life.
“Scabs are a part of you,” Battle tries. “Our wounds are what we wear over our hurt.” He goes on to explain it’s best to let healing things alone. But Billy is too young for such a deep answer. He challenges his grandfather’s answer with simple childhood innocence.
Battle has more or less raised Billy because his mother is a drunk and his father has never been there, so when Billy—who is only 13 after all—picks at the scab again, Battle tries again to steer him. “Scabs cover up echos,” he tries this time, and goes on to explain how pain can come back to you sometimes if you wake it up. This time Billy responds with the scientific answer he learned in school.
Billy asks where Battle gets all of his stories. Battle says he pulls them out of his gut because they crawl around in there like worms until he lets them out to see what he’s learned. Billy laughs, which does wonders for Battle.
As they move along, Billy accidentally steps in a rotting rabbit corpse. As Battle helps him clean the smelly decay from his shoe, he sees and collects a few maggots. Fat maggots, he tells Billy, are very good bait. Billy asks what killed the rabbit, and Battle says it was maybe just old age. The silence that lingers afterwards is uncomfortable to Battle, so he distracts them both by giving Billy his kabar knife, telling him he gets to clean any fish they catch.
The ploy works. Billy stuff the knife into his belt and stands a little taller. Battle considers letting the boy keep the knife, knowing that “Old Granddaddy Death” would be catching up to him sooner or later.
Battle warns Billy not to cut himself with the knife, though he’s not really worried because he already taught him right. Together, they stuff their pockets with more maggots to join the half-cooked bacon they’d packed there earlier for bait, and set off deeper into the woods. Battle knows that with a wiggle of maggot and a curl of bacon, even the best fish would be unable to smell the barbed metal hook in the water.
Battle thinks about how fish are much like boys: both are open and hungry and ready to be fed. With boys, though, it’s stories from grandfathers that are their bait. Battle knows all this because as a young man in Korea he had learned the many ways a man can die.
Billy seems to read Battle’s thoughts, asking suddenly what he had done in the war. Battle gives him the same answer he’d done many times before: “Ducked down and concentrated on remaining unshot.” But this time Billy pushes the issue. “Tell me the real answer,” he says.
Battle’s thoughts are sent back in time to his days in Korea.
* * *
They’d given him the rank of First Lieutenant, though that was mostly because one of the others had been killed while another had retired. The truth was that the silver-colored bar on his shoulder meant next to nothing in deep North Korean territory.
One of his men, Sergeant Trumble, asked if he’s lost. Lieutenant Battle Carmody (named such because it had taken two whole days for his own mother to bear him: “It was a battle,”she’d said when it was finally over before she died six days later) told him, “No. We are not lost. I’m lost. You’re right where you need to be. Following me.”
Sergeant Trumble said that reminded him of a story and proceeded to tell a tale about a man who got lost in a dense fog and whose new calf eats their way home through the fog and that the whole family lived on calorie-free fog meat for years afterwards.
Just then, a North Korean soldier walked out of the jungle and towards the Marines. Battle and his entire platoon melted into the dense cover and waited in perfect silence. Battle tried to decide what to do while the soldier came closer and his platoon awaited his orders. It would have been an easy kill, no doubt, but Battle worried about how many other North Koreans were nearby. It could have been a couple. It could have been a whole division. The soldier walked straight towards Battle, and that’s when things went very bad very fast.
* * *
Hooking a trout is a skill which involves timing and experience. Battle learned it by failing over and over again when his own Grandpa Jake had caught fish after fish.
A trick like that, Battle recalls, is one that you either learn or don’t learn. It’s also “a little like show and tell, only the other way around.” With his Grandpa Jake, it was all show and no tell.
It’s the same way Battle tries to teach Billy now, only he’s modified things a bit. He’s softer. He’s changing the trail to suit his own needs. Problem is, “some trails you follow, and some will follow you.”
* * *
Battle let go of his gun and quietly pulled out his kabar knife, making sure to keep the blade in dirt so it wouldn’t glint in the sun and give away his position. His thought was to make a quiet kill if necessary. The North Korean soldier stopped just three feet from Battle and proceeded to light a cigarette. Battle needed him to move just one step closer. But the soldier didn’t move closer. He unzipped his fly and proceeded to urinate in Battle’s direction. It was the sound of the urine hitting Battle’s leather boots that got things rolling.
* * *
Battle is enjoying the soul-searching activity of casting of his line into the water. He thinks: “It isn’t always about catching fish, you know. If you’re careful, you can catch gods this way.” He thinks about how doing nothing but feeling the sun and the wind is sometimes its own reward.
He hears a trout jump, and then Billy falls in the water. He’d been reaching for a turtle and lost his footing. Battle isn’t worried because he knows Billy can swim and the current isn’t strong. A few seconds later, though, he sees the water turning red.
* * *
Battle added another clip to his M3 and squeezed off several more rounds over his shoulder as his platoon retreated through the woods. Someone to his left was praying as he ran. Battle’s fingers couldn’t find the next clip of ammo in his pocket. The whole jungle had exploded with gunfire. Someone else to Battle’s right started screaming about his legs.
Battle didn’t know many of their names. He’d given up trying after too many deaths. The war had taught him the lie of death, which was that people didn’t really “pass away” or “expire.” Death was often far more violent than that.
He didn’t know if it was the entire North Korean army that was chasing him or only a half-dozen. He didn’t have time to tend the wounded, only to keep running like everyone else. He saw a machine gun nest and also some snipers picking off his troops. Everything was a terror-strewn chaos of noise and blood.
Then Battle’s right thigh got hit and he began to fall. But even before he hit the ground his belly got hit too, and immediately he felt “a long snake running out” of him before he blacked out.
* * *
Battle is having a hard time holding onto Billy. He’s too slippery with blood and river water. He sees the problem: Billy had put the kabar knife in his belt without a sheath and when he fell it slid up and “caught him in the soft of his belly.”
There is chaos and panic and blood as Battle tries to hold the wound closed and Billy screams. The blood attracts a mosquito and another jumping trout. The wound keeps pumping, though, as the maggots and bacon spilled from their pockets. Battle has no idea what to do.
Except suddenly he does.
* * *
Battle woke alone in the woods. He tried to move but couldn’t.
He looked at the night sky and remembered a somewhat violent story his Grandpa Jake told him about how the Day married the Sky, got jealous, and stabbed Mother Night with a crescent moon, then shot her up full of star holes.
He worked his hand slowly towards his middle. The wetness there reminded him of a game his Grandpa Jake had played every Halloween. In the dark, young Battle and his friends had been invited to feel a witch’s eyeball (peeled grape), witch’s guts (bowl of cold spaghetti), and witch’s brain (scrambled eggs). Only the guts he felt in Korea were his real guts, his intestines. Touching them only caused them to slide out of his wound a little further.
Battle remembered another story his Grandpa Jake told him about how the fakirs of India would cut a hole in their stomachs and tie a rope to the end of their intestines and play a flute and both rope and intestines would rise towards the sky.
It was then that Battle saw his actual Grandpa Jake there in those North Korean woods. He was almost naked, clothed only in scrapbook photographs and a few notes he’d written onto the backs of his hands. Battle wasn’t sure if it was his actual Grandpa or maybe “something else just wearing his memory.” Either way, the figure took his spilled intestines, coiled them like a rope, and cast them into the woods like a fishing line.
Moments later, Battle felt something pulling back from the other end.
* * *
Tending over Billy, Battle gives him words of encouragement while he unbuttons his shirt: a thing he almost never does in the light of day. Even in the darkness, he only ever gets undressed with his eyes closed. He doesn’t like to see the thing he’d been “wearing” since that time in North Korea.
He knows now that much or maybe all of what happened then was a fever dream that came out of his injuries, but nevertheless he also believe something grew on his open wound that saved his life. A fungus, he thinks, “fallen from some lonely night sky.” It was a color he’d never seen before or since, and it ran a long, lacy finger up through his wound and into his heart.
He never knew whether he let the sky fungus grow on him or whether the event was just something that happened to him. He only knows he didn’t fight it because he knew it would be good for him.
What Battle does next is take the kabar knife and cut open his belly once more. It’s hard work because the sky fungus has built up a thick coating through all the years, but he gets it done and scrapes some of it off and puts it on Billy’s wound. The sky fungus sucked right on and then all the rest of it pulled off of Battle and onto Billy.
It seems for a moment that everything will be okay, but Battle feels there’s something else that needs to be done. He works the knife back into his belly, opening his old wound again. Soon he has the coil of his intestines in his hands. They are more than flesh and blood, though. They are memories and experience and dream.
Battle casts his intestines out into the darkness of the woods. Again and again he throws it out and reigns it back in. “Come on,” he shouts. “My boy needs you.”
Battle isn’t sure what he hopes to catch in the Fence Woods. He wasn’t sure if anything at all would grow.
But then he feels a nibble and he lets it go.
MY GRADE: A
The second of Steve Vernon’s tale presented to you here was written 19 years after the first, and it is infinitely better. It’s more complex. It’s more developed. It’s more meaningful. It’s more entertaining. And, damn it, it’s just written better. Let’s look at just some of the reasons why…
- Billy’s scab is a metaphor…
It pertains to how things that heal are better left alone. This relates mostly to the mysterious sky fungus (for now, let’s pretend it’s a real thing and not a figment of Battle’s imagination). When he let the fungus do its thing in Korea, it saved his life. But it also relates to Battle’s own need to heal from his lost wife, failure to raise a good son of his own, and guilt/ loss of his fallen comrades in Korea. The story gives us little of how much he “picked at” or “let alone” the healing process of any of these, but we also understand the story isn’t really about fishing with one’s grandson or surviving war. It’s about how to heal over a long life of injuries.
- The act of fishing is a metaphor…
This one adds a whole other level of curiosity to Vernon’s tale. It’s where we get the story’s title, for one thing. We are told that bait like the wiggles of maggot and curls of bacon are what it takes to trick a fish into biting at a barbed hook. If the sky fungus is real, why does Battle need to go fishing for it? And what bait is he using? Meanwhile, we are also told that the act of fishing is one in which you can find your soul or your god. We are told about the beauty of casting a line into the distance and being patient. Generically speaking, fishing is one of the oldest known forms of obtaining sustenance. Whole villages and careers revolve around it. Battle calls his trip with Billy “sacred,” and I’d be hard-pressed to find a better word for it.
- The protagonist’s name is “Battle.” Yes, we are given a cute little reason for it (his delivery was a tough one, lasting two whole days), but let’s not overlook the significance here. A large portion of the story is one of war: His whole platoon battled to make it out alive… There’s the battle of whether or not to kill the North Korean soldier who almost stumbles upon them in hiding… There’s the battle to learn other soldiers’ names knowing most of them will die anyway… There’s the battle to survive getting shot in the gut. Later in life, Battle battled the guilt of raising a deadbeat dad for a son (Side note: There was a great line in that scene: “Kids are like mystery seeds that way. You plant them as best you can and there’s no telling just what will grow.”) And of course at the very end Battle battles saving Billy’s life… at what appears to be the expense of his own.
- They go fishing in the “Fence Woods.” Why “fence”? Fences are barriers, but unlike true walls you can see through them. Early in Vernon’s story we are told that as a kid Battle ran through those woods but that at some point someone put a fence all around them, “all barbed wire and crankiness, with big old KEEP OUT signs and TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT.” The story also goes on to talk about the irony that over the years those signs were shot up with kids’ .22s and adults’ shotguns. The scene ends with Battle saying he appreciated those bullet holes and never much cared for authority. Couple this factoid with the knowledge that he will one day lead a platoon (poorly, it seems, and also by default rather than by earning the position) and also fail to properly raise a son, we understand the fence in the Fence Woods is its own little metaphor for “Bucking The System” or “Sticking It To The Man” (choose your favorite adage).
- The references to stories:
- Sergeant Trumble was a known storyteller. His story was about a calf that fed on fog and a family that fed on fog-meat. Interesting little tale considering fishing is already a known metaphor.
- Grandpa Jake was a storyteller too. His two stories were about the violence of Day and Night and Sky and about the Indian Fakirs who tied their own intestines to ropes. Even
- Battle himself becomes known by Billy to be a spinner of tall tales for amusement purposes. He talks about scabs being a part of you and how they cover up echos… he just doesn’t tell the true story about what happened in the war.
But what’s the point? Why add these multiple references to storytelling? I think it comes down the following line: “Fish were like that, open and hungry and ready to be fed. So were boys. Boys were open books you told stories to, hungry pages aching for whatever ink they found.” One could argue that this is the real message of Vernon’s story: not about healing over a long life of injuries, but that passing on who you are to the next generation is just another yarn to spin, another tale to tell.
- There are several well-written lines & descriptions. I’ve already shared a few:
- “Scabs cover up echos.”
- “Our wounds are what we wear over our hurt.”
- “It isn’t always about catching fish, you know. If you’re careful, you can catch gods this way.”
- “Kids are like mystery seeds. You plant them as best you can and there’s no telling just what will grow.”
- But here are a few more:
- “Old Granddaddy death wears awful soft feet.”
- “I lay there in the dirt, not more than fifteen feet away from him, doing my level best to think moss thoughts and smell like Korea.”
- “The North Korean was walking towards us. I watched his boots lifting themselves, one over the other, floating that little rat bastard closer to our position. This is what an ant feels like, right before the boot comes down.”
- “I didn’t understand a lot of what my Grandpa Jake told me, but you know I learned a lot from the old man all the same. Some of it stuck and some of it didn’t and some of it grew into what became me.”
- “…the suck-hole of my belly pipe…”
But if I had to pick just one… a single exchange that summed up the whole story… it’s be this one:
“A man has to eat whatever he catches in this old world.” / “Even if it tastes bad?” / “Even if it tastes worse.”
So after all that you may be wondering why I gave this story an A and not the full A+. Well, if you’ve read this column before, you might already know. I save A+ for those that truly stand out. Stories that are not just great but spectacular. Often this comes down to personal preference. In this case, it may be that I have an unfair bias against war stories. It may be that the fishing metaphor sounded vaguely familiar to something else I’ve read in the past. It may be that the good lines were either just a little too weak or just a little too few. For whatever reason, Vernon’s tale, while clearly a great one, didn’t quite have that extra sparkle to warrant the coveted “plus” in my humble opinion.
While it’s not a necessity that a story be long in order to be awesome, it’s certainly harder to do so with fewer words. The opposite can also be true, of course. There are scores of long stories which are, in truth, merely just long-winded.
Still, in comparing these two Steve Vernon tales, there’s no doubt that the nod of quality clearly goes to the longer and more developed of the two.
It kind of makes me appreciate when a super-short tale, like Steve Rasnic Tem’s “The Double”, can still leave your mind spinning.
Agree or disagree with any of this?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
-K. Edwin Fritz
Next month I’ll be reading/ reviewing each of the following:
- “The Sanctuary” by Bentley Little (Cemetery Dance #2), and
- “In the Room“ by Bentley Little (Cemetery Dance #71)
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.
In addition to his Cemetery Dance Online column, Keith writes “The Bone Pile” for FictionVortex.
Keith lives with his wife, Corina, in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.