Hello again, folks. This is the third installment of monthly double reviews studying the structure of great horror fiction published in our beloved Cemetery Dance.
Last time I reviewed David B. Silva’s “Fury’s Child” from CD #1 (1988) and Lisa Morton’s “The Rich are Different” from CD #74/75 (2016).
If you haven’t read either one, do check them out. The Silva story in particular is hard to find… of course. 😉
This month we’ve got another 2 stories from the same 2 issues…
THE OLD: “Rock of Ages”
AUTHOR: John B. Rosenman
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #1 (December, 1988)
PLOT (with spoilers!): Steve Marsh is indulging in childhood nostalgia by visiting the county fair. He feels foolish for dishing out a buck fifty—
[Wow. Does that date this publication or what?]
—to visit the fun house, and his harpy of a wife, Bette, is outside, waiting impatiently to “carp” at him when he is done. But for now he is remembering when life was better…
The carnival barker had pitched that Steve would see “the most frightening thing in the world” inside the fun house, and as he turns the doorknob and steps in he wonders absently what it would actually take to meet such high claims. He expects nothing more than papier-mâché monsters, sliding platforms, trick mirrors, and air holes that will goose him from below… all the best stuff from his childhood, but nothing more.
What he sees, however, is shocking to his core. It’s a scene from his own past. A day from his teens when he and Bette had sex for the first time. It had been outdoors in a park. It had been hurried and clumsy. And it had been a set-up. Bette, three years his senior, had easily seduced him and days later explained she was pregnant. They were married weeks later and Steve’s life of hell with his shrew wife had thus begun. Except Bette hadn’t been pregnant. She had lied. To this day she remains barren. And Steve realizes now that he is about to witness the single even that ruined his life.
In a sudden release of all those pent-up years of frustration and hatred, Steve steps forward, flings his teenage self aside, picks up a rock, and brains Bette in the face multiple times.
Moments later his visit to the past is over and he is back inside the fun house. He steps outside and realizes Bette is nowhere to be seen. Better still, a different woman—beautiful and kind-faced—seems to be smiling and waving at him. Two almost angelic children are at her side. They walk towards each other and Steve wonders if he has really done what he thinks he has. But then the beautiful woman veers aside and greets another man.
Steve looks down and sees the rock with Bette’s blood on it is still in his hand. When he looks up, Bette is before him, changed only by the new horrific scar on her face and an evil grin on her face as she tells him, “You didn’t think you had escaped me, did you?”
MY GRADE: A
MY REVIEW: The first thing you should know about this story is that it’s short. Not “The Double”-by-Steve-Rasnic-Tem-short (click here to read that review in Exhumed #1), but still short. It comes in at just over a thousand words. But Rosenman shows us that just because a story is short doesn’t mean it’s simple.
“Rock of Ages” has decent characterization, good building of tension, and a great ending. It also has time travel, asks questions about both fate and revenge, and even gives a pretty good answer to a really difficult but standard horror question: What is the scariest sight in the world? Answer: Having to re-live the worst moment of your life… and messing it up even worse the second time around.
Not bad for a thousand words, huh?
But for me, the real power in this story is that ending. Let’s take a closer look at it…
By showing the beautiful other woman, Rosenman gives Steve Marsh (and us readers) just the right touch of hope before decimating it with reality. Twice.
1: He is NOT married to the better woman.
2: Bette remembers what he did!
Even better (or is it worse?), as we finish reading we are left dealing with a gruesome message as well: if you’re a weak-minded, gullible schlep like Steve Marsh, watch out. You’re in for a world of hurt because the world will find a way to take advantage of you. And if you dare attempt to fix that world, you’ll be swiftly and definitively punished just for trying.
The story has another advantage to which I must give an appreciative nod: working time travel into any story that isn’t primarily about time travel is just plain cool. I’m a BIG fan of that subgenre, and I’ve come to believe it is HARD to do it right in a short space. John Rosenman pulls it off wonderfully.
Finally, I also love the title “Rock of Ages.” I see what you did there. You took a cliché and gave it an entirely new, witty, meaning. Nice.
In summation, Rosenman’s story reinforces that age-old rule in fiction that shorter is generally better. If this were a 3,000-word story, I’d probably give it an A- or B+ and explain that he dragged it on too long or over-described what should have been kept brief. But seeing the relative depth of this piece not only warrants an A, but also reminds this writer about the dangers of verbosity when brevity will do.
THE NEW: “Bad Luck”
AUTHOR: K. S. Clay
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #74/75 (October, 2016)
PLOT (with spoilers!): An unnamed narrator works at the Petrie Veterinary Clinic when a man barges in with a cat carrier in hand. While getting his name (Ronald) and address, the man says that the cat’s name is “Bad Luck” and that he wants them to kill it.
Shocked, the narrator takes a closer look at the cat and asks if it’s sick.
“No,” says Ronald.
She asks if it’s bad tempered.
“Sweet as pie,” says Ronald.
She asks why he’d want it dead, first insinuating—and then stating aloud—that Ronald is a horrible person for wanting this. Ronald says only that she should not presume to know him or his life and that he has his reasons.
The clinic’s doctor overhears their heated conversation and steps in. Ronald repeats his request and pulls back his jacket to reveal a gun… the implied threat is overshadowed only by Ronald’s simple explanation that cat is cursed.
They ask him why and Ronald tells a cryptic story that begins with, “She was dead. The girl. There was a girl in the road when I got out of the car, and she was dead.” He says the cat was there too, “cozied up next to her, brushing her neck, purring,” and even though he didn’t like the looks of the thing, he took it with him because he “felt bad” about the girl and that “Joanna had hinted she wanted one.” He refuses to tell the rest of his story.
Strangely, the doctor allows his request and leads them all—Bad Luck included—into a room in the back of the clinic. As the doc prepares the euthanasia solution, the narrator asks why Ronald didn’t use his gun on the cat. Ronald says he tried… had bought the gun for that sole purpose, in fact. But when he’d taken it to an abandoned field to do the deed, it “didn’t work.” He describes the sweet look in the cat’s eyes and the feel of the gun in his hands and his finger on the trigger and that his finger slipped or his hand started to shake or his arm started to itch and that it just didn’t work.
As the prepared needle descends, the narrator suddenly sweeps Bad Luck off the table. The cat howls. The gun explodes. But no one is hurt. Not yet. Ronald holds them at gunpoint. A hole in the wall shows how close the bullet had come to the narrator’s head.
They end up back on the exam table, the narrator holding Bad Luck’s paw to help the doc find a vein. Ronald literally licks his lips in anticipation. But the doc’s hands suddenly tremble even though the narrator has never seen it before. The doc tries not once but two more times, but is forced to put the needle down. Ronald reacts with fear and pleads the doc to try again. This time, the words sound more like a prayer than a threat.
The doc tries yet again. Ronald leans in closer. The doc suddenly punches Ronald, breaking his nose. The gun drops. The doc grabs Ronald and easily ushers him out while the narrator disposes of the needle, locks the dropped gun in a cabinet, and turns back to the cat… to find the examination table empty. She looks for more than an hour but never finds it.
That night the narrator excuses herself from her fiancé, David’s, advances and finds herself driving to the address Ronald had given her earlier that day. What she finds is Ronald, dead, in the road when she gets out of the car. Bad Luck is there, of course, cozied up next to him, brushing his neck, and purring.
The only difference between Ronald and the dead girl from his own story is his death was no heart attack or stroke. The gun in his hand leaves no doubt. The narrator then takes the cat because—why else?—she felt bad.
The story ends with 2 short lines:
“David’s cough started the next morning.”
“Whatever happened to Joanna?”
MY GRADE: A-
MY REVIEW: This story comes in at around 2,000 words, and I’ll admit that it didn’t impress me in its first 500-or-so words. But Ms. Clay has done something which is very difficult to pull off… she’s written a story which gets continually better as it progresses. The opening premise—some crazy-looking guy wants an animal clinic to kill a perfectly healthy, happy cat—is certainly interesting, but for one of only eleven stories in a horror magazine as illustrious as Cemetery Dance, it seemed comparatively ho-hum to me.
Then Ronald tells his story of how he got the cat, and things start to get interesting.
Then Ronald explains he already tried and failed (or did he?) to kill the cat, and things get even more interesting.
Then the doc has troubles with his hands (or does he?) and there’s a fight and the cat goes missing and all of a sudden the ending is there and it brings the narrator’s story full-circle and we are left pondering what just happened.
Many stories start out with an awesome premise which ends up being a let-down. Ms. Clay has done the opposite… she gave us what seems like a timid horror premise but gives us instead a wild ride.
Best of all, we are left with questions. So many questions…
First, did Ronald kill the girl in the road? Or was it just an accident? The details given in the story itself has Ronald telling us a coroner claimed it was a heart attack or stroke that killed her. But he also admits to being charged with “desecrating a body.” And that, my friends, does not compute. If he was truly just a witness he’s innocent of any such desecration. Which means he must have been hit with some genuinely bad luck to be charged with that kind of personal, macabre crime. Right? Because the only other alternative is that he did desecrate the body, which in turn means he likely killed the girl himself. So which is it? Is Ronald a crazy guy who raped and killed a girl and somehow didn’t get caught and is now blaming things on a random cat… or is he an innocent guy who stumbled across a dead girl and a mysterious cat which continues to bring him bad luck? The truth is, we don’t know. Either scenario is perfectly feasible.
But that’s not the only question that remains.
Next, there’s the clinic’s doctor. Why did his hands shake? It could have been the curse of the “Bad Luck” cat foiling his honest attempts to euthanize it, but it could also be he only pretended to have trouble so as to catch crazy man unawares and prevent the death of some poor, cute kitty. Again, either interpretation is genuinely reasonable.
We also get the cyclical nature of the ending. Ronald’s story matches exactly what happens to the narrator…
-dead person in the road;
-the cat waiting there;
-the cat behaving in the same manner; and
-a Significant Other to both Ronald and the narrator (Joanna and David, respectively), which both have an unknown outcome in the story… but one that does not look good for either of them
Then there’s the question of Ronald’s death. The narrator tells us he shot himself. Problem is, his gun (the one he bought specifically to shoot the cat and therefore we can assume his only gun) is still safely locked away in the clinic, isn’t it? So where did he get the gun in his hand? Or is there no gun in his hand? Maybe the narrator is the crazy one now. Maybe she killed him just like Ronald killed the girl in the road.
And why is David coughing?
And whatever did happen to Joanna?
Is Joanna the girl in the road, perhaps?
Will the narrator tell her own similar story in the upcoming days about David?
And if so, is she destined to die the same way: in the road, beside the cat, passing it on to the next victim?
And how did the cat get out of the clinic unseen? For that matter, how did it find Ronald again?
So… yes. Lots of questions and several ways to answer them. Which is what makes this story so fun.
Both stories this month did a lot in a relatively short space.
The first had tension, time travel, thematic ideas, and a great question to one of horror’s age-old questions.
The second grew exponentially more interesting as the words slipped by and leaves the reader with a seemingly endless collection of unanswered (but fun to think about!) questions.
Mr. Rosenman and Ms. Clay go about using their limited word space quite differently, but they both came to a similar result: pure entertainment in a compact little package.
I, for one, am left contemplating how to write short fiction better than I’ve done in the past.
Do you have any issues of Cemetery Dance with a particular story you’d like me to review?
Are you chomping at the bit to get more reviews from the early, early issues?
Do you have any observations about the differences between old and modern horror?
Tell me your thoughts and I’ll tell you mine.
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.