Hello again, folks. This is the fourth installment of monthly double reviews studying the structure of great horror fiction published in our beloved Cemetery Dance.
Last time I reviewed John B. Rosenman’s “Rock of Ages” from Cemetery Dance #1 (1988) and K. S. Clay’s “Bad Luck” from Cemetery Dance #74/75 (2016). Fellow author James Pyne commented that short fiction is becoming the preferred mode of digesting fiction these days. Do you agree?
This month I’ve chosen one of my favorites from issue #1, and I was going to read a story I’ve never read before from #25 (my thinking was to visit the issue that marked the one-third spot in Cemetery Dance’s history)… except 2017 unexpectedly smacked us with the same painful losses we were subjected to so many times throughout 2016.
On January 12th, we lost William Peter Blatty, author of both The Exorcist novel (1971) and its famous, Academy Award-winning original screenplay (1973). He was 89.
Here are two quick factoids concerning Blatty’s writing talents:
- The novel The Exorcist was on the New York Times Bestseller list for 57 straight weeks in ‘71 & ‘72, taking the top spot for 17 of them.
- The movie version of the story was the first horror film ever nominated for the Academy Award for “Best Picture.” Though it didn’t win that award (losing to The Godfather is nothing to be ashamed of), it did win for “Best Adapted Screenplay,” which was Blatty’s primary contribution to the film.
So instead of looking at an arbitrarily-chosen issue this month, I thought it more appropriate to take a closer look at Cemetery Dance #62, which was a special issue dedicated to Mr. Blatty. Imagine my bittersweet joy at seeing the following words right there on the cover: “The CONTROVERSIAL short story that never saw print.” Yeah. You and I both need to take a look at that.
So let’s see get to it…
“The Departing of Debbie”
AUTHOR: Anke M. Kriske
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #1 (December, 1988)
PLOT (with spoilers!): Jim Conant has just finished a clandestine evening in a parked car with his mistress, Debbie. Unfortunately, Debbie dies immediately afterward, presumably of a heart attack.
Conant surveys the results of the rough sex they’d just had—scratches on her back & his arms, bodily fluids on the car seat, ripped clothes, a missing earring—and he realizes he’d easily be pegged as a murderer. And even if an autopsy eventually proved otherwise, his wife probably wouldn’t appreciate his innocence. He decides his only course of action is to hide the body.
Conant is also a high school science teacher, and they had been having their fun parked after hours in the school’s vacant lot. He quickly determines his best option is inside the school itself. Thanks to his coaching position for the track team, he has a key.
Inside his classroom, Conant struggles to get her body into the aluminum sink and gets to work. Using rubber gloves, some acid, a collection of little knives used for frog dissections, and twenty years’ experience teaching anatomy, he begins to dismantle her body piece by gruesome piece.
He starts with the skin and muscles on her back and soon moves to her internal organs. As he works, he names the various parts, feeling like one of his own students for the first time in years. It takes several hours, but with the help of the cafeteria’s garbage disposal, Conant disposes of all of Debbie’s flesh and organs. In the end, there is nothing left but her bones.
And then comes his “crowning achievement.” Conant reasons that if the best place to hide a book is in a library, the best place to hide a skeleton (no, it’s not the local cemetery… his is near a highway and practically next door to the police station so he’d never be able to bury the bones unseen) is on display in a science classroom. Taking another few hours to accomplish the task, he arduously strings together Debbie’s bones. When done, he exchanges the classroom skeleton, Clyde—who is old and who Conant been asking to replace for years—with his beloved Debbie.
[This story could pretty much end there, topping out around 1,800 words; however, Kriske gives us so much more story in only 700 additional words.]
Weeks and then months pass. Conant has gotten away with it. His students suspect nothing, his wife is none the wiser, and every morning he gets to have a brief chat with his old flame, usually to his sexual arousal.
Then, with only days before the end of the school year, tragedy hits. Another teacher presents Conant with a gift… a replacement skeleton just like he’s been asking for years. The exchange, the teacher explains, has already been made. “Clyde” is already on his way to the incinerator.
Conant rushes to the boiler room just in time to prevent the janitor from destroying the collections of bones he has come to love. He screams as the janitor lifts the box toward the open door of flame: “You are not to touch Debbie!” and begins beating the man.
The final paragraphs tell us Debbie was incinerated anyway, and Conant is now living in a mental ward. And he lives there with not one secret, but two. Not only is the true departure of Debbie still unknown…at the last moment that day, Conant stole a little part of her—a finger bone. But since the patients at the ward aren’t allow to have pockets, he keeps it hidden inside his mouth.
MY GRADE: A+
MY REVIEW: Simply put, this story rocked. It’s the first truly great story published by Cemetery Dance. As a reader, I was entranced from the beginning. I was shocked and filled with morbid fascination several times along the way. And that ending… yikes! Talk about memorable. Kriske has written a tale with all the trappings of classic horror. The beginning has some mild sex, the middle has plenty of gore and grue for you splatterpunk fans, and my favorite comes at the end with the psychology of a broken mind.
Though the vocabulary is simple throughout, “The Departing of Debbie” is far from a simple story. When Conant’s affair ends so terribly, we see the confusion, the fear, and the rationalization of a man who is innocent of any legal crime but horribly guilty of moral ones.
Next we are given the meticulous cleaning up of the body, a thing Kriske does with fantastic detail (the scene where Conant uses a coffee spoon to scoop out Debbie’s brain from her skull is particularly nasty). Here we are given the unforgettable details of that classic gore trope mixed nicely with the slow undercurrent of growing insanity.
Finally, we get the twist ending which not only takes the story further than we had expected with the stolen finger bone, but also leaves us literally horrified as we close the magazine picturing it in his mouth for an unknown length of time. For me, the story was a 5-star going into the final paragraphs. The ending was a welcomed exclamation point.
Full Disclosure: I’ve read plenty of getting-away-with-murder stories in the past. They can be entertaining, but on occasion they really do leave me wondering if the author might actually be using fiction as an outlet for deeper problems. (And even if they don’t, the point of these stories is almost always to showcase the cleverness of a born killer). As creepy as these tales are, they’re also usually a bit ho-hum because they can often be predictable. Kriske’s story is light years better than these. Her protagonist isn’t a killer. Instead, he’s a thief of his wife’s trust and devotion. This means we still hate him, but on another level much closer to reality. Moreover, he starts the story in perfect sanity which he loses piece by piece as the story progresses.
As a writer, I was struck mostly with the story’s final 700 words, but I’m not talking about the power of those events, I’m talking about the structure of the story itself. Think for a moment about the standard design of a piece of fiction. It goes something like this: Character A has Problem B which forces him/her to Action C, D, and E until Climax F solves the problem and leaves us with Resolution G. What Kriske has done, however, is sneak in an additional part of the narrative plotline after G. Call it “ClimaLution H.” Okay, that’s weird, I know. Allow me to explain…
When we see Conant has Debbi’s skeleton in his classroom, he has solved his problem. We suspect the final paragraphs we have yet to read are the resolution—showing how he goes on with his life—and we also suspect something will go wrong (it is a horror story, after all). Possibly he’ll get caught. Possibly there will be a supernatural twist and Debbie’s bones will come alive and strangle him to death. Possibly he’ll eye that skeleton day after day, slowly working up the courage to commit a real murder just so he can dismantle another body. And when the other teacher arrives and tells Conant and his new skeleton, it seems Kriske is giving us what we expected. Conant really has gotten away with it, but now his punishment will be to lose his obsession. But then… WHAM! That awesome twist. Conant’s fear of losing Debbie causes him to lose his mind completely and we see him end up in a mental ward with his little prize hidden in such a gruesome place for… how long? Months? Years? Several decades to come, even? One shivers at the mere concept.
It’s another, higher climax than we had been expecting because it solves Conant’s new problem (losing Debbie), and it works simultaneously as a resolution because it redefines Conant as a new person… a truly crazy one.
“Terry and the Werewolf”
AUTHOR: William Peter Blatty
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #62 (October, 2009)
PLOT (with spoilers!): Pete Lofler is a waiter at a summer resort in the Catskill Mountains which is currently playing host to the New York City Police Department. Terry Harnedy is one of the guests that has caught his eye (and she, his) the past few days. She’s also the police commissioner’s daughter.
Gregg Malloy, another waiter at the resort, is also interested in Ms. Harnedy, much to the ire of Lofler. Gregg, you see, is nothing short of a Greek god. He’s handsome, has perfect hair, and is a journalism major with an “important novel” in the works, which never fails to impress the ladies.
So one day Lofler and Gregg are busy harassing each other when the live band strikes up their tunes in the Huddle Room which only ever means one thing to the wait staff… the opportunity to mingle with guests on the dance floor.
Lofler needs time to shave and arrange his hair and thus arrives late to find that Terry is already dancing with Gregg. But he cuts in easily enough and soon tries to work up a conversation with her. It doesn’t go well at first, but things turn around when Terry suddenly asks if Lofler will be “going back to Mexico” anytime soon. This baffles Lofler, but he manages to work the word swap to his advantage, and before the end of the band’s mangled version of Stardust she has her head cozily resting against his.
When Gregg tries to cut in, Lofler sends him packing. Terry says it was rude to do so, but within seconds she admits she can understand why Lofler doesn’t like him. She tells him it was Gregg who told her Lofler worked in a Mexican fish cannery the rest of the year. She also tells him she wants her dad to meet him.
The following morning the breakfast crowd is unnaturally busy, and Lofler is slammed with work. He flounders for just a few seconds but gets reamed by his boss anyway. That was the bad part. The really bad part is that it was in front of all the guests, which included Terry Harnedy.
Back in his room that night, his roommate, Charlie, reveals that Gregg had initiated the mass-breakfast crowd by slipping a card under all their doors proclaiming that kitchen repairs necessitated that breakfast be between 8:00 and 8:30 only. Charlie finishes up by telling Lofler that Gregg had just taken Terry for a moonlit stroll to the town pizza joint—his favorite romantic ploy.
Charlie suggests Lofler goes to the pizza joint and pops Gregg in the mouth. Lofler tries to explain that, despite Gregg’s known cowardice, it wouldn’t be dignified and would only dissuade Terry further. Charlie goes off on another wild scheme and then suddenly stops mid-sentence. Lofler looks to him, confused. Charlie excitedly reminds Lofler about the time they had walked home from the movies and Lofler had scared a farm dog. Lofler knows exactly what he’s thinking of but tells him such an idea is kid’s stuff. “But Pete,” Charlie says, “you’ve got the gift!”
They go down to the pizza place, hide in the bushes, and wait. When Terry and Gregg come out, Lofler gulps a lungful of night air and lets loose with an eerily powerful, accurate, bloodcurdling werewolf howl. Before he even finishes, the sound of running footsteps can be heard. When he does finish, Lofler sees Charlie is standing there, board-stiff, with his eyes wide with shock and awe. Lofler pulls him out of his daze and, to beat Terry and Gregg back to the hotel, they cut through the woods, making sure to give a couple more howls along the way to make it realistic.
Back at the hotel, Lofler and Charlie sit on the patio as Terry and Gregg return. They tell about what they heard and an old woman a few chairs away says she heard it too and that nothing human could have made those sounds. Gregg explains they ran most of the way back, but Terry clarifies that he had been the one running and she had merely been following. Gregg makes an excuse about needing coffee and goes back inside, at which point Charlie makes an excuse about needing sleep and leaves as well. Finally having Terry all to himself, Lofler tries to make more small talk, but she surprises him by calling him out. She knows it was him who howled, and pulls a thistle from his pants leg as evidence. She tells him she’ll keep his secret and leaves with a playful smile.
The following morning, Lofler is approached by one of the guests (who just happens to also be one of the police), and asks him to join a group of them who are going to go out hunting a wild wolf that was terrorizing the area. He is given a rifle, and Lofler even gets him to hand over a shotgun for Charlie, whom he insists would make another good addition to their group.
A few hours into the “hunt,” Charlie suggests Lofler does the howl again… “To give the boys a little sense of mission.” Lofler is only a little hesitant and quickly lets loose with a short but distinctive howl. When he’s done, Charlie’s eyes are wide and staring like they had been the night before. This time, though, he’s not focused on Lofler but the cop who had just come over the ridge and had seen the truth.
Both Lofler and Charlie are immediately demoted to dishwasher duty where, later that afternoon, a collection of visitors arrives getting a tour. Among them is the police commissioner, a/k/a Terry’s father. Terry is there, too. Their boss asks for a demonstration of the cutting-edge dishwasher (an assembly-line style steam box) just as Gregg walks in slapping Lofler on the back. He and Charlie get to work, but when Lofler hands Gregg a stack of hot plates, Gregg’s unaccustomed hands drops them all to the floor. Terry, not surprisingly, catches Lofler’s eye, and laughs.
The story ends with a massive flash-forward. It is many years later and Pete Lofler and Terry Harnedy are married. She still sometimes gets a funny look in her eye whenever they do dishes together, and she usually ends up putting her head on Pete’s shoulder. We also learn Gregg had been demoted that day, too, spending the rest of the summer working the lowest level job in the dishwasher room, which was scraping food from the dirty plates.
MY GRADE: B-
MY REVIEW: The first thing you need to know about this story is that it’s genre is humor, not horror. There are a dozen or more decent one-liners coming from Pete Lofler’s mind or mouth that make us smirk and enjoy the story a little more. From his desire to “take a scythe” to Gregg Malloy’s “Hollywood length haircut” or the way we Blatty tosses in odd, seemingly pointless details such as how Charlie often nibbles at the collar of his sweater, “a habit he had when he was thinking hard and wearing his sweater both at the same time.” Funniest line, though, came in the scene then Lofler is overwhelmed with the breakfast traffic… “Some of the kids started banging silverware against plates and glasses and pretty soon it was like Howdy Doody Time, only with overtones of Death of a Salesman.” Ha! 😀
The second thing you need to know is that Blatty’s style of writing in this piece is casual… extremely casual. It’s in first-person perspective, which helps to pull some of the humor out of the story. Mostly, though, we get to feeling that Pete Lofler is one of our friends. He’s telling us this story at some point in the future, and we love that he’s taking us on this little ride of his. The tone of the story, from first word to last, is one of jovial conspiratories: “Hey, you wanna hear somethin’ cool? Well sit back and listen to this…” My favorite example comes early in the story when Lofler and Terry are on the dance floor:
“What’s with this Mexico jag?” She didn’t exactly answer me unless you call putting your head back and laughing an answer. But then—sweet mystery of life!—her head was against mine and we were dancing to “Stardust” the way it was meant to be danced, namely cosy. So I didn’t push for an explanation. I felt childlike again.
So on the whole it sounds like this would be a great story. I love the tone. I like the humor. So what gives with the B- rating? Well, the problem is there’s really not much STORY to this story; and to be honest the humor element was supposed to be the whole point of the thing, but it comes off as decent but not particularly remarkable.
I did, however, enjoy the numerous references to literature, film, and other pop-culture and artistic figures, including:
- Leo Durocher
- Leo Tolstoy
- Charlie Chan
- Hoagy Carmichael
- “Death of a Salesman”
- Marc Antony
- Les Miserables
- Frank Lloyd Wright
- Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman
- “The Hound of the Baskervilles”
- Lon Chaney, Jr.
- Van Gogh
- “The Great Mouthpiece”
- Philo Vance
- “Little Red Riding Hood”
To be sure, coming across each one of these is an experience of whimsy and joy. In the interest of full disclosure, however, most of them felt contrived and as such pulled me out of the story. I think Blatty should have cut this list in half and kept only the ones he could slip in naturally. Also, I found it odd that Lofler had any thoughts about literary authors and figures when it was Gregg Malloy who was the writing and Lofler neither liked nor respected him. The suggestion is that Lofler would not respect literature as well, but he clearly did.
But aside from all of the above, the most relevant question of is the one I had from my first glance at the cover: Why in the world is this story “controversial?”
I had assumed it would have something to do with the content… a strong sense of sexuality, perhaps, or maybe even a precursor to The Exorcist that readers of the time weren’t quite ready for, such as this “Terry” character being possessed or controlled by a werewolf.
Nope. Not even close.
The story itself is actually quite tame. There’s no actual werewolf to speak of, and even the “fear” trumped up by Lofler’s incredible howl plays a relatively small role and is never examined in much detail.
And yet, there IS a controversy here.
To find it, I had to read Cemetery Dance’s interview with Mr. Blatty that appeared earlier in the issue…
Earlier in his career, Blatty had published a non-fiction humor piece in The Saturday Evening Post about being a soldier in Lebanon whom the locals didn’t know could speak Arabic. Because of that publication and its humorous nature, he submitted “Terry and the Werewolf” to TSEP. TSEP rejected it because it was both a little too long and “a little unbelievable.”
And THAT, my dear CD-loving friends, is the controversy. You see, it turns out that “Terry and the Werewolf” is actually based on a true story. Blatty himself had been the college kid who had let loose with an unearthly howl one summer, and he really was involved in a police-organized hunt trying to track down… well, himself! As he said in the interview: “We never caught the guy.” And until October of 2009, “Terry and the Werewolf” really had never been published. Richard Chizmar quite clearly added it in the later pages of the magazine to help round out his William Peter Blatty special issue. So that’s two fun stories we get in Cemetery Dance #62.
Not bad, Mr. Chizmar. Not bad.
Not all stories need to follow the prescribed format. Sometimes the result of breaking the mold leads to great success while other times… not so much.
And to be clear here, I’m not just talking about Kiske’s “The Departing of Debbie” and Blatty’s “Terry and the Werewolf.” Blatty’s phenomenal The Exorcist fits right in, and is clearly one of the greater break-the-mold successes the world of horror has ever seen.
But that’s a story for another day.
Do you have any thoughts on either of these stories? I’d love to hear what’s in your brain. I promise to respond in kind.
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.