Welcome to Exhumed, my humble attempt to read and review every story and novel excerpt ever published in Cemetery Dance magazine.
Each month I’ll summarize and analyze a pair of related works. Usually this means comparing one “older” and one “newer” piece by the same author.
In their 29+ years of publication, CD has already printed 560 pieces, spread out over 75 issues. I think I’m going to be doing this for a while…
Last time I reviewed two William Relling Jr. stories:
- “Four-In-Hand” from Cemetery Dance #2 (1989), and
- “Life of the Party” from Cemetery Dance #4 (1990)
It was also the 1-year annivTHE OLD: “Four-In-Hand”ersary (12th installment) of Exumed. So for no other reason than that, you should check it out if you missed it.
This month is the 13th installment of Exhumed and, as I promised last month, I present to you two Ronald Kelly stories.
Let’s get to it…
THE OLD: “Better Than Breadcrumbs”
AUTHOR: Ronald Kelly
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #2 (June, 1989) (Story #5 of 11)
PLOT (with spoilers!):
The seed of Troy Saunders’ fear of birds had been planted upon watching the famous Hitchcock film, and had worsened with each childhood nightmare over his formative years. As the fear blossomed with his own adolescence, Troy found an outlet for it all in simple cruelty: birds clipped of their wings and fed to the cat; his grandmother’s canary drowned in dishwater; and so many birds blinded or otherwise maimed by his trusty BB gun. As he matured, Troy’s maliciousness only became more sophisticated. Most recently, his college roommate at Georgia State came home one day to find his pet mynah had regurgitated its own entrails. Easily avoiding all suspicious, Troy had done the deed with a mixture of rat poison and Draino.
It’s now summertime and Troy is opting to go home to his parents’ estate rather than head south to chase various tanned Florida girls. In fact, when his parents go to Atlanta for the day, it allows him to vent his sadistic tendencies without their overbearing shadows.
He stretches out by the pool, lathered in sunscreen with a Coke and rum in one hand and his father’s Weatherby in the other.
The big-game rifle is heavy as he sights the little group of hungy, curious songbirds who have discovered his pie-plate offering of breadcrumbs and table scraps.
A shudder of revulsion runs down Troy’s spine. He knows they only appear to be dumb. Just like they only appear content with sips of water, some sunflower seeds, or perhaps a juicy bug every so often. He knows that on the other side of their convincing facade they hunger for human flesh.
Troy is patient, however, in choosing his first victim. He hugs the gun “close like a blue steel lover, his finger resting lightly upon the hair trigger. With a small grin of cruel pleasure, he center(s) the crosshairs on a gray bird with white-tipped plumage and fire(s).” The slug is a .458 Magnum and intended for elephants and buffalo. The bird instantly becomes a tangle of torn flesh and flying feathers.
“You are a very sick young man.”
The voice comes from behind Troy and is dripping with disgust. This is Miguel, the old gardener who has been secretly watching Troy’s exploits.
But Troy isn’t concerned. “Oh, you think so?” he asks.
“Yes, I certainly do. Do you not know that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird?”
Troy wants to tell the old man to mind his own business but instead asks what his favorite bird is. “Flamingo,” Miguel answers, and goes on to describe its beauty, grace, and fragility.
“I wish I had myself one of those fancy flamingos here right now,” Troy tells him. “I’d take much pleasure in blowing its head clean off its skinny pink neck.” Then he turns his empty gun towards the weathered old face of Miguel himself and adds: “Bang!”
Miguel’s anger is matched only by his bravado. He threatens to tell Troy’s parents of his actions. Troy, however, is not to be outmatched and retorts with a promise to have Miguel fired and his green card revoked.
The old man shows only contempt on his face as he finally retires, allowing Troy to relax in the July sun, awaiting the eventual return of the curious birds.
But Troy’s patience proves to be unnecessary. Only a few minutes later, a loud “CAW!” announces the arrival of the biggest, blackest crow Troy has ever seen.
Not only is the crow enormous—eighteen inches from tip to stern—but it acts strange too. It first looks at the plate of bird-bait, then looks directly at Troy, its eyes “like pools of liquid tar, possessing an almost taunting disdain.” It caws again, grasps the rim of the plate with its beak, and flips the contents into the grass.
Appropriately egged on, Troy aims his elephant gun at the bird and fires. Only the giant slug missed somehow, even though Troy knew he had the thing dead to rights in his crosshairs. Stranger still, the crow didn’t fly away at the sudden, offensive noise. So Troy reloads, aims more carefully, and fires again. Dust kicks the dirt several feet beyond the bird, which once again does not take flight.
Enraged, Troy curses and mutteres to himself as he reloads yet again. But when he raises his sight, the bird is gone, only to CAW! seconds later from directly behind him. In a flash the ugly thing is upon him, squawking and pecking and raking at his head with its sharp talons. Troy shrieks, stands to flee, becomes tangled in his lounge chair, and falls head-long into the pool. When he surfaces, the crow’s echoing CAWs seem to mock him as it casually flies away.
Later that day, Troy is haunted by the humiliation of the event plus a bad sinus headache brought on by his drenching dump in the pool. Instead of going out drinking with his college buddies, he opts to lay down in his darkened bedroom instead. Through the door he can hear his parents’ high-society party as he falls asleep.
He dreams of birds, and as has been the case for so many years, it’s a nightmare…
He is sitting on a bench facing a strangely familiar playground.
Children are singing an odd chant: “Risselty-Rosselty, now-now-now…”
Suddenly he knows where he is and sees the sign: “BODEGA BAY SCHOOL”.
He watches as a young woman—Tippi Hedren—sits at a bench opposite him and begins to smoke. Crows—first one, then two, then four—begin to land and rest on the jungle gym behind her. She does not notice.
Troy wants to warn her but is immobile.
By chance Tippi looks up and follows a single black raven as it joins the other birds.
Troy wants to tell her to go, to leave, to get up slowly and make her escape quickly before it’s too late.
For a wonder, Tippi does get up and go inside the school.
Moments later the children leave en masse, responding to an unheard call to come inside.
The birds take flight, but rather than attack the children as Troy is sure they will do, they turn as one, fly across the road, and head straight for him.
Troy is frozen in place as they attack him, picking away skin and flesh and sinew, leaving nothing but his bones to sit on the bench.
Troy awakes with a scream.
He takes several moments sitting on the edge of his bed to collect himself. It is then he notices the room is unnaturally dark. Black.
It is also too quiet. Utterly silent despite the party he expects is still going on outside and below.
He looks to his digital clock to see how late it is… but the red readout is gone.
Troy gets up, stumbles to the light switch on the wall, flicks it on, but sees no change. The world remains entirely, completely black.
Thinking the power must be off, he works his way to the window, expecting to find it closed. He is surprised to feel and hear the warm, humid air flowing in through the open window.
He reaches to his face and finds it wet with something warm and thick.
His hands come away sticky.
He realizes with shock and horror that it’s blood.
Troy returns his hands reluctantly back to his face to examine the damage. His fingers “abruptly discover the awful source of his nightblindness. They (sink) to the knuckles in gaping, warm-wet holes on either side of his nose. The frayed ends of severed optic nerves tease his fingertips…”
“They pecked out my freaking eyes!” he screams.
Panic overcomes him. He stumbles to the hallway, to his parent’s bedroom. There is nobody there. In fact, the bed itself is still made. No one has been there all night.
Troy staggers back into the hallway. From the stairs comes a rusty, shrill sound that turns his blood cold.
He reaches for and finds the heavy brass candlestick he knows is there, then throws it at the bird. It misses and hits the stain-glassed window, shattering it.
The bird CAW!s again. Troy follows it downstairs. Follows it into his father’s study. Follows it through the open glass doors onto the terrace. There he finally hears “the small sounds of mass movement” that freezes him in place.
The back yard is full of them, just like the playground at Bodega Bay.
Troy finds his nerve and dashes back inside the study. There he fumbles until he finds his father’s antique gun case. Knowing the Weatherby isn’t the right tool for this job, he soon finds the Remington pump-action shotgun. It does not take long to find the appropriate ammunition from the lower drawers of the cabinet.
Troy emerges onto the terrace and screams at the birds: “Here I am, you filthy mothers! Come and get me!”
A CAW! inquires to his immediate right. Troy turns and fires. The sound of the dying squawk is followed by the patio table crashing to its side.
Suddenly the yard is hectic with sounds… cawing and flapping of airborn wings. Troy opens fire. He hears them cawing and falling to the ground. He fires again. He hears one fall with a giant splash into the pool. “Cripes, that must’ve been a big one, thought Troy with satisfaction.”
More bird sounds, attempting escape.
Three more shotgun blasts.
He works the slide of the gun and discovers he is out of ammo. But it no longer matters. The sounds in the yard are gone. He has somehow managed to get them all. Troy finds an overturned patio chair and sits in it in his new state of permanent darkness. Eventually, he hears the sounds of approaching sirens.
A policemen is talking to his partner.
“It’s a real mess back there. Bodies all over the place. Looks like the kid went berserk… killed his folks and all their high-class friends.”
The other patrolman looks at the young man who sits handcuffed in the rear of their squad car. “My eyes,” the kid says. “How could they have done such a thing? My poor, poor eyes…” But the officer doesn’t understand. The kids eyes look perfectly fine to him. He figures the kid is a real nut case.
Another officer continues his interview with the lone witness. Old Miguel answers the questions with sadness and horror: “I ran from my bungalow… and there was young Mr. Troy, standing over all those poor people with a smoking shotgun.”
The police continue with their formalities while Miguel slips away. As he turns the corner to his bungalow, he looks at the many bodies not with grief or shock, but an expression of great satisfaction. That and… just possibly… hunger.
The old man lifts his eyes… eyes as black and shiny as those of a raven… and whispers one word: “Caw.”
The birds suddenly descend from the trees. Thousands of them. A massive, churning flock of all colors and species, but with a single-minded goal. They know it will take a good twenty minutes or more for the others arrive. Until then, it will be “a far better feast than that which mere breadcrumbs could provide.”
MY GRADE: A-
What we have in Ronald Kelly’s “Better Than Breadcrumbs” is a classic psychological horror tale. The question we have, though, is whether or not it is also supernatural in its nature.
Did the birds Troy sees and hears during his killing spree ever exist?
Or were they only in his mind?
Did they consciously goad and guide him into his actions?
Or is he just a crazy guy who is misinterpreting everything to suit his various paranoias?
We are never given a clear answer. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support both perspectives.
First, the supernatural perspective…
In this interpretation, the birds really are out to get Troy, and have been his entire life. They’ve been there since his childhood, always watching with their beady, black eyes. Always waiting for the perfect moment to strike. They’ve tried it at least once—though unsuccessfully—in the past at the playground from his nightmare. And at the end of the story they’ve finally succeeded.
Additionally, Old Miguel is actually a shapeshifter, specifically the very crow who coaxes Troy to fall into the pool and ultimately orchestrates his murderous rampage. There is plenty of evidence for this as well:
- Miguel first sees, then comments on, Troy’s bird-shooting actions, but disappears before the crow in question arrives.
- The crow was unnaturally (supernaturally?) large.
- The crow avoids not one but two point-blank shots from Troy’s elephant gun.
- The crow behaves in an oddly human way: it tosses aside Troy’s plate of bait food; it doesn’t take flight at the sound of the gun; it waits until Troy is looking down to reposition itself behind him.
- In the story’s final scene, he has the ability to communicate directly with the many birds in the trees surrounding the Saunders’ home… calling them to come and feast before the rest of the authorities arrive and clean up the mess.
Next, the realistic fiction perspective…
The basis of this version of the story is that Troy is simply nuts and everything he sees and hears is either grossly misinterpreted or entirely fabricated from his own twisted mind. Evidence here includes:
- There is a juxtaposition between Troy’s belief that his eyes have been plucked out and the reality, which according to the police officers is that his eyes are fine. Even if the birds themselves are supernatural, the suggested explanation is that Troy is crazy.
- Troy also mistakes his parents and their friends for many dozens of birds he thinks are out to kill him. Throughout his killing spree, we only ever hear what he hears… the sounds of fluttering wings and the cawing of the birds. But in two instances he also hears something that doesn’t make sense if it were mere birds:
- The large splash in the pool that supposedly comes from a bird is distinct and strange enough to convince even Troy to exclaim “That must have been a big one.” (It wasn’t a bird… it was a human, Troy. Duh.)
- The first “bird” Troy kills upon stepping onto the terrace makes the sound of a dying squawk, followed immediately by the patio table crashing to its side. While Troy doesn’t notice the oddity of this combination, we readers are left wondering how a bird falling a mere few feet could not simply crash into or even through a patio table, but knock it over. Answer: it can’t… because it’s a human, and not a bird.
- But my favorite example supporting the “realism” perspective comes from Old Miguel. He could, in fact, simply be an old man who likes birds, hates the Saunders family (Troy, especially), and knows the eyes and guts of the party guests will make a tasty snack. Kelly even delineates Miguel’s final spoken word: it is not the literal sound from the birds themselves (“CAW!”) but the human equivalent (“Caw.”) instead.
Either perspective works, and as happens in any decent horror tale, readers get to make their own choices as to what really happened.
But there is one critical element to the story I’ve glossed over until now, and it just might be what helps you to make your own decision: Troy’s past.
We know from the opening line that Troy’s fear of birds originated when he saw Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” at a very young—and, we assume, far too young—age. From there he has nightmares and experiments with torturing various birds. Coupled with even more years of growing insanity plus the temerity and freedom provided by young-adulthood, he cracks. But what about those nightmares? What about the one that appears—in quite a bit of detail, I might add—in the middle of the story? Whenever an author takes the time and space to add something that seems out of place (or in the very least, relatively unimportant), I always think of it with a natural suspicion.
WHY did Kelly include so many specific details of Troy’s nightmare at the playground outside the Bodega Bay School? It’s safe to say the school itself, Ms. Tippi Hedren (presumably his teacher), and probably even a handful of birds sitting on the wires above the playground were actual memories from Troy’s childhood. But did they actually attack him? Maybe only one bird attacked him. Maybe one simply swooped a little closer than he’d been ready for. And had little Troy already seen Hitchcock’s film by then? Or did the day at the playground come first and the film came afterwards? Which event’s ramifications was sparked by the other? Does it even matter?
And yet his past include another, possibly even bigger underlying factoid which is never directly stated in the story: Troy’s relationship with his parents.
Think about it. And remember that every detail the author provides could be argued as a conscious, even symbolic, decision.
First, Troy is a forgotten and priviledged child of rich parents. The Saunders’ have a large house with a pool and hired help. The guests at their parties include “mostly corporate executives, a state senator or two, and their prim and proper wives.”
Next, let’s look at Troy’s father. This man owns an elephant gun. Not a rifle, mind you. One might easily argue that, much like golf, big game hunting is (especially in fiction) typically reserved for “high society sportsmen”… only in this case it’s a sport whose object is to kill.
And what do we know of Troy’s mother? Literally nothing. At best we can assume she is merely another “prim and proper wife.” A trophy wife, to borrow a more modern phrase. As a personality in the story, she doesn’t exist. She is merely a stereotype.
All of this implies Troy grew up in a house lacking in love or individualism, pressured by success, and allowing far too much freedom for the likes of a disturbed young mind.
Speaking of which… where were his parents when he was torturing and killing all those birds as a child? Didn’t his grandmother figure out it was he that drowned her canary? And how does a seven-year-old manage to watch a Hitchcock film in the days long before Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and the Internet? I mean… did this kid get away with everything?
It appears so. And if so, doesn’t this support the notion that Troy’s very real mental instability is the stronger truth of the story? It’s enough to push my interpretaion of this tale onto the side of realistic fiction. I like the idea of evil, self-aware birds and of shapeshifting gardeners. But if that’s the case, why would the author give us so many details of Troy’s childhood? Is it not to provide relevant backstory? And if so, is that backstory not meant—at least in one small way—to show us the evolutionary Hows and Whys of mental disorder? In my mind it is.
But hey, that’s just one guy’s opinion.
THE NEW: “Pelingrad’s Pit”
AUTHOR: Ronald Kelly
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #63 (April, 2010) (Story #5 of 8)
PLOT (with spoilers!):
As a 13-year-old with few friends and an active imagination, Jay Abernathy often liked to explore the woods behind his father’s property. He found the atmosphere both peaceful and independent, things not found either at school or at home.
One April afternoon, he goes farther than usual and finds himself on the edge of Old Man Pelingrad’s property. Standard rumors of the German-born septuagenarian included:
- being a strange, quiet child back in the ’30s and ’40s;
- the regularity with which the many pet dogs and cats he kept would disappear, and
- the oddity of his arranged and short-lived marriage in the ’50s.
Further rumors over the years transformed Viktor Pelingrad into a Nazi war criminal, the perfect protagonist for so many campfire murder stories. It didn’t matter that little Viktor had been but 7 years old when he’d emigrated from Germany. The stories were always better when he was made out to be a full-blown Nazi.
Standing on the edge of Pelingrad’s property, Jay eventually notices a charred, shallow pit close to the tree line. It was a burning pit, the kind so often used to dispose of garbage back before landfills made such actions illegal.
Pelingrad’s pit was about 12 feet wide and a few feet deep. The rim was black and charred; the middle was gray with ash. Following his natural curiosity about the odd, old man, Jay steps down into the pit to explore.
At the very center of the pit, Jay is surprised to find an old calendar embedded there. His surprise comes from the fact that it’s from 1939.
“This can’t be right,” Jay mutters to himself. “A calendar laying out here for… what? Seventy years?”
Looking around, he finds even more peculiar things: glass milk bottles, baking soda tins, and a water-logged copy of Life magazine, also from 1939.
The improbability that objects from such a dated era would be on the top layer of an old burning pit bothers Jay. Even worse, he soon realizes there is a strange and powerful coldness radiating from the exact center. It was a warm, May afternoon, after all, not the dead of night or the cusp of winter.
Then something moves beneath the layers of ash, and Jay feels a wave of dizziness come over him. He leaps away, already chastising himself for being such a wimp. As he turns to leave, though, he hears a soft wimpering behind him, and he cannot help but investigate.
Under a yellowed newspaper announcing “AMERICAN INVOLVEMENT IN EUROPEAN CONFLICT INEVITABLE,” Jay discovers a puppy. At first he is sure the poor thing is dead. Its coat is matted and singed from flame, and its paws had been charred down to the bone. Rusty bailing wire was wrapped tightly around its throat. Both front and rear paws had likewise been tied together.
Then the thing wimpered again.
Jay tried to talk to the poor animal, but realizes with horror that the thing isn’t breathing. He reaches out to comfort it nonetheless, and “When his hand came within a few inches of the dog’s nose, it lifted its head and licked his fingers. The puppy’s tongue was gray and bloated, and as cold as a piece of raw liver.”
Jay flees the pit, and the instant he crests the lip of the thing, the sensations of coldness and nausea vanish. Unsure what has just happened, he looks into the pit again, expecting to see the not-dead puppy. Instead, he sees the calendar, only now the year clearly says 2009, the year Jay is currently living in. He wonders why someone would throw out a calendar before the end of the year was finished.
When the crunch of tires on gravel comes, Jay runs home, constantly looking over his shoulder feeling someone—or something—would surely be following him. But he sees nothing and arrives home safely.
A week passes and Jay has become obsessed with Pelingrad’s pit. Mostly it is the nagging doubt that the things he thought he saw ever really happened. The dizziness and nausea continue to linger, hitting him anew every now and then. Dreams of the dead puppy haunt him. Finally understanding he cannot live indefinitely like this, Jay decides he needs to find out if his experiences were real.
Jay easily sneaks out that night. He only needs to tell his parents he’s heading to bed. His mother manages to look up from the TV and say goodnight. His father merely grunts. This latter response is the type of thing that used to bother Jay. These days, though, Cal Abernathy had seemed to come to the realization that his son would never be the strapping football star he had been in his own youth.
Taking a flashlight with him, Jay finds the woods far scarier and treacherous than it had in broad daylight the week before. When he reaches Pelindrad’s property, he first studies the house itself. The light from an upstairs window is the only sign of life.
Moving to the pit itself, Jay feels the dizziness, nausea, and bone-aching cold the instant he steps across its threshhold. He wants to turn back, but his compulsion to see the dead dog again is strong enough to overcome his fears.
This time, however, the calendar at the center of the pit says 1946.
This time the newspaper reads “HOUSING AND EMPLOYEMENT AT ALL-TIME HIGH IN WAKE OF POST-WAR PROSPERITY.”
This time the bulge beneath the newspaper seems much larger than that which could be afforded by a strangle, tortured puppy.
Then comes the soft sound of a baby cooing.
No, Jay tells himself. Just leave. Just head back into the woods and go home.
The newspaper rattles, and tiny fingers appear around the edge of the front page.
Jay’s natural curiosity betrays him. He moves the newspaper and sees it. The baby is just six or seven months old. It is wearing a cloth diaper, and unlike the puppy appears at the peak of health.
Jay talks to it: “What are you doing here?” Upon examining it closer he sees the same rusted bailing wire around its wrists and ankles as he saw constraining the puppy.
“Old Man Pelingrad did this to you, didn’t he?” Jay asks.
The baby blows spit bubbles at Jay and reaches for Jay’s index finger. Its grasp proves to be as cold as ice.
Jay panics and whisper-shouts for it to let go. It doesn’t but giggles some more. Then, slowly, the infant’s flesh begins to blacken and flake away. Soon there is nothing left but a sooty skeleton. Still, though, the baby’s grip is anchored into the meat of Jay’s finger. The coldness has even begun to travel up Jay’s hand and forearm.
Finally, Jay wrenches himself free. Instantly the infant-thing switches from goos and giggles to a crying wail.
Jay scrambles backwards and out of the pit. A swath of light pans across the open backyard in front of him. It’s Old Man Pelingrad on his back porch. “Who’s out there?” he demands in a thick German accent.
Jay is sluggish now, his movements slowed by the intense cold transferred to him from the skeletal baby-thing. He manages to escape, however, crashing through the woods and brambles. His right arm hangs frozen and useless at his side the whole way home.
The following morning Jay is back at the Pelingrad place, but accompanied by both his father and Sheriff Biggs. They stand at the edge of the pit. On the other side stands Viktor Pelingrad himself.
The conversation goes badly.
Sheriff Biggs asks Jay to explain again what he says he saw the night before. Jay does.
Viktor Pelingrad scoffs, calling it “pure nonsense.” And he’s apparently correct. There is clearly no baby, nor any evidence of foul play in the open pit before them. Jay’s father adds: “Bullshit is what it is.” He says it just loud enough to be heard by them all.
Pelingrad takes things quickly to the next level, asking why Jay had been on his property in the first place.
Sheriff Biggs wonders aloud if perhaps Jay had seen a rubber baby doll.
Jay insists “It was a real baby!” He even shows them his index finger, now covered in thin, inflamed scratches.
“Hush, Jay,” Cal Abernathy says. He then apologizes to Mr. Pelingrad, excusing his son’s actions by suggesting a boy’s imagination can often run away with them.
Mr. Pelingrad accepts the apology, but makes it clear he wants Jay to stay off his property. The sheriff gives Viktor an almost casual warning to make sure he is careful with his burning, then the Abernathys and Sheriff Biggs depart. Back at their cars, the sheriff warns Cal more harshly to keep a handle on his boy.
Inside the car, Cal waits until the sheriff is gone before slapping Jay sharply across the cheek. Jay is shocked into silence. This is the first time Cal has ever struck him in a manner beyond a childhood spanking.
“What are you trying to do, boy?” he yells. “Are you trying to ruin my reputation?”
Jay tries to defend himself with repetitions of what he’d seen, but Cal Abernathy hears none of it. He is caught up only in what the townsfolk will say. “Hey,” he says, “there goes Cal Abernathy and his crazy turd of a boy!”
Jay tries yet again to impress upon his father that his experience was real.
Cal grabs Jay roughly by the chin with huge fingers.
“Shut up! Just shut the hell up! I don’t want to hear this crazy imagination shit of yours… you hear? Holed up in your room with those stupid horror books of yours, rotting your brains when you should be out playing football and stuff like normal boys. Dammit! I don’t know what I did wrong, ending up with a pussy son like you!”
Finally beaten, Jay aquiesces, thinking that he’d always known his father was an asshole… he’d just never realized he was a dangerous one.
Though Jay genuinely tries to “do the right thing,” it simply doesn’t take. For two weeks he actively resists the tempation to return to Pelingrad’s pit, but he doesn’t reform into his father’s ideal. If anything, Jay becomes even more introverted and withdrawn than usual. Even his comics and novels no longer hold any joy.
He also begins to see things around his home which he’d never noticed before: how his mother and father don’t talk much anymore; how strange bruises show up on his mom’s arms every so often; and how her face tightens when Jay’s father takes phone calls in another room
Finally, Jay finds he can’t live in depression and uncertainty any longer. He decides to go, once again, to Pelingrad’s pit.
He chooses a Thursday night because his father will be out bowling and his mother will be mindlessly watching TV.
Creeping through the woods, he finds he doesn’t even need the flashlight this time. The moon is full and provides enough light to see by.
The calendar this time is from 1956.
The newspaper mentions President Eisenhower.
And the tortured, bound thing beneath it turns out to be a naked woman.
Her hair was golden blond.
Her face had the plain, strong features of most European women.
Her wrists were bound.
Her throat was slit open, and ubly stab wounds marred her shoulders, chest, and belly.
She didn’t move until Jay was within her grasp.
This time Jay didn’t attempt to get away. He wanted to know what had happened to her, and unlike both the puppy and the baby, he knew this victim would be able to explain her tale.
“Get out of here!” she warns. Her voice has the same harsh German accent as Viktor Pelingrad. “Run and never come back! Please, young man, do as I ask.”
Jay knows this is Lucinda, Viktor Pelingrad’s long-ago wife. The same woman everyone assumed had left him and gone back to Germany. He says her name, and agony crosses her face.
“Yes,” she says, “but you must hurry. There is evil near. It listens to us now… it hears the beating of your heart… smells the sweat of fear upon your flesh. Can you not sense it?”
“What evil?” Jay asks, even as he feels the crust of ash shift under his feet.
Lucinda Pelingrad tells him of a thing of unknown origins, a thing older than the earth itself. “Satan fears it and God Almighty despises its very existence,” she says. “It grows more powerful with each life it consumes. It’s weak now, but just imagine…”
She goes on to tell him the connection to the Pelingrad family. They have been housing and feeding the thing for decades. “The elder Pelingrad,” she says, “knew if Hitler ever gained possession of the demon… oh what havoc the madman could have wrought upon this earth!”
Then the floor of the pit heaves upwards, splits open, and releases a crystal blue fire born of cold rather than of heat. A horrid stench comes with it of brimstone, feces, and decay.
Jay stumbles backward.
Lucinda is dragged down, screaming.
Then, the monster itself is revealed: “A slimy, gray monstrosity peppered with infection, boils, and weeping sores writhed sluggishly underneath. Within its rippling mass floated dozens of helpless victims, dead, but in some horrible way still alive. Dogs, cats, stray rabbits and squirrels, even a young calf.” Then Jay sees the people sacrificed by the Pelingrads over the years. He sees the baby in its cloth diaper. He sees several young boys and girls. All sacrificed and “forever mired within the thing like helpless creatures trapped in a primeval tar pit, moaning and wailing, tormented in the knowledge that escape would never present itself.”
Jay finally breaks from his paralysis and leaps from the pit… and into the arms of Viktor Pelingrad.
“You just had to come back,” the old man says. “Well, if you’re so confounded anxious to see the beast, then let me introduce you.”
Jay is dragged roughly to the edge of the pit. “It is old and feeble,” Viktor explains. “Too feeble to fend for itself. It would perish, if not for the devotion of the Pelingrads.”
Jay tries to flee.
Viktor holds him tight and produces a knife. “I’ll release you as soon as blood is let. Then your meddlesome soul will stay here always. But… you’ll have plenty of company to pass an eternity with.”
The blade is brought to Jay’s breastbone, and Jay sees his chance.
He entwines his feet with the elderly man’s ankles, tripping him.
Old Man Pelingrad cries out and lurches forward, falls upon his knife and into the crusty floor of the pit.
Screaming and flailing, Viktor’s fate is sealed when the beast below begins to consume him.
“Don’t allow it to perish, boy!” Viktor Pelingrad screams. “Promise that you shall care for it as I have all these years. You are like me… I know you are. Much more than you care to realize.”
Moments later, Viktor Pelingrad is gone and his pit heals itself over, leaving behind a perfectly average circle of blackened earth and piles of gray ash.
On his way home, Jay hears the old man’s words again and again: You are like me. Much more than you care to realize.
Jay tries to dismiss the words.
He tries to “deny the ugly truth of what they contain.”
But they “stay with him, refusing to fade.”
They “sink into him, becoming a part of him.”
Several months pass.
Jay has done well avoiding the Pelingrad place, but cannot ignore it completely.
“Even at a distance, he could sense the thing’s anguish.”
He knows there is no one to feed it now. He knows it is slowly starving to death.
Jay’s feelings fight with each other. Sometimes he feels sorry for the thing. Moments later he tells himself to ignore it and let the thing die. Continuously he remembers Viktor Pelingrad’s final words.
The final straw comes when Jay sees his mother one morning at breakfast, a fresh tattood bruise across her throat. Her eyes are moist and red from crying most of the night. Later, Jay finds his father’s suitcase packed, tickets to Bermuda lying openly on his nightstand. He even neglects to duck into another room when talking in flirty tones on the phone.
So Jay leaves a note that would “push all the right buttons” tucked under the windshield wiper of his father’s pickup and goes to Pelingrad’s pit.
“Jay!” his father yells sometime later. “Where the hell are you?”
The layer of crusty ash beneath Jay suddenly shudders. “Just be patient,” Jay says, patting the ground beneath him. “Here he comes.”
Jay knows what he’s doing is wrong.
He knows it might even be a sin in the eyes of God.
“But one little snack wouldn’t hurt… now would it?”
MY GRADE: B-
To be completely honest, I came away from my first reading of this story liking it a good deal more than a B-. But as I took the time to record all its details in my above summary, I found more and more problems than I had at first realized. Still, overall it’s not a bad story. It’s just.. well, I’ll save the criticisms for after I give it the respect it nevertheless deserves.
First, the Good Stuff:
- Very visual. (The description of the puppy is still making my shoulders twitch with unease.)
- Very creepy. (The reveal of the baby genuinely caught me off-guard, and its slow transition to an ash-covered skeleton really sunk into my spine.)
- Very creative. (Let’s face it, monsters are a dime a dozen in horror, and demons are pretty much a staple monster in the genre. But the burning pit being used as a home for the thing? And the pit having some kind of temporal rift? Pretty cool ideas.)
- The twist at that Viktor Pelingrad wasn’t the serial killer he was made out to be but some kind of emissary or caretaker for the pit-beast… very cool plot twist.
All of these are legit accolades, and I only breeze over them here because they are also somewhat standard skills for horror authors. My unique comments are coming…
Second, the Okay Stuff:
I see a pattern!
So… two stories by Ronald Kelly…their publications separated by 22 years…and in both, an adolescent boy has a bad relationship with his dad.
They’re not identical, of course.
In “Breadcrumbs,” the strife is there pretty much from the beginning and is consistent throughout. In “Pelingrad” Kelly waits until halfway through the story to add this element. Because of this it comes off as slightly jarring and obviously not as well developed.
But it also has a far bigger punch to the overall piece, especially as it pertains to the end (obviously).
Is there a commentary to be made here?
Authors re-use themes throughout their lives, especially the good ones. And while we might object to a writer overdoing this, we certainly can’t object to one spreading it out over more than two decades.
Finally, the Not-so-Good Stuff:
I find Lucinda’s dialogue out of sync with the rest of the story. After so much well-done prose and description, it’s jarring to suddenly have long and plot-heavy dialogue. Also, it’s almost cheap in its use in the story. Simply put, Kelly had to explain what the pit monster was all about, and he chose to give it to us all at one through the voice of one character. It’s called an “Info Dump,” and while it’s perfectly acceptable—even in quantities far larger than this—to virtually any reader at the beginning of a story, when it comes in the middle, the story’s pace is always significantly slowed, which is why most readers find it off-putting. And yet Kelly hasn’t placed this (arguably necessary) Info Dump in the middle, he’s placed it immediately prior to the climax, which makes its intrusion all the more noticeable.
How could this issue be fixed? Well, there are thee ways, but neither of the first two are great choices…
- Delete the history of the pit monster from the story entirely. This would certainly smooth things along, but it would also remove what is arguably the most important detail of the story.
- Make the overall story even longer… make it a novella, probably… and reveal the relevant details by having Jay come back to the pit an additional time or two so as to naturally come to learn all that Lucinda Pelingrad had told him. Give him first-hand experience of the monster’s surging strength and power by, for example, having him witness some rodent of the woods fall into the pit. Or have him get a little too close to the pit monster and actually feel his own life ebb while the monster’s strength flows. (Jay could be saved by any manner of ways… he shines the flashlight in its face, allowing himself that single second of distraction to pull away… the scene takes place during a thunderstorm and a bolt of lightning nearby does the necessary distracting… even Pelingrad himself could make an appearance and accidentally—or purposefully, if he likes to be there for each sacrifice—interrupt the important event.) All of this would take lots of time, however, and at roughly 7,000 words, this is already reaching the higher end of what Cemetery Dance is likely to accept for short stories.
- The final choice is a complete restructuring of the story so that hints and suggestions of the demon beneath the pit are already known to Jay (though not it’s true power or the Pelingrad family’s role, perhaps) when he finds Lucinda. Admittedly, this would take a great deal of work and would risk taking a good portion of the shock value away from the climax. This is possible, but also a great deal of work. As such, I can’t really blame Kelly all that much for simply tossing in a convenient Info Dump when he did. But I can’t condone the overall story as a stellar piece of fiction, either.
Another fault I find is the way in which our pseudo-hero “beats” his adversary. In the end, Jay simply trips Old Man Pelingrad.
Effective? Sure. But poetically? Symbolically? No. Not even close.
And when the old dude falls into the pit he “lost his hold on Jay.”
Really? I’m sorry, but that’s just a bit TOO convenient for my tastes.
In my mind, whenever someone is startled, their instincts kick in making their muscles lock tight. If you fall over the edge of a cliff, would you not instinctively grab for a tree branch or exposed root? If so, why would Pelingrad… who is already holding young Jay at this point… instead release his grip? Wouldn’t his survival instinct make his grasp on even tighter? I’m no expert, but that’s what feels right to me.
I found this continuity mistake:
- (pg 1) “But that afternoon in late April…”
- (pg 2) “A chill radiated around the boy that he shouldn’t have felt on a warm May afternoon.”
Understand that printing mistakes. happen. Typos happen. The world’s most professional publications and authors using the world’s best editors still let a few slip through. They’re not a big deal, as long as they’re held in check.
Continuity mistakes are a special kind of mistake. To me, they’ve always been a thing relatively understood and allowed in film because of the nature of the medium, but held to an even higher standard in print than the simple typo, which can be difficult to catch since so many come down to a single letter.
Technically, this literary goof should be pinned onto the editors of Cemetery Dance rather than Ronald Kelly himself, but collectively it doesn’t help the cause for giving the story a higher score.
Finally, the biggest problem of all is the change in Jay Abernathy.
He begins and maintains his place throughout almost all of the story as a kid who is both empathetic for and afraid of the puppy, the baby, and the woman who all suffered at the hands of Viktor Pelingrad… then quite suddenly at the very end transforms into to a kid who is totally okay with indefinitely keeping alive this ancient evil?
To be clear, I’m totally okay with how Jay offed his father. The guy was a dick, to be sure, and while I don’t condone murder or even revenge in the eye-for-an-eye sense in the real world, I DO love seeing it in fiction. That’s because in this tale of fiction, Cal Abernathy DOES deserve to die. Even horribly. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about how Viktor Pelingrad claims Jay is “just like him.”
I’m talking about how Jay hears these words over and over and comes to AGREE with them over the days, weeks, and months afterward.
The problem here is that there is NO point in the story where we have ANY indication that Jay Abernathy is harboring a secret need to kill. Okay, yes, Jay reads horror novels, but he’s never indicated he empathizes with the monsters in those books. If anything, his earlier concern for the puppy/ baby/ woman only proves he’s inherently moral, not amoral.
I could have been convinced of this transition if the pit monster had shown some kind of power of persuation or hypnotism. It might have been a bit of a stretch, but I would have happily accepted it for the sake of the story.
But this… nope. Sorry, Mr. Kelly, this felt like genuine laziness.
Just like the note Jay left his dad…
“A note that was going to push all the right buttons.”
That’s all the description we get there. Which is really disappointing because HOW Jay gets his dad’s goat is what I’m most interested in at the end. Not the IF but the HOW Jay takes his revenge.
Collectively, I left my first reading of “Pelingrad’s Pit” pretty much liking it. It was feeling like a B+, potentially even an A- in my mind.
But I always give these things at least a second read before making my final decision, and the second reading this time around left me feeling quite disappointed.
Having said all that, a B- grade is not a line-too-far for me. It’s still an entertaining tall. At worst, it’s a piece that’s simply sub-par for the author’s otherwise notable skills.
I’ll gladly read more of Mr. Kelly’s tales in the future.
Was I too harsh on Ronald Kelly?
Did I overlook some detail/ some perspective or other on either story?
It’s entirely possible. Like Ronald Kelly, I’m human too.
Have any opinion at all?
Hit me with your best shot.
I love to hear what other people think.
-K. Edwin Fritz
Next month I’ll be reading/ reviewing each of the following Roman Ranieri tales:
- “Separate Ways” (Cemetery Dance #2), and
- “Bloodline” (Cemetery Dance #5)
Until next time…
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.