Exhumed is my humble attempt to read and review every short story and novel excerpt ever published by Cemetery Dance magazine. In their 29 years of publication, that comes to over 550 pieces spread out over 76 issues. Since each Exhumed post covers just two pieces (one “old” and one “new”), I think I’m going to be doing this for a while. I sure hope you’ll join me along the way.
If so, then welcome, friend! Feel free to read each story along with me or just take it all in while I do the hard work and wax poetic with my observations.
Either way, grab your shovel and dig in. There’s no telling what we’ll unearth together.
Hello again, super fans! As promised last time, this installment of Exhumed will feature works by Franklin E. Wales and Erin L. Kemper.
- Wales’s story, “End of the Line,” appears in Cemetery Dance #2 (1989).
- Kemper’s piece, titled “Seed,” is from the famed Joe Hill special issue, #74/75 (2016).
That’s a spread of 27 years! Wow!
Okay then. Let’s get to it…
THE OLD: “End of the Line”
AUTHOR: Franklin E. Wales
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #2: June, 1989. (Story #7 of 11)
A BRIEF PLOT SUMMARY (with spoilers!): A photographer who found success in a pair of coffee table books featuring the homeless of America is searching for his next great idea. He thinks he finds it when he begins killing, then staging and photographing them immediately after death. He gets a rude shock one night when he realizes his most recent victim is one of the original homeless men from his second book—a man whom he’d met in another city far away and whom he’d gotten to know a little and liked. The realization causes him to quit his killing spree and sends him searching for one final photograph: the perfect cover image which he knows must be without death but which will perfectly capture the hopeless nature of his subject matter. He finds his perfect photo in a group of homeless surrounding a burning barrel. He offers them money in exchange for taking their photograph, but they turn out to be the retribution he deserves. These people are all his former victims, and they burn him to death, but not without recording the event with his camera.
MY GRADE: A-
MY REVIEW: “End of the Line” begins as a series of perspective-changing sequences, the first four of which take up only one column of text and show us: the murder of the man our killer will later recognize from his past; the killer’s anonymous call to 9-1-1; a Detective Sergeant Will Richards complaining about the news hounds who so often beat the cops to any given crime scene; and an unnamed man picking up a prostitute. All of this is pretty standard storytelling design and is done quite well. The first sentences introduce us to the subject matter (someone is killing homeless people and photographing the results), and the next paragraphs bring in the cop we expect to follow throughout the rest of the story. But that’s where Wales throws us a zag when we were expecting a zig, and to be honest I wasn’t sure how to take it at first.
On the second page of this seven-page story, Detective Richards meets and chats with the killer who is hiding under the guise of one of the photographers at the scene. It’s an interesting scene because by then it’s pretty clear that the killer is using his media credentials to cover his tracks: “Oh, these? Yeah, I got these photos at the scene before the cops showed up. Not my fault they took so long to get there. Yeah, I know all rolls of film were supposed to be confiscated. Wrong They missed one, and I wasn’t volunteering it. It’s not my fault the cops can’t do their jobs.”
We know immediately that this Bryant guy is the killer, but Detective Richards doesn’t. And when Richards recognizes Bryant’s name because Richards’ wife loves his coffee table books… and then Bryant gets the wife’s name and address in return for a promised advanced copy of the next book… well, there’s the big conflict of the story, right? How and when will the cop figure out the truth? Before or after Bryant decides to take his killing prowess beyond the safety of the homeless? Before or after Bryant kills Richards’ wife? It’s a pretty intense set-up, amiright?
Wrong. That’s the zig I was expecting.
But Wales zags instead, and it turns out I was dead wrong.
What Wales does is totally abandon the character of Detective Richards. I mean that in as literal a sense I could. He has established the guy in a manner we both come to expect and approve of, but after his meeting with Johnathan Bryant, we never see him again. Instead, we start following Bryant, and it’s this perspective we keep for the remainder of the story.
As I mentioned above, I wasn’t sure how to take this by the time I figured out Detective Richards was gone from the story. Did Wales drag us along needlessly for the first two pages? Or is this a successful bait ‘n switch of the reader’s expectations? Am I supposed to love or hate what the author has done? Am I to feel annoyance or admiration at having been duped?
Glancing up above at my overall grade for this story (an A-) it’s pretty clear I ended up leaning toward the latter. But this was not without difficulty. The truth of the matter is that I still feel the story would have been better without the extended sequence where we get to know Richards. Use him as a place-holder for all cops? Yes. Sure. Definitely.
The truth is that I liked seeing how city cops hated how so many reporters capitalized on tragedy to fill their pockets and advance their careers. This is a truth still relevant today. And the truth is I liked how Richards, a seasoned detective who remembered what it was like to be new on the force, took the time to give a rookie cop a compliment. And the truth is I liked the awkward intensity in the moment Richards writes his wife’s name on his card and hands it over to the killer he’s been looking for. It’s all great stuff! But another truth is that the Richards story ultimately fell flat… it was fun, and the prose itself was well-written… but in the end it did very little to advance the story itself because the story is ultimately about Johnathan Bryant, not Detective Richards.
Yes, there is a callback at the very end of the story: In what serves as an epilogue that comes after Bryant’s death, a Mrs. Elaine Richards receives a mysterious package from the James Sheridan Publishing Company. The succinct letter enclosed explains that after Bryant’s death a note was found in his apartment reminding himself to send her an advanced copy of what would prove to be his final book. This callback works well enough: We get the reminder of that moment of reader stress when Richards gives Bryant the card with Elaine’s name on it, and in the story’s final paragraphs we get a satifying explanation about the details of Bryant’s death (namely that an entire roll of film—36 photos—were taken during Bryant’s death, five of which make it into the final pages of his own book). But the point here is that the Detective Richards angle remains irrelevant. We could have gotten all of this by showing that scene from Bryant’s perspective. The page and a half where we meet Richards… when we get know his quirks and mannerisms… well, these details remain unused. The callback to Elaine Richards is irrelevant to the detective himself.
What does work in “End of the Line” is pretty much everything else. Chief among what Wales does right is the character of Johnathan Bryant. He’s a believable character because he isn’t the stereotypical troubled child or psychopath. He’s a desperate man who stumbled upon a grisly solution to a very real problem.
Bryant knows his career as a photographer is approaching a standstill. There is only so much heart-string pulling one can do with coffee table books, after all. The first was a big success, and the second rode the coattails of the first. But he already knows that to do a third book in the same vein would be pushing the limits. It might sell well based on the success of the first two, but it would definitely be his last. If he manages another book, he knows, it needs to be something different, something grand. Otherwise, he could kiss his chances of breaking out and into real fame and fortune goodbye. What most appealing about Bryant is that he’s smart enough to know all of this well in advance, and he goes on the hunt in city after city looking for something special. He even understands that the final book in his series—tentatively titled “End of the Line”— would have to show the sad but honest result of a life on the streets. So he visits morgues and crime scenes and captures hundreds of images. Murders. Suicides. Accident victims. All D.O.As. He’s done nothing illegal and has only approached the morally ambiguous. But he has gotten no closer to finding anything good enough to salvage his career.
Then it happens. He does his best one night to drink away his frustrations. What happened next was an honest mistake, though one he’d be found ultimately responsible for if the police ever found out. Leaving the parking lot, he didn’t see the decrepit little old homeless man cross in front of him. Bryant’s reaction is appropriate: confusion, fear, remorse. They are all there. And when he turns—when he does take the first steps towards what will eventually become his murderous new life—it is described in a passage that is as believable as it is shocking. I’ll shared the relevant passage below. Keep in mind that this scene takes place about halfway through the story, so it’s well after readers know Bryant is the killer. Wales, therefore, has tasked himself with humanizing the bad guy. Tell me if you think he did as good of a job at it as I do…
Melancholic, Johnathan staggered to his car, finding as he left the lot, the Scotch had hidden his sense of direction.
Searching for something familiar, he hadn’t even seen the decrepit little old man stumble in front of the car. Thud, he hit the brakes, th-thud. The car stopped.
Johnathan, now sober, jumped from the car and ran to its rear. “Oh God,” his voice echoed off the barren streets. Something twisted within his stomach, and he vomited.
The body lay crumpled like a broken toy; both legs twisted grotesquely in opposite directions. The left arm nearly torn in two, while the hand still clutched the neck of a shattered bottle. Sightless eyes stared up at him from a blood splattered face. A dark pool seeped out from beneath the head.
The old man was dead. Nothing to do now except call the police. The POLICE—Newspapers, Scandal—Goodbye Future, Goodbye Playboy, Goodbye Girls.
Had anyone seen?
Johnathan looked around for the first time. The street was deserted.
The front of the car showed no damage. The old geezer probably hadn’t weighted more than ninety pounds. Good. The rear fender had three small spots of wet blood. Suddenly calm, Johnathan retrieved his lens cleaning cloth and fluid from the car. No more blood.
Now all that remained was to get away. To… he looked again at the broken marionette on the street… to… take a picture. NO! His mind screamed. Something has been missing. No. Hundreds of pictures, all stale. No. fresh…
Johnathan moved his car out of range and shot a half roll of film.
All the way back to his motel, he wept.
The sequence after this one brings out the darker side of Bryant. He orders breakfast the following morning and finds he still has an appetite. He develops the film and finds himself mixed with both joy and revulsion. He quickly realizes what he has to do and proceeds to hop from city to city, killing and photographing all manner of the homeless. He goes on like this for several months without any real remorse until he nearly gets caught the night Detective Richards asked him if he saw anyone leaving the prostitute’s motel room.
The story—and Bryant—turns again when he has the revelation that the man he killed at the start of the story was Reg, the same homeless man he met and semi-befriended back when working on his previous book. But this is merely window dressing in my humble eyes. It’s a necessary part of the formula to finish the story. The real magic is that scene when Wales shows us the good hiding inside the bad.
THE NEW: “Seed”
AUTHOR: Erin L. Kemper
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #74/75: October, 2016. (Story #6 of 11)
A BRIEF PLOT SUMMARY (with spoilers!): As a child psychologist for the police, Pauline’s toughest case is Thomas Walden, a 12-year-old boy who had killed a school bully. In her first interview with him, he’d told her “My family can’t help me,” and he was right. The Waldens were mysteriously dismissive: they refused to discuss Thomas and had even sent him into foster care. Stranger still, Pauline’s research revealed the Waldens had five additional children, and Thomas wasn’t even the strangest story among them. The third child, Chloe, had been put up for adoption. Why two of the Walden children had ultimately been cut adrift while the other four remained part of the family made no sense at all.
Five years later, Pauline visits Thomas on the morning of his release but is shocked to learn that for the first time a family member had come to visit him the day before. The security guard tells her it was Chloe and that the girl had a notable hunchback and limp. But when Pauline confronts Thomas about his sister, he still won’t open up. “Stay away from my family,” he says. “For my sake… for your sake.”
Pauline becomes convinced that finding Chloe is the only way to help Thomas. She eventually finds the girl living at a pillared mansion where dozens of other children are living, each with various, grotesque deformities. She also sees an adult chauffeur with a strange, scalded burn mark on the back of his neck.
Unlike Thomas, Chloe is friendly and easy to talk to. She explains that her “Daddy” knows where her real parents are and that her real parents know where she is as well. She tells Pauline that her new family is always growing stronger but that they need her help to bring Thomas to them.
Pauline then meets “Daddy,” a withered, skeletal man near death who can no longer speak but whose eyes are nonetheless fierce and commanding. Pauline is then suddenly held in place by an unseen force—it is coming from Jared, a skeletal boy who resembles Daddy.
“Jared is Daddy’s seed,” Chloe explains. “His mind is so powerful, but his physical state deteriorates. My babies will be strong, with Thomas as the father. Our parents were Daddy’s seed too. They were not special. Thomas and I, we are special. Our seed will be the strongest yet.”
Pauline is then branded in the same manner as the chauffeur. She feels tentacles unravel from the burn site and worm their way up and into her brain. Chloe then asks Pauline if she’ll help get Thomas.
Pauline realizes Thomas has spent his entire life trying to avoid his true self and his place within this horrid family. But she is helpless to resist. “I will,” she says, and in her mind she hears Daddy’s voice: Welcome.
MY GRADE: A+
MY REVIEW: As a writer myself, I just love and respect a well-turned phrase. Ms. Kemper has several in her tale, but I’ll just share two to prove my point.
The first comes in the very beginning of the story, which is great because it establishes the tone and her talent immediately. Here it is…
Later, in her drafty little flat with the kitchen table tight to the ticking radiator, Pauline updated her case notes. Papers spread across the Arborite, which glowed in the afternoon sunlight like skim milk.
There are two gems in this passage. I’ll start with the less obvious one:
The phrase “the kitchen table tight to the ticking radiator” conveys so much in just eight simple words. First, it reveals that Pauline lives a meager life. We know this because A) her kitchen is so small that the table needs to be pushed up against one wall, and B) her heating is old—neither central a/c nor floorboards. Second, the word “ticking” gives us such realism… anyone who has ever lived in a home with a radiator knows and relates well to that sound. Lastly, this early phrase helps to establish our emotional connection to Pauline. We both like and pity her. Here she is, trying to hard to help some poor kid, and she doesn’t even have the luxury of living in a nice place. Overall, this a short but poignant turn of phrase that matches Pauline’s environment to her persona: She is both honest and humble, just like her small kitchen.
The more obvious gem, though, is the following simile:
… the Arborite, which glowed in the afternoon sunlight like skim milk.
I’ve mentioned in past posts about the power and beauty of a great simile, but I haven’t done so in a while and it bears repeating. So if you’ll pardon me putting my teacher’s hat on for a moment, I’ll explain why…
Simply put, the simile (or metaphor) is one of the last places a modern author has left to be truly creative. The goal of a simile is to elucidate a detail (I’ll call it Object A) from the work at hand by comparing it to something (Object B) which the reader has likely experienced or can easily imagine from real life. In doing so, we take our experience of Object B and instantly better appreciate Object A from the story. When done right, this happens instantly with no real thought or study. We just know it’s good. This is why a great simile is so fulfilling to the reader.
But how do you write a great simile?
How is it we know so quickly and without thought that something feels so right?
I’m glad you asked.
A great simile will do three things simultaneously:
- Show a physical connection between the two items/ ideas.
- Show an emotional connection between the two items/ ideas.
- The comparison of these two items/ ideas is unique—ideally, nobody in the history of the world has ever before realized they even have a connection.
In my classroom, I like to have my students grade similes on a 30-point scale, 10 points for each of the above. The simile “He roared like a lion” might score a seven or eight on the physical, and perhaps even an eight or nine on the emotional, but fail miserably on the uniqueness… which is why we are so turned off by clichés.
Meanwhile, a variety of humorous examples have made the rounds online specifically because the writer absolutely nailed the physical and the uniqueness, but botched (oftentimes, purposely so) the emotional. My favorite example is this:
The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.
Now that’s funny right there. And it’s funny because that physical connection is so damned perfect. (Plus it genuinely surprises us, which means it’s unique too.) But emotionally, the writer has destroyed the beauty of the ballerina by connecting it to a dog… and not just a dog, but a pissing dog at that.
To really nail a great simile takes work. Lots of work.
While a normal mid-story sentence might take a few seconds to write and a minute or so to revise, a truly great simile takes several minutes to write and approximaley 8,523 hours to perfect. So it’s not so surprising to realize that not every writer puts forth the effort needed to do so.
Kemper’s simile isn’t the best I’ve ever seen, but it’s good. Better than you might realize at first blush, I’ll wager.
Arborite, in case you didn’t know, is a plastic laminate, and we’ve all seen how wide, flat, plastic surfaces shine in various lights. But Kemper specifies that it glows not in just any sunlight but afternoon sunlight. Afternoon sunlight is getting close to dusk and has a somber, darker tone to it compared to high noon or pre-noon sunlight. Additionally, she specifies not just any milk but skim milk, which of course is both thinner and less substantive than regular whole milk.
Why care about such details? Because these are better physical and emotional matches than, say, regular morning sunlight or an overhead kitchen light… better than regular whole milk or spilled orange juice. Physically, afternoon light is glorious but would reflect only some of its beauty in the thinness of skim milk. Emotionally, afternoon sunlight reminds us that we’d better hurry up before time is up, and skim milk is perceived as healthy yet less “real” or “natural” than regular milk. Pauline is an honest and hard-working child psychologist, but she is suffering both in finances and in the difficulty of this case. She wants to help Thomas, yet has failed to do so for five full years. In other words, she is the thinly-reflected, watered-down skim milk of child psychologists. She means well, and means well to her very core, but she just can’t quite pull off feeling like the real thing when it matters.
I mentioned above that I would share just two well-turned phrases. Here is the second:
Then Thomas ran past her office in his prison sweats, sneakers squeaking like desperate mice.
Yes, it’s another simile, and an even better one than the first, I think. But in the interest of saving space for one further note about Kemper’s story, I’ll leave it to you to figure out why. (Feel free to agree/ disagree with me in the comments… honest. I won’t even bite if you think I’m wrong.)
I’ve given Erinn Kemper’s story an A+. In the 28 previous stories I’ve reviewed for Exhumed, this has only happened four other times, so clearly I save this distinction for only the best of the best.
For your curiosity, those stories are:
- “The Inconsolable” by Michael Wehunt (Exhumed #1)
- “The Departing of Debbie” by Anke Kriske (Exhumed #4)
- “Vicious Cycle” by Barry Hoffman (Exhumed #6)
- “Save the Last Dance for Me” by Norman Partridge (Exhumed #9)
So what makes “Seed” stand out above the likes of Bentley Little, Roman Ranieri, Ronald Kelly, Steve Vernon, William Relling Jr., and others I’ve reviewed thus far? In a word: It’s cringeworthy.
I’ve also mentioned in previous posts how I value when a story surprises me, and I won’t belabor your time now to rehash why. Suffice it to say that Kemper did take her tale in a direction I wasn’t expecting more than once. And that’s part of the A+ grading.
But what really stands out is just how messed up this story is. Here are some cringeworthy highlights, presented chronologically:
- Children murdering children
- Rejection of a mother’s and father’s love
- Super powers (used for evil)
- Mind control (used to create a martyr)
That’s… a lot… to squeeze into a single short story. And it’s hard to decide which among them is the worst of the lot. The incest screams right to the top, of course. But as revolting as it is, this is ultimately but a single act happening a few times at most whereas being rejected by one’s parents has a far more lasting affect during one’s more vulnerable years. Of course, effectively taking the life of a kind and good-hearted child psychologist—a person who has selflessly dedicated her life to helping children—and using her to commit the above atrocities is arguably even worse, at least in a symbolic perspective anyway.
The part of the tale which caught me by surprise wasn’t the shocking reveal of the incest (it was shocking, sure, but not exactly surprising… I’ve been reading Cemetery Dance for years, after all), nor was it Daddy’s diabolical use of Pauline’s body as a host for his sick plans. Believe it or not, it was the simple detail that some of Daddy’s “seeds” had supernatural abilities.
This surprised me because Kemper did such a good job setting the story up to be one that appeared to be rooted in reality, and yet when the moment came this addition of these powers were not only interesting, but actually relevant to the story. You see, Daddy’s ultimate plans hinge on breeding more supernatural mutants. And it’s quite clear that Pauline would never help him without the worm-like brand burrowing its way into her brain.
Waiting until late in the story to drop a bomb like this could so easily be seen as a cheap trick or a lazy answer to a problem the author inadvertantly created. But what Ms. Kemper did is set us up, lead us on, and stab us in the heart just exactly when she wants to. This is all true becuase the magical/ fantasy element in this story is absolutely necessary in the story’s plotline. It explains why Thomas works so hard to avoid his family, why Mr. and Mrs. Walden so easily abandon both Thomas and Chloe, and why the realism of Pauline’s life hits us so hard when she’s so easily turned to the dark side.
Kemper has effectively sucker-punched us by first giving us a real tale of real humans (Thomas’ troubled mind, Pauline and her run-down apartment, the Walden’s atrocious dismissive nature) and then reminding us that while it is true that sometimes good horror simply reflects reality, it can be emphasized when we add the element of the supernatural.
Both of this month’s stories begin in the real world and end in the supernatural. Erin L. Kemper achieves this format far better than Franklin E. Wales. My thinking is that what we are witnessing isn’t necessarily a difference in author talent, but in a progression of the genre. Compared to other early Cemetery Dance stories, Mr. Wales ranks right up there with the rest of the best. But compared to modern horror fiction, Ms. Kemper’s tale reminds us that readers expect (and often receive) more.
Like my observations?
Not a problem, either way.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Next month I’ll be reading/ reviewing each of the following Steve Rasnic Tem tales:
- “Markers” (Cemetery Dance #2), and
- “Scree“ (Cemetery Dance #66)
If you have access to them, I hope you read and review them along with me
Until next time…
-K. Edwin Fritz
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.