Exhumed is my humble attempt to read and review every short story & novel excerpt ever published in Cemetery Dance magazine. In their 32 years of publication, that comes to a total of 577 (and counting!) pieces spread out over 77 issues. For a comprehensive list of issues 1-75, you’ll want to check out Michael P. Sauers’ Cemetery Dance Magazine Index.
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.
ALSO, to better satiate your reading needs, starting in 2021 all reviews of “new” stories will come from CD issues that are still in print (#65, #69, #71, #73, #74/75,, & #77… they’re all available right here).
SIDE NOTE: I’m always looking for requests from this lot, so please do comment letting me know which “new” story you’d like me to review.
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.
As promised last time, this installment of Exhumed will feature works by David Starkey and Keith Minnion.
Starkey’s story, “In Utero,” appears in CD#2 (1988). Minnion’s piece, titled “Down There,” is from CD#73 (2016).
Let’s get to it…
THE OLD: “In Utero”
AUTHOR: David Starkey
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #2: June 1989. (Story #10 of 11).
A BRIEF PLOT SUMMARY (with spoilers!): Claire is pregnant with quadruplets… a side effect of fertility drugs. But a recent complication — severe pain like all four babies were kicking around as hard as they could — stopped just as she and her husband Mike arrived at the hospital.
Concerned, Dr. Riley orders some tests and admits Claire for an overnight stay. He quickly reassures the young couple with all the warmth and kindness of his years of experienced bedside manners.
The following morning Dr. Riley stares at the test results in disbelief. They make no sense, but he’d personally run the tests half a dozen times, and there was no doubt that Claire’s womb now held only three fetuses instead of four.
He checks and rechecks the test results from only two weeks prior and confirms there used to be four babies. What is worst of all, though, are the original test results from three months ago when Claire’s pregnancy was too new to make solid conclusions. Nevertheless, at the time Dr. Riley had been fairly certain there had been five embryos. The strangest thing of all, though, is that the dead fetuses aren’t simply dead husks… the scans would show that… they’re entirely missing.
Dr. Riley delivers the news without going into specifics. “I’m afraid I’ve discovered some complications,” he says, then orders one final, slightly unusual test: a single x-ray which is generally avoided on pregnant women. But it’s necessary to learn what is really going on. Claire and Mike agree to the x-ray, and wait anxiously in the hospital room, each battling horrible thoughts and fears while taking very little to each other.
Finally Dr. Riley walks in, and after a few moments of awkward beating around the bush concerning the unknown but rare complications inherent with fertility drugs but their general overall safety, Claire convinced him to just tell them the bad news…
“The largest fetus is killing its killing unborn brothers and sisters and then devouring them. In fact, the x-rays show the situation with frightening clarity. The largest fetus still has fragments of one of its siblings inside its stomach.”
After a moment’s pause allowing the stunned parents to process what they just heard, Dr. Riley adds that all three of the remaining fetuses are “grossly abnormal” and recommends an immediate abortion.
Claire instantly objects. These are her babies. She’s waited seven years to be a mother. She doesn’t care what’s wrong with them and the doctor is obviously mistaken somehow and she will live them no matter what. When Mike begins to side with Dr. Riley, Claire’s screams intensify and she kicks them both out of her room. They go without further comment.
In fear of what they might consider to do together in her absence, Claire sneaks out of her room and hides inside a closet down the hall. In mere minutes the severe abdominal pain returns, but Claire bears it silently to save her babies’ lives.
An hour later, Claire’s stomach tears open from the inside and then a “something” scrabbles out. A moment later, a second “something” chases the initial escapee and chases it straight into the corner.
Some time later, a janitor opens the closet door and finds a dead woman with a ripped open stomach, and a “small something” sitting in the corner, covered in blood, and munching in a tiny, clawed hand.
The janitor slams the door shut and screams for help. Mike and Dr. Riley are the first to arrive and hear the horrible tale of what is inside the closet.
Seconds later, the “something” bursts through the wooden door, stands on two legs, unfurls wet, slimy wings, then leaps into the air and begins flying down the corridor… toward the sound of the many crying babies in the hospital nursery.
MY GRADE: A+
MY REVIEW: Holy shit, right? I mean, from the title alone you know this one is going to be gruesome, and pretty much from the start when we learn it’s a set of quadruplets instead of just one still-developing fetus, we have this sickening feeling in our gut that won’t go away. And, yes, the cannibalistic nature of the largest fetus is totally obvious and even a little cliché (for a short horror tale from the ’80s, anyway). But that last part… the part where the monster baby HAS WINGS and flies if to EAT MORE BABIES…!! I… don’t even have the words to dissect why this is so powerful.
But of course it’s my job to do that, so let me just collect myself and dive in…
Ok. I’ve taken a few minutes and I think I’ve boiled the success of this story down to the following five reasons:
Children — but especially babies — are our single most precious commodity. Pick a culture, pick a group of people… everyone values their children and works hard to maintain their safety. To strain a certain film-wide stereotype, even mob bosses have a soft spot for their little girls and pride for their sons.
Starkey utterly destroys our need to protect said babies not once but twice in the same story. First, he kills them in the womb. Second, he makes one of them a literal monster. What a bastard. (What powerful writing).
Though it may not look it at first glance, the story is as much science fiction as it is horror. That’s because of the not-so-subtle blame out in the fertility pills and the connected, subtle message that man should not play God.
I am reminded about the origins of what many consider to be the first “true” science fiction story: Mary Shelley’s immortal Frankenstein. She, her new husband Percey Shelley, and a couple of other writer friends were spending the summer together and decided in a fun contest: Who could write the scariest story by the end of the summer? Mary recalled a recent news story about the discovery that in a recently-dead human brain, stimulating it with electricity caused various muscles in the dead body to twitch and jump. The suggestion was that electricity helped propel the body, aka was connected to life itself. The young author merely extrapolated that idea by exchanging mild doses of pinpoint electricity to a massive lightning bolt, and voila! — science fiction was born (or, at least, finally realized its full potential). Mary won their little contest, by the way. Yeah. No kidding. Meanwhile, Starkey’s far simpler take taps into that same deep-seated fear that humans can take their science too far, and it resonates with us to this day.
The sudden and violent finale is all the more powerful specifically because it goes well beyond what was strictly necessary. To be honest, the tale appears to be told once Claire is dead and her monster baby is loosed upon the world. And it could have ended there and still been a fine tale. Maybe the final line could have been the moment the janitor opens the door. Maybe we are simply told the monster baby sits and waits for its next meal. Either way works and doesn’t detract from the overall story. Instead, Starkey gives the thing some damned demonesque wings and sends it straight to devour more innocent babies. It’s so much more gruesome than we expect or even deserve, and it’s that unexpected shock that really rattles us (and caused this reader to add the “+” to the A grade).
Like all of the early Cemetery Dance stories, it’s short. At approximately 2,600 words, it’s not flash-fiction short, but it is ten-minute-read short, and nearly as short as this entire review, in fact. Modern CD stories are usually much longer (10-15,000 words) and give us far more details to see and feel. But sometimes those extra words get in the way of our emotive responses. There’s something quite beautiful about being able to catch a reader in the gut and linger in their brains for days or weeks later in something they can consume in less time than it takes to eat a proper lunch.
Overall, this is to me the best of what classic ’80s horror has to offer. It’s also my first David Starkey story, and now I want to read so much more.
THE NEW: “Down There”
AUTHOR: Keith Minnion
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #73: March 2016. (Story #2 of 5).
A BRIEF PLOT SUMMARY (with spoilers!): Declan looks out from his airplane window seat and remembers the words with which the British Airways ticket attendant concluded her explanation of his overall flight plan: “…And this is where it ends.” She had been referring to Adak, Alaska. Declan seems to be thinking of something else. Back on the plane, another attendant brings him his drink order. It’s a Scotch, and it’s a double.
On the next plane — a much smaller one than the 747 that took him from Dublin to Seattle — he has a pleasing conversation with a precocious ten-year-old who is flying solo on her vacation to visit her dad. The little girl isn’t just smart, she’s observant. She immediately knows Declan is in the military. She even knows the full name of the “NAVESECGRUACT” acronym: Naval Security Group Activity. When he makes a kind joke about her being a vegetarian (“No meat at all?” he asks. “Not even a hotdog at a ballgame?” / “Nothing with face,” she says. She points to her omelet. “So eggs are okay.” / Declan raised his palm. “I wasn’t even going to mention it.”), the unnamed child says more to herself than to him, “It’s true then…. people in the Navy are officers and gentlemen.”
In Anchorage, the new attendant regrets to inform him that the Kiska eruption has sent too much ash into the air to risk such flights. He’ll have to wait until at least the following morning to get to Adak. To himself, Declan thinks, of course. Kisda talking. Erupting. So it really has begun. Seeing Declan’s look of urgency, the attendant suggests a MAC flight (Military Airlift Command) through the Air Force base nearby. Declan leaves immediately for the shuttle there, and the driver leaves immediately upon seeing the security level on his ID.
The MAC flight is rough. First the sergeant in charge of the plane scrutinizes Declan’s combined 185 pounds (15 for his meagre daypack/ 170 for himself) additional weight. Then Declan gets to sit on a fold-out aluminum-framed, canvas-slung seat in the cargo hold next to crates of fruits, vegetables, and other weekly necessities for the people of out-of-the way places like Adak.
During the flight, cargo bay is both cold and extraordinarily loud, and earplugs Declan had been given quickly become a necessity. Declan bears the three-hour flight without complaint, though. He spends most of that time looking out the little porthole window, trying to see the various islands below so as to track his progress.
Finally in Adak, Declan’s semi-stoic calm is immediately replaced with frustration when he meets with his on-site team. He explains to his chief paleontologist that his excursion to the higher-ups was useless. “They had already made up their minds. In the end they still said no. They know what I told them. They just didn’t believe it,” he explains.
Declan soon meets with the commanding officer, Hendrix, and repeats the news… Their request has been denied. In this brief exchange, we also learn that Declan is actually Doctor Declan Curragh, that his recent journey from Dublin had begun on Christmas day, and that the authorities he had sought were in “a godforsaken abbey… without even electricity for chrissakes!” (Hendrix’s dialogue).
Soon dismissed and told to go find food and sleep, Declan goes instead straight to one of the tracks that leads to one of Mt. Kiska’s volcanic vents. Here Declan meets with a guard whom he knows by name. He again gives the bad news and says he “just need to get some things” and proceeds inside.
There is a makeshift workroom, but he pauses only long enough to grab an arc lamp and move further into the volcano… toward the smell of blood, viscera, and decaying flesh.
He recalls the excitement of the site’s initial discovery. It is replaced almost immediately with what lay before him: silence and darkness.
Soon he comes to a place that separates the ragged, undulating surfaces of the volcanic vent with smoothed and flattened surfaces — a perfect trapezoid in shape that nevertheless reveals no evidence of any tool work despite having been there since the Proterozoic Era… “Their work.”
When the walls open to the final, large cavern with “wild, unnerving geometries’” Declan sees the altar has a still-fresh carcass of a sea lion with collected buckets of blood underneath. He removes it, takes a leather-wrapped parcel from his pack, and turns off his arc lamp.
Then, quickly and before he can think his way out of it, Declan removes his clothes, pours the buckets of blood over his naked body, lays upon the altar, unwraps a stone knife with “insane, etched glyphs that glowed faintly,” and slits his own throat.
As Declan gurgles his final breaths, an unknown presence approaches from beyond the altar, from the abyss beyond. It (or they) are “like vast black locomotives, steaming, bellowing, shrieking,” and they approach with gathering speed.
MY GRADE: A
MY REVIEW: In my humble opinion, there are two things that bring that wonderful combination of beauty and creepiness to this story.
FIRST, it reads so damned smooth. Perhaps this is an effect of Declan’s confidence. We don’t feel hurried despite the obvious rush he is in, and therefore we don’t feel the immense pressure he is under. Either way, while some stories that openly hide a critical fact from the reader come across as frustrating or even annoying, Minnion delivers just enough “save the cat” moments to make us trust him and his protagonist.
As a result, our cognizant ignorance only aides in our ability to let our eyes slide across the page. I think perhaps the easy feel of the story comes from the pacing that drives us forward, forward, forward. We’re always wondering what exactly is going on, yet the clues seem to insist that the penny will drop in the very next paragraph.
It doesn’t, of course. In fact, the dropping of mana doesn’t even begin until halfway through, and even at the very end we only sort of understand what just happened. But by then we don’t care about unanswered questions because we know enough and the journey to get there was so easy and smooth.
This notion of effortless reading, by the way, comes from a genuinely large amount of effort on the part of the author. You should thank the guy for that. I know I have.
But I digress.
The second thing that makes the creepiness in this story one of beauty is even better.
SECOND, Minnion’s story is a critical mystery slowly revealed.
Who is this guy? (A high-ranking naval officer… and a gentlemen.)
Is he important? (Yes… imminently so.)
What is he even doing? (Trying to save the world.)
And what’s so interesting about Adak, Alaska? (Oh, it’s just the presence of an ancient, alien, voracious monster — monsters? — that need constant sacrifices in order to be held at bay in the bowels of a forgotten volcano. No biggie.)
Minnion spends a solid HALF of his story teasing us with Declan’s journey halfway around the world. And all during this time we know nothing about his all-important task. Instead what we get is an elongated exposition and a general feel-good (but very deeply ominous) gut reaction toward Declan. He is patient with the various flight attendants… but he flinches at the words “and this is where it ends,” (and, of course, he has a double shot of Scotch, too). He is equally patient and kind to the unnamed little girl. Her intelligence, by the way, belies our desires… we wish we knew as much about Declan and the military presence in Alaska as she does. Nevertheless, it’s the combination of kindness and respect he shows her that makes us really like him.
Only when he arrives in Adak and talks to his team (specifically his commanding officer, Hendrix) do we begin to understand a bit of what is going on. But even then Minnion doesn’t thrust it in our faces. Instead, we get small details like the fact that Declan isn’t just a military officer, he’s also a doctor (doctor of what?), plus the entire backstory that his journey has been a return path having failed at asking those in control of the entire operation for… well, for what, we don’t exactly know, but it’s clear he asked for clearance to do something that those in Adak know is damned near necessary but that the bureaucrats themselves don’t fully appreciate or understand. Also phrases such as “a godforsaken abbey” continues to intrigue us… giving us more questions than it answers. (Why would a military operation be controlled by a religious organization? What kind of nasty shit are they dealing with that the U.S. government needs to call in priests and ?)
As he finally descends into the volcano that smells like blood and decaying flesh, we understand something seriously sinister is “down there.” He goes further still and the natural crevasse changes to one made by a high intelligence, and only here are we assured the entity “down there” is likely alien… or perhaps supernatural… in origin. But not until the very end when we see the altar with its sacrificial sea lion do we feel how important Declan’s mission might have been. And STILL we are shocked into understanding a yet higher level of enormity when Declan disrobes and takes his own life.
We never get the full truth, but then we don’t really need it, do we? Aliens… demons… something altogether unknown…? It doesn’t matter what the monsters are. What matters is what Declan first tried and then did do. Whatever it was he asked of the higher-ups at the abbey, when push came to shove he easily offered his own life instead.
Did it work? We don’t know. But we can hope Declan and his team knew what they were doing. One certainly hopes the monster’s abilities didn’t include mind manipulation. 😉
Before I end this column, CD fans, there’s one other thing you need to know about Mr. Minnion… aside from writing a kick-ass story and having an awesome first name, Keith Minnion also happens to be the cover artist for no less than three other issues of Cemetery Dance magazine: #21: , #27: , and #51.
So, you know… the guy’s got talent, is what I’m saying.
If you’ve read more than one or two of these reviews, you may have begun to notice a pattern. The older CD stories tend to be short, simple, and emotionally-oriented while the newer ones are more complex, subtle, and ask readers to do a bit of the heavy lifting.
The best of both, though, are of the mind-screw variety.
Will this observation hold true with other old and new stories I review?
Better question: If this supposition is accurate, where does the transition take place? I doubt there is a line that is drawn, but I wonder if it’s possible that a single issue or small group of consecutive issues shows that change. More likely it will be a slow conversion over the decades… one modern-style story will pop into existence in one of the older issues, indicating things to come but to be forgotten or ignored until the next iteration pushes the envelope another small step forward.
It sure would be cool, though, if a single author/ single story turns out to be a breakout piece that totally transforms the horror genre. I sure hope you read along with me in my search for this magic tale.
Next time I’ll be reading/ reviewing the following tales: “Night Game” by William Relling, Jr., from CD #2 and “Orange Grove Court” by Jason Sechrest, from CD #77.
I do hope you have the opportunity to read along. Remember to get your copies of the CD issues still in print.
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 high school English 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.
Keith lives with his wife, Corina, and their brilliant, adorable, and infinitely silly daughter, Isabella, in
Apple Valley, Minnesota… Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.