Don’t you hate it when online columnists start a post by explaining why they haven’t posted in a while?
Me too. Me too.
Anyway, here’s a bullet list explaining why I haven’t posted in a while:
- New job
- Had a baby
- Moved again
- Another new job
- Baby is a toddler now, & as much as I love her, she’s exhausting
So, since it’s obviously been a while…
…let me remind everyone what this column is all about.
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 stories (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 & wax poetic with my observations. Either way, grab your shovel and dig in. There’s no telling what we’ll unearth together.
This installment of Exhumed, will feature works by Tom Elliot & Graham Masterton.
Elliot’s story, “Little Precious,” appears in Cemetery Dance #2 (1989).
Masterton’s piece, titled “Anka,” is from Cemetery Dance #65 (2011).
Ok then. Let’s get to it…
THE OLD: “Little Precious”
AUTHOR: Tom Elliot
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #2: June, 1989. (Story #9 of 11).
A BRIEF PLOT SUMMARY (with spoilers!): Hermione Rosenblum is old. So old that most of her friends had died 15 years ago, and she knows she won’t last much longer.
Her biggest concern left in life is not for herself or even her soul, but for the fate of her Chihuahua, Little Precious. Hermione had known for years that Little Precious was a good dog and a perceptive dog. She knew this from the way he always cocked his head and listened intently when she talked to him about her bridge club or how he reacted when she brought up the slut Martha Beadreaux, who was living with a widower 10 years her junior… he always blinked exactly twice, indicating that he, too, disapproved.
Her death, she knows, is imminent. She feels it in her joints and her belly. She has considered having Little Precious put to sleep before she could die on him and leave him alone. But this was too close to murder and she abandoned the idea.
And just as she was musing over these things while watching the peacefully sleeping pup, Hermione suddenly has a heart attack. Her survival instincts do their work and she spends several minutes trying to make it to the kitchen where the phone hangs on the wall. She struggles and eventually crawls there, but by the time she does she lacks the strength to stand.
When Little Precious stirs in his little doggy dreams a moment later, Hermione realizes that if she should die then and there, her body won’t be discovered for weeks. She knows the best she can do for Little Precious is to fill his food bowl with his special mix before she goes. The mix, however, is on the countertop above her, and try as she might, Hermione cannot reach it.
The old woman then breaks down into fits of tears, crying out to God that he may take her if he must, but to spare the innocent creature who has been her loyal companion. Spying the dog’s “accusingly empty supper dish,” Hermione then knows what she has to do.
Summoning the last of her strength, Hermione crawls inch by inch across the kitchen floor and finally lays down, her head inside the empty bowl. Her last words before death are “I know he understands.”
The story finishes with 3 more simple sentences:
She never felt it when Little Precious came into the kitchen an hours later, his long toenails skittering against the tile, and probed her dead face with his tiny cold nose. Nor did she feel the tender doggy kisses he gave her dead lips.
And she didn’t feel a thing several days later, when understanding dawned upon Little Precious.
MY GRADE: A
MY REVIEW: My initial thoughts as I was reading the first half of this story were that it was… well… just okay. The writing was by no means sloppy or lazy, but it also came across as overly simple.
The big concern is that Hermione is little more than an old-lady caricature. I mean, she lives alone, plays bridge, and thinks the younger woman who is enjoying the sexuality of her own waning years is a slut. There’s even a part I skipped past in my summary about how she disapproves of the kid who bags her groceries because — and I’m not kidding here — he chews gum. And of course she owns a Chihuahua. The only more stereotypical dog an old lady would own would be a miniature poodle, and for that small break from the formula I suppose I owe Tom Elliot a small thanks. Nevertheless, Hermione is a miserable old meanie, in other words, so I was less than impressed.
But then we get to Hermione’s relationship with Little Precious. I’m a dog person myself, so when Elliot tells us that Little Precious is loyal to her, understands her, and perceives more about Hermione’s thoughts on a particular subject than his little doggy brain may at first lead one to believe, the soft spot where I keep my canine memories warmed a bit. It’s all true, as any dog lover already knows, and it allowed me to ignore Hermione’s boilerplate mean streak and focus on what the story was really presenting: her concern for her dog’s livelihood after her upcoming inevitable demise.
But this is Cemetery Dance, so as this very short (just over 1,000 words long) story moved toward it’s conclusion, I thought… really thought… it was going to turn to the supernatural.
Little Precious would turn out to be dead all along.
Or maybe Hermione’s ghost would haunt poor Little Precious from the afterlife.
Alternatively, I thought it might be a psycho variation where Hermione kills Little Precious herself, Will Smith style from I Am Legend.
Turns out… nope. Everything that takes place in the story is possible in the real world, and Hermione’s actions at the end are heartbreakingly honorable. And that’s what makes the story good.
But you know what makes the story great? It’s those last three sentences. The ones where Elliot takes us out of the first-person narrative of old-lady Hermione (she’s dead, after all, so that’s no longer possible), and gives to us instead the story of Little Precious.
Notice that Elliot never actually shows us what Little Precious obviously does. No, he stops his story right when we begin to picture it for ourselves. Does the pooch go for the eyes first like nature tells us scavenger animals always do it? Or is that line about Little Precious giving her “tender doggy kisses [to] her dead lips” supposed to suggest to us that he’ll start there instead?
Any way you look at it, it’s what Elliot doesn’t say that lingers with us. But of course, the success of an incomplete detail all lays in the set-up. Notice that a good chunk of my summary is dedicated to showing the connection between Hermione and her dog. That’s no accident… Elliot does the same in his story, and it’s part of the set-up we need to complete the ending to the tale on our own. Other details include how she first tries to feed him with conventional means and that, because the dog is asleep when her heart attack comes Hermione is forced to have faith that her dog will understand her intentions.
Finally, because the story is told from Hermione’s perspective, Elliot could have left the story more ambiguous. Instead, in the final three sentences we see Little Precious go through three phases: Sentence 1 shows us he understands she is dead. Sentence 2 shows us he does, in fact, care for her. And the denouement comes in the 3rd when Elliot dives into the dog’s mind and tells us he does indeed understand.
This story is a fast read with a powerful, gruesome ending that doesn’t shed a drop of blood. And that, my friends, is damned good horror.
THE NEW: “Anka”
AUTHOR: Graham Masterton
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #65: December, 2011. (Story #1 of 10).
A BRIEF (hahaha) PLOT SUMMARY (with spoilers!): Grace is in the end stages of saving 27 children from an orphanage in Katowice, Poland. She hasn’t seen her husband or daughter in over a month, and she’s eager to get back home to Philadelphia. Kasia, a representative for disabled children, has been her contact and aid in the endeavor.
Grace met Kasia and her husband Grzegorz seven months prior at a civic reception on what was to be her last night in Poland. She had been there on a photo shoot for National Geographic, but they pleaded with her to come to the Cienisty Orphanage in Katowice. They wanted her to take pictures of the children so others would know their plight. Grace reluctantly agrees, but her tune changes entirely when she sees the place.
Cienisty Orphanage isn’t just run-down, it is desolate. And the children there aren’t just suffering, they are entirely ignorant of how much they suffer because they have never known another life.
The children all have some condition or other: cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, Downs Syndrome, etc. As the disheveled caretaker of the place, Weronika, calls it, Cienisty Orphanage is “A garbage dump for children that nobody wants.”
Among them is Gabriela, a very shy little girl of about seven who carries a strangely beautiful china doll with with white hair wherever she goes. When Grace asks the doll’s name, Gabriela tells her it is “Anka.”
Trying gently to push past Gabriela’s shyness, Grace asks if Anka would let her take a picture of them. Gabriela says that Anka doesn’t like having her picture taken and goes on to explain Anka was a gift from her grandmother and that nobody else is allowed to hold her, either. Later, Weronika confesses that little Gabriela has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
A few hours later, after many photos have been taken, Grace tells Kasia and Grzegorz she will do more than publish the photographs… she intends to save the children herself.
Just before they leave, however, Gabriela approaches and aks Grace to take her with them because Baba Jaga — the famed child-eating witch from Polish legend — is coming to get her. She says that Anka has always saved her from Baba Jaga by swallowing up her nightmares, but also that she is full and can no longer do this. Yet despite the little girl’s pleas, Grace knows she cannot do anything to help her that day, though she does promise to come back one day soon and save them all.
“One day soon” turns into seven months thanks to a unique bureaucratic nightmare. The only way to save any of them, it seems, is to first secure American homes for all 27 children. But finding adoptive parents for a ten year old with Downs Syndrome, or an eight year old with violent epilepsy… or a seven year old with schizophrenia… is a tall order. Grace accomplishes the challenge, however, by using her contacts in the publishing industry and pushing the story to national attention.
When she arrives again in Poland, however, Kasia gives Grace the worst news imaginable: Cienisty Orphanage is down to only 26 children. Three days prior, little Gabriela disappeared into the woods. Her body was found only that morning. According to the police, it had been savaged by animals.
Still, 26 saved lives is better than none, and Grace, Kasia, and Grzegorz usher them all out to their waiting bus. As they ready themselves to leave the orphanage for the last time, Grace hears a noise and, upon following it, discovers Grabiela’s doll, Anka, in a trash can in one of the bedrooms. She takes it, intending to give it to her own daughter as a special present to make up for the time they had lost together in the past months.
Homecoming for Grace is bittersweet. Her husband and daughter are overjoyed to see her, and little Daisy is ecstatic at her new doll, but Grace cannot help feel lost. Immersing herself back into her work does not help quell the feeling of ineptitude: she had spent so much time working toward saving the Cienisty children that now she doesn’t know what to do with herself.
One night soon after, Daisy suddenly cries out. Running to her, Grace is shocked to find an intruder has entered her daughter’s bedroom. It is no ordinary home invader. It is Baba Jaga, and Grace sees she has materialized from a black smoke that still emanates from Anka’s open mouth.
The witch soon croaks a strange pair of words in Polish: “Jestem glodney.” She repeats it several times before translating into English: “I am starving… I have need to eat!” and, looking at the little girl cowering in her mother’s arms, adds, “I must suck her bones!”
Grace quickly offers another option: “I have plenty of food for you, Baba Jaga. I have so much food you won’t feel hungry for another year.” Distrustful but intrigued, Baba Jaga follows Grace to the utility room beside the kitchen, and to the freezer chest filled with frozen meats, pies, and vegetables.
The witch grabs a frozen fish and chomps through it in a single bite like a candy bar. As Grace attempts to back up, though, Baba Jaga grabs her by the sleeve. “After cold food, warm food,” she says.
Next the witch dives in, devouring hamburgers and whole ribeye steaks, bones, frozen fat, packaging and all. Not until she gets to the bottom of the freezer and encounters four frozen ducks that won’t pull free from their icy confines does she meet with anything that slows her down. Then, as suddenly as she bit through the first frozen pike, the witch climbs right into the freezer to pull and yank at her chosen delight.
Grace moves quickly and almost without thought– she steps forward, slams the lid of the freezer closed, and locks it.
Ten minutes of muffled screaming and curse-laying is replaced with an eerie silence. Grace is not to be fooled. She remains sitting on top of the freezer until well past three o’ clock the following morning. Only then does she gently unlock and pry open the freezer door. Baba Jaga is in there, frozen solid.
Grace tentatively tests the situation by touching the witch’s twig-like hair. It breaks off like a little icicle. Next she takes hold of Baba Jaga’s arm. It, too, breaks off, and then breaks into several chunks when Grace drops it on the floor. A minute later, after Grace has indulged in a frenzy of anger, the thing that was Baba Jaga is nothing more than thousands of glistening, ash-colored fragments of ice at the bottom of the freezer. Shutting and locking it once again, the ordeal appears to be over.
Well past her bedtime and filled with the stuff of literal nightmares, Daisy wants to sleep in her mommy’s room, and Grace is happy to oblige. She doesn’t however, allow her little girl to bring Anka with her. Upon her final check of the house, Grace takes the doll and throws it deep into the briars behind their house.
A week later, neighbor guy Mike Ferris is out walking his dog. He finds the doll. He brings it home and gives it to his three-year-old daughter, Abby. With his back turned, the doll whispers two words in Polish: “Jestem glodney.”
MY GRADE: A-
MY REVIEW: e with accentAs a writer and reader, I often find mid-sentence in a tale, caught by a new plot development or a delightful turn of phrase, suddenly imagining how I’d complete the piece if I were to take it over at the halfway point. This is one of those stories that went places I hadn’t expected and never would have had the creativity to come up with myself.
I just love that.
The sad orphanage, the shy and doomed little girl, and of course the creepy doll that takes center stage are all fantastic (if not somewhat cliché) stage-setters. Grace as the photographer-turned-reluctant hero is a fine perspective that adds some flair and perspective to the awful situation. Gabriela’s gruesome death comes sooner than expected, and Masterton’s purposeful choice to not show us how it happened only adds to our own imaginative ensemble. Even when Grace takes the doll home with her, we don’t mind that it’s an obvious plot device — after all, there’s still nearly half the story to go at this point, and the damned story is titled “Anka,” so if the doll isn’t brought back into the story then there really isn’t any story then, is there?
But then Baba Jaga shows up, and I mean fast… like, a half-page later. And WOW did that accelerate quickly. Which is fun and exciting.
And then the whole chest freezer thing happens and all I’m doing is sitting here thinking “Why don’t I ever write stories like that? Instead of children in the oven, the witch goes in the freezer! It’s the literary diametrical story to ‘Hanzel and Gretel’! Brilliant!”
But you know what really got to me? It’s the way Grace so casually tosses the once-possessed doll into the woods, free to release whatever may be left of Baba Jaga inside her… or begin collecting the nightmares of any nearby family of foxes, perhaps. Part of me wanted to scream at Masterton because it’s another obvious trope… Brave Hero Saves The Day Using Heretofore Unseen Guile and Wit, But is Simultaneously So Stunningly Stupid She Willingly Invites More Travesty in the Future!
But there’s another part of me that not only allows this, but revels in it. The tale of Baba Jaga is timeless, after all, and horror is nothing if it doesn’t mess with our anticipation of the future. To Masterton’s credit, the scene in which Grace throws the doll into the woods was one of self-preservation after a long and terrifying night. Also, he poses one key question in the moments before she does it: Why had the witch killed Gabriela when she was so close to taking the doll to a new location with even more (healthy) children to eat?
The suggestion of that question is that Baba Jaga — and through her, the doll Anka — is, much like the children of the orphanage, also suffering. Cursed to live in perpetual hunger no matter how much she eats. According to legend, Baba Jaga lives in the woods in a house that walks around on chicken legs… and often is the benefactor of those who seek her out.
Thus, it seems that Grace understood the complicated plight of the Baba Jaga figure on an intuitive level, and throwing the doll into the woods was her way of letting the universe do what it must. Good or evil, it wasn’t her place to decide when to end Baba Jaga’s reign. She had accomplished enough merely in surviving.
Just like those kids at the orphanage.
Gosh it’s great getting back to these. I am really looking forward to the next few months of really diving in again. I’d love to hear what you think of my reviews, especially if you happen to have read either of these stories. Thanks in advance for any comments.
Until next time.
Next time I’ll be reading/ reviewing the following tales: “In Utero” (David Starkey), from CD #2 and “Down There” (Keith Minnion), from CD #73… and thanks goes to Blu Gilliand for this request.
I do hope you have the opportunity to read along with Blu and I. 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.