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. For a comprehensive list, you’ll want to check out Michael P. Sauers’ Cemetery Dance Magazine Index (Issues 1-75).
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.
First, two quick personal notes:
- Let me apologize for the long break since the last Exhumed post. My excuse is a simple one: 2018 was a tough one for me. In that 12-month span I moved halfway across the country (from New Jersey to chilly Minnesota!), got a new teaching job (so, an entirely new curriculum to learn/ prepare), and my wife and I got pregnant with our first child (an IVF baby… yeah, science!). Things have finally begun to settle down in 2019, and I am hereby committing to picking up the pace once again (though June might be tough… that’s the baby’s due date. Wish us luck!).
- In the interest of your own busy life, I’m going to make this and future Exhumed posts easier to digest (ie: shorter) than they’ve been in the past. Doing so should also help to ensure I get to more stories.
Okay then. On with the show!
As promised last time (way back in May…ugh!), this installment of Exhumed will feature two works by Steve Rasnic Tem. I’ve already discussed one of his works, “The Double” in the very first installment of Exhumed, so do check that out if you haven’t already.
Meanwhile, this month’s two stories are separated by 23 years. Tem’s “Markers” appears in Cemetery Dance #2 (1989) while “Scree” is from Cemetery Dance #66 (2012). It will be interesting to see if his style has changed in that time.
Let’s get to it…
THE OLD: “Markers”
AUTHOR: Steve Rasnic Tem
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #2: June 1989. (Story #8 of 11).
A BRIEF PLOT SUMMARY (with spoilers!):
Willy is too young to understand death, but when his mother dies he finds himself wandering her new cemetery looking for answers.
He concentrates on the many gravestones—the markers—of all those dead people, and wonders if they were really buried at all. Perhaps, he thinks, the adults kept the bodies hidden away someplace. His grandmother told him his mother is with the angels in heaven. But are angels even real? And did his mother even get there?
Carved words stand out to him:
In Eternal Repose…
In the Cold Bed of Death Free From Trouble and Pain…
There Is Rest In Heaven…
But none of them make any sense. Some of the headstones are old and have pictures carved into them which Willy finds creepy or strange. Some are significantly newer. One is even of a man Willy knew in life. Perhaps that man was watching Willy now.
As darkness comes, Willy’s search for understanding becomes more frantic. He begins to run, to stumble and fall, and he begins to see pale, soundless versions of the people he imagines are described by the markers. One little girl with an empty face grabs him with a handcuff grip and threatens to kiss him. Willy screams, his mouth so wide he feared he would swallow the little girl.
Instead, Willy’s mother comes out of his scalp and grows out of his hair. She is crying aloud, asking him what’s wrong and if he had another nightmare.
The little girl is gone. Willy is past the gate and out of the cemetery. But his mother is unable to leave. His grandmother had told him many times in the past few days that they must never forget that she is dead. It is now that Willy realizes it was even worse for the dead to forget it themselves.
The story closes with Willy pondering whether or not he should tell his father where he’d been all night and that he’d found a cemetery inside his head.
MY GRADE: B+
This is a story of surreal experiences from the perspective of a child. As such, interpreting them is difficult or even impossible.
For example, while little Willy certainly went running around the cemetery the day of his mother’s funeral and gazed upon hundreds of the stone markers of the dead, did he really spend the whole night there? And did he really see all those ghosts? Both could easily be the overactive imagination of a traumatized child.
A more important question is perhaps: Does Willy even come to understand what death is and that his mother will not ever return to him?
Tem’s prose in this story is at times stilted and lacking enough concrete details necessary to give us answers to these questions, and as such we are left at the end of the story with more questions than when we started. Sometimes that’s great in a story. Other times, it’s annoying. In this piece it’s honestly a little of both, though I lean more toward the former than the latter for the reasons I’ll cover next.
Tem has ultimately presented us with a combination of truths. The ghosts may not be real, but the fear and the understanding probably are.
And yet the story is also studded with useful abstractions that border on profound. The best, in my humble opinion, is this:
His father told him that life wasn’t fair. It didn’t seem to Willy that death was very fair either.
Lines like these pull the story and Willy’s experience together into a kind of intellectual study of growth. You see, whether or not the ghosts were real isn’t even the point. The point is that some things are too complex for a child to understand.
For Willy, his perception of death is that his mother is literally inside of him. We know that he’s wrong, of course, but we also feel Tem’s idea in the metaphorical sense. A child’s mind may not be able to grasp the concept of death, but it likely can fully grasp the connection between a mother and a child, albeit in a manner different from our own. Over time, little Willy will understand death. In the meantime, he has learned to understand his mother’s love, which is far more important.
One final note of interest for this story:
There is an interview with Mr. Tem that appears immediately preceding “Markers.” Included in it are many of the standard bits of info one would like to learn of an established horror author: What attracted him to the horror genre? What is his writing schedule & habits? What it’s like to be married to a horror writer? What is his take on the growing (at the time) “splatterpunk” movement? etc.
I enjoyed this interview as I usually do. However one detail stood out to me. In the biographical intro to Mr. Tem, we learn that he wrote this story “especially for CEMETERY DANCE readers!” Being that this was CD’s second issue and that Mr. Tem was prominently featured in the premier issue, I suspect it was a very nice surprise for Rich to get something this exclusive to add to his budding magazine.
But don’t overlook what Mr. Tem did here. He didn’t just write a new story. He connected it. After all, what has little Willy done in looking for answers in that vast expanse of “markers” if not his own little “cemetery dance”?
I see what you did there, Mr. Tem.
THE NEW: “Scree”
AUTHOR: Steve Rasnic Tem
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #66: April 2012. (Story #2 of 6).
A BRIEF PLOT SUMMARY (with spoilers!):
For years, Gibson has been lying to his children, telling them that everything would be okay. Today, he is in a hardware store looking for the right kind of glue.
A white-haired employee in overalls asks what it is he needs the glue for, and Gibson begrudgingly admits he’s trying to glue pieces of meat together. The old man recommends something that’s good for leather, if it’s dry. Gibson agrees the meat in question is quite dry.
The old man asks if the strange project is for heavy pieces of meat. Gibson looks at the sliver of bandage visible under his jacket sleeve and says, “No. Not so much anymore.”
On his way to the register, Gibson grabs some duct tape as well, musing that of all the colors now available, beige would have been perfect.
He silently judges the checkout girl. Her skin is young, like his had once been. But his had aged quickly. When he’d been thirty, he’d looked sixty. His wife, Helen, had several times been mistaken for his daughter. This was before they’d parted ways.
Outside, the wind rips into him. He recalls his father leaning into the wind the way he is now, the coat he wore little more than “plastic bits that chafed the skin and cotton bands that left him striped with rash.”
While observing the wearing-down-through-time of the Rocky Mountains in the distance, Gibson thinks he hears rain, only to discover it is his own tears, fear-driven sweat, and runny nose. Realizing too late that he is squeezing his fists, a soft crack sounds, and he discovers the tip of his forefinger has fallen off. Gibson scrambles in the parking lot rubble to find it. Only after getting home, newly-purchased glue in hand, does he see it is just a piece of gravel that he has salvaged.
He considers cancelling his lunch date with his daughter, Kelly, but arrives at their prescribed restaurant early, hoping to remember what attracted them to it in the first place. He wiles the time carefully positioning his fragile body, conscious that that morning he’d spend a long time gluing and taping everything together, including “crossing a few extra times over the heart.”
Kelly arrives. She is brusque, sits quickly, and comments that he is cold and they should turn the heat up. Gibson explains this would only make things worse and all will be fine as long as she can stand him eating with gloves on.
Gibson’s hand trembles. Kelly asks what the doctor has said and asks if it’s Parkinson’s. Gibson suspects she knows there is no doctor, but also realizes she could handle things if he truly had Parkinson’s, so he lies, telling her it is the most likely answer, though the doctor still doesn’t know.
Gibson thinks more about his lies of the past and decides to tell the truth about something. He tells Kelly that the breakup between him and her mother was all his fault. Kelly says these things are never just one person’s fault, but Gibson insists in this case it is. He begins to elaborate—details about why he was gone so much and why he was always so quiet—until he is overwhelmed and needs to escape to the restroom.
In the stall, he smashes his arm against the wall, shattering it. He cleans up as best he can, putting the broken bits of himself into the trash and stuffing his shirt sleeve with paper towels and toilet paper, then returns to Kelly, but the date is over and they soon part ways, though he “managed to hug her goodbye without involving both of his arms,” and “under her firm embrace—the same kind of fierce hug she’d given him as a child—he could feel more of himself give way.”
Gibson sits on a park bench and observes his tucked-in sleeve has opened and the birds and squirrels are picking away at his fallen debris.
As he watches the life of the city, he slowly feels his adhesives drying and cracking and turning to dust. Piece by piece, Gibson erodes to nothing. He watches as random people take his clothes and still more animals take his parts. Eventually, he stops watching entirely.
MY GRADE: A
Like “Markers,” this story is a collection of surreal experiences. Unlike “Markers,” readers know full well that Gibson isn’t literally falling apart. The true question may be whether or not Gibson himself thinks that he is.
Gibson’s life is crumbling. He is a divorcee who is now also losing his grown children because of years of poor choices. Now alone, he has finally come to understand he is slowly wearing down and will eventually become nothing.
But he is holding on to what little life he has left. He thinks of himself as scree—a mass of small, loose stones that cover the slope of a mountain. Did he once think he was the mountain? Probably. Back when his marriage was new and his children were young… back when he was too ignorant to realize he was pushing them all away.
Meanwhile, “Scree” is littered with a dozen or more references to things and people falling apart…
- In the opening sentences, Gibson hears “A distant roar. A mountain sliding away. The world coming apart at its weakened stitches.”
- Gibson himself, of course, needs glue, tape, and bandages to hold his body together yet manages to lose a fingertip, and in the end he erodes into nothing but gravel mixed with other gravel.
- The marriage between Gibson and his wife has already failed.
- The coat worn by Gibson’s father—and perhaps his father, too—was worn down by time and work as a precursor to what is happening to Gibson himself.
- In the parking lot sequence, Gibson looks at the distant mountains and thinks: “Sedimentary rock pushed up sixty million years ago by the Rocky Mountains’ upward thrust… The debris created by the interaction of these mythic, larger-than-human elements lay everywhere. Great piles of this scree floated foam-like at the base of these formations. Similar loose rock of different varieties blanketed every slope of the Rockies, evidence of erosion, friction, and conscienceless time.”
But more important than any of these is Gibson’s relationship with his daughter, Kelly. It is the only example we are given which is still salvagable, and yet it already seems to be on a dangerous downward trek.
Kelly’s entrance is abrupt and impersonal. She knows he is lying about seeing a doctor, and we seem to know she understands her father is losing his mind, but she doesn’t care enough to help. She only wants to be polite and move on. Even their hug goodbye isn’t quite right. It breaks Gibson down further rather than building him up.
One might argue that Kelly’s hug was a real one and that Gibson lacks the social and parenting skills to understand it. Either way, it seems to be the final act before he sits on the park bench and decides to let the world break him completely.
At first blush, “Scree” is about a man who is literally made of stone and who is slowly falling apart. But instead of leaving us hanging, Tem instead skillfully guides our thinking to understand that Gibson’s body—like the Rocky Mountains in the distance—is a metaphor for a man’s psyche as he slowly loses the battle faced in a jarring mid-life crisis.
A better man… a better husband and father… a true mountain man… would be able to withstand the transition to a lonely life. He may find new hobbies, perhaps even a new family. But some, like Gibson, only see the breaking down of the world and succumb all to easily to it.
The more I read and re-read the stories within Cemetery Dance, the more I’ve come to realize that many of the best do not clearly define truth from reality. But all of the best showcase real-life problems in figurative ways.
At least, that is one man’s opinion.
What is yours?
Next month I’ll be reading/ reviewing each of the following tales:
- “Little Precious” by Tom Elliot (Cemetery Dance #2), and
- “Roadkill” by Carol Cail (Cemetery Dance #5)
If you’ve got them, read them first and feel free to join in the conversation on their entertaining and literary merit.
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, in Apple Valley, Minnesota.