Hi there. I’m Keith… or “K. Edwin” if you prefer. I’m a middle school English teacher, a writer, and like any perfectly normal fan of horror these days, another random guy who is totally obsessed with Cemetery Dance Magazine. Ok, maybe I take it a bit further than most… I actually own every single copy (but that’s a story for another post).
Exhumed is my humble attempt to read and review every short story and novel excerpt ever published by CD. In their 34+ years of publication, there have been 577 (and counting!) pieces spread out over 77 issues. 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, whether that means reading each piece as I review it (assuming you can find them all) or just taking 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.
FYI: If you’d like to read along with me, here’s the current CD catalog. And for a comprehensive list of issues 1-75, you’ll want to check out Michael P. Sauers’ Cemetery Dance Magazine Index.
Hello again, super fans! This installment of Exhumed, will feature works by William Relling Jr. & Jason Sechrest.
Relling’s story, “Night Game,” appears in CD#2 (1989).
Secrest’s piece, titled “Orange Grove Court,” is from CD#77 (2019).
Let’s get to it…
THE OLD: “Night Game”
AUTHOR: William Telling Jr.
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #2: June, 1989. (Story #11 of 11).
A BRIEF PLOT SUMMARY (with spoilers!):
Bart Bowers is in his sophomore year as a professional baseball player, and despite an excellent rookie season, his abysmal first half of this year plus an even worse attitude has caused his manager to send him down to the minor leagues. His agent goes oddly quiet when Bowers explains he’s being sent to the farm team in Painesville, Ohio, then tells him to work hard to get back to the big leagues quickly.
In Painesville, the ballfield, clubhouse, manager, other players, coaches, and grounds crew are all dingy, old, and far below Bowers’ expectations. But worst among them is the bat boy, an old geezer named Granny Walker. Oddly, Bowers quickly noticed that everyone treated the old man like he was the owner of the team.
In his third game with the team, Bowers lined his first hit, a triple, and celebrates by popping to his feet and giving the finger to the grandstands and both dugouts.
Over the next few games, Bowers refuses to listen to the manager, the coaches, and especially not Granny Walker, who was the only one to notice the hitch in Bowers’ swing. In fact, Bowers threw a ball at the bat boy’s head after one game. The other players told him not to mess with Granny… and didn’t he notice how Granny was only ever at the night games and made it to every one even though he didn’t join the team on the bus when they went on the road?
His last night playing baseball… his last night doing anything… came when he tossed a bat at a heckling fan and the man’s skull. Having given him three weeks to straighten himself out (and hooking a fast lawsuit in the face), his manager told him he was done. But Bowers didn’t care. He was happy to leave.
Stepping out of the shower 40 minutes later, he was surprised to see the clubhouse was deserted and a cold breeze was blowing a fetid, decaying odor through it.
Bowers looked up to see Granny Walker. Offering up one final insult, Bowers turned to his locker to change, but he never made it. Granny glided over and his canines had suddenly grown a half-inch in length. His realization of the truth came too late.
The final line of the story reads:
The team did have ways of burying guys like him. They had Granny Walker. Granny Walker, who was no ordinary batboy.
Granny was a vampire batboy.
MY GRADE: B-
I’m a baseball fan, and any time an author talks about it, I’m totally into it. And I love that Relling gave us the respect to understand the lingo without overdescribing them. Here are a pair of examples:
EXAMPLE #1: “A .293 average, twenty-two homers, seventy-nine ribbies?”
That’s a pretty good player! And thanks, Relling, for including “ribbies” in the dialogue because no real ballplayer ever says “Runs Batted In.”
EXAMPLE #2: “Bowers had gone oh-for-four, left a total of seven men stranded in scoring position”
That’s… really bad. By the way, for those of you who aren’t a fan of the sport, “scoring position” means the runner is on either 2nd or 3rd base, so thanks, Relling, for letting me to do the math and realize that in three of those four at-bats, Bowers had had runners on both 2nd and 3rd base… and still did nothing. So, yeah… that’s a really bad day at the plate.
So as I was saying, I love baseball and these subtle, accurate details, totally made my day.
As for the actually story, well… it isn’t bad, but also it’s not that great. It’s, you know, okay. Decent. A little fun, but not a lot. I lost a bit of the joy when Relling felt the need to say that Granny was a vampire with that last five-word sentence. I get that he was doing a little play on words (batboy + vampire bat = vampire batboy), but it was not only unnecessary, it was a little awkward, too. And that italicized emphasis on the word ‘vampire’ was really over the top. I would have preferred the story ended with the previous sentence.
Otherwise, it was a fun story. The idea of delegating a pain-in-the-ass major league baseball player to the minor leagues when they start to do poorly is common practice, but to threaten them with actual death via monster is a fun new approach and nice touch.
There was one thing that stood out in a negative way, however, and you’ll have to excuse me while I step up on my political soapbox for a bit. There is one unfortunate phrase in this story which has not aged well. About halfway through, we are introduced to the third base coach. His name is Roosevelt “spook” Robinson, and in the second sentence after we meet him he is described as a “management brown-nosing Oreo.” Yikes. My take on the scene is that Relling was attempting to tap in to Bowers’ perspective, and as such would have been exactly the kind of guy with this kind of racist thoughts. The problem is that Relling doesn’t give the out we need to completely absolve him of this literary crime. He doesn’t have Bowers say it aloud, and he doesn’t tell us it’s Bowers’ thoughts. It’s a simple descriptor coming from the the 3rd person omniscient perspective… ie: Relling himself.
I am not naive, though. Times have definitely changed and any number of authors — very likely Relling among them — who may have once used phrases like this wouldn’t dream of it today. And I don’t necessarily believe that’s simply because they are trying to stay politically correct in the modern world. I also believe there has been a real public awakening and general learning in that regard. As artists and essayists and public figures talk about these things, it is my contention that people really do learn and the public consciousness changes as well. I’m not trying to give Relling a pass for writing that phrase in his story, I’m just trying to put it into context. This story was published in 1989, after all, and if we took the time to look at any form of artistic expression — books, movies, songs, etc. etc. etc. — we will definitely find many more examples from what would have been considered mainstream publications. As such, I didn’t let Relling’s use of the phrase here drop my grade for his story. Instead, I am trying to let it stand for a sign of its times.
THE NEW: “Orange Grove Court”
AUTHOR: Jason Sechrest
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #77: . (Story #5 of 9).
A BRIEF PLOT SUMMARY (with spoilers!):
The story is broken into 6 sections, each from the perspective of a different character (with one of them doubled) and an epilogue which serves as a strict part and 5th character perspective. I will submit my summary in the same fashion.
Susan Walsh is glad when her husband, Gerry, leaves for a business trip. It’s been six months since their young son, Tommy, went missing, and she simply can’t take how perfect he’s been in that time. The more Gerry has obsessed with flyers and searches and interviews and rallies, the more alone Susan has felt. The worst of it, she has decided, are all the well-wishing neighbors. The do-gooders. They overwhelmed her at first and have never seemed to go away since. With Gerry gone, all she wants to do is escape. Divorce has crossed her mind, as has running away and starting over with an entirely new life.
Bryan Rogers is one of Susan’s neighbors. He is 17, totally into all manner of sports, and is laying naked on his bed waiting for enough nightfall to come over Orange Grove Court so that he can again sneak out and visit old Mrs. Weaver’s front yard. He had stumbled upon it two weeks prior when he’d hit his lucky baseball there and hasn’t been able to get his mind off it since. Tonight, he has decided to go back, and this time he will finish what he had aborted the first time. As he waits, he throws the baseball back and forth between his hands. The baseball reminds him of the only time his father ever showed the tenderness of a loving touch… when Bryan hit that ball for a game-winning grand slam last season, his father had put his big hands on Bryan’s shoulders and told him how proud he was. The baseball had been a good luck charm ever since.
Gladys Lipschvitz can see nearly all of Orange Grove Court from her guest bedroom window, a convenient fact which she routinely exploits. Each night, while her husband Lenny watches television, Gladys settles down by that window with a cocktail and a set of binoculars by her side. From there she observes many of what her neighbors undoubtedly believe are private moments, including when young Bryan Rogers air dries himself after a shower. And, by the way, she believes that he knows she is watching him. Recently, Gladys has been fretting over Susan and Gerry Walsh and what happened to their little boy. Gladys has tried to speak to Susan on several occasions about what she thought she’d seen from her window one evening six months ago. [And the word “Squeezed!” is dropped here in its own paragraph without further explanation]. What she’d seen was the Walsh parents bickering in their house, oblivious of little Tommy playing with his trucks in the front yard. Having turned her binoculars to the house… she looked back and Tommy was gone… but she soon saw him outside the Weaver house. [This is all the information readers are given].
Agnes Weaver is 86 years old and loves tending her flower garden, which is the most striking physical aspect in all of Orange Grove Court. It was even featured in several magazines over the years. The most prized of all Agnes’ plants is the ivy that covers the house. Much of her love for her dearly departed husband has gone instead to the ivy since his passing, and all that love and attention shows. When young Brian Rodgers walks past on his way to school, however, Agnes shows her darker side. She eyes him in a manner that cuts off his “Good morning” to her. She had nearly told Brian’s parents about the perverted thing he’d recently done, but had decided she didn’t like drawing attention to herself. Meanwhile, she thinks back to the first time the ivy had protected her. A midnight thief, that had been. Later, it became solicitors and neighborhood pets that went missing, always with a discovered collar on her lawn. She thinks of the little Walsh boy who went missing, and at just that moment she sees Susan Walsh, looking happy for the first time in months, driving away. Agnes is unaware that Susan has a trunk packed with suitcases and a one-way ticket to Orlando in her purse. Neither of them knows that Agnes also happens to be standing on the exact spot where little Tommy Walsh died.
We return to Bryan Rogers and see that he has snuck out of his house at 3 a.m. In his hand is his lucky baseball. He is clothed, but not for long. Gathering his courage (he had chickened out on both of the previous two nights) and already barefoot, Bryan removes his shirt, shorts, and underwear until he stands naked on Agnes Weaver’s front lawn. He is not interested in entering Agnes’ house. His desires are only for the ivy that clings to its exterior walls. He moves closer, inch by inch, until he is only a few feet away and the vines begin to stir. As the leaves flutter, his body — in particular his exposed manhood — responds in kind. A single vine reaches out to touch, then caress it. More vines engage, wrapping around his legs and his waist, pulling him forcefully against the wall. More vines grab his wrists, pinning him down. Bryan does not scream despite the pain. The embrace is worth it. Soon he is completely enveloped, wearing the vines like clothes. He is scared, and yet he feels protected. The last to be covered is his head. He takes one long, deep breath of pure joy before the vines begin to squeeze. Lightly at first, they soon begin to pulse tighter and tighter. Bryan opens his mouth to cry out, but vines race down his throat. They go up his nostrils; they implant into his brain. They pop his eyes, crush his bones, and squeeze still harder until there is nothing left to squeeze but for his heart, which the vines have saved for last.
Some time later, a realtor is showing a young couple a house for sale on Orange Grove Court. It is Mrs. Weaver’s house, and both the young couple and the realtor comment on the beauty of the gardens she has left behind. In the paragraphs just prior to the very end of the story, readers are told that the couple will buy the house and will soon be pregnant with their first child. But before they leave that day the young wife notices two objects hiding beneath the bushes… a baseball and a bright yellow Tonka truck.
MY GRADE: A
I’ll start with a couple of minor criticisms I have for this story… The names “Gladys” and “Agnes” were easy to confuse, probably because in my mind both of those names are reserved for little old ladies. In the story, however, Gladys is only 50 and it’s Agnes who is the old one at 86 years. This created for me a bit of a disjointed reading experience. After the Gladys section, I was picturing her as the neighborhood’s token octogenarian. Then I moved on to Agnes and, for a few sentences I thought I was remembering the name wrong because I thought it was the same character. Only after the mention of Agnes’ deceased husband did I realize my mistake, backtracked to the relevant lines, and corrected the disparity in my brain. Admittedly, their last names (Lipschvitz and Weaver) should have been dead giveaways, but sometimes you fly right past a single reference like that and miss them. That’s what happened to me. I probably would have given the story an A+, but I also thought a few of the passages could have used a little more in the way of clarifying details, and I’m also not a big fan of the “killer plants” theme. I can’t tell you why, exactly, because I don’t really know, myself. For whatever reason, I like my monsters to have more human aspects, ie: eyes, teeth, hands (claws), and the ability to scare their victims with words. That’s not an objection, mind you, just a personal preference.
Other than these minor literary infractions, this story is nearly perfect. It’s a wonderfully chilling horror tale rife with rich characters, a fair amount of symbolism, and tons of dread.
First, Everyone in Orange Grove Court is affected by Mrs. Weaver’s vines. Little Tommy Walsh was its first victim and his parents are thereby traumatized accordingly. Bryan Rogers voluntarily sacrifices himself to them in exchange for the physical and emotional pleasure — the love — it gives in return. Gladys Lipschvitz is plagued by what she thinks she saw there, and her husband has undoubtedly spent many a night alone in front of his TV in part because of the obsession Gladys has gained. Even the neighborhood’s newest residents have a fate which will one day be tangled in their horrible embrace.
But to write these tales by breaking them into 6 segments with effectively 6 different perspectives could easily create a disjointed, stop-and-start reading experience. This does not happen with Sechrest’s piece. Instead, each of them blends smoothly into the next with realistic, relatable characters and frequent, palpable references to previous segments which help keep the whole storyline into perspective. With the exception of the repetition of Bryan, each section/ scene introduces a new character and information about Orange Grove Court. Collectively, they paint a picture of a strange neighborhood highlighted by a refreshingly new kind of haunted house…
- Susan introduces the concept of loss, depression, and that vague sense of not feeling at ease with oneself. This establishes the tone of the story, one not uncommon in horror stories.
- Bryan’s first scene is what really catches our attention. Why is he naked? Why would a 17-year-old boy — especially one who waits naked, for hours in his bedroom — want to sneak into an old woman’s yard in the middle of the night? In this scene, we are immediately jolted into the unreality of the situation. Something isn’t right here, and while we don’t yet feel the pull of the supernatural, we are weary and concerned. The tone of the story has thus shifted from loneliness to trepidation and potential fear.
- Gladys is the neighborhood Nosey Nancy. She sees everything and seems to bask in the glory of nightly experience. The fact that she was in some manner a witness to the disappearance of a child and has not come forward makes us instantly hate her. The fact that readers don’t know exactly what she saw because Sechrest leaves out that particular factoid is extremely unsettling. What is he hiding from us? Overall, we know only that this is a woman who is so concerned with her secrecy that she’s willing to let a child’s death haunt the parents. Sechrest has now introduced evil into the story, and nothing that happens afterwards can feel safe.
- Agnes is the owner of the house which bears the killer ivy vines. She is definitely aware of the destructive nature of her beloved plants, but appears unaware (or in the very least, unconcerned) about the extremity it wields. She knows, for instance, about how it protected her against thieves and unwanted solicitors. She also understands that certain neighborhood pets have come to their demise on her lawn. And while she does think about the missing Walsh boy, she does not know she is standing in the very spot where he died. Perhaps the most interesting detail here is that Agnes apparently brought the vines to their level of protective consciousness through her undevoted love for them. Readers aren’t exactly empathetic to Agnes (she knows something after all, plus she herself is unsympathetic and brusque to Bryan, after all), but we can definitely feel that she is missing something. There is a blindness there, perhaps brought on by old age. Perhaps by the loss of her husband of so many years. Whatever it is, we have an instinct that she’d feel genuine pain and regret should she ever learn what her love for the vines has done. Knowing that there is also an element of ignorance at Orange Grove Court gives readers a sense of hopelessness, too. If the key players in the game aren’t even aware of all the rules, how can they ever expect to win?
- Bryan’s second scene is, of course, the coup de grâce. His death isn’t just horrible, it’s entirely preventable and unnecessary. It is also the culmination of all the horror elements we’ve seen in Orange Grove Court.
- First, there is Bryan’s reason for giving himself to the vines… like Susan, he has much sadness and loss in him. His father may have given him that loving touch upon hitting the grand slam, but there is no mention of a furthered relationship after that point. The fact that Bryan has kept the lucky baseball and is the only thing he takes with him into the vines (he doesn’t even take his clothes) suggests he is clearly missing something in his life.
- Then there is the fact that, like Gladys, Bryan also has knowledge of the supernatural nature of the vines. It’s far less likely for a teenage boy to draw the correlation to the missing Walsh child, nor should we hold towards him the same dislike that we do towards Gladys. Nevertheless, Bryan experienced something with Gladys’ vines before, so he is not ignorant and therefore not purely innocent either. He is, in the very least, somewhat culpable himself.
- Lastly, there is Bryan’s connection to Agnes’ ignorance. He, too, displays a kind of love for the vines, albeit motivated by lust at first. Yet the simple fact that he willingly gives himself to the vines and only calls out in pain when the vines brings him to the brink of death suggests that he didn’t truly understand what he was doing.
- Finally, the Epilogue takes us down the time stream a little ways. I’d say it can’t have been too long, because the final line shows us both Tommy Walsh’s Tonka and Bryan Rogers’ baseball. But of course, this is a supernatural vine, so it could be that years have passed and the vine has merely reguritated these choice items for the benefit of today’s special moment. Nevertheless, 86-year-old Agnes Weaver’s house is being sold, so we know she has passed on. At the end, after we are shown a brief insight into the future of the couple buying the house, readers are left with what is perhaps the most quintessential of all haunted-house themes: a deep sense of foreboding. We know they will buy the house, and we know they will have a child. We are reminded of the horrible result culminated from the combination of little Tommy’s innocent wanderings and his parents’ brief negligence. There is no guarantee, of course, that the new owners will suffer a similar fate. They are not Agnes Weaver. They do not have her love and obsession with tending the various plantlife within and around the house. But readers are nevertheless cognizant that the vines are there, and they are destructive. Why else would Sechrest show us the final image of the truck and the ball? Answer: Because we’re supposed to extrapolate that the vines now have a life beyond Agnes Weaver.
This different take on the haunted house story is what most appealed to me in Sechrest’s tale. Instead of a ghost, demon, or poltergeist possessing a house and scaring away and killing any would-be visitors, we have instead the vines surrounding and clinging to the house which are the monster, and only those who venture within its limited domain are in any danger. Moreover, rather than a deceased and restless spirit, these monstrous vines are born of Mrs. Weaver’s love for them. Sechrest tells us Agnes’ belief is that
It’s simply a matter of serving that which serves you. Plants are living, breathing organisms. They’re alive, just like you and me… And if you love them — truly love them — they will do all they can for you in return.
In the end, readers are left with a disconcerting feeling about Orange Grove Court and everyone that lives there, but especially Agnes Weaver. I propose that she is the true monster, not the vines at all.
AUTHOR’S INSIGHT!: It’s rare that I get to converse with the authors of these tales. Cemetery Dance has been around long enough that sadly, many of them have left us, so that train has forever passed. Most of the ones who are still around have never heard of me, of course. But for the few who have… well, those few can offer insights which I am more than happy to pass along. In the case of Mr. Sechrest, I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with him online, and he told me a few interesting factoids about the creation of this story. First, it was his first real attempt at writing short fiction. Let’s just pause for a moment and take that in. The first real short story this guy ever writes, and it gets accepted for publication in Cemetery Dance Magazine. Right along the likes of Stephen King, Ed Gorman, Bentley Little, Norman Partridge, Douglas Clegg, Ronald Kelly, Jack Ketchum, Ray Garton, Joe R. Lansdale… and a veritable host of other big names in the genre. Well, aside from coloring me jealous, Mr. Jason Sechrest should also take a little bow, pat his own back, and accept my fist bump of congratulations. That’s quite the accomplishment, sir. Nicely done, you! But as to the story itself, he shared with me that he didn’t realize until after the first draft was done that “Orange Grove Court” is also a commentary on child abuse. As soon as I saw that I thought how obvious it was. I had felt those vibes, but hadn’t let it sink home. Tommy’s parents, of course, don’t play with him in the yard and don’t even realize when he’s gone for a little trek across the street with his toy Tonka. And Bryan… poor Bryan is still harping over his dad’s hands on his shoulders after hitting that grand slam. Sechrest even tells us right there in the text that this was the last time he’s made physical contact with his father. Gladys and her husband appear to be either childless or just old enough to have had theirs grown up and move out, so we can’t really comment further other than the nagging feeling that Gladys would undoubtedly make a shitty mom. And then there’s Agnes. Again, there is no mention of children, but we don’t need them. Not in the human sense, anyway. We all know who Agnes’ true children are: the vines. She brought them to “life” (ie: an awareness of being alive) through her love for them, but oh how they have grown up to be evil bastards. Whatever her nurturing skills with horticulture may be, she’s obviously another bad influence who had warped her children greatly. We aren’t at all sad to see her dead in that epilogue, are we? Which leaves us with the new couple who will take her place in Orange Grove Court. We know they but the house. We know they will soon bear a child. That’s all the story tells us about their futures. But we don’t really need to guess, do we? Everyone who lives on Orange Grove Court are horrid parents in one manner or another. Who knows what this iteration will become… sexual abuse? Drugs or alchohol dependance coupled with weekly violence? Maybe the mother will forever berate her little boy or convince him he’s a fragile, sickly thing who cannot trust the world outside their protective, loving home. There are many ways to abuse a child, after all. We know only that the cycle will repeat.
Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’re classic supernatural semblances cobbled from the worst parts of humanity (Granny Walker, the vampire). Sometimes they’re from the natural world but beefed with a supernatural twist (Agnes Weaver’s killer vines). And sometimes they’re just plain of us (Bart Bowers & Agnes Weaver). Whatever your preference and whatever the tale, what matters most is what an author does with them.
Next time I’ll be reading/ reviewing the following tales:
- “Diary” by Ronald Kelly (CD #3, 1990)
- “The Left Behind“ by Kaaron Warren (CD #69, 2013)
I do hope you have the opportunity to read along with me (and 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 middle 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 New Jersey.