Welcome to Exhumed, my humble attempt to read and review every story and novel excerpt ever published in Cemetery Dance magazine.
Each month I’ll summarize and analyze a pair of related works. Usually this means comparing “older” and “newer” pieces by the same author.
In their 29+ years of publication, Cemetery Dance has already printed 568 pieces, spread out over 76 issues. I think I’m going to be doing this for a while. In the meantime, here’s a spreadsheet listing every published Cemetery Dance story plus links to all my completed reviews.
Last time I reviewed two Ronald Kelly stories:
- “Better Than Breadcrumbs” from Cemetery Dance #2 (1989), and
- “Pelingrad’s Pit” from Cemetery Dance #63 (2010)
This month is the 14th installment of Exhumed and, as I promised last month, I present to you two Roman Ranieri stories.
Let’s get to it…
THE OLD: “Separate Ways”
AUTHOR: Roman Ranieri
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #2: June, 1989 (Story #6 of 11)
PLOT (with spoilers!): (Don’t blink… this is a short one!)
Despite his misgivings about how their marriage ended, Mel Goldstein has decided to make ammends with his ex-wife. He is happily surprised when she lets him into his former house without protest.
Their pleasant chat only lasts a few minutes, though, when Ellen reminds him how she sacrificed ten years of her life to support his long days through medical school, only to be tossed aside in favor of a young bimbo once he finally started making real money. Mel’s defenses are as lackluster as they are short-lived. “You got the house, the BMW, and half the investments. How could I have been any fairer?” he says. But when Ellen fires back with the only point that matters: “Fair? I made sacrifices for you because I loved you, then you left me for the first young bitch who spread her legs when she saw your wallet. Was that fair?” Mel, both frustrated and defeated, stands to leave but stumbles on suddenly weak legs. He realizes with horror that Ellen has drugged him.
Mel wakes in the basement, his ankle cuffed to a surgical table. Nearby is a time bomb and an instrument table. Ellen succinctly explains that he won’t be able to reach the bomb to turn it off unless he amputates his own foot.
Mel tries to talk his way out, of course. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just thought it was time for us to go our separate ways.”
“And that’s just what we’re going to do,” Ellen retorts. “I’m going to Jamaica, and you’re going to the moon… Now, how much time should a great surgeon like you need?”
She sets the timer for six minutes, flicks the switch, and leaves. The last thing she sees before closing the door is Mel rolling down his sock with trembling hands and making the first cut.
From there Ellen grabs her things and heads quickly to the garage. She drives to the end of the street and stops there. She watches the clock on her dashboard. Each second seems an eternity. Her breathing becomes quick and labored.
Then a deafening explosion erupts from behind her. She glances back to see her house beginning to crumble. Ellen smiles then laughs. Before she pulls away, Ellen looks at herself in the mirror. “That was a very dirty trick, Ellen,” she says. “You really should have told poor Mel that there was no way he could turn off that bomb!”
MY GRADE: B
Before I get into the nitty gritty of this story, I should preface myself by explaining that my perspective is 100% jaded because of the Saw movie franchise. I mean, if you’re a fan of horror (particularly psychological horror), you already know how groundbreaking the first film was and how successful the overall franchise has become. Plus, cutting off your own foot with a hacksaw is literally where they got the title. In this writer/ reader/ moviegoer’s humble opinion, it’s a vastly superior tale, and rating Ranieri’s little short story (and I do mean “little”… the whole thing comes in at right around 1,200 words) while naturally thinking of and comparing it to all eight of those films is very unfair.
Having said that, Ranieri did beat Lionsgate (distribution) and Twisted Pictures (production) to the punch by about 15 years. For all I know, the Saw writers may have even been influenced by this very story. (Doubtful, but you never know). Moreover, while Cemetery Dance has put some energy into movie reviews and novel excerpts over the years, their bread and butter has always been the short story. Given the constraints of this shorter medium, we wouldn’t expect Ranieri’s piece to be as complex as the films.
Having said that, “Separate Ways” really isn’t very complex, even for a short story. I give respect to Ranieri for the premise (I’m assuming it really was his own idea). But outside of that cool premise, as the saying goes, There’s Just Not That Much There There.”
Here is the entirety of the story:
- Guy tries to make nice with ex-wife.
- Wife is still bitter and decides to take revenge.
- Guy is forced to take drastic measure to save his life.
- Bitter wife double-crosses guy, killing him anyway.
That’s pretty much it. I can admit the actions Mel is forced to take are satisfyingly symbolic: Ellen sacrificed her life so Mel could become a surgeon… and she’s now providing him with surgical equipment and challenging his surgical skills. And I can also admit the nasty twist at the end where we learn Mel never had a chance was also pretty satisfying. But neither of these are either shocking or groundbreaking. If anything, they’re standard tropes of the genre.
Understand I don’t think Ranieri’s writing is bad here. (If I did, the grade would have been in the C or D range.) But I’m also not particularly impressed with it either. He wrote a story, and wrote it well, but the story itself was a very simplistic one which was relatively easy to predict and lacking in profundity or resonance.
In other words, it was a typical horror tale from the ’80s.
I can live with that.
One thing I did like was how Ranieri so smoothly switched perspectives from Mel to Ellen. The story starts with readers privy to Mel’s thoughts as he walks into the house and ends with reader’s privy to Ellen’s thoughts when she leaves it. While the entire tale is technically told in Third Person Omniscient, there’s definitely an emphasis switch about halfway through. It was a good decision on Ranieri’s part, mostly because that’s where the “real” story is being told as the tale moves along, but also because it allows for a natural reveal for the little twist at the end. It’s true we could have simply seen Mel trying to turn off the bomb and, when it doesn’t work, come to realize the same truth. But it’s so much more satisfying to see how truly happy Ellen is at what she’s done.
Two other observations on this story—one good and one bad—and then we’ll move along to the next one. Both, you’ll note, are about the formatting rather than the story itself…
First, the bad: Cemetery Dance gave away much of the story in their in-text picture again. Take a look at it here:
Now imagine it being opposite the first page of Ranieri’s story. In the exactly same way as when I commented on this publishing faux pas in this review of William Relling Jr’s “Life of the Party,” my personal opinion is that Cemetery Dance inadvertently took away a significant element of the joy of the story by printing a spoiler image at the wrong location. This, of course, isn’t Ranieri’s fault and should in no way reflect on his work. But the truth is that any shock value readers might have gained by reading the lines where Mel is shown ankle-cuffed to the table is entirely lost because the picture above those words already showed it happening. I’ll forego going deeper into this concern of mine since I’ve already commented on it in the past.
Second, the good: “Separate Ways” is the first story Cemetery Dance published in which the text was split onto multiple sections of the magazine. The story starts on page 32, and at the bottom of page 33 there are these four words in bold: (Continued on page 54). Sure enough, page 54 is not only where this story finishes, it’s also where two other entries from earlier in the magazine are completed. One is a short interview with author Alfred R. Klosterman which began on page 53, and the other is the short story “Markers” by Steve Rasnic Tem which began on page 45 and was cut off on page 50. What’s interesting to note here is that all three pieces use but a small portion of the space available on page 54 (the Klosterman interview takes up one-third, the finale of “Separate Ways” takes up one-third, the finale of “Markers” takes up a mere one-eighth, with the rest going to white space and separation lines). You might think this is either awkward or even annoying to the reader. You might think it’s yet more poor planning on the part of the Cemetery Dance formatting team (which was probably still only Mr. Chizmar at this point). But what you’d be missing is that this is done deliberately and has been since time out of mind. Newspapers do it all the time, in fact. The concept is a simple one: In forcing the reader to go to another page to finish the story/ column/ etc. they are interested in, they will naturally see there are other things to read. In other words, it’s in-house advertising designed to encourage readers to check out other sections of the magazine. It’s also a convenient way to solve the occasional formatting issue of ending a piece with far too much white space at the bottom of the page. This simple addition to issue #2 is an indication that Cemetery Dance (aka: Richard Chizmar) is learning the tricks of the trade of the publishing biz and an indication of how the magazine would continue to evolve in complexity and professionalism.
Alrighty then, CD fans. Let’s read another tale by Mr. Ranieri published just a few short months later in 1990…
THE NEW: “Bloodline”
AUTHOR: Roman Ranieri
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #5: Spring, 1990 (Story #9 of 14)
PLOT (with spoilers!):
Anthony Stark no longer works for the FBI. He wasn’t that much of a rule-follower, so he quit and became a private investigator in Altoona, Pennsylvania. He does alright, money-wise, but it’s also true that most of his days consist of sneaking around sleazy motels taking pictures of sleazy people so their even sleazier spouses have useful evidence in divorce court. That’s why he acts like such a jerk when Joan McNally walked into his office.
What Anthony assumes is that Joan is just another divorcee-in-waiting. But Joan’s husband was killed and she wants him to find out what really happened.
She goes on to explain that her husband was a police officer and was killed in the line of duty while working plainclothes duty trying to flush out the perpetrator of several recent attacks against homeless people. The captain told her he had been stabbed several times and this was the reason she wasn’t permitted to see the body. But Joan doesn’t believe him. Anthony says the captain’s claim doesn’t sound that unreasonable to him. Joan explains that she’s a registered nurse and she’s already seen far worse many times over.
Anthony agrees to look into the matter for her, though he personally doesn’t think there’s anything to it.
After lunch, Anthony goes to see an old friend, Sergeant Paul Cook. Paul is much like Anthony… skilled yet under-ranked because he won’t play the political games. When he asks for the report on Officer McNally, though, Paul explains he can’t help: The report has been marked the highest level of confidential by the commissioner himself.
Frustrated but with his curiosity now piqued, Anthony goes to see George, the assistant coroner. George, too, claims he cannot discuss the situation. Anthony casually insinuates he could tell George’s wife about his affair, and George’s immediate anger is subdued only when Anthony explains that his client is the dead cop’s wife and he has no intention to share any of what he learns with anyone else.
Report finally in hand, Anthony immediately sees from the post-mortem photo that Officer McNally was not killed via a knife. The man’s neck and chest were completely torn open. George explains that the man was actually killed by a coyote. Dumbfounded that a coyote could do that much damage, Anthony follows George to the holding room where the city’s corpses are kept before burial. George opens one large drawer and lifts the white sheet for Anthony to see first Officer McNally, and then the coyote that killed him.
“Notice anything unusual?” George asks.
“I see that this thing took six bullets from a large caliber handgun and still managed to tear up McNally before it died.”
“Look at the size of it,” George urges. “That thing’s three times larger than a coyote is supposed to get.” Anthony asks if George has any guesses how it got so big. George explains he has no idea and that the carcass is destined for dissection at the Pittsburgh zoo.
Before he leaves, Anthony points out that George only agreed to show him the evidence when he found out his client was Mrs. McNally. He asks who George thought he might be working for.
“Benjamin Williamson,” George says. “He’s called here a half-dozen times demanding that we send him a copy of the report on this case. The old bastard’s tried everything from threats to bribery.”
Anthony does some research on coyote attacks in the area. He discovers an alarming pattern: All of the victims up to 1955 had been black or other minorities, and after 1955 the victims were drifters and bums. It occurs to him that the victims were all people whose deaths would cause the least concern, and a bizarre theory begins to form in his mind.
He arrives at the Williamson estate at sundown. Upon buzzing the intercom, the voice on the other end dismisses him, but Anthony gains entrance when he explains he is investigating Officer McNally’s death.
At the hous he is met by a gorilla-sized bodyguard who confiscates his gun. While the guard is completing a pat down for other weapons, Anthony tells him, “You touch my leg and I’ll knock your teeth out, then feed them to you one at a time.” The threat works, and the guard misses the second, smaller gun strapped to Anthony’s ankle.
Benjamin Williamson is waiting for Anthony and quickly asks what he wants. Anthony explains he wants to ask some questions about coyotes before going to the police. “I have a theory that your family has been breeding a huge species of coyote for over a hundred years, and that periodically they are let loose to thin out the number of undesirables in this city.”
Williamson laughs. Loudly. He explains that the occurrences are most certainly not intentional. He goes on to explain the story of his family name: In 1782 his ancestor, Colonel David Williamson, was responsible for the massacre of nearly a hundred local Indians. In retaliation, the Indians captured and burned to death another man—Colonel William Crawford—whom they mistook for Colonel Williamson. Upon learning of their mistake, the Indians instead placed a curse upon the correct man and all his descendants.
Anthony, of course, doesn’t believe a word of the preposterous story. But even as his protest continues, Williamson picks his tale up and explains the rest: “At certain times—unpredictable times—during a Williamson’s life, he or she transforms into the form of a large coyote. Even more remarkable is that the animal completely retains the intelligence of the person it was before. The only way for the coyote to return to its previous form is to take a human life. Don’t confuse this with the legend of werewolves.”
He finishes by explaining that the dead coyote Anthony saw that afternoon was, in reality, Benjamin’s son, David Williamson, and that the attack on Officer McNally was a mistake. “An error in judgement,” he says. “David had no idea he was a policeman. He thought he was attacking an ordinary bum. Just as you’ve said yourself, we’ve never killed indiscriminately. We only took those whose lives were worthless.”
Anthony’s anger boils over instantly. “Who in the hell are you to decide whose life is worthless?! I don’t know if anyone will believe me, but I intend to see that your history of murder does not repeat itself.”
Williamson’s laugh returns, and he called Anthony a fool. “Did you really think I would let you live after telling you all this?” Then, just before the change begins, Williamson explains that while they had never discovered how to prevent transformations, his family had learned how to induce it.
Williamson’s change begins with his mouth, which elongates quickly and turns into a muzzle. Next coarse, gray fur sprouts from his skin. Anthony is already reaching for his hidden gun.
Williamson attacks in full coyote form and Anthony manages to get one shot off directly into the creature’s chest. Teeth sink into Anthony’s upraised forearm. He readily knows the coyote that attacked Officer McNally had taken a half-dozen bullets at point-blank range but still managed to kill the man. But he also knows his gun is loaded with jacketed hollow point bullets, each of which is designed to explode into small fragments upon impact.
He uses his captive arm to hold the coyote’s head up and rapid-fires seven more bullets directly under its jaw and through its brain. The creature is dead before it hits the ground.
Anthony tidies up quickly, using his tie as a tourniquet and verifies the guard had fled at the first sound of gunshots. From there he leaves and drives himself straight to a doctor whom he knows will stitch him up without asking any questions.
In the end, Anthony decides to tell Joan McNally that he discovered her husband was indeed killed in the line of duty, just as she was told. He also decides that he needs to personally find and kill every descendant of Colonel David Williamson in the state of Pennsylvania, no matter if there are ten or a hundred.
He has the doctor give him shots for rabies, tetanus, and any other possible sickness he could think of. But he keeps wondering if Benjamin Williamson’s saliva has infected him… which is why he knows he has to wipe out the entire Williamson bloodline.
MY GRADE: B
A different story, but same author and same grade.
Why? Well, as I mentioned above, these two stories were published less than a year apart (Summer of 1989, and then Spring of 1990), so Ranieri really hasn’t had much chance to evolve as a writer. As such, we get a lot of “Same Shit, Different Day” here. Or, perhaps, “Same Shit, Different Story” is more accurate.
Once again the very simplistic nature of the plotline is what stands out the most. To recap:
- Guy investigates suspicious death.
- Guy discovers death was caused by strange creature.
- Guy learns truth of said creature.
- Guy confronts and kills creature’s patriarch
Yeah, there’s a bit more to it than that (and there are some legit goodies in here, which I’ll get to presently), but if you boil the story down to the nuts and bolts, there’s not much there there. It’s a super-simplified police procedural, with a little bit of supernatural monster thrown in for fun.
There are other faults, too, most of which can be labeled as Far-Too-Convenient-Plot-Moves. Examples include:
- The giant body guard who is “intimidated” into not finishing his weapons pat down.
- The antagonist who shares far too much of his backstory/ plan without being prompted.
- The last-second explanation that these bullets are hollow points & can actually kill the monster
But to be fair, this type of writing was perfectly normal for its day, so I’m not even that bothered by that stuff. It was the norm. It’s how horror was written and read for decades.
A more glaring problem is the specific wording of the final lines…
“…but I still keep wondering if the saliva from Williamson’s bite could have infected me. That’s why I have to find them all—why I have to wipe out the bloodline—so that I won’t become a part of it.”
It’s confusing because it doesn’t follow, logically. Either he’s already infected, or he’s not. Either the doctor’s injections will stave off the spread of the disease or it won’t. Wiping out all the Williamsons can no more prevent Anthony from becoming part of the bloodline than throwing half-used cans of paint away can change the color of freshly-painted walls. The deed has been done, is my point. I’m honestly not even sure what Ranieri was going for here.
But there are plenty of goodies, too. I’ll start with the ending. Or, rather, I’ll start by explaining the other element of the ending that actually works really well. I’ll call it the Pre-Ending…
The Pre-ending happens in the two paragraphs immediately preceding the awkwardly-worded Actual Ending. The big question posed is: “Is Anthony infected or isn’t he?” We have no evidence either way, which means we get to make our own decision. Moreover, Anthony has made the decisions to rid the world of all the Williamson bloodline. First, we get to consider whether we agree or disagree with his decision (the old ‘Eye-For-An-Eye” dilemma). But then, just a few seconds later, we realize there’s an even better question… if Anthony is infected, does that mean he’s going to have to kill himself too? Will he do it if it comes to that? Awkward final sentence aside, Ranieri has certainly made it clear that it’s the full bloodline Anthony wants to wipe out. Each of these are fun thoughts to consider, and ones which fairly overcome the ending’s other faults in this reader’s humble opinion. .
A second goodie actually happens at the other end of the tale. On the first page, in fact. When meeting Joan McNally for the first time, Anthony is satisfyingly critical of himself by admitting he was unfairly assumptive about who she was and what she wanted. This endears us to him almost instantly because we see that he can be honest about his own faults, something we admire in others. For you authors out there, this is a great writing trick which Blake Snyder calls “Save the Cat” in his brilliant screenwriting book of the same name. (Do yourself a favor & read that one cover to cover.)
Another, and perhaps the best, well-written element is how Ranieri is clearly (and successfully!) trying his hand at a new twist on an old trope. This isn’t a werewolf story, after all, it’s a brand new monster we’ve never seen before: a human-coyote hybrid monster. It has:
- its genesis (an Indian curse),
- its rules (transformation is random/ can be reversed by killing a human/ can be done at-will if desired),
- its symbolism (the Williamsons—a rich and powerful family—frequently choose who is “worthy” of life or death), and
- its moral dilemma (the protagonist wants to rid the world of this family of murderers, but he may not be one of them himself).
There’s a lot going on there. Not bad for a 4,000-ish-word story. Nevertheless, we’re clearly meant to think of it as (and compare it to) standard werewolf stories. We see and distinctly notice the differences:
- Coyotes are smaller and less powerful than wolves, but these coyotes are notably large, much like werewolves are notably larger than their human counterparts.
- Unlike when killing werewolves, silver bullets aren’t necessary to end the life of one of these coyote-humans, but you’d better have some serious firepower, by God, because a standard .22 isn’t going to get the job done.
- Typical werewolves are often innocent humans who are merely suffering a curse. We feel bad for them. But the Williamsons are very obviously the bad guys here, and they always have been going back to the late 1700s.
Ranieri even gives us a tongue-in-cheek moment when Williamson tells us not to confuse his story with that of the legend of werewolves. LOL, Mr. Ranieri. #ElbowJab. I see what you did there.
I’ve mentioned Cemetery Dance’s use (and misuse) of embedded images before, including the spoiler image used in “Separate Ways.” It is perhaps of note to know that the image included for “Bloodline” is damned-near perfect.
It’s located on the penultimate page in the story, and on the preceding page we have already been introduced to the overly-large coyote that killed Officer McNally. As such, we already have our suspicions about the role of coyotes in the tale, yet the picture itself is merely a suggestive representation rather than an actual spoiler. Yes, technically speaking you could say it foreshadows the attack that the coyote version of Williamson will make upon Anthony, but there is nothing here that specifically belies that detail. There are no human-like markings, no background details that would suggest it takes place in the Williamson mansion. It’s just a snarling, growling canine. Which is exactly what we’d imagine Officer McNally would have faced in the last moments of life.
Learning how to write well is hard.
Learning how to improve when you’re already pretty good is even harder.
And despite the pair of ho-hum scores I may have given these stories this month, you should realize that Roman Ranieri is no slouch. He may have given us comparatively simple tales (compared to modern stories, anyway), but both are nevertheless quite entertaining.
Mr. Ranieri has been published by Cemetery Dance exactly four times.
The first three were all published very early in the Cemetery Dance archives, appearing in issues #1, #2, and #5, which means they were all published within about 18 months of each other.
The fourth, however, doesn’t appear until issue #23… a full six years later.
I’ve had the pleasure of reading & reviewing all four stories now. The results?
- Issue #1 (1988): “The Officer’s Club” (Grade: B) (Exhumed #7)
- Issue #2 (1989): “Separate Ways” (Grade: B) (See Above)
- Issue #5 (1990): “Bloodline” (Grade: B) (See Above)
- Issue #23 (1996): “The Phone Call” (Grade: A) (Exhumed #7)
Hmmm…. Seems like the extra couple of years experience did some good. Don’t believe me? Check out that A- story and judge for yourself.
Am I being too harsh?
Or did I nail your Goldilocks zone of getting it Juuuuuust Riiiiight?
Go on and leave me a comment.
I promise I won’t bite.
(And even if I do, it couldn’t possibly be the infectious kind.)
-K. Edwin Fritz
Next month I’ll be reading/ reviewing each of the following tales:
- “End of the Line” by Franklin E. Wales (Cemetery Dance #2)
- “Seed“ by Erin L. Kemper (Cemetery Dance #74/75)
If you have access to either or both of these stories, I hope you can make plans to read them along with me.
Until next time…
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.