Hello again, folks. This is the 2nd installment of “Exhumed”—monthly double reviews studying the structure of great horror fiction published in our beloved Cemetery Dance.
Last time I reviewed Steve Rasnic Tem’s “The Double” from CD #1 (1988) and Michael Wehunt’s “The Inconsolable” from CD #73 (2016). If you didn’t catch that one, do check it out. Both stories are well worth your consideration.
Let’s see what we’ve got on the docket for this month…
THE OLD: “Fury’s Child”
AUTHOR: David B. Silva
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #1 (December, 1988)
PLOT (with spoilers!): The day Nick Fury almost died he was working on a new guitar riff in his basement. Though he never bothered to learn to read music, he is naturally talented, preferring to experiment and play with the instrument until something begins to click. Feeling great about his progress and close to a new sound, some leaking water from a storm outside makes contact with the electronics, and everything happens at once.
There is an explosion of feedback. Nick yanked the cord from the amp. The lights dim for a moment. Thinking he had escaped tragedy, Nick looks down and sees his thumb has turned black and his whole hand is numb. A second later, Nick finds himself floating outside his body near the basement ceiling.
He floats through the roof of his house and then through the atmosphere itself, eventually flying through the far reaches of the universe. He sees a brilliant blue light at the end of a long tunnel and hears the most amazing music of his life. His dead mother appears only to tell him today is not his day to die. A black, deformed hand pulls his mother away and the world goes immediately black. Nick wakes the following day in a hospital bed.
Nick’s entire experience was, in a word, transformative. He becomes obsessed with recreating the music he heard in the outer cosmos. In his basement again, he insists to his girlfriend, Sadie, that he must do this thing. She begs him to come outside for just a few hours. He does not back down, and Sadie eventually leaves. Nick barely notices.
Over the next two weeks, Nick composes non-stop, constantly frustrated with his inability to complete the song. Little by little, though, certain notes and chords click, and on the 15th day he finishes. He records a final play-through and confirms it’s beauty is the most important work of his career. He invites Sadie over to listen to the recording. She comes willingly enough, and listens with tears in her eyes. When it is over, she speaks only seven words in response: “It’s beautiful,” and “I think I understand now.” When she leaves soon after, she does so wordlessly. On her way home, Sadie stops at the Golden Gate Bridge where she exits the car and jumps to her death.
Devastated by the news, Nick comes to believe his song is brilliant but dangerous because of its proximity to true death. He wants to destroy the recording but can’t bring himself to do it. He locks it away instead and spends what seems to be several weeks or even months fending off daily calls from his manager about his lack of production. He loses fans, falls heavily into drug and alcohol use, and all but loses his sanity.
The story’s final paragraphs show Nick wondering what it was that pulled his mother away as he stood at the threshold of death’s door. He concludes that Sadie now knows, and if he wanted to, he could pick up his guitar and his fingers would happily tell him.
MY GRADE: A
MY REVIEW: David B. Silva passed away in 2013 at the age of 62. I’m saddened that I didn’t discover his writing until, coincidentally, shortly after his death, when I finally got my hands on the premier issue of Cemetery Dance. I looked him up after having read this story and was mildly shocked to have found he had just passed a few months before. At that time I learned/confirmed something I had taken an educated guess on: Silva was a mainstay in horror fiction back in the ‘80s and ’90s. Not only did he write and publish great horror just about everywhere, he also ran his own horror magazine, The Horror Show, which to some was considered the coolest (and possibly weirdest) genre magazine ever. To share another perspective on the importance of the man, CD #1 was essentially a Silva-centric issue because it published “Fury’s Child” (a standout piece in the issue) AND featured an exclusive Silva interview. In fact, when CD was still in pre-production but had reached the stage of actually being a thing that would happen, Richard Chizmar wrote to Silva first before any other authors and requested an interview. The result was an comprehensive, even insightful Q&A printed in the pages immediately preceeding “Fury’s Child”.
That interview is a wonderful read. All the standard inquiries and responses are there:
-“How long have you been writing?” (Since the ‘60s)
-“What was your first sale?” (A short story called “Game Zone” in Owlflight)
-“Do you use an outline or do you write from scratch?” (He is a total “pantster” (writes “by the seat of his pants” and does not like outlines)
-“What is your next project?” (A novel, Extremities, I was not able to find anything on. Was it never published? Was it published under another title? I just don’t know.)
But this interview also asked some of the questions which, I believe, reveal why “Fury’s Child” is so good and why it was also the precursor of Horror Things To Come. Allow me to explain further…
“Fury’s Child” is atypical for Cemetery Dance’s premier issue. But it would fit right in with today’s CD stories. It’s… emotional rather than visual. The near-death scene is so ethereal it’s hard to understand. Yes, we know what Nick saw, but we don’t know what any of it means. And even Nick comes to question the whole experience by the end of the story. None of this is typical for horror of the ‘80s. ‘80s horror was more often splattered with blood than feelings.
One of CD’s interview questions was “You have been called a horror writer with sensitivity. Where does this “soft touch” come from? Is it a conscious technique?” Silva answers that it is, indeed, very deliberate. Moreover, it was in fact his goal to bring sensitivity to the genre. He clarifies that not all of his stories end up being “clean, bloodless” stories, however, which suggests that a mixture of the two may be the more natural way of things.
“Fury’s Child” is certainly bloodless, though. The only true violence— Sadie’s suicide—is written about briefly and almost passively. We find out about it second-hand, and it’s about a character we only met a few paragraphs before, which means we aren’t personally affected by it. For our protagonist, though… well, that’s something else altogether. Nick is profoundly affected and we see her death through his eyes, not hers. We feel his pain and guilt just as we felt his exhilaration at creating his ultimate work of art. We also later feel abhorrance at what that creation might actually be. We feel his confusion and fear about what the blackened hand was that took his mother away. And most of all, we feel his need to pick up that guitar and start stroking those magical chords.
Because, deep inside, aren’t we all just a little more curious than cautious? Yes. I believe we are. And Silva taps into that in this story. The final line: (“And sometimes his fingers would be itching to tell him.”) uses personification to just the right degree. At no point before this one did his fingers, the guitar, or any other object in the story get the semblance of sentience. But here, at the very very end, his fingers have minds of their own. It’s a creepy, haunting notion that is hard to forget.
One final thought I have risks changing the scope of this review but bears attention nonetheless. And that is the suggested symbolism of the hand in Nick’s vision vs. his own hand, which was blackened from the electrocution that almost killed him.
Same hand, right? So maybe the whole thing was in his mind, right? Exactly. Maybe his spirit never left his body. Maybe he never saw his dead mother. And maybe he never heard that beautiful music of the afterlife. If so, that means the hand that took his mother away was his own hand bringing him back to life (maybe the pain of the electrocution finally kicked in and woke him from his stupor). It also means he wrote that song all by himself. It also means Sadie’s suicide wasn’t because of the beauty of the music or its connetion to death, but because of her heartbreak at having lost Nick’s true attentions. Finally, Nick’s desire to pick up the guitar and play the song again could therefore be his own suicidal thoughts coming to life.
Overall, Silva’s story is rife with emotion and layered meaning. It’s also how much of horror works today. And for someone to have established himself enough to get the attention of a young Rich Chizmar way back in 1988 is pretty impressive. Even more impressive is that Chizmar knew enough to make Silva his little magazine’s first featured author. It was insight, perhaps, into other things to come.
THE NEW: “The Rich are Different”
AUTHOR: Lisa Morton
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #74/75 (October, 2016)
PLOT (with spoilers!): A non-human thing named Lennox is outside Sara’s bedroom door, calling her name. The door is locked and Lennox may not be able to open it. Sara isn’t sure if she wants Lennox to get inside. On one hand, she’s afraid of what he looks like now. On the other, she and Lennox are in love.
Flashing back to a year before…
Sara has published the successful and controversial novel The Rich are Different, which both blasted America’s super-wealthy and fictionalized the Wilmont family, one of America’s wealthy elite. It was a surprise, then, when she is invited to the Wilmont estate.
The intervening days deposits Sara into the natural worries and nervousness associated with such a big event. But after the wardrobe decisions, first-class flight, and the chauffeur waiting for her at the airport had all been dealt with, Sara finds herself more worried by what she sees as the car trundles up the Wilmont driveway than her hairstyle choices.
It is a two-legged, loping thing running through the trees a hundred feet to her right. Unsure she’d even seen anything in the first place, she keeps quiet as the driver pulls up to the mansion’s front doors.
Madelyn Wilmont, Lennox’s older sister and the forty-year-old matriarch of the Wilmont family, meets Sara before she finishes ascending the steps. Madelyn welcomes her politely, and Sara goes inside only to be immediately impressed by all the lavish adornments of the super-rich: delicate vases, shelves of leatherbound books behind glass doors, and a staggering collection of expansive art.
One of these—a giant Italian late-Baroque landscape—features dancing, distant beings that appear to be god-like things rather than human. As Sara stops and peers closer, she sees horns and shaggy goat legs. Madelyn sees this and explains the painting was from a relatively unknown artist: Alessandro Magnasco. “He’s one of our favorites,” she says. Sara notes the choice of the word “our” as it might indicate possession of some kind. With more questions in her mind, and seeming to straddle some kind of connection, a voice from below breaks her attention.
The voice is Alan Wilmont, Madelyn’s husband and the family drunk/ embarrassment. Madelyn introduces them and Alan makes a crack about her meeting their “charming, so-called son, Grant” but further explains “the little freak is out running loose somewhere.” He and Madelyn have a brief, verbal spat which ends in Alan leaving for another corner of the mansion to drink more vodka.
Escorted to her room for the night, Sara asks more directly why she has been summoned. Madelyn explains that she is to be Lennox’s birthday present because he had read and admired her book. Flustered and imagining various interpretations to this casually revealed bombshell, Madelyn adds that she and her brother and “quite close” and that she has no doubt Sara will find her brother quite charming.
Madelyn leaves and minutes later the door opens to none other than Lennox Wilmont. He is magnificent. He is vibrant. He is stunningly beautiful, and he is kind. Sara is immediately attracted to him and is surprised to find it is more than an emotional reaction. It is carnal.
Lennox offers to show Sara the famed Beltane Room, a secret locale hidden somewhere within the mansion with only the most cursory, but shocking, of stories associated with it. He takes her to an unassuming door in the basement where she finds an enormous room covered with striking murals on every wall.
Lennox directs her to start at one corner and work her way around. Collectively, the paintings depict a hurried but more elaborate version of the Magnasco painting upstairs. Lennox explains that the entire thing was painted live during a 3-day sprint while the famous “Beltane Party”—a massive orgy made up of dozens of celebrities of the era—took place right there behind the working artist. Sara is simultaneously appalled and aroused. She sees a story in text written on the wall. It concerns a poor shepherd and his family who live “in a land on the far edge of the world,” but she is interrupted by Madelyn who suddenly appears in the doorway, yelling at Lennox. After another brief verbal spat, Sara apologizes to Lennox and leaves. Madelyn escorts her to the car already waiting for her departure. On the way, she tries to buy Sara’s silence with a large check and a Non-Disclosure Agreement. Sara returns both saying not to worry, she likes Lennox too much to hurt him.
The following evening Lennox makes a surprise visit to Sara’s home. He has flowers in his hands and a passion in his eyes, though he also seems to be in pain. It takes mere minutes before they begin to kiss, passionately. But before things go any further, the Wilmont chauffeur breaks the door down and takes Lennox away. Lennox shouts something about “her” leaving him alone. It takes Sara a moment to realize he was talking about Madelyn.
An hour later, Sara receives an email from Lennox. In it, he recounts the complete story of the poor shepherd and his family. It tells of a dead wife and a desperate father who begs God for help. Surprisingly, God appears and offers the following deal: He will give the shepherd immense wealth for generations to come, but in return his children will turn to monsters whenever they feel lust. Moreover, if they should ever copulate with anyone other than their own sibling, the human they make love to will die. Lennox ends the email by explaining only that she should remember that he loves her.
Sara reacts by driving through the night all the way back to the Wilmont estate. Madelyn meets her at the door again and confesses that Lennox’s love for her may be real but will only cause trouble. She also admits that Grant is her son, but by her brother Lennox, not her husband Alan. Madelyn goes further to explain that, yes, the story of the shepherd is true. It is, in fact, their family history. Finally, she admits they have six children together and that five of them—Grant included—do not even resemble humans. The one who does—a girl—will be Madelyn’s successor. They are still waiting for a passable boy to continue the lineage.
Madelyn ends her monologue by offering Sara a life of marriage and love with Lennox, complete with all the privileges of the Wilmont name, but that the two of them could never consummate the relationship.
Flashing forward back to today…
Sara is married to Lennox and living in the Wilmont mansion. It is night. She is in her bedroom. Outside, the non-human Lennox-thing bangs on the door, enraged with his lust for her. Sara wonders what he looks like. She wonders if he’ll break the door down. She wonders if Madelyn has sent him there to dispose of her. What she does not wonder is whether or not he will be beautiful. She knows he will be. So she sits and waits to see if the door will open.
MY GRADE: B+
MY REVIEW: CD #74/75 has given a lot of attention to Joe Hill. And rightfully so. It’s a special issue with two of his stories, an author exposé, a book review, and an interview. Meanwhile, the magazine itself is the largest edition CD has ever published. It has had even more pre-publishing hype than the milestone CD #50 back in 2004. And let’s face it, that front cover by Vincent Chong is JUST. FREAKING. MESMERIZING!
But I wanted to make sure one of the other authors nestled inside these awesome pages gets her due attention as well. Lisa Morton has written a tale that is one part romance, one part intrigue, two parts social commentary, and six parts horror.
The first third of the story revolves around Sara’s invitation and preparation for her big visit. She is very concerned with her outfit, her hair, and how to act when she arrives. To my taste this section took a bit too long and slows the overall pace. (I actually paraphrased quite a lot of it in my summary.) In truth, it read more like romance than horror, and though it was written well enough this isn’t my preferred genre and thus the ultimate reason I gave this one a B+ instead of an A- or A.
However, that’s only the first third. Things pick up and veer quickly to the macabre after that.
I’m talking, of course, about the first instance of “somethin’ funny going on” when Sara sees a two-legged thing running through the woods. I’m talking about the horrific Magnasco painting and the clearly odd relationship between siblings Madelyn and Lennox. I’m talking about the grotesque description of the Beltane Party (and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Ms. Morton a nod of respect for how delicately she did describe it… we “get” and can imagine for ourselves the massive, star-studded, drug-riddled orgy that took place there, but Morton doesn’t thrust of any of it in our faces. Instead she reveals just enough to tease out our own sense of imagination. This moment in the story was very nicely done, in my humble opinion.). And, finally, I’m talking about the horrible truth of the Wilmont family’s deal with God. That stuff, my friends, is powerful horror, through and through.
An interesting further notation here is on the addition of incest to the story. “Why bother?” you may think. “Isn’t it enough to have them turn into monsters when they get horny?” My answer is a stalwart: “NO!” The monsters are great (I mean, horrible). Their backwards-bending goat legs. Their curled horns. Their metamorphic nature during those moments of lust. Even the fact that some of them don’t come out looking human at all and are permanently stuck as the abominations they truly are. All of that is great visual storytelling. But you have to remember that these people, this family, is paying a price for a very great reward. They are beyond rich, they are wealthy. They are beyond that even, for it has been thus for generations and they never had to work a single day to earn it. To balance that heavy of a debt, my horror-loving friends, something much greater than being a simple monster must be paid.
And thus… forced incest. And still, that’s only half their punishment.
You see, not only must these “people” procreate with their own siblings to survive, they have been given the full capacity to love as any human. Thus, each Wilmont decendant is destined not only to mate repeatedly with his/ her own sibling, but also to one day fall in love with a human who they cannot touch. The true victim of the story, after all, isn’t even Sara. It is Alan, Madelyn’s drunken husband. At one time he and Madelyn had been in love. At one time they had undoubtedly tried to make a “go” of their limited capacities in marriage. And it’s conceivable that for a few month or years it had worked. But knowing the truth of what his wife was and does, and seeing the literal monsterous results of those deeds running through the halls and woods, and knowing most of all that he is stuck in the family until the end of his days, poor Alan Wilmont is a prisoner in his own home. Though I can’t find direct evidence of it in the story, I believe he no longer loves Madelyn but despises her. He wallows in alchohol and spends his days alone in empty rooms. And when he sees young Sara has come to meet young, perfect Lennox, he undoutedly knows what comes next but lacks either the strength or the care to do anything about it. The story’s final scene only proves to us this wheel is still turning and may perhaps never stop.
While Ms. Morton’s story started slow for me, it is also a bit of a merging of two oft-separated genres (25% romance and 75% horror) which for some people may be the golden ratio which would make this story an easy A+. Yet even for me and my admittedly biased opinion again romance, “The Rich Are Different” recovered well and ended with a powerful, memorable spike of dread and malaise. Which is why it so easily fits into this epic, unforgettable issue of Cemetery Dance. Indeed, Ms. Morton’s story is one of the reasons CD #74/75 is so awesome.
Horror has undoubtedly changed over the years and continues to change. While the splatterpunk sugenre (that “blood and gore and violence” style of storytelling) will likely always find its target audience, that audience is much smaller than it once was. The two stories presented to you above were separated by twenty-eight years of time but only a few degrees of literary merit. One represents the past and the precursor of modern horror. The other represents modern horror and the collected results of so many thousands of influential stories of the past.
Which of these stories/ reviews do you like better?
Did you read either or both and agree/disagree with me?
Have I inspired you to pick up a copy and dive into the specific turns of phrase so you can see what I touched on or missed for yourself?
I really would love to hear any and all of your thoughts in the comments.
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.