In its illustrious 29*-year print run, Cemetery Dance magazine has published no less than 560 short stories and novel excerpts in 73** individual issues. As the super fan that I am, Exhumed is my humble attempt to read and review them all in monthly double reviews. This the eighth such installment.
**there were also two ‘double issues (#17/18 in 1993 and #74/75 in 2016), each of which squeezed twice as much content into a single magazine.
Last time I reviewed two Roman A. Ranieri stories:
- “The Officer’s Club” from Cemetery Dance #1 (1988), and
- “The Phone Call” from Cemetery Dance #23 (1996).
I also got some comments from reader “plhollingsworth” and reader “Jerry,” both of whom expressed the desire to get a heads-up about next month’s stories so they could make the attempt to read along with me (see people… I really do pay attention).
With that in mind, I’ll henceforth conclude each Exhumed post with the following month’s planned stories.
But before we jump in this month, you need to know this is the first of what I hope to be many Issue-Concluding posts. Yep. That’s right. This month I’ll be reviewing the 12th and final story in Cemetery Dance #1. This gives me the opportunity to take a step back and look at the premier issue as a whole. I’ll squeak that bonus review in between the two stories.
Alrighty then, let’s see how this final story in Cemetery Dance’s premier issue stacks up to its 11 predecessors… and just one of the 548 that have come after it…
THE OLD: “The Hounds of Hell to Pay”
AUTHOR: David A. Lindschmidt
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #1 (December, 1988) (story #12 of 12)
PLOT (with spoilers!): Felix checks the door to make sure he’s alone, kneels down, whispers to the floor, and “she” immediately arrives. She is both slightly hurt and slightly bothered. Felix tell her he “needs more!” and remembers how good it had been the last time.
She tells him she’s surprised he needs it again so soon. She makes no sound as she moves. Felix pleads that the other didn’t last, that she cannot deny him, that he’d made a deal.
We are told he had been willing to sacrifice “his possessions, his life, even more to satisfy his craving” and to reach his dreams and goals.
She is pleased that he remembers their deal and produces “the rig” while reminding him this time will use up the last of his credit. Felix eyes her curves, her flesh, her leather boots, and the silver pentagram on her jeweled belt. He tells her he understands.
She makes a production of finding a vein in his arm and shoots him “full of chemical bliss” before leaving.
Felix doesn’t leave his room for several days, though he isn’t missed in that time. The world, we are told, is one of bloated, selfish populations. Police and schools are corrupt and/or incompetent. Buildings burn unchecked. Felix, meanwhile, drools and imagines, a “slave to rampant desire.”
Some time later Felix’s dreams have begun to fade and blur. One night he wakes feeling the desire again. The sky outside is purple and black, “the deep colors of hurt.” He calls to her again.
She appears instantly once more, a malicous grin on her face this time. Felix is sickened but cannot help himself. He curls into a ball on the floor, ashamed but unable to hide the truth. He confesses aloud: “I hurt.”
She tells him she can heal him, but first he must answer his end of their bargain.
Felix begs for more time.
She pulls aside the heavy curtains, peers outside, and tells him there is none left.
Knowing he is beaten, Felix puts on a satin robe and leaves the room. She follows, and he knows she will not be seen. He passes “portraits of solemn faces” which haunt him in “the once plush corridor.” He inserts a key into a huge door and opens it. He punches secret numbers into a computer terminal. He hand stops on a button.
She smiles faintly like “a contented leer of a whore.” They are in a room shaped like an egg, though “no one had ever thought it would hatch all hell itself.”
Felix pushes the red button and lays his arm on the desk, waiting.
A large man in a uniform from days gone by—days “from a more honorable time”—rushes in and asks, “Is there a problem, Mr. President?”
But there is no problem because the hounds of hell had been paid.
MY GRADE: A-
MY REVIEW: Whoa. That ending, right? Did you see it coming? I didn’t. Upon a second reading I realize I even missed the little “room shaped like and egg” clue the first go-around.
What strikes me most about this one is how easily we are led to believe Felix is a typical low-life druggie. Yes, we are distracted by the question of whether the mysterious woman is real or just in his imagination (and I’ll get to that soon enough), but if you read it again (and I assure you I’ve left out not a single identifying detail to the contrary), you’ll see Lindschmidt never showed us Felix being poor, living in a ghetto, or even being of no consequence.
The closest he gets is to tell us that when Felix stays in his room for several days that the world doesn’t miss him. But while we assumed this was because Felix was a nobody, when we read that paragraph again we see that it is the “world” which is described as lacking (those “bloated, selfish populations”), not Felix. His all-important stature as president isn’t noticed simply because the people no longer care to pay attention.
Which is why the ending is so much fun.
Did you notice the man who rushes in to check on Felix? The one wearing a uniform “from a more honorable time”? This government employee—likely either a bodyguard or (a bit more of a stretch but still plausible) a high-ranking military official—is all that remains of what was once order and honor in the nation. He still wears his uniform. He comes immediately with genuine concern for the welfare of the president when strife (the pushing of the red button) has occurred. We get the distinct feeling that when he looks out the window he sees skies of blue and white rather than purple and black… the colors of a bruise… and quite possibly the colors after a nuclear holocaust.
Now let’s go back to that aforementioned ambiguity…does all of this really happen, or is it all in Felix’s head?
Strangely enough, there is little evidence in the story itself to lean us one way or the other, and as such the far more interesting questions isn’t Whether-or-not-it’s-all-real but Exactly-what-kind-of-reality-could-we-be-reading?
See, there are multiple interpretations to what could even be considered “real”…
INTERPRETATION #1: Maybe Felix sold his actual soul to the actual devil in exchange for the power of the actual presidency. Maybe we are seeing the devil finally come to take her payment years later. If so, at the end when he pushes that red button and (we can safely assume) launches nuclear war, does Felix live or die?
If he dies, it is from nuclear fallout? (Where do those bombs land? What retaliation will go unchecked with the president laying there unconscious?)
Or is his death simply the she-devil killing him now that his usefulness is used up. (The “hounds of hell”—aka: the launching of nuclear bombs—have now been paid, after all.)
And if he lives instead, is he merely laying there awaiting his next big “high”… which is to watch the results of the massive power he has unleashed? After all, Power Corrupts, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely, right?
INTERPRETATION #2: Maybe Felix is NOT the president at all and just a regular guy. Maybe his selling of his actual soul to the actual devil was in exchange for delusions of grandeur so powerful that he merely *thinks* he’s the president.
If so, once again does he live or die?
And if it’s death, is it suicide, or an accident, or the price that the she-devil demands?
Or how about this… maybe the pushing of the red button (much like seeing the black and purple skies outside) signifies Felix’s acknowledgment of the hurt he is feeling… and/or the hurt he has caused.
Maybe Felix goes willing to hell with the devil, realizing only too late that his drug-addicted life was ultimately a life wasted.
INTERPRETATION #3: Maybe there is no devil and Felix earned the presidency all on his own. Maybe the immense stresses of the job are manifesting in his mind as a she-devil administering drugs. Maybe the black and purple skies are his daily torment.
And maybe he doesn’t die at the end. Maybe he just quits. Resigns. Passes the buck to his VP and hopes to move on to a shamed retirement without such awesome responsibilities.
Maybe the story is all about Felix learning he wasn’t prepared for this job after all.
Or maybe the entire tale is a single, long, drug-induced hallucination and he’ll be fine and back on the job tomorrow, none the worse for wear after the inevitable massive hangover wears off.
Maybe the story is really just a metaphor for the pressures of the most powerful job on Earth.
INTERPRETATION #4: Maybe neither the presidency nor the she-devil are real. Maybe Felix is just a slummed-out druggie imagining both. Maybe the she-devil is just a personification of his drug of choice.
If so, do the black and purple skies represent his coming-to-terms with his rock-bottom situation?
Does the pushing of that button represent a turning-of-a-corner?
Or does he die of the most mundane of all scenarios: a simple drug overdose?
As you can see, my mind whirls with possibilities when a good story is left with just enough ambiguity and just enough clues to fill in the blanks.
I love that stuff. And I enjoy letting my mind wander with those many prospects.
And yet for all the layers of meaning inherent in a story like this, this one in particular also lacks a certain emotional punch I would have personally needed to give it that 5-star (A+) or even 4.5-star (A) rating. Perhaps it is because the average reader won’t relate to Felix in the story’s first 90%. Sure, we’ve all had our dealings with temptation and greed and falling off our personal wagons, but how many of us can say we’ve been so far down a drug-induced (or other substance… money, sex, alcohol, etc.) state as to actually have hit a bottom made of rock as solid as this? How many of us have had moments of such depravity so as to warrant ourselves the characters in a tale of such woe as to fairly equate it to the destruction of the world?
Not too many, I hope. I know I certainly haven’t. Oh, I’ve had my bad days, even my bad years, but I’ve never truly been this bad off. I doubt you have either, when you really sit and think about it.
And yet such people and such real-life tales do exist. You may even be among them.
I respect and appreciate Lindschmidt using such a character to tell his tale—it’s certainly the right choice in this context—but it’s also one that doesn’t quite resonate with the average reader. That means most of us read it without a sense of personal dread (and who among us could ever be in both a position of such power AND be in danger of succumbing to such horrid personal demons?).
[insert Trump joke here]
[insert apology here]
[insert decision to leave generic statements instead, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions]
So for this simple reason I had to limit my score for this story to a “lowly” A-.
Still, that ending, though, right?
BONUS REVIEW: AN OVERVIEW OF THE COMPLETE CEMETERY DANCE #1!
“The Hounds of Hell to Pay” is the last of 12 stories published in Cemetery Dance #1, and it would be an egregious omission on my part if I didn’t take an additional moment to take a step back and look at this first of so many beloved issues as a complete publication.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room…
The premier issue of Cemetery Dance was… well… rough around the edges. And rough in quite a bit of the interior, too, to be honest.
First, there were grammatical mistakes.
Some of these were obvious, even embarrassing typos like the title of the 2nd story: “A Breathe of Fresh Air”. Others—the occasional run-on sentence or forgotten apostrophe—were less intrusive but still readily apparent.
Next, there were also formatting mistakes.
These ranged from significant problems aligning the text (there were SO many words with an extra space in the middle) to the less egregious choice of going with Left-Aligned text rather than the industry-standard Right-Left Justified.
Finally, even most of the images had problems.
Some were so over-saturated with darkness that they came out as little better than a black box merely suggesting the drawings beneath.
Most of the offenders, however, were simply drawn with poor quality. The cover, for instance, is clearly nothing like what we get these days, but let me assure you that the cover is actually among the best of the artwork in this issue. Some of the others, to be quite frank, look like they were drawn by high school students.
In a hurry.
For a school project they weren’t particularly interested in.
All of the above is unfortunately true.
Considering he was only 23 years old at the time, Richard Chizmar quite clearly made a Herculean effort to put this issue together. He made mistakes, sure, but what new authors doesn’t leave embarrassing typos behind? Answer: none. None new authors. So how many first-time publishers could put together a pristine premier issue with no mistakes of the publishing realm? Again, answer: none. None new publishers.
Let’s also remember that Chizmar did most of this work pretty much by himself and using a relatively small budget of—if memory from my research is accurate—just $5,000… in borrowed money.
The other thing is, Chizmar did include artwork with nearly every story…
He did include border and pop-out text to help define and frame each piece…
And he did include not one but FIVE advertisements for other horror magazines…(New Blood, Pantophobia, Portents, Witness to the Bizarre, and After Hours).
He also advertised one horror-themed newsletter (Scavenger’s) AND was smart enough to sneak in three separate calls-to-action for readers to subscribe to Cemetery Dance itself.
There was even a smattering of horror poetry* sprinkled throughout.
*There were 11 poems in all, in fact. And, sorry, but I won’t be reviewing those… I’ve never been particularly interested in poetry and it’d be a whopper of a lie if I told you I had the skills to critique them in any intelligent manner.
Most impressive, though, was the fact that Chizmar somehow landed both an original story AND an interview with David B. Silva, editor-in-chief of The Horror Show magazine and one of Chizmar’s earliest inspirations for taking a shot at launching his own magazine. For any fans of The Horror Show, the Silva interview was the icing on the cake that made the introduction of Cemetery Dance look and feel like a professional publication, despite its above-mentioned deficiencies.
Meanwhile, the stories packed into Cemetery Dance #1 themselves were notable, of course. And while I’ve been notably critical of some of them, I have the unfair advantage of viewing them 29 years after the fact. There’s no doubt that horror looked and felt very different in the ‘80s than what it does today. What I may have described as being less than impressive was in the ‘80s, if not straight-up mainstream horror, certainly within the realm of average. Plus there were those couple of stories (see my complete list ranking them all below) that foretold of the stories of horror’s future.
It is my belief that, chief among Chizmar’s strengths, was (and is!) a keen eye for great horror fiction, in all of its incarnations. And this premier issue is an excellent example. The 12 stories within it are a wonderful mix of old school and new school. It blended what had attracted readers to the genre in the first place with what readers would begin to lean toward in the years to come.
To sum up, Cemetery Dance #1 had a lot a warts covering up a foundation of great beauty.
I give the overall issue a B…
…with expectations that it’ll possibly be the only that doesn’t reach the A- mark.
Ah, beginnings… is there a sense of hope any finer?
I submit to you that there is not.
Presented to you now is my personal rankings of all 12 stories in Cemetery Dance #1, listed from worst to best. Other than “Hounds…”, each is also linked to the post where I originally reviewed them*.
*Eight of these have been previously reviewed here in “Exhumed.” The other four were previously reviewed on my other horror blog: “The Bone Pile.”
MY RANK | MY GRADE | TITLE | AUTHOR
#12 | C+ | “Body Perfect” | William C. Rassmussen
#11 | B- | “Leg Man” | Chris B. Lacher
#10 | B- | “A Breathe of Fresh Air” | Edgar F. Tatro
#9 | B | “The Janitor” | Bentley Little
#8 | B | “The Officer’s Club” | Roman A. Ranieri
#7 | A- | “The Hounds of Hell to Pay” | David A. Lindschmidt
#6 | A- | “An Island Unto Herself” | Barry Hoffman
#5 | A- | “Forever Angels” | Ronald Kelly
#4 | A | “Rock of Ages” | John B. Rosenman
#3 | A | “Fury’s Child” | David B. Silva
#2 | A | “The Double” | Steve Rasnic Tem
#1 | A+ | “The Departing of Debbie” | Anke Kriske
THE NEW: “Martyr and Pesty”
AUTHOR: Jonathan Lethem
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #36 (2001)
PLOT (with spoilers!): Richie is watching his old partner plug his new series on a talk show. Richie thinks of him as “the fuck.” Andrew, the show’s host, asks whatever happened to the two of them. The fuck takes a deep breath and Richie realizes this isn’t a Letterman-esque 10 minute spot. The fuck was going to be there a while. He was going to go deep.
The fuck explains that leaving their act was the hardest thing he’d done not just in his career, but in his life. Andrew interrupts, saying he’d thought it was Richie who had left. The fuck corrects him. “No, I forced him to. I knew it was over, I knew my artistic challenges were elsewhere.”
Andrew pivots, pointing out that the fuck had done very well for himself afterwards, then softens and suggests it must have been a hard split.
“Terribly hard,” the fuck agrees, then goes on to explain they hadn’t talked for years afterward, that contrary to public opinion, it had been Richie who had always been the funnier man, and that Richie’s fall into drugs wasn’t entirely his fault.
Andrew asks if the fuck has been in contact with Richie or knew how he was doing. The fuck explains that they’d talked only the week before and that he was doing much better, having sobered up and even straightened out his money troubles after “some friends pitched in.”
It is the wink the fuck gives to the camera as he says this that finally propels Richie into action. He picks up the phone and called Dennis, his agent whose phone calls he’s been avoiding for four years. He knows Dennis will also be watching the interview.
“He’s saying we’re in touch,” Richie says. Dennis tells him to calm down.
“He’s saying I was the funny one,” Richie says. “He’s saying he lends me money. He’s saying he broke up the act.”
“This is news for you, Richie, that he’s a liar?”
Richie demands Dennis tells him where the interview is taking place. Dennis gives him the street but not the address. “Screw you,” Richie says. “I’ll ask the cabbie.” Then he hangs up, loads up, and goes.
He bursts into the studio, cutting right in front of the camera, just ten minutes before the end of the segment. The fuck is stunned and concerned. Andrew the host is stunned but excited. Richie looks dead into the nearest camera and and says “We’re back!” Then he insists Andrew introduces them.
Andrew botches the job a bit but manages: “Uh, ladies and gentlemen… Really proud and astonished to present, together again for the first time in–” he gets the missing stat from the fuck himself, “thirty-four years, the two and only, Martyr and Pesty!”
The fuck stands. Richie catches a glimpse of himself on the monitor. The fuck is money. Groomed. Clean. Handsome. Richie looks like shit. Balding and unshaven. Hunchbacked and red-nosed. He doesn’t care. He begins the act.
“Well, Pesty, long time no see.” But the fuck won’t play along.
“Let’s sit down, Richie.”
Richie prompts him a second time. “Don’t call me Richie. Call me Martyr. Let’s give the folks a good time.”
The fuck slides almost subconsciously into his old character voice. He isn’t “into” the moment, but he’s playing along in front of the cameras, and Richie knows it.
Richie, still in character, confronts him. “Tell folks how it was me that left the act first,” he says. The fuck doesn’t react. “I’ll take that as confirmation,” Richie says, and goes in for another. He confronts the fuck on the supposedly borrowed money and this time the fuck admits the truth. Richie goes one more time. “Tell them I was the funny one.”
This time the fuck engages. “I said that, Richie, were you listening? I said that. Tell him, Andrew.” As he goes on, insisting again and again that he had already given Richie all the credit for being the creative genius of their act, Richie hears the fuck’s voice rise, involuntarily, into that Pesty squeak.
Richie pulls out his gun. “That’s a lie,” he says, and shoots the fuck through the heart. “Your such a fucking liar,” he says to his corpse. “I never was funny, never a day in my life. I was the straight man.”
MY GRADE: B+
MY REVIEW: Upon my first reading of this story I remember waiting and waiting for something big to happen. It does, of course, but not until the final two sentences. Sometimes a great shocker of an ending can carry a whole story (see “Hounds…” above)…(for that matter, see The Sixth Sense or pretty much every movie by M. Night Shyamalan).
But in order for that to work, the shocker needs to be big.
It needs to be the thing you somehow didn’t see coming even though the clues were there all along. And the simple truth is that in “Martyr and Pesty,” Lethem doesn’t quite pull this off. It’s not that we aren’t shocked when he pulls out that gun. It’s not even that there wasn’t a clue or two dropped along the way (when Richie hangs up the phone call with Dennis he “loads up” before leaving). No, the part that falls a little flat is that Richie’s homocidal behavior is 100% what we’d expect of someone who had been lied to, lied about, passed over, and generally slighted by an asshole ex-partner from more than three decades previous. Passionate revenge, after all, is one of the chief motivators of murder.
Lethem’s story is nevertheless an engaging tale:
- The characters are varied (an angry protagonist/cocky antagonist/amiable tv host/sympathetic agent) and believable.
- The structure of the story is complex. The first half of the story is the interview but seen from an observer’s (ie: tv show’s viewing audience) perspective… except it’s Richie, who is personally affected… then interject a “here and now” scene with the phone call to Dennis… then bring the tv studio into close focus by moving Richie into its doors and (blatantly) in front of the cameras.
- The balance of dialogue, narration, and description is natural and flows well. A few examples: 1) “Andrew and the fuck must have thought a monster arrived on set.” (Um… yeah. One did, lol.) 2) The revelation through Dennis’ words that Richie is right to be angry. The fuck really has been lying. He really is the asshole of the year. 3) The fact that Richie doesn’t say his final revealing line to the fuck’s face, but to his corpse, suggesting that despite all his angry bravado he still didn’t have the guts to say it to his face after all.
I also noticed two more little details that get my nod of appreciation:
1) You’ll notice that Lethem never reveals the name of Richie’s partner. He is only ever “the fuck” throughout the story. Everyone else gets a name. The host is Andrew. Even Richie’s agent, Dennis, is named despite having only two paragraphs of stage time. This deliberate choice becomes glaringly larger as the story progresses and only emphasizes Richie’s anger and hurt. We don’t get a name because we are seeing the events from his perspective, and as far as Richie is concerned his ex-partner is inhuman, undeserving of a name.
2) Didn’t you find it interesting that Richie’s REAL concern isn’t his reputation for being a druggie, his reputation for having needed to borrow money, or even his reputation at having been left behind? I certainly did.
No, his REAL concern (revealed only at the story’s climax) was that the fuck had had the nerve to tell Andrew and the world that Richie had always been the funny one. This may seem like an odd, even psychotic, perspective, until we remember Richie’s stage name: Martyr.
In his own way, Richie took pride in being the straight man. He took pride in being the one to set up the best of his partner’s hilarious lines. It was THIS lie—the lie staining his role for all those years on stage—that Richie found most insulting of all. Observe, in fact, that just before Richie kills him, the fuck’s final words are still insisting that Richie had always been the funny one, but that he said it in his character’s fasletto voice… the voice of “Pesty”… the voice of mockery and ridicule.
Perhaps had he not done that Richie would have kept that gun in his pocket.
Perhaps all Richie ever wanted was a moment of honesty from his old friend, but what he got instead was the same Pest that had ruined him years ago.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Endings can either make or break a story. The best leave us wanting to immediately go back to the beginning. The worst make us wonder why we just wasted part of our lives. Most follow a simple formula: Show how the protagonist has changed because of his/her experiences. Show him/her being a better/wiser (or, if the point is that they don’t learn… worse/more ignorant/a lost cause) than when they started. This is a safe and perfectly acceptable way to give the reader a sense of closure. Doing otherwise… like dropping a shock-bomb, for instance, is to take a risk. You might blow your reader’s minds, but you might equally create a bomb of a story. Still, anyone willing to take that risk always catches my attention. If we don’t push the envelopes of storytelling, how will we ever get better?
Which of these reviews did you like better?
Did I bomb in my critique?
Did you read either of them and see something I missed?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
I respond to them all.
Next month I’ll be reading/ reviewing each of the following:
- “Save the Last Dance for Me” by Norman Partridge (Cemetery Dance #2), and
- “Slippin’ Into Darkness” also by Norman Partridge (Cemetery Dance #17/18)
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.