Hello again, folks. This is the 6th installment of monthly double reviews studying the structure of great horror fiction published in our beloved Cemetery Dance.
Last time I reviewed two Bentley Little titles: “The Janitor” from Cemetery Dance #1 (1988) and “We” from Cemetery Dance #64 (2010). This marked the 2nd time my little column compared an older and a newer story from the same author. I know I liked it, and readers seemed to as well.
Fortunately, I get to do this again this month with a pair of Barry Hoffman stories. His two pieces were published in Cemetery Dance in 1988 and 1997. And while they may not be separated by the two full decades like we saw with Mr. Little, Mr. Hoffman’s stories nevertheless show both growth over this span of time as well as a certain, unique thematic element.
Let’s see if you can figure it out before I connect those dots…
The Old: “An Island Unto Herself”
AUTHOR: Barry Hoffman
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #1 (December, 1988), story 10 of 12.
PLOT (with spoilers!): Donna is upset that none of her pen pals have written back lately. A long flashback then takes over two-thirds of the remaining story. In it she remembers the events surrounding her first pen pal, Sandra…
It is 6th grade and Donna is chubby, plain, struggles with her intelligence, speaks with a list, wears dowdy clothes, and is the subject of so many jokes. To top off the list, her father has fled and her mother has become an abusive drunk. Donna is so different from everyone else in the world she is utterly alone, an island unto herself.
Then one day her teacher announces a pen pal program, and while the other students groan at the additional work, Donna delights at the prospect of making a new friend who could not prejudge her.
She is randomly assigned to a girl named Sandra, and that night Donna pours her heart out in seven full pages of hope-laden, mother-bashing scribble. She secretly mails it after her mother passes out in front of the TV. Next comes the long and worrying wait for a reply.
Days go by and while Donna’s classmates begin to get their replies, Donna does not. Despite her growing heartbreak, she holds out hope that Sandra is taking more time to construct a response far better and more detailed than the superficial, shallow ones her classmates are getting.
When Sandra’s letter arrives, it is everything she hoped for. “Six glorious pages!” of actual content. And while it is true that Sandra’s woes are obviously confined to the life of the popular crowd (The Troubles Of Having A Little Brother… The Strict Parents… and of course the ever-popular Difficulty In Choosing Which Cute Boy To Like The Most), there is none of the trite gossip (name, age, height, hair color, favorite sport, favorite class) that all the other kids had gotten.
Over the next several months, Donna and Sandy write to each other several times. But while Donna’s letters are always long (no less than five pages) and written and mailed out within 24 hours, Sandy’s replies slowly become shorter, more trite, and less frequent. Finally, Donna chastises her friend for the behavior, which abruptly ends the relationship.
Thinking all is lost, Donna spirals into a quick and deep depression until her teachers announces another class with which they could have new pen pals. The class, however, bemoans the chore this time and Donna’s teacher resigns it as a lost cause. She throws the list of names and addresses into the trash, which Donna conveniently salvages. That night she writes to seven girls.
The flashback ends and we learn Donna is now 32 years old. She has been writing to multitudes of pen pals for years, sometimes to as many as 15 at once. She finds their information from fan clubs, talk shows, and classified ads.
Back to the present time… Donna has received no letters yet again today, but she realizes with great sadness that this time it is SHE who hasn’t been the one to return correspondence. This is because over the years she has already divulged her deepest feelings so often and repeatedly that she has finally run out of things to say. Worse still, she is coming to realize she still doesn’t have any real friends.
Deciding she therefore has no reason to live, the final page of the story takes a sharp turn. Donna gets into her car and drives at high speeds, willing herself to veer into oncoming traffic or a passing, thick tree. But at the last second, she cannot. Instead, she pulls over and screams inside her locked car. It is a scream nobody ever hears. Donna is as alone as she always has been, that island still very much unto herself.
Driving aimlessly towards home with no idea what to do, Donna sees and picks up a hitchhiker. It is a young man. They talk as she drives. They bond over stories of parental abuse. Donna pulls over. They kiss. Kissing turns into heavy petting. Donna gets aggressive, first verbally then physically. She speaks to him like a child. She calls herself his mommy. Her passion and anger and loneliness suddenly overwhelm her. She finds a pen from inside her purse and jabs him repeatedly in the throat. He dies. She dumps the body. She goes home and for the first time in her life feels a sense of relief.
She ends the evening by writing a long letter to her newest pen pal detailing everything she has done that evening. She mails it without thinking.
Two days later, Donna receives a letter in the mail. Its contents are shocking, terrifying, and thrilling. The last line reads “It was so much fun I must do it again. Please write soon.”
The story ends with Donna cruising in her car, on the hunt again. She has made sure her pen is in her purse.
MY GRADE: A-
MY REVIEW: Let me start by explaining four little reasons why this isn’t quite an A+ (because it nearly was).
1) Simply put, the transitions before and after the long flashback are harshly constructed and a bit confusing. In the story’s opening paragraphs, we have no idea she is an adult. The transition to her past makes us think she is perhaps an older teen. Then, when the present story picks up again we are confused to learn how old she is. A transition of so much time needs a big more page space dedicated to it for the reader to fully feel the change.
2) The important relationship between Donna and her mother is left incomplete. Yes, Donna has turned into her mother years later, adopting her cruelty into her new, insane identity; however the state of Donna’s mother all these years later is completely ignored. Is she dead? Are they still living together? Did her mother go insane first and is now living in an asylum of some kind? Not only is none of this told to us, there are literally no breadcrumbs dropped whatsoever. Any ideas we may have are complete guesses. This subplot is a gaping hole in the story, and considering the amount of page space dedicated to it in the earlier part of the story (five whole paragraphs), it really deserved SOME kind of ending. But we never get it.
3) The timely arrival of the hitchhiker is rather contrived. It’s too convenient since up to that point we didn’t even realize Donna was an adult let alone old enough to drive. Admittedly the story did need some kind of catalyst to drive Donna over the brink to total insanity, and having a passionate love-making session gone horribly wrong fits the bill quite nicely. However it seems out of character for Donna to pick up some younger guy who is running away from home and all-too-willing to engage in sex with a total stranger. With a little more set-up (perhaps one of the classified ads she responded to could have been a fellow lonely heart?) this plot point would have felt far more natural.
4) Grammatically, there are several excessive uses of commas (Example: “And, Sandy, was getting pissed with Donna’s demands to write more often.”), and the cardinal sin of any grammatical mistake is to pull the reader out of the story. This happens one or two too many times to be entirely forgotten.
And now, two really big reasons why this is still much better than a simple B-level story…
1) Hoffman has us hooked into this story before the end of the first page. He naturally painted the picture of a grade-school loser without resorting to calling her that. Moreover, Donna’s mentally emotional state during the entire long flashback sequence is thoroughly realistic and believable. In one paragraph we learn she has never had a true friend. In the next we watch her get excited at the pen-pal prospect while the other “normal” children find it to be work. Later, Donna is slowly frustrated then angered by Sandra’s slow evolution toward pop culture and shallow communiqués. Overall, Donna’s childhood character is a believable one. We both pity and empathize with her. We like her, even though we know from the beginning she is going to be trouble. If the cardinal sin of a story is to allow grammar goofs to pull the reader out of the story, the cardinal praise is to write characters we can all relate to.
2) The ending wasn’t just solid, it was fantastic. I mean… truly, truly excellent. From Donna’s unexpected murder of an innocent to the way she morphed into her abusive mother to her symbolic weapon of convenience (and, later, of choice), all combine to leave us with a profound sense of closure. Oh, it’s a horrible ending, to be sure. But it’s the kind of horrible that horror fans really LOVE, if you dig what I’m saying. And that’s not even the REAL ending! After she kills the hitchhiker, she writes another letter, mails it to herself, and upon receiving it two days later has no idea she is the author of the horrible deeds described therein. It’s a whole other level of crazy we don’t see while she’s making out with the young man in her car. And she’s still alive and on the prowl, as well, meaning the most memorable events of Donna’s life are potentially just getting started.
The overall story Hoffman presents to us is the slow turning of a social outcast into a serial killer. And we get to be there not just during the long years that built her foundation, but also the moment she finally cracks and begins her new, psychopathic life. This is one of those that, upon finishing, you simply close the magazine and sit there in silence for a little while and try to go on with your real life. But the thing is, you can’t quite do it. Not for several minutes. And isn’t that what we all strive to do when we read great fiction? To step away from the real world for a while? I believe it is, and I believe Barry Hoffman nailed that most critical part of being a storyteller.
The New: “Vicious Cycle”
AUTHOR: Barry Hoffman
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #26 (Spring, 1997), story 7 of 7.
PLOT (with spoilers!): Jen asks Frank pointedly if he has had enough to drink. Franks hates this because: A) She knows just how to get under his skin; B) She is acting unlady like; and C) She should know that his drinking habits are strictly off limits.
So Frank grabs her roughly and punches her in the stomach.
Jen hates him and hates that she married a man so much like her own father.
Frank punches her several more times, always in the stomach. He knows not to leave bruises on her face. He punches her twice more then goes to bed and falls asleep.
Later, they make love with Frank blubbering his apologies, as always. He blames the booze, as always.
Jen has come to see when his deeper drinking escapades were coming, and usually she found another place to be or simply kept quiet, making sure not to provoke him. Other times, though, times like tonight, she purposely goaded him because she wanted, even needed, the inevitable abuse that followed.
She did this in part because the sex afterwards was always better. Frank always made it his business to fulfill her needs. But mostly she did this because she’d come to believe that only by becoming a punching bag on her own terms and timeline could she break the cycle of so many generations—her father had not been the first, nor her father’s father before him. But she believed that Frank could be the last.
But she’d only done this twice before. Tonight is only the third time. And just like the other two, Frank’s repeated punches have destroyed the unborn child inside her, just as Jen wanted. She would not be the mother of another abusive man.
Frank’s belief in Jen’s infertility has been a constant source of irritation for him. He so wants a son to carry on the family name. Yet she would repeat this vicious cycle throughout their lives, no matter how many times he would impregnate her.
And one day, when they were both old and withered and when Frank’s constant rage had so consumed him that he had finally reached nothing but a shell of his former self, she would tell him. She would “Watch him crumble, like a fine China plate carelessly dropped. Drink his pain, like fine wine. Childless… due to his own hand.”
Jen would not forgive and she would not forget. “She had her own demons that would need to be purged.”
MY GRADE: A+
MY REVIEW: At first this story seems like it’s going to be a typical husband-abuse story. He’s a drunk, she’s the victim, and as much as she hates it, some damaged part of her psyche needs his abuse. It’s part of her identity.
But then, about halfway through this very short work (it totals a little less than a thousand words), Hoffman catches us off guard by revealing that Jen is using Frank’s abuse to miscarry her pregnancy and that she’s doing this to end the legacy of abusive men in her family.
This plot move in itself is enough to wow us. But Hoffman doesn’t stop there.
He finishes by showing us not merely that Jen is truly the one in control, but that she has her own form of abuse to administer.
The planned revelation after so many years of childless living will undoubtedly destroy Frank. One could argue it would also send him into a rage violent enough to end Jen’s life, but we get the feeling she wouldn’t care at that point. In fact, that little part of her which has Battered Wife Syndrome might even prefer to go out that way.
But this is something which comes to us as a mere afterthought. We hardly care about that possible outcome. What we focus on is the sudden, horrible understanding that Jen is as much the antagonist of this story as Frank is. Her decision to keep this immense secret for, presumably, decades, only to reveal it at the end of Frank’s long life of frustration, is noticeably cruel. The question Hoffman forces us to consider is whether or not it is justifiably cruel.
And that’s the distinction, in this reader’s humble opinion, that makes the story stand out above others like it and certainly above Hoffman’s earlier work. We are questioning our own morality in this story. We are considering where the fine line between rightful revenge and immoral evil lies. And we’re probably having a hard time doing it, too. That’s the real testament to Hoffman’s story. At the start we are completely on Jen’s side. She’s the victim and we are rooting for her. But by the end… well, by the end we aren’t sure we like her so much anymore. And yet, unlike “An Island Unto Herself,” we aren’t immediately against her, either. Jen has become a perfect balance of grays. She’s a more complex character than Donna could ever be. And Hoffman did it in under a thousand words.
Connecting Those Dots
So, did you see the big thematic element Hoffman used in both stories?
Would it surprise you to learn this isn’t a coincidence? Or that he’s pretty much dedicated his entire writing career to this important message?
I’ll tease you a bit more by sharing a bit of his bio first…
Born in 1947, Mr. Hoffman turned 70 in January of this year. His most recent publication, a novel titled Born Bad, was published in 2016 and features a female serial killer. His Y.A. Fantasy trilogy, The Shamra Chronicles, was completed in 2011 and concerns young Dara who leads a resistance to repel the invaders of her peaceful land.
So how about now? Too obvious?
Ok, I’ll explain it all by stealing a few lines directly from Hoffman’s Amazon page:
“What do all of his novels have in common? All have females as protagonists and more than half of the antagonists are also females. These female characters are strong and often flawed, but they are definitely not dependent on males to save the day.”
I haven’t (yet) read any of Hoffman’s novels, but this certainly holds true for these two short stories. And it’s a nice thing, too, because the lack of female leads in ANY genre (other than Romance and Erotica) continues to be a problem today. Knowing that Hoffman has been battling this issue as far back as the 1980s is refreshing.
In fact, his Amazon blurb goes on to suggest using female protagonists & antagonists has been a conscious decision on his part. His reason: “Barry believes that adolescent and teenage girls need to read books where there are positive role models with which they can identify” is a common belief among feminists and humanitarians through the world, and I applaud his decision with gusto.
[Side Note: ‘Feminism’ is definied as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes’. This public service announcement is presented to counteract the ongoing, incorret belief that feminism somehow advocates the superiority of women over men. Not true, people. Never has been.]
While Hoffman definitely made a few mistakes in his 1988 story, where it truly mattered, everything nevertheless clicked. Better still, each of these were rectified by the time he got to his 1997 story, which means he’s not the type of writer to stagnate. Coupled with his interest in women’s rights, it’s clear he is constantly progressing as both a writer and a person.
One should also note that these two stories presented above are not Hoffman’s only entries in the halls of Cemetery Dance. CD published no less than three additional pieces in issues #3, #6, and #11, which means he is also no one-hit wonder. Knowing he has a full dozen novels under his belt and is still writing only encourages me even more.
I’m looking forward to reading them all.
Have you read any of Hoffman’s other works or have a different opinion on either of these? I’d love to hear about it all. Comment below.
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.