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.
**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:
- David A. Lindschmidt’s “The Hounds of Hell to Pay” from Cemetery Dance #1 (1988), and
- Jonathan Lethem’s “Martyr and Pesty” from Cemetery Dance #36 (2001).
There was also an Exhumed-first BONUS review of the overall issue of Cemetery Dance #1. If for no other reason you should go check the article out for that.
This month is the ninth installment of Exhumed and, as promised, I present to you two Norman Partridge stories.
Let’s get to it…
THE OLD: “Save the Last Dance for Me”
AUTHOR: Norman Partridge
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #2: June, 1989. (Story #1 of 11).
PLOT (with spoilers!):
This one’s… a bit long. But the story itself is so complex there’s no other way to review it, so please bear with me. I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.
The biggest thing Carl Hart ever did was shoot some people down at the KTCB radio station. That’s what Jack thinks, anyway. They buried Carl last week, right next to his old flame Mary Lyn McCarthy. But the radio station won’t play “Save the Last Dance for Me” anymore, no matter how many times Jack calls and requests it. Probably that’s because just yesterday they switched their nighttime programming from The Dark Mistress to pre-recorded tapes of Reverend Tim.
Carl had escaped from minimum security just ten days before he died. That was Mary Lyn’s birthday. He died when he drove his iron-blue ‘57 Chevy into the Fiddler 7-11 and was crushed by cinder blocks. At his funeral, Mr. McCarthy even commented that a few of those blocks must have gotten under his rib cage because of how heavy his coffin was.
Reverend Tim didn’t have much to say at Carl’s funeral. Neither did Mary Lyn’s father. Mary Lyn’s niece, Sherry, broke down in tears, though, which had made Jack nearly drop the coffin when he’d seen it.
If there was one good thing about Carl’s death, it was that the 7-11 looked like it was never going to be reopened after the accident. And that was just fine with the people of Fiddler. They never liked big chain stores. Even the 7-11 people had been looking for an excuse to let that particular store die out.
The accident was so bad, just about the only thing was wasn’t smashed up was the rear licence plate. Jack kept that because the car was supposed to be his anyway, and also because it said “MARYLYN.” After it was hauled away to the junk yard, Jack searched the median and found broken glass for miles.
The night the accident happened, Jack and Carl were watching the Mike Tyson fight with a bunch of other guys from the tire factory. When Iron Mike ended the bout in the second round, Jack and Carl left and headed home. Along the way, Jack turned on the radio to KTCB.
As they had both been expecting, The Dark Mistress was on and proselytizing her sultry self over the airwaves. Carl comments on how Reverend Tim had a petition against her show. Jack points out that probably half the guys in town who signed that petition were home and “jackin’ off” to the show even then.
Just as Carl is berating Jack for his choice of language in his beloved car, The Dark Mistress spoke to one of her biggest fans: “How’s my crying boy tonight? Are you lonely, like I am? I haven’t seen you in such a long time. You used to come to me every week. With roses, remember? You’d come to the cemetery and sing our song.” In the next second, “Save the Last Dance for Me” starts up, and that’s when Carl lost it.
He slammed on the brakes and screeched to a halt right there in the middle of the road. Beer from Jack’s open bottle splashed the windshield. A semi’s blaring horn from behind drowned out his screams.
As the semi screamed past, Carl’s foot slipped from the clutch and the Chevy’s engine died. Finally able to articulate his fear, Jack yelled, “Carl, you crazy bastard, you want to die?”
“Yes,” he said.
Carl then explained that “Save the Last Dance for Me” was he and Mary Lyn’s song. He explained how he used to go to the cemetery late at night and sing it to her grave. He explained how he used to bring her roses stolen from Mrs. Castro’s garden.
Jack was dumbfounded, and he wondered aloud how The Dark Mistress could have known a thing that Carl hadn’t ever shared with anyone.
Instead of answering, Carl chugged one of Jack’s beers, hit the gas, and said “I got to see Mary Lyn.”
Everyone in town remembered her funeral years before. It had practically been a gala event with the silvery-pink metal casket, the horse-drawn hearse, her blonde hair curling just the way she’d always liked, and the vast overflow of flowers.
Jack had never told Carl this, but he used to follow them to the drive-in and park behind them just to catch her eyes sparkling in the dark as her head rested on Carl’s shoulder. Jack thought that maybe they should have left her eyes open at the funeral. He remembers staring down at her in the coffin and thinking the pink ribbon tied around her neck wasn’t quite wide enough even though most folks said you couldn’t see the rope burns at all.
Carl stole more roses from Mrs. Casto’s garden and bloodied his hands because he’d not been prepared with shears. At the cemetery, Carl asked Jack if he wants to come. But Jack doesn’t want to see it, so Carl slammed the door, grabbed something from the trunk, slammed that too, and left Jack in the car.
Jack remembers how Carl always listened to him in the past. He lowers the window and hears Carl wailing “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Jack wishes he was at home drinking cold beer and watching a Dark Mistress video. Maybe the one where she wears the tight, black leather full of holes and her blonde hair spilling around the leather mask she never took off. It took a moment for Jack to recognize the chunk!-ing sound in the distance was a shovel biting into the cemetery lawn.
Jack was the one who found Mary Lyn hanging from the rope in her father’s barn. They never found a suicide note, which is why Mr. McCarthy still says it was murder. But the sheriff found a broken record in her bedroom—we all know which song it was—and figured that was her suicide note after all.
Jack tackles Carl, knocking the wind out of him and knocking his head on Mary Lyn’s tombstone. When Carl wakes several minutes later, he says he heard her on the radio—that they both did. Jack explains that it was just The Dark Mistress and that someone was just playing a sick joke on them, but that’s all.
Carl asks Mary Lyn why she left him.
Carl asks Jack to dig him a grave because he’s been dead for years anyway.
Carl says he lost everything when Mary Lyn died: his future, his confidence, even his baseball scholarship,
Carl says the town was sad but secretly happy because now Mary Lyn would never change, never leave, never get old or fat or wrinkled.
Carl says that they all hate him because whenever anyone looks at Carl they see Mary Lyn. He says they are trying to drive him away.
Carl says that tonight someone is going to learn it takes more than a crazy bitch on the radio to get rid of him.
Jack remembers the rest of that night in bits and pieces:
Carl driving and cursing on the highway…
The tall black radio transmitter buzzing like millions of fireflies…
Carl getting a shotgun from the trunk…
Jack following Carl through the unlocked doors and into the empty hallways…
Carl shooting a Mexican cleaning woman…
Carl shooting a fat technician…
Mary Lyn’s voice coming from the speakers…
And Carl finding the cassette playing in a machine, pulling it out, and him laughing at the dead air.
Jack was in the barn loft looking at a Hustler mag when it first happened:
Mary Lyn came up the ladder…
Mary Lyn’s blue eyes sparkled…
Mary Lyn told him she sees him sometimes when he watches her and Carl at the drive-in…
Mary Lyn hooked her thumb under the top button of her Levi cut-offs…
Mary Lyn picked up Jack’s discarded Hustler and told him he’s “a bad boy”…
Mary Lyn asked him, “You lonely? Is that why you like these magazines? That why you like to watch?”…
Jack told her “No. I just like to dream about how things might be”…
Mary Lyn dropped the magazine…
Mary Lyn unbuttoned her shirt…
Jack undid her cut-offs and kissed her blond curls…
Mary Lyn whispered “Show me your dreams, Jack, and I’ll show you mine”…
And it would have been fine that way, except after a while Mary Lyn started talking about bringing Carl into it. Jack thinks how funny it ended because she laughed that day, thinking the rope was part of some new dream.
Jack has a uncle in Sacramento who is getting old and wants him to take over his auto body shop. Jack has been talking to his girl, Sherry, and they decide it’s not a bad idea. And even though Sherry is only 18 and Jack has been out of high school for 15 years, he’s not worried about what the town will think or even about Sherry herself. Soon they’ll be in Sacramento and she doesn’t have even one single dream rattling around in her head.
Of course, he won’t be able to tell her things like how he used to tell things to Mary Lyn. He wouldn’t, for instance, be able to tell her how he put cinder blocks in Carl’s coffin or how he likes to do weird things with Carl’s head.
But neither Sherry nor the auto body shop are Jack’s real reason for leaving Fiddler. It’s not even because KTCB finally replaced The Dark Mistress with tapes of Reverent Tim. No, the real reason is because of what happened most recently:
Two nights ago, Jack was followed home by an iron-blue ‘57 Chevy…
Then, just tonight, Jack heard a woman’s voice on KTCB…
It was the voice of Mary Lyn…
It was the voice of The Dark Mistress…
She told Jack the name of a radio station in Sacramento..
She told him to avoid working on any ‘57 Chevys…
She played “Save the Last Dance for Me”…
And the song was requested by someone named Carl.
MY GRADE: A+
Right out of the gate, Richard Chizmar has given Cemetery Dance #2 some serious bragging rights. He’s done it by finding and publishing a Norman Patridge story with a seriously complex storyline.
If you’re a regular reader of Exhumed you’ll know by now that I respect complexity in any form. I find it adds another level to a story beyond sheer entertainment. And to be clear, Partridge’s story does entertain. There’s the mystery of Carl’s death, the mystery of Mary Lyn’s death, the mystery of The Dark Mistress, the mystery of the song, and the mystery of how our narrating protagonist, Jack, fits into all of it.
We get it all: Jack fell in love (er… ok…lust) with his friend’s girl. Then he murdered that girl and drove his friend to madness over the years until he cracked and in turn murders some innocent people at a radio station. As a bonus, at the end we question whether or not Jack is in his right mind or not… aka: The Dark Mistress and her song have returned, but is it in supernatural form (ie: is Jack a victim of a siren-like demon of some kind) or merely in Jack’s deluded mind (ie: is Jack an insane killer)?
And to be honest, if Partridge hadn’t done This One Other Thing, I’d probably spend the next few hundred words dissecting the various pieces of evidence that lean us one way or the other. (And they are there. Trust me.)
And before I go a step further, I must also insist that despite what comes next in this review, absolutely NONE of it detracts from the overall quality of the tale itself. The dialogue holds true. The descriptions are spot-on. The characters are real. All of that stuff—the very stuff I have sometimes spent an entire review looking at—is solid.
And yet, there is This One Other Thing.
And I simply have to… I simply MUST… I am literally COMPELLED to talk about This One Other Thing. And that thing is the story’s timeline.
The chronology of events versus the chronology of the scenes presented to us IS. JUST. NUTS.
And also awesome.
So here we go. Strap your thinking cap on. This one is going to mess with your head a little…
Even on the surface we realize a third of the way through the story that we’re reading multiple timelines, and not just 2 or possibly even 3 as we may be accustomed to, but FIVE.
Chronologically, the 5 timelines are:
- The CARL AND MARY DATING DAYS timeline (10+ ago)
- The MARY LYN’S DEATH timeline (5+ years ago)
- The NIGHT OF THE KTCB MURDERS timeline (1+ year ago)
- The CARL’S DEATH timeline (last week)
- The JACK’S LIFE TODAY timeline (now)
But Partridge doesn’t tell us the events in chronological order. Oh no.
Hell, he doesn’t even tell it to us in alternating order (typically this would be: Day From The Past-1/ Today-1/ Day From the Past-2/ Today-2/etc.).
Hell, he doesn’t even tell it to us in reverse order (which would start at the end and work its way backward, eventually revealing the why of TODAY’S actions).
No. What Partridge presents to us is a kind of scattershot of everything.
And yet if we look at the actual structure of it, it is no less random than a spider’s web. You see, at first glance it may appear random or chaotic, but upon closer inspection we realize every bit of it was consciously and intelligently designed to keep us guessing until the very last paragraph.
I’ll break it all down in the following chart:
Letters (A-S) = scenes of the story as readers experience them
Numbers (1-18) = chronology of events [w/ approximate time stamp]
Colors = color-coded TIMELINES for clarifying purposes
Jack remembers Carl’s funeral |18 | JACK’S LIFE TODAY—part 3/4 | [earlier today]
KTCB changes its programming | 17 | JACK’S LIFE TODAY—part 2/4 | [yesterday]
Carl escapes from prison | 12 | CARL’S DEATH—part 1/4 [10 days ago]
Carl’s funeral | 14 | CARL’S DEATH—part 3/4 | [~7 days ago]
Carl’s death scene | 13 | CARL’S DEATH—part 2/4 | [10 days ago]
Jack finds broken glass | 15 | CARL’S DEATH—part 4/4 | [~7 days ago]
J & C watch Tyson fight | 7 | KTCB MURDERS—part 1/5 | [1+ year ago]
J & C listen to TDM on KTCB | 8 | KTCB MURDERS—part 2/5 | [1+ year ago]
Mary Lyn’s funeral- townsfolk | 5 | MARY LYN’S DEATH—part 3/4 | [5+ years ago]
Jack at the drive-in | 1 | C&M DATING DAYS—part 1/2 | [10+ years ago]
Mary Lyn’s funeral—Jack | 6 | MARY LYN’S DEATH—part 4/4 | [5+ years ago]
Carl steals roses/shovels grave | 9 | KTCB MURDERS—part 3/5 | [1+ year ago]
Jack discovers Mary’s body |4 | MARY LYN’S DEATH—part 2/4 | [5+ years ago]
Jack tackles Carl | 10 | KTCB MURDERS—part 4/5 | [1+ year ago]
The KTCB murders | 11 | KTCB MURDERS—part 5/5 | [1+ year ago]
Jack & Mary hook up | 2 | C&M DATING DAYS—part 2/2 | [10+ years ago]
Jack kills Mary | 3 | MARY LYN’S DEATH—part 1/4 | [5+ years ago]
Jack’s uncle | 16 | JACK’S LIFE TODAY—part 1/4 | [two days ago]
Jack moves to Sacramento | 19 | JACK’S LIFE TODAY—part 4/4 | [right now]
I’ll discuss each timeline (and why Partridge’s seemingly random structure is actually quite brilliantly organized) by going through them in chronologocal order.
First, the CARL & MARY LYN’S DATING DAYS timeline…
It’s in two parts and doesn’t start until halfway through the story. Until we reach that first part, we probably didn’t realize (or, at best, we only have a vague suspicion of) the fact that Jack has a thing for Mary Lyn. Then it socks us in the gut in its second part when we learn Mary Lyn not only reciprocated, but wanted to take things much further. This later portion of the story is also the one that confirms our growing suspicions that Mary Lyn is, in fact, KTCB’s Dark Mistress.
If Partridge had shown us these very early character factoids, the shock of Jack and Mary Lyn’s affair AND the shock of Mary’s Lyn’s true nature (so contrary to the girl-next-door we are led to believe she is) would be lost, and the story would lose a significant “wow factor.”
Second, the MARY LYN’S DEATH timeline…
This one comes to us in four parts, yet again we don’t get the start of it until halfway through the story. Yes, it was referenced way back in the opening paragraph that she’s already dead (“We buried Carl next to Mary Lyn McCarthy last week”), but our focus just then was on Carl. Her name meant nothing to us at that point. We are given the fact Carl was buried next to some other dead person, probably someone important to him, but the import of her death doesn’t become relevant until halfway through when she gets her own timeline. Hiding this critical (and captivating) part of the story until halfway through is another aspect of Partridge’s story that vaults it to the next level. Until we meet this timeline, in fact, we think the story is really all about Carl and his death and possibly how Jack fits in. But then, wham!, we realize Mary Lyn’s death is wrapped up in how and why Carl died, and we are instantly more engrossed than we were before.
Next is the NIGHT OF THE KTCB MURDERS timeline…
At five sections, this is the biggest and most spread-out timeline of the story. It compromises the full middle of the story and is also the only one of all the timelines that is itself told in proper chronological order. In doing so, Partridge gives us a miniature story-within-a-story. It’s the one timeline that we don’t need to work at to understand because each time we pick it up, it follows logically from where we left off. This is how readers usually digest a story, of course, and it therefore establishes itself as the foundation of the overall tale. It is the Big Event! that everyone in town knows and talks about, it is the reason Carl was in prison, and it is what readers assume the story is really “all about.” (We’re wrong, of course.) What Partridge has done, then, is give us something easy to grab onto and digest while simultaneously entertaining and misleading us.
Fourth, the CARL’S DEATH timeline…
This one has four parts and is the only timeline which has all of its sections presented concurrently without any gaps or breaks. It is NOT told chronologically, of course, but because it is also told early in the story, it establishes the end result of Carl’s character as the early focus of our reading experience. We are told in the opening paragraph that Carl is dead, then a page or so later we are shown the precise events of his death:
1: He escaped prison 10 days ago.
2: He died by driving his car into a 7-11.
3: His funeral features people struggling to talk and pallbearers struggling to lift his casket.
4: Carl’s friend, Jack, goes back to view the broken-glass carnage that is all that remains of Carl’s life.
In giving his readers a (supposedly) complete picture of the events of Carl’s death while still witholding the actual WHY of his death, Partridge has once again deceived us early and poignantly into thinking the story is all about Carl. It’s not. But that doesn’t stop readers from looking forward to learning the whole truth. Was it an accident? If so, how did it happen? Was it suicide? If so, why’d he do it? We are never actually told the full truth of Carl’s death, however. Instead, only at the end do we realize that Carl’s death was both happily observed (and possibly even orchestrated) by Jack, and also far less important than we originally believed. Accident? Suicide? Either one makes perfect sense. But the lack of knowing which one it is doesn’t actually leave us feeling disappointed because by that time we are so much more interested in Jack’s character than Carl’s.
Finally, the JACK’S LIFE TODAY timeline…
Just look at those bookends! This one has four parts split evenly into the opening pair and closing pair of scenes. We start the story seeing Jack in the here and now reminiscing about a fallen friend. We have no idea why (or even if) his story is an important one. In fact, as Partridge’s tale goes on, we almost forget that Jack is a character at all, falling instead to hearing his voice as the Third Person Omniscient rather than the simple narrator that he truly is. By the time we get to the end, we have come to understand that Jack is directly involved in both Mary Lyn’s AND Carl’s deaths, that Jack is a bastard of a guy, and with a half-page of text still to go, we honestly wonder what further revelations we could possibly be getting. After all, once it’s revealed in the immediately-preceding scene that Jack did, in fact, murder Mary Lyn, it seems like there’s nothing left to read.
And then Partridge batters us with the utter horror that he’s not only got away with murder, that he strangely, maliciously put cinderblocks in Carl’s coffin, that he apparently has Carl’s head and does… “things”… to it, but that he’s possibly gearing up to do it all again with his move to Sacramento.
Want more? Alright then. Don’t forget that at the very end we get the additional layer of the return of The Dark Mistress. Real or imagined? The ghost of Mary Lyn or an impersonating demon? Readers decide while Partridge likely grins wickedly.
Want even more? Sure! (I hope you missed this one, because if you did it’s going to totally mess with your head.) You know the girl Jack’s got his eyes on these days? Sherry? Yeah… she’s none other than Mary Lyn’s young niece. Yep. She’s the “too young to see all that death” kid that was mentioned in Carl’s funeral way back in the fourth major scene of the story. We were led to think her only a child—perhaps 6 or 8—when we read that scene. At the end we know she’s actually 18 while Jack is roughly 30. Creepy uncle vibe aside, let’s not overlook the fact that Jack has grabbed himself another McCarthy girl. Whatever his sick reasons (Obsession over a Mary Lyn lookalike? A convenient next victim? A simple stooge to provide a semblance of love to his lonely, twisted mind?) there’s no doubt this knowledge leaves us with a taste in our mouths even more bitter than before.
Overall, Norman Partridge has written a story that is layers deep and gets better with multiple readings. And to be clear, I’ve tried this type of thing in my own stories. It’s insanely hard working it out ahead of time without losing the heart of the story. In fact, it’s not just hard but damned near impossible to write a story with such a mixed-up chronology and not only pull it off but still entertain. In the case of “Save the Last Dance for Me,” Partridge has used the very nature of a complex chronology to his advantage where other authors would not only fail but get lost in the attempt.
THREE BONUS OBSERVATIONS (a/k/a: Other stuff I saw but don’t have the time to explore):
1: Jack got the Hustler magazine from the hook-up scene from the very same 7-11 where Carl would die years later.
2: Carl considers The Dark Mistress to be “sick.” He also disapproves of Jack’s foul language in his car. This is a direct indication that Carl’s character is far too tame for Mary Lyn… who actually is the Dark Mistress herself. It also means that when she proposed a three-way with Jack and Carl, Jack’s decision to kill her instead was perhaps his way of protecting Carl’s innocence.
3: They live in a town called Fiddler. Possible symbolic meanings include: A) Carl and/or the whole town are being played by Jack “like a fiddle” (a/k/a: under his direct control); B) To “fiddle” with something means to manipulate it; and C) To fiddle also means to trifle or waste time… just like the years all of our characters seem to have wasted living in this town.
THE NEW: “Slippin’ Into Darkness” (A Novel Excerpt)
AUTHOR: Norman Partridge
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #17/18: Fall, 1993. (Story #5 of 7).
PLOT (with spoilers!):
CHAPTER ONE: 12:03 A.M.
An unnamed man stands on a mounded grave and throws a beer bottle sixty feet through the air and into the center of a granite cross. Glass explodes. He throws another and another. Each one a perfect strike. The name of the game is “Graveyard Baseball.”
This man—the Pitcher—is alone, though, playing a version of solitaire. It has been 18 years since he’s done this and he knows his arm will ache tomorrow. He’s come here tonight because of April. The month is April—the start of the baseball season—and the girl in the ground under the cross is April. April Louise Destino. The Pitcher opens another beer, drains it down his throat, and crashes the bottle on the granite cross.
The Pitcher was one of April’s boys.
He drains another beer. He imagines the dead insurance salesman several feet below him. He winds up. A flashlight beam blinds him and his pitch sails wide, the bottle skidding across grass rather than shattering on April’s cross.
A voice shouts, asks him what the hell he’s doing. The voice is an umpire, The Pitcher thinks, trying to argue balls and strikes. The umpire bumps The Pitcher in the chest, so he winds up with a closed fist instead of a bottle or ball. It’s a strike. The umpire falls down. The Pitcher picks up the thing he brought instead of a bat. He imagines fans, the musical voice of a cheerleader begging him to hit one over the fence. The Pitcher wants to hear the crack of the bat. It’s opening day, after all.
CHAPTER TWO: 1:12 A.M.
Marvis Hanks climbs the stairs of his basement with a tall pile of videotapes balanced atop his outstretched hands. He reaches the foyer upstairs and his footsteps are the only sound in the house. He has lived there all his 35 years of life, and he’s owned the place ever since his parents died back in his college days.
As he passes the living room, a sound—a subdued giggle—causes Marvis to stumble and sends the tapes to the floor in a crash. The giggle comes again, and Marvis turns to see someone lying on the pool table. She’s half hidden in shadows but her blonde hair, long legs, and slim fingers are visible. Through the darkness of shadows Marvis can also see her lips, which spread wide into full-blown laughter.
Marvis doesn’t breathe as she sits up, still laughing. Her long hair tickles her hardening nipples, and though her face is still in shadows, Marvis already knows her. She isn’t living, though. She is a ghost, and her face is still nothing more than a shadow. Marvis holds back a scream, even when she turns on the lights.
* * *
She closes the drapes and tells him it’s his own fault for leaving the front door unlocked. She laughs more and talks about the look on his face.
Marvis is still scared even though she isn’t a ghost. She’s just Shelly Desmond, a 15-year-old girl standing naked in his living room, thinking she’s funny.
Marvis looks at the black videotapes on the floor.
Marvis looks at the white pine floor they rest on.
Marvis look at his faded black jeans and his whiteboy loafers.
Marvis looks at his black hands.
African American hands.
He corrects himself, reminding himself he’s not that dark. His skin is the sweet color of butterscotch. Shelly laughs some more, making reference to his eyes being as big as saucers.
“Like a spook butler in some old movie,” Marvis says. “Is that what you mean, Shelly?”
Shelly crosses her arms over her breasts, instantly upset. She says that’s not what she meant by it. She asks if she’d be there if she did. Marvis counters with, “There’s the money,” and she pouts. It’s like magnetism to Marvis. He goes to her, grasps her tiny wrists and moves her arms to her sides. He notes that she has the bravery to not look away.
He tightens his grip and challenges her bravado. “You like my color, don’t you?” he says. “You’re the one who told me that I’m the man with the sweet butterscotch skin.” Shelly relaxes and giggles again. Marvis asks if she’d feel the same if he had truly dark skin, if his eyes were as brown as dirt instead of green? Shelly’s arms become a knot of tension, shaking the table she is now gripping with her hands.
Marvis watches the 8 ball teetering on the brink of a corner pocket. It is an ebony sphere on the brink of a bottomless pit.
Now Shelly looks away, blushing, and it’s Marvis’ turn to laugh. He releases her wrists, strokes her rosy cheeks, and calls her red. “You’re a little Indian,” he tells her.
“A little Native American,” she corrects him, and they both laugh.
* * *
Shelly asks if he wants to get the camera. Marvis says he’d rather do things just for them. She asks if he means there, on the pool table. He says he’s always wanted to, but Shelly balks. Her eyes are staring at something over Marvis’ shoulder.
He wheels, expecting to find a cop or just about anyone else. Instead, he sees his parents’ wedding photo. His father’s skin is so black. His mother’s is so white.
Shelly comments that her father looks so angry. Marvis explains that off-duty cops always look angry.
Shelly asks if Marvis’ father knew how Marvis made his money. He explains that they died long ago when all they knew about his aspirations were that he wanted to open a camera shop.
Shelly thinks his father would hate knowing someone like her was in their house. Marvis strokes Shelly’s pale breasts and says that, no, his father would never hate her.
He turns the photo to the wall, but it does little to calm Shelly’s discomfort. She suggests that maybe they could use something to take the edge off. Marvis agress, and she she slips from the table and heads to the hallway. Marvis stops her with a look. She says she knows where it is because of the very first time when they’d done it in the bedroom. Marvis nevertheless says he’ll get it.
* * *
His girls are waiting for him in his bedroom. He winks at them, still genuinely surprised even after all these years, like he was still the teenager everyone knew as “Shutterbug.”
He stares at his girls, trying to see their perfections as he had back then. But he can’t. Too many years and experiences has shown him all their imperfections: a nose just a little too large, teenage breasts that will never swell to desired dimensions, an eternally crooked smile.
Here they were, still locked away 18 years later in 8×10 frames, sealed and protected behind glass.
Marvis reflects on how girls were different back then. They were just a little more innocent. These girls, all white, all daddy’s princesses, were unlike today’s makeup-caked girls who came to him for senior portraits, and would have died of shame to have Shelly Desmond’s skin.
He used his camera and his smooth-talking ways to get to them. They believed him when he said he would grow up to be a fashion photographer and that they were going to be models and actresses.
Marvis marvels that his father—the very same man who had beaten the neighborhood street talk out of his half-black son—never realized that by calling himself “Shutterbug” instead of “Marvis” that he slipped right past the bigoted suspicions of the white mothers and fathers who answered the phone.
He opens his bedroom closet, fishes out two shoe boxes from the back, razors two lines of coke for Shelly, then takes a couple of discreet toots for himself.
When his eyes recollect themselves, he’s looking at an old photo from a box of high school junk. Five cheerleaders in the foreground and—barely visible in the biology lab windows in the background—a young man’s silhouette. Though faceless, anyone seeing it would instantly know voyeurism. The silhouette would never be noticed, though, because Marvis had been ordered to excise the face of one of the cheerleaders who had been kicked off the squad. The black hole replaced it instantly became the focus of the picture, just like the pocket of shadow the 8 ball had nearly fallen into a few minutes ago in the living room. Just like Marvis’ gaze had been drawn to Shelly’s shadowed face rather than the blonde hair that framed it.
It was the face of a ghost.
No, it was only Shelly Dismond.
The faceless ghost was gone.
Shelly was waiting for Marvis in the living room, and suddenly he wanted to be with her.
* * *
Marvis returns the living room, wearing only a black silk robe. Shelly has stacked all but one of the video tapes on a shelf. The other tape is playing on Marvis’ VCR, and Shelly is laying on a throw rug in front of the television, watching it.
It’s a video of Shelly herself, and the two Shelly’s are moaning in unison. In the shadows of the living room, Marvis hadn’t at first noticed the live Shelly’s busy fingers.
She hasn’t noticed him yet and continues her task. He places the lines of coke on the edge of the pool table and watches her. But Shelly’s eyes and hair were wrong. Neither are like the girl in the video from all those years ago. The girl whose face had been excised from the cheerleader photo. The girl who had been the subject of Shutterbug’s first erotica shoot. The girl who was now dead. The girl named April Destino. The girl who had either OD’d or committed suicide—Marvis couldn’t remember which.
But tonight Marvis had seen her ghost in Shelly. He smiles, knowing he will take care of her on the pool table, then send her on her way so he could make some popcorn and enjoy a retrospective of those first shoots from his high school days.
Marvis is picking out the right music to play for Shelly when a thump against the window and a laughing voice from outside stops he and Shelly both. He looks to the closed drapes then to Shelly. Her eyes—as big as saucers––are on him. She tells him she told no one, that she did exactly as he told her. She grabs her backpack and puts on shorts and a top while scrambling to the kitchen.
Another thump on the window.
Marvis turns off the TV and opens the drapes.
The door to the kitchen slams. Shelly is gone. Did she flee in fear? Did someone snatch her? Had she sold him out and simply escaped? Only time would tell.
Marvis looks out the window.
The front lawn is a sloping slab of blackness.
His car––a Jaguar—is a sleek silhouette.
The light behind him is just enough to project a ghostly reflection of himself.
Then he sees it. Or, rather, him.
Standing on the lawn is a man’s silhouette. His eyes are invisible, but Marvis knows the man is watching him.
The figure moves while Marvis is rooted to the spot.
The figure passes through Marvis’ reflection, and his reflection becomes a black hole as deep and empty as April Destino’s missing face in that old photo.
A ghost’s face flies at Marvis from out of the blackness. It is coming fast, so very fast. But the face is not a shadow. It is dead white. The negative image of the black hole of April Destino’s missing face. It is as white as the negative image of an 8 ball.
MY GRADE: A-
Before I get into this (much shorter) review, the first thing you need to know about the full Slippin’ Into Darkness novel is that it was Partridge’s debut novel. It came out in 1994, just a few months after the above excerpt was published in Cemetery Dance #17/18 (Fall of 1993).
The second thing you need to know is that it was also the first original novel published by Cemetery Dance. That hardcover title, by the way, is now out of print and copies on Amazon start at $174.
Unfortunately (embarassingly?), I have not read the entire novel. In fact, before finding the excerpt inside the hallowed pages of Cemetery Dance‘s first double-sized issue, I’d never heard of it, though I certainly knew of Mr. Partridge himself.
This means I can’t comment on the entire story. I literally don’t know it. This is, undoubtedly, a bad thing. On the other hand, you could choose to view this as a good thing because my review will therefore be based only on what was published in the magazine… and isn’t that what Exhumed is really all about, after all?
Together, you and I will get to see how successful Cemetery Dance was in enticing their magazine readers into buying the full-length novel. Alright then, let’s do this thing…
First off, let’s talk mood, because yikes almighty is there a lot of it.
From the opening sequence in Chapter One, we feel the sadness, the suspense, and the tragedy of this story. The unnamed “Pitcher” is some guy (Marvis, probably… both are referenced as being 18 years out of high school… at some point later in the story’s chronological timeline) who is drunk, is still drinking, and is angry and/or in a very dark place. The idea of turning a graveyard into a makeshift baseball field is one messed up way of desecrating a sacred place. That the Pitcher is literally standing on the grave of some random insurance salesman is even worse. That he is breaking bottle after bottle on the stone cross of April Destino’s headstone is the worst of all.
Then we move to Chapter Two and meet Marvis, a guy of the same general age as the Pitcher who is hauling tapes from his basement—an action we immediately associate with re-living the good-old days and, of course, adds to that mood of sadness and depression. Then, however, we are shocked with what is first presented as a ghost but quickly turns into just an immature porn girl surprising her favorite photographer with a midnight fling. Marvis’ misinterpretation of who and what she is, coupled with the repeated inputs into how Marvis came to be in this position and the various factoids about his dead parents, all culminate to twist the daggers of awkward discomfort.
What Marvis does is illegal (Shelly is just 15, remember). Then there’s the added layer of race. Marvis is black but he sounds and acts white. Having gotten his start in the mid-70s, this had allowed him (in the mindset of ’70s society) to desecrate the white, teenage princesses in the same way that the Pitcher is desecrating the graveyard today.
Finally, the turn of events at the end of Chapter Two, when Marvis loses his girl-of-the-night and is met by a man on his lawn who appears to rush at him with the speed and vision of a ghost. The excerpt ends there, and we are left wondering if the man through the window is a real man, a real ghost, or neither… just Marvis’ overactive imagination, perhaps.
In these opening pages to his novel, Partridge has presented to us a number of questions…ones we feel the need to have answered. For any decent novel (and for any magazine excerpt, one can easily claim), that’s the whole point.
But on top of mood is something I find even more compelling: Symbolism.
Ah, yes. Partridge’s early pages are just dripping with both quantity and quality of that age-old favorite symbol: BLACKS & WHITES / SHADOWS & BRIGHTNESS.
It’s literally on every page. Hell, it’s even in the damned title!
Here are a few of my favorites:
- The darkness of the nighttime graveyard vs. the contrast of the granite cross.
- The flashlight beam in the Pitcher’s eyes vs. the clothes of the person wielding it (the umpire’s [implied] black uniform).
- The shadows falling over the pool table vs. the blonde hair of the woman laying on it.
- The woman’s shadowed face vs. the perceived visage of her “true” ghostly form.
- The white pine flooring of the living room vs. the black plastic of the video tapes spilled all over it.
- Marvis’ whiteboy loafers vs. Marvis’ faded black jeans.
- Marvis’ black skin vs. Shelly’s pale skin.
- Marvis’ black father vs. Marvis’ white mother.
- The black color of the 8 ball vs. the white spot where the number 8 resides.
- The whites face of April and her fellow cheerleaders vs. the black hole where April’s excised face used to be.
- The white, negative image vs. the black hole which the negative image came from.
There are also two of these which are never outwardly stated but are both implied:
- The dark iris of a camera lens vs. the bright light that enters it when the shutter is opened.
- The white lines of cocaine vs. the darkness of the closet where Marvis keeps it.
- Meanwhile there are so many items and adjectives that use these same dark and bright colorings individually without being connected to a contrasting opposite. Each of the following, directly-quoted examples stand alone as images of dark or black and bright or white that Partridge forces into our minds. One at a time, they do very little. Collectively, however, he paints for us a world completely made up of blacks and whites.
- “mounded grave”
- “shards of moonlight”
- “marble Christ” (statue)
- “dirty uniforms”
- “oversized dominoes”
- (beams of) “moonlight washed the living room”
- “skin as pale as a winter moon”
- “a face that seemed nothing more than a shadow”
- “she turned on the lights”
- “as black as unsweetened chocolate”
- “the edge of a pit of shadow”
- “ebony sphere”
- “pale breasts”
- “caked-on vampire make-up”
- “his tongue was more tin than silver”
- “whitebread name”
- “flat, white stomach”
- “a young man’s silhouette”
- “a real ice princess”
- “black mounting paper”
- “the face of a ghost”
- “black silk robe”
- “whitebread music”
- “K. C. & the Sunshine band”
- “silver face of a disc”
- “slab of blackness in the still night”
- “sleek silhouette”
- “the dark man”
- “a black hole”
- “ghost face”
- “out of the blackness”
- “not a black shadow. It was dead white.”
- “negative image”
And all of that is in just the first 4,000 words of this novel.
What do they all mean?
What does any collection of Black & White symbolism mean?
- -good vs. evil
- safety vs. danger
- purity vs. contamination
- cleanliness vs. filth
- salvation vs. damnation
The accuracy of any of these depends, of course, upon the rest of the story and how Partridge uses them. But it’s abundantly clear from the start that he’s doing it on purpose and has some kind of deeper meaning in mind.
So after all this, why do I only give this story an A-?
Simple… it’s not a complete story.
To be fair, I think as an excerpt it probably deserves an A+.
It did it’s job, after all, which is to make me want to read (ie: buy) the full novel.
And I do. Really.
I don’t just sorta-kinda want to read it.
I actually, truly want to read it.
In fact, I have a suspicion that I’ll want to read lots of Norman Partridge books.
(Hell, if his short stories are any indication of his talent, I think I probably want to read them ALL).
I’ve already put Slippin’ Into Darkness on my To Read List.
However in the spirit of full disclosure I must also admit it’ll be a loooooong time before I get to it.
This is because between grading papers (I’m a 7th Grade Language Arts teacher by day), and my own writings (blatant self-promotion time: I write Horror, Thrillers, Fantasy, & Sci-Fi. Check me out: www.FritzFiction.com), the sad truth is that 90% of the books I actually read these days are audiobooks, and NONE of Mr. Partridge’s novels are available in that format.
Nevertheless, without reading more, I have no way of knowing if Partridge satisfies my curiosities by maintaining his established mood throughout while telling a great tale, and I have no way of knowing if his symbolism peters out, falls flat, or or becomes even more complex as the tale reaches its crescendo.
Is it unfair of me to automatically dock a novel excerpt just because it’s a novel excerpt?
Yes. Yes, it is.
But to be perfectly blunt, it’s also unfair of the publisher to tease me with only part of a really good story.
Still, as an advertising platform, I tip my hat.
This is a job well done.
Norman Partridge is a rock star.
Far too often I’ve been teased with repeated ads for years on end or outright told to read a certain author, only to finally get something and be mildly-to-overwhelmingly disappointed.
Perhaps it’s because I had heard the Norman Partridge name and knew he was respected, but had never heard any specific details about why that kept my mind relatively open.
Nevertheless, I was happily surprised and excited at how good these two stories were.
I can’t wait to read more—lots more––of his stuff.
PS: Any and all narrators out there… can you get on the audiobook thing, please?
Love my interpretations & observations?
I’m open to all perspectives.
Tell me how I did. We’ll chat via the interwebs and have more fun.
-K. Edwin Fritz
Next month I’ll be reading/ reviewing each of the following: “In Loving Memory” by Steve Vernon (Cemetery Dance #2), and “A Wiggle of Maggot, a Curl of Bacon“ also by Steve Vernon (Cemetery Dance #59).
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.