Hi there folks, and welcome to “Exhumed: The Fiction of Cemetery Dance Magazine”!
Before you is the first of monthly double reviews that will study the structure of great horror fiction published in our beloved Cemetery Dance*.
My ultimate goal = trying to answer the question: “What makes us fear, squirm, shudder… and love this awesome genre so darned much?”
Why “double” reviews? Simple: I wanted to showcase the change of horror over time. (Also, that way you get to read about TWO stories each month!)
Each column will feature one old story (from the 1980s) and one new story (from the 2010s).
Alrighty then, on to the goods…!
THE OLD: “The Double”
AUTHOR: Steve Rasnic Tem
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #1 (December 1988)
PLOT (with spoilers!): This one is odd & hard to take in for more than one reason, so bear with me. The following is exactly what is presented to the reader:
A mother and father are playing with-
[ no, wait… they’re abusing!]
-their son. The “poke him with fingers,” “slap him quickly and hard,” and later “drop him on his head.” They also constantly tell him he is their only son. Other than that, they ignore him, going about the rest of their lives while leaving him alone in his room. The son, meanwhile, is sure this has all happened before.
The son makes a doll out of a baby blanket, some socks, a rubber ball for a head, and even uses leftover peanuts to fabricate fingers, toes, and… um… a penis. He draws a face on the rubber ball, but reflects immediately afterward “with disinterest” that he did not include a nose. He also adds parts of himself—a fingernail hidden into the doll’s clothing, and his spit rubbed into the doll’s belly.
The mother and father return and repeat their abuse, but to the doll now, apparently unaware of the difference. They kiss/tickle/fondle/caress it, then throw it onto the floor. They dance on the pieces of the body while singing.
Meanwhile, the son watches from the safety behind his bed. He feels the “shadowy impressions of feet” on his back, though it no longer hurts.
MY GRADE: A
MY REVIEW: As stated above, this one is hard to read, and perhaps even harder to review. There are two reasons for this. First and most obvious is that we are seeing child abuse from the perspective of the child. The other reason—the one you can’t see here because you’re not reading the actual story—is that the story is extraordinarily short (so short I took the time to count words…only 290), and as such everything comes off as suggestive rather than stated directly. Most of one’s reading experience is a lesson in interpretation.
Yet with a second reading (it’s short enough to do that), it’s clear the boy is a victim of abuse and his “double” is his attempt at survival. It’s also clear that everything in the story is symbolic rather than literal. After all, the notion that two adults would so easily misinterpret a few socks and a rubber ball for their flesh-and-blood son is preposterous. But symbolically, what Mr. Tem is telling us is that this boy (and, by association, all child abuse victims) FEEL like they are nothing but rag dolls. Things. Objects to be hurt and then ignored.
The abuse, by the way, isn’t merely physical. It’s sexual as well.
Question: Why else would the boy feel the need to add a penis to his double? Answer: It’s how he’s been taught to identify himself.
Question: Why else would Tem use words like “poke,” “kiss,” “fondle,” and “caress” when describing physical interactions? Answer: Because the parents’ touches are almost always inappropriate. They also “tickle,” and that might be okay, depending on how it’s done, but the rest most certainly is not, and with so many examples we’d be blind to overlook them.
The overall feel of the story is strikingly creepy. You have no choice but to feel extremely uncomfortable by the time you finish. First it happens with the obvious physical harm the boy suffers. Then it happens again when you realize the emotional distress the kid must have, as is revealed by his need to protect himself with a “double” (for me, this came moments after finishing my first reading). Finally (and for me this came as I was reading it that second time), by the sexual abuse that the kid goes through. Collectively, we are left feeling so many emotions, all of them powerful ones: Revulsion, Anger, Disgust, Sorrow and, most of all, Helplessness. As a guy who spent years researching and writing his own fictional tale about physical, emotional and sexual abuse, this is a subject matter that is close to my heart. Moreover, Tem nails it, albeit in a very subtle way. (For my own writings, I prefer a more In-Your-Face approach).
AND NOW, LET ME STEP UPON MY LITTLE SOAP BOX:
I wanted to give Mr. Tem’s story an “A+”, but I couldn’t quite pull that trigger. Ultimately, the reason I felt the need to drop it that small notch is because of how hard he makes us work to figure out what’s really going on. (Again, that’s probably just a personal preference/ bias). After all, the brevity of the story mixed with the impossibility of it all practically begs us to read it again. First we re-read it because we’re confused and, heck, it only took three minutes to read. Why not read it again and figure out what you missed? When you do, you see more of the forest through the trees and your eyes are opened. Then, if your stomach can handle that sort of thing, you’ll read it yet again, and then you’ll see just how complex and powerful this ultra-short story truly is. But, for a lot of people, it’s too much and they won’t read it that second or third time. They may even be turned off to the horror genre as a whole for a bit. For that, I can’t blame them.
No, wait. I can.
See, I get that some people won’t want to experience it, any of it, even though it’s an obvious piece of symbolic art. And we could say “to each his own,” and let it be. It’s the reason our strongest emotion in this piece is hopelessness. It’s all-too close to the truth. But I also know that when we remain silent in the face of evil, we are allowing evil to reign. As Dante said in his masterpiece The Divine Comedy, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
I get that it’s hard to read this type of stuff. But pretending it doesn’t happen doesn’t make it go away. It only goes away for you, the reader, not for the actual victims. The only way to make change is to confront and discuss these issues, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel. And for me, that’s what the horror genre is best at—forcing readers to contemplate important matters they would otherwise choose to avoid: Death, Revenge, Violence, Greed… Tem’s story forces us to admit the brutality of child abuse by putting us into the victim’s seat and feel the emotional force that comes with it.
And for that, I give him a fist-bump of respect.
THE NEW: “The Inconsolable”
AUTHOR: Michael Wehunt
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #73 (March 2016)
PLOT (with spoilers!): Alden wakes in a hospital. His mother, father, and girlfriend, Em, are all there. They are upset. Em makes him promise this-
[whatever “this” is]
-is a one time thing, then leaves.
Alden goes home, tries to pick up the pieces of his life, thinks constantly of Em. The power lines over his home are lined with crows and he feels that his life is like theirs now… “weighted down with portents as something draws close.”
He is forced to take time off off work, starting from the day he swallowed the pills.
[Oh! He attempted suicide. Got it.].
His mother pushes religion on him and he sees the famed poem “Footprints in the Sand,” but wonders if Christ was ever there to carry him. He goes to church and looks at the statue of a crucified Jesus. The light in the church seems to brighten into halos around the heads of certain churchgoers. He wants to be one of them. He tries to pray and wonders that if Christ cannot carry him, maybe the crows can.
Alden’s parents visit and he pacifies them with small talk and lies. Outside, even more crows are perched and watching now. He also sees a figure in white walking through the pines in the distance. A crow lands on his shoulder and digs its claws lightly into his skin. He wonders if it will try to lift him. The crow jabs him before flying into the woods toward the white walker. He watches, blinking, until he is sure the woods are empty.
In a brief flashback, it is two months ago and Em is telling him she’s had an abortion. A tan line has replaced the spot where her ring used to be.
He wakes now in the middle of the night to a tap on the window. A man is staring in. It’s the figure from the woods and it’s a horrible face: hanging ropes of hair in the rain, eyes wide, mouth open. The white figure shoots its tongue out and this time cracks the window. Then it quietly leaves. In the morning he finds the window broken and a puddle on the floor. Alden calls Em but the number is still disconnected.
At church, he interrupts the service to ask about the footprints in the sand. The preacher says he knows Alden from the previous week when he was saved. Alden says he doesn’t know if he WAS saved but wants to find out. He adds that his fiancee doesn’t love him anymore and maybe it would be helpful to be carried by Jesus for a while. The preacher says he’ll talk about the footprints next week.
On the way home Alden sees Em at a gas station holding a little boy’s hand. He wonders if Em has lied to him and he somehow lost years of his life.
[as in: the little boy is his son and somehow several years have passed]
But then another man appears and kisses Em. He is older—graying—and Alden can barely breathe. He drives to his parents’ house, consoling himself along the way and picturing one line of footprints on a beach.
His mother tells him he’ll know when and if he’s saved. He passes time with them but remembers none of it. He goes home. The crows are waiting by the hundreds—thousands—now. Enough to cover the lawn and the porch and the gutters. They watch him as he opens the door to his empty house. He says aloud that he’s too weary for it all. Inside the open doorway, he prays and the words go deeper than they did in church.
In the final scene, Alden wakes in the night to see Jesus breathing over him. His face is white. The centers of his eyes are as black as the crows. His mouth opens to show teeth that curve inward toward the throat. His fingers are sharpened bones and press Alden’s chest. Alden believes he must open his heart to Him. Jesus weeps tears onto Alden’s lips then traces his fingers down Alden’s jaw, neck, torso, and settles over his heart. Alden knows he has become “The Inconsolable” and now Jesus turns and kneels. Alden understands and climbs onto Jesus’ back. Jesus carries him outside, steps off the porch into a blackness of bird wings so dense Alden cannot see the sky. Jesus’ feet cross the lawn, leaving one set of footprints, and carries Alden into the pines beyond which swallows them both.
MY GRADE: A+
MY REVIEW: Okay, this story is DRIPPING with emotion. And symbolism. Lots of that too. But like many modern stories, the events are presented in such a way that makes the chronology a bit hard to put together at first. But we do get it as we go along, thanks to the use of some short flashbacks and opportune revelations of details from Alden’s backstory. Put all of the above together and what you have is a story complex in both structure and tone. But that’s not even Michael Wehunt’s best skill. (I’ll get to that later).
First, allow me to sum up the events of the story in chronological order:
- Two months ago, Alden’s fiancee, Em, got pregnant, had an abortion without his consent, then dumped him.
- Alden then went into a deep depression and a few days ago he attempted (but failed) to commit suicide by swallowing pills.
- In the weeks thereafter, we watch as Alden is still struggling with depression. He is trying to use religion to help. He is particularly fascinated by the story from the poem “Footprints in the Sand,” where Jesus carries someone who needed help and left behind his own set of footprints which the unnamed narrator mistook as his/her own. Meanwhile, Alden’s house is attracting more and more crows, and he sees a white figure moving through the woods beyond. (Notice the black vs. white symbolism)
- Alden’s relationship with his parents is amiable but distant. They try to help but cannot. Alden reaches another breaking point when he sees Em living happily with another man.
- In the finale, Alden is visited by Jesus (the white figure from the woods), who then carries him on His back away from his troubles.
Those are the events. But interpreting what they mean—and, most importantly, interpreting what really happens at the end—is entirely up to you. As I see it, there are three possibilities on that front:
- Alden is literally visited by Jesus and literally saved.
- Alden’s depression has hit an extreme low and the visit by Jesus—his heart’s greatest desire—is just a sad delusion.
- Alden attempts suicide a second time and the visit by Jesus is a metaphor for his death.
If you think the death interpretation is a bit lacking in support, that’s probably because you only read my summary, rather than the actual story. There ARE details which suggest it, most of which come in the final hours before the Jesus appearance. They are:
- Alden has been rejected by a preacher;
- Alden sees his fiancee with another man;
- Alden drinks alcohol with his dad; and
- Alden fell asleep “more quickly than I have in weeks.”
Knowing that he took pills in his first attempt, it’s easy to infer that he did the same thing a second time, except—as histories of suicides tell us—he tries “harder” with this second attempt, meaning he took even more pills. Mixed with the alcohol, it’s an easily deadly combination.
Whichever ending you like, there’s no doubt Michael Wehunt has created a story rich with subtext, and one worthy of your time to read in full. And yet, as I stated above, his ability to create such a mosaic of entertainment is only part of your guaranteed entertainment. Allow me a bit more of your time to explain…
Sometimes authors read a popular story and have a hard time explaining why the thing is so darned good. Sometimes the best we can do is say, “Well… it’s was written well,” or, “Well… the guy can really write, you know?!” I used to read those quips and wonder what that meant. Now, I know.
To “write well” means not just to put together a sequence of entertaining events, and not just to expose relevant emotions in a discernable way, and not just to give us vivid descriptions that stay with us for days on end. To “write well” means that, occasionally, the author will put together a series of words that resonate with the audience in an unforseen and emotional way. These phrases might be a visual description, they might be an action taken, they might be a thought perceived—but whatever they are, the exact choice of words stand out because they are perfect, or nearly so, for the reader to not only comprehend, but to feel. This phenomenon is sometimes called the “turning of a phrase,” and as it happens, Mr. Wehunt is damned good at it. On not just one but several occasions, his descriptions and one-liners are as beautiful as the story is emotional, and they resonate with me. They feel just about perfect for their time and place. When I come across a story that does that consistently, I don’t care what the story is doing, I just want to read more words.
Here are a couple of my favorites from “The Inconsolable” to prove my point:
RE: Alden waking in the hospital: “A tube was rooted in my arm, a weightless moment when I felt it was feeding off me, but it was only the slow drip of living.”
RE: The “Footprints in the Sand” poem, this one a framed picture of a beach with footprints: “I prop the poem on the night table and the red alarm clock light makes the ocean blood.”
RE: The preacher at church: “He shouts damnation in a voice that bends the syllables, lifts the ends of sentences into questions.”
RE: Em and Alden’s waning relationship: “Em drifted away from me slow as a continent.”
RE: The day Em left Alden: “She had the end of her things in her car and the walls were full of vacant nails.”
RE: The crucified statue at church: “Jesus stares at the carpet from His cross so that we don’t have to.”
RE: The ending when Alden gets onto Jesus’ back: “I push off the couch and swing my legs out to hook around His waist and feel His backbone press into me like hard river stones.”
Even out of context, these phrases are publishing gold. I have no doubt that some came as flashes of brilliance Mr. Wehunt didn’t even see coming—they simply appeared in his mind and he recorded them—and others he worked over and over a dozen times until the wording was exactly right. That’s how it is sometimes. And whether this author in this story was blessed more often than he was forced to work like a dog, what I do know is that he’s got that It factor that all publishers want to see.
I’ll be looking for more of Michael Wehunt’s stories eagerly in the future. .
Both of this week’s stories turned out to be emotional powerhouses, but for different reasons. Where one is purposely vague, the other smacks us with echos of recognition. Where one pushes us into the eyes of a victim, the other pushes us into the heart of depression.
My take-away is that there are many ways to make a reader come with you on an emotional journey. There is no “right way” or “best way.” Tem forced us to read and read again, asking us to do at least half the work. Wehunt used a well-known story from religious folklore, forcing us to see and feel the painful truth whether we liked it or not.
Which do you like better? You’d have to read them for yourself, I suppose.
And I highly recommend you do.
Agree or disagree with any of this?
I’d love to hear 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.