Hello again, folks. This is the fifth installment of monthly double reviews studying the structure of great horror fiction published in our beloved Cemetery Dance.
Last time I reviewed my favorite story from Cemetery Dance #1, Anke M. Kriske’s “The Departing of Debbie” and William Peter Blatty’s semi-controversial “Terry and the Werewolf” from Cemetery Dance #62 (2009).
If you want to know about some really great early horror fiction and/or give your respect to our recently-lost great, Mr. Blatty, do please check it out.
This month, I’m going to review 2 stories from the same author, a man who is clearly one one of Cemetery Dance’s favorite repeat contributors based on the fact that he’s been published in Cemetery Dance numbers 1, 2, 4, 7, 13, 14, 34, 36, 39, 50, 64, and 71. He has been published by CD more than only one other author (that’s a column for another day), and has been there since the beginning.
His name is Mr. Bentley Little.
Let’s get to it…
The Old: “The Janitor”
AUTHOR: Bentley Little
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #1 (December 1988)
PLOT (with spoilers!): Steven is the new kid at Sunnycrest Elementary School. In the playground on his first day, he accidentally runs into the school’s janitor, a man that looks like a pig with a ring of grey hair around its head and smiles too widely.
Inside, Steven observes a watercolor painting of a green monster with pointed teeth, a ring of grey hair, and pushing a broom. A nerdy kid named Timmy Turner sees him admiring it and claims ownership. Timmy, Steven notices, is missing several teeth. Then, through the window, Steven sees the janitor watching the two of them while fingering his necklace made of teeth.
Later in class, the teacher asks for a volunteer to take the erasers to get cleaned at the janitor’s closet. Nobody volunteers. Eventually, a kid named Eddie Trerise gets pegged for the job, but by lunchtime Eddie hasn’t returned.
Steven and Timmy sit together at lunch, and Steven is surprised to find that the standard meal—what Timmy calls “barfaroni”—is actually not that bad. As they chat, Timmy also explains that the janitor is just as horrible as he looks and is even responsible for removing Timmy’s missing teeth. Upon asking why he didn’t tell the teacher or his parents, Timmy claims that all the adults are in on it. On their way out of the lunchroom, Steven sees two boys with broken arms, two girls who walk with a limp, and one boy who’s shaved head reveals several red welts.
After lunch, the teacher announces that Eddie Trerise has gone home sick, then assigns Steven to go retrieve the erasers still at the janitor’s closet. When he gets there, the closet looks perfectly normal until the janitor leads him to a much larger back room which proves to be a horrorshow. Teeth necklaces hang from the walls, dried scalps are nailed to the ceiling, mason jars filled with “red and squishy things” line the shelves, and the centerpiece of it all is a big chopping block in the middle of the room, still wet with blood. On it is a scrap of Eddie Trerise’s shirt.
Stephen screams. The janitor laughs.
Stephen threatens to tell his parents. The janitor tells him his parents don’t care and goes on to describe them with startling detail.
Frightened, Steven fights back, but the janitor easily pins him down. He picks up a pair of long shears and asks Steven which is more important to him: his little finger or his little toe. Steven manages to kick the janitor and smash a jar over his head. His seeming victory is short-lived, though, when Steven realizes the old man’s head isn’t even cut in the attack. The last words Steven hears is the janitor telling him he’s been a bad boy and must be properly punished.
The next day at lunch, Timmy Turner thinks the “barfaroni” that day is the best they’d had in a long time.
MY GRADE: B
MY REVIEW: Wait… a mere “B” for the great Bentley Little?! (Why do I get the feeling that gods of horror are about to smite me?)
This story has classic horror written all over it. It’s creepy, it’s gruesome… but its premise is wildly improbable, and the overall story is woefully simplistic in its execution.
*ducks for cover, awaiting the debilitating crash of a lightning bolt*
Okay, I’m still alive, so I guess I’m either not that far off the truth or the horror gods still haven’t heard of me. Either way, allow me to explain myself.
CLAIM #1: IT’S CREEPY
EVIDENCE: What one person within the confines of an elementary school elicits more icky feels than the old man who pushes a broom? Answer: none. And what you didn’t see in my brief rundown of the story was how this janitor stalks the kids relentlessly. The one time you saw it was when Steven looks out the window and he’s there looking in. This was one of but four or five times he’s actually RIGHT THERE when he isn’t supposed to be. So, is it creepy? Well, he literally creeps around the school grounds, so yeah, you bet. Check that one off the list.
CLAIM #2: IT’S GRUESOME
EVIDENCE: This janitor pulls teeth from the kids and puts them on a necklace. If we only heard of this rumor we’d call it just more creepiness, but Little actually shows us the back room of his closet complete with dried scalps, odd body parts suspended in jars, and of course the bloody butcher block. Though we don’t ever actually witness an act of murder or dismemberment, the descriptions of that room is strong enough. Yes, this is a gruesome story, particularly because the victims are all children.
CLAIM #3: IT’S PREMISE IS WILDLY IMPROBABLE.
EVIDENCE: This story is not a fantasy. There is nothing supernatural happening here (with one possible exception: the janitor’s head is impervious to getting cut, though even that can be easily explained by it being a kid who attempted to do the damage). No, this is realistic fiction of the psychological thriller variety, and that word “realistic” is where Little starts to lose me. Yes, it’s horror. Yes, I’m perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief of reality in order to enjoy a good tale. But a school where the teachers and parents are well-aware of the torturous, murderous deeds of a rogue janitor needs some kind of reasoning behind it. Is the janitor the devil, perhaps, and the other adults part of his demon pride? That would make more sense. Are they all brainwashed by a mad cult leader and believe routine sacrifices necessary to their own survival or salvation? Again, I could buy into that. But every adult in the story—the janitor included—are portrayed as real people living in the real world. And folks, real adults just don’t act like that, obviously. Because of this disconnect, Little’s story loses a significant element of its fear factor.
CLAIM #4: THE OVERALL STORY IS WOEFULLY SIMPLISTIC IN ITS EXECUTION.
EVIDENCE: Steven sees Timmy’s missing teeth. One paragraph later he sees a necklace of teeth around the janitor’s neck. Timmy tells Steven the janitor tortures the kids. One paragraph later Steven sees several kids with a variety of injuries. When Steven goes to the janitor’s closet, everything looks normal. One paragraph later the janitor invites Steven into the back room where we see his true collection of torture and maiming instruments. Do you see my point? Little gives us a classic horror tease, but he fulfills the other end of that tease immediately, and he does this over and over again. As a result, the climax of the story is entirely predictable and none of the characters ever rise to a level beyond rudimentary stereotypes.
And yet I didn’t give this story a “D,” a “C,” or even a “B-.” So what gives, Fritz? Am I playing favorites here? Am I being overly cautious because of Mr. Little’s obvious importance to the pages of Cemetery Dance over the years? I don’t think so. Because despite its obvious faults, the truth is that this story also bothered me on a fundamental level. Even days after reading it, I can’t get it out of my head. The teeth necklaces, the nonchalance at which the teacher sends yet another kid to his/her doom, the final brutal fight scene between Steven and the janitor… all of it feeds into what I said at the beginning: This is classic horror. And I like classic horror for that very reason. Sometimes when you’re reading a story, you don’t want to ponder the mysteries of the universe… you just want to be entertained. See, I know how ridiculous the premise is, and I know how easy it was to predict the climax, but that stuff is okay sometimes. Besides, the ending… oh dear, that ending!… adds another level to the whole thing. Did I see the “barfaroni” reference coming? Honestly, no, I didn’t. But even if I had, it’s that little extra kick that stays with you long after the story is done. And for me, that’s just another element of what makes classic horror so appealing.
The New: “We”
AUTHOR: Bentley Little
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #64 (August 2010)
PLOT (with spoilers!): Ed is a traffic cop in Vegas. He does most of his ticket-writing on the outskirts of town, and the only reason he chose the woman in the red Sentra over any of the other vehicles going the same speed was because she was “such a stone fox.”
Her plates returned nothing of concern and when he went to her window she was crying, apologizing, and handing over her license and registration even before he opened his mouth. He let her off with a warning and moved back to his cruiser, ready to nab and ticket the next speeding car when her exact words occurred to him again.
“We were just in a hurry,” she’d said. Only the woman had been alone in the car. He replayed the scene again in his mind and now recalled that she might have gestured toward the passenger seat when she’d said that “we.” He thought harder and now remembered there had been a spot of some brown, viscous goo there. Before he could contemplate further, though, another car speeds by, well over the limit, and Ed reprimands himself for not being in position to catch the guy. He goes back to work and forgets the incident.
When off duty later that night, Ed makes his way to The Regent, a small, third-rate casino that only the locals go to. While looking for women he might approach, he is surprised to see the woman from that afternoon who had been driving the red Sentry.
She’s sitting alone in a booth so he goes over, hoping to sweet-talk her into a seedy nightcap, but she tells him, “We’re kind of in the middle of something here. I think we need a little privacy.” Ed looks, and sure enough there is a spot of brown goo on the seat next to her. When she realizes what he’s seen, the woman casually scoots over and sits directly on the brown stain. Freaked out by her behavior, Ed backs away and goes straight to his car where he then drives aimlessly around the city for the rest of the night. That night he dreams about his dead parents being alive again. They invite him to their house, show him a brown gooey puddle on the couch, and introduce Ed to his “new brother.”
The next evening, after a whole day of writing tickets and obsessively checking passenger seats for brown stains, Ed joins a handful of fellow officers at a new police bar on the outskirts of the business district. Before long, two of the guys, Marlon and Sam, appear distracted and leave unexpectedly early. Both of them use that pronoun, “we,” in making their excuses, though both were alone when they’d said it.
The next morning, both Marlon and Sam are absent, and neither had called in sick. That afternoon he sees yet another officer, Mike, sitting oddly alone and muttering to himself in the locker room. Only when Ed looks closer he sees Mike isn’t alone, of course. There is a brown spot of goo on the bench next to him. Out in the lobby, Sergeant Poole is on the phone but staring down at the seat next to him. He tells the person on the other line, “Sorry we can’t right now. We’re busy.”
That night Ed finds The Regent totally empty of any gamblers or drinkers. Out on the strip he learns that even the streets and the big casinos are sparsely populated.
The following day, six of the 12 officers on that day’s shift didn’t show up to work. None of them had called it in. Then, even his best friend, Rob, goes down the rabbit hole, walking Ed to the parking lot and introducing him to his “new girlfriend”… a brown stain sitting on the passenger seat of his car. This time, though, Ed sees the spot move, which is when Ed runs.
Scared but not knowing what else to do, Ed goes through the mindless tedium of pulling over cars and giving tickets. The ploy seems to abate the worst of his fears until he sees a red Sentry with the same woman behind the wheel. He pulls her over, gives her a ticket, and is unsurprised when she is unfazed by it. In fact, it seems to have no effect whatsoever.
When he returns to his cruiser, Ed is equally unsurprised to see a brown spot on the passenger seat. But unlike all the others he’d seen in the past two days, this one is somehow friendly and inviting rather than creepy. Moreover, he realizes the spot is female and kind of cute. The story ends when Ed takes a deep breath, turns to the brown goo next to him and tells it, “Hello. My name’s Ed. What’s yours?”
MY GRADE: A-
MY REVIEW: In 2010, Cemetery Dance had been in production for a full dozen years. They had published 64 issues and more than 470 stories. Mr. Bentley Little had by that point graced their pages no less than TEN times in ten different issues, and it was at this point they decided to give him his own special issue.
Issue #64 of Cemetery Dance features a cover inspired by his story “The Mailman” (previously published in issue #13), two never-before-seen short stories, an interview-styled essay on the man, a huge collection of paragraph-long reviews of all 12 of his novels to that date, a long list of nearly a hundred short stories published in Little’s career, and a detailed review of his most recently published novel, His Father’s Son.
In reading this issue I was most interested in seeing if Mr. Little’s style had changed over the years.
The short answer is that it hadn’t.
The long answer, however, explains why I give this story a higher grade even though he is very much the same writer after all these years.
“We” is still classic horror—Little’s clear strength as a writer—but it doesn’t fall victim to some of the standard tropes of the genre either. In a word, Little has clearly honed his craft over the years.
The difference here is that “We” builds at a more natural pace than “The Janitor” does. First the brown goo is merely remembered, not actively seen. Next it’s directly seen but not understood. Then we have evidence of its fast spread through the city of Las Vegas through various missing persons. Then the brown spot of Ed’s friend Rob actually moves, and finally Ed’s own personal brown stain appears where we finally get the perspective of its victim. In this manner the antagonist of the story builds from an innocuous oddity into a full-blown plague.
“The Janitor” did none of that. In fact, the character of the janitor himself was exactly the same in his first scene as he was in the last. He’s creepy, true, but he’s also obvious. The brown “We” goo, on the other hand, is also creepy from the start, but it’s also an unknown and it changes throughout the story.
Another advantage “We” has over Little’s older work is an adherence to a single subgenre. In “The Janitor” readers get that awkward juxtaposition between two different storytelling methods… why do all the adults pretend all of this is okay? If the janitor has some kind of supernatural control over them, we never see it. This leads us to think of the story in term of realistic fiction, only no adults would ever act like that in the real world. Comparatively, “We” may begin in what appears to be the real world, but it quickly and consistently veers deeper and deeper into the supernatural. The brown goo clearly has an intellectual hold over whoever it possesses, and that hold proves to be stronger and scarier the longer it maintains contact.
With the same amount of creepiness but written with a cleaner and tighter structure, this story is clearly Little’s superior work of the two.
One of the things I wanted to do this month was compare a single author over the course of time. I wanted to see if Bentley Little had gotten any better or worse. I wanted to see if he’d changed his fundamental style.
What I learned is that he honed his craft, became better at what he does so naturally, but remained consistent to his true nature: Writing memorable classic horror. What Little writes has always been creepy and always sticks with you for hours or days after you’re done reading. The difference now is that you aren’t pulled out of the story and reminded that you’re reading a story. Instead, you go from beginning to end in a single pass then sit back and wonder what the hell you just experienced.
And that, my friends, is good writing.
Click here for a complete list of every story ever published by Cemetery Dance.
Maybe there’s one in there you’d like me to read and review.
If so, I’d love to hear about it 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.