Hello again, fans of the Dance. This is the seventh installment of monthly double reviews studying the structure of great horror fiction published in our beloved Cemetery Dance.
Last time I reviewed two Barry Hoffman stories: “An Island Unto Herself” from Cemetery Dance #1 (1988) and “Vicious Cycle” from Cemetery Dance #26 (1997). If you haven’t checked it out yet, please do so and let me know what you think.
In keeping with the popular notion of reviewing two stories by the same author separated by time, this month I’m going to dive into a pair of Roman A. Ranieri stories. The first, once again from Cemetery Dance #1, was published in 1988. The second, from Cemetery Dance #23, was published in 1996.
Let’s see what eight years of separation did for ole’ Roman’s skill set…
THE OLD: “The Officer’s Club”
AUTHOR: Roman A. Ranieri
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #1 (December, 1988)
PLOT (with spoilers!): Donald Wallace is awakened suddenly by the sound of a strange voice calling his name. He sees white all around him– white ceiling, white walls, white floor. He assumes he is in a hospital. He worries he’s had a heart attack.
The voice repeats itself: “It’s time to wake up, Major Wallace. We’ll have to leave shortly.” Wallace sees a man sitting in a chair by the foot of his bed. He is wearing a camoflaged uniform, and it is then Wallace realizes he, too, is wearing camoflaged battle-dress fatigues. “ARMY” is stenciled above the left pocket. His name is stenciled above the right.
Wallace explains that he retired more than ten years ago. He demands to know how he got there and what is going on and why he’s wearing a uniform. The man tells him he’ll be going into combat in just a few minutes.
Wallace yells to talk to the commanding officer. The man tells him he is Wallace’s commanding officer, but Wallace eyes the First Sergeant chevrons on his collar and knows this to be a lie. Wallace yells and chastises him accordingly. The man simply smiles and asks, “You haven’t changed a bit, have you, Major?”
Wallace looks closer, reads the name “Parker,” and asks if he’d ever been under his command. “Oh yes, Major,” Parker replies, then explains he might not remember the man himself, though Wallace would surely remember the battle of Kham Duc.
Wallace tenses, knowing the horrible outcome of that battle from so many years ago. Parker reminds him how Captain Wade had replayed the hopelessness of holding the little town, how Major Wallace had insisted they stay and wait for reinforcements, and how the entire Delta Company had been wiped out because of Wallace’s fear of getting a black spot on his record. Parker, of course, then relays that he himself died that day, that Wallace himself is now dead, and that the day has finally come for him to get what he deserves.
Wallace denies it at first, insisting that his Catholic faith promises a meeting with God. Parker explains the meeting has already happened, that he’d received his judgement, and that the memory experience of meeting God—the most beautiful experience one could ever imagine—was wiped from his memory.
Wallace is still in denial and rage when the white room vanishes and he finds himself in a deep trench carved from red rock and sandy soil. Surrounding him and filling the trench as far as the eye can see in both directions are thousands of other uniformed men. They are from every nation and time period imaginable, representing every army that had ever gone to war since the dawn of mankind. Each and every man among them, of course, is an officer.
Parker explains that each one is like him: Men who were supposed to be military leaders but whose individual egos each reached beyond the cares of the hundreds and thousands of lower-ranked men they commanded.
Suddenly the shrill sound of a whistle pierces the air and Wallace is forced from behind to climb the trench along with the thousands of other officers, each of which is likewise followed by his own fallen, enlisted man.
Immediately upon reaching the open air, a bullet rips through Wallace’s left hand. The pain is immense. In the distance a enormous line of impossible demon creatures is advancing. They are wielding every form of weapon ever seen.
Wallace suddenly steps on a land mine. His lower leg is torn to shreds, yet he somehow continues to run. He can feel the shredded flesh slapping wetly against the exposed bones of his leg.
All around him screams and shrieks of pain and terror fill the air. The advancing demon army fills Wallace with a terror he’d never before known was possible. To his left a Nazi Colonel is engulfed in flames. Wallace himself is caught in the fire, but he continues running as the flames eat through his shirt and the skin of his chest and stomach. Shrieking in agony does nothing to temper the pain.
Moments later the two armies meet. A giant bat-demon rises in front of Wallace and sweeps down with a samurai sword, hacking off his right arm. He staggers drunkenly as he watches the parched soil greedily absorb his spurting blood. The bat-demon slices again, this time cutting Wallace nearly in half from head to sternum. Then, finally, Wallace succumbs. The pain fades, and he gratefully closes his eyes.
“You can open your eyes now, Major.”
It is Parker, of course, and Donald Wallace is standing in the trench again. An inhuman scream tears from his throat. It is drowned out by an unseen, shrill whistle.
MY GRADE: B
MY REVIEW: There’s simply no escaping the fact that Ranieri’s story is a simple one. In brief, it is this: A war criminal is given eternal damnation in his own personal Hell by, fittingly, being forced to repeatedly endure the pain and horrors which he put his own soldiers through.
This is not breaking any new ground here. Stories about Hell almost always encapsulate the evil-doer having to live through the suffering of what he/she put others through during their lives.
Additionally, the “shocking” moment halfway through when Wallace discovers he is dead and is about to enter Hell… yeah… it’s not that shocking to the reader. We see it coming at least a half-page in advance. Perhaps even from the beginning we suspect it’ll be something like that. (After all, how many interpretations can you make out of story that begins with a character waking up, hearing an unknown voice, and discovering they’re in an all-white room?)
So, to be blunt, I wasn’t particularly thrilled in reading it. I was, however, entertained. Let me explain the difference…
“The Officer’s Club” is simple, yes, even to the point of predictability, but it also has all the nuts and bolts of what makes a decent story. There’s Exposition (Who is Wallace and Where is he?), Conflict (How did he get there? and How will he escape?), Rising Action (Wallace attemps and fails to yell his way to freedom… Wallace feels trepidation and rising fear as Parker’s identity is revealed… Wallace denies the truth of his own death… Wallace feels the terror of his impending Hellish punishment), a Climax (the battlefield scene), and even a nice, trite Resolution (aaaaaaaand now we’re going to repeat that Hellish climax over and over again, forever).
Ranieri neither skips nor waters down anything critical to the Narrative Plotline. More importantly, he doesn’t bore us with long, over-described passages. The whole story, in fact, takes less than 10 minutes to read. But we don’t exactly feel the need to re-read it, either. It isn’t complex enough to warrant a closer look, and readers are already familiar enough with the concept of The Personal Hell that we enjoy it in the moment but aren’t compelled to give it much thought thereafter.
In short, this is a short, decent tale of horror perfect for a lazy afternoon of pleasant reading.
I do suspect, of course, that actual war veterans—particularly those whose commanding officer may have been a royal jackass—would appreciate this story on another level entirely. 😉
Meanwhile, let’s see if Ranieri’s newer tale is any more complex or fulfilling. I already trust it’ll be a well-rounded narrative dealing with something horrible.
THE NEW: “The Phone Call”
AUTHOR: Roman A. Ranieri
APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #23 (Spring, 1996)
PLOT (with spoilers!): In a dimly-lit room, a man reaches from the hidden shadows behind a padded office chair, picks up the nearby telephone receiver, and dials a number without looking at the buttons.
An elderly woman named Hannah Gelbman answers. The man tells her, “It’s time to rest. You’ve lived a long, troubled life, overcoming countless hardships and disappointments. It’s time for your suffering to end.” Mrs. Gelbman thinks the voice on the phone is playing a joke on her, and she says so.
The man assures her he is not joking and that he means her no harm. He only wants her to finally achieve peace. Mrs. Gelbman accuses him of trying to steal her money. She assures him she won’t part with a single penny. The man explains he doesn’t want any money.
Finally Mrs. Gelbman asks who he is. “I am the Angel of Death,” the man says. He continues by asking if it is true she has recently been asking for relief from her pain and suffering. Mrs. Gelbman turns angry, accusing him of being a sick person. The man responds by reciting a list of personal details about her life… age, address, siblings, marriage history, etc.
Mrs. Gelbman—after a bit of a pause—comments that all of that information is available in public records. The man commends her for being sharp, then adds another personal detail of her life (her husband’s mistress) which had always been kept very secret. Mrs. Gelbman is finally stunned into silence.
The man on the phone explains that he doesn’t blame her for being skeptical, that everyone he contacts is skeptical at first. Then he assures her once again that he is only trying to bring her peace. Mrs. Gelbman tries one final time to thwart his claim by asking why the Angel of Death would bother to use a telephone. “Why wouldn’t you just appear here in my living room, right now?”
The man asks, “Why not the telephone? It’s the most common means of communication, isn’t it?” then goes on to explain he is merely trying to make her comfortable for when he does arrive.
Mrs. Gelbman, however, is still not convinced. She says he’s a nut, he’s full of crap, and she’s going to hang up. The man on the phone warns her not to make him angry. If she does, he won’t come to visit her for another ten full years. “Do you really want to endure this life for such a long time?”
Finally Mrs. Gelbman seems to acquiesce. She asks what he wants her to do. “Just relax and listen to my voice,” the man tells her. He then takes her on a short series of directions. She is to relax. She is to consider her own needs for once. She is to think of her dead husband and sisters, who she will be joining in only a few minutes. Mrs. Gelbman says she is frightened. The man tells her to calm down. He tells her that soon she will feel a numbness in her left arm. He tells her not to be alarmed, that he will make it as painless as possible.
Mrs. Gelbman does indeed feel numbness in her arm seconds later. She says it does hurt, and that she’s scared. The man tells her its only a “brief twinge” and that soon she will leave her Earthly body. Mrs. Gelbman says she can’t breathe. The man listens as her body thumps to the floor then silence lingers on for several minutes.
The man then hangs up the phone, consults a pad by his side, and dials another number. A young man answers. “Your aunt Hannah just died of a heart attack, Mr. Fine,” the man says. “By noon tomorrow you will place the balance of my fee in the same account as before.” Mr. Fine complains that he needs more time. The man calmly explains that, if the money isn’t there by noon tomorrow, Mr. Fine’s own heirs will be inheriting his own estate by the end of the week.
Mr. Fine gets angry. “Don’t threaten me,” he says. “I’m not some sickly little old lady. You can’t induce me to have a heart attack.”
“No, Mr. Fine,” the man says. “No heart attack. Your death doesn’t need to appear natural. With you, I can be more creative.”
The story ends with the man hanging up the phone, unconcerned, knowing that one way or another he always gets paid.
MY GRADE: A-
MY REVIEW: Unlike Mr. Ranieri’s earlier story, “The Phone Call” is actually more complex than it at first appears. The reason for this lies in the identity of the who is making that horrible phone call.
When we first meet him, Ranieri uses the word “man,” and we believe him. “Man” is human, and we picture a human male picking up the phone and using it to call someone.
Soon, however, the “man” tells Mrs. Gelbman that her time to rest has come, and we instantly remember this is a horror story and the supernatural is not only possible but frequent. Moments later he tells Mrs. Gelbman that he is the Angel of Death. Again, we believe him.
Mrs. Gelbman, however, does not believe of course. And we don’t blame her. We also don’t blame her as she accuses, questions, and reprimands the man on the phone. All along, we are waiting for the “proof,” as it were. He’ll reveal either his power or the kind of information that only a supernatural entity could have.
Ranieri, however, gives us neither… at first, at least. The man on the phones lists an impressive selection of personal information about Mrs. Gelbman, but the old lady herself is quick to point out that virtually anyone could have discovered it all with a moderate amount of research. It is at this point that our faith in the supernatural element of the story begins to waver. She’s right, we think. Anyone could have found that info. So why would the Angel of Death bother with mundane details like the names of her sisters and dead husband? It’s pushing the matter to say we once again believe (or disbelieve, in this case) what Ranieri is putting forth, but it is certainly true that our confidence in his magical nature has begun to waver.
Next, though, the man produces real proof in the affair of Mrs. Gelbman’s husband. And while it’s true that the ‘”other woman” in question could have spilled the proverbial beans somewhere along the way, this is a far-fetched explanation. The more likely one is that the man on the phone really is the Angel of Death. Our confidence in his identity thus returns, and we eagerly look forward to his swift and powerful smiting of Mrs. Gelbman.
Ranieri, however, isn’t done toying with us just yet. What he could have done, you see, is just what we expect… have the Angel of Death turn to smoke, seep through the holes in the phone’s receiver, rear up on the old woman’s room, and do his horrible, deadly deed. But he didn’t. In fact, he doesn’t even have Mrs. Gelbman die right away. Instead, he has her voice a question so poignant it sticks daggers in our so-recently-reclaimed confidence. “Why would the Angel of Death need to use a telephone?” she asks. And, again, she’s dead right. The man on the phone provides a plausible explanation (“Why not the telephone? It’s the most common means of communication, isn’t it? Besides, I want you to welcome me when I come to you. I don’t want to scare you to death by popping on you out of thin air. My goal is to give you comfort, not pain.”), but we can’t help shaking the feeling that it’s genuinely odd that a horror story would feature a being as powerful as Death itself who’s physical actions to this point have amounted to nothing more than lifting a phone’s receiver, pushing buttons, and having a drawn-out conversation. Where’s the blood?! Where’s the gore?! Where’s the unleash of inhuman power?! My God, we think. The old bird might be right. Maybe he really is just some nut on the phone. Our understanding of the phone man’s identity is by now completely muddled, and we’ve mostly given up, residing to sit back and enjoy however Mr. Ranieri decides to reveal the answer in his own good time.
When Mrs. Gelbman soon has a heart attack and does indeed die exactly as described by the phone man, our inclinations and perhaps even our full confidence on the matter leans back to the supernatural answer. Okay, we think. He’s a modern-day Angel of Death, that’s all. That’s the point of the story, I guess. He does his work via phone call rather than house calls. If the story had been written 2016 instead of 1996, he’d probably be using email or Snapchat.
But there is yet another swing of the pendulum. The man hangs up, calls Mr. Fine, and proceeds to ask for his payout for having killed the old woman. Nuts! we think. The Angel of Death doesn’t want for the mortal needs of money. He’s just some creepy alternate-style hitman after all. Cool.
A casual reader might quit there, happy to have a satisfactory answer at last. I almost did so myself. But the final two paragraphs made me pause. These are the ones in which the man on the phone explains to Mr. Fine that if he doesn’t pay on time, he, too, will die. Mr. Fine explains he’s no fragile old woman, that he can’t be scared into a heart attack. The phone man explains he can be more “creative” with Mr. Fine, hangs up, and the story ends with his unconcerned whether or not he gets his money at all because he always receives his payment, one way or the other.
This final sequence, when looked at closely, rocks us to the core.
Wait a second, we think. He doesn’t want the money after all. And he can be “creative” in the killing of Mr. Fine. Come to think of it, the way he killed Mrs. Gelbman was actually pretty brutal. He never touched the woman, but he literally scared her to death. What a bastard. And he did it with complete confidence, almost like there was no challenge in the job. So…. was he the Angel of Death after all? He really could be. Maybe the point of the story is that Death is never what we think it is. Maybe it’s not a ghostly figure in black touching our forehead with a boned fingertip. Maybe the magic is the ability to scare someone to death at the drop of a hat.….Then again, maybe Death is just the next money-hungry hitman to come along.
We end our reading no more clear than when we started. The man on the phone could be Death, and he could be a mere mortal administering it. There is ample evidence for both. And that, my dear friends, is the point of the story. On the surface, after all, very little happens. Death makes a phone call and scares a woman into the next life… or a hitman does his research and does the same. Either way, it’s a simple, almost bland story based on the events themselves. But it’s how we question that phone man’s identity where the story becomes truly entertaining.
The toughest question of all, though, is what we are supposed to learn about real life. “Appreciate life while you have it,” could be one. “Watch out for greedy relatives,” could be another. There are more, of course, but I won’t list them all here. The real fun is in coming up with them on your own.
FINAL THOUGHT: Roman Ranieri had the pleasure of being one of the first-ever authors to be published in the pages of Cemetery Dance. Over the following eight years Richard Chizmar opted to publish him three more times. I have yet to read either of the other two Ranieri CD tales, nor any of his other works. What I can tell you is that he has published more than a dozen additional individual short stories, a collection of short stories, several essays, and several reviews… and among them all, “The Officer’s Club” was his first. That’s one of the great things Cemetery Dance became known for over the years: Bbeing the first to discover and publish horror writers of the future. I don’t know how Mr. Chizmar got his hands on “The Officer’s Club,” but his instincts were right in publishing it. Though Raneri’s earlier work is, in my humble opinion, far inferior to the other, one wonders if Roman would have ever written those other stories had Chizmar not given him that chance back in 1988. For that matter, one wonders how many writers have been lost to the ages because no place like Cemetery Dance existed or was willing to give them their first break. In the case of Roman Ranieri, Richard Chizmar helped him out. In return, Mr. Ranieri did the same for Cemetery Dance.
Have you heard of Roman Ranieri before this article?
Are you now curious about his other works?
Better still, is there an obscure author hidden in the depths of Cemetery Dance you’d like me to review? There are a lot, I know, but here’s a complete list of CD’s published authors over the years. Go ahead and take a look, then drop me a comment about who you’d like me to look at next.
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.