"The Gravedigger's Tale", by Simon Clark
"Violets", by Al Sarrantonio
"Blind Mouths", by Judi Rohrig
"Our Father Down Below", by Darrell Schweitzer
"The Living Lake", by Julie R. Good
"Whose Puppets, Best and Worst, Are We?", by David B. Silva
With the magazine at last back to a regular publishing schedule, and sporting a much-needed improvement in layout and design, as well as a new managing editor (Robert Morrish, former co-editor of the Scream Factory in the nineties), there ought to be, one would think, lots to recommend this installment of Cemetery Dance. I wish that were the case. Even interviews with Simon Clark and Peter Straub can't raise the issue above the poor quality, with a few notable and praiseworthy exceptions, of its fiction.
The lead story, British author Simon Clark's "The Gravedigger's Tale", sets the predictable tone of most of the issue's fiction. Set in a cemetery, an old grizzled veteran gravedigger tells a series of creepy tales, about opening coffins and rotting corpses, to a gullible young electrician who's come to fix a faulty chest freezer. He saves the best tale for last, and, of course, when he finishes, the two have an experience of their own with one of the "deceased", a girl who died in 1935 of the radioactive effects of radium. The writing is fine, enough to sustain a suitably macabre tension, and the tale works if you keep your tongue firmly planted in cheek. Otherwise, there's nothing here you haven't read before, and seen done better; H.P. Lovercraft's "In the Vault" comes immediately to mind.
Aside from keeping tongue firmly in cheek, I had to restrain myself from outright chuckling when I read Al Sarrantonio's preposterous and highly unoriginal "Violets". The story opens with a mysterious "murder", in which the actions of menacing violets in a greenhouse are detailed by the narrator, who finds himself the prime suspect in the subsequent investigation. The writing attempts tautness, and a comment on cloning and genetic mutation, but I found the whole idea of the story so patently absurd (like countless laughable sci-fi flicks from the fifties), and the "commentary" so facile, that I can only hope the author was trying to make me giggle while reading. In fact, this story, and the one following it, seem to me to be almost case-perfect examples of when the magic of genre writing falls away, leaving it defrocked, appearing silly and immature where its intention had been to engage, shock, horrify, or stimulate.
"Blind Mouths", by Judi Rohrig, a story attempting to relate the anguish of childhood through its school-age characters, tells of a rash of dead cats that appear to be linked to an old woman, purported to be a witch, living in a hut. The young narrator, a girl afraid to open her eyes underwater (a weak conceit on the part of the author to represent the reluctance of the narrator to really "see" the world around her), finally does have her eyes opened at the end of the story, when she finds out who's really responsible for the dead cats. The tale is competently told, but little more, not helped by ordinary characterization and banal subject matter.
Fearing the worst for this issue of CD, I did not relish finishing it, but, in the end, was glad that I persevered.
Darrell Schweitzer's "Our Father Down Below" returns it to higher ground. Two brothers experience a visitation from their dead father, right under perhaps childhood's most timeless symbol: the fort. Linked with Rohrig's tale as a story about children, the quality of Schweitzer's writing achieves a chilling atmosphere nowhere to be found in "Blind Mouths". Here we get the dark underbelly of a family and its cruel father, raised from the usual to another level by religious overtones. A short, taut read.
"The Living Lake" by Julie R. Good is another sort of tale altogether. Not so much scary as interesting, even unique, I found this story definitely veering sharply off horror's often well-beaten tracks. You just have to read the first line to see why. City against country, conformity against individualism, are at least two of the themes Good touches on as she writes, in interesting prose, of a woman whose lover decides to leave the city and people behind to live in a lake, and who appears in the narrator's water fountain at work, in the shower, and other unlikely places to convince her to join him. Something a little different, even touching, and well worth reading.
The piece-de-resistance of the issue, however, is David B. Silva's "Whose Puppets Best and Worst Are We?". Do not miss this very odd, brilliant tale that was, for me, worth the price of the issue. It's so good that I don't want to say anything about it, other than if you don't read it, you're really missing something (and be sure to ignore the unfortunate illustration that accompanies it). The story takes its time, written in relaxed, confident prose assured of the bizarre effects it is working on the reader. Silva has crafted a tale that really does, like the best horror ought, open your eyes to an unpleasant aspect of life; in this case, literally being tied to a city, to one's comfortable but joyless life. Read this story.
Overall, however, this issue of Cemetery Dance, despite its new features, fails to satisfy. I have felt in the past that the magazine's function sometimes appears to be to sell the novels advertised on every second page by various horror publishers, rather than showcase fine quality short horror fiction. This issue, with the exception of Silva's wonderful story, consolidated that feeling.
Erol Engin lives and writes in Toronto. His first published story appears in the August 2001 issue of Challenging Destiny, and damned if he isn't flogging it for all it's worth!