Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #64:-
TWO FROM CEMETERY DANCE
As well as the flagship magazine from which the company takes its name, the good people at Cemetery Dance also publish a lot of fine books, with just about everyone who is anybody in the horror genre on their roster.
Let’s take a look at a pair of recent releases.
The last (and only) book I read by Bentley Little, way back in 2004, was the imaginatively titled The Collection, with thirty two short stories between its covers, and I recall it as something of a take it or leave affair. Maybe he’s gotten better or I’ve grown less demanding, but the pieces that comprise WALKING ALONE: SHORT STORIES (Cemetery Dance Publications hc, 304pp, $25) are much more to my taste. There are twenty seven stories this go round, ranging in time from 1984 through to 2017, with many that have never seen print before. In the short form at least, Little seems to be an exponent of the short, sharp shocker school of horror, with the longest of what’s on offer coming in at twenty one pages, and most only just stumbling over the line into double figures, his prose a no frills style with the emphasis on getting the story done, the horrific effects made all the more vivid in context.
The collection opens with weird western ‘Milk Ranch Point’, in which a stranger to town is advised to avoid taking a certain route because of the ghosts that lie in wait. It’s a rather mundane scenario if taken at face value, but made memorable by the nature of the town and its spectres, with an elegant twist in the tale regarding the identity of the rider and his purpose, the whole entertaining and slightly unsettling. In ‘Snow’ a couple driving on an isolated stretch of road are attacked by snowmen, with the woman’s past providing a justification of sorts for what takes place. Matter of fact and with a killer ending, it’s a story that turns the ordinary and ostensibly enjoyable into a source of menace. At the ‘Children’s Hospital’ patients mysteriously recover, with one exception, the story convincing in its depiction of childhood terrors and turning things around at the end as the bully is shown as the true victim of this horrific situation.
In a post-apocalyptic world a ‘Palm Reader’ spreads hope by lying to her clients, the story deftly told and with some nice touches of detail and suggestion, while underlying that is a subtext about the obligation to be truthful. There’s a ‘Word Processor of the Gods’ vibe going on with ‘Slam Dance’ as an unpopular schoolgirl discovers she can alter reality by writing in a “slam book”, the story lively and entertaining with its depiction of the underdog coming top for once, even as it poses questions regarding the morality of what takes place. ‘Last Rodeo on the Circuit’ is one of the most unsettling stories in the collection, thanks in part to the very randomness of what takes place, as a couple find themselves reduced to the roles of mounts in a dwarf rodeo. Randomness and the total acceptance by everyone of what is taking place, except the victims, make the story stand out, along with the vicious descriptions of what is inflicted on them.
Timmy’s fear of ‘The Car Wash’, an abandoned building with an unhealthy aura, is initially down to its being haunted, but then other possibilities present themselves, the story continually wrong footing the reader and raising the odds, culminating in an ending that was reminiscent of Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. ‘The Feeb’ is responsible for a curse on the crops of local farmers, the nature of the plague depicted in gruesome terms and calling down vengeance from “normal” society, with a killer last line. The ghost of Glen’s abusive father tries to lure him away from his mother against the backdrop of ‘The Mall’, an abandoned and rundown megaplex. Despite all of the ghostly effects, the real crux of the story lies in a child’s confused attitudes to a father he wants to love but who isn’t/wasn’t worthy of that devotion, and in the unearthing of family secrets.
‘Hunting’ is the tale of the bond between father and son and the tragedy that unfolds when the family is endangered. It depicts the breakup of a marriage through the eyes of a child, sensitive and yet at the same time with a judgemental attitude so that the reader cannot really know what is justified, and it ends on an ambiguous note, leaving us to wonder if the father has left or committed suicide. A paranormal detective of sorts helps clear the name of a friend locked up for murder he committed while possessed in ‘The Piano Player has no Fingers’. The story clips along at a terrific pace, with a borderline hard boiled sensitivity to the lead character, but what makes it different is the novel depiction of a demon, one who doesn’t at all conform to the archetype. In ‘The Man Who Watched Cartoons’ a mother fears her daughter is being corrupted by an elderly neighbour. The story plays on our fear of paedophiles and the like, but then twists things around in an unsettling and disturbing manner that calls into question our ideas of innocence and guilt.
The stories are arranged chronologically and ‘Apt Punishment’, dating from 2016, is the first of the recent stories (original?) in the collection, consisting of just a couple of sentences, their absurdity and literalness kicking the reader in the gut. The feeding frenzy that is ‘Black Friday’ at the sales has people transformed into ghosts, constantly chasing after bargains they can never have, the story written with a couple of bracketing sections that give the official view of events, while the crux concerns the plight of a father who wishes to see his lost daughter one more time. Overall it’s a novel idea, one that pulls the rug out from under the concept of unbridled consumerism. My favourite story in the book, ‘MoNA Retrospective, Los Angeles’ is simply the depiction of three controversial works of art and their critical reception. Written with tongue firmly in cheek, it is a delicious confection that is never less than inventive in its shocks to the system, while at the same time satirising trends in modern art, such as the feelings of outrage cultivated by the likes of the Chapman brothers and others.
‘Jorgensen’s Fence’ takes a poke at Ikea, with the idea that in Scandinavia they have a uniquely cost effective (and morally unacceptable) method of producing boards for fencing. It’s an absurd concept, or should be, but the matter of fact narration and the way in which the protagonist moves from shocked disbelief to fear and then a realisation that there are advantages for him in the concept, encourage suspension of disbelief and, like the best of these stories, show that the real strength of fiction lies in how people react to absurd situations. And underlying all this is a subtext warning of how easy it becomes to slip into a fascist mentality and accept the unacceptable with regard to those who are different from us. The paranormal investigator is back for ‘The Silence of Trees’, investigating the death of a friend for his daughter, and coming to the conclusion that maybe his friend and the daughter are not as clean as he thought, after uncovering a trail of criminal activity connected with the supernatural. With themes of racism and criminality touched on, it’s an engaging story, sharply written and keeping the reader off balance with its plot contortions and “lippy” characters. Gary finds a ‘Sticky Note’ that instructs him to “Kill her”, and the rest of the story is spent with him worrying about this until he eventually discovers what it means to him personally. The story is a slight one, but works as a depiction of how we can become obsessed with something that in itself is oblique or innocuous, how we give it the meaning and importance that works for us.
In longest story ‘The Smell of Overripe Loquats’ Little gives us a god for children, who answers requests but perhaps demands a price too high from its believers, and a man who ran away from this as a child returns when he needs divine intervention. The story is a long and rambling one, with a solid philosophical backdrop to the cult and some unsettling imagery, but Little doesn’t seem to know where to go with it and the second “adult” half felt a little forced to me, just another “and then I went crazy” riff. A bumptious man gets his comeuppance when he complains about ‘The Maid’, but Little leaves it open for us to wonder if his protagonist is actually insane or acting in a way calculated to pave the way for such a plea in court. In ‘Schoolgirls’ Cherie finds a way to win the respect of her peers, after getting pointers from a teacher with attitude on steroids. The story rides on a wave of absurdity, with the reversal of social mores and ways of acting, and the lines blurred beyond all recognition.
A man trying to dodge a tornado finds himself stranded in a town where humans are not the top dogs in ‘Under Midwest Skies’, another story that depends on absurdity, taking one totally over the top concept and then playing it to the hilt. For me the idea was perhaps a little too over the top, but the novel nature of the menace and the payoff when our “hero” escapes put a smile on my face, even if I couldn’t take it seriously for one single second. A mother finds ‘Pictures of Huxley’, her deceased son, changing to depict a reality more in tune with what she had hoped for from life, the story an upbeat one in which wishes can come true and reality is malleable. ‘My College Admission Essay’ has a candidate describe how she has overcome adversity in her life, including homicidal clowns and the murder of a baby sister who wouldn’t stop crying. It’s a story that starts quietly, sucks the reader in, and then leaves us adrift in a sea of uncertainty, not knowing what to believe and what to dismiss as the fabrication of a damaged mind.
A couple check into the wrong motel in ‘Pool, Air Conditioning, Free HBO’, the story unsettling, like a surreal version of the Twilight Zone rerun of Vacancy, with Hotel California playing in the background. The whole circus revolves round a well hung dwarf, with Little dropping hints along the way as to the metaphysical backdrop of his story. A father and son travel on ‘The Train’, only to find that it’s a lot more sinister than they expected, with the contrast between the attitudes of father and son, adult and child at the heart of the story, posing the question of whether the innocence of childhood expectation can be tainted by adult knowledge. Finally we have another ultra-short with ‘A Random Thought from God’s Day’, the deity pissed that a sportsman thinks he gives a shit, the story deftly lancing human hubris. It’s a neat way to bring down the curtain on a collection that has converted me into a Bentley Little fan. While many of the stories feel superficial, the spin he puts on things, his take no prisoners style and willingness to “go there” add gravitas and grace to these tales.
I’ve always been a fan of Glen Hirshberg’s fiction, and that feeling is only strengthened by latest collection THE ONES WHO ARE WAVING (Cemetery Dance Publications hc, 208pp, $40). Collectors please note this is a signed, dust jacketed hardcover, produced in a limited edition of 600 copies
Opening story ‘Freedom is Space for the Spirit’ begins with Thomas summoned back to Russia by old friend and fellow revolutionary Vasily, only to find that he has stumbled into a horrendous ritual. This story is beautifully written, with a real feel for the time and place in which it is set, the aftermath of communism’s fall and dissatisfaction at the betrayal of hopes and aspirations. The blend of shamanism and performance art at the story’s centre gives it a unique feel, but this in turn leads into the horror of what Vasily has done through his use of the “bear ritual”. Desperate ends require desperate means, but what has transpired here goes completely beyond the pale. It is ultimately a story that shouldn’t work, that should collapse under the weight of its own absurdity, but Hirshberg’s prose and powers to create atmosphere elevate it to another level. There’s a similar feel to ‘India Blue’, with a trust fund baby trying to introduce the American public to the joys of cricket, against a backdrop of gun toting gangsters and something monstrously numinous. There are echoes of Roth’s The Great American Novel here in the conflation of sport and divinity. With its larger than life characters and the contrast between sports inspired enthusiasm and the humdrum and everyday against which it is set, the story is never less than readable and draws the reader in to its vivid world. The final resolution comes a bit out of left field, and to me felt rather more like a tidy a way to wrap things up than a natural, organic offshoot of all that had gone before, but it’s a minor quibble and certainly doesn’t detract from the overall experience.
In ‘Shaken’ Harry is caught in a quake in Japan and the aftermath, but on returning to his life in America finds that he cannot stop shaking. Keenly felt and characterised, this story presents us with a powerful evocation of, not so much the fear of death itself but the realisation that our mortality is only temporary, along the way filled with little touches of detail that give the events a mythic and archetypal feel. A sequel to Hirshberg’s story ‘Mr Dark’s Carnival’, ‘A Small Part in the Pantomime’ has a group of academics introducing the newest of their group to the story of what happened to another of their number on Halloween many years ago. Almost oblique at times in the way it’s written, Hirshberg gives us a group of perfectly realised characters, each with traits that distinguish them from the crowd while at the same time reinforcing the group gestalt. A brooding sense of dread mounts as events unfold, and you sense that once again tragedy is fated to take place, with revelations coming hard on each other’s heels and a powerful atmosphere of nostalgia for Halloween past and lost innocence thick on the page.
The next three stories are billed as Normal and Nadine adventures, Normal being a collector who acquires rare items for his clients and Nadine his partner, bringing her own special talents to their quests. ‘Pride’ is set in the mundane environment of a grocery store, where young women are kept in bondage by a “well-meaning” spirit. It builds slowly and surely, with the reader sensing that something is wrong, but only gradually cottoning on to the exact nature of what has happened, the story holding the attention all the way to its powerful denouement. In ‘His Only Audience’ the search for a rare music recording leads to a very special radio station and its malign disc jockey, who just may be the devil. The peculiar joy and obsessive nature of the collector is brought home with power here, but what makes the story special is the underlying ideas about creativity and what people are willing to sacrifice in their bid to succeed. The last N&N story is ‘Hexenhaus’ in which our intrepid pair are unsure about their client, even as they pursue the perfect cookie to which he once became addicted. There is a wealth of strange ideas here, not least in the portrayal of an exotic bakery and its even more unusual owner, while playing counterpoint to this are questions about the morality of helping “evil” people; how culpable are they for what they have done and how complicit are we if we help them?
Finally, in a biographical aside Hirshberg tells us about The Rolling Darkness Revue, a travelling literary show that he and other writers take to the road, performing in out of the way theatres. And the Rolling Darkness is the backdrop to title story ‘The Ones Who Are Waving’, with Hirshberg and fellow scribe Pete Atkins as the characters. Packed with a wealth of fascinating detail about the show and their experiences, it is a story that ultimately asks questions about the nature of fiction, showing how it can transform lives, with the writers themselves becoming the ghosts of their own work. It’s a strong end to a collection that is gratifyingly offbeat, aptly fitting the bill as regards the book’s subtitle or tagline, “Tales of the Strange, Sad, and Wondrous”.