Richard Chizmar founded Cemetery Dance Magazine in 1988. It’s still in production today & is considered one of the best horror mags of all time, having published and even discovered some of the genre’s most famous and successful author. Getting published in CD is one of the top five items on my bucket list. This blog series is my attempt to read, review, and research every story CD has ever printed.
STORY: “A Breathe of Fresh Air”
AUTHOR: Edgar F. Tatro
CD APPEARANCE: Issue #1 (December 1988, Volume 1, Issue 1), story 2 of 12
Benji Drummond is in jail in Smalltown, USA. (Not literally. I’m waxing poetic). He’s scheduled to get out in a few days but for weeks has been complaining about the smell and heat of the place. Sheriff Olsen knows it’s bad. He even requested an air quality report to pacify Benji’s constant whining (and hacking up black stuff all over the walls) that has been making everyone else miserable. When screams come from his cell the morning of his release, the sheriff finds his cellmate beaten near death, Benji gone, and the air vent ripped open like a piece of cardboard.
A captain arrives and assumes Benji escaped out the open cell door when the sheriff attended to the wounded man. But the sheriff insists his back was never turned. Yet the mystery remains. The only other exit- the vent- is too small & high on the wall for Benji to have used. Later, the air quality report explain everything. It cites high levels of carbon dioxide, poor circulation, and the presence of bat feces. The sheriff reads from the report that is was specifically Desmodus Rufus, and dramatically reveals this is the scientific name for a vampire bat.
The story ends in a lone separate paragraph with “the former Benji Drummond” hanging upside down inside the ventilation shaft of a day care nursery. There is a pile of fresh feces underneath him.
REVIEW: 3 of 5 stars. Ok, first thing’s first. A typo in the friggin title!? Are you kidding me?! I swear I thought the story would somehow answer why it’s spelled ‘breathe’ instead of ‘breath’, but guess what… no dice. It’s an actual typo. I know every author makes mistakes, and I know my own list of words-learned-wrong has its embarrassments, but Tatro is described in the author blurb as a “veteran high school English teacher”, and his list of publishing accomplishments suggests he’d been at the game for a while. Yet the fault should not lie on the author alone. Chizmar was the lone editor in this issue, and while I must remind myself that he was in his early twenties at this point and certainly subject to the fallacies of the young, one cannot help but ask if he or Tatro had access to a dictionary.
The story, however, was decent, if not a tad on the predictable side. Tatro drops the detail of the air quality report and Benji’s physical state early and often enough that we know something is up. And while we suspect it’ll be something like what it turns out to be, the ending paragraph pushing the story to a darker level was a nice touch.
But the misspelling & the predictability did not prevent this from earning 4 stars. There are 2 other significant flaws. Chief among them is how the pacing of the story is moving along a pleasant clip but slows to a crawl when the captain comes in. A full third of the story is spent on this unimportant character yammering to Sheriff Olsen about how and when Benji Drummond escaped. All the same content could have been just as easily shared through the unnamed officer who had already been in an earlier scene or in the least written in 2 or 3 paragraphs instead of a full page. It’s pretty clear Tatro was providing a source of superiority and a reason to doubt Sheriff Olsen’s competence, however this point is unrelated to the primary plot and serves no real purpose.
The other big flaw was that when the sheriff proclaims the sample had feces in it, the captain asks, “Feces? What’s feces?” at which Sheriff Olsen explains, “You’re captain, huh? Feces is crap, excrement, number two!” I get the fact that Tatro is showing us the captain is the incompetent one, but I can’t help shake the feeling that he inserted it not to develop a character but to define a word he was concerned his readers would not know. Perhaps he was right, and perhaps not. But the word is by no means outside of the standard lexicon of English, and I felt it was an unnecessary dumbing down of the readers’ intellect.