THIS BLOG EXPLAINED: Richard Chizmar founded Cemetery Dance Magazine in 1988. It’s still in production today (now managed by author/ editor Brian James Freeman) & it’s considered one of the best horror mags of all time, having published and even discovered many of the genre’s most famous and successful authors. This blog series is my attempt to read, review, and research every story CD has ever printed. As of Issue #72 (January 2015), there are 540. I clearly have a long way to go.
STORY: “Forever Angels”
AUTHOR: Ronald Kelly
CD APPEARANCE: Issue #1 (Dec. 1988: Vol. 1, Iss. 1), story 4 of 12
PLOT (spoilers!): Deanna Hudson is a second-grader who learns there is a whole section of a local cemetery for children. When the other kids show it to her, they tease her by claiming that on stormy nights the corpses of the dead children crawl out of their graves and head towards the nearest house, which is Deanna’s of course. Though she’s too smart to fall for their lies, she is nevertheless creeped out by the children’s cemetery. When some of the older boys hide in the bushes and rustle the branches just as it starts to rain, poor Deanna loses her nerve and runs home in tears.
In the next scene we get a flashback from several years before when Deanna’s grandfather had passed away. Upon getting lost among the many mourning rooms of the funeral home, she comes across a tiny coffin and inside it the body of an infant boy clutching a plastic rattle. With her back turned as she leaves the room, she thinks she hears the sound of a shaking rattle. Remembering that day now, Deanna has a nightmare where she looks out her bedroom window and sees hairless, childrens’ heads bobbing and moving through the field of tall grass between her own house and the cemetery next door.
Some time passes and Deanna is part of the community’s annual effort to clean up and maintain the cemetery. While trying to enjoy a small picnic with her parents and baby brother Timothy, a drunken, old Cherokee man named Redhawk arrives and rants about sacred lands and the community’s desecration of the ancient Indian burial mounds. Deanna’s parents ignore her pleas to leave.
That night poor Deanna has another nightmare where Redhawk (now sober and respectable in his chief’s full headdress) leads his entire tribe in a ritual at the children’s section of the cemetery. But when an earthquake starts to rumble and split the ground apart, Deanna has to escape to a tree where she finds Timothy already looking down at her from the topmost branches. The dream-brother has an ashen face and reaches to her with “cold, little hands.” As Deanna falls from the tree, she wakes from her dream drenched in sweat. Attempting to calm herself with a midnight glass of water, she hears a sound coming from the back yard. She opens the door and finds a single pink bootie on her back stoop. When her mother finds her minutes later, Mrs. Hudson calms her daughter and prepares a bottle of milk for her infant son. However when they goes upstairs to feed him, baby Timothy is found dead in his crib.
In the days after, Deanna cried and screamed and begged for her parents not to bury Timothy in the children’s cemetery, but of course they do. In the story’s final scene, Deanna is a full-blown insomniac who lays awake every night with her back to the window where she believes her dead brother watches and coos at her as he pays his nightly visit. And every morning another toy is found missing from his crib.
REVIEW: 4 of 5 Stars. This story is as complex as it is creepy. Deanna’s character goes through all five stages of grief and the subtle connection of the dead boy at the funeral home to Timothy (both infant boys/ both shown in those too-tiny baby blue caskets/ both clutching favored toys) is very nicely done. And despite a handful of minor errors (‘century’ instead of ‘country’, ‘orthought’ instead of ‘or thought’, ‘her’ instead of ‘here’, a double set of quotation marks to begin one piece of dialogue), there are a number of truly great similes, which never fail to impress me when they are done right. My favorites are: “Small, hairless heads bobbed through the tall grass and honeysuckle like dolphins cresting the waves of a stormy sea. The pale, hairless heads of a dozen lifeless babies,” “A full moon was out, highlighting the tiny [tomb]stones, making them look like bleached teeth sprouting from earthen gums,” and “The clouds boiled like the depths of a dark cauldron, lightning jabbing downward, gaunt fingers of blue fire upon the horizon.”
As a reader I really liked this one and I would have given it 5 stars if not for the errors and the slight bit of predictability in the ending. Otherwise it was a fine read. Kelly writes his sentences with good form and his plotline with a natural arc. From beginning to end I was entertained, and well after the fact I have found myself pondering those bobbing bald heads through the field of grass, the myriad of toys (instead of flowers) placed around the children’s tombstones, and the final image of Deanna lying awake with her back turned to her pale-faced baby brother at the window. If I had to describe my emotional state, I’d use ‘Haunted’, and that’s just fine by me.
As a writer, I’m struck most of all by Kelly’s use of figurative language. There are a dozen examples beyond the similes I already mentioned. My appreciation is not in how entertaining each phrase is, but in how each adds to the overall story. When I came across them I could not help think, “Wow, this guy really nailed that one,” or “Damn this guy is good,” and I think that’s the point. A couple of truly well-written sentences in just the right spots really can have the effect of making me see an author as a whole step better than those that came before him. I’m making a mental note to pay more attention to my own choice of words in the future. It’s not that every paragraph has to have unforgettable turns of phrase, but I am coming to believe that a great story should have two or three real winners. These are the kinds of things that help a story stick in the minds of readers, and they’re always worth the additional effort.