The Best of Cemetery Dance is massive in length and diverse in scope. Culled from more than 200 short stories published in Cemetery Dance, the award-winning dark suspense and horror magazine, this 786-page anthology features an astonishing variety of crime narratives, horror tales, near-sci-fi adventures, suspense stories, and mysteries. The biggest names in the dark fiction genre appear in The Best of Cemetery Dance -- Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Poppy Z. Brite, Joe R. Lansdale, and an interview with Dean Koontz -- but a talented grouping of lesser-known novelists and first-time writers contribute surpassingly impressive tales of terror and blood and gore.
Compiling this collection of 59 stories was a "complicated and troublesome" undertaking, as Richard Chizmar, creator and editor of Cemetery Dance, explains in the book's Introduction:
It was really tough to choose -- there are some writers who had four or five stories in the magazine but didn't make it into the book, and on the other hand, there are people who had only one story in the magazine and that one story got selected for the book. I just tried to be fair and pick the stories I liked the best. That's what it came down to -- what I liked the most.
It is fitting that The Best of Cemetery Dance reflects Chizmar's preferences in dark fiction. In 1988, he published his first issue of Cemetery Dance as an underground magazine that presented a blend of horror-related short stories, interviews, news, and reviews. Now, after 13 years of publication, Cemetery Dance is recognized as a preeminent publisher of dark fiction that prompts the imagination and wrangles against reality. Its consistently celebrated content of modern horror mixed with a potent amount of suspense, surprise, and mystery has won numerous awards, including the International Horror Critics Guild Award and the World Fantasy Award. And, since the launch of its hardcover imprint in 1992, Cemetery Dance Publications has become the genre's leading specialty press publisher.
And now, as Chizmar intones, "[let's] start the dance . . . turn down the lights . . . take my hand." And readers, be warned: this collection contains eerie tales that will forever haunt the corners of your mind, gruesome stories that will turn your stomach, horror stories with a twist that will leave you sniggering at their topsy-turvy endings, and serial-killer murder-mysteries that will force you to contemplate mankind's capacity for depravity.
Whether the stories in The Best of Cemetery Dance feature a maniacal dwarf (as in Bentley Little's "The Mailman"), a boy who takes his revenge on an unwitting Santa Claus because of last year's disappointing array of Christmas gifts (as in James S. Dorr's "A Christmas Story"), or a knife-wielding killer-clown (as seen in Gene Michael Higney's "Comes the Night Wind, Cold and Hungry"), creepiness and page-turning excitement are close at hand. And, most importantly of all, spectacular writing abounds.
"The Winds Within" by Ronald Kelly features some of the compendium's most artistic writing and plot development. It's among the anthology's eleven or so tales that concentrate on truly frightening, grisly serial killers.
The story opens with the killer's thoughts, and their cryptic detachment piques reader curiosity. Kelly places you directly inside the mind of his killer and, in doing so, showcases his fine writing:
Idle hands are the devil's workshop, so goes the saying.
Particularly in my case.
During the day, they perform the menial tasks of the normal psyche. But at night, the cold comes. It snakes its way back into my head, coating my brain with ice. My mind is trapped beneath the frigid surface; screaming, demanding relief. It is then that my hands grow uninhibited and become engines of mischief and destruction.
As the hour grows late and the temperature plunges, they take on a life of their own. They move through the frosty darkness like fleshen moths drawn to a flame. Searching for warmth.
And the winds within howl.
And then, the mayhem begins. Lieutenant Ken Lowry and Sergeant Ed Taylor are called to the crime scene of the second "mutilation murder." They arrive at the rundown Atlanta apartment building where "four-letter graffiti and adolescent depictions of exaggerated genitalia" mar the walls, and the two begin questioning the questionable tenants. You follow the homicide detectives as they piece together the gory clues in their investigation and determine who their murderer is -- but not before you behold the macabre and the vile.
The Winds Within includes moments of compassion, despite the wantonness that Kelly attributes to his killer and the story's debauchery. Surprisingly, the killer manages to suck sympathy out of readers, and Kelly portrays adeptly the extreme circumstances that can occur when a perceived need for physical comfort overrides morality and sanctity.
The anthology also includes fine examples of several other well-worn horror story types: the haunted house tale (Stephen Mark Rainey's "Silhouette"), the vampire story (Brite's "A Taste of Blood and Altars"), and the human-turned-beast saga (Edward Lee's "Almost Never"). Most of the stories, however, are inventive gore-chronicles that plumb the depths of human madness and explore substantial subject matters. Vengeance, the uncertainty of good and evil, and the societal penchant for psychotic, misguided, do-the-right-thing behavior are the most common topics that the authors ponder. These may seem like weighty matters for your average scare-story. And they are. But fiction that comments as well as alarms is what makes The Best of Cemetery Dance appealing, successful, and notable.
Apparent also in most stories are the at-odds-with-society characters who feel that killing or maiming is the best and only defense against the forces that lie to them, torment them, and are to blame for their misery and hard luck. Most times these characters make their point, as in the beguiling "Great Expectations" by Kim Antieu, the mojo-tainted "Animal Rites" by Jay A. Bonansigna, the retributive "Five to Get Ready, Two to Go" by Hugh B. Cave, and the exceptional "Shattered Silver" by James Kisner.
Brian Hodge's "When the Silence Gets Too Loud" is another such story. Like "The Winds Within," it begins with the thoughts of one of its characters: "In all honesty I can say I don't hate him. Not yet, at least. Give me another hour, once the cords have cut into me a little deeper, and then we'll see how I feel."
"When the Silence Gets Too Loud" addresses fatherhood and the teaching of sons. The most important lesson that the fathers in this clever tale wish to impart to their sons, who are "at the threshold of puberty," is how not "to find themselves wandering emasculated through the ripening fields of young adulthood."
In Hodge's tale, which is analogous to Golding's Lord of the Flies, eight fathers and eleven sons -- "daughters left behind to tend hearth and home"--embark on a "September weekend in the Minnesota woods." Greg Fischer is the central figure in this band of adult "dominant males" bent on reclaiming their "ancient," "ageless" selves; his son, Kyle, is the contemplative, nobody's-fool leader of the "man-children" group.
As Kyle questions his father about their recent deer kill and Greg arrogantly simplifies Kyle's concerns, Hodge neatly hints that there will be a price to pay for such fatherly self-importance:
Greg smiled. His sense of fatherhood warming over an entirely new fire, too rarely stoked: he, a mentor whose wisdom was sought to make sense of a world where there were but two classes; the victor and the vanquished. . . . Greg laughed. At Kyle's age they all had a concept of logic and justice that was so simple.
Wonderful in theory, essentially unworkable in its purity; too bad.
Battle lines are drawn by story's end, and Hodge leaves readers with a palpable sense of the "victor" versus the "vanquished."
Yet at other times, the disturbed individual's plans backfire, and you hang in the balance until the short story's end, waiting to discover who will face the worst wickedness. Richard Laymon's "Desert Pickup" and William F. Nolan's "Fyodor's Law" are two murder-narratives that adhere to intriguing reversal of misfortune plotlines.
The Best of Cemetery Dance has stuffed between its pages several stories that defy categorization according to scenario or subject. Their link to horror lies in the unique and entertaining terror that they offer. "Weight" by Dominick Cancilla is quasi-science fiction and a story that unsettles, for the danger that Cancilla has plaguing his characters feels by no means far-fetched. Its possibility seems ever so real.
A deadly, incurable epidemic of "transparent" parasitic worms is sweeping across America. First detected in "derelicts and transients," nobody cares about the disease until it starts wiping out middle-class Americans. Then, hysterical thinking overrides common sense, human contact is avoided, people abandon their homes, businesses shut down, jobs are lost, and suspicion sets in over who is contaminated and who is not.
Weight gain is a sure sign that you've become infected -- that the eggs have begun to hatch within you or that you've picked up a fully grown parasite through direct human contact. Your only option after that is to be put to death.
As the story begins, Alex, a husband and father of two girls, has just shot the family dog, Scraps. She "had gained a pound and a quarter over the last month and could no longer be trusted." A construction foreman before the epidemic, Alex's job now is executioner. He's the one people seek out when the time comes for "unsafe loved ones to be put to rest." Alex performs his necessary mercy killings -- on one occasion he "put away a senile old woman, and on another a five-year-old child" -- always keeping bottles of alcohol and vinegar at the ready for self-disinfecting. "Weight" has Alex running around playing savior until its sinister ending.
Another unclassifiable story is the excellent "Pig's Dinner" by Graham Masterton. It's one of the collection's most graphic, hair-raising, and unforgettable tales. Set in Derbyshire, England, "Pig's Dinner" introduces readers to David and Malcolm, brothers and owners of the Bryce Prime Pork piggery, who learn first-hand just how destructive their huge stainless steel feed grinder is, with its "smooth metallic scissoring sound" and unfailing mincing-action.
Masterton scatters throughout his pseudo-morality tale phrases like "he heard a hideously distorted shriek -- a gibbering monkeylike yammering of pain and terror that shocked him into stunned paralysis;" "a bloody chaos of bone and muscle;" and "sheer nerve-tearing pain" -- words and images that you won't soon be able to dislodge from consciousness.
Douglas Clegg's "The Rendering Man," Lansdale's "Drive-In Date," Gary Raisor's "The Right Thing," and Thomas Tessier's "Mr. God" rank as outstanding contributions as well and are not to be missed for their ability to thrill, scare, and disturb.
The Best of Cemetery Dance is not without its less stellar works of suspense. Darrell Schweitzer's "The Liar's Mouth" disappoints because of its obscurity. Adam Corbin Fusco's "Shell" distracts because of its ambitious stream-of-consciousness. Campbell's "Wrapped Up" lacks full development of its story line before its abrupt end.
Taken as a whole, Richard Chizmar's compilation is satisfying reading for anyone on the hunt for highly charged, intelligent modern horror. This is fiction that lingers in the mind and tantalizes the spirit. The stories do not shy away from describing in shocking and unnerving detail human suffering and grief, and the sheer frequency of tales which convey this type of realistic agony makes a definite statement about the modern-day disregard for life. After completing The Best of Cemetery Dance you cannot help but muse on the penchant to wound and murder.
Thankfully though, the perpetrators of these massacred lives are tucked safely within the confines of this grand-scale, thought-provoking collection. However, whenever you want to feel your spine tingle or wish to witness how a short story can reconfigure your cozy notion of reality, crack open The Best of Cemetery Dance . . . and let the dance begin again.
This review pertains to the hardbound edition. The corresponding paperbound edition is now in print.
Amy O'Loughlin is an award-winning book review columnist and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Worcester Magazine, The Boston Book Review, Calyx, Moxie, and American History. She is a contributor to the upcoming reference work The Encyclopedia of the World Press and the anthology of women's writing Women Forged in Fire.
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