Friday, September 16, 2005

Dancing the Horrors Away

If issue 52 of Cemetery Dance exemplifies the horror field, a large number of the writers have a fascination with the twist ending. Personally, I'm not a big fan of it unless it's done extemely well. When done well, the twist should cause the reader to have one of those magical "A-ha!" moments, causing them to suddenly catch on to some of the clues the writer skillfully placed throughout the story. When done poorly, it can either remind me of Scooby Doo cartoons or just flat out irritate me. I'll use Tim Waggoner's story "Home Security" as an example of what I don't like. Not because its infringments are more significant than others in the issue, but because it's a short-short and easier to talk about here.

The starting premise is simple. Ray heard a noise in the middle of the night and gets up, knife gripped in his hand, and scours the dark corners of his home for an intruder. We've all had those moments when we thought we heard something and just have to check it out, and Waggoner does a very good job in laying out the physical space and playing with the tension. Lines like

Listening for a rustle of clothing, for a foot being uplifted and put back down, for the silent but unmistakable feel of air being disturbed as a body moved through it. (45)

I actually found to be quite lovely in a creepy sort of way. But after going through his home, Ray finally realizes that no intruder exists. We feel his relief with him, and then we get the ending:

He was glad the prowler had turned out to be nothing more than a phantom of his imagination. He had a job to do, one he'd put off far too long, and he didn't want to be interrupted. He raised the blade and brought it down on his wife. (45)

Well now. I was certainly taken aback by that, so if that was Waggoner's main goal I guess he succeeded. I've read the story four times now, searching for even the slightest hint that this was coming. But it's not there. Part of my frustration comes from the rest of Waggoner's story being done so well. I expected something more out of the ending, and when that didn't happen I felt like I had been tricked and cheated. Unfortunately, a good number of the pieces in this issue play with this style of ending. While I can see why some readers might like these, it's just not for me.

The stories I do like are the ones that don't try to trick you, my favorite being "How Far We All Fall From Grace" by Michelle Scalise. A plague of some sort has swept through the country, killing in numbers we can only guess at. Houses with people showing symptoms are quickly quarantined, and the quarantine itself is strictly enforced by an armed militia. Young Wendy lives in the midst of this with her family, most of whom believe the plague to be a punishment passed down from god. Early in the story, the family buries the grandmother and they are quickly placed under quarantine. Although most of her family accepts their fate, Wendy takes matters into her own hands and plans an escape. What is most horrifying about this tale is not graphic details dead bodies or disease, but how close our own society is to making moves like this when fear runs a community. Scalise's prose is right on target, and when the ending hits it challenges the reader to think what s/he would do under similarly extreme circumstances.

The other piece I really enjoyed was Joel Lane's "Among the Dead". David works a rather thankless job, under pretty horrible conditions considering it's office work. He sits in his anonymous cubicle, typing away on the computer, his productivity constantly under scrutiny. Lorraine, the woman in a cubicle near him, starts feeling ill. Perhaps its the lack of air conditioning, perhaps something else. She passes out, and isn't breathing when the ambulance takes her away. She dies shortly thereafter. David and the rest of the staff are given an early lunch, and when they return he finds Lorraine's space already filled with a temp. We then enter a mildly surreal section that connects well with the themes of the tale. Although a little over the top in its details, Lane effectively communicates that sense of dehumanization nearly everyone has felt when working for a job they don't enjoy. Perhaps my enjoyment is just a sign of my job loathing, like my earlier appreciation for Pick Your Poison.

The issue is entirely worth it for the reviews, though. CD prints a ton of them, and I found the range of what they cover pretty interesting. Pulpy-style horror books are no surprise, but they also gave a very favorable review to Robert Coover's Stepmother. A running theme through a lot of the reviews, though, criticized some books that focused too much on character to what they saw as the detriment of thrilling/chilling plots. Kind of the inverse to criticism one sees in mainstream lit reviews, so I found the perspective interesting.

I've been pointed by a few people online to some other horror mags that put out work a bit different from CD, some supposedly more driven by character and theme. I'll be curious to see how they compare.


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