Back to School

December 7, 2018

So often a story gets published in an anthology and maybe a few reviews come in and maybe your story is mentioned in a review…and that’s it. But I’ve had the recent pleasure of actually being ‘graded’ on a story! What is very strange about it is this was the third short story I ever wrote. My writing has evolved a fair bit since then. Hopefully my letter grade on my newer stories would be the same!

“Seed” was published in Cemetery Dance’s special Joe Hill double issue, and then ‘exhumed’ by K. Edwin Fritz for the CD website. Here’s the link:

https://www.cemeterydance.com/extras/exhumed-end-of-the-line-and-seed/

And here’s what he said about “Seed.”

THE NEW: “Seed”

AUTHOR: Erinn L. Kemper

APPEARANCE: Cemetery Dance #74/75: October, 2016(Story #6 of 11)

A BRIEF PLOT SUMMARY (with spoilers!): As a child psychologist for the police, Pauline’s toughest case is Thomas Walden, a 12-year-old boy who had killed a school bully. In her first interview with him, he’d told her “My family can’t help me,” and he was right. The Waldens were mysteriously dismissive: they refused to discuss Thomas and had even sent him into foster care. Stranger still, Pauline’s research revealed the Waldens had five additional children, and Thomas wasn’t even the strangest story among them. The third child, Chloe, had been put up for adoption. Why two of the Walden children had ultimately been cut adrift while the other four remained part of the family made no sense at all.

Five years later, Pauline visits Thomas on the morning of his release but is shocked to learn that for the first time a family member had come to visit him the day before. The security guard tells her it was Chloe and that the girl had a notable hunchback and limp. But when Pauline confronts Thomas about his sister, he still won’t open up. “Stay away from my family,” he says. “For my sake… for your sake.”

Pauline becomes convinced that finding Chloe is the only way to help Thomas. She eventually finds the girl living at a pillared mansion where dozens of other children are living, each with various, grotesque deformities. She also sees an adult chauffeur with a strange, scalded burn mark on the back of his neck.

Unlike Thomas, Chloe is friendly and easy to talk to. She explains that her “Daddy” knows where her real parents are and that her real parents know where she is as well. She tells Pauline that her new family is always growing stronger but that they need her help to bring Thomas to them.

Pauline then meets “Daddy,” a withered, skeletal man near death who can no longer speak but whose eyes are nonetheless fierce and commanding. Pauline is then suddenly held in place by an unseen force—it is coming from Jared, a skeletal boy who resembles Daddy.

“Jared is Daddy’s seed,” Chloe explains. “His mind is so powerful, but his physical state deteriorates. My babies will be strong, with Thomas as the father. Our parents were Daddy’s seed too. They were not special. Thomas and I, we are special. Our seed will be the strongest yet.”

Pauline is then branded in the same manner as the chauffeur. She feels tentacles unravel from the burn site and worm their way up and into her brain. Chloe then asks Pauline if she’ll help get Thomas.

Pauline realizes Thomas has spent his entire life trying to avoid his true self and his place within this horrid family. But she is helpless to resist. “I will,” she says, and in her mind she hears Daddy’s voice:Welcome.

MY GRADE: A+

MY REVIEW: As a writer myself, I just love and respect a well-turned phrase. Ms. Kemper has several in her tale, but I’ll just share two to prove my point.

The first comes in the very beginning of the story, which is great because it establishes the tone and her talent immediately. Here it is…

Later, in her drafty little flat with the kitchen table tight to the ticking radiator, Pauline updated her case notes. Papers spread across the Arborite, which glowed in the afternoon sunlight like skim milk.

There are two gems in this passage. I’ll start with the less obvious one:

The phrase “the kitchen table tight to the ticking radiator” conveys so much in just eight simple words. First, it reveals that Pauline lives a meager life. We know this because A) her kitchen is so small that the table needs to be pushed up against one wall, and B) her heating is old—neither central a/c nor floorboards. Second, the word “ticking” gives us such realism… anyone who has ever lived in a home with a radiator knows and relates well to that sound. Lastly, this early phrase helps to establish our emotional connection to Pauline. We both like and pity her. Here she is, trying to hard to help some poor kid, and she doesn’t even have the luxury of living in a nice place. Overall, this a short but poignant turn of phrase that matches Pauline’s environment to her persona: She is both honest and humble, just like her small kitchen.

The more obvious gem, though, is the following simile:

… the Arborite, which glowed in the afternoon sunlight like skim milk.

I’ve mentioned in past posts about the power and beauty of a great simile, but I haven’t done so in a while and it bears repeating. So if you’ll pardon me putting my teacher’s hat on for a moment, I’ll explain why…

Simply put, the simile (or metaphor) is one of the last places a modern author has left to be trulycreative. The goal of a simile is to elucidate a detail (I’ll call it Object A) from the work at hand by comparing it to something (Object B) which the reader has likely experienced or can easily imagine from real life. In doing so, we take our experience of Object B and instantly better appreciate Object A from the story. When done right, this happens instantly with no real thought or study. We just know it’s good. This is why a great simile is so fulfilling to the reader.

But how do you write a great simile?

How is it we know so quickly and without thought that something feels so right?

I’m glad you asked.

A great simile will do three things simultaneously:

  • Show a physical connection between the two items/ ideas.
  • Show an emotional connection between the two items/ ideas.
  • The comparison of these two items/ ideas is unique—ideally, nobody in the history of the world has ever before realized they even have a connection.

In my classroom, I like to have my students grade similes on a 30-point scale, 10 points for each of the above. The simile “He roared like a lion” might score a seven or eight on the physical, and perhaps even an eight or nine on the emotional, but fail miserably on the uniqueness… which is why we are so turned off by clichés.

Meanwhile, a variety of humorous examples have made the rounds online specifically because the writer absolutely nailed the physical and the uniqueness, but botched (oftentimes, purposely so) the emotional. My favorite example is this:

The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

Now that’s funny right there. And it’s funny because that physical connection is so damned perfect. (Plus it genuinely surprises us, which means it’s unique too.) But emotionally, the writer has destroyed the beauty of the ballerina by connecting it to a dog… and not just a dog, but a pissing dog at that.

To really nail a great simile takes work. Lots of work.

While a normal mid-story sentence might take a few seconds to write and a minute or so to revise, a truly great simile takes several minutes to write and approximaley 8,523 hours to perfect. So it’s not so surprising to realize that not every writer puts forth the effort needed to do so.

Kemper’s simile isn’t the best I’ve ever seen, but it’s good. Better than you might realize at first blush, I’ll wager.

Arborite, in case you didn’t know, is a plastic laminate, and we’ve all seen how wide, flat, plastic surfaces shine in various lights. But Kemper specifies that it glows not in just any sunlight but afternoon sunlight. Afternoon sunlight is getting close to dusk and has a somber, darker tone to it compared to high noon or pre-noon sunlight. Additionally, she specifies not just any milk but skim milk, which of course is both thinner and less substantive than regular whole milk.

Why care about such details? Because these are better physical and emotional matches than, say, regular morning sunlight or an overhead kitchen light… better than regular whole milk or spilled orange juice. Physically, afternoon light is glorious but would reflect only some of its beauty in the thinness of skim milk. Emotionally, afternoon sunlight reminds us that we’d better hurry up before time is up, and skim milk is perceived as healthy yet less “real” or “natural” than regular milk. Pauline is an honest and hard-working child psychologist, but she is suffering both in finances and in the difficulty of this case. She wants to help Thomas, yet has failed to do so for five full years. In other words, she is the thinly-reflected, watered-down skim milk of child psychologists. She means well, and means well to her very core, but she just can’t quite pull off feeling like the real thing when it matters.

I mentioned above that I would share just two well-turned phrases. Here is the second:

Then Thomas ran past her office in his prison sweats, sneakers squeaking like desperate mice.

Yes, it’s another simile, and an even better one than the first, I think. But in the interest of saving space for one further note about Kemper’s story, I’ll leave it to you to figure out why. (Feel free to agree/ disagree with me in the comments… honest. I won’t even bite if you think I’m wrong.)

I’ve given Erinn Kemper’s story an A+. In the 28 previous stories I’ve reviewed for Exhumed, this has only happened four other times, so clearly I save this distinction for only the best of the best.

For your curiosity, those stories are:

  • “The Inconsolable” by Michael Wehunt (Exhumed #1)
  • “The Departing of Debbie” by Anke Kriske (Exhumed #4)
  • “Vicious Cycle” by Barry Hoffman (Exhumed #6)
  • “Save the Last Dance for Me” by Norman Partridge (Exhumed #9)

So what makes “Seed” stand out above the likes of Bentley Little, Roman Ranieri, Ronald Kelly, Steve Vernon, William Relling Jr., and others I’ve reviewed thus far? In a word: It’s cringeworthy.

I’ve also mentioned in previous posts how I value when a story surprises me, and I won’t belabor your time now to rehash why. Suffice it to say that Kemper did take her tale in a direction I wasn’t expecting more than once. And that’s part of the A+ grading.

But what really stands out is just how messed up this story is. Here are some cringeworthy highlights, presented chronologically:

  • Children murdering children
  • Rejection of a mother’s and father’s love
  • Mutations
  • Super powers (used for evil)
  • Incest
  • Mind control (used to create a martyr)

That’s… a lot… to squeeze into a single short story. And it’s hard to decide which among them is the worst of the lot. The incest screams right to the top, of course. But as revolting as it is, this is ultimately but a single act happening a few times at most whereas being rejected by one’s parents has a far more lasting affect during one’s more vulnerable years. Of course, effectively taking the life of a kind and good-hearted child psychologist—a person who has selflessly dedicated her life to helping children—and using her to commit the above atrocities is arguably even worse, at least in a symbolic perspective anyway.

The part of the tale which caught me by surprise wasn’t the shocking reveal of the incest (it was shocking, sure, but not exactly surprising… I’ve been reading Cemetery Dance for years, after all), nor was it Daddy’s diabolical use of Pauline’s body as a host for his sick plans. Believe it or not, it was the simple detail that some of Daddy’s “seeds” had supernatural abilities.

This surprised me because Kemper did such a good job setting the story up to be one that appeared to be rooted in reality, and yet when the moment came this addition of these powers were not only interesting, but actually relevant to the story. You see, Daddy’s ultimate plans hinge on breeding more supernatural mutants. And it’s quite clear that Pauline would never help him without the worm-like brand burrowing its way into her brain.

Waiting until late in the story to drop a bomb like this could so easily be seen as a cheap trick or a lazy answer to a problem the author inadvertantly created. But what Ms. Kemper did is set us up, lead us on, and stab us in the heart just exactly when she wants to. This is all true becuase the magical/ fantasy element in this story is absolutely necessary in the story’s plotline. It explains why Thomas works so hard to avoid his family, why Mr. and Mrs. Walden so easily abandon both Thomas and Chloe, and why the realism of Pauline’s life hits us so hard when she’s so easily turned to the dark side.

Kemper has effectively sucker-punched us by first giving us a real tale of real humans (Thomas’ troubled mind, Pauline and her run-down apartment, the Walden’s atrocious dismissive nature) and then reminding us that while it is true that sometimes good horror simply reflects reality, it can be emphasized when we add the element of the supernatural.

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