The first issue of Primeval: A Journal of the Uncanny, wasn’t what I expected. I thought I was getting a magazine featuring horror stories and essays about horror. Primeval’s self-description on its website didn’t lead me to expect anything different, poetically explaining that it is a publication that examines “the convergence of contemporary anxiety and ancient impulse.” Sounds very Lovecraftian, doesn’t it? The website also promises that each issue will feature “fiction and essays exploring horror, the macabre, and that which should not be — yet is.” And yet, as much as I enjoy fiction that falls into that vast category known as “the Weird,” I found that Primeval offered more incomprehensibility than horror, work that was more odd than Weird.
One exception is a reprint of Harlan Ellison’s “Basilisk.” This story combines modern warfare and ancient mythology to deliver a tale that says more about post-traumatic stress disorder — a cold, clinical term for a hot mess of anger and terror — than any documentary possibly could. Lance Corporal Vernon Lestig, while returning from a night patrol in Vietnam, falls into a trail trap and brings a foot down right on top of a couple of poison-tipped punji sticks. He loses consciousness, and awakens in a jungle prison minus a foot and unable to see. He is tortured without mercy and tells everything he knows, but it is not enough: they keep after him. Finally an interrogator steps up close, grabs Lestig’s head by the hair, and leans in to ask another question. Lestig’s power is unleashed in that moment, and everyone but he dies in the camp. That doesn’t prevent him from being court-martialed when his own comrades catch up to him; but he is ultimately given an honorable discharge. After eleven months in the hospital, in which he regains some of his sight, he heads home to Kansas. From there, things incredibly get even worse for Vern. The publicity from his court martial has made him an enemy to his former hometown. His parents have left, his girlfriend has married another man, and his sister wants to know how he could do this to them, perhaps one of the most wrong-way-round questions in literature. His town drives him to the same mental place that interrogator did. It’s vintage Ellison, punching you hard in the gut. And it has stayed timely, all these wars later.
An analysis of a Saki story, “Sredni Vastar,” follows, entitled “The Cult of the Holy Polecat-Ferret” by Mikita Brottman. Brottman is an author, critic, psychoanalyst and professor in the department of Humanistic Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. All of her learning is brought to bear in this excellent and readable study of the tale. The story itself follows, and it is more pleasurable to read for the insight Brottman has provided.
There has been a run on stories about Sarah Winchester and her mystery house in San Jose lately. My guess is that a bunch of authors and scholars took the opportunity of Nebula Weekend last May to visit this 160-room mansion, full of stairways that go nowhere and doors that open on nothing, and concluded that there was something to write about there. Patty Templeton gives a straightforward history of Winchester’s life and work in “The Queer Account of Sarah Winchester and Her Mystery House.” Templeton is sympathetic to Winchester, suggesting that she is less crazy, fake-psychic-influenced dupe and more canny business woman and amateur architect.
Marc D. Ruvolo offers a study of dark heavy metal music in “Do What Thou Wilt: The Dawn of Satanic Rock.” Innocent that I was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and having ears that I do not care to assail with heavy metal ever since, I was never aware of the strong current of Satanism, or at least fake Satanism, in rock by such groups as Black Widow, Coven, Black Sabbath and others. Based on Ruvolo’s article, I don’t think I’ve missed much, either.
G. Winston Hyatt interviewed horror writer Jack Ketchum with some insightful questions, and Ketchum answers by giving us some glimpses into his creative process. I was surprised to learn that this man who has written of such dark spots in the human psyche believes that mostly he is writing about love.
Creative people often sound — well, sort of crazy when they talk about their theories of creativity. Adam Rose sounds like he’s gone completely around the bend in “Antibody Corporation: The Law of Research.” I found this piece pretentious with its faux mysticism. Consider, for instance: “Those who regard power and money as evils will surely be denied their freedom, and those who avoid technology will become as machines. Reality is the new occult. It’s time to decide what kind of demon you will become.” It gets worse from there.
The last piece was what I’d been looking forward to the most: a new story by Laird Barron, “Nemesis.” But I found this story muddled, confused and confusing. The point of view switches frequently, as does the voice in which the story is told (starting from a second-person voice, directed to “you,” changing to first person after a few paragraphs and to third person a few paragraphs after that). The “history” being related in the story changes, too, as a goldfish is alive and then dead and then alive again; there are multiple stories of how a boy lost an eye; and conversations seem to float all over the place, making it almost impossible to tell who is speaking. Barron has been experimenting with his fiction, but this experiment got away from him.
Editor G. Winston Hyatt wants to do something new and different with this journal, mixing up criticism and scholarship of all kinds of arts with manifestos of artists with art of all sorts, with the only commonality being the dedication to the uncanny. This first issue of the magazine started out strong, and has a few flashes of brilliance, but it traveled so far into such oddity and, ultimately, inanity that it lost me.
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That was my view as well, as you'll see in my soon-to-post review