Saturday, November 27, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Bar the Doors

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Bar the Doors (Printing History)

Bar the Doors: Terror Stories. New York: Dell Books 143 (Mapback), 1946. (pictured)
Bar the Doors: 13 Great Tales of Terror, New York: Dell Books F166, January 1962. (pictured)
Bar the Doors. New York: Dell Books 0436, February 1963.
Bar the Doors. New York: Dell Books 0436, July 1965.
Bar the Doors. New York: Dell Books 0436, January 1966. (pictured)
Bar the Doors. St. Albans: Mayflower, 1972.
Bar the Doors. St. Albans: Mayflower, 1977. (pictured)
Bar the Doors. New York: Dell Books, 1983.

Don't anybody move.
Here, selected by the master, are thirteen superlative tales designed to keep you frozen to your seat and written by the world's most ingenious creators of the weird, the shocking, and the fantastic.

(The use of that word superlative makes me grin every time. The blurb appears on both Dell F166 1962 & Dell 0436 1966.)

Image result for alfred hitchcock "bar the door"
Dell F166
Bar the Doors is Hitchcock's second foray into the anthology field, and in my opinion among his strongest; certainly the strongest of the early books, though he likely had little or no input into this collection, ghost-edited by Don Ward.

I first read Bar the Doors when I was quite young, it may indeed have been my first Hitchcock anthology. The stories, for the most part, stand up well against today's standards; what they at times might lose to originality they have gained in writing. Reading these earlier suspense stories, whether they be of ghosts or strange island curses, it impresses me how much better our suspense writers were of old. Of course, at the time there were few stigmas associated with being a "genre" writer, so that Dickens and later Fitzgerald could create their own fantasies about haunted houses, railway stations or massive mountain-sized diamonds and people aging backwards, and no respected literary critic would roll his or her eyes. It is the attitude toward genre writing that has (partially, of course) helped to damage the quality of genre writing.

Whatever the cause for our literary decline, it is true that we must read the masters in order to learn the craft, or simply if we desire a cozy little fright.

Dell 143
Introduction by Alfred J. Hitchcock (possibly Don Ward).

I would like to reproduce this in its entirety, but there's something called copyright. Many of the introductions in these anthologies are brief and little more than introductory (and sometimes even less), yet this one is nicely detailed. "[T]he publishers asked me to bring together a group of tales which I admire because of their skillful handling of the element of terror." Hitchcock would be the person I too would turn to for such a grouping, and he (well, our ghost editor, really) does a fine job with the selections here, and in particular "The Storm," "The Kill," "Midnight Express" and "The Upper Berth" are perfect examples of the "skillful" treatment of terror and suspense. Some stories might appear a little dated in that their subject matter is by now all-too familiar, but I can imagine how in 1945 this little collection was such a great success for, as the blurb indicates, these are the "superlative" tales. Hitchcock/Ward points to the range of stories in the collection, acknowledging them as wide and hence not all readers might find each individual selection appealing, especially since the source of the terror is quite different in each of the pieces. He then proceeds to isolate the specific story elements that contain the terror, and this makes for a good read once the stories themselves have been read.

"Pollock and the Porroh Man" by H.G. Wells     7/10
New Budget, 23 May 1895

Published during one of Wells's most important years, which saw the publication of The Time Machine and his first two short story collections, it is not among his most popular stories. Not only is it overshadowed by other work, the story would struggle through any era of political correctness, no matter where its sympathies lie. The story is about an arrogant Englishman who receives a curse from the local Porroh Man while stationed in Sierra Leone. These kind of stories were common at the time as British officers stationed overseas were in a perpetual state of culture shock. (Perhaps the truly superlative story of the British overseas at the time was W. Somerset Maugham's 1924 story set in Malaysia, "The Outstation.") This story is sensitive to the locals despite the "othering" of these natives, and is undeserving of its obscurity. The story is well written, better than many of Wells's later stories when he often appeared to rush his work.

"The Storm" by McKnight Malmar     8/10
Good Housekeeping, February 1944

The epitome of the trapped-alone-at-home-in-the-middle-of-a-raging-storm tale, the introduction refers to the author playing with "an old theme," so that even in 1945 the idea appears to have been overdone. (Incidentally, this is the most recent of the stories, published only a year before the anthology appeared.) Exceptionally well written, "The Storm" is a forgotten gem that many later stories attempt to emulate (perhaps as part of the collective unconscious?). A woman arrives at home a week early from a visit to her sister to find that her husband is out and it is of course late and a torrential storm is raging outside. Descriptions of the storm itself, combined with the woman's anxiety and perturbed, over-stimulated mind, are deftly delivered. Neat little clues are dropped to develop enough of a back story without lengthy, needless information; at times a simple phrase tacked onto a seemingly innocuous sentence. All of this is capped off with a great finish, and a particularly excellent last line. This story, because of its common theme, is a great example of the "skillful" writing of terror discussed in the introduction, because it is strictly the writing that transforms this common theme into something truly unique.

"Moonlight Sonata" by Alexander Woollcott     7/10

The New Yorker, 3 October 1931

A classic little ghost story that employs the once common trope of "so-and-so" told "so-and-so" who told me, in order to give evidence (illusion, really) of actuality. The story is brief and fairly simple, yet nonetheless effectively macabre.

Dell 0436
"The Half-Pint Flask" by DuBose Heyward     5/10
The Bookman, May 1927

Like Wells's entry, this one is about an indigenous curse. On an island in South Carolina populated with the descendants of slaves, the socially conscious narrator must host an arrogant collector of American glass. The collector soon removes a precious artifact from a local cemetery, scoffing at the narrator's pleas about an ancient curse. Soon the locals disperse, and as we can imagine the truly unpleasant collector pays his debt to folklore. The story is a little too long and a little too dull, not to mention predictable. The author in no way tries to create ambiguity around the collector, instead creating a truly despicable character. Originally from South Carolina, Heyward possibly based the collector on someone, or some type of person, he had encountered. Heyward is best known for a previous publication, his novel Porgy (1925), which the Gershwins immortalized by translating it into the superlative opera Porgy and Bess.

"The Kill" by Peter Fleming     8/10
Creeps By Night. Ed. Dashiell Hammett. NY: John Day, 1931.

On a foggy night, stranded in a station waiting for a train, a young man tells the story of his eccentric uncle, Lord Fleer. His uncle believes that all the heirs to his estate will fall victim to a curse planted by a bastard son. Fleming's writing is tight and this little gem is a great read and re-read. Reprinted occasionally over the decades, as in the first Pan Book of Horror Stories (1946), it could still use more of an audience.

"The Upper Berth" by F. Marion Crawford     8/10
The Broken Shaft: Unwin's Christmas Annual. Ed. Sir Henry Norman. London: Fisher Unwin, 1886

"It is very singular, that thing about ghosts..." A classic if there ever was one; among my all-time favourite ghost stories. The narrator, a kind of abstract we, tells of a dull social gathering made interesting by an old sailor with the sturdy and reliable name of Brisbane. Many years ago Brisbane was at sea on the Kamtschatka, staying in a stateroom that is said to contain some force that has driven four men overboard. A classic tale in more senses than one, it might not appeal to a desensitized modern audience wanting blood and gore, but had I been in that stateroom, I would likely have been the ship's fifth victim.

"Midnight Express" by Alfred Noyes     8/10
This Week, 3 November 1935

Poet and essayist Alfred Noyes has left behind a surreal and dark little story with "Midnight Express." At a railway station a man is suddenly struck with the memory of a book he tried to read as a boy but was never able to get beyond page 50, due to an inexplicably troubling illustration of a man standing underneath a lamppost in a darkened railway station. I wrote a lengthier review of this one which, should you be interested, lies somewhere around here.

"The Damned Thing" by Ambrose Bierce     8/10
Tales from New York Town Topics, 7 December 1893

Among Bierce's most anthologized stories, it is also certainly among his strongest. At a coroner's inquisition, a reporter tells of the truly singular events that led to the death of a local man while he was out hunting. I can imagine the stir this little treasure would have made back in 1893 (though in some parts overshadowed by another publishing phenomenon that occurred the same month: Sherlock Holmes's death!).

"The Metronome" by August Derleth     5/10
Terror by Night. Ed. Christine Campbell Thomson. London: Selwyn & Blount, 1934

Easily the weakest story in the collection, I can't help feel that it just doesn't belong. A woman is at home the day before her stepson's funeral, and believes she can hear the ticking of the boy's metronome. I have never been a fan of Derleth's work, and this was the first I'd read many years ago when I first read Bar the Doors; I found it dull back then, nor did I enjoy it upon re-reading.

"The Pipe-Smoker" by Martin Armstrong     7/10
The Fortnightly Review, October 1932

The Fortnightly Review (the child of Anthony Trollope) most likely printed this piece in time for Halloween. The story tells of a man who seeks refuge from a raging rainstorm at a hermit's desolate home. While seated with his distracted host, the man listens to the tale of how the hermit's predecessor came to be in such a lonely state. A creepy and surreal little story; a nice find and another short work that needs to somehow be re-awakened.

"The Corpse at the Table" by Samuel Hopkins Adams     7/10
Saturday Review of Literature, August 1942

Journalist Adams presents us with a tale that he introduces as a possible folk tale. Two men, Estelow and Carney, are caught in a blistering snow storm and by following some telegraph lines make their way to a cabin where they take shelter. In the tradition of Robert W. Service's 1907 poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee," one of the men, Carney, while sickly and dying, finagles a death promise from his companion. In this version, he asks that his friend not bury him unless undoubtedly certain that he is dead. Strange things occur in what is essentially an early modern zombie tale, depending of course on your interpretation of the story. Well written, much of its power is rendered from the sense of loneliness and isolation experienced by Estelow, his caring for the sick Carney and the unimaginable psychological horror he must have suffered by Carney's corpse.

(Interestingly, Adams received $750 from Reader's Digest for the initial publication of the story in Saturday Review of Literature, and an additional $500 a month later for a reprint. How times have changed. If only my reviews can fetch such sums.)

"The Woman at Seven Brothers" by Wilbur Daniel Steele     6/10
Harper's, December 1917

In a lonely lighthouse, the assistant keeper becomes steadily fearful of the keeper's young wife. The story is quite familiar but at the time would still have been somewhat less common. A little too long for what it is, it is nonetheless a good read.

Mayflower 1977
"The Book" by Margaret Irwin     8/10
The London Mercury, September 1930

An unremarkable middle-aged lawyer discovers a book on a shelf at home that seems to move about on its own, changing position. Though in Latin, he is determined to read it, and soon his practice begins to grow, while his perceptions of the world around him begin to alter. The only female author featured in the anthology, Irwin does a wonderful job with this story. I don't always enjoy this kind of demonic supernatural story, but this one is well written and suspenseful.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Casual Debris Presents: An Introduction to the Alfred Hitchcock Anthologies

As a companion to this essay, I am attempting a bibliography of the Alfred Hitchcock anthologies, a work in progress which can be accessed at Casual Debris Presents: the Alfred Hitchcock Anthology Bibliography.

Here is a preliminary overview of the anthologies.

In 1945 Alfred Hitchcock was approached by Dell to put together and introduce an anthology of suspense stories which was published as Suspense Stories Collected by Alfred Hitchcock, and reprinted several times with different titles over the next few years. It was an odd mishmash of stories, but despite being a little all over the place it proved successful, and in about a decade Hitchcock would find himself marketed to the extreme. In 1946 Dell Books released the follow-up Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Bar the Doors, arguably the best of all the first series of anthologies borrowing his name. By the end of 1949 a total of six books were published, followed by a hiatus that lasted until 1957.

In 1955 CBS helped launch what was to become among the most successful and longest-running television anthology dramas, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Hitchcock himself directed the first episode, "Revenge," and three more episodes for the opening season. December of 1956 saw the first issue of the still-running Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and soon the anthologies were revamped full force. In 1957 one of the more popular anthologies was published by Simon & Schuster: Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV, ghost edited by Robert Arthur. (It became so popular that not only was it extensively reprinted over the years, the network backed away and allowed him to "do" many of the included stories.) These three ventures became intertwined. The magazine published original suspense stories, the television show adapted many of them, and the anthologies eventually became reprint venues for the magazine stories.

Among the writers who benefited from this trio of projects was the prolific Robert Bloch, whose short stories were frequently published in the magazine, and eventually adapted, many by his own hand, for the television show (a total of ten episodes for the original series and seven more for the extended Alfred Hitchcock Hour). It was perhaps through this collaboration that Hitchcock later came across the 1959 novel Psycho, the rights of which he quickly purchased. (In fact he also went ahead and purchased as many copies of the book he could find just so that his potential audience would be less likely to know the ending to his film adaptation.)

Another writer to benefit was Henry Slesar, who wrote several teleplays for a variety of shows throughout the 1960s, including Batman and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Slesar had a record thirty-six teleplays or adaptations for AHP, with ten more for AHH, as well as one for the 1985 AHP remake pilot and three for the actual show. His stories were so adaptable and many of them well adapted indeed, that two paperback collections of his adapted stories were published under Hitchcock's name: Alfred Hitchcock Handpicks and Introduces A Bouquet of Clean Crimes and Neat Murders (NY: Avon, 1960) and Alfred Hitchcock Introduces A Crime for Mothers and Others (NY: Avon, 1962).

The anthologies were published in the US and the UK, successful on both sides of the ocean, but the magazine fared well only in the US. The British version lasted eleven issues, from September 1957 to August 1958 (no issue appeared in July), and later for five issues between May and September 1967. The Australian version, titled Alfred Hitchcock's Suspense Magazine, was published in 1957 and 1958, though I haven't yet been able to figure how many issues were printed, since it appeared to have gone through a reincarnation or revamping of sorts after #11.

In the 1960s the Hitchcock anthologies broadened in scope, with Robert Arthur, creator and author of the first Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books, hired by Random House to ghost edit some truly fine alliterative young adult collections, from A Haunted Houseful and Sinister Spies, to Monster Museum and Daring Detectives; it was actually his Spellbinders in Suspense that helped transform me into an avid reader as a child. Arthur also ghost edited some adult books, including the popular Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV, Stories My Mother Never Told Me, Stories that Scared Even Me and Stories for Late at Night. He received a note in each of these ("The editor gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of Robert Arthur in the preparation of this volume"), though it was many years after his death that the extent of his "assistance" (i.e. he did everything) was made public.

Another ghost editor in the mid-sixties was British anthologist Peter Haining, who ghosted a handful of collections for Pan Books in the UK. The only other person I am aware to have ghosted one of these anthologies is Harold Q. Masur, who put together the 1973 Stories to Be Read with the Lights On. This may have been a result of the unfortunate passing of Robert Arthur in 1969.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the adult anthologies were being published regularly, and each ran through various reprints. An annual hardcover anthology appeared and was reprinted as two separate paperbacks, first with the original titles or variations of, as well as completely different titles. (For instance, Stories for Late at Night was published as 12 Stories for..., More Stories for..., and later on simply as Skeleton Crew.) Other collections were retitled after minor changes were made, such as Suspense Stories which, with the addition of another story, became 14 Suspense Stories to Play Russian Roulette By, and later 14 of My Favorites in Suspense; these are all the same book.

The early anthologies were excellent works, especially those ghosted by Robert Artur, who selected a truly wide array of short stories, novelettes and even novels of a variety of genres and styles. By the 1957 revamping of these books, Hitchcock himself had little to do with the publications (by little I mean nothing, as I suspect that even the brief introductions were ghost written; there is a distinct difference in approach and tone with those published in the 1940s, and let's remember, Arthur himself was well practiced in putting words in Hitchcock's mouth, since he made the director a character in his Three Investigators series). It is truly unfortunate that Arthur never gained the recognition as a first-rate editor, though I am certain he enjoyed his career, working not only on these books but on his own writing and on the scripts for the AHP television show.

By the 1970s the annual hardcover publications became reprints of more recent work, primarily from the most widely read mystery magazines of the time: Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, The Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. Soon the anthologies would become straightforward reprint venues for the magazine. Davis Publications, through their Dial Press imprint, published annual and sometimes bi-annual (it peaked as a quarterly in 1983) numbered anthologies which were essentially "best of" the magazine selections from the previous year. These were initially edited by then magazine editor Eleanor Sullivan (claimant of the first non-ghosted Hitchcock anthology) and later Cathleen Jordan; the first was published in 1976. By then the magazine had been publishing monthly for twenty years and had accumulated enough material to print any number of anthologies reserved for only AHMM stories; some stories even re-appeared in many of these collections so that the books were truly less than unique.

The late 1970s brought about a new era in presenting these works, with the hardcover editions employing titles along the lines of Tales to Take Your Breath Away, Tales to Keep You Spellbound, Tales to Scare You Stiff and so on, while their softcover counterparts were simply numbered, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock's Anthology #1, though later had their own, less clever, subtitles, along the lines of Death-Reach, Fear and Borrowers of the Night. I'm not yet sure when the hardcover editions stopped printing, but the numbered anthology publications ceased in 1989 with Anthology #27: Murder & Other Mishaps. Furthermore, these works were no longer ghost edited though still introduced by "Alfred Hitchcock" (sometimes bearing his signature in print).

It is really the covers and the titles and the publishing phenomenon that make these books nice collectibles. While the hardcovers are not terribly interesting the look at, the paperback incarnations are fantastic, especially those published by Dell. Many are fairly easy to find since they've been printed and re-printed over the years, and some have several editions with their own unique covers that, sad as it might appear to some, I own different editions of the same books. Overall the contents vary from good classic and modern reprints to the generic magazine entries, and some of these tend to be tiresome. However, it is a great consequence that some fine, forgotten and never really known authors were included in these books, including McKnight Malmar and John Keefauver, whose original and excellent short stories, such as "The Storm" and "A Pile of Sand," can be (re)discovered. Finally, Robert Arthur provided us with one of the best suspense anthologies ever compiled, with Stories for Late at Night.

[Note: It is frustratingly difficult to find accurate information on these publications, so much of what I have put together here is educated speculation, which means it sounds valid but could be utterly incorrect. Anyone with information to share, please do so; comment or for anonymity email me at]

Monday, November 15, 2010

Shock Totem #1 (2009)

Shock Totem: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted. Eds. K. Allen Wood and Michelle Howarth. Seattle: Shock Totem Publications, July 2009. 100 pages.

Shock Totem website
Review of Shock Totem 2
Shock Totem at Goodreads

Overall rating:     7/10

K. Allen Wood's introduction to the inaugural issue of Shock Totem: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted, titled "Stronger than Friction," is a good read (despite the awkward title) on the processes that led up to publication. Shock Totem was initially conceived of as an e-zine, later a mass market magazine until finally (picturing it on a shelf alongside Glimmer Train and Black Gate as opposed to in a pile beside the toilet) it was decided that Shock Totem would aim to be a higher quality glossy publication. A number of titles were considered, from the downright laughable Papercut Stigmata to the bland Shades & Shadows; Shock Totem, on the other hand, is quite an effective title, and the glossy format is elegant, with truly unique cover art by Norwegian graphic designer and illustrator Robert Hoyem.

I purchased a copy shortly after publication but was unable to read it cover to cover, uninterrupted, the way I would most journals. This was odd because, honestly, this was a very good read. It was when I read the first issue of Dark Moon Digest in just two or three evenings that I realized what prevented me from speeding through Shock Totem and instead leaving it on the pile of currently reading (sadly, a very large pile) material beside my desk; it was the interior design. The borders are fine and I do like the font style, but the font size is tiny, something I'm used to only when reading old, yellowed editions of the classics, or older paperbacks in general. Normally I would pick up something like Shock Totem when not in the mood for a bulky classic, and there was something of a flow-over effect so that I ended up reading a story every week or so. (Minor quibble, I know, and wholly subjective, but that currently reading pile is just plain ridiculous.)

The publication is quite diverse. There are three author interviews, with John Skipp, Alan Robert and William Ollie, the last which includes an excerpt of a forthcoming novel, KillerCon. There are also a few pages of brief book, movie and music reviews, and it was nice to see some older work reviewed: Daniel Cohen's Monsters, Giants and Little Men from Mars. There is also a brief end page nicely titled "Howling through the Keyhole," which includes notes on each story by their authors. This is an informative bookend companion to the introduction, and generally I am a sucker for such information. These extras are all nice additions, balancing the fiction quite well, and each being quite short so they don't distract from the stories.

And as for the stories... The overall fiction content seems to prefer some element of fantasy, and all but two stories function on the basis of a strong fantastical element. This is risky since fantasy can often ruin a good story and, personally, it is a genre I enjoy only when integrated with the real world, as Rod Serling's Twilight Zone did so well. In most cases the fantasy is well presented and does not drown its story's intent or intervene with its characters. Despite this continuity in genre, the editors chose well and present a wide range of story type and writing style, with stories ranging from competitive stuffed animals to zombie love, paranoia and baseball. There is only one weak entry but also a stand-out story worthy of a future reprint. Overall the selections are above average, and I commend the editors for making the inaugural issue of the bi-annual publication something worth picking up. I've since ordered the second issue and just hope I can read it at least within a week.

The Music Box by T.L. Morganfield     7/10

A good lead-in story about a pair of stuffed animals competing for a boy's attention. Snowflake the elephant was father's childhood favourite while Boo Bear was mother's. What works here is that it's not just the animals that are in competition, but the parents' own unhealthy relationship is highlighted in their efforts to thrust upon their only child a part of their individual pasts. Troubled and unable to face their problems, it is the tensions in their relationship that manifest themselves in this competition. The father has an advantage for, long ago, Snowflake had revealed to him the secret of stuffed animals: they are sentient, have acute feelings and are able to enact horrible acts of vengeance. Of course, it's all for love.

'Til Death Do Us Part by Jennifer Pelland     6/10
A piece of flash fiction, lightly entertaining.

Murder for Beginners by Mercedes M. Yardley     4/10
A comedy about women who are indifferent to a sleaze they've just killed. This was the one that did not work for me; I found it contrived and dull, the humour forced and the narrative lacking in suspense. Perhaps this one needed some element of fantasy to elevate it from the ordinary. In the endnotes Yardley mentions that writing the story required no labour, and I believe her.

First Light by Les Berkley     6/10

Well written zombie modern world western love story. It is a "quiet" story, its prose elegant and flowing, like sitting by a river and watching it flow past. Though I like to see stories investing emotion over plot, I felt that something was missing here. This feeling of absence is likely the effect of the writing, which at times might be reaching too far into the realm of sentiment. It is nonetheless a good read.

 by Don D'Ammassa     7/10
A taught, suspenseful story of a software programmer with a persecution complex. The details are excellent, enough to make the story vivid without tiring the reader, and piled so nicely and so high that I felt I couldn't read fast enough to figure out what was actually going on. I liked the lengthy day-to-day description, the patience in the telling, information withheld (though not unfairly) and revealed through the character's background. There is also an excellent ironic element in the character's having unleashed the source of his paranoia onto himself. The ending becomes evident a page or so before we arrive, but the trip is nonetheless worth taking. Though the ending makes it clear whether or not the paranoia is justified, there is still that token element of ambiguity.

Below the Surface by Pam L. Wallace     5/10

It's the fantasy that killed this one for me. Competently written tale of two sisters, one the queen of a realm and mother of the future king, the other spiteful and jealous who wishes to share in her sister's good fortune. The opening dialogue is patiently composed, a tight read that progresses nicely with the sinister sister trying to convince the younger naive one that she should become the king's second wife, allowing the queen to rest and recover from two recent miscarriages. Then someone dies and a ghost appears and my interest went out for a walk. The second half is essentially a chase sequence with little tension since we know exactly how the sentimental tale will be resolved. Too bad.

Slider by David Niall Wilson     6/10

Wilson was the only author in the collection I recall having previously encountered. A year or two ago I read "Blameless" which appeared in the somewhat disappointing posthumous Robert Bloch edited anthology Robert Bloch's Psychos (Cemetery Dance, 1997). The anthology was uneven, and though it included some fine stories, "Blameless" was not among the good ones. I am pleased, however, that "Slider" had me hooked. On the surface it is a tale of baseball, and though I know little about the sport, Wilson's detailed but not overdone telling makes it quite intriguing. The historical aspect and the unusual pitching circumstance make baseball interesting. It helps that the story is well written. The ending is the weakest part of the tale, and it appears Wilson himself was more interested in the history and the circumstance than in the plot; the story is primarily constructed around a conversation and tightly woven into a single event. It does not ruin the story, but covers it with enough haze to mar its stronger aspects.

The Dead March by Brian Rappatta     8/10

The strongest story in the collection. A troubled boy from a dysfunctional family within a dysfunctional trailer park society has an unusual affinity with death. Not only can he sense when someone is about to die, he can also raise the dead. This story is about life as much as it is about death. The world depicted is one of living zombies, of families and individuals who maintain existence rather than live. Written in a straight-edged style, at times gruesome and even oddly and darkly comic, the story manages also to be somewhat touching. The society that Rappatta has created is one I would re-visit, even with different characters and circumstances. (As I mentioned above this one's worthy of a reprint, and John Joseph Adams should consider this one if he is planning on a third installment of the Night Shade Books series The Living Dead.)

Thirty-Two Scenes from a Dead Hooker's Mouth by Kurt Newton     6/10

The tragic story of a prostitute, told backwards beginning from her death. There is no linear story, no surprise at the end to tie it all together, just a straightforward backward telling (yes, forward backward). Very well written with some strong imagery make this entry a worthy read.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dark Moon Digest #1 (October 2010)

Dark Moon Digest #1, October 2010. Edited by Stan Swanson, Florida: Stony Meadow Publishing. 109 pages

Visit the Goodreads listing

Inaugural magazine issues are important not because of the quality of fiction and articles they contain, but because of the kind of trend they are attempting to establish. Readers can hope that the quality of the writing will improve as the magazine gains a wider audience, but the magazine's style remains mostly unchanged in its course to garner readership, otherwise its concept is flawed at the core. With so many publications available, it's nice when something fresh or different comes along. I was for the most pleased when I received my copy of Dark Moon Digest, a new publication from Stony Meadow Publishing. The glossy publication does feel fresh, and primarily due to its classic pulp approach.

The first issue of is good, better than I had expected it would be. I have little faith in new genre publications since there appears to be a sudden increase in the number of small press anthologies being published, and having perused through a few I find that, despite some nice artwork, the fiction is uninspired. I do like to purchase first issues of new magazines both as a collector and as a supporter of new fiction, and from the little buzz I encountered I expected a low-cost, cheap little thing. Frugally produced, yes, but definitely not cheap. I like the glossy cover: the stock photo is well rendered. The inner pages are well designed, simple and easy on the eye, reminiscent of early pulp mags and comics with their call for submissions and letters to the editor notices boxed in the leftover spaces. The tiny photos for each story are a nice touch, and the fillers are amusing, everything from quotes by Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King, to contest results (though no mention of what these contests were about) and "best of" poll results (though I can't find the logic with a modern horror novel being selected among the top five all-time horror novels while not making the list of the top five modern horror novels). In a highly competitive market Dark Moon Digest feels fresh, and if nothing else it has at least set the tone for a publication that will involve its reader (note all the calls for submission as well as for feedback) and, stories aside, be considerably fun.

There were some oddities that caught my eye: the cover lists story and article titles rather than author names, and while the authors are not well established and wouldn't catch anyone's eye, story titles mean little no matter who wrote them (though I admit "The Skunk Ape" did make me blink). Moreover, this magazine is sold online and not in a magazine shop, so the cover does not need to try to sell the issue beside any competitors. I would have liked to have seen include better copy-editing. There are some typos (excusable) but several instances of faulty grammar and awkward sentence construction immediately make the publication appear less professional. Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but while I can (if in the mood) forgive bad editing online, I cringe when I see it on the printed page. The second thing I would have liked to see is a different kind of introduction. Editor & publisher Stan Swanson provides a truly brief opening reminiscent of those often ghost-penned Alfred Hitchcock introductions that aim to poke and tease rather than inform. While this is not a fault in the publication, I would have preferred something along the lines of K. Allen Wood's introduction to Shock Totem's 2009 inaugural issue, which developed the magazine's evolution to print, and even a little about the included work. There is something personal about Wood's approach, which is truly ironic since Dark Moon Digest appears a friendlier work, despite the more distanced editorial approach.

Dark Moon Digest #1 contains seven original short stories, one reprint, three articles, one book review and some poetry. It promises in the future (there is a COMING IN ISSUE #2 notice on the back cover) to include longer works as well as a graphic novel and "Carnivorous Cartoons" (an alliteration that, if you think about it, doesn't make much sense. But I digress). Overall I would recommend it, if only to help it become a better publication. Both print and electronic copies are available, and cheaper than a quick lunch at a fast-food outlet.

The classic reprint is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 psychological drama "The Yellow Wallpaper." While I think it is a strong story it is also over-published. I like the idea of classic reprints and hope that the magazine will continue to print them, but I'd recommend they seek out less recognizable works and avoid following Gilman up with, say, W.W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw" or any of Edgar Allan Poe's more famous works. Of course "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a safe bet for the first issue, and I am curious as to what is on tap for the follow-up. I do, however, like the inclusion of background information; it's a considerate touch. Another reason why Gilman's story works here is that along with a previously unpublished feminist examination of masculine control, it book-ends the magazine nicely.

"Slut" by Erin K. Coughlin. A teen-aged girl and her family are being controlled by an unseen, seemingly demonic admirer. A good story and an interesting, somewhat abstract take on the stalking phenomenon. It is well written with an even tone and simple structure. I am not sure if it is the best lead-in story simply because of its thematic weight, but as I mention above it does nicely to bookend "The Yellow Wallpaper." While "Slut" begins as a suspenseful stalker piece, it transforms into a teenager's personal journey to womanhood (though at the expense of her family). It is a feminist statement about identity and control in an indifferent society; the girl is being continually defined by her unseen tormentor (society, really) in one of two distinct categories, slut or Darling (with the capital D), depending on her actions. When behaving as the stalker insists (or as society deems proper) she is Darling, while any show of independence renders her slut. The story could have gone in many directions and I do like the ambiguity of the anticipated showdown. A good story, it's first fault lies in the title. I would recommend something along the lines of "obedience" or something evoking control, or even the duality of slut/Darling. The second flaw is that it is at times over-written: "A thick gust hit me, as if he'd blown a whistle." Not sure what the intent is with that sentence but it's a little nonsensical. 7/10

"Jack and Jill" by C. W. LaSart. While "Slut" dealt with issues of patriarchal control, in "Jack and Jill" it is the woman who controls the man. Obsessed with the woman he encounters at a bar one night, succubus-like she seduces him, and soon Jack finds himself responsible for providing for her unnatural needs. Unlike "Slut" this is a fairly straightforward horror story, and while not terribly original it works well within its concept. "Jack and Jill" is better in whole than in its individual part. No individual scene feels new, no technical element is a challenge, yet taken as a whole it works quite nicely. Surprisingly we discover that the story is not just about a man trapped beneath the spell of a supernatural evil, but is in reality trapped by his own impotence, his inability to take control of the situation and make a drastic change. Though Jack insists that he is living a modern hell, it is clear that he has ample opportunity to free himself from his shackles, and nonetheless continues with his role as provider. The last line plays very nicely, and even gave me a little chill. This is one of the stories that is unfortunately marred by the weak copy-editing. Re-worked, shortened a little and properly edited, this could work well in an anthology. 6/10

"Moon Medicine" by Christopher Leppek & Emanuel Isler. The most striking aspect of this story is the inane writing. I can't abide by self-indulgent comments such as "I'm glad she really can't read my mind. Not a place most want to go," and "Vengeance dies hard." This is silly and alienating, the authors trying too hard to create a rough and grizzled narrator, a retired homicide veteran tough guy wallowing in past exploits and grumbling about how he knows pain and has seen every kind of death. I'm surprised he didn't start barking. To be fair the idea is neat and could have worked, but the story comes off as a series of coincidences. The retired detective is reminiscing about an unsolved case and guess what: he gets re-entangled with that past. He reminisces about someone who had mysteriously disappeared, and guess what: ... This artificial form of story-telling is not terribly fair to the reader. 3/10

"Remaining Zheng" by Corey Kellgren. Now this was a good story. Original, well written and overall a pleasure to read. During the construction of what has eventually become know as The Great Wall of China, soldiers encounter a group of diseased men who live in a commune in the path of the steadily rising wall. These men, essentially living dead, request that the wall bypass their home, or else. The troop leader Zheng Sanbao is a man of honour with a patriotic duty bound in seeing that construction progresses as his homeland has ordered it, and this sense of honour is being challenged as much as the wall's intended route. (Incidentally, San Bao is a practice in kung fu that attempts to unify the self with body and mind, making it a great choice for the character's name.) 7/10 (though I could be talked into an eight)

"Skunk Ape" by Nicholas Conley. A fun read about some friends who discover the body of an odd-looking creature. The suspense is good though the characters are generic and the prose could have used some tightening. I liked the idea of the skunk ape but would also have liked more detail about the legend. Less focus on the violence and broken bodies and more on the element of unknown would have improved the story and its inherent mystery, and the ending is a little too simple and convenient. 6/10

"The Interrogation of John Walker" by Jay Wilburn. Another fine story. Over two thousand days into a zombie holocaust, a group of soldiers find an autistic boy who has mysteriously survived the epidemic. The story is well written, suspenseful and generates an interesting kind of threat, successfully painting a tired society in which everyone is a victim. Of all the stories listed here, this is the one that continued to dwell in my thoughts. 7/10

"Darkest Before Dawn" by Kevin McClintock. A weak title and a slow start are unfortunate factors to a good story about a strange menace that comes to a suburban neighbourhood following a nasty cold spell. This one is similar to Stephen King's novella "The Mist" in that the threat appears mysteriously following a storm, remains a completely unexplained foreign element, and the story ends in a similar vein. Nonetheless it is its own story and I thought the black menace quite interesting. I would think, however, that a slow-moving threat would have left the world ample time to declare Marshal Law and evacuate the town, or at least would imagine that the couple we are experiencing the threat with do have some friends or acquaintances who might at some point during the storm weekend communicated with them in some way (this is the age of communication, is it not?). Despite these thoughts intuding throughout the story I did like it, but think with some more work it could have been a better addition to Issue #2. 6/10

The non-fiction entries are not as good as the fiction. The book review by Don Webb (Black Wings, edited by S.T. Joshi, PS Publishing) fails to give an in-depth overview and spends a quarter of its two pages listing the contents. I would have preferred more analysis and if curious could have found the contents online. I am pleased, however, that they chose to review something by such a quality publisher rather than resort to the generic paperback.

"Chattering Bones: A Brief History of Zombies" by Manny Frishberg gives an overview of zombie fiction, making a couple of glaring errors along the way. For instance, claiming that 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later are the best among "decaying-corpses-come-back-to-life films," when the movies are actually about living people getting infected with a "rage" virus. He finishes the article by claiming that "not even cable networks have premiered any live-action series featuring" zombies, when in the same month of release of this issue appeared the long-awaited first episode of AMC's series "The Walking Dead," based on Robert Kirkman's graphic series published by Image Comics, adapted for AMC by Frank Darabont.

In "From the Dark: Demonic Children," Jeremiah Dutch attempts to reconcile his birth decade with the rise of demonic children in film. The better column of the bunch, it nonetheless avoids to mention earlier incarnations of demonic children, everything from "Village of the Damned" to "The Bad Seed" and even Jerome Bixby's still haunting 1953 short story "It's a Good Life," filmed for The Twilight Zone in 1961. Furthermore, he claims to disagree with assertions made by Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?, but does not replace their claims with any of his own. A good idea which needs a couple of more pages to develop and a few more theories tossed into the bowl.

Finally, Assistant Editor Michael O'Neal's end-piece, "Under the Basement Stairs: Shadow Soul," is somewhat pointless.

I do like the addition of horror-related non-fiction, but it must be interesting, and combining the space of seven pages into a single essay would allow one column to delve into detail about a particular subject rather than three that only skim the surface.

My criticism of the non-fiction is overall a minor qualm since these columns (appropriately titled; they are not articles in the true sense) take up a total of nine pages. I would still recommend that the genre supporter lend their support to Dark Moon Digest as I do believe in a year or so it could turn out to be quite the contender.

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As of 24 December 2015