Horror Rewind #4 – “Prime Evil” (ed. Douglas E. Winter) (1988)

Or should that be “Anti-Horror Rewind”? American lawyer Douglas E. Winter made his literary name with one of the first book-length studies of Stephen King’s work (The Art of Darkness), and in 2001 wrote the authorised biography of Clive Barker (The Dark Fantastic). In between, he edited (although curated may be a more appropriate term) this high-quality anthology containing thirteen tales from some of the biggest names in horror. Or rather, anti-horror.

“Anti-horror” is Winter’s own term for a type of horror that “rejects the Manichaean simplicity of God and Devil, good and evil, pushing the reader into a realm of ambiguity, forcing us to confront the real world.”1

Horror, revivified in the 70s by the likes of King, had within a decade become a genre (Winter maintains that “horror is not a genre…it is not a kind of fiction. Horror is an emotion”2) and bandwagon-jumping publishers were guilty of packaging and publishing copycat works, formulaic and derivative.

“A fiction whose fundamental impulse was the unsafe and the unexpected – the breaching of the taboo, the creation of physical and metaphysical unease – was being made safe for mass consusmption…[it] had become another palliative for the masses – a literature of happy endings [and] minor moral lessons, most of them reactionary and laced with bigotry.”3

The anthology opens, fittingly, with King’s “The Night Flier”, which turns out to be one of the collection’s weaker tales. It does read, with its twitchy, hyperactive prose, like something from his 80s booze & cocaine phase (cf. Cujo, Christine). It’s “hero” is a hack journalist who believes he’s onto a major scoop: someone is flying to small airports in the eastern U.S. and shortly afterwards there’s a string of grisly murders. The hack suspects an actual case of vampirism. With nods to both The Dead Zone and Salem’s Lot, a contemporary review in FEAR magazine noted that journalism itself is portrayed as a vampiric profession. All perfectly readable, but not one of his better shorts.

Paul Hazel’s “Having a Woman at Lunch” seems like the writer had the title in mind and decided to see what sort of horror story could make a literal truth out of it. As a result, it’s a bit obvious. Superficially horribly misogynistic, until you note that the male characters are really not very sympathetic, and are portrayed with suitable ironic detachment. Nonetheless, three years later Bret Easton Ellis rampaged across similar territory – and did it far better – in his masterpiece American Psycho.

Clive Barker’s “Coming to Grief” is perhaps the biggest surprise of the collection. It’s Barker’s quietest story up to that point and certainly his most moving. Miriam returns to Liverpool for her mother’s funeral, and to sort out her house and possessions. In doing so she faces – and inadvertently stirs up – childhood memories and fears. Local shortcut “The Bogey Walk” – which in her youth she had imagined to hold a monster just waiting for the opportunity to grab her – seems to be an old demon successfully exorcised, but methaphorical and physical walls crumble…

M John Harrison’s “The Great God Pan” boldly borrows its title from Machen, and reimagines the conceit of the Welsh writer’s classic weird tale. To paraphrase Blake, in the late 60s a trio used psychoactive drugs to cleanse the doors of perception, and everything appeared to them as it is: terrifying. I liked the idea better than the execution, but it still unsettles, leaving nothing fully explained.

David Morrell is the author of First Blood and thus the creator of John Rambo. To my surprise, his “Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” is one of Prime Evil‘s highlights. The narrator’s postgrad friend Myers becomes obsessed with the work of Dutch artist Van Dorn (a barely disguised Van Gogh) and uncovers subliminal horrors in his frenzied, hallucinatory paintings which, once seen, can never be unseen. Myers’s life soon begins to spiral darkly in imitation of Van Dorn’s. The ending is perhaps slightly cliched but this is a gripping tale whose central idea is fascinating and chilling.

Not a million miles from Rambo territory is Jack Cady’s “By Reason of Darkness”. With shades of Apocalypse Now and (therefore) Conrad, this novella rakes up suppressed trauma from Vietnam, examining madness and complicity. It builds the story nicely but the climax drags on for too long.

“Spinning Tales with the Dead” by Charles L. Grant (more of him in the next Horror Rewind) is so-so, but I can’t quite see how you’d make it work. The title gives away what’s happening and thus robs it of any supense, but at the same time you kind of need the knowledge in order for the story to have any power.

The other stories include the pulpy “Food” by Thomas Tessier, Whitley Striber’s haunting but slight “The Pool”, and Ramsey Campbell’s darkly amusing “Next Time You’ll Know Me”.

Winter summarised in an interview years later: “Prime Evil was meant to offer readers a collection of original stories by the best (and bestselling) writers of horror and suspense fiction at the close of the 1980s, and to champion my argument that horror is not a genre but an emotion. The anthology was based on good writing, and featured writers whose voices are genuine and idiosyncratic. It included fine work from ‘name’ writers like Stephen King, Peter Straub and Clive Barker, but it also helped bring lesser-known talents like Thomas Ligotti and Jack Cady to the public eye.”4

It’s a decent compilation which holds up fairly well (Winter noted with pride that it stayed in print for twelve years), and if some of the stories seem quite “of their time” it doesn’t necessarily make them dated.

Elsewhere, 1988 was a busy year in Horror: in cinema, it was the year of the burgeoning franchise (or, if you prefer, of diminishing returns) with Hellbound: Hellraiser II; the first (of many) Child’s Play; Phantasm II and further Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels. But there were also notable one-offs such as Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm.

Fiction from this year saw several big-name authors step aside from straight-up horror: Clive Barker’s Cabal was a further step towards dark fantasy; Peter Straub’s Koko was a post-Vietnam chiller; and James Herbert took an evolutionary step (though at the time it seemed a retrograde one) with the quiet ghost story Haunted. Shaun Hutson saw no reason to change his own particular formula with Assassin, and 1988 seems to be possibly the only year since 1974 without a new Stephen King, though it did see paperback release of Misery and The Tommyknockers.

Notes

1 Winter, Douglas E. – Clive Barker: The Dark Fantastic, p.191

2 Prime Evil, p2

3 Clive Barker: The Dark Fantastic, p.152

4 http://www.crimetime.co.uk/interviews/douglaswinter.html

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