Okay, some books last. Some books are hailed upon publication and instantly attain ‘classic’ status; the reputation of others grows only slowly; still others appear and just as quickly vanish. Reputations, too. In the ‘Horror Rewind’ series I’ve looked at a selection of horror fiction from the 70s and 80s to examine how it stands up decades later. There are a few authors I haven’t looked at: James Herbert is an obvious omission, but there’s an article about him in preparation; Shaun Hutson, too, is one of the big British names from the 80s Horror Boom-era I haven’t gone back to. Clive Barker? Well, there’s enough Barker elsewhere in the Gyre, and doubtless more to come in future.
Books aim for a kind of posterity, or at least longevity. Magazines and newspapers don’t. The ephemera of an age – its papers and magazines, posters and flyers and ticket-stubs – give a broader sense of an age than the books from that era which we still read. Also, there’s a sort of frisson in reading dispatches from a time when what we now percieve as a particular narrative was still in flux. Similarly, one of nostalgia’s hooks is the sense that the time we seek to recover was somehow safer – or more reassuring – than the vantage point from which we view it. This, of course, is the great lie. The past only seems safe because we made it through. We now know how it turned out: at the time, of course, we didn’t. In truth we were as anxious then as we are now, and only the details differ. Our visions of the future – such as they are – often stem from assumptions about the world as it is right now, and can therefore not anticipate paradigm-changing events. Someone writing in a pop magazine in January 1963 may have speculated knowledgeably on what the year ahead might contain, but I’m pretty sure they’d no idea the Beatles were about to explode and change everything.
So: books last. Magazines don’t. But magazines tell us a truth unavailable to books. Books are launched like ships into the future to see how they fare. Magazines are not. Like paper planes they have their moment of buoyancy, then, flimsy paper-thin things, they fall: tomorrow’s recycling.
The books that last are ones that connect to us now. The ephemera belong entirely to their own age and no longer have anything to do with us except to waken dormant memories to remind us that a particular year was not, after all, like the talking heads on a TV retrospective would have you believe. Open the magazine and see for yourself.
Skeleton Crew was a great magazine. It and FEAR were the regular fixes my horror-obsessed friends and I dosed ourselves on. Whereas FEAR was split fairly evenly between covering fiction and film, Skeleton Crew‘s balance was tipped in favour of the written word. It lasted little over a year, dying – appropriately – at the Horror Boom’s end, when Silence of the Lambs announced to the world that the Thriller was the dark new king on the throne of pop culture.1
The contents don’t all have to stand the test of time: in some ways it would be weird if they did. Magazines can’t predict which books will float and which will sink. But this particular issue, from the summer of 1990, changed my life. No exaggeration. It was my introduction to The Sandman and by extension Neil Gaiman. Morpheus has cast a long shadow – for better and worse – over much that I have written in the third-of-a-century since I bought this magazine (followed shortly by issues 17 & 18 of The Sandman from the comic stall in Perth Indoor Market). But that was only one feature – a mere four pages – in what with hindsight is a breathtaking gathering of some of horror’s biggest (ever) names: David Cronenberg & Peter Straub (interviewed), Clive Barker (art portfolio), Stephen King (a short story!).
But theirs are not the only names, nor the only draws. There’s a story from then hot-young-thing Mark Morris; artist John Bolton is heavily featured (above), and there are book reviews by Stephen Gallagher.
The ‘Deaditorial’ from co-founder Dave Hughes is a paean, and a rallying-cry, to the amateur. Prefiguring the open-ness of the web, he calls for readers to get involved and send them their work: “time and again, authors who started writing for fanzines (Stephen Gallagher and Thomas Ligotti are two recent examples) have launched successful writing careers.” A regular column by Neil Gaiman, who (to paraphrase his own later comments on Good Omens) was not yet NEIL GAIMAN, acts as an introduction to the newly relaunched title, and praises the efforts of Hughes doing so.
An overview of, and interview with, Peter Straub tries to banish any sense that he exists in his friend (and co-author of The Talisman) Stephen King’s shadow. Straub is not wrong to say that horror had by 1990 become more “literary” and was no longer simply “the specifics of the genre being reiterated over and over again”, although there are always writers who provide exactly that. The interview also reveals that 10% of bestselling books in 1989 (and the 80s as a decade) were horror. This is perhaps the exact moment the Horror Boom ended: the time when you’re able to look back and think things have never been so good is usually the beginning of the end of any golden era. Straub ventures that horror is “a way of seeing things” (much like Skipp & Spector had done a few years before) which suggests that an idea of darkness need not be confined to a genre with that name, and indeed the rise of the dark thriller in the 90s suggests that while overt or supernatural horror was in remission, some underlying aesthetic was still vital.
Stephen King’s hard-to-find “The Reploids” is republished, and while entertaining reads like the first chapter of something longer, to the extent that the plural in the title is never fully explained and only in the final paragraphs does its meaning become even partly evident.
Philip Nutman interviews David Cronenberg on the set of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed where he plays psychopathic psychologist Philip Decker, and the director offers his thoughts on the differences between standing in front of, as opposed to behind, the camera.
Matthew Pook’s recap of the first issues of The Sandman (above) are interesting now partly because of what it doesn’t cover: there was no way to guess the impact and influence this comic would have, or the stellar reputation its author would go on to achieve. I wonder if that sense of something slowly developing and still being created was part of the attraction for me: here was a comic that as yet had no established reputation. It was something I could get into and go along on the ride with, without there being a set of assumptions or prior knowledge required. At the time of Pook’s writing The Doll’s House was “unfinished…but shows much promise”, though there is an advert elsewhere for the trade paperback of it that changed comics forever.
Clive Barker’s impressionistic, Rorshach-like sketches for Cabal are given a double-page spread, and bright young thing Mark Morris publishes his story “Playing with God”. This black comedy is mildly amusing, but Morris writes it phonetically, deliberately mis-spelling most words in an approximation of what the under-educated protagonist’s writing would be like. It makes for difficult reading and the prose wouldn’t give (say) Irvine Welsh sleepless nights.
Stuart Green, editor of comics magazine Speakeasy, gives a brief but in-depth analysis of Arkham Asylum, and elsewhere there’s an Alan Moore double, as the current instalments of From Hell and Big Numbers are both reviewed by James Wallis. As with The Sandman there’s fun to be had at this distance, seeing how these masterpieces2 developed.
A bemulleted Stephen Gallagher (above) provides book reviews which are thoughtful, balanced, honest and pithy. Veteran Thomas Tryon, (now) veteran Joe R Lansdale, and Stephen Harris all have their latest works picked over by the author of Chimera and Rain, who has since gone onto enjoy a successful TV scriptwriting career. Best of all though is the promise: “Next issue: Brian Blessed”.
Throughout, the adverts are by turns poignant and quaint: for local specialist bookshops (how many of those are still around?) and play-by-mail games. But the “best” advert is right at the end, offering some unintentional comedy. It’s a fabulously self-important two-page advert from “Michael J, Autrey, Bookseller”, promoting a luxury edition of Stephen King’s then-newly-unexpurgated The Strand [sic]. According to Autrey, King’s publishers released this “on April 25 (my birthday)” and Autrey is at pains to reassure / worry potential customers that even someone as well connected as him has been unable to source any more copies of The Strand [sic] than anybody else. Well, you’re only human I guess, Michael. But really, if you’re going to splash the cash for a two-page advert with a lovely colour photo of the book in question, would it not be wise to spell-check the title of the actual book?
There’s a lot of reading in Skeleton Crew and all for the reasonable price of £1.95, which was half of what an epic horror (Weaveworld, Domain, pretty much any King novel) would have cost at the time. One final thing – evident in 2022 but which the 16-year-old me would certainly not have realised – is that the horror world portrayed here (and Skeleton Crew is not the sole offender) was very white, very male and very English-language. The only female presences are a brief mention of Lisa Tuttle (who I think was the only contemporary female horror author I had heard of in 1990), and a mildly-titillating photo of Sigourney Weaver to tempt readers into the next issue’s Aliens special.
“Portraits of Horror” is the magazine’s tagline, and that’s no less apt now than it was then. A portrait is a picture caught at a moment in time, but unlike a snapshot it implies greater effort and artistry, and indeed the production values and editorial decisions of Skeleton Crew bespeak the labour of love, and the guiding hand, of editor Dave Hughes. In short, if you want an idea – both a portrait and a snapshot – of how rich the world of horror was in 1990, there’s no better introduction.
1For those interested, there’s a good resource on Skeleton Crew (which I’ve avoided while writing this piece) here.
2Well, From Hell anyway: Big Numbers remains uncompleted.