Thursday, August 11, 2011

Prime Evil, edited by Douglas E. Winter (1988): No Safe Place to Die

"Horror is not a genre," writes editor Douglas E. Winter in his introduction to the classy anthology Prime Evil, "it is an emotion." Winter was really onto something there, I thought upon first reading it, and it's been something of a philosophical beacon for me in my choices of entertainment in the two decades since. Fans don't have to limit themselves to movies or books labeled "horror" to find things that are violent, creepy, disturbing, terrifying. But I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, right?

I'd always held this anthology in high esteem but rereading it now I realize that's only because it contains one of my favorite horror stories ever, "Orange is Anguish, Blue for Insanity" (and going by reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, lots of other readers felt the same). Otherwise, these original stories in Prime Evil are so concerned with classiness that many don't quite deliver on the horror. Mood and psychology, yes, diffuse surreality and obliquity, mais oui, some good writing and imagery, true, but only a few stories are actually gruesome or horrifying or memorable. Even the moodier pieces seemed inert. So I'd say these mild, nondescript "horror" covers are rather apt.

I tried nine ways to Sunday to reread Stephen King's "The Night-Flier" but only found it dated; a sleaze journalist you'd think would actually be au courant but in King's relentless need to brand-identify everything is tiring because you keep thinking, "Oh, right, this story was written in the late 1980s," rather than, "Damn, is this story creepy." I just thought it was junky and its only reason for existence was to feature a vampire pissing blood into a urinal. I didn't reread Clive Barker's "Coming to Grief" and don't recall any of it, but Winter describes it as one of his "quiet, sentimental stories." Dennis Etchison's half-screenplay/half-short story "The Blood Kiss" is fun, nothing special; could've fit right into Schow's Silver Scream anthology that same year. "Alice's Last Adventure" I wrote a bit about here; Thomas Ligotti's story is fine, good stuff.

David Morrell, creator of Rambo himself, in "Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity," delivers a terrific story of a poor art student, his friend, and an obsession: the paintings of Van Dorn, a 19th century painter driven mad by his perceptetion of the world and the colors he used to denote that madness. I love stories about crazy fictional artists of any kind, and the story also features the art students' academic research as well. Here's the narrator on one of Van Dorn's pieces:

All it took was a slight shift of perception, and there weren't any orchids or hayfields, only a terrifying gestalt of souls in hell. Van Dorn had indeed invented a new stage of impressionism. He'd impressed upon the splendor of God's creation the teeming images of his own disgust. His paintings didn't glorify. They abhorred.

David Morrell

Read Morrell's story! "Orange" won the Stoker Award for best long fiction (side note: I first read this story in high school, and was wryly delighted that my school's own colors were the very same). Jack Cady's contribution starts off very well - Cady was a professor of creative writing and it shows in his powerful detailing of the lives of three friends many years after they served together in Vietnam. It's tough and violent and poetic and impressive. The problem is that the gunfight climax lasts about, I dunno, 20 pages or something and I was completely uninterested as the tale went on and on and on; Cady broke the spell he'd woven so convincingly.

1989 Corgi UK edition

I found "The Great God Pan" (ugh, I hate stories named after better, more deservedly famous stories) by M. John Harrison far too detached and mild, thought Paul Hazel's (who are these writers?) "Having a Woman at Lunch" to be too old-fashioned, and was simply unimpressed with Charles L. Grant's "Spinning Tales with the Dead." Look, Charlie, we all know you love quiet horror but you can't just write the words "moonlight" and "cloud" and "whisper"; ya gotta do the work too.

A minor Ramsey Campbell story of a stalker who thinks writers are stealing his ideas, "Next Time You'll Know Me," is okay; nothing particularly Campbellian about it though. "Food" is sly, gross, and witty; I'd expect nothing less from the stellar Thomas Tessier. One of the solid stories with its tone of world-weary grief and loss, Whitley Strieber's "The Pool" is a dream-like tale of the death of a child who seems in touch with worlds beyond this one. Childhood trauma underlies Peter Straub's "The Juniper Tree"; specifically, some rather graphic sexual abuse and years later, its fallout. It's more mainstream lit than "horror."

And there you have it: although Winter's introduction was thoughtful and influential, Prime Evil is less a major horror anthology of the 1980s than mostly an attempt to get horror fiction read by people who wouldn't deign to read it in the first place. It's true that horror doesn't have to have "potboiler prose, lurid covers and corny titles," but why are we trying to impress people who already look down on the genre? I mean, fuck them, right? Right.


jeremy said...

Reading your blog got me to start browsing the old horror anthology section at my used book stores. I picked this one up and I think your review nailed it. Years ago I read "Orange is for Anguish..." and forgot what book it was in and was delighted to find it after 9 years of looking. (Forgetting who wrote it and the title didn't help the search.) Jack Cady's story did indeed sound promising but it wore me out halfway through. Great review on what I would consider a mediocre collection (except Morrell's which is worth a few bucks spent).

Anonymous said...

I disagree about Grant. He's a master of subtle, poetic horror and that eerily elliptical, fragmentary style, if you dig that kind of thing, and I do, very much. I recall considering his story here a good example of his dark, downbeat work.

The rest of this book is a blur to me. I vaguely remember the Morrell, but don't think I was that crazy about it. His writing never interests me that much generally, and the few stories of his I remember anything about haven't impressed me.

I seem to remember liking the Barker and the Harrison tales, though your criticism about the latter being too mild is probably correct. Straub has never interested me much (Ghost Story I find bloated, and silly where it attempts to be scary), and Streiber's name in a table of contents is enough by itself to fill me with more dread than all the stories in your average horror volume. I'm not sure I even read his story here, though, to be fair.

Anonymous said...

this anthology is translated to spanish, but I don't know exactly why in two volumes, I have one of them and must buy the other

by the way for me is not a bad idea to try to give horror to the mainstream readers, as you know I prefer the literary and psychological modern horror (quiet horror) than splatter or classics


Mac Campbell said...

I bought this thing when it came out. Thirty-five clams Canadian just for the chance to read a new Steve King story; and that was in the late eighties! I was a teenage fool. I didn't give a toss who else was included in that book; I just had to read The Night Flier.

This makes men wonder what happened when men of the early eighties bought mags like Oui, Gallery, or Hustler, took them home for a wank and instead discovered one of the stories from what became King's The Night Shift collection. Did they quickly turn the pages to get to the hot stuff, or did the give the future King of Horror a chance?

highwayknees said...

I bought this one too on its' release...but it didn't leave a memorable impression. I'll have to look up that Morrell story again though-it has been awhile! And while Winter's intention IS an honorable one-I concur with the "fuck-em!" part...

You mention your penchant for "crazy-artist" stories? I like those too. So I feel it's my duty to introduce you to a writer and ,specifically his first novel: IT HAPPENED IN BOSTON", by Russell H. Greenan. More literary thriller with a healthy dose of bizarre black humor ,- than it is horror. But there are some Boschian scenes of madness- in a modern setting. I've re-read it many times, such is it's hold on me . Greenan is a true original and all his novels(thrillers) are wonderful!
Search the usual online places. Kind of hard to find him in used book stores anymore since most of his writing was published in the 60's and 70's.

highwayknees said...

P.S. You can thank me later! lol
Seriously though, I think you will enjoy him(Greenan). And be as hypnotized by his quirky-style as I was/am Will!


Anonymous said...

Morrell's story is the only thing I remembered from reading this book around 1990. So much so that last year I picked up his story collection Black Evening just to check it out again. Some good stuff there, and "Orange" really holds up.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks, Ray, sounds pretty cool.

Francisco, def get the second volume, these stories you'll probably like a lot.

Mac, I always wondered that too!

Jonathan Stover said...

Just re-read this and agree with many of your observations, though I like Cady's piece more than you do. The Ramsey Campbell piece is infamous because whoever copy-edited it didn't realize that the terrible writer who narrates it is supposed to be a terrible writer: the original, which appears in at least one Campbell collection (along with an explanation of what happened) is a lot funnier, mainly because the narrator uses a plethora of 'said-bookisms' throughout ('Holy Cow,' he ejaculated,' that sort of thing). Campbell's explanation of what happened to the story doesn't point fingers at anyone, but exudes a sort of chilly pissed-offedness nonetheless.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks for the background, I don't think I'd heard that! Makes sense...

john said...

Damn ... that came out a long time ago! I remember reading this and being largely unimpressed by most of the stories. With the exception of Morrel, 'Food' has never left me! And I very much remember Grant's story, strangely enough.
I like everything I've read by Ligotti, Im surprised I don't recall this particular story. Maybe I never read it. I'll have to go back and check it out.