"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.
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.
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.