REVIEW: Skelos: The Journal of Weird Fiction and Dark Fantasy

I’m not a big fan of horror. My preference, when I do read or watch it, tends more towards the psychological rather than the visceral (think: Repulsion rather than Saw, or Cronenberg’s later works – Videodrome, Naked Lunch or Spider – rather than his earlier works – Shivers or Scanners). I’m fascinated by the disintegration of the human mind; the destruction of the human body, not so much.

I have long argued that I don’t need horror when I can get all the death and destruction I can stomach from the daily news. The Internet, which gives us almost instant access to raw footage of war zones and other scenes of human depravity, should be enough to give any horror fan a regular fix.

The more I have thought about it, though, the more I’ve come to realize that my antipathy to horror comes from a much deeper place. As a child, I was obsessed with death (as many children of Holocaust survivors tend to be); it literally haunted my dreams. It took me years of therapy to realize (among other things) that my fear of my eventual mortality was making it impossible for me to get any pleasure out of the life I was living in the present. So, I let it go. I suspect visceral horror gives me no pleasure because it reminds me too much of that very real pain.

This makes me an unlikely candidate to review the first issue of Skelos: The Journal of Weird Fiction and Dark Fantasy. In the magazine’s editorial, it is made clear that, while the definition of “weird fiction” may be slippery, the editors were hoping for a collection of stories that were in the tradition of Lovecraft. Oy! How is somebody who doesn’t care for such horror to review such a magazine? SPOILER ALERT: My verdict is that, while Skelos is not my cup of tea, it is likely to satisfy fans of the genre. While this is by no means a negative assessment, readers of this review should take what follows with whatever sized grain of salt they are comfortable downing.

The fiction part of the magazine starts with perhaps its most disturbing story, Scott Cupp’s “The Dead Unicorn.” The appearance of a unicorn in the square of a small rural village is hailed as an omen that good times lie ahead. Instead, the unicorn drops dead, unleashing a seemingly endless stream of death and destruction. The story is well told – Cupp has a strong eye for detail. Fans of visceral, icky horror should find this story worth the price of the magazine on its own.

Most of the rest of the stories take place in the past. This may be because the Lovecraft template was established in the late Victorian/early modern era. However, it also could be that in the past there were more dark, unexplored spaces where horrors could dwell; with our planet populated and GPSed close to death, where can dark forces lurk any more? It is no coincidence that a couple of the stories, including Keith Taylor’s novelette “The Drowned Dead Shape,” are about sailors in the past coming across the unknown in their travels.

Charles Gramlich’s “Hungry” is one of the exceptions to this tendency of the genre to look to the past. In 2089, a man on a space station on an asteroid accidentally destroys all of the cultures that he uses to grow food a month before his relief is scheduled to appear. How can he stay alive? The answer seemed obvious to me, but, even so, the story moved briskly, satisfyingly to its taboo-breaking conclusion. (It occurs to me that space, with its vast uncharted territories, is ripe for dark horror. Indeed, given that many of Lovecraft’s horrors came from outer space, our space exploration may be a case of us going out to meet monsters instead of them coming to Earth to meet us.)

In addition to the fiction, Skelos contains three non-fiction pieces: Jeffrey Shanks’ exploration of world-building in Robert E. Howard’s short story “Men of Shadows;” a comparison of Lovecraft and Arthur Machen focusing on their different approaches to the sublime by Karen Joan Kohoutek; and, a reconsideration of the role of women in sword and sorcery stories by Nicole Emmelhainz. These articles, while interesting and certainly on topic for Skelos, seemed more suited for an academic journal than a general magazine. It’s not just that they were copiously footnoted; hell, I’ve used footnotes in my fiction! It’s that they contained a lot of parsing of fine distinctions and repetition of points already made, hallmarks of academic writing that I suspect will put off more general readers attracted to the fiction.

On the plus side, Skelos is gorgeously designed, with abundant illustrations. In fact, it contains a short story (Jeffrey Shanks’ adaptation of “Grettir and the Draugr”) and a poem (“Totem” by Pat Calhoun) where all of the text is set within full page graphics. A lot of effort went into making the magazine visually pleasing, and it really does show.

So, as a whole…? Yeah, I know, I should try and stay away from the “you will like this if this is the kind of thing you like” tautology. Still, if the tautology fits…

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