CLUBHOUSE: Review: Unnerving Magazine #14

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OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

UNNERVING MAGAZINE issue #14.

Published in Powell River, British Columbia, Canada.

Publisher and Editor: Eddie Generous

Cover Art: Eddie Generous

FICTION:

The Spindly Man – by Stephen Graham Jones

Premise:  

The protagonist is leading a book discussion in a gym. They’re discussing Stephen King’s story The Man in a Black Suit. A stranger joins the group.

Review:

The discussion hinges on the concept no one can have faith the Devil exists unless they actually meet him or witness the consequences of his actions. Or, more simply, if you’ve never experienced evil, how do you know it exists? The stranger, an odd-looking chap, adds emphasis to the discussion by insisting everyone reveal at least one encounter with supernatural evil they have experienced. The result is very interesting indeed, and the reader looks forward to hearing the stranger’s own tale.

The reader can be forgiven for assuming the story is leading to a particular “surprise” revelation that won’t be much of a surprise. But, in fact, the reader’s expectations are thwarted by a genuine surprise ending that I, for one, did not anticipate. I’m not certain I entirely “buy” the ending for a technical reason (in terms of writing technique) that struck me as a minor flaw, something I would point out in a writers workshop, but perhaps I’m just being picky. I don’t want to explain what I mean because that would give away too much of the story. Suffice to say the ending did come as a total surprise which, in hindsight, added more depth and meaning to the discussion that had taken place. In that sense, a very successful story. My perceived “flaw” in no way detracted from the impact of the story.

Overall, a somewhat dry, intellectual approach to horror, but creepy enough to build anticipation to a  payoff that is a payoff as it leaves you feeling uneasy about life in general, perhaps depending on the level of your imagination. Not a shocker, but definitely unnerving.

Danger’s Failed Film Pitches – by Danger Slater

Premise:  

Danger pitches a film idea to Stephen King.

Review:  

You know, this is every writer’s nightmare. Some gung-ho twit pitches a simplistic idea for a book or a script and says “All you have to do is write it and we’ll split the profits 50/50. Deal?” The writer always says “No,” but god help him if twenty years later he publishes something remotely similar, say an invasion by aliens, or evil clowns, and the twit in question launches a lawsuit. Quite a nuisance. Over the decades I’ve come to know a number of famous authors, and for two years I was pestered by a guy who wanted to pass on his “killer idea” to an author he knew I knew. I did no such thing. Fact is, ideas are a dime a dozen. Every author has more than enough to last a lifetime of writing. The last thing they need is a half baked concept from a total stranger.

Anyway, in this story it turns out Stephen King (fictional version anyway) has come up with a unique solution to the problem. I found it quite amusing.

Special Delivery – by Bev Vincent

Premise:

Where do you get your ideas? The author knows, and dreads the prospect.

Review:

Essentially a gimmick story. What if ideas come, not from a writer’s own imagination, but from somewhere else, and what if the price to be paid makes one want to give up writing? This doesn’t apply to every writer, apparently, only to best-selling authors. This story puts new meaning into the concept “trapped by success.”

It’s not clear if the ending is typical of the experience, or the culminating horror ending the career. Either way, it poses the question “Would you be willing to put up with this in exchange for millions?” The particular protagonist in question lives frugally and doesn’t want any more money, or fame, but has no choice. Just how far would you sacrifice happiness to achieve success?

Really a metaphor re: the price all authors pay, even the unpublished ones. Years and years of effort, for what exactly? Is it worth the struggle? I say, yes, providing you’re satisfied with your accomplishment in completing the novel. Everything else is just icing on the cake. But in terms of the working practice exhibited in this story? Nah. Not worth it. Which is every writer’s secret fear, the basis of their imposture syndrome and whatnot. In short, this story is especially meaningful for writers. A gimmick, but a terrifying gimmick, from a writers point of view.

Figures in an unimportant Landscape – by Jessica McHugh

Premise:

A very short poem.

Review:

Blackout poetry is a “thing” I have never previously come across. The poet crosses out an entire page of text with a black marker, leaving certain words clear and circled to compose, at most, a poetic statement a sentence or two in length. Supposedly their arrangement against a pattern of squiggled-out lines is part of the imagery of the poem but I don’t get that from this example. The actual words in this poem seem like something a madman would say, so there’s a horror element involved to be sure.

I suspected William S. Burroughs of originating the concept, but on googling I found out he was merely one of its more modern practitioners. Apparently the technique began in the 18th century. Visually, at least when using black markers on a page of text, the result is ugly and off-putting, or so it appears to me. Earlier methods of throwing strips of brief quotes into a hat and pulling out phrases at random to “compose” an oral poem in front of an audience has more appeal to me. An entire chapbook of blackout poetry of the type reproduced in this issue of Unnerving is not something I would read. Don’t like the format. No, sir.

Still, I must thank both the poet and the publisher for filling in a blank in my knowledge of modern literature. I had no idea such a thing existed.

Finding the Path  – by Kaaron Warren

Premise:

The worst of the worst young thugs are being bussed to a mandatory summer camp.

Review:  

Being incredibly brutal and empathy-free jerks proud of the havoc they’ve individually wreaked, naturally they bond during the bus trip, boasting of what they’ve done and, knowing all the tricks, of what they’ll do on reaching the camp. They’ve all been through this kind of “treatment” before. The prospect holds no terrors for them. Until they arrive.

A sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy, in that many people think those they deem incorrigible scum deserve such a fate, but modern social engineering, at least in Canada, is not very keen on punitive models so much as the possibility of rehabilitation. Which, I hasten to add, is a good thing. Probably. I guess. But then I’m liberal-minded. All the same, I found the horrific ending amusing.

This story does two things well: first, it illustrates very clearly how matter-of-factly callous the truly brutal are, and second, sets up their downfall superbly well, in terms of agreeable wish-fulfillment, albeit as a guilty pleasure on the part of the reader. This is okay, because the “solution” is not practical in the real world (one hopes), so it is not as if the reader is endorsing some brand new cruel and unusual punishment as something the justice system should immediately adopt.

Nope, just a work of fiction in which the terror of the horror (or the horror of the terror) is inflicted on the guilty for a change rather than on innocent victims. I always empathise with innocent victims, so I found the resolution of this story psychologically satisfying. Made me smile.

Hotel – by Donna Lynch

Premise:   

A poem about a hotel’s relationship with a particular customer.

Review:

We tend to personify everything, so why not a hotel and its point of view? Apparently a good time is to be had, but at a price. It is not only the customer who pays. A bit sad, this poem.

Black Brothel, Part 3: Midnight Snack – by Renee Miller

Premise: 

Mary plays a little girl for Major, who is one of her least troublesome customers. Then management insists on a third partner.

Review:

Perhaps out of a need to be in keeping with the Stephen King theme, there is less sex and violence than usual in this third installment in the series. The title is a bit of a giveaway, though the resolution remains suitably unpleasant. What makes this story particularly interesting is its glimpse into the mind of a particular supernatural being. Is that state of mind appropriate? I’m not sure. But it is fascinating all the same. Relatively low-key (compared to the first two stories) but still genuinely creepy.

Home is Where You Sink Your Teeth – by Ann Gresham

Premise:   

Citadel Bluff is the town where Sarah grew up. She’s returned only because her grandmother is dying. Sarah hates Citadel Bluff. Turns out the town hates her.

Review:

The dead are important in this story. Equally so the “spell” the town holds over Sarah. Can she escape? She knows she should make the effort, but she doesn’t want to. On the other hand, she doesn’t want to die either.

I have the feeling this is a Stephen King-style plot waiting to be fleshed out into something longer. At its current size it strikes me as too crowded with incidents, especially past incidents. Perhaps a tad too many characters. On the other hand, it’s not a failure as a story. I think it could make a good movie, in fact, suitably expanded. It’s a pastiche in homage to Stephen King and works as such. Just a little bit breathless and fast-paced, given the theme and subject matter. That be my personal taste in fiction technique speaking, methinks. Stephen King fans may well find this story comfortably familiar and rather appealing.

I particularly like the title, by the way.

Don’t Let the Dark Stop You Shining   – by William Meikle

Premise: 

A woman is obsessed with two things: the memory of her dead family, and the lyrics of a song by the Rolling Stones that describe her state of mind.

Review:

William has written and published a great deal of horror fiction, mostly of a Lovecraftian nature. In this story there’s a Stephen King-like emphasis on regret and loss and a growing desire to combat the past by exploiting the supernatural element to the victim’s advantage. Generally speaking, never a good idea. Simplistically put, you can’t go home again, no matter what incantations you utilise. Death has a way of changing things. The resolution of the story is a bit of a downer. The moral of the story? Don’t feed your guilt. You are better off getting over it. Words to live by. In fact, your life may depend on it.

Danger’s Failed Film Pitches   – by Danger Slater

Premise:   

Danger makes a pitch at Tom Holland, horror film director.

Review:

This reflects reality only in the sense that the pitch remains forever “in production.” Apart from that, a humorous exaggeration of a pitch that, perversely enough, holds a certain amount of potential. Not sure theatre audiences would like it. Kind of funny, but kind of gruesome. Hmm, might be a good pitch for an anime film though.

NON-FICTION:

Clever Psychological Experiment – by Robert J. Sawyer

Premise:

Single paragraph mini-mini-essay on impact of Stephen King’s film Carrie.

Review:

Says something about the experience of watching a film with friends. Raises the possibility this is not always a good thing, in that it can make a truly personal reaction more difficult.

Me, I lower my expectations as low as possible and go into a trance-like state willing myself into the movie as if I’m a disembodied presence present in each and every scene. As a consequence, I enjoy almost every film I watch. I never tear apart a film till after I’ve seen it and had time to think about it. Whether friends are present or not makes no difference to my experience, till the discussion begins after we walk out of the theatre. (Talking pre-pandemic days, of course.)

Too Stubborn to Quit – by Eddie Generous

Premise:

Between 2014 and 2020 Eddie received 1,000 rejection slips. He feels he knows a thing or two about what doesn’t sell, and what does.

Review:

I never even cracked 100 rejection slips in my fifty year campaign to get published (though I remain tremendously pleased with my Playboy rejection slip—got  the little Playboy Bunny-girl logo on it for one thing, but I digress.)

Thing is, Eddie casually mentions all of his stories had the recommended “strong, inviting opening sentences” yet still didn’t make the grade. Myriad other factors are equally important. Here Eddie concentrates on “the little touches … the descriptors, the details that build, solidify and humanize settings and characters .…” and draws examples from the beginnings of several of Stephen King’s works. Most instructive and worth pondering. As Eddie rightly points out, it’s the kind of thing a professional writer has developed an instinct for, something more subconscious than conscious.

Maybe there’s hope for me yet. As my conscious mind shallows and bottoms out in old age hopefully my subconscious is gaining in depth. Eventually I will have to depend on my subconscious entirely if I am to get anything down on paper.

King in the Slush Pile – with Richard Chizmar

Premise:

Title says it all in reference to Stephen King’s first sale to Richard Chizmar’s Cemetery Dance Magazine.

Review:

An amusing tale involving a delay in reading King’s first submission to the magazine, a story called Chattery Teeth. The lesson for publishers is, I take it, always check every submission carefully.

I’d Just Scream – with Samantha M. Bailey

Premise:

A one-paragraph first experience reading Stephen King.

Review:

Apparently a horrible experience, though nothing to do with King’s writing except in terms of how it reflected what else was going on in Samantha’s life.

Three Sides of the Dark Half – with Cassie Daley

Premise:  

Cassie reviews Stephen King’s The Dark Half.

Review:

Three sides, because The Dark Half is the only King novel to be made into both a movie and a video game.  Each has flaws, according to Cassie, but are fascinating because all three reflect King’s experience with his Richard Bachman pseudonym,  prematurely exposed by a bookstore clerk’s hunch. Could be. I confess the plot doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, so I’m reasonably certain I will never seek out the book, or the movie, or the game, but for those looking for some insight into Stephen King himself this “triple-threat” is probably very informative and worthwhile.

Reviews – by Eddie Generous, Valerie Lester, and Ben Walker.

Premise:  

Six books are reviewed: Starseed – by Stephen Guy, Defying the Ghosts – by Joan Marie Verba, Whitechapel Rhapsody – by Alessandro Manzetti, The Hollow Places – by T. Kingfisher, The Worm and His Kings – by Halley Piper, and Clown in a Cornfield – by Adam Cesare.

Review:

All of the reviews successfully express the core basis of each book, I suspect. None of them appeal to me. One supposedly puts too much emphasis on explicit sex, another perhaps betrays its Lovecraftian theme with too much characterization. Whitechapel Rhapsody, a book of poems exclusively devoted to Jack the Ripper, sounds the most interesting. A pity, since I really hate reading about said serial killer and avoid anything to do with him. (Although that hasn’t stopped me from publishing two stories about him in my Polar Borealis Magazine. They were good stories). It does sound as if the subject is tackled from many unusual angles, some startlingly original. Probably worth reading as a brilliant example of a poetic approach to any subject, may be. Of particular interest to poets, in other words.

Hard Case King – an interview with Charles Ardai

Premise:  

Charles Ardai is one of the people behind Hard Case Crime Books. Here he describes reaching out to Stephen King for The Colorado Kid.

Review:

Charles had noted King likes old-fashioned pulp literature, including crime fiction, and inquired if he might be interested in writing blurbs for some of their Hard Case Crime novels. Instead, Stephen King handed in a crime novel, The Colorado Kid, which became the publisher’s best selling novel bar none. And then a second novel, Joyland. And now a third novel, titled Later, coming out in March of 2021. Another lesson for any publisher. Sometimes it pays to ask.

Freaking Me Out – by Andrew Pyper

Premise:

Another one-paragraph account of first encountering Stephen King’s writing.

Review:

A traumatic experience, evidently.

The Stand Revisited – by Tracy Robinson

Premise:

Reading Stephen King makes Tracy happy.

Review:

Tracy first read The Stand when she was 15. Now 41, on rereading it she finds greater complexity and more nuance than she noticed the first time. She looks forward to reading it again at some point in the future in full expectation it will strike her as even more meaningful on the basis of her own life experience by that time. This is the sort of dedicated reader writers dream of acquiring.

I’m not interested in reading the novel, but I believe those who have would find it most interesting to compare their own take on the book with Tracy’s evolving interpretation.

CONCLUSION: 

I confess. Apart from one collection of short stories and his 1981 non-fiction work Danse Macabre, I’ve never read anything by Stephen King. Nor have I seen many of his movies. So, I’m perhaps the last person to credibly review an issue of a horror magazine with a Stephen King theme. Nevertheless I gave it my best shot, in that my comments genuinely reflect my impressions and opinions.

In general, I consider this issue toned down from the magazine’s usual level of explicit shock. I gather because King is a master of situational horror and fear-mongering rather than in-your-face gore and violence.

Nevertheless there is a pleasing variety of fiction, often with vivid description and remarkable ideas. I have no doubt Stephen King fans would enjoy reading everything in this issue. I did, and I’m not a fan, if only because I’ve never read any of his novels.

Does this issue make me want to start reading King? I’m thinking about it ….

Check it out at:  < Unnerving >

 

 

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