Hundredfold Horror (A Review of Nightmare #100)

This January has brought the 100th edition of horror’s preeminent monthly magazine, Nightmare. Appropriate to such numerical milestone, Issue #100 goes big: 262-pages-worth of whopping content. Special features include a celebratory retrospective in which staff members and frequent contributors share their favorite items from Nightmare‘s history, and an interview between longtime editor John Joseph Adams and his incoming replacement Wendy N. Wagner–one that furnishes plentiful insight into their personal aesthetics as well as their sense of the current state of the genre.

Orrin Grey is the guest writer of this month’s “The H-Word” column. His “Victims and Volunteers” essay offers a fascinating survey of the horror film’s evolution over the past century. Grey uses the historical marker of warfare–and the shifting public perspective onto such violent spectacle–to trace a key distinction: “If World War I and II were Dracula–a terrible and foreign evil that needed brave souls to confront it–then the war in Vietnam was the Sawyer family in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: random, indiscriminate, and unshakably American.”

The hallmark of Nightmare, though, has always been its horror fiction. Issue #100 forms a veritable mini-anthology, rounding up ten short stories (five original). Considering the reprints first:

The very title of Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Things Eric Eats Before He Eats Himself” boldly announces where the narrative is headed, but the dark joy of the piece resides in the journey itself. While taking Rabelaisian appetite to the bizarro extreme, the story also serves up pointed remark about human rapaciousness.

In Victor Lavalle’s “Up From Slavery,” an Amtrak train derailment sets the stage for greater Lovecraftian wreckage. A revisionist take on the Cthulhu Mythos reminiscent of the author’s lauded novella The Ballad of Black Tom.

Gemma Files’s “Thin Cold Hands” combines dark fantasy with stunning scenes of body horror, and is suffused with the writer’s usual exquisite imagery. Drawing fairy lore into present-day context, Files crafts a haunting first-person tale of maternal love and concomitant dread.

Tananarive Due’s “Last Stop on Route Nine” starts as a wrong-turn/car-horror narrative and then supercharges it with eeriness and vicious witchery. With its deft interweaving of social commentary and the supernatural, “Last Stop” maps out a story that would make for a perfect adaptation as an episode of HBO’s Lovecraft Country.

Sessions with a hypnotist to quit smoking prove anything but commonplace when they transpire in Laird Barron’s recurrent setting of the Broadsword Hotel (which makes The Shining‘s Overlook seem like Shangri-La). A title like “Jaws of Saturn” promises wild carnage in store, and the story’s climax delivers no shortage of slaughter by a cyclopean monstrosity.

In regards to the issue’s five original works of fiction:

Desirina Boskovich’s “I Let You Out” runs on pure nightmare fuel: that quintessential childhood fear of the monster lurking in the closet. Don’t expect a generic setting, though, as Boskovich sketches scenes of distinctly Midwestern horror.

Reading like a podcast transcript, Adam Troy-Castro’s “Rotten Little Town: An Oral History” traces (with richly sinister undertones) a hit occult-western TV series whose broadcast run was shadowed by strange developments and macabre mishaps. The titular show sounds like one that horror fans would flock to, but they wouldn’t want to run into the creative forces behind it.

Maria Dahlvana Headley’s “Wolfsbane” is a modernized fairy-tale/feminist fable that channels Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. The story scores a slew of critical points against predatorial masculinity, but any potential tendentiousness here is leavened by the narrative’s extraordinary inventiveness (which includes insurrectionist breadmaking).

A con game goes horribly awry in Stephen Graham Jones’s “How to Break into a Hotel Room.” The fun of watching the protagonist operate in the first half of the story is matched by the dread that arises when his past transgressions catch up to him at last. Jones once again proves himself a master of unsettling detail.

For me, the issue’s standout story was Sam J. Miller’s “Darkness Metastatic,” a frightfully timely tale of social-media fearmongering and the incitement of mindless violence. A sophisticated app taps into humanity’s worst impulses, the hatred and dread that cancerously riddles the body politic. In the “Author Spotlight” for the story, Miller admits that he aimed to create a “creepy dread-filled atmosphere” and flat out “scare the shit out of people.” At that he has succeeded brilliantly: this might be the most disturbing, unnerving work of horror fiction that I have read in years.

If ever there was an issue that readers should pay the $2.99 purchase price for (rather than just sampling the magazine’s contents in segments posted weekly to its website), this is it. The bonanza of bonus material makes this a Nightmare that horror lovers can’t do without.



The Creature Featured

The latest issue of HorrorHound (#78, July/August 2019) takes an in-depth look back at my favorite Universal Monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In a thirteen-page article (“Rising from the Amazon’s Forbidden Depths: Celebrating 65 Years of the Universal Monster!”), John Kitley sketches the cultural context for Creature trilogy, and presents a plethora of details about the making of the films. Accompanying Kitley’s text are hundreds of wonderful color photos–of movie posters, lobby cards, book covers, and seemingly every piece of tie-in merchandise ever created. The article is immediately followed by “Spawn of the Creature,” in which Josh Hadley offers a critical survey of the various film and TV successors (in some cases, shameless rip-offs) of the original Universal trilogy. One particularly fascinating aspect of this survey is Hadley’s consideration of how the Creature films themselves and their numerous cinematic offspring intersect with the aquatic terrors made famous by H.P. Lovecraft.

As gorgeous-looking as it is informative, this Creature-featuring issue will be cherished by any fan of the Gill Man.

Corn Reactor

This month’s “The H Word” feature in Nightmare magazine, Desirina Boskovich’s “The Things That Walk Behind the Rows,” explores a specific region of American horror: the rural Midwest. Drawing upon her own recent relocation to the heartland, Boskovich considers the disconcerting isolation experienced in the central states. Her account of the pioneer-plaguing malady “Prairie Madness” suggests that it’s not just the Lovecraftian Northeast that is subjected to cosmic dread: “This place was like space, like the void between the stars, and no one could hear you scream.” Boskovich also offers intriguing commentary on the Gothic impact of the Homestead Act of 1862, as well as a quick survey of literary appearances of the cornfield (the “quintessential symbol of Midwestern horror”)–from classic stories such as “Children of the Corn” and “It’s a Good Life” to the modern novel Universal Harvester. This short essay is long on insight, and certainly worth checking out.

Recreational Terror

Further proof of what a hot commodity the macabre is these days: the September/October “Bizarre Issue” of SportDiver. A friend passed a copy of the magazine along to me, rightfully assuming that it would be right up my nightmare-loving alley. Landlubber though I might be (you’d sooner catch me flaying my own skin than scuba diving), I can enjoy the vicarious experience of the sea’s darkly fantastic fathoms. This special issue provides plenty of opportunity for such experience, presenting “101 Stranger Things” of the marine world–“the unknown, the freaky and the outlandish.”

Some of the sublime highlights include the bell spider, an underwater predator that sounds like it would be right at home in the sewers of Derry; the Neptune Memorial Reef off the coast of Key Biscayne, an aquatic necropolis where your cremated remains can be stored inside a molded sculpture; the female Maine lobster, who attempts to seduce her potential mate by repeatedly dousing him with her urine; “white gold” treasure hunters who make a fortune retrieving and reselling golf balls from water hazards. Other cataloged items waiting to intrigue readers: the blobfish, exploding whales, the train graveyard buried off the Jersey shore, and the (John Wayne) Bobbitt Worm.

One amazing stat from the issue that has stuck with me: 95% of the ocean is still unexplored, and an estimated 67% of the planet’s marine species have yet to be discovered/described. The most alien world humanity might ever encounter is not off in deep space, but lurking below the surface of earth’s own waters.

The Bizarre Issue abounds with horrific portraits of already-known creatures, from the Gollum-looking oddity on the cover to the king ragworm and the fangtooth fish, which almost make Cthulhu and Dagon appear innocuous as guppies by comparison. Reading this special edition of SportDiver, I couldn’t help but wonder what that unparalleled seafearer, H.P. Lovecraft, would have made of the images modern exploration has brought back from the watery unknown. Such sights might have inspired him to concoct monstrosities that would beggar the wealth of bogies populating his mythos fiction. Or, like one of his unfortunate narrators, he simply might have been left drowning in hysteria.