Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Harrow 10.10 (2007)

The Harrow, Vol 10, No 10 (2007), ed. Dru Pagliassotti. Online. Available:

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

The Harrow is one of the most prolific and consistent small-press horror magazines, with issues appearing more or less every month since at least 2005, and archives going back to 1998. Each issue runs five or six stories, a handful of poems, and usually several reviews of fantasy or horror titles. The website is well-organized and spartan (and I mean that in a good way—no bells and whistles to slow down my old browser or dialup connection; nice plain text for my hand-held device or blind text-reader), all based around a content management system for publishing academic journals. This means it is efficient and well-organized, but there are few if any glossy features, illustrations, or very personal touches.

Editor Dru Pagliassotti introduces Volume 10, No 10 with the explanation that this is “The Hollywood Issue,” and gives a brief summary of the importance and implications of each story. I chose to read this section after having read all of the stories, and my interpretations, as you will see, sometimes differ from the editor’s.

The Hollywood Incident” by Amanda M. Underwood begins with a very traditional tone, but gradually peels away the layers to something less obvious underneath. In a Los Angeles private investigator’s office just on the edges of Hollywood, we are introduced to the walking cliché who is Adele, a sassy, sexy, troubled but confident PI with an eye for handsome men, especially bastards. But Adele has an uncanny ability to smell out the truth, and when a strange beast starts killing in Los Angeles, soon both the cops and the mob are turning to her for help. Ultimately the dénouement of this story is neither as surprising nor as original as all that, but the switch from easy, detective-genre stereotypes at the start to the much more troubling, edgy, sexy, and visceral tones of a supernatural (which is not giving anything away, since pretty much all Harrow stories have something of the supernatural in them) horror is competently executed. This summary may sound cold, because I am trying not to spoil the story, but it was a very enjoyable read and held promise for the rest of the issue.

The second story in this issue, Kurt D. Kirchmeier’s “Looking for a Lion,” is a short morality play set on an anonymous (but possibly futuristic) battlefield. I’m not sure I’ve quite figured out the strange inversion of the lion metaphor in the title. With cowards and ghosts and heroes and visible auras and countless enemies in eternal conflict, this piece tells a simple tale with a simple moral in well under 1000 words. The characters were convincing (albeit shallow), and I am not sure that the story needed more words to do it justice, but something here felt a little lightweight. This is barely more than a piece of flash however, and with such a brief text first impressions and subjectivity count for even more than usual.

Stephanie Scarborough brings the next story, “Keeping Things in Order,” which is one of the strangest stories I can remember seeing in this magazine. Strange in the sense that it is a not terribly well-written story, structured like a B-movie, about a walled-off town populated by B-list actors and plagued by radioactive zombies. The protagonist is Mary Beth, a “troubled teen” actress and the town’s only unicorn-riding zombie hunter, who has to deal not only with the (not very scary) zombies constantly erupting from the cemetery but also with the “Z-listers” of the Save The Zombies Alliance. It really is as silly as it sounds. I suppose this is all deliberate, that the B-movie structure and style is a metaphor for the shallowness of Hollywood horror films (or something), and that the quality of writing, far from being poor, is in fact perfectly crafted to simulate the shaky dialogue and info-dumping of most zomcom fare. I suppose I just didn’t get the joke. Sorry. My bad.

A much more engaging and troubling story is William Earl McGee Jr’s “Duck and Cover,” a story set in a Cold War America that somehow does not feel so far in the past. Eddie is a trouble-maker at school, uninterested in learning or any academic topic, but he is clearly more alert and engaged than those of his classmates who succumb to the propagandist brainwashing and hateful scaremongering the teachers subject them to. One day the school is visited by a military contingent with recording and broadcasting equipment. Eddie, although he already feels slightly above acting up during the weekly propaganda broadcast, nevertheless has his reputation to live up to, and so goes too far and is dragged out of the classroom for a special lesson with the sinister Sergeant Atterbury. What follows is perhaps more horrifying for not being especially fantastic or unrealistic, and it is a masterful achievement that McGee manages to give the story an ultimately optimistic note when it all ends. This is probably the strongest piece in the magazine.

Stephen J. Bush provides the last story in this issue, “A Cautionary Tale About Angry Light,” which is an oddly askew story told in old-fashioned (but not in any way archaic) prose, always just slightly off-kilter and hard to follow. There is no question of this being poor writing, however: every word of this poetic and experimental piece is carefully chosen and crafted for a specific effect. The story presents a protagonist—without name or personality, but then that is part of the point—who is an actor. His every act or expression is fake, his face a mask, his features obscured or disguised with make-up, his words scripted, and his movements choreographed. So unreal and mindless is this puppet-like figure that his reflection and his shadow are in some ways more real; the horror arises as they start to take on minds of their own. Although impressive, this metaphor for the personality crisis of the actor is difficult to read.

This may not be the strongest issue of The Harrow I have ever read, but that is rather a credit to the usual standard of this excellent little magazine than it is an insult to the works in this issue. There is much in here that is worth reading.

(I have not touched upon the poetry or the reviews, for these are best left to speak for themselves.)

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