The State of the Horror Fiction Magazine
"I'm afraid there just isn't much demand for [horror] fiction in Australia." So stated a rejection letter from a prominent literary journal to a young Australian horror story writer.
The year was 1983.
This was apparently true. Sadly, there never had been an Australian Weird Tales or Unknown. Yet magazines from the USA like Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone and Night Cry were readily available on the newsstands and Stephen King had already published eighteen books (if you count the Bachman volumes). Australia relied almost solely on imports for its chills and nightmares.
The young Australian horror story writer was Barry Radburn and his response was to found The Australian Horror and Fantasy Magazine (AH&FM). While it's true to say that earlier Australian magazines sometimes published horror stories, Futuristic Tales (edited by Don Boyd) and The Cygnus Chronicler (edited by Neville Angove) for example, these were primarily science fiction and fantasy magazines. AH&FM was the first Australian publication devoted to the weird and macabre.
Assisted by Stephen Studach and joined later by Leigh Blackmore, Radburn produced six digest-sized (A5) issues averaging forty to sixty pages (the final two being published as a double issue) between early 1984 and October 1986. In total he published some thirty-one original stories and twenty original poems. Of these numbers, about half were contributed by Australian writers.
For the covers Radburn used simple but striking illustrations on coloured stock to good effect. Many of the stories were also illustrated, but the quality of these drawings was uneven, ranging from the amateurish to near professional. As with the prose about half the art pieces published were Australian. AH&FM also included articles, reviews and letters and while no single piece of work stands out, in the main the contents were competent and enjoyable.
If nothing else, AH&FM entertained us and inspired a new generation of writers and artists of the macabre and fantastic. Everything that Radburn set out to do. But it gave us more than that. By accepting overseas contributions and distributing overseas it built a bridge between the burgeoning US and UK horror small press scene. It signalled horror was alive and kicking down under.
Of the local contributors, many have faded into obscurity, but others like Rick Kennett and Leigh Blackmore have gone on to bigger and better things, their names now synonymous with Australian horror. Others still, like Paul Collins (who was already well known in science fiction and fantasy circles) and Kurt Von Trojan have been prominent in related genres.
Then just as suddenly as it appeared AH&FM ceased. Radburn's personal life required his attention and the magazine was extinct.
And we waited . . .
Into the void stepped Leigh Blackmore, horror bibliophile, Lovecraft expert, horror fan and writer. Having already gained some experience assisting Radburn, Leigh Blackmore acquired the remnants of AH&FM and transformed it into Terror Australis (TA).
What a great title!
With the aid of Associate Editors Chris Sequeira (the originator of the title) and Bryce Stevens, Blackmore launched the new magazine in the Autumn of 1988. From the very beginning TA was more ambitious than its predecessor. The first issue was a mammoth 170 pages and its fiction content was almost entirely Australian (except for a feature story by Brian Lumley). But chief among its many attributes, from the writer's point of view, was that TA paid for its stories. A token half a cent per word, but payment nevertheless.
From a business perspective TA should never have been able to afford to pay its contributors, but Blackmore felt that payment would encourage writers to send their best work and so subsidised this out of his own pocket. The proof of his theory is in the final result.
Although Blackmore produced only three issues up until 1992, they were book-sized and included much well regarded work. These issues were also the forerunners to the landmark Terror Australis anthology.
Issue two followed around July 1990, almost two years after the first, and although it suffered from poor printing (an unfortunate result after an attempt to produce a cheaper, better print quality than the first) it was well received.
But issue three, although long overdue when it was finally published in February 1993, overcame all the production problems evident with the earlier issues. It was professionally typeset, printed on quality paper and perfect bound with a glossy cover. This was the "Ripper" issue and amongst the Australian contributions was a feature story by Ramsey Campbell. Unfortunately it was also the final issue.
TA however published many fine Australian horror stories. Work by Rick Kennett, Maurice Xanthos, Frances Burke, Graeme Parsons and others. Indeed, "This Little Piggy Gets . . ." by B.J. Stevens and "Catch me When You Can From Hell" by Dr. George W. Sequeira (aka Chris Sequeira), both from issue three, received honourable mentions in the prestigious St Martins Press fifth annual Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.
In the meantime January 1989 saw the appearance in Canberra of the EOD (Esoteric Order of Dagon) Newsletter, a club fanzine devoted to publishing new Australian writers of horror and the macabre. That first issue was written entirely by its editor, David Tansey, using the pseudonym "Gregory Jacobson" to give the impression more than one person was involved.
The name EOD was derived from a secret society referenced in H.P. Lovecraft's fiction, and the first few issues were decidedly Lovecraftian in flavour.
By September 1990, however, Tansey had published fourteen issues, and in that year EOD Newsletter published a total of twenty-seven stories from twenty-three different writers (only one of which was by Tansey himself). A short story competition voted on by club members judged Stephen Murphy's "Ride a Bullet" as the best story of the year, with Louise Steer's "Forests of the Night" second and "The Beheading" by Chris Clarke third.
Not quite a magazine (typed, photocopied sheets stapled together) EOD provided a regular forum for Australian horror writers to air and improve their work. Tansey retired after fourteen issues, but that was not to be the demise of EOD. Bigger and better things were in store.
It was around this time that Chris Masters, armed with a couple of in-need-of-a-home horror stories, realised that there was no longer an Australian publication specialising in horror fiction (Terror Australis was now closed to submissions). So, like Radburn and Blackmore before him, he set about to remedy the situation by starting his own magazine.
Masters wrote to David Tansey and obtained permission to revive the EOD Newsletter. In fact Tansey was delighted to have someone breath new life into it. And EOD Magazine was born.
With the publication of the first issue in March 1991 Masters' influence was immediately felt. EOD had a new format and was styled more along magazine than newsletter lines, modelled in particular on the UK horror magazine Dagon.
EOD Magazine has improved steadily since its beginnings and has published some fine horror stories. In 1992 Masters ran a short story competition which was judged by a reader's poll. The winner was "Dead Air" by Rick Kennett, which has been described as a "near classic" story. Second was "Maggie's Place" by Stephen Proposch, which was subsequently anthologised in Intimate Armageddons (edited by Bill Congreve), and third "A Twist of the Knife" by Sean Williams, which was subsequently included in the Terror Australis anthology (edited by Leigh Blackmore) as was "Mabuza's Plum" by Eddie Van Helden.
I was planning to mention some of the other notable work which has appeared in EOD so far, but when I began to make a list it just kept growing. If you write down the names of all the fiction contributors it reads like a who's who of Australian horror.
With eight issues of EOD published so far, Masters holds the record for the longest running Australian horror magazine. But there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the next issue will be a double, issues nine and ten. The bad news is that it will be the final issue.
In Masters' own words he plans for EOD to go out with a bang! it will be over 160 pages in length, professionally printed and perfect bound. Watch out for it in early 1994.
Masters has since published two issues of a second magazine, Shoggoth, which specialises in Lovecraftian horror both by Australian and overseas writers. Shoggoth is produced with all the experience Masters has gained editing and publishing EOD. More, it is a return to his horror roots, a labour of love. And finally, it has no fixed publishing schedule, produced when masters has enough quality material. To date Shoggoth has featured Australian Lovecraftian stories by David Tansey, Tim Richards, Don Boyd, Stephen Studach and Masters himself.
Fan club magazines have played (and continue to play) an important role in the development of the Australian horror magazine. EOD Newsletter was probably the first, but more follow, and it would seem that as one drops into oblivion another arrives to take its place.
Late in 1991, Tasmania entered the realms of the macabre with Vandemonian edited and published by Kate George. Ostensibly a Stephen King Fan Club publication it included general horror material (six stories and six poems of uneven quality) along with various pieces of King trivia. Unfortunately, this was the first and last issue.
Vandemonian was a ninety-six page A4 sized photocopy production with numerous illustrations mainly by a talented graphic design student named Tim Streets. The most recognisable fiction contributors were Chris Masters and P.J. Roberts.
There followed Daarke Worlde, a spin-off from The Melbourne Horror Society. The magazine itself is edited and published by T. Johnathon Brook (or Tony J. Brook) with assistance from Chris A. Masters. The first three issues were edited by Brook under his persona of "The Dread Master", but in subsequent issues one can expect "Morbidon Daarke" at the helm. I wonder if this guy's heard of Multiple Personality Syndrome?
Although Daarke Worlde started life as an A4 production (initially with a Daarke Worlde Sampler in March 1992) it became a digest magazine by issue three and uses striking red covers to enhance the cover art. The magazine primarily features macabre fiction, but one of its highlights have been Masters' series of articles on old horror movies, the first few featuring The Mummy and Frankenstein.
As well as publishing horror stories by up and coming Australian writers, Daarke Worlde has also attracted UK and US small-press "names" such as D.F. Lewis and S. Darnbrook Colson. As of issue five Daarke Worlde will go it alone as an independent magazine, available via general subscription rather than to club members.
Two other club magazines to watch for are The Vampire Legion and the Gargoyle Club magazine (title as yet unknown). Both have been actively seeking horror fiction contributions and are expected to be publishing first issues in the very near future.
Another magazine which has drawn attention is Skinned Alive. Published and edited by Rod Williams in Queensland. Skinned Alive is primarily a horror review and horror art magazine tending towards the "splatter" end of the genre, containing intelligent book reviews, sometimes irreverent criticism, and usually one or two short-short horror stories per issue.
Williams is not only a keen horror fan and talented artist (Skinned Alive is worthy of attention for his artwork alone) but also a horror writer himself.
The current issue (number five) will be the last as Skinned Alive is about to be superseded by Sepulchre. Whether this is simply a change of name or whether, perhaps, it is a major change of direction we will have to wait and see.
More recently new magazine, Prohibited Matter, appeared late in 1992. Issue one was a reasonably well put together A4 production of over eighty pages. It is essentially a horror fiction magazine, and while all the stories have an element of horror some tend more towards crime or science fiction. It is edited by Rod Marsden and published by Marsden in conjunction with Don Boyd.
Initially the scope of Prohibited Matter was limited somewhat because it was restricted to publishing the work of three individuals, Marsden, Boyd and S. Carcinogen (a pseudonym of the well known horror artist Steve Carter who also supplies much of the artwork for the magazine). Marsden, however, quickly realised the limitations of this approach and has subsequently opened submissions to both local and overseas horror writers. Issue two has just been published (October 1993) and reportedly carries work by other contributors as well.
On the foreseeable horizon is a new magazine called Dark Muse. Editor Charles Spiteri is currently seeking Australian horror fiction on the themes of Vampirism, Love and Desire, Freaks and Worship for the first four issues. Spiteri is also hoping to pay contributors, probably around one cent per word.
It would seem the Australian horror scene has never been healthier. Certainly there have never been so many horror magazines available or planned in Australia are there are now.
In this column I have concentrated solely on Australian horror fiction magazines. But one should not forget the genre has been influenced locally by other Australian publications. Comics like Phantastique and its underground predecessor Charnel House from Steve Carter, Chris Sequeira's Pulse of Darkness with gothic vampire overtones and Chris Doolan's splatter comic Vile spring to mind. Not to mention the various review type publications such as Fatal Visions (ed Ian Helms), Mondo Gore (ed Hank) and Autopsy (ed Chris Doolan).
Presented with the facts it's fairly easy to come to the conclusion that the Australian horror scene has never been healthier. But closer analysis leaves one concerned about the long term health of the patient. Look at it from another perspective. Every Australian horror magazine discussed in this article has been a small press venture. None have paid contributors professional rates. Indeed, only one has actually paid writers at all.
This, of course, has not stopped Australian writers producing world class horror fiction and selling it to international professional markets. Greg Egan, Robert Hood, Rick Kennett and Paul Voermans, just to name four, have all sold horror stories overseas to magazines and horror anthologies. Other Australian magazines, of course, have and do published horror stories -- from science fiction magazines like Aphelion, Aurealis and Eidolon to mainstream literary journals like Mattoid and Linq and Arena. But the fact remains that there has never been a professional Australian horror magazine where local writers could submit their work.
We have the talent. Look at work by any of the above-named writers. Look at either of the recent Australian horror anthologies Intimate Armageddons or Terror Australis. We have the market. Australians buy bucket loads of imported horror.
Or do we have the market? Sure, there are people out there. People who read horror fiction. But reaching them is the problem.
Despite all the hard work and achievements of the various editors and publishers, no Australian horror magazine has truly managed to overcome the problem of distribution. It has been the stumbling block of almost every venture.
Limited distribution means limited readers. And limited readers means limited revenue, from both sales and advertising. And limited revenue means limited money for production and contributor's payments. Which in turn influence product quality which influences potential distribution.
A vicious circle . . .
Perhaps it has not been possible until now. Maybe the commercial success of Australian horror anthologies such as Intimate Armageddons and Terror Australis have helped create the right climate.
A professional Australian horror magazine able to pay writers and artists and distribute their work to a wide audience? A pipe-dream?
Not any more.
You're now holding it: Bloodsongs -- the culmination of all that has gone before it -- the first professional Australian horror magazine. A magazine to showcase the wide variety of talent creating shudders, shocks and unease Downunder.
Join me in wishing the patient a long and healthy life.
Bloodsongs lasted 9 issues, running from 1993 to 1997