BOOK REVIEW: Sanitarium Issue #1 by Various

Sanitarium is a new magazine of horror that published its first issue earlier this year. It was established by Caitlin Marceau and Ian Sputnik and is not to be confused the longer-running anthology series of the same name.

This issue, which showcases a diverse collection of writing from some phenomenal authors at the top of their game, has been put together by editors Ian Sputnik, Caitlin Marceau, Brooke Warra, and Michael Brueggeman. It’s clear this team had a unified vision for the project, and the stories compliment each other well whilst still feeling unique.

Horror is undergoing something of a renaissance. One only has to look at the bold cinematic releases of the last few years to see that trend: Get Out, Hereditary, Halloween, Mandy, and the upcoming: Us. We’ve moved away from the shallow jump-scare frenzy of the noughties and seem to be returning to genuinely disturbing, chilling, and deeply psychological horror, the kind that Stephen King semi-pioneered. Sanitarium, therefore, arrives at an apt time, and its focus purely on horror shows just how broad and encompassing the genre can be.

There are many stand-out stories in this collection. In no particular order, Dan Fields’ story ‘A Whaleman of Fairhaven’ is an absolute master-stroke. A taut period-piece that is equal parts Lovecraft and Moby Dick, depicting a beleaguered crew’s pursuit of a mysterious pack of whales and in turn their pursuit by an even greater predator of the ocean. This piece is written in brilliantly devised authentic language, utilising naval terminology to further the verisimilitude. Some of the turns of phrase here are absolutely exquisite. The narrator describes being ‘cored out by horror’ and describes the crew’s early moment of elation in these terms: ‘we were yet as savages in shivers of unlikely triumph’. The gentle sibilance here lends it an almost impressionistic, Conrad-esque fervour. Later on in this piece, it shifts gear again, twisting the characters we believed we knew (with some deft unreliable narration) and changing the story into an almost Rime of the Ancient Mariner-like fable of suffering. To say I was impressed by this story would be gross understatement, it is worthy of Coleridge, Melville and Lovecraft on its own terms.

Another stand-out piece was Max D. Stanton’s ‘Alchemical Wedding’. The title is a reference to The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a Gnostic text posing as a novel full of secret meanings pertaining to alchemy, hermetic lore, and hidden wisdom of the ages. Max D. Stanton perfectly encapsulates the symbology of this text whilst also adding his own modern flair. Here, the hidden meaning is contained in a pornographic video, and our hero is a Vice Squad detective who perhaps enjoys his filthy work a little too much. It is at once a genius satire, full of hilarious moments (such as when the American protagonist Benny reveals his most hated word to be ‘artsy’, followed swiftly by ‘European’), but also a deeply weird and unsettling tale of altered reality that genuinely achieves it lofty symbolic ambitions. This is a story rich with characterisation, social commentary, and psychological understanding that rewards subsequent readings. It feels like an episode of Inside No.9 that has derailed and turned into a feature-length porn flick, and establishes Max D. Stanton as one of the freshest voices in fiction I’ve read in a long while.

I would be remiss if I did not also laud Dan Soule’s exemplary and subtle piece ‘The Slaughterman’s Tale’. Dan Soule shows us here that a simple premise and execution can, in the right hands, be devastating. In this story, a slaughterman, about to be made redundant, enjoys a tipple at his last shift on the job. Unfortunately, he’s not alone as he thinks. What follows is a fascinating conversation and character-study that goes into all kinds of theological realms. Our protagonist is frighteningly believable. Dan Soule writes convincing everyday people (as opposed to the star-blessed heroes of amazing uniqueness that haunt so many fiction tales) like no other, and they are so sympathetic as a result. This tale is reminiscent of the kind of subtle but progressively asphyxiating stories of M. R. James, but melded with modern psychology and the idea of our former actions coming back to haunt us. Dan Soule manages to hinge the whole meaning of the tale on the last line, a hair-raising moment of revelation that completely re-imagines the meaning of the piece and re-invents a well-worn archetype. Dan has an upcoming collection of the same name: The Slaughterman’s Tale, so I’d be sure to keep tabs on it.

There are many other stories that deserve commendation. ‘The Mouth That Opens’ by Logan Noble is one of my favourite genres of story, that of the ‘lost art’. It depicts a film-buff’s search for a forgotten French celluloid piece. Throughout the course of the story, the film begins to influence our protagonist’s life in horrifying ways. Creative, compelling, disturbing, this story is Lynchian in the way it sucks you in to its darkly fantastical world. ‘Toxoplasmosis’ is another hit. Author Brooke Reynolds gives us a fascinating study of obsession, the way our brains work, and the definition of a parasite. It’s full of rich and well-observed insightful lines that draw out the human condition: ‘while this might take away her new outlook on life, [she] hopes to keep her new physique’.

Some other credits must be dolled out: Brad McNaughton’s genuinely ominous depiction of pregnancy worries in ‘Broken Crescent’ is quite startlingly done. ‘Good Sport’ by Steve McQuiggan is a funny and tragic insight into body-image and modern standards of fitness. There are some stories here that did not resonate for me, and one or two pieces I felt succumbed to the trap of writers writing about writing, but overall Sanitarium is incredibly strong and bound to give you at least three or four stories that work at a deeper level. Sanitarium also includes poetry. Whilst this was not to my personal taste (for me, language without form is meaningless), it was consistent both thematically with other tales and poetry in the issue and tonally. I would be interested to see if they could challenge their current model and take on poetry with more structure, harmony, and meter.

Sanitarium is a quality magazine that has made a solid first issue, and it can only grow and get better from where it is now. It is a prime example of how turbulent times can produce a wealth of creative endeavour, and how crisis shapes narrative and our understanding of the universe. Here, we have so many varied ideas, narratives, and people represented, yet they are all united by our fascination with death, fear, suffering, and madness. I eagerly await their second issue.

You can purchase a copy of Sanitarium here.
For more information about them, or to submit to their magazine, you can reach them here.

Reviewed by Joseph Sale

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