The Fall 2013 issue of Ninth Letter is an interesting mix of the familiar and the alien. The magazine, which itself is always a striking mix of personable stories and inhuman artwork, strikes a particularly poignant tone in the eyeball covered installment.
Situated near the beginning of the issue is an inviting look at the midwest through photographs of decaying neighborhoods and a calm story of a dying tradition. I understand the contradiction of the pairing of the words ‘inviting’, ‘decaying’, and ‘dying’ since if one were to search the words out in a dictionary they would find sharply contrasting definitions. Ninth Letter, however, defies the common assumption in this way. It’s not that viewing a photograph of a weather-stripped tree or rusted and busted pickup truck creates a sense of desire, but rather a sense of familiarity. The photographs show environments that people can link themselves to, either physically or emotionally.
Situated amongst these photographs (with a great relevancy, I might add) is a story called “Turkey Detour” by Ceridwen Hall. The short non-fiction piece tells of how one individuals seasonal tradition changed over the course of half a lifetime. Small hints at unfamiliarity pepper the piece, such as getting lost on the way to the poultry processing plant or the early celebration of a holiday due to conflicting schedules. Each paragraph carries with it some sort of downtrodden description or saddening epithet and the resolution leaves a sense of bittersweet acceptance. The two pages here convey in writing what the photographs that surround it convey in visuals, something sad but not completely without its positives. A feeling that things aren’t great, but at least they’re still there.
From this point on the magazine strays from its midwestern angle and is open to more variable interpretations. Acknowledging this, the remainder of the review will subject you to my personal interpretation.
These interpretations stem from the abstract artwork which punctuates the written work every few pages. The artwork, colored mostly red and blue to complement the 3D glasses provided with the issue, is often depicting something natural which has been altered in some way. An example of this is a mountain range surrounded by stamps of a similar mountain range, repetitious from the top of the page to the bottom. Also the face of a monkey which has been copied and shifted to cause a strange duplicate sensation. I feel as though these pieces of art are meant to contrast the generally human bent of the published works. For me, at the very least, it heightened the impact of the stories. It created a mountains and valleys feeling, where the depths some of the written works traveled to were made all the more noticeable by the sharp contrast of the bold and upfront nature of the artwork. The title pages of this issue are a good representation of this. Take for example the piece “Dispatches From The War” by Adam Peterson, a short and abstract fiction piece which is situated between two geometric title pages. The story reaches very deeply into longing and violence while being bookended by two inhuman and unrelatable blocks of color.
The aforementioned primate’s face is used to complement a second story, a work of fiction this time, called “The Dilemma Olympics” by Robyn Joy Leff. The story focuses on the surfacing of a home video online and the repercussions it has amongst a single mothers family, as well as her own development. The video in question surfaces forgotten memories of a period during infancy, where the narrator’s father raised his children alongside a primate for the sake of an experiment. The experiment, as revealed later in the story, failed for rather frightening reasons. The story seems to have a running theme of human development, and asks the question ‘what is it that contributes to the way we turn out?’ The question, as well as the ensuing search for answers, as represented by the narrator’s unending curiosity, points out what I believe to be Ninth Letter’s main aesthetic, an examination of human nature.
This mission seems to be made more prevalent in a third story, “Super Awesome Sexy Weekend” written by Colin Winnette. This story, situated near the tail end of the Fall 2014 issue, is truly over the top. It’s my belief that the editors chose to gradually introduce readers into the theme with more grounded stories such as “Turkey Detour” and “The Dilemma Olympics” placed in the earlier pages before exploring their theme in more abstract ways near the end. The Winnette story places the narrator in a summer camp setting, with stereotypical drinking, sex, and general revelry associated with party culture. The story’s main conflict arises with the ominous disappearances and eventually gruesome murders of the campers. Granted, the premise presented is not one wholly original. It’s a story seen numerous times in countless horror movies. What makes the piece original is the over the top nature and its darker interpretation of the classic scary movie plotline.
The madcap murder and gore, which eventually escalates to the blowing up of twenty plus campers at once, acts as almost a wink to the reader that the death of teenagers is not the focus or intent of the author. Instead, the violence serves as a vehicle for a story of overcoming difficulties and perseverance in the face of adversity. At one point in the story, after numerous arrows through heads and instances of suffocation, the campers begin to sit down and sink into mud. The narrator defies this and instead runs for the woods in an attempt to escape, something shown to clearly not work earlier in the story. This sense of necessity in the face of futility portrays a tangible sense of the humans will to live. The narrator acts because the narrator has to, and that’s that.
These stories, as well as other works in the issue not discussed, seem to contribute to Ninth Letter’s overall mission of examining the multiple facets of the human condition. The published works in both this issue as well as the Spring 2015 issue offer insight into different lives of different people, from deplorable women-beaters to mysterious murder survivors. Each story and poem contributes to the readers overall knowledge of human life and the many forms it may take and increase their appreciation for the diversity in both actions and challenges taken and faced by those individuals. The magazine, in my view, is phenomenal. It doesn’t miss a beat between pages and succeeds in creating a sense of sadness with purpose. The stories within in the magazine teach the reader about the true nature of what makes us ‘us’, and while it’s not always pretty it at least always feel true. That, I believe, is the greatest strength of Ninth Letter, its ability to teach the individual holding the magazine about themselves, in a way. Maybe that’s granting a literary magazine too much credit.