Spare, elegant, and graceful, The Hollins Critic descends like a belle of the upper South on bibliophiles starved for beauty. Fittingly, this publication emanates from the first women’s college in Virginia, an institution with a proud tradition dedicated to creativity and “effective self-expression.” The accomplished artist Susan Avishai, after decades devoted to the international study and practice of art, entered Hollins University in 2001 to pursue a degree in creative writing. Between writing seminars, she painted in Hollins’s studios, and since 2004 has contributed a striking pen-and-ink cover portrait to each issue of The Hollins Critic. Avishai’s art perfectly launches the reader into the fierce economy of its unique format, its passion for literature, and its flair.
The magazine, entering its 50th year in 2013, publishes in each issue one essay that surveys the whole body of a contemporary writer’s work, as well as book reviews and poems. It reviews but does not publish fiction.
In this issue, Rhonda Brock-Servais, professor of English at Longwood University, surveys the work of Peter Straub. She wastes no time orienting the reader to the oeuvre of Straub, instead assuming some degree of familiarity with his writings. (A brief biographical sketch appears separately, along with a list of his publications; as is customary, he is the subject of the cover portrait.) This appraisal of Straub’s work plunges without apology into the tangled strands of horror, mystery, and the gothic, as well as the recurring characters, places, and relationships that characterize the world created in his novels and short fiction. The essay invokes some of the profound themes of the gothic employed by Straub: “those who can accept and learn from what appears outside the rational are the ones who thrive” because, despite the gothic trope dictating that characters cannot escape the darkness within which they are entwined, Straub allows that transformative opportunities can emerge from a world that is oppressive, threatening, and confined. Although the past continues to haunt, he allows redemption for his characters who can see through their traumas to a deeper level of meaningfulness. To an inquiry from his reviewer, Straub rather winningly responded that his Blue Rose trilogy (Koko, 1988; Mystery, 1990; and The Throat, 1993) “are probably at the heart of whatever [he has] managed to achieve.” Brock-Servais clearly has made a thorough study of her topic and brings her familiarity with the literature of horror to her understanding of Straub’s imagined world. This survey would have benefited from a further round of editorial attention, although to mention this deficiency seems, even to me, tactless, like objecting to the beauty mark on the neck of the southern belle.
The mere titles of the four poems in this issue provide pleasure: “Autumn All Over,” “Obituary,” “Hunter Thompson in Hell,” and “Experiencing Sacred Geometry,” by Helen Wickes, Jeffrey Dieter, William Miller, and Matt Prater, respectively. The titles compel the reader’s attention, and reading the poems rewards it. Poetry Editor Cathryn Hankla has selected beefy poems full of images that conceal as they reveal, as in these lines from Prater:
I looked into the windows of the school.
I noticed the sunset: like a Matisse,
a Rubix of suns, fragmented into brass rectangles.
This faded as I watched, and night came on.
The windows remained, then melted, pooled away.
I got back on my bike, and rode to town.
Everywhere I went, the streetlights rhymed.
This issue provides eight book reviews, ranging from a brief description of an “excellent” new translation by John Ashbery of Rimbaud’s Illuminations; to Finding Grace by Kurt Rheinheimer, a book of linked stories that the reviewer, Amanda Cockrell, describes as “lives told backwards”; to Editor of The Hollins Critic R.H.W. Dillard’s enjoyable review of the novel Love’s Winning Plays, by Inman Majors, which Dillard describes as “a full speed exhibition of comic and romantic broken field running through the world of SEC football.” I mean to seek out and read this novel because of all the virtues commended by Mr. Dillard.
This 24-page publication performs the noblest role of the literary critic. It broadens readers’ awareness of contemporary American literature and deepens our appreciation of the ways that unfolding sensibilities grapple in our day with age-old themes. Like the southern belle, it boasts of impressive, enduring strengths beneath its pleasing outer form.