Here is the second in our series of five guest posts reviewing the 2019 Splatterpunk Awards’ Nominees. The content and opinions presented here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Horror After Dark team.
Welcome to the second post in a five-part series celebrating the nominees for this year’s Splatterpunk Awards! With the Best Short Story category having been covered, let us move on to Best Novella: the category for tales too long to be short stories, yet too short to be novels…
Kill for Satan! by Bryan Smith
Littleburg is the very ideal of whitebread smalltown America. Or, at least, so it seems on the surface. As it happens, this unremarkable little town is home to a cult of devil-worshippers who have managed to infiltrate all levels of local society. The night before Halloween, they stage a ritual orgy where the guest of honour is none other than Satan himself.
The Devil issues a command to his faithful: they must spend Halloween hunting down and killing virgins as sacrifices in his name. To help them in their goal, he gives them the ability to identify fitting targets by sight. To the devil-worshippers, those who have not lost their virginity will be marked by telltale shimmers, like the sparkle of a Twilight vampire. The cultists, devoted to their infernal majesty, set about their dark task, exploiting whatever family ties or positions of authority they have at their disposal.
Kill for Satan! shows no desire to be taken seriously, something evidenced by its unorthodox approach to the idea of virgin sacrifice. Rather than restricting themselves to chaste young ladies, the cultists pray upon any virgin: victims include a smalltown lesbian; a lonely pervert who no woman would touch with a bargepole; and an elderly man who simply had no desire to get laid.
Kill for Satan! has something of the James Herbert formula about it, with a number of chapters existing mainly to introduce a particular character, divulge their colourful backstory, and then kill them off in an appropriately gruesome manner. The primary characters to emerge in all this mayhem are Seth, hapless son of an abusive father and puritanical mother; reluctant devil-worshipper Micah, who did not fully realise what he was signing up for when he joined the cult; and Micah’s bloodthirsty girlfriend Sindie Midnight, who fully embraces the night of ritual murder.
Much of the novella is spent taking shots at the familiar target of smalltown closed-mindedness. The Christian group YALL (Youth Abstinence League of Littleburg) is portrayed as misguided and ineffectual; Seth, signed up by his parents after they catch him masturbating to lesbian porn, realises that his only hope of salvation is to forget abstinence and have sex as quickly as possible. Likewise, the portrayal of the Satanists seems a satirical reflection of scaremongering within the religious right: these are the sort of devil-worshippers that would be right at home in a Chick tract. The novella’s writing style carries a kind of dim-bulb, frat-boy-comedy tone, as when Micah gets swept up in the Satanic orgy:
“The sway and jiggle of her tits was hypnotic. While he was inside the priestess, his dick felt huge, like some kind of monstrous super dick. Which was weird; because he was pretty sure his penis size was roughly average.”
None of this should necessarily be taken as criticism, as Kill for Satan! knows full well that it is a simple-minded, tasteless romp. For any reader who remembers listening to their first metal album as a teenager, and subsequently escaping into a dream world of devilish imagery and promises of the purest hedonism, Kill for Satan! may well conjure up some nostalgic feelings.
Cockblock by C. V. Hunt
The President of the United States delivers a message to the nation, one that fills radios across America; no matter how much users try to change the channel, the words of the President come through. And the speech in question is far from presidential:
“Sometime you gotta put a dick in their mouths to shut them up. Hey, I’m looking for treasure. Can I look around your chest? I just shit my pants. Can I get in yours? Sometimes you have to treat them like shit. Putting them to work is dangerous. Once they’re successful I get jealous and sad. We need to keep them uneducated and dependent on us. Is that a tic-tac in your blouse or are you happy to see me. You must be from Tennessee. Because you’re the only ten I see.”
Has the President lost his mind? If so, he is far from alone. His speech has personality-altering properties, and all men who listen to it turn into sexual predators. The afflicted males are capable of doing nothing but raping any women who come their way, all the while repeating tacky pick-up lines: “I’m not a photographer but I can picture my dick in your mouth”, and other entries in that genre.
Overnight, lesbian couple Sonya and Callie find themselves in an apocalyptic scenario. But there is one ray of hope: a single radio station has succeeded in breaking through the President’s speech, and promises a haven to any women who can make the arduous journey to the place of broadcast. Can the two survivors fend off the rapists – who now constitute half of America’s population – long enough to reach their destination?
Cockblock is yet another contribution to the field of “fast zombie” stories, where the antagonists fill the narrative function of zombies but, rather than Romero-style revived corpses, are living people whose minds have been warped. This variation on the theme has now become almost as over-familiar as the traditional rotting shambler, but C. V. Hunt manages to add a twist of her own. Cockblock is an overtly feminist take on the fast zombie genre, pitting its heroines against what could vulgarly but accurately described as zombie douchebags.
On the surface, a feminist story in which all men have become mindless rapists can hardly be described as subtle. And, indeed, the story picks some predictable targets for satire: the unnamed President is given distinctly Trumpian characteristics, while a sequence involving a rape dungeon operated by nuns allows much bashing of organised religion. But alongside these broad strokes are finer, subtler details.
As Sonya and Callie face an onslaught of mind-controlled rapists, Cockblock embarks on an analysis of power relations and the effects of rape, with the trauma of sexual abuse portrayed in a chillingly plausible manner. Despite its heavy themes the story is able to maintain a sense of deadpan humour, as when the characters discuss whether the mind-control phenomena is “a big case of the beer goggles”.
Cockblock’s feminist themes are so strong that they can hardly be termed a subtext. If anything, it is the zombie narrative that ends up playing second fiddle to the gender politics. Despite this, the novella manages to work as both a satire and a grisly horror runaround.
Dead Stripper Storage by Bryan Smith
Pete Adler, a typical everyman, wakes up one morning and finds an unconscious stripper on his sofa. On closer examination, he finds that the woman is dead, her neck bearing the marks of strangulation. He did not himself commit the deed, so how did the unfortunate woman end up in his house?
What’s more, he finds that additional incriminating evidence has been planted around his home. Clearly, someone is trying to frame him for murder – but who, and why? Could it be Shane Watson, a burly and obnoxious former co-worker? Pete then gets a call from his vindictive ex-girlfriend Mary, and soon learns of a conspiracy against him.
Pete’s tormenters give him an option: if he carries out a series of tasks for them, they will not turn him in to the police. The tasks turn out to be complex but meaningless, as though he is being used as a pawn in a twisted game. As the game proceeds, Pete is confronted with yet more corpses to deal with, ranging from a second asphyxiated stripper to the mutilated remains of his next-door neighbour. At the same time, his opponents come up with new ways to incriminate him should he fail: at one point they spike his food with sleeping pills and, after he passes out, stage photographs of him apparently having necrophilic sex with one of the dead strippers.
The second of two Bryan Smith books in the category (he also wrote Kill for Satan!) Dead Stripper Storage is a shaggy-dog story with a sick sense of humour. Much of the narrative consists of a single basic scenario – Pete being forced to move a corpse from one place to another – running on repeat. But despite this seemingly limited set-up, it manages to avoid monotony. Each new task confronts Pete with a new set of logistical considerations: if he drives a dead woman across town, can he convince any onlookers that she is merely drunk? Or maybe he could dismember the body for more convenient transport – an unpleasant job, but perhaps necessary.
The premise of Dead Stripper Storage allows it to play with conventional horror structure. Typically, a horror story will gradually build tension until it reaches a moment of shock – often graphic gore. But Dead Stripper Storage inverts this: each key plot point begins with a new gruesome development, such as Pete finding male genitals hidden in his fridge, with tension subsequently arising from how he handles the latest disaster. This unusual approach does much to keep the story’s momentum going.
Like all good farces, Dead Stripper Storage starts off with a straightforward premise and proceeds to add twist after twist, each more outrageous than the last. When it finally reaches its punchline, you can almost hear the rimshot.
1000 Severed Dicksby Matt Shaw and Ryan Harding
1000 Severed Dicks is a novella with two narrative strands. One follows the central character as he pursues a murderous vigilante campaign against adulterous couples, using social media to track down offenders before subjecting them to bouts of ingenious mutilation using power tools, pizza cutters and more. The other strand takes place before the first and charts how the protagonist ended up where he is now: chancing to return home from work early one day, he walked in on his wife having sex with his friend. Like the backstory of a Batmanvillain, this trauma pushed him over the edge, driving him to kill not only his wife and friend but any other adulterous he could find.
The plot of 1000 Severed Dicks is, by itself, rather one-note. The killer varies his methods to suit the victims’ sins – as when he cuts off and swaps the faces of one couple to underline their two-faced natures – but once he has got started on his spree, the basic plot consists of scene after scene of him entering people’s bedrooms and brutally killing them. This could easily have become repetitive, but the novella uses a few tricks to avoid such a fate.
One trick is in varying its tone. The third-person chapters are written with a detached, matter-of-fact wryness, as when the protagonist witnesses his wife’s infidelity:
“Eloisa lay on her side with her lover parallel but facing the other end of the bed, each positioned for the optimum angle of their respective groin levels […] The lover had his face buried in her muff, lips smacking—his or hers, who could say?”
Even when the mutilations take place, the tone of sand-dry observational humour remains:
“He eased the blade toward the member, which impressively enough had engorged, as if excited by the prospect of dissection. It was, however, merely a survival tactic, as the erection kept the penis from limply pitching forward into the grinding teeth like a teeny-bopper fainting at a boy band.”
The first-person sequences have a similar line in black comedy, but are less detached, with a more straight-to-the-action approach. This alternation between time and tone helps to enliven the narrative.
The story does lose its way towards its close, with three present-day chapters reaching a limp finale. But this serves to highlight what a successful balance Shaw and Harding struck with the rest of the novella, where they choose the best points to fill their pages with wince-inducing genital-oriented violence – and the best points to shift the tone, allowing the queasy readers a collective sigh of relief.
The Writhing Skies by Betty Rocksteady
Sarah is in her apartment, wrapped in her blanket, trying not to see or hear what is happening around her, but she fails. She is forced to hear strange buzzing and mysterious footsteps; forced to feel insects crawling on her body and invisible hands tugging at her blanket; forced to see eerie lights. Eventually she flees her bedroom and leaves her apartment altogether – but the outside world offers no escape from the disturbing phenomena that surrounds her. Indeed, once she gets outside, she finds that the whole sky is watching her.
Illustrated by author Betty Rocksteady, The Writhing Skies comes complete with a humorous cover and an offbeat but cartoonish drawing at the end of each chapter. A reader would be forgiven for expecting some sort of light-hearted ghoulishness, like in a Tim Burton animation. But such an impression would be misguided: The Writhing Skies, while having a foot in the cartoonishness of the bizarro tradition, achieves something altogether weirder and more unsettling. The novella opens by plunging the reader straight into Sarah’s distorted world, its prose invoking sights, sounds and feelings together to create a synaesthesia-like mixture:
“She tripped over the carpet, and bright waves cascaded towards her, wrapped around her, set her carefully on the floor. Impossible hands stroked her cheeks, nibbled her earlobes, asked her incessant wordless questions. Rrr? Rrrr? Rrr? Warm wet flooded her ears, bubbled in a way that wasn’t quite unpleasant, stroked her thighs, slipped between her legs. Sarah moaned. Not again. No more.”
Is all of this merely a hallucination suffered by Sarah? The story certainly indicates that this is the case – until Sarah meets her former partner Derek and friend Tiffany, who are likewise experiencing this nightmarish transformation of the world. Indeed, it has affected Tiffany even more severely than Sarah, as her very body is corrupted and consumed: “Veins like vines twisted and warped between the valleys of flesh, and pallid faces pressed against the skin of her stomach, impossible, fully formed.”
The Writhing Skies plays on paranoia about the outside world, and anxiety over bodily corruption; the weird events it portrays resemble a cross between a bad trip and a venereal disease. Behind all of this surreal and otherworldly fantasy lie horrors that are all too real: during the course of the story we learn about Derek’s history and the extent of his abusive behaviour, a hideous narrative of rape, parental paedophilia and forced abortion, subject matter so heavy that the novella comes with an appendix of trigger warnings.
With these revelations, the story’s weird fantasy imagery takes on a whole new aspect: what once seemed to be mere dream-logic starts to look more like traumatic emotions made flesh. Moving between weird cartoon and sober-minded exploration of sexual abuse is no mean feat, but Betty Rocksteady succeeds. The Writhing Skies is a novella that takes disparate materials and uses them to build a consistent – and consistently unnerving – world of horror.
The Mongrel by Seán O’Connor
Erin is a pregnant woman whose fiancé Philip is prone to bouts of violent, abusive rage; she holds out hope that the new baby will help to fix their relationship. When Philip’s foul moods subside to an acceptable level, the two decide to go on a car trip – only for the car to run out of fuel, leaving them both stranded in the Wicklow Mountains. Philip heads out for aid, and Erin is stuck in the car, in the middle of nowhere, with a baby just about ready to leave her womb.
A snowstorm blows up around the car and Philip shows no sign of returning. Before her phone’s battery dies Erin is able to call her father, a wealthy businessman, and inform him of her situation. His response is grave indeed: she is stuck in an area where wolves have been re-introduced to the wild. Between the ice and wolves outside, and the limited supplies inside the car, can Erin and her baby survive long enough for help to arrive?
The Mongrelis a story constructed from twists. Its structure is based around establishing a horrific scenario, and then introducing a new factor that replaces that scenario with one still more horrific: first, the abusive relationship; then, the car stranded in the wilderness; then, the introduction of the wolves; then, further developments that are impossible to discuss without venturing into spoiler territory. The story ekes all available dramatic potential from each scenario before moving on, resulting in a short and but densely-packed narrative.
As the plot unfolds, a full family saga begins to play out in the background. What initially appear to be throwaway side characters turn out to have larger roles in the narrative. The wolves that surround Erin’s car serve as an analogy through which the story can articulate its wider themes of brutality, from Philip’s abusive tendencies to the cutthroat business practices of Erin’s father.
The Mongrel is the most conventional horror story in the Best Novella category, lacking either the weirdness of The Writhing Skies or the broad black comedy of the other four nominees. It is outwardly a straightforward piece of survival horror, and should satisfy a reader looking for a story in this genre. But between its twisty plot and its thematic depth, The Mongrel is more sophisticated than it might appear at first glance.
The two Bryan Smith novellas Kill for Satan! and Dead Stripper Storage, along with 1000 Severed Dicks by Matt Shaw and Ryan Harding, share a similar sensibility: each one offers an outrageous mixture of sex and violence, served up with a sense of humour making it clear that nothing that happens is meant to be taken too seriously. C. V. Hunt’s Cockblock is similar, but crucially, approaches its themes from a very different angle, Hunt’s feminist perspective contrasting with the more dudebro-tinted outlooks of the Smith, Shaw and Harding novellas.
The remaining two novellas are strikingly different from one another. Seán O’Connor’s The Mongrel is a broadly traditional (but well-executed) horror tale, but Betty Rocksteady’s The Writhing Skies is a much more experimental piece of work. It has a completely different tone to the other five nominees despite dealing with loosely similar sex-and-horror subject matter.
It takes no skill to fill a page with guts and genitals, but working this subject matter into a coherent story – whether it be presented as a sick joke, a surreal literary experiment or simply a scary yarn – takes effort. Each one of these authors has, in their own way, pulled off the task.
You can reach Doris V. Sutherland at her blog: http://dorvsutherland.wordpress.com