Here is the third 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.
2019 Splatterpunk Award Reviews: Best Collection
Welcome back to this five-part series reviewing the finalists for the 2019 Splatterpunk Awards. The previous instalments have covered Best Short Storyand Best Novella; it is now time to take a look at the category that celebrates single-author collections…
Walking Alone: Short Stories by Bentley Little
The twenty-seven stories in this collection can be divided into two categories. The first is a set of stories from 1984 through to 1999, included in chronological order and showing Little’s development as an author.
The first, “Milk Ranch Point”, is a weird western where a stranger rides into town and is warned by locals to stay away from an area where it is customary to abandon deformed babies. He ignores their warnings and, predictably, ends up surrounded by misshapen infants that may or may not be ghosts. This early work, a reasonably competent but rather routine story, is followed by a few tales that suggest the influence of 1950s EC Comics. the vampires-with-a-difference story “Children’s Hospital” and the ominous “Palm Reader” both have twist endings in the EC tradition, while “Slam Dance” – about a schoolgirl who picks up the ability to curse her peers – recalls EC’s fondness for macabre morality plays. However both “Children’s Hospital” and “Slam Dance” have offbeat religious aspects which mark them as a little out of the ordinary.
These four stories, all from the 1980s, do not stray too far from horror conventions; but some of Little’s other early works show an imagination impatient with formula and interested in exploring quirkier areas. “Snow” is a twisted version of the Frosty the Snowman narrative, with a horde of tiny snowmen brought to life through black magic and demanding a blood sacrifice in payment. In “Last Rodeo on the Circuit” a couple run out of petrol in the middle of nowhere; visiting the nearest petrol station, they end up being forced to appear in a weird and sadistic freak show-cum-rodeo. “The Feeb”, a genuinely bizarre story, involves a farmer’s crop being blighted by small fungoid creatures; these turn out to be the offspring of a strange adolescent boy who has created a sexual partner out of fungus.
The more elaborate stories often focus on family relations. In “The Car Wash” a boy hears from his grandfather that a local car wash is haunted by the ghost of a murdered boy – and becomes convinced that his grandfather was the murderer. In “Hunting” a narrator’s warm reminisces about going on hunting trips with his father develops into a dark story about parental infidelity. “The Mall” is about a boy seeing the ghost of his missing father – who, unbeknownst to the child, was a gangster killed by his wife to end his abusive behaviour.
“The Mall” shows Little moving away from sick-joke structure and towards the complex webs of intrigue afforded by crime fiction. This approach is also evident in “The Piano Player Has No Fingers”, in which a man kills a crooked planning commissioner but later claims that he was compelled to do so by the evil spirit of his deceased ex-wife; the protagonist tries to investigate, and gets caught up in a dark saga of crime and devilry. The last of the twentieth-century stories, “The Man Who Watched Cartoons”, is about a woman who becomes convinced that the next-door neighbour is a paedophile trying to groom her daughter; this story returns to sick-joke territory, albeit after a credible exploration of genuine parental anxieties.
The remaining fifteen stories all date from 2016 or 2017; they often share themes with earlier stories in the collection, but sometimes add new twists. For example, in “The Smell of Overripe Loquats”, a group of children reject the Abrahamic God in favour of an idol made from overripe, insect-infested fruit – which, it turns out, actually grants their wishes so long as a weirdly sexual ritual is performed in its honour; the imagery is unmistakeably similar to the fungus-bride in “The Feeb”, but the story as a whole is very different.
A number of the stories are about characters – typically a married couple – being caught up in everyday annoyances which, in Little’s portrayal, become the stuff of nightmares. “Black Friday” gives this treatment to the frustrations of Thanksgiving, with the prospect of spending the holiday with less-than-loved-ones and the shopping mayhem of Black Friday being used as the basis of a zombie story. “Pool, Air Conditioning, Free HBO” – in many ways an elaboration upon the earlier “Last Rodeo on the Circuit” – is about a pair of newlyweds who end up spending their honeymoon in a run-down motel, which is bad enough even before the hellish, reality-warping nature of the establishment becomes clear. “Jorgensens’ Fence” starts out with suburban strife as a couple argue about whether or not they should get a nice white picket fence like their neighbour; the story then turns into a satire of middle-class parochialism, as it transpires that the fence is made from the ground-up bodies of homeless people. “Sticky Note” sees a man find a post-it note in the gutter bearing the phrase “kill her”; he imagines who could have written it, and why – and when back home with his partner, he comes to wonder if it was written as a direction intended specifically for him to follow.
“The Silence of Trees”, like “The Mall” and “The Piano Player Has No Fingers”, shows Little’s fondness for placing the supernatural into otherwise conventional crime narratives. Here, a detective learns that a former colleague has died under mysterious circumstances – and the victim’s daughter blames the ghost of a racist cop. “Schoolgirls” depicts a world where the latest craze amongst kids is killing their own parents to fit in with their peers; like “Slam Dance”, “The Man who Watched Cartoons” and “The Smell of Overripe Loquats”, it plays on both juvenile wish-fulfilment and adult fears of what children get up to when nobody’s looking.
The odd-one-out in the collection is “Pictures of Huxley”, which offers a more positive form of weirdness: a mother finds that photographs of her deceased son have somehow been altered, and comes to suspect that she has ended up in a timeline where her son still lives. Although much less horrific than most of the other stories, “Pictures of Huxley” shares with many of them the theme of gaslighting, with a character being led to doubt their own experiences. A story that puts this motif to very different use is “The Maid”, where a couple at a hotel are on the receiving end of a series of grotesque pranks by a maid named Rosa – yet investigations reveal that no such maid exists, leaving a mystery that turns murderous.
The more recent stories show that Little’s penchant for sick jokes and outright weirdness has not abated. “Apt Punishment” and “A Random Thought from God’s Day” (making fun of disobedient children and arrogant sports stars respectively) are extremely brief pieces that could easily have been used as gags in a stand-up comedy routine. “My College Admission Essay” is a twisted tale of familial infanticide, abusive clowns and an obscene phone call from Ronald Reagan, all framed as exactly what the title suggests. In “Mona Retrospective, Los Angeles 2016” an art reviewer describes a series of performances and exhibits in a fictitious art gallery, including black gay performer who somehow resurrects Jesse Helms to be killed anew and a feminist artist who presents captive college athletes accused of sexual assault to be tortured and mutilated by those viewing the installation.
The most straightforward horror story in the latter half of the collection, “Under Midwest Skies”, is still rather offbeat. The tale depicts yet another road trip gone wrong as the protagonist stops off at a town that turns out to have been taken over by man-eating, bipedal sheep.
The book’s final full-length story is “The Train”, which encompasses a number of Little’s recurring motifs. It has a family setting, with a man accompanying his small son to school for a “daddies day”; it has an atmosphere of creeping wrongness, as a small train pulls up on a supposedly disused railway near the school; it has a voyage into the bizarre as the train travels, theme-park like, through a tunnel filled with weird displays including mannequins of deformed women and a life-sized dog made out of meat; and it concludes with the feeling that reality has either been swiped away or simply never existed in the first place.
The plot elements re-used throughout Walking Alone become repetitive; it is easy to grow tired of bickering couples and road trips to nowhere. But the collection more than makes up for this with its many quirky touches that show Little’s skill at transferring weird imagery directly from his imagination and into that of the reader.
The Very Ineffective Haunted House and Other Strange & Stupid Stories by Jeff Berk
With this collection, Jeff Berk treats us to nine stories and a few additional odds and ends. The title story, “The Very Ineffective Haunted House”, is told from the perspective of a sapient haunted house. The spirit reminisces about the man it was when it was alive, and outlines its failed attempts to scare the family that lives inside. The story is deliberately silly, and yet in its own way rather poignant, touching on themes of thwarted dreams, missed opportunities, and the discovery of hope when all seems hopeless.
The tale is typical of the collection, as most of the stories combine gleefully absurd ideas with quiet, understated execution. “How I Got a My Little Pony Tattoo” for example, is set in a world where “inkers” (tiny, elf-like people) give people embarrassing tattoos – Barney the Dinosaur, the Two and a Half Men logo, swastikas and so forth – while they sleep, which the characters treat as a mundane annoyance akin to bedbug bites. “The Dog who Stared” is about a couple who find that their dog has begun sitting outside, staring upwards non-stop; more and more people from the neighbourhood come to see the staring dog, which becomes quite a tourist attraction – until the owners learn, too late, what the dog was staring at.
The closest thing to a traditional horror story in the collection is “The Window Shouldn’t Be There”, which Berk says was based on a dream. The narrator finds that a new window has mysteriously appeared on his apartment; his girlfriend investigates, and gets grotesquely sucked through the window, which then vanishes.
References to the weird world of online culture crop up through the book. The protagonist of “The Very Ineffective Haunted House” gets into an argument with what appears to be an alt-right haunted house, which calls it a soyboy cuck; meanwhile, “The Window Shouldn’t Be There” mentions the Pizzagate conspiracy theories. “Ten Secrets to Survival Clickers Don’t Want You to Know – They Really Hate Number Six”, which borrows the sea monsters from J. F. Gonzalez’s Clickers series, depicts their invasion of the surface world from the perspective of a Buzzfeed blogger. The narrator runs a regular journal of his experiences as he tries to survive, resorting to drugs and questionable dietary plans; the result is basically a Lovecraft story with a narrator too dim-witted to appreciate the horrors surrounding him. “The Satanic Little Toaster” goes from blogs to vlogs, as a collector of toasters buys a purportedly cursed model online and shoots an unboxing video. But his peers in the toaster-collecting community refuse to believe him: when they watch the video, all they see is a Hello Kitty toaster. This is just the beginning, as the man soon finds that buying the evil toaster was the worst decision of his life…
Some of the stories are more punk than splatter. “The GG Effect” places punk icon GG Allin into a narrative involving time travel, alternate timelines and the apocalypse; Berk explains at the back that the strange tale arose from being invited to write a story about Allin despite loathing him. On a similar antisocial note we find “The Most Accomplished Crackhead in the World”, about a comfortable middle-class man who takes up crack cocaine on a whim – and finds that the drug turns him into a genius capable of reshaping the world for the better.
“I’ve Seen Enough Hentai to Know Where This is Going” is about the production of a porn film based on tentacle hentai – with an actual tentacles monster as an actor. The creature in question turns out to be a melancholy soul who would fit in alongside the similarly doleful haunted house seen elsewhere in the collection.
The book wraps up with three pieces that are not prose fiction. “Hipster Hunter” is a mock screenplay about a Fonz lookalike who travels around murdering individuals in ironic fashions, accompanied by enigmatic Lynchian imagery. “Jinx Poem” is a short piece of verse written in honour of a controversial Pokémon (“A chick with blowjob lips/And wearing black face/That’s a little weird…”) Finally, “Motherfucking Dinosaurs: An Ode to Dinosaurs Attack!” is a non-fiction piece celebrating a trading card series from the 90s.
The Very Ineffective Haunted House and Other Strange & Stupid Stories turns out to be, in its way, an oddly haunting collection. Jeff Berk shows an uncanny ability to take seemingly dim-witted subject matter (stoner humour, Internet memes and pop culture references) and channel it into a set of stories that are playful, memorable, and often quite poignant.
Nightmares in Ecstasy by Brendan Vidito
The Short Story finalist “Rebound” is one of the thirteen stories included in this volume, and its themes of twisted eroticism turn out to be fairy typical of the collection. Nightmares in Ecstasy explores the intersection between sex and horror; many publications of this type fall back on mere fetishism, but Brendan Vidito shows a determination to create the weirdest combinations of the erotic and the repulsive that he can muster.
Throughout the book, Vidito uses horror to create metaphors for aspects of sexual relationships. “The Androgyne” is about a couple who, since their first anniversary, have been literally attached to one another, like conjoined twins. This is bleakly ironic as the couple’s relationship is falling apart; the only thing keeping them together is their sharing of flesh, which they attempt to fix by taking part in a weird ritual.
Naturally, a number of the stories deal with otherworldly sexual partners. In “Fuck Shock” a man sleeps with an escort who is eventually revealed to be a half-spider being that gives sexual ecstasy through venom; she leaves the protagonist with a case of fuck shock (comparable to shell shock) as he faces the prospect of every future sexual encounter being inferior. In “Placenta Bride” a man finds the placenta of his dead wife in a freezer and relocates it to his bathtub, where it gradually develops into a malformed clone of the deceased. “Unconditional Love”, where a man shares his home with a lover who periodically turns into a harpy-like monster, seems comparatively restrained.
Perhaps the most twisted partners of all can be found in “Sex Toys”, a story about three fetishists who invest in a set of lab-grown “living sex toys”, and are disappointed to find that these beings – which resemble dinosaur-headed humanoids – are already dead and decaying. This does not stop the protagonists from having sex with their purchases, however; in doing so, they fall into a Lovecraftian world of primal fears.
Elsewhere, the collection touches on pornography with “Stag Loop”, where a woman goes through grotesque lengths to resemble an actress in a mysterious skinflick; masochism in “Piss Slave”, where the roles between sub and dom are switched through a hallucinatory transformation; and the creepier regions of the Internet in “Miranda”, in which a bizarre online game of sex and violence has disturbing effects on its players.
Some of the stories are only tangentially related to sex, yet unmistakebly exist in the same netherworld as their more overtly erotic brethren. In “The Black Waters of Babylon” a severely disabled man attends an eerie rehabilitation facility in the hopes of being cured; the treatment he undertakes is effective, but nonetheless prompts much body horror. “Earworm” is about a paranoid young man who, after meeting an attractive young woman at a punk concert, is thrown into a world of conspiracy theories as he faces the possibility that the government is seeking to control punks and other countercultural units through music. “An Interview” is a twist on the haunted house theme, as a writer for an underground e-zine goes to what is allegedly the home of a serial killer – only to find that the house has a still darker secret.
The collection concludes with its longest story, “A Feast of You”, which takes up nearly a quarter of the book. This story follows an eighteen-year-old as he tries to escape his family, only for them to recapture him and take him back home – an outwardly normal house where, as it turns out, reality is but a thin crust and something alien lurks beneath. For the most part, this story trades in sex for an atmosphere of paranoia: the dick it favours is of the Philip K. variety. In the process, it emphasises that the collection has more to offer than just gross-out sex.
Nightmares in Ecstasy explores what we find desirable by contrasting it sharply with what we find repulsive – only to then blur it all together. As we are taken on a series of trips through the dreamlands of warped sexual psyches, we encounter everything from Cronenbergian body horror to simulations of all-pervasive paranoia.
DJStories by David J. Schow
This collection brings together an assortment of stories, originally published between 1983 and 2012, by David J. Schow: the man who coined the term “splatterpunk”. His opinion of this label is not entirely positive – in his afterword to one story he mentions “a little genre spasm called splatterpunk, which ruined horror for everybody” – but it is nonetheless a fitting term for much of the work included in this volume.
DJStoriestakes us on a tour of a seedy underworld filled with hard drugs, brutal violence and various sexual perversions. Schow shows a knack for creating a scene of unbridled squalour with only a paragraph or two; even Hollywood is meticulously robbed of its glamour, as in “Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You”:
Jack’s cane attracted no notice on the Boulevard. He was a mundane diversion in the midst of the jarhead Marines on leave, the slutty preteen heartbreakers leaning on the bus-stop posts, the meandering gaggles of Japanese tourists, the smug pairings of smartly leathered punks and overconfident faggots, the Hollywood vets with their straight-ahead stares (the better to avoid the pushy Scientologists just this side of Las Palmas), the garbage-pickers and shopping-bag loonies. The Wall of the Stars seemed perpetually encrusted with a gummy vomit of spilled drinks and litter, like the sticky floor of a porno theatre.
The term splatterpunk is, of course, derivative of cyberpunk, and both genres deal with similar lowlife milieus. But where cyberpunk uses digital technology to distort its reality, Schow’s stories tend to achieve this task using supernatural subject matter.
“Red Light” deals with a cover model who has disappeared. The typically world-weary narrator, her photographer, reveals that she vanished into nothingness after an encounter with the paparazzi – an idea that touches upon the old superstition that being photographed steals the subjects’ soul. “The Shaft” (which Schow later expanded to novel length) is a ghost story, with a fairy conventional moaning spook, given a seedy twist by the fact that the protagonist can detect ghosts as a side effect of his cocaine addiction. “Calendar Girl” is about a man who spent much of his life trying to track down a porn model he was infatuated with as an adolescent. When he finds her, she turns out to be a succubus-like entity who drains life from her sexual partners – reversing the more common scenario where the porn model is used up and thrown away.
If there is one story in the collection that can be taken as a splatterpunk mission statement, it must surely be the 1987 piece with an ineligible scrawl in the manner of a graffiti tag as a title. This is the narrative of a punk gang that loiters around Sunset Boulevard; one of their number, Jocko, is dead, and the remaining punks are now contemplating their own mortality (“None of them had ever thought they might actually grow up, or grow old, or grow dead”). As well as individual death, the story touches upon subcultural death, as the punk hangouts give way to yuppie hotspots. But then mysterious and brutal deaths start to occur, with Jocko’s distinctive graffiti signature adorning the crime scenes in blood. Punks Not Dead – it’s undead.
Beneath its tough hide, DJStories does show a streak of sentimentality in the form of nostalgia – specifically, nostalgia for vintage horror films. “One for the Horrors”, the very first story in the collection (and Schow’s second to see print), is set in a haunted fleapit cinema; the first sign that things are not right is that it screens material known to be lost, like the deleted scene in King Kong showing giant tarantulas. Schow’s desire to recreate the thrill of seeing these films as a youngster is palpable.
As the stories progress, this horror nostalgia starts to rival punk as the collection’s dominant mode. “Last Call for the Sons of Shock” is based on the humorous idea that Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man played themselves in the Universal films; the three gather at a club called Un/Dead to discuss their past careers and the possibility of a comeback. The story ends with Frank burning down the bar – an acknowledgement that these icons perhaps belong in the past, as Frank once said to his Bride. “Gills” uses a variation on the same premise, with the Creature from the Black Lagoon being offered a comeback – but only if he accepts studio demands for a sexier, more merchandisable appearance.
“(Melodrama)” may be the neatest summation of Schow in his nostalgic mode. The main character is an actor who, since the 1960s, has been playing a TV horror host named Gravely with a line in cheesy props and bad puns – antics that once amused the “monster kid” generation, but are at odds with current tastes. Suddenly, fantasy blends with reality, and Gravely is transported into the Gothic world he created; but rather than a realm of fear, he sees this as a macabre Never Never Land filled with ghoulish delights. In other words, the kind of place that many an adolescent Famous Monsters of Filmland reader will have imagined themselves disappearing into.
While Schow pays tribute to past horror icons, he is never content to merely imitate them. In his post-story commentaries he pours particular scorn upon the infinitude of by-the-numbers vampire and zombie fiction; when he uses these themes in his own stories, he makes a point out of reinventing them, often for purposes of mordant comedy.
“Obsequy” is a zombie tale that recalls 1950s EC horror comics more than George A. Romero or his imitators. It depicts the deceased of a local community coming back to life and resuming their unfinished business as the cemetery runs out of space; the protagonist is reunited with his dead wife, an occurrence that brings with it much emotional turmoil. “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” is a gross-out comedy set during a zombie apocalypse, following a rather repugnant graveyard caretaker tasked with the someone’s-got-to-do-it job of killing zombies. “A Week in the Unlife” likewise treats monster-slaying as a mundane punch-clock job, this time detailing the daily rigmarole of a vampire hunter.
DJStoriesis, ultimately, about death. Perhaps this goes without saying, as all horror could be said to be about death in one way or another; but the collection is remarkable for the level of detail in which Schow examines theme of death. This is a collection unafraid to portray the visceral aspects of sundered bodies and spilled guts; but it is also capable of exploring subtler emotional angles, hitting a number of poignant notes in its evocation of nostalgia, melancholy, and the eventual acceptance of death.
Dark Moons Rising on a Starless Night by Mame Bougouma Diene
This collection contains four long stories, the first of which – “Fistulas” – is a Best Short Story finalist. The second, “The Whores, The Dealer, & The Diamond”, is set in Bangladesh and revolves around a family of four, each member identified by a stereotyped role. The mother and eldest daughter are sex workers; the father is a drug dealer; and the youngest daughter is a beautiful child referred to as The Diamond.
From graphic descriptions of deformities caused by drug abuse to the domestic violence committed by the father, the story is not lacking in sordid material. But running through this squalor is a strain of magical realism, as when a combination of drugs, alcohol and sex causes The Dealer to hallucinate his wife transforming into the blue-skinned, four-armed goddess Chamunda. The Diamond, meanwhile, is a holy innocent who contrasts with her depraved and desperate milieu – at one point, she even develops a halo – and her tears turn out to have a miraculous quality.
The story relishes in blurring lines: between the mundane and the supernatural; between miracle and substance abuse; and, eventually, between god and demon. If such corrupt surroundings can produce a child as angelic as The Diamond, then perhaps a man as foul as The Dealer can ascend to the role of mythic hero – so long as he is confronted with an opponent even more depraved than himself.
Next is “Popobawa”, where Zanzibar’s Stone Town is hit by a spate of gruesome murders. Each victim is found brutally raped and elaborately mutilated, and when a white tourist joins their number, the news goes international. The true culprit is a supernatural shapeshifter that uses black magic to escape justice.
Meanwhile, public suspicion falls upon a community of homosexual refugees from Uganda. A pair of nuns shelter the newcomers, thereby placing themselves in conflict with the bigoted Inspector Gurnah – who hates homosexuals and Catholics alike, and is only too willing to try and pin the murders on a convenient scapegoat. The story paints a bleak portrait of a community consumed by hatred and suspicion, the supernatural menace serving to bring out the tension and prejudice that lies below the surface.
Finally, “Black & Gold” opens with an oil company commencing a drilling operation on the coastline of Senegal. A swelling movement of locals resent this intrusion, and under the leadership of Khadim – a man with supernatural powers – they punish the both the Senegalese authorities who allowed it to happen, and the unwanted intruders from abroad. The story shifts between different viewpoints: the thoughts of the bystanders caught up in the carnage; the shocked response of the Western media; and the musings of Khadim as he forms a moral code regarding who does and who does not deserve to die. Can he avoid the fate of many a revolutionary: becoming no better than the old order?
Dark Moons Rising on a StarlessNight is an extremely strong collection. Each one of its four stories is captivating, thematically dense, and capable of mingling grotesque body horror with more subtle forms of unease. Mame Bougouma Diene shows us humanity at its most atrocious, as filtered through a lens of folklore and magic to create a series of lasting nightmares.
This category includes a vast array of individual short stories all with their own strengths and weaknesses, but each collection has a distinct ethos that sets it apart from the others.
Bentley Little’s Walking Alone strikes a balance between conventional horror themes and something quirkier and more comical, while Jeff Berk’s collection favours the latter element and embraces oddball humour – achieving surprisingly empathic results in the process. Brendan Vidito’s Nightmares in Ecstasy is themed around weird sex, while Mame Bougouma Diene’s Dark Moons Rising on a Starless Night – the boldest and most provocative collection on the ballot – focuses on non-Western, predominantly African settings and the unique varieties of horror to be found within. Finally, David J. Schow’s career-spanning collection celebrates classic horror in a thoughtful and analytical manner.
If there is a dominant approach to horror that spans these five collections, it is marked by a refusal to be content with formula and convention and a desire to explore the genre in a more personal manner.
You can reach Doris V. Sutherland at her blog: http://dorvsutherland.wordpress.com