Here is the fourth 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 fourth in a five-part series reviewing each finalist for the 2019 Splatterpunk Awards. With the categories for short stories, novellas and single-author collections covered, the next category on the agenda is Best Anthology…
The Black Room Manuscripts Volume Four, edited by Tracy Fahey and J. R. Park
The fourth and final installment of the Black Room Manuscripts anthology series boasts a total of twenty-four stories – twenty-six if we count the prologue and epilogue, which are short narratives in themselves. The afterword by Jim McLeod muses about the diversity of contemporary horror:
If the horror genre is to survive, and more importantly thrive, we need to push the boundaries, and by that, I don’t mean let’s continually go to the lowest common denominator of taste and acceptability, not that there is anything wrong with extreme horror, we need to look for new ideas, and new perspectives on what it means to be human – for that is where the real horror exists. We are living in interesting times, we are becoming more divisive, dangling over the edge of a pit filled with chaos and oblivion. This should be a glorious time for a new Golden Age of Horror; to waste such an opportunity would be criminal.
As diverse as the collection may be, one recurring theme shines through: that of dissatisfaction. The anthology treats us to portrait after portrait of dead ends, despair and thwarted desire.
In K. A. Laity’s “Eating the Dream”, a seductive woman – actually a shapshifting dragon – feeds upon lonely, desperate men. Margrét Helgadóttir’s “Death Wish” introduces a protagonist whose experience as a war photographer has left him misanthropic, driving him nearly to suicide – until a mysterious, alluring woman enters his life. Tracy Fahey’s “That Thing I Did” details a man’s descent into drinking, gambling and adultery following a male friend’s suicide, and makes the point that he is afforded less emotional support than if he had lost a female partner.
Simon Avery’s “A Clear Day in a Season of Storms”, Daniel Marc Chant’s “Decipher” and Mark West’s “Brooks Pond” all deal with unhappy romantic relationships, albeit in very different ways. The first has a relationship torn apart by adultery; the second – a variation on the Bluebeard theme – involves a woman discovering her boyfriend’s dark secret; and the third depicts a divorcee’s resentment of his ex-wife, who turns out to have a nasty surprise in store for her. V. H. Leslie’s “Tide Will Tell” touches upon relationship woes of another sort, with the protagonist feeling guilt about his inability to provide his lover with the baby she desires; he tries to rectify this problem, with surreal results.
Another form of domestic dissatisfaction that turns up repeatedly is conflict between children and parents. Penny Jones’ “Swimming Out to Sea” starts out with a relatively minor variation, as a teenage girl resents picnicking on the beach with her parents when she could be down the cinema with her boyfriend; her sullen attempts to get away from her parents take her into a Kafkaesque seaside nightmare.
The adolescent protagonist of Gary McMahon’s “The Hanging Boy” starts his story with far graver problems, as he is beaten by his drunken parents; walking along a disused railway line to forget his troubles, he begins a conversation with the ghost of a hanging boy. Stephen Bacon’s “Pain Has A Voice” deals with strikingly similar – and yet still distinct – subject matter, as a 9-year-old boy finds a hanging corpse and begins mutilating it, as practice for getting revenge on his abusive stepfather.
When children are not putting up with abusive parents, they are dealing with their peer group. Ramsey Campbell’s “Dragged Down” is a tale of adolescent angst: romantic longing, unfair accusations, and the status of a misfit, all set against a background of local legends both romantic and eerie. Not exactly splatterpunk, but splendidly effective nonetheless.
Even if dissatisfaction with the status quo is not a key plot point in a given story, it tends to crop up somewhere. Hannah Kate’s “Planning Permission” deals with a group of people protesting the construction of an office block on the site of a demolished pub; even before the construction turns out to be part of a sinister ritual, the story has an atmosphere of dejectment, the protesters feeling that society has simply given up.
With such doom and gloom surrounding them, it is small wonder that characters in this anthology resort to desperate measures in thrillseeking. Mark Cassell’s “Reanimation Channel” posits that visitors to certain corners of the darkweb are given the chance to operate a remote-controlled zombie in a sort of real-life – and very deadly – video game. In Duncan P. Bradshaw’s “Craft Ail”, a bar holds cartoonishly ultraviolent deathmatches with its clientele as unwilling combatants. C. L. Raven’s “Palace of the Damned” has a group of genre-aware mythbusters investigating a purportedly haunted Welsh castle, where they find that the local legends are all too true.
The most coldly brutal of these thrillseeking-gone-wrong stories is John McNee’s “Tears of Honey”. Here, a pair of young drug enthusiasts visit the home of an eccentric aristocrat – bearing more than a passing resemblance to Lord Sutch – who shows them a weird statue dug up in Scotland that periodically weeps honey. The honey gives them otherworldy visions, but it soon turns out that these hedonistic delights come at a cost.
While it plumps for diversity, The Black Room Manuscripts Volume Four shows no particular desire to reinvent the wheel. Marie O’Regan’s “Tap, Tap…” involves a young woman and her mother being menaced by creepy puppets that inexplicably arrive in the post; although not groundbreaking, this story is a fine example of familiar creepy imagery being put to good use. Benedict J. Jones’ “Black Silk”, about a haunted judge’s wig, is – despite a plot twist – rooted firmly in ghost story convention. Sitting alongside such traditional fare is the surreality represented by the hallucinatory imagery of Erik Hofstatter’s “Shrivelled Tongues of Dead Horses”, or the weird spatial distortions of James Everington’s “Size Isn’t Everything”.
It is commonplace for a horror anthology to have at least one metafictional entry, and The Black Room Manuscripts Volume Four fulfills this remit. The final tale – discounting the epilogue – is J. R. Park’s “The Last Horror Story”, in which multiple layers of reality blur as the story joins with a story-within-a-story and even a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. The central theme is, naturally, dissatisfaction, as a horror author struggles to come up with an idea for his new latest work.
A sterling anthology, and it is curiously uplifting to see despair and disappointment portrayed so vividly – only to be repeatedly torn to pieces in a volley of blood, guts and all-out weirdness.
Monsters of Any Kind, edited by Alessandro Manzetti and Daniele Bonfanti
As its title suggests, Monsters of Any Kind is an anthology of stories about monsters. Some of these are traditional varieties of creature, albeit not necessarily portrayed in traditional ways. “We All Make Sacrifices” by Jonathan Maberry is a werewolf story set in the criminal underworld, with a mob performing a human sacrifice in an attempt to raise Fenrir. “Sealed with a Kiss” by Owl Goingback uses the Devil himself as its monster, as a lost motorist and a sex worker encounter an apocalyptic storm where Satan manifests as a gigantic face formed from blood and guts. “The Other Side of Semicolons” by Michael Bailey is an unusual variation on the doppelganger theme, in which an adolescent girl with self-harming tendencies and abusive foster parents sees alternate versions of her bedroom – and herself – through holes in a wall.
Other writers in the anthology opt to create their own monsters, sometimes through the tried-and-true method of combining the human and the nonhuman. “Silt & Bone” by Jess Landry depicts two mounties trying to evacuate a flooded area, only to find that one resident has been turned into some sort of plant-woman hybrid through a parasitic infection. In “Sucklings” by Lucy Taylor, a young New Mexican mother runs into a race of Thing-like creatures that take people’s faces; a vivid portrayal of broken family sits alongside such grotesque images as disembodied human faces suckling a monster’s teats. In “Brodkin’s Demesne” by Michael Gray Baughan a woman working from home is forced to deal with both her husband (an underachieving musician) and a plague of cicadas, the two annoyances eventually merging together into something infinitely worse.
Not all of the stories are out-and-out horror, as a number of the authors play their monsters for laughs. “Bad Hair Day” by Greg Sisco, which has a comedic sci-fi setting where humans share Earth with various aliens, sees a man insecure about his baldness purchase an extraterrestrial organism to replace his lost hair – only to doom humanity. “The Dive” by Mark Alan Miller is a long, character-based story where a man tires of his humdrum life (he believes himself destined for greatness) and visits a weird bar for monsters, where he meets an uncouth centaur and inscrutable robot – who agree to mete out punishment on his boss.
In “Old Sly” by Gregory L. Norris, a man inherits a sizeable estate from his estranged uncle, but finds that it comes at a price: he is forced to follow a harsh diet; he has no television or wi-fi; and he is made to take care of his uncle’s hideous parrot. “The City of Sixes” by Edward Lee is a gross-out comedy typical of the author, following a rapist as he is sent to a sector of hell where men and women alike are forced to give birth.
How, exactly, do we define a monster? This is a question mulled over by some of the more thoughtful tales in the anthology. “Perpetual Antimony” by Cody Goodfellow, set in a post-apocalyptic world that the main character has survived with the aid of an old antimony pill, contains a lot of rumination about mutation and beauty. “The Thing Too Hideous to Describe…” by David J. Schow is about a tentacled monster who resents being feared and hated by humanity, and blames horror writers for this state of affairs. “Midnight Hobo” is a typically intelligent and tightly-constructed tale by Ramsey Campbell, in which a radio host sees weird things on the way from home at night – and finds that these embodiments of his fears and anxieties have followed him back to the studio the next day. “Noverim Te” by Santiago Eximeno (translated by Daniele Bonfanti) is a magical realist story about commodification, set in a village where an eldritch deity sleeps – making the location a hotspot for souvenir-hunting tourists.
A recurring approach to the monstrous in the anthology is to cast the supernatural beings as agents of punishment, allowing issues of morality to be probed. In “Mammy and the Flies” by Bruce Boston a neglectful mother sends her son to the cellar whenever she has a romantic partner around; the boy, who has supernatural abilities (he is the son of a “mojo man”) eventually gets his revenge. “The Last Wintergirl” by Damien Angelica Walters is an adult fairy tale where a town is visited by mysterious ice-maidens; wen the local boys molest the newcomers, and are defended by their parents, the wintergirls have no choice but to strike back. “Crisis of Faith” by Monica J. O’Rourke is a story of religious angst, in which a man whose religious beliefs has been troubled ever since a teenage bereavement meets an incarnate nephlim; as the being subjects him to torment, he is forced to confront his shaky faith.
Capping off the anthology is Erinn L. Kemper’s “Cracker Creek”, a well-textured weird western where the women of a town give birth to a spate of monstrous, flesh-eating babies. Each of the stories is accompanied by an illustration courtesy of Stefano Cardoselli, visualising the narrative’s monstrous star.
It is safe to say that most – if not all – horror fans have an abiding love of monsters in one form or another. Monsters of Any Kind fulfills its titular promise with an irresistible gallery of fiends both old and new.
Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 3, edited by Randy Chandler and Cheryl Mullenax
The annual series continues with twenty more stories of the macabre…
In Matt Shaw’s “Letter from Hell”, the mother of a missing child receives a letter from the kidnapper, in which he describes the fate of the girl in detail – and attempts to justify his every move along the way. “So Sings the Siren” by Annie Neugebauer is a short mood piece based around a surreal central image, as a little girl goes to see a siren sing as a result of being tortured. In “The Watcher” by Douglas Ford, a black college student who falls out with his girlfriend over her racist parents meets an Iraq veteran and becomes embroiled in a strange world of sex and death; the story ends up making literal the old notion that a soldier brings the horrors of war back home.
The anthology encompasses past, present and future. “Bernadette” by R. Perez de Pereda sees a medieval Spanish clergyman summoning a djinni – a being sadistic, erotic and disdainful of humanity – to save his niece from a fatal illness; the spirit arrives too late to heal her, and the protagonist then makes the mistake of asking the djinni to resurrect her. Meanwhile, “The Maw“ by Nathan Ballingrud is the atmospheric post-apocalyptic story of an old man and young girl who wander a city where mysterious creatures have stitched members of the population into grotesque forms.
A number of the stories deal with strange communities and subcultures. “The Cenacle” by Robert Levy is about a Jewish woman who, while mourning her dead husband, meets a group of eccentrics prone to hanging out in a graveyard as a means of dealing with bereavements; she finds solace by spending time with them – even after learning that they are cannibals. “The Better Part of Drowning” by Octavia Cade is about an underclass of child labourers who are forced to fish for pearls, in the process forming a body of folklore about people being reincarnated as sea creatures.
Some of the tales hark back to past masters of weird fiction. “Til Death” by Tim Waggoner depicts a world where humanity has been enslaved by Lovecraftian entities; the main character’s husband has been turned into a grotesque horror by the creatures and so she resorts to mercy-killing him – but he keeps healing. “Scratching from the Outer Darkness” by Tim Curran is set in an apocalyptic world of cult suicides, church-burnings and plagues of locusts, all announcing the arrival of eldritch beings, and all told from the perspective of a blind woman; the story does a good job of translating unspeakable horrors to a sightless world. “Adramelech” by Sean Patrick Hazlett features a protagonist searching for the origins of a mysterious, Lovecraftian volume; In a twist, it turns out that this seeker of knowledge knows considerably more than we do, and has the ability to switch bodies as a result of an encounter with the titular demon.
Like many of the more thoughtful anthologies of extreme horror stories, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 3 has a few tales that express anxieties about exactly what their own subject matter says about modern culture and its lust for exploitative entertainment. Daniel Marc Chant’s “Ultra” is about a man who gets addicted to a misogynistic VR game called Slut Slayer and learns too late that he’s embroiled in an MK ULTRA-like mind control scheme, while a snuff film victim gets her revenge in Bracken MacLeod’s “Reprising her Role”. One of the longer stories in the anthology is “West of Matamoros, North of Hell” by Brian Hodge, in which a Mexican band with a fondness for macabre showmanship gets captured by a drug cartel; the story touches on music, religion, individual guilt, the consumption of brutality and historical atrocities, all presided over by the figure of Santa Muerte.
And then, naturally, we get the stories that are built around sick jokes. Glenn Gray’s “Break” is about a doctor imprisoned in Alcatraz who makes use of his brittle bone disease to literally break his way out of captivity; meanwhile, Nathan Robinson’s “Tree Huggers” sees an alien land in a lake and attacks a nearby group of environmentalists – who had made the unfortunate decision to chain themselves to trees.
Readers keeping track of the Splatterpunk Awards may find some of the anthology familiar: this is because, as a book collecting stories from 2017, it happens to reprint a few entries from anthologies that were nominated in 2018. From last year’s DOA III come Ryan Harding’s dick-pic nightmare “Junk” and Luciano Marano’s saga of burn fetishism “Burnt”. VS: X: US vs UK Extreme Horror furnishes Dani Brown’s “Theatrum Mortuum”, which depicts the squalid exploits of a heroin-addicted sex worker in delicate detail. Finally, “Foreign Bodies” by Adam Howe is one of the stories originally published in Chopping Block Party, and deals with an attempt to halt a celebrity scandal involving a beloved children’s TV entertainer who likes to insert gerbils up his backside.
The final story in the collection is a comparatively long number by Scott Smith, entitled “The Dogs”. A young woman hooks up with a Craigslist date who turns out to be a serial killer – but is saved by the killer’s three talking dogs. They help her to kill him in self-defence, dispose of the body, and take his money and apartment for herself, but the arrangement comes at a cost. The dogs demand humans to feed upon, and should Rose fail to provide any, she will become an enemy not only to the three dogs in the apartment – but to all of canine kind.
Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 3 is another sumptuous smorgasbord, boasting a wide range of dark flavours.
Splatterpunk Forever, edited by Jack Bantry and Kit Power
This anthology is significant for including not one but two of the year’s Splatterpunk Award for Best Short Story finalists: “Virtue of Stagnant Waters” by Monica J. O’Rourke and “The Seacretor” by Ryan Harding. Beyond this, it has nine more stories to offer…
“Garrote” by Lydian Faust is the tale of an affluent but frustrated young man named Gabriel who posts at an anti-feminist forum called BROCHAN. After he murders a singer named Mya, Gabriel is apprehended by members of a band that planned to hire his victim; they subject him to musical torture. The straightforward revenge storyline benefits from an inventive structure, with Selene’s speeches – directed at Gabe – presented as second-person narrative.
Revenge is a recurring theme in the anthology. Nathan Robinson’s “Chum” begins with a man waking up to find that he is on board a boat with his legs missing. This is just the start of his ordeal, as the boat’s owner – who turns out to be the disgruntled father of the protagonist’s abused girlfriend – subjects him to torture and mutilation. Meanwhile, “Finger Paint” by Robert Essig takes a common cathartic fantasy – a bullied adolescent gets back at his oppressors with supernatural powers – and adds some additional twists of brutality, in the process analysing the politics of bullying.
Like any good splatterpunk anthology, the book shows a fondness for stories built on sick jokes. “The Junkyard Shift” by Ryan C. Thomas is about a middleman gangster who delivers severed heads to their intended recipients, without knowing the full story behind each killing. In “Cougars” by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason, a pair of American sex tourists run afoul of werecats in a Mexican brothel.
Chad Lutzke’s stomach-churning “Guinea Pig Blues” sees a record store owner reunited with an old friend. The friend, Nate, begins showing rather unpleasant qualities: he smugly belittles the protagonist’s ambitions to become a writer, and exudes a foul smell from his crotch. Apparently without his noticing, a repulsive liquid leaks from his trousers as he sits. It turns out that Nate has been acting as a guinea pig for pharmaceutical research – and the side-effects soon become apparent.
A few of the stories deal with high-concept strangeness. “Blood on the Walls” by Saul Bailey is the story of an FBI agent who has a recurring dream of being Richard Nixon engaging in ritual sex with J. Edgar Hoover; this is merely the beginning of the story, but really, the set-up sells itself. In “The Bearded Woman” by Alessandro Manzetti, a love triangle between sideshow freaks turns brutal. “Diamond in the Rough” by J. R. Park explores the punkier end of splatterpunk, as the protagonist goes looking for a magic Native American amulet stolen by a cross-dressing one-night stand – and ends up at a crime-ridden nightclub where one of the attractions is the sight of a man being killed by a large spider.
Welcome to the Show, edited by Matt Hayward and Doug Murano
Welcome to the Show is a themed anthology of seventeen stories by a range of authors, all dealing with the same location: a San Francisco nightclub called the Shantyman. This venue has played host to innumerable legendary musical acts, but it has also been the site of countless hideous events and sinister occurrences, as the stories will make clear…
The first story, “What Sort of Rube” by Alan M. Clark, takes place in the nineteenth century and tells a tale of adventure on the high seas, involving the shanty-singer after whom the nightclub is named. The story climaxes in an encounter with cannibals and a curse – a curse that haunts the Shantyman to this day.
As the anthology unfolds, we see how the Shantyman has fared over the decades. Jonathan Janz’s “Night and Day and in Between” is set in the 1920s and uses the Shantyman as a framing device for a story of Hollywood’s seedy underbelly, where bloodsuckers both figurative and literal thrive. John Skipp’s “In the Winter of No Love” tackles the mythology of the 1960s, incorporating hippies, hallucinations and Charles Manson. In Patrick Lacey’s “Wolf with Diamond Eyes” we learn of a massacre that occurred at the nightclub in the 1970s, killing almost every member of a prog rock band; the sole survivor insists that the atrocity was committed by a character from an Italian giallo film, who stepped out of the screen into reality. Bryan Smith’s “Pilgrimage” crosses time periods, with three tourists receiving drugs from a passing stoner – and finding themselves chronologically displaced.
Notably, a large number of the stories in Welcome to the Show are, on some level, about storytelling. “What Sort of Rube” is framed as a story-wiithin-a-story told by a legless beggar to an aspiring writer. In “Night and Day and in Between”, the main narrative is told by the Shantyman’s proprietor to a private detective. “Wolf with Diamond Eyes” is presented as a journalist’s interview.
This makes sense, as one of the main themes of the anthology is rock culture’s propensity for myth-making. The various musicians to have performed at the Shantyman – some of whom are fictional, others drawn from real life – are depicted as a pantheon of angels and demons, sinners and martyrs. In Matt Hayward’s “Dark Stage” a seemingly messianic singer arrives and cures illnesses with music – although these miracles turn out to come at a cost. Kelli Owen’s “Open Mic Night” plays with the Faust theme, revealing that various stars from Brian Jones through to Amy Winehouse made pacts with a mysterious woman in a black dress, who gave them shining careers and tragically short lifespans.
Some stories touch upon the “Satanic Panic” and other moral flubs over rock music: Rachel Autumn Deering’s “A Tongue Like Fire” is about a man who blames a rock star for his daughter’s suicide, while Glenn Rolfe’s “Master of Beyond” deals with a demonic possession brought about through a Ouija board.
As well as angels and demons, the Shantyman is home to ghosts, as past subcultures and movements continue to haunt the premises. Matt Serafini’s “Beat on the Past” is set in the grunge era; a punk band that mysteriously vanished in the past makes a long-awaited comeback, only to seem sadly out of place. In Somer Canon’s “Just to be Seen”, the Shantyman is haunted by ghosts of a fight in post-prohibition times.
Eventually, the anthology reaches the twenty-first century and its brave new world of social media. Stories set in this era include “True Starmen” by Max Booth III, which involves a cult of incel podcasters and cross-generational discussions about subcultures; Robert Ford’s “Ascending”, in which a dating app leads to a macabre meeting at the Shantyman, with inevitably macabre results; and Adam Cesare’s “The Southern Thing”, where an out-of-towner who works for a tech company feels like a misfit – and comes up with a novel method of fitting in.
The stories in After the Show are clearly designed to have a cumulative effect; while each one contributes to the general myth-making, not all would be particularly strong as standalone stories. An exception is Jeff Strand’s “Parody”, where a Weird Al wannabe with delusions of stardom (and utter contempt for all music composed after 1989) performs a disastrous George Michael parody. This is the funniest story in the collection, with some strong character-based comedy, and would make a good shaggy-dog story even separated from the other tales in the book.
The final story, Mary SanGiovanni’s “We Sang in Darkness”, is set in the future, where music has been banned following the discovery that certain sounds can open portals to other worlds, allowing strange and deadly creatures to seep through. Here, the Shantyman becomes a final retreat where illicit music can be played, just like the good old days – no matter how high the risk.
But it is the penultimate story, Brian Keene’s “Running Free”, where everything comes together. The central character – a murderous gangster with terminal cancer, who is trying to give himself a fatal heart attack so that his family will receive insurance money – is an interesting character who stands out from the rest of the protagonists in the anthology. He eventually joins a number of characters from earlier stories, who act as psychopomps – a testament to the mythic status of the Shantyman.
Overall Thoughts: It is hard to discuss the relative merits of each anthology, as all five maintain a generally consistent level of quality between them and feature so many different authors that each one should have at least something to satisfy any horror enthusiast. That said,Welcome to the Show is something of an odd-one-out, its shared-universe premise ensuring that its stories are geared more towards achieving an accumulated effect than working individually. Monsters of Any Kind, with its overriding theme of creature-based stories, also has a flavour of its own. Of the remaining three anthologies, The Black Room Manuscripts Volume Four deserves special commendation for the depth in which the authors explore their themes.