Here is the final installment 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 final instalment in a five-part series reviewing the nominees for the 2019 Splatterpunk Awards. Having covered Best Short Story, Best Novella, Best Collectionand Best Anthology, all that remains is the category for Best Novel…
Camp Slasher by Dan Padavona
“Camp Slasher” is the kind of title that serves as an unambiguous genre signifier. Anybody with even a passing familiarity with 1980s American horror cinema will have a pretty good idea of what to expect going in (The ebook is listed on Amazon with the subtitle “A gory dark horror novel”, but this seems superfluous).
Sure enough, Camp Slasher has a set-up straight out of Friday the 13th: a group of college funsters are tasked with refurbishing an abandoned summer camp, only for the area’s shady past to come back and haunt them as they start dying one by one.
Now, depending on your fondness for the films being emulated, you will at this point be either filled with Pavlovian eagerness or rolling your eyes at the thought of yet another trip through such well-trodden territory. Either way, you may well find your expectations subverted. Despite its traditionalistic approach to plotting, Camp Slasher departs from its model in one key area: its characterization.
The sundry slasher films that followed the model of Friday the 13th are notorious for their reliance on college stereotypes – so much so that, when Scream reinvented the genre, one of its main innovations was merely acknowledging that its characters were just stereotypes. But in Camp Slasher, author Dan Padavona uses the space afforded by his medium to give a more textured set of characters, ones who become genuinely engaging as the story unfolds.
The central character is Sarah, a troubled young woman who finds that she is pregnant by her abusive boyfriend. Other characters include Karin, Sarah’s hip aunt and sole confidant; Caleb, a brash but good-hearted youth who was previously convicted for beating up his abusive stepfather; Preston, a perverted boy with a history of voyeurism and sadism, once again the product of a dysfunctional family; Bracken McCain, the county sheriff, knee-deep in local politics; and Craven, the sheriff’s corrupt deputy.
And then we have the killers. Rather than the lone murderer of slasher film tradition, Dan Padavona goes down the same path as Jack Ketchum’s Off Season by using the Sawney Bean archetype: the killings are performed by a family that has regressed to hunter-gatherer state, lurking in the forests and slaying all who come near.
But the killers turn out to play a surprisingly small role in the plot. Naturally, they serve the vital function of popping up now and again to pick off the main characters, but this constitutes a relatively small portion of the novel’s pagecount. Padavona has woven a web of family drama and political intrigue so wide-ranging as to justify sidelining the main villains – a rare thing in a slasher narrative.
Camp Slasher does not give the slasher genre a drastic overhaul; indeed, it makes a point out of hitting most of the beats that a fan of the genre will have come to expect. But at the same time, it benefits from the increased depth that Padavona has added to the formulaic narrative and settings. The reader is allowed to get attached to the characters, and so their eventual fates pack all the more punch.
Last Day by Bryan Smith
The President of the United States appears on television to deliver a grave announcement: in less than a day, an asteroid will bring about the extinction of humanity. In an act that does away with an speculation that the announcement is some sort of hoax or prank, he produces a gun and shoots himself live on air.
Last Day is a novel about the breakdown of society in the face of impending apocalypse: with the planet doomed, everyone is free to engage in actions without legal consequences, and so humanity spends its final hours doing just that. Bryan Smith portrays this turn of events in deliberately over-the-top terms, the general impression being that humanity has not regressed to a state of barbarism but rather been transported into an extremely violent cartoon.
After the President’s suicide, the first act of violence in the novel occurs when father-of-two Frank Walker suddenly attacks his wife Olivia with a glass bottle, in full view of their children. After depicting this all-too-credible scene, Smith takes things to a new level by revealing that Frank is not only an abusive husband, he is a serial killer who has been sadistically murdering young women for some time; the apocalypse merely emboldened him to reveal his crimes. And as if this was not enough, the reader learns that Frank’s wife was a willing accomplice all that time, and that the two of them are keeping a 19-year-old girl named Luna locked up in a soundproofed room. Their teenage children, Caleb and Ella, suddenly realise that they are in a house of serial killers.
Elsewhere, a young man named Reece is adrift in the blood-soaked city, but finds an unlikely bodyguard in stuntwoman Daisy Rockingham – an individual who, more than merely performing in action movies, appears to have stepped right out of the script for one. Gorgeous, hyper-competent at survival, and willing to have sex at the drop of a hat, she fulfils Reece’s fantasies even as she shocks him with her callous disregard for those around her: amongst other things, she has no qualms about mowing down pedestrians who happen to get in the way of her motorcycle.
Rounding off the main cast are Shawna and Adam, a pair of lovers whose relationship takes an ugly turn with the coming of the asteroid. Shawna uses the impending extinction of humanity as an excuse to indulge her long-suppressed sadism, tying up her unsatisfactory boyfriend before forcing him to watch as she subjects other victims to torture, murder and necrophilia.
Last Day chops-and-changes between its three plotlines, offering a sort of greatest hits selection for trashy horror: the trapped-with-murderers narrative, the apocalyptic-road-warrior narrative, and the killer-on-the-rampage narrative. Along the way, Smith finds time to vary the tone by revealing that even the harder-edged characters have their softer sides, while seemingly innocent victims turn out to be capable of brutality.
The novel can hardly be termed a convincing portrayal of the apocalypse. Characters faced with the impending extinction of mankind come out with weirdly stilted dialogue (“In another few months, I would have put her in the hidden room and reported her as missing. Then this apocalypse thing happened and ruined all my plans”). Possible character goals, such as hiding in a bunker until the worst of the catastrophe is over, are brought up only to be lost amidst petty bickering and unhealthy sexual practices.
But it would be missing the point to dwell on such quibbles. Last Day is not about a credible apocalyptic scenario, but about a fantasy transformation. Just as a full moon can turn a man into a wolf, the asteroid in Last Day turns a whole community into a collection of splatterpunk archetypes.
Ring of Fire by David Agranoff
Ring of Fire is another novel of the apocalypse. This time the end is not brought about by an asteroid, but by what appears to be the world itself rebelling against humanity on an elemental level: wildfires fill the atmosphere with ash, while disease spreads by tapwater. The air and water have become poisoned while the earth catches fire.
The novel uses multiple viewpoints to examine this multiform ecological catastrophe, switching between a number of distinct settings. The home of Victoria, an affluent woman protecting her two children while waiting for the return of her cancer-stricken husband Jake. The radio station where shock-jock Will finds his cultivated behind-the-microphone persona fading away when faced with the apocalypse. The deadly streets where activist Austin does her best to simply survive. The corridors of power where politicians and military try to maintain order using whatever methods they can.
As is to be expected from a novel of ecological apocalypse, Ring of Fire contains a good deal of anger about the short-term thinking of modern society, and even finds space to namecheck Christopher Manes’ 1990 book Green Rage. Much of its message is articulated through the character of environmentalist guru Robbins:
These stupid things we did to convince ourselves we were being responsible with the planet. Reused bags, buying items in bulk, reducing and reusing. All tricks to convince us we were doing something, but here they were. Reaping what we have sown.
Getting the message out is a key concern of the novel; it is a theme that provides two major plot points, as the characters have to reach a pair of Wi-Fi towers to deliver a speech while also preserving the manuscript for an environmentalist book.
The exact origin of the life-threatening bacteria is left ambiguous, with characters theorising that it was previously frozen in polar ice that has since melted, or else an agricultural by-product like mad cow disease. Perhaps more significant than the bacteria’s origin is its effects, as it is revealed to turn its victims into mindless killers with a taste for human flesh – in other words, into the 28 Days Later variety of zombie. As a result, the story delves into all of the now-familiar dramatic moments as survivors are faced with the prospect of killing their loved ones.
Familiar as its subject matter may be, Agranoff does handle the zombie melodrama well. The novel contains a number of genuinely poignant moments such as Austin’s tragic reunion with her zombified girlfriend (“The hair was matted and filthy but she knew that hair, had buried her nose in that hair after making love to her”) or Victoria faced with the choice between continuing to shelter her children, or expose them to life’s harsh realities head-on.
The glass-half-empty summary of Ring of Fire is that the novel abandons any pretence at being a serious-minded portrayal of ecological devastation and takes the easier path of being yet another zombie novel. The glass-half-full reading is that, while Ring of Fire may be yet another zombie novel, it is a zombie novel unafraid to touch upon wider real-life issues.
Full Brutal by Kristopher Tirana
Meet Kim White, a 16-year-old high school cheerleader. She is sardonic, self-centred and starting to explore her sexuality. These are hardly unusual traits amongst teenagers, but as Kim’s libido grows, she learns that she is very different to her classmates. Ordinary sex holds no appeal whatsoever to her, and thanks to online bondage pornography, she realises that she is deeply aroused by abject humiliation.
She decides to explore her newfound kink in real life. Through an ever-shifting set of personas – sometimes the innocent maiden, other times the red-dressed Lolita – she succeeds in manipulating those around her to live out her most depraved fantasies. She seduces a teacher, deriving sexual thrills not so much from the intercourse itself as from the man’s guilt and pain at cheating on his wife with an underage girl.
Upping her game, Kim drugs the teacher’s daughter and manoeuvres one of the school jocks into raping her. All the while, our anti-heroine manages to escape any blame, successfully pinning her every atrocity on someone else. As her victims’ lives are destroyed, her erotic pleasure grows stronger. Once she discovers online gore videos – which, naturally, she finds sexually exciting – Kim moves on to homicide. Sometimes she kills her targets directly, other times she drives them to self-destruction.
Even at this point, Kim discovers still more depths of depravity to explore. When her sexual exploits leave her pregnant, she begins to feel cravings – and learns that these cravings can be satiated only with human flesh. The whole town becomes aware that a serial killer is loose, but nobody suspects the innocent teenage cheerleader…
The figure of the heartless, conniving high school girl is a familiar one, being a stock villain in teen comedies. But Full Brutal takes the character type to an extreme, not only because of Kim’s homicidal and necrophilic tendencies, but also because of how the novel avoids one-dimensional stereotyping by placing us directly into her psyche. As the first-person narrator, Kim takes us on a tour of exactly how her twisted little mind works.
Full Brutal is an often funny book, although the humour is of the blackest variety. Kim is prone to making wry observations: at one point she notes that women tend to look naturally beautiful when naked, while men “just look gangly, hairy and awkward, like they’ve been made from the less desirable scraps left behind after the creation of women.” Such observations, typical of a world-wise, seen-it-all-before teenager, contrast sharply with Kim’s matter-of-fact descriptions of her own proclivities:
Comforting the family of the man I had killed was almost as arousing as the killing itself. At one point I had to excuse myself to the bathroom and rub out a quick orgasm just so I could think straight and not show my giddiness.
Unlike Stephen King’s Rage, which depicts its teenage killer as the tragic product of an abusive upbringing, Full Brutal makes no attempt to portray Kim as pitiable or deserving of empathy. Like all good picaresque novels, it allows the reader room to feel a sneaking admiration for the sheer audacity of the antihero’s manipulation, despite any moral repugnance; and it also makes a number of digs at how the mean-spiritedness of high school culture helps to enable Kim’s atrocities. But at the end of the day, Kim is a monster of her own creation: through a combination of boredom and hedonism, she allows herself to descend into pure evil.
Rabid Heart by Jeremy Wagner
Once again we journey to the zombie apocalypse, which this time arose from military science that backfired and began turning people into walking corpses – or “Cujos” as the characters refer to them, in honour of Stephen King. But as is often the case in zombie fiction, the origins of the plague are of little importance; what matters is the author’s personal spin on the ensuing scenario.
Rhonda is a young woman who has lost almost her entire family – including her fiancé, Brad – to the zombie apocalypse, and now lives in an army camp with her colonel father. Although she is a civilian, the camp’s soldiers trust her enough to take part in their operations. One such manoeuvre takes her back to her old home, where – to her surprise – she is reunited with Brad. It turns out that, while her sometime fiancé is a zombie, he is a comparatively harmless sort who does not show the bloodlust common amongst his kind; he is even capable of groaning her name. After securing her lover with furry handcuffs and a ball gag, she takes him back to camp; but facing disapproval from her father and other military officials, she decides to elope with her zombie boyfriend.
This, then, is Rabid Heart’s high-concept twist on the zombie genre: the novel is mixture of love story and road trip as one woman and her zombie boyfriend travel a post-apocalyptic landscape in the hopes of finding a place for themselves. The premise alone should make it clear that Rabid Heart is not the most serious-minded of zombie sagas, and will live or die by its ability to throw outrageous hazards in the way of Rhonda and Brad.
As it happens, author (and death metal lyricist) Jeremy Wagner rises to the task. All of the expected gut-splattering carnage is present and correct, along with some distinctly oddball twists on the old standards. The villains encountered by Rhonda include a trio of cannibals, two of whom are so diminutive in stature that they can lure victims by pretending to be the innocent children of their comrade – the sort of humorous yet still unnerving idea that does much to enliven a novel of this genre.
Also notable is that the novel has a genuine heart among its spilled innards. Rhonda’s relationship with her zombie boyfriend is initially played for laughs, but by the time she has rescued a pair of children – thereby forming a twisted but loving nuclear family – it all becomes rather sweet. Rhonda’s doomed relationship with Brad, for all its silliness, turns out to be actually quite poignant.
Those who feel that zombie literature is oversaturated are unlikely to have their opinions changed by this novel. But for fans of the genre, Rabid Heart is a wry, quirky take on the formula which strikes a good balance between parody and pathos.
A Gathering of Evil by Gil Valle
Bruce and Marilyn are an outwardly normal couple with a dark secret. They met via an illicit website devoted to snuff fetishism, and bonded over their mutual taste for sadism of the most brutal sort. So far their macabre sexual interests have been confined to fantasy – but now, they decide to take things a step further.
Teaming up with fellow snuff fetishists met online, they form a conspiracy to kidnap and torture young women to death, filming the results to earn money on the side. The targets they choose are Susan, a newly-appointed veterinarian; Jennifer, a businesswoman; and Jackie, a high school student. As the band of perverts trade ideas, their plans become increasingly twisted, as when one member of the group suggests incorporating cannibalism – a notion that the others find unusual, but worth trying out.
The story is in no particular hurry to get on with this brutal business. The first kidnapping takes place more than a third of the way through the story, the first murder occurs nearly halfway through, and the most grisly scenes are reserved for the very end. Up until then, it is a slow-paced study in the banality of evil. The good natures of the three victims (particularly sweet, animal-loving Susan) contrasts with the bestial appetites of the killers – and yet, the villains are never caricatured. The novel makes a point out of just how normal they are in most respects, as they exchange small talk about their day-to-day lives while plotting their atrocities.
Although the story’s psychology is not exactly subtle, the murderers are convincingly portrayed as seemingly everyday folks who each have two flaws: a sexual desire to kill, and a lack of the empathy required to keep that desire in check. One of the necrophiles is Jackie’s uncle, and even though he is the one who first suggests killing and eating his niece, he shows a degree of reluctance. – but not enough reluctance to actually stop him from committing the murder. “I do have feelings for her because she’s family and she definitely doesn’t deserve this,” he tells the others. “I’d want to kill her quickly and as painlessly as possible before butchering the body.”
Other aspects of the novel are less plausible. The killers carry out their plan with the efficiency of a police operation, even peppering their telephone conversations with “stand by” and “copy”. They divide their victims amongst themselves through auction, with bids opening at $90,000. This is a level of organisation and competence that suggests a hardened crime ring, rather than a band of first-time criminals acting on sexual urges.
As the novel reaches its deeply macabre climax, it begins to resemble torture porn of the most literal sort: character motivations get thinner, dialogue gets flatter and narrative surprises disappear altogether while the money-shot comes into view.
At this point, it is necessary to bring up a crucial aspect of the novel’s background. Author Gilberto “Gil” Valle was arrested in 2012 as a result of his involvement with a website for snuff fantasies called Dark Fetish Net (A Gathering of Evil makes a thinly-veiled reference to this community, its fictional murderers having met via “the dark fetish website”). Here, he engaged in conversations about killing and eating women, including his wife; as a former NYPD officer, he became known in the media as the “Cannibal Cop”.
Valle was convicted of conspiracy to kidnap, but the conviction was overturned on the grounds that his posts were merely roleplay. The case remains controversial: can an individual’s sexual fantasies, no matter how depraved, be legally prohibited?
Such matters are outside the scope of this review, but knowing Valle’s history really does make it hard to read A Gathering of Evil as a straightforward horror story: the author’s predilections need to be taken into account. On the one hand, although Valle may have fantasised about being in the shoes of the killers, he still allows the reader to spend time with the victims before their fates; in doing so he prevents the novel from becoming snuff porn, at least until the very end. On the other hand, when separated from its authorial context, A Gathering of Evil is simply not all that remarkable: it is a competent but insubstantial slice of extreme horror that could have been churned out by any number of other authors. The curiosity value lent by its association with the notorious “cannibal cop” is its main draw, leaving it more successful as a freak show attraction than as a novel.
The six books up for Best Novel can be divided into three thematic categories.
First, we have the familiar genre romps. Dan Padavona‘s Camp Slasher and Jeremy Wagner’s Rabid Heart belong to a well-trodden subgenres – slasher and zombie apocalypse, respectively – but in each case the execution is strong enough for the familiarity to prompt fondness rather than contempt. Next are the apocalyptic stories, David Agranoff’s Ring of Fire and Bryan Smith’s Last Day, which have quite distinct approaches to this theme: the former full of angst about humanity’s culpability in the destruction of the world, the latter focusing on how society crumbles when Earth is faced with the arbitrary threat of destruction by asteroid. Finally, we have the two novels in which reprobated protagonists act out their most hideous sexual desires, up to and including cannibalism: Gil Valle’s A Gathering of Evil and Kristopher Triana’s Full Brutal.
Interestingly, each of these categories contains one comparatively straight-faced novel alongside an book geared more towards black comedy. Camp Slasher lacks the self-aware humour that has long been fashionable in slasher films, but Rabid Heart approaches zombies in a distinctly playful spirit. Ring of Fire’s relative earnestness contrasts sharply with the carnivalesque spirit of Last Day. The divide between straight and humorous is most pronounced when we compare A Gathering of Evil to Full Brutal: while the former is the weakest novel on the ballot, the latter’s ever-darkening comedy makes it one of the strongest. In short, there is something in this category to please extreme horror and splatterpunk fans no matter what their tastes.
Well, that covers each and every one of the stories in the running for the Splatterpunk Awards this year. But there is one last prize to mention: the J.F. Gonzalez Lifetime Achievement Award, which will be presented to David G. Barnett.
David G. Barnett is the man in charge of horror purveyor Necro Publications, which he has been running since 1993; books published by Necro include Edward Lee and Ryan Harding’s Header 3, Charlee Jacob’s Containment: The Death of Earth and the anthology Chopping Block Party, all of which were recognized at the Splatterpunk Awards last year. Barnett has also dabbled in writing fiction of his own, penning the Tales of the Fallen series, the standalone novel Spying on Gods and the collection Dead Souls. On top of that, he designs book covers and even has some DJ mixes to his name. So, give a hand to the lifetime achievements of David G. Barnett!