This is the first of a 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 Short Story
Welcome to the first in a series of posts that will cover every single nominee for the 2019 Splatterpunk Awards! Due to be presented at KillerCon Austin on Saturday August 17, the awards celebrate horror fiction of the more extreme variety. To kick things off, let us take a look at the six contenders for the title of Best Short Story…
“Virtue of Stagnant Waters” by Monica J. O’Rourke
Years after the execution of a serial killer named Tom Kirten, reporter Nicole Beuchamp decides to investigate his crimes. She finds that people who escaped the killer are reluctant to take part in interviews, but eventually she succeeds in persuading one survivor, named Lisa, to meet her at a coffee shop.
The interview gets off to an awkward start. Lisa initially finds the reporter unsympathetic and condescending. But then Nicole reveals that she is researching Kirten’s crimes out of a personal connection, having lost her child. This revelation prompts Lisa to open up, and relate the full ordeal that she suffered at the hands of Kirten.
The main portion of “Virtue of Stagnant Waters” is an extended flashback to Lisa being raped and tortured by Kirten, followed by a second flashback where Kirten kills a different girl through an elaborate method involving honey and insects. All of this is described in unflinching detail, from the sexual violation of Lisa to the gradual decomposition of the other victim. As with much extreme horror, it would be easy to complain that these sequences are exploitative – and yet the story directly pre-empts such complaints via its framing device with the reporter Nicole. Here, the reader is directly asked to contemplate media approaches to violence, and the dividing line between empathy and prurience.
“Virtue of Stagnant Waters” culminates in a twist ending which could easily have felt trite. But thanks to the story’s tricksy structure, the conclusion instead comes across as an entirely natural and logical end-point of the narrative. The story is part of Splatterpunk Forever, a book that is also featured in the Best Anthology category.
“Fistulas” by Mame Bougouma Diene
Set in Mali, this story gets off to a graphic start by opening with a scene of protagonist Dr. Salio Sanogo treating a young victim of female genital mutilation; the operation is a success and Dr. Salio is subsequently treated to an exploitative interview from a crass US television reporter.
The story establishes its setting as one of squalid realism, but it soon allows in an element of the supernatural. Near the clinic is Kalakoro, a village that is purportedly cursed due to a large number of miscarriages occurring there. Dr. Salio dismisses talk of curses as mere superstition – but when he receives five new patients from the village in question and finds that each one is intersex, bearing both penis and vagina, he is baffled.
Dr. Salio heads off to Kalakoro to investigate. He finds that the village contains an enormous baobab known as the Mother Tree; this is the sole food supply of the locals and forms the centre of their culture. He also notices various medical anomalies. When women of the village become pregnant, their husbands’ bodies are altered: the men first gain weight, and some later develop scars to match those from their wives’ caesarean sections. Is this a psychosomatic process, or something else?
While investigating Kalakoro, Salio falls in love with a woman named Aisha. He sleeps with her, and later learns that he has impregnated her. This is just the beginning of Dr. Salio’s gynaecological nightmare…
One of the stories in Mame Bougouma Diene’s internationally-focused collection Dark Moons Rising on a Starless Night, “Fistulas” is careful to offer a nuanced vision of its African setting – even if this location becomes the backdrop to a tale of horror. It opens in a modern, urban Mali faced with real-world issues, and then segues into a setting of rural fantasy. “Traditions run deep, even foul ones, especially foul ones” remarks the narrative voice at one point.
Its prose almost throbbing with psychosexual imagery (“The trees seemed to lose their sap, it oozed and bubbled through holes in the bark, dripping white, translucent and sticky along the trunks”) the story is a potent mixture of both realistic and fantastic body horror. Female genital mutilation blurs into a dreamlike world where human reproduction obeys a completely different set of rules. The logic followed by the story is that of superstition and of nightmares, and it achieves an effect on a deeper level than mere revulsion.
“Seersucker Motherfucker” by Jay Wilburn
When Sally Finch’s lover Coop rejects her for Kelly Harper, Sally takes a gold-plated revolver and tries to shoot her rival, but accidentally kills Coop instead. Kelly’s family intervenes, her brother Carson shooting Sally before Kelly takes the gold-plated revolver to finish her off.
News of the atrocity reaches Sally’s father – the coiffured, handlebar-moustached, seersucker-clad Sabastian Finch. The Finches’ minister pleads for peace, but Sabastian is having none of it. He demands all-out war against the Harper family:
Blood coated the contours of his daughter’s shroud in abstract patterns. The red spots floated in his vision and made him dizzy. Soon all he could see were the clouds of red bleeding across his vision.
He wanted to mourn her, to touch her, to hold her, to bury her, but he wanted blood spilled in her name until it flowed through the streets of the town like an Aztec slaughter. His rage required an extinction level event to quench.
He would not touch her mangled body, nor attempt to wash it clean, until he could offer up that much and nothing less under the eyes of God, who must surely be as hungry for blood as Sabastian felt. If not, He could be no true God at all.
Sure enough, the Finch clan and the Harper family – the latter ruled over by a rival seersucker-clad patriarch, Ratcliff – each go for their guns to settle the dispute once and for all.
“Seersucker Motherfucker” depicts a Southern US town where the legal system is corrupt, religion is a mere façade and family honour is the only true law. It takes time to build up a tactile world of cornbread and beard oil before gleefully ripping it apart as the two families go to war. Indeed, elaborate construction followed by total destruction is a major aspect of the story: with combatants ranging from a young boy clad in an ammo belt to an elderly lady with a Gatling gun, Jay Wilburn constructs elaborate family trees purely to chop down.
Despite being fairly lengthy, the story manages to sustain its mayhem-driven plot over its duration and prompts a perverse sense of satisfaction at the sheer thoroughness of the destruction depicted. But it never takes the time to build the level of tension that would ordinarily be expected from a horror story, instead plunging headlong into elaborate scenes of violence. In this way it owes less to horror tradition and more to the Quentin Tarantino school of ultraviolent action, adding some pleasing variety to the Splatterpunk ballot’s short story line-up. “Seersucker Motherfucker” is part of Jay Wilburn’s collection Beautiful Darkness, which can be obtained from the author’s website.
“Rebound” by Brendan Vidito
I broke up with my girlfriend recently. After that, it was just me and my tapeworm.
Her name was Karina.
The first three sentences of “Rebound”, from Brendan Vidito’s Best Collection nomineeNightmares in Ecstasy, do a succinct job of laying out the story’s premise. Yes this is the tale of the love between one man and his intestinal parasite. The narrator begins his story with how he first encountered Karina after she turned up in his rare stake, and goes on to describe – in loving detail – how she shares his meals and provides him with reassuring bouts of diarrhoea when he’s feeling lonely.
Hoping to take his relationship to the next level, our parasite-ridden protagonist hooks up with a blood fetishist named Rachel, who has experience with sexual use of leeches and so is open to a night of fun involving a tapeworm.
“Rebound” is very much a one-joke story, but it is short enough for that joke to work. Brendan Vidito finds a surprising number of different angles to explore the simple premise, and succeeds in using each one to examine the tapeworm romance in nauseating detail. Like all good gross-out jokes, it dares the audience to make it to the end.
“The Seacretor” by Ryan Harding
Three acquaintances – Ben, Grant and Tanya – head out to see on Grant’s boat, the Secretor, to a small island. They arrive, but only after Grant crashes the vessel into a rock, leaving the trio shipwrecked. As they get on with the grim business of surviving, the castaways fall to bickering: Ben, the narrator, resents wealthy dudebro Grant and harbours sexual desires for Grant’s girlfriend Tanya.
Desperate for some source of sustenance, Grant and Tanya decide to try consuming the odd-smelling sap that leaks from a tree on the island. Ben, who describes the substance as “tree jizz”, opts out of this plan, even though it means drinking his own urine instead.
It turns out that Ben’s decision was wise, as the tree sap has a bizarre and terrible side-effect. It causes his penis to turn into a strange centipede-like creature, and leaves him with an urge to have sex with the tree (an act which, thanks to the narrative opening in medias res, furnishes the very first line of the story). And then, it is Tanya’s turn to experience an unwelcome mutation of her own…
Another story from Splatterpunk Forever, “The Seacretor” is built in large part from two familiar narratives. One is the Robinson Crusoe castaway genre; the other is the nerd-jock-hot chick triangle, a conflict that must surely be as old as the American educational system itself. In combining the two, Ryan Harding shows that the common theme is thirst: literal thirst in the former, sexual thirst in the latter. The story uses this thematic connection as the starting point for a bizarre saga of body horror, as desires and frustrations worm their way to the surface in a decidedly unpleasant manner.
“Diabolicus Interruptus” by Christine Morgan
The only one of the short story nominees to be available online, “Diabolicus Interruptus” opens by plunging the reader directly into a threesome between a group of supernatural beings:
Bodies writhing, skin slick, her breath hot and her touch hotter … his flesh is still cool, but warming now, warming and flushing from her blood as he drinks and drinks … her blood filling his veins, suffusing his tissues … and when she feels him stiffen against her, the knowledge that it is her own blood somehow adds to her passion, her arousal.
She grasps that stiffness, his cock so much larger than his fangs, and guides it to the hungry cleft between her thighs. Moist and open, she welcomes this other penetration, this filling thrust and plunge. Her spine arches, her wings flare wide, her tail curls and lashes.
The three entities are a demoness, a vampire, and a goblin-ghoul, and each one shows a distinct sexual approach. The vampire likes to bite and penetrate; the goblin-ghoul favours munching and nibbling down below; and the demoness relishes her role as centre of attention to the two male creatures.
As the orgy reaches its climax, it is set upon by a celestial gatecrasher: an armoured angel arriving in time to mete out divine punishment. But not everything is as it seems…
“Diabolicus Interruptus” is a brief, comedic story. It starts out as high Gothic erotica, but this turns out to be the set-up to a punchline. It’s a good joke, and one that serves to round off the six contenders for Best Short Story.
Despite all of them fitting under the umbrella of extreme horror, this is a reasonably diverse range of stories.
Christine Morgan’s “Diabolicus Interruptus” and Brendan Vidito’s “Rebound” are brief stories each based around a single joke, which feature two very different themes (Morgan goes with Gothic horror, while Vidito picks bodily parasites). Of the longer stories, “Fistulas” by Mame Bougouma Diene is the most idiosyncratic piece of work: it avoids classification into any major subgenre of horror and strives to give its reader something new. By contrast, the other three stories – Monica J. O’Rourke’s sting-in-the-tail serial killer saga “Virtue of Stagnant Waters”, Ryan Harding’s Crusoe-gone-wrong narrative “The Seacretor” and Jay Wilburn’s Tarantino-esque shoot-out “Seersucker Motherfucker” – all work within familiar genres. But, crucially, they work within different genre territory, each one offering a different flavour of extreme horror.
That said, it is hard to miss the fact that almost every nominee is based around weird sex; the only exception is Wilburn’s story, and even that begins with a love triangle turning murderous. The theme comes in different shapes, including the rapist-killer of “Virtue of Stagnant Waters”; the otherworldly gynaecology of “Fistulas”; the tapeworm romance of “Rebound”; the genital transformations of “The Secretor” and the entirety of “Diabolicus Interruptus”; but it remains unmissable.
Could the selection be faulted for its repeated reliance on this particular theme? Or, perhaps, is warped sexuality an inextricable part of extreme horror?
Either way, if you feel like reading some tales where macabre imagery is shot through with perversions of sexuality and the occasional perversion of reality, then the Splatterpunk Award for Best Short Story nominees offer a choice selection.
You can reach Doris V. Sutherland at her blog: http://dorvsutherland.wordpress.com