Next month will herald the inaugural Splatterpunk Awards at Killercon Austin, a new book award ceremony that will celebrate the point in horror literature where the greatest achievements meet the lowest of taste. Lucky for you, Bookmarked is here to get its hands dirty with a three-part overview of every single finalist. The Splatterpunk Awards focus on
Next month will herald the inaugural Splatterpunk Awards at Killercon Austin, a new book award ceremony that will celebrate the point in horror literature where the greatest achievements meet the lowest of taste. Lucky for you, Bookmarked is here to get its hands dirty with a three-part overview of every single finalist.
The Splatterpunk Awards focus on extreme horror, and this year’s finalists certainly pull no punches in terms of subject matter. If we tried to provide a detailed content warning for this article we’d be here all day, so just bear in mind that this post discusses fictional depictions of violence, sex, and some really unsavoury combinations of the two.
Editor’s Note: Explicitly, this post includes graphic mentions of murder and rape in describing the plot of the following short stories and novellas.
Best Short Story
“Molly” by Glenn Rolfe
In this voyeuristic story about the inhabitants of a Hilton hotel, the first character we meet is disgruntled employee Caleb. He views his co-workers and the hotel’s guests with utter contempt, and the person he hates the most is a guest named Anne Marie. At least, that is, until he spies through her window and catches sight of her having sex with her boy-toy Isaac. After this event, she becomes the subject of Caleb’s erotic fascination.
But none of this sexual intrigue compares with something very odd going on in the hotel. At one point, Caleb sees the silhouette of a woman holding a small child through a window only to realise that the window is that of Anne Marie, who has no child. It turns out that Anne Marie owns a large doll. She calls it Molly and, through supernatural means, she can bring it to life. Anne Marie is similar to Caleb in that she harbours a lot of resentment and a large number of grudges. The difference is that, thanks to her knife-wielding doll, she can quickly and easily do away with those who get on her wrong side.
While “Molly” is not particularly sophisticated when it comes to character motivation, it manages to pack together so many elements that the slim narrative ends up feeling quite complex. The lowbrow sleaze coupled with the oddness of the living doll make for a memorable combination.
“The Tipping Point” by Jeff Strand
Having hooked up online, Warren and Julia have their first date at a restaurant that turns out to be further upmarket than expected. As the two of them fret inwardly over the cost of the date, Julia notices a woman in the restaurant acting strangely, which is just the beginning of a harrowing series of events.
First, the strange woman notices Julia staring at her and confronts the couple at their table, making off with Warren’s knife for reasons unknown. Disturbed by this occurrence, Warren and Julia decide to head somewhere else for their date and are insulted on their way out by a valet attendant. This dispute quickly turns violent. The attendant punches Warren in the stomach, and a musclebound fellow diner arrives and beats up the attendant. Meanwhile, an elderly man begins smashing parked cars with a rock.
The couple manages to get back to Warren’s car and flee, only to find that the mayhem extends well outside the restaurant, as confirmed by a woman they see preparing to hurl her small daughter from the fourth story of a building.
The idea of a community where people are suddenly turning into homicidal maniacs has been seen in horror before. Think of The Fog by James Herbert or George A. Romero’s film The Crazies. The theme is ripe with satiric potential, and Jeff Strand makes use of this in his own unique story.
“The Tipping Point” starts out as something of a comedy of manners, with Warren and Julia confronted by various abrasive people and yet unable to pull away for reasons of decorum, personal honour, or concern that the other party might need help. This takes on a twisted new aspect as the story progresses: is it wrong for Warren to hit a woman, even if she’s trying to kill him? What if the woman trying to kill him has a baby strapped to her front?
Unlike The Fog or The Crazies, Strand’s story offers no sci-fi explanation for its bloodshed. As a punchline to the comedy of manners, the rampant homicide is depicted as the result of people emboldening one another to act out their most bestial impulses. Warren compares the phenomenon to the ugly ways in which people behave online: the chaos surrounding him and Julia is essentially an Internet comments section manifesting in the real world.
“Extinction Therapy” by Bracken MacLeod
Spencer, a wealthy but psychologically troubled businessman, decides to visit a new age therapist named Dr. Walker. While he feels a degree of skepticism towards such matters—particularly after finding that Walker, who claims to be Native American, is actually of Italian ancestry—his friends’ enthusiastic testimonies persuade him to take the plunge. During the session, Walker succeeds in placing his client into a vision, and an extremely bloody one at that: Spencer finds himself transported to the Sacred Ridge, right in the middle of a pre-Columbian genocide. Here, he is granted a fit new body, a deadly weapon, and the opportunity to kill.
Spencer’s plot thread alternates with that of a couple, Doug and Cary. The two share a daily commute to work, and their laid back lives bluntly contrast with Spencer’s brutal visions. The two plots eventually converge when Spencer meets the couple in real life. By that point, however, Spencer is a changed man. His visions have brought out latent homicidal tendencies, and Doug and Cary are unfortunately the first people to stumble into his sight.
It’s always interesting to look through a selection of violent fantasies and find a story which, on one level, condemns violent fantasies. Spencer’s visions are portrayed in a manner that suggests a virtual reality game and that constant exposure not only allows him a platform through which to act out his most bestial impulses, but it also consequently emboldens him to commit murder in real life.
On a more significant level, “Extinction Therapy” is a condemnation of the social privilege embodied by Spencer. As an affluent businessman, Spencer begins the story by seeing himself as above the common people of his city. Indeed, given that he resides in a penthouse while Doug and Cary ride the subway, the story physically positions Spencer above them. When he begins contemplating real-life murder, he views his lower-class victims with the same detachment as the imaginary people he slays in his visions. Walker’s therapy may be what emboldens Spencer to try murder, but it is his social privilege that allows him to get away with it.
“Extinction Therapy” makes for an interesting comparison with one of this year’s Hugo finalists: Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™”. Each story tackles New Age-y Native American-inspired vision quests, but in a very different way. Roanhorse’s story satirises the New Age appropriation of Native cultures, while MacLeod downplays the stereotypical aspects of its premise by depicting a pre-Columbian Native genocide rather than the more conventional “Cowboys-and-Indians” cliche. The Italian Dr. Walker in MacLeod’s story also offers other cultural backdrops behind Spencer’s brutal visions.
“Dirty Desk” by Jeffrey Thomas
Mr. and Mrs. Pearson are a couple who live a mostly dull life together. To break up the monotony of their day-to-day existence, they indulging various sexual perversions. Some of these they carry out as a couple, such as when they get off on snuff videos together. Others are performed individually, like when Mr. Pearson heads to Thailand for sex with underage girls, before being eagerly swapped as anecdotes.
Such a lifestyle leaves the Pearsons with a lingering desire to get bigger kicks through increased depravity. They consider torturing a neighbourhood pet, but dismiss this as too meager a thrill. They contemplate kidnapping a child, but realise that this might be too hard to get away with. Mrs. Pearson finally finds a seemingly ideal candidate for abduction when she meets a homeless man named Donny at a laundromat. Donny appears to have mental health issues as he talks of visiting his dead mother in a “special place” that he access through a hole in his head, which marks him as a particularly vulnerable victim for the Pearsons to exploit. Only too late do the Pearsons find that the homeless man speaks the truth: he really does have access to a strange and terrible new dimension.
“Dirty Desk” is a story that plays with multiple levels of expectation and subversion. It begins with an outwardly normal setting and characters who turn out to have a dark secret. As far as horror is concerned, this is routine enough. The character of Donny soon arrives, embodying the stereotype of the mentally ill homeless man, a stereotype so familiar that the character represents a normalcy of his own. Then comes the cross-dimensional fantasy element, which seems to take the story in a different direction, yet was a twist clearly foreshadowed by Donny’s earlier claims.
“Dirty Desk” turns out to be a shaggy-dog story that tugs the reader’s expectations back and forth between the routine and the outré, before arriving at a stark punchline: all that unfolds is, ultimately, no more than fetish fodder to Mr. Pearson.
“Melvin” by Matt Shaw
This story begins with a description of a sleeping woman with a penis in her mouth. But this is far from a conventional rape scene: the penis isn’t attached to anyone, and is wriggling its way down her throat of its own volition.
The woman, Claudia, then wakes up with a queasy feeling in her stomach and dismisses the weird experience as a bad dream brought on by indigestion. She recalls the events of the previous night when she visited a sleazy club with her friend. There, they had been hounded for half an hour by a drunken lecher named Melvin. As Claudia’s internal distress continues, she realises that her ordeal was no dream: Melvin has found a way to get to her.
Despite its short length and simple plot, “Melvin” is a story that achieves multiple levels of gross-out: the surreal, night terror-like incident with the disembodied penis; the more down-to-earth portrayal of the sex pest; the STD symbolism; and finally, the sick joke punchline, where Melvin gets his just desserts.
Header 3 by Edward Lee and Ryan Harding
Edward Lee returns to the setting of his Header series, this time joined by collaborator Ryan Harding. Welcome to the Deep South town of Luntville, where the locals have ways that may seem weird to outsiders. A whole spectrum of sexual abnormality flourishes, but certain kinds of misbehaviour remain taboo. Drug dealers and pedophiles, for example, are dealt with mercilessly in Luntville. The residents have a nasty set of punishments at hand, the most notorious of all—reserved for only the gravest of violations—being something known in these parts as the header.
Into this milieu come Augie, Brice, and Clark, a trio of wealthy New York dudebros who are after, in Augie’s words, “some white trash pussy.” These citified sex tourists pay little regard to the social standards of Luntville, and their predatory behaviour means that they will soon learn the hard way exactly what the fabled header entails.
While Header 2 was a novel, Header 3 reverts to the shorter length of the original book for a leaner narrative. Those who have read the previous installments will be familiar with the setting of the series, and the litany of brutal murder methods and weird sexual practices are as stomach-churning as ever. This time, Lee and Harding manage to put a fairly fresh spin on the subject matter by telling a twisted story of noble savagery against corrupt civilisation.
For all their depraved tendencies, the people of Luntville follow a strict code of honour. A local patriarch has no problem with his sons torturing and killing people who violate the town’s etiquette, but issues a stern warning against directing racial slurs at any victims who happen to be people of colour: Luntville is a town of equal-opportunity murder.
Meanwhile, the three New Yorkers, particularly their resident alpha-male Augie, see themselves almost as a different species. “We’re superior,” Augie tells his two companions. “Hate to tell you two libs that it’s our predestination to be better than these broken down hayseeds. They haven’t done anything with their lives … Best to just sterilize this cut of society. Save billions in fraudulent disability payments and government subsidies.”
But when Augie’s quest for “white trash pussy” ultimately leads him to rape a mentally handicapped woman, he reveals himself to be no better than the Luntvillains, who are, after all, at least honest about their philosophy.
None of this is meant to be taken too seriously, of course. As is often the case with Edward Lee’s writing, Header 3 derives a good deal of pitch-black humour from its sardonic descriptions of the most repulsive human behaviours. A strong stomach is necessary to appreciate any of it, but then, if you’ve made it through the first two Header books, you’ll have already met that requirement.
Killer Chronicles by Somer Canon
Christina Cunningham runs a controversial website called Killer Chronicles with her friend Anais. The site profiles various murderers, causing detractors to argue that it is exploiting and sensationalising homicide. While researching, the two women learn of two particularly gruesome murders that took place in the town of Micksburg. The first victim was skinned, while the second had the fat extracted from his body and made into soap. The killer is still at large, and Christina scents a scoop for her website.
The atrocities give her the chance to do some investigation of her own, rather than relying on second-hand accounts. The deaths are the work of a vengeful fairy named Grenadine who inhabits a nearby pond. In the past, residents left pieces of food as offerings to Grenadine, a practice that Christina unknowingly revives when she strolls by the pond with a cake in her pocket. Grenadine accepts this offering, and subsequently haunts Christina throughout her visit to Micksburg.
Grenadine acts as a combined angel and devil on Christina’s shoulder. The fairy is able to read her soul, and it torments her by calling her out on her selfishness, lack of empathy, and manipulative tendencies. This condemnation drives Grenadine’s murders, as all of the people she kills are wrongdoers. Of course, the transgressions of her victims vary from the grave, as the first victim is a pedophile, to the comparatively trivial such as a rival journalist who gets the chop for trying to steal Christina’s research.
The killer fairy ultimately feels like a character from a rather mean-spirited children’s cartoon, and this is appropriate as Christina is in many respects a rather childlike character. She finds regressive comfort in a specific brand of snack cake, a habit that began as a coping mechanism during her childhood. Her main character flaw, self-centeredness, is a childish one. Around her, Grenadine takes on the form of a reassuring image from Christina’s childhood, namely, the cute-little-girl mascot of her favourite cake brand, reminiscent of Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
The whole situation places Christina in a serious predicament. She’s found the killer, but she can hardly report a fairy to the police. All she can do is go through the motions of investigating the homicides before leaving the area and its malevolent inhabitant behind. Grenadine relishes in the opportunity to control Christina and force her to confront her failings, never harming her directly, but freely lashing out at those behind her. All of this culminates in a bleakly ironic conclusion as Grenadine offers a parting gift to the hapless journalist.
If you want to read Killer Chronicles, be warned that you’ll have to wait a few months. The original publication was a limited edition release of just 20 copies, and it will not be republished until later this year when Bloodshot Books will issue it in both paperback and digital formats. This review was based on a copy kindly provided by the author.
Damn Dirty Apes by Adam Howe
Reggie Levine, a prizefighter turned bouncer, is not having a good time. First, he gets roughed up by a biker gang who is much tougher than he first expected. Then, he gets embroiled in something utterly bizarre.
It turns out that some entrepreneurial acquaintances of his have tried to get a foot in the market for cryptid pornography. The market is already covered when it comes to Bigfoot porn, so they’ve chosen to capitalise on the town’s local legend: the Bigelow skunk ape.
But their shoot was disrupted when Ned, the actor playing the randy skunk ape, was abducted mid-coitus by a hairy beast which, judging by appearance and smell, was a real skunk ape. Things are looking bleak, but a saviour soon arrives in the form of a southern-fried Van Helsing named Jameson T. Salisbury. Armed with the biggest of guns and the foulest of bait, Salisbury is determined to slay the skunk ape at all costs:
“I’m a specialist. A skunk aper. No more, no less. Insofar as ‘make-believe’ goes—the greatest trick the skunk ape ever pulled was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist.”
I frowned. “I thought that was the devil.”
“Same difference” Salisbury said.
One of three novellas published Adam Howe’s anthology Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, Damn Dirty Apes is a story knee-deep in macho masculinity. Reggie is haunted by the double humiliation of both a spectacular failure in the ring that ended his prizefighting career and his later beating at the hands of the biker gang. Both plot threads return in the climax, where Reggie gets the chance to regain his machismo.
The emphasis on pulsing manhood may explain why the story is unsure as to what it wants to do with its main female character, Eliza, who veers awkwardly between badass babe and dispenser of gross-out humour. The gags arising from her latter capacity—such as the revelation that she once held a job masturbating Down syndrome patients to prevent them from becoming rapists—seem as though they are trying too hard to be tasteless. In Edward Lee’s stories this kind of excess flows naturally. In Damn Dirty Apes it feels tacked on.
Despite this weak link, Damn Dirty Apes mostly works as a pulp yarn that always has a twist at hand to raise the stakes both in terms deadly danger and macho posturing.
The Big Bad by K. Trap Jones
It’s a bad day for the Big Bad Wolf. He’s woken up from a night of lovemaking with his girlfriend Red only to find that she’s been brutally murdered, and, judging by the blood on his claws, he committed the act himself during a fugue state. Fortunately, he has a lawyer in the form of a trash-talking fairy godfather who can help him to plead his case. As he tries to gather evidence while evading the long arm of the law, the wolf also finds a set of unlikely allies in the drug-dealing Little Bo Peep, a reprobate Pinocchio, and a con artist named Jack (of beanstalk fame). And he’ll need all the help he can get, considering that the local law enforcement is comprised of hounds, the natural foes of the lupine kind.
The Big Bad is a slow-burning novella. It starts out seeming like nothing more than a rather obvious, not-for-the-kiddies revisitation of classic cartoons. The sexed-up portrayal of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf recalls Tex Avery, only with the sexual innuendo replaced by wholesale smut. Alongside these recharacterizations is Elmer Fudd as a lethal bounty hunter and Pinocchio with a dildo for a nose. While perhaps amusing, these ideas are hardly inspired.
But as it develops, The Big Bad picks up on the potential for invention in its cartoon setting. When the wolf throws up over the fairy, it’s an unsubtle gross gag. But it also moves the plot along, as the lack of human flesh in the vomit proves that the wolf didn’t kill Red and that he was actually framed. Other surprisingly important sequences see the wolf arguing with his own newspaper mugshot, which represents his bestial alter ego, and depict his inner struggle over Red’s murder as an argument between his brain-blood and his groin-blood. (“Look at that shit, man. Seriously, are you even seeing this?” “No, I don’t want to look. Temptation does not occur if one does not witness.”)
K. Trap Jones deploys a few intriguing world building concepts among the wanton violence and unabashed toilet humour. The story touches upon the grudges and prejudices that exist between the various animal species (all of whom are ultimately subservient to humans in the social hierarchy) and has a memorable sequence where Pinocchio is reunited with his maker, whereupon he learns that the other puppets now see him as a messianic figure for successfully escaping his strings.
The Big Bad is something of a long haul, and could have done with either a few more ideas or a shorter pagecount. Still, the inspired touches make the saggier stretches forgivable.
The Lucky Ones Died First by Jack Bantry
Set in North Yorkshire and based on an as-yet-unfilmed screenplay by Paul Shrimpton and Matt Russell, The Lucky Ones Died First kicks off with a sudden tremor in the ground. After this, residents begin to meet gruesome fates one by one at the hands (and jaws) of a gigantic ape. Could a Bigfoot be on the loose in Yorkshire?
In true Jaws fashion, Mayor Goodall tries to keep a lid on things to avoid damaging the town’s tourist trade. He tries to get the beast exterminated by hiring Garner, a reclusive hunter who has a grudge against man-apes after he survived being raped by a Bigfoot in America (so, actually, he may have got on well with Damn Dirty Apes’ Jameson T. Salisbury). But despite the mayor’s efforts, a notoriously anti-City Hall reporter named Duke Casey picks up the trail. He teams up with Professor Gruber, an eccentric local geologist, along with photography model Jeannie to solve the mystery.
The Lucky Ones Died First has the feel of a heavily-compressed James Herbert novel. It introduces us to a cast of local characters—a pot-smoking chav, a fisherman trying to escape his nagging spouse, and a family of campers—and, after establishing their often squalid proclivities, dispatches them one after the other. This violence is intermingled with salaciousness, as a subplot involves the mayor’s wife getting it on with a local police inspector. Romantic strife and disappointment is a recurring theme. A psychological reading might interpret the rapacious Bigfoot as representing an outpouring of communal frustration. Or something.
This book is the shortest contender in the Best Novella category. Its backstory turns out to be a paper-thin affair involving Nazis airlifting a live Bigfoot over England, while its front story confines the rampaging man-ape to some ultimately repetitive mutilations and molestations. Still, it does a good job of evoking the golden age of sleazy paperback horror, and fans of that era should appreciate its ethos.