John Skipp and Craig Spector's sixth and final horror novel together, Animals (Bantam Nov 1993, cover art by Joe DeVito), is rife with the type of emotional as well as physical pain and humiliation that they explored in all their works. Despite their reputation as splatterpunks - or maybe because of - they always tried to depict realistic human relationships. Here, they delve into the psychic turmoil of 35-year-old blue-collar Syd Jarrett's divorce and its aftermath. In an out-of-the-way rundown blues bar in rural Pennsylvania, Syd meets the improbably hot and sexually ravenous Nora and his life is torn asunder. Nora is, of course, a werewolf. She wants to make him one too. But she is on the run from her ex, a sort of alpha-werewolf named Vic. What will happen when these night-time worlds collide? Surely you can guess.
But the thin, over-worn metaphor of werewolves who represent the dark, repressed nature of ourselves is expressed in tone-deaf, hey-buddy-check-this-out "prose" that seems less like writing than like two guys yelling a story at you in tandem. I don't know if Skipp and Spector had simply run their creative streak dry, were under a tight deadline, or had personal issues, or were simply bored, but virtually everything about Animals is lousy. Nora wants Syd to confront his psychological wounds caused by his ex-wife's adultery and the rage he felt to the man who cuckolded him, because that's what werewolves do: make you confront the beast within. I know horror likes to literalize its metaphors but this one is so obvious and trite and anemic it hardly registers.
The relentlessly graphic sex and violence is approached like sniggering 13-year-old boys who've just discovered Hustler magazine and Faces of Death videotapes. Every character comes across as an utter dated dork, straight from central casting circa 1987: women wear leather bustiers and fishnet stockings; men have one earring and stubble and drink from cans of Budweiser and bottles of Wild Turkey (Nora drinks copious amounts of Southern Comfort - barf) while driving muscle cars; a bartender is a world-weary sort who's seen it all; Syd's boss is a corrupt, crooked weakling. I know these characters are working-class Pennsylvania types, maybe Skipp and Spector did some research, but it makes for underwhelming fictional companions, more The Onion's Jim Anchower than flesh-and-blood human beings.
The cliches pop up thick and fast and the puns would make Robert Bloch groan. He was hell with names, but he never forgot a face. And even if he did, hers was in the trunk. A car moves through the night like a shark through dark waters. Kisses are deep and soul-searching. Sex is the raging bone dance. Well, that last one isn't a cliche; it's a ridiculous and juvenile original. The bad guy laughs wickedly, the moment of truth arrives, and werewolf survivors lick their wounds. See what they did there?
Animals was published in 1993, which was a distinct end of an era for me. I was still reading horror, but I was moving backwards toward classic writers like Machen, Jackson, le Fanu, Blackwood; modern horror was pretty much over as far as I was concerned. Bookstore shelves were more and more taken up with Koontz and King and Dell/Abyss had folded. Sure, there were a few titles I picked up here and there over the next couple years: Kathe Koja's Strange Angels and Poppy Z. Brite's Exquisite Corpse (both of which I liked) and The 37th Mandala by Marc Laidlaw (which I didn't ) but overall this was the end of keeping up with new publications.
And so I distinctly recall the publication of Animals and how I thought, "Yeah, no, I'm kinda over this stuff; besides, a werewolf novel about 'the animal in all of us'? No thanks." Even Clive Barker's encomium on the cover did little to assuage my suspicions. After I began this blog and saw that copies of the novel were going for up to $15 or $20 online, I wanted to see just what I'd missed (no, I didn't pay that much; found an oddly pristine copy in a local used bookstore). And I see that I was exactly and precisely right in my impression that the book was one long, grim, cringe-inducing horror-fiction cliche.
Guess you won't see that as a cover blurb. Sorry, guys!