We're all aware of the origins of the term "splatterpunk" aren't we? Feels like I've covered it a million times before, and if you have any interest in horror fiction you probably have a fairly good idea of its practitioners and artistic aims already. But just like every offshoot of a mainstream genre, people disagree over its identification and meaning. Basically, "splatterpunk" describes a small faction of horror writers in the 1980s and early 1990s who, while bestselling horror (or "horror") novelists were offering cozy, polite thrills to unadventurous readers, wanted to shake up conventional generic expectations. And they kinda pissed off quiet horror writers like Charlie Grant
, Dennis Etchison
, and even Robert Bloch
himself with their "there are no limits" attitude.
For me, though, not solely gore for gore's sake were the splatterpunks; this wasn't just shock tactics without substance. No, these young writers wanted to fuse extreme violence and horror (the "splatter") with a confrontational social sensibility (the "punk") to provide a countercultural, more streetwise take on our collective fears at the end of the century. It was not
just extreme violence and viscera and degradation - psychological insight into alienated characters was as essential as blood-on-the-walls-and-ceiling taboo-smashing. Outsiders are now insiders; listen to what they have to say...
Editor and film critic Paul Sammon
, who'd previously produced documentaries on Platoon
, and most famously Blade Runner
, was so enamored of the movement he put together Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror
. And even though virtually every author in this anthology states that they are not
splatterpunks, it's obvious the stories themselves are
, and that's really all that matters. They're willfully ugly and despairing and silly and angry and unflinching, sometimes all at once. This book was pretty much my jam back in the day; I remember eagerly buying my trade paperback copy of it at the 1991 Weekend of Horrors Fangoria Convention in New York City, and it's never left my collection.
Me in NYC 1991; in that bag is this book!
After a short intro from Sammon, the bar is set very high with the first story: Joe R. Lansdale
's utterly harrowing "Night They Missed the Horror Show." I've read this several times over the years and it never fails to feel like a solid punch in the gut. Redneck racism, one of Lansdale's staples, is exposed in all its soulless and dehumanizing excess. He pushes our snouts right into the rawest filth. It'll leave you feeling hollowed out and horrified. Is it art? It's unforgiving and the bleakest of the bleak, so... yes? Yes. A modern classic it is.
Lansdale his ownself
One of the few non-American writers in the movement was the esteemed (and bestselling) Clive Barker
. But of course. His Books of Blood
changed the nature of horror fiction in the 1980s. "The Midnight Meat Train," with its ludicrously graphic title, is one of his most vividly realized and icily graphic tales: a city that feeds on innocent lives, a race that exists solely so that humanity can ignore it, a god that demands the ultimate fealty, a man whose urge to know leads to a horrible new life. Another classic:
It was a giant. Without head or limb. Without a feature that was analogous to human, without an organ that made sense, or senses. If it was like anything, it was like a shoal of fish. A thousand snouts all moving in unison, budding, blossoming, and withering rhythmically...
"Film at Eleven," from actual unapologetic splatterpunk John Skipp
, of Skipp & Spector fame, springboards from the on-air TV suicide of Pennsylvania politician R. Budd Dwyer
and the spousal abuse of a diehard Oprah fan. The final effect of eternal recurrence seems almost cruel, but it implies that justice does not come easy. Not bad. I've written before of my appreciation for Douglas E. Winter
's zombie parodies of contemporary literature, and here it's "Less Than Zombie." Capturing Bret Easton Ellis's style of anomie and privileged rich-kid sociopathy perfectly - And, oh yeah, the thing with the zombies
- it ironically prefigures Ellis's American Psycho.
It's also the first time I encountered the curb stomp
, nearly a decade before American History X
Recently deceased splatter film connoisseur Chas. Balun
presents an essay, "I Spit in Your Face: Films That Bite," on the most extreme gore movies of the day: loverly films such as Henry
: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Nekromantik
, Last House on Dead End Street
, and Roadkill
. He warns "hipsters" not to act too blasé when confronting these flicks; they'll knock those sniggering grins right back through their teeth, or something. Awesome.
Freak-show fiction became something of a thing after Katherine Dunn's masterful Geek Love
(1989) was published, and that's where "Freaktent" comes in: Nancy A. Collins
is a solid writer which gives the story a real grounding for its natural physical atrocities: Images of children twisted into tortured, abstract forms like human bonsai trees swam before my eyes
. Mediocre TV horror-movie director Mick Garris
sleazes it up with "A Life in the Cinema," about hack horror director who adopts a soul-and other things-sucking monstrous turd baby for his next exploitation flick; it's a real charmer. The lost chapter from Ray Garton
is presented here, so grotesque his publisher excised it from its paperback edition, but I seriously prefer "Sinema," which appeared in Silver Scream
. Read that one instead.
Hugo Award-winning Martin in the 1970s
Although today he's known as an outrageously popular fantasy author, George R.R. Martin
wrote a matter-of-factly horrific science-fiction story in 1976 which is included here, "Meathouse Man." It's the oldest story collected, but it's also one of the very best, an emotionally complex story of a man, his work, and unrequited love. Oh, and zombie sex on distant planets called corpseworlds. Probably the best-written and most affecting piece in the anthology: He slept with a ghost beside him, a supernaturally beautiful ghost, the husk of a dead dream. He woke to her each morning.
Spector, Lansdale, Matheson, Schow, Garton, McCammon, & Skipp:
Yes, The Splat Pack c. 1986/7
TV writer Richard Christian Matheson
(yes, the son) contributes two of his short-short fictions, "Red" and "Goosebumps." Short sharp shocks, nicely done. Reminds me that I'm still trying to find a decent copy of his collection Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks
, which I lost ages ago. Another British writer, Philip Nutman
, who interviewed many filmmakers for Fangoria
mag, presents a grim picture of the bloody-minded no-future youth of his home country in "Full Throttle." Tough stuff; I can practically see the young Tim Roth
and Ray Winstone
carousing in a movie version.
Also included are solid stories of varying grit and grisliness by Edward Bryant
("While She Was Out," years later made into a film
), Wayne Allen Sallee
("Rapid Transit," first in a trilogy of short urban terror tales), and Roberta Lannes
("Goodbye Dark Love," which I'd first read in Cutting Edge
) also feature, each probing the depths of contemporary non-supernatural horror with an emphasis on character. The worst in the anthology is truly Rex Miller
's "Reunion Moon," which I'll not even describe except to say it's a piece of shit.
Splat poster boy David J. Schow is not included here for various reasons, as Sammon explains, but it's just as well because I prefer his non-splat work. I thought J.S. Russell
was a Schow pen name but it's not; Russell's "City of Angels" reads just like one of Schow's stories, so I think it was a fair guess: Porqy, he's got this thing about the nuts and how they're the "bestest part"... he's been talking about baby nuts for days. "I figure," he says, "they got to be more tender. Tastier, like lamb or baby corn," and pops them in his mouth like wet jelly beans.
finishes with Sammon's 75-page (!) essay on the movement, "Outlaws." While it's unearned and ridiculous to compare these writers to hallowed transgressors like de Sade, Baudelaire, William Burroughs, Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard, as he does, trying to give weight to a fleeting literary moment that was named as an inside joke, he certainly helped me get to reading lots of those folks back then. It's okay to simply
be a graphic yet thoughtful horror writer but I guess he didn't feel that way. He includes an extensive splat reading list and influences (and presciently notes that Ballard's Crash
would be a perfect David Cronenberg, uh, vehicle
Like a lot of anthology editorials of its day, "Outlaws" is overwrought and overly generous to the practitioners. Virtually none of the authors appreciate the label, and only a handful are still active today. Only Garton and Lansdale continue to publish well-received novels; Skipp is only recently back after a long hiatus; Barker has slowed down his publishing pace considerably. These authors transcended the style. A lot of splatterpunk might seem like a shallow, adolescent pose, a "look how gross and rebellious I can be" kinda thing, but plenty of it has heart and attitude—and guts—to spare.