Thursday, July 14, 2011

Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror, edited by Paul Sammon (1990): The Filth and the Fury

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, Dune, 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's Crucifax 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.

Splatterpunks 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.


bill r. said...

Good overview, Will. I've only read a few of these, because I find the whole splatterpunk thing absurd, and Salmon to be kind of a smug...fellow. But you've made me want to crack the book again.

About Rex Miller: is he ever good? I've never read him, but I've heard some good things. I get the impression you're not a fan.

About horror conventions: are there any good ones left?

Will Errickson said...

At the time I didn't see it as absurd, I saw all the crappy horror paperbacks every day at my bookstore gig so I was happy some folks wanted to write for *me* rather than teenage girls or elderly women. But there were always writers doing "extreme" shit.

I've only read SLOB and this short story and I think they're both crap. SLOB has that faux-Hemingway style that fools people into thinking it's something it's not, that is, good.

As for conventions, I look at the websites and some look cool, but they're always hours and hours from where I live. Monster Mania and still Fangoria seem kinda cool though.

bill r. said...

It's not that extreme horror is absurd; it's the whole punk thing, this crew of tough no-good horror writers wearing leather and speaking truths horseshit. Individual stories by individual writers free of any group association...that is, or can be, a different matter. The Lansdale story, for instance.

I'm sorry to hear that about SLOB. I'm sure I'll give it a look myself some day, but my interest is a little dampened.

I'd love to go to a good horror convention. I need to plan a vacation around one of those. But who'd go with me? My wife?? I feel as though she would enjoy it somewhat less than me.

Alejandro Omidsalar said...

I still remember the day I happened across a copy of "Splatterpunks" in my local used bookshop. It was one of the happiest days of my young life.

I'm going to have to disagree with the majority opinion here. I actually enjoyed "SLOB." I can understand that the prose was middling, at best, but for what it was, I think Miller did a fine job of creating one of the most memorable antagonists in recent horror literature. Evidently, Chaingang has QUITE the following in Germany... Surprise, surprise.

On a more general note... Will, I absolutely LOVE the blog. Keep up the great work!

Malibu Express said...

Great take on this one, Will. I've read it over a few times over the years as well and some of the stories are classic - some not so much.

I was a big fan of the whole splatterpunk thing for a while, but most of the better writers of the "movement" (Laymon and Ketchum really) seem to never be included in discussions on the "punks" - guess it's because they weren't so loud mouth in person and never sported the leather and wacky hair.

Balun was a great writer as well - his stuff was the splatterpunk equivalent to Fangoria and he is still sorely missed.

I'll have to hunt this one down again to re-read his piece. I never really considered "Henry" that hardcore, but I guess that last scene (him leaving the suitcase on the side of the road) is kind of a shot to the gut.

- Aaron

Will Errickson said...

Bill - Aw, I think it was all in good fun. I mean, look at those dudes! And can't you see I'm wearing black leather in that pic?! Heh. I was barely 20. As for a convention, what, you don't think your wife would like to meet, uh, I dunno, Gunnar Hansen?

Alejandro - I suppose I agree; Chaingang was pretty memorable. Maybe the series got better as it went along? Miller seemed to be trying so dang hard to make him so sociopathic. I reviewed it on here last year sometime. Thanks for the kind words!

Aaron - It's funny how Ketchum and Laymon get lumped with the splats today; I never read them really back then (didn't like Laymon's "Mess Hall" at all in BOOK OF THE DEAD. For me, I *loved* the "punk" delineation, and started reading cyberpunk some too. I've always been a sucker for writer--or any art--movements, though I know they can be arbitrary and somewhat after the fact. HENRY definitely fits the bill, for me, in its overall tone and that videotape sequence. And the incest rape. And the decapitation. And the ending. A favorite. have you seen ROADKILL?

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing Clive Barker on the local noon news show (In Tennessee!) pushing The Inhuman Condition, and knew instinctively I was on to something different. Unfortunately, Barker was that rare genius at the artistic prow of a movement, and the VAST majority of "splatterpunks" proved to be, like the majority of punk rockers, all attitude and little substance. Ditto when I picked up Geek Love at the bookstore based on the cover copy alone. But then Dunn never associated herself with horror, or anything else for that matter.

I do reminisce with ya, though, for that brief shining moment around 1992 when those who had seen Henry, Nekromantik, and horrible bootleg VHSs of Last House On Dead End Street were a motley little brotherhood.

Will Errickson said...

I kinda agree. Dunn has really done a disappearing act (altho' find DEATH SCENES and her intro to it if you haven't). And it's almost unfair to compare Barker to other horror writers; he's one of the most charming, witty, articulate, visionary, and driven artists I know of. Saw/met him numerous times in the early '90s and marveled each time. Wish he'd get back to writing those long novels of dark horror-fantasy.

STILL haven't seen all of DEAD END STREET, but yes, that pre-internet era of ordering vids and T-shirts and books thru' FILM THREAT and FANTACO and OVERLOOK CONNECTION was pretty cool.

Mac Campbell said...

When I was a teenager I read all the Skipp/spector books; I think they referred to themselves as splatterpunk. I noticed that everyone in the books seemed younger, and the writers took themselves less seriously( the last page was a little section called 'meat the authors'.)

SLOB, eh? Daniel Bunkowski/chaingang. When I was seventeen I found that book in a Halifax drugstore and thought I had discovered horror's holy Grail. It hasn't aged well for me, but it is an important precursor to the torture stuff out now, and as poorly written as you might think it is, it is better than a lot of what is now available in collectors' editions.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't care less about the movement, which started out as a joke that then got taken too seriously by a few, but have enjoyed the work of a couple of writers associated with it, correctly or otherwise.

Lansdale for sure, and as I recall he might have been first to object to the "splatterpunk" label being applied to him. Despite having coined the term, Schow never seemed to take it seriously either, and was probably my favorite of the new horror writers to emerge around that time. Of the Skipp & Spector team, I suspect Spector was the more consistent writing talent of the two, from what I've seen of their individual efforts. Still, The Scream and The Clean-Up were both decent pageturners, and The Book of the Dead anthology was probably the single best thing to come out of the SP era.

I'll disagree with Bill R. by saying I find the idea of "extreme horror" in fiction frequently absurd. As a goal in itself, it seems silly and juvenile, just like the idea that any piece of writing can legitimately earn such an overblown description. Add to that the fact that most if not all such attempts are far more likely to result in derisive laughter rather than anything approaching a scare.

Don't get me wrong, horror writing should be as gory and outrageous as it needs to be to get the job done. But without a substantial degree of subtlety, intelligence and ingenuity, any kind of storytelling will inevitably suffer to a degree that no amount of Grand Guignol overkill can compensate for.

Will Errickson said...

Mac - It's starting to seem that the only person to take the splat "movement" seriously was Mr. Sammon himself; everybody else had tongue firmly planted in cheek. If anything it was a "group" of like-minded writers of roughly the same generation. I do agree that SLOB was a sort of watershed book back in '87 or so & I liked it then, but it didn't hold up for me at all. And there are *definitely* worse-written books!

Anon - I think "extreme horror" for the sake of it is usually ridiculous too and demand some kind of writing and imaginative skill. Splat felt so too, and I think that's the whole point of this anthology... Miller's story notwithstanding.

Mac Campbell said...

Hey anon - you're a smart and informed man/woman. Why not get a regular handle so we know whether there's one or more than one canny anonymous poster? It doesn't have to be your real name. 

Anonymous said...

I think that extreme fiction is good actually, if it's done seriously is awesome, if don't... I'm kinda suspect to say anything 'cause I'm a fan and a writer - unpublished one -, but if you say that Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon aren't good writers you're crazy! Splatterpunk as any other form of art if is done seriously and with passion will turn out great. I don't like writer who don't take what they do seriously, and just because you're a suspense/horror writer it doens't mean that you have look like a heavymetal singer! Everyone has a opnion about splatterpunk, most people don't like it, "too much gore and no poetry" they say. But the thing is, I read some pretty disturbing novels written by well critically receive authors, Blindness by Jose Saramago is one example. But some writers are just bad and bring distrust to the "splatterpunk movement".

Salmaan Dewar said...

Its funny, for me certain "splatterpunk" writers, like Ketchum, are the REAL horror. I never really felt true horror/terror/fear reading stuff like by Stephen King et al. Sure I felt unease or creeped out, but that cant compare to the range of amazing emotions - from disgust to pure horror- that writers like Ketchum can put a reader through.

Andre Michael Pietroschek said...

My authentic note on genre-borders is based on the crossover market where Roleplayers & Readers stumble until enthralled to buy stuff escaped from our minds:

"Definition: Genre; Occult Horror. Occult Horror is different from Supernatural Horror in that the world as such is the one we know. Though there are people, and monsters, who can temporarily violate, or tweak, laws of nature. WoD Slasher can help on monster design, or playing the 'villains', yet it is worth repeating that brutality & gore are not the goal in itself, when it comes to Occult Horror. Such would be Splatterpunk, Slasher Films, or Butchery. "

While I understand criticism and envy about the way Splatterpunk authors established their own domain, and be it only in the imagination of their fans, I as well know genres proverbially growing from or neighbouring it.

Nowadys I cannot agree that the old school author approach alone would be sufficient. TV series like "Criminal Minds", movies like "Seven" are merely minor examples that it is possible to approach the genres of Horror & Splatterpunk from even educated and cultivated directions, without suffering lack of success.

A side-effect of those 80's and 90's was that FINALLY someone with the courage and the balls made it thru that illegimate seclusion and produced something for adults only. Whereby the Females of the Planet were nice enough to grant balance to it. x-)

And could you PLEASE restart shaving yourselves? Looking like Charlie Manson does NOT guarantee a career as horror or psycho author. It often makes you look like too far-gone for civilized society though. Thanks.

;-) LINK:

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