Splatterpunk and Its Antecedents - The Boom: The Blockbusters - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Splatterpunk and Its Antecedents
The Boom: The Blockbusters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

We have seen that Ray Garton and others introduced an element of extreme horror that ultimately led to the founding of the splatterpunk school in the late 1980s. Another important precursor was British writer Clive Barker (b. 1952), who burst on the scene in 1984—85 with the unprecedented publication of a six-volume paperback series, the Books of Blood. Previously, Barker was only known as the author of several produced but unpublished plays. After the Books of Blood he largely abandoned the short form and generated a succession of novels ranging from the superlative to the dreadful.

The tragedy of Barker is that he is possessed of substantial literary gifts but is one of the most undisciplined writers on record. He has already written far too much, and after the initial acclaim his work received he expanded into films (the Hellraiser series), comic books (or “graphic novels”), and other media, spreading himself too thin and dissipating his energies. The convenient blurb that a critically challenged Stephen King bestowed upon him—“I have seen the future of horror, and it is named Clive Barker”—has become, in some ways, an albatross.

What Barker sought to do in the Books of Blood is to overwhelm his readers with a furious mix of gruesome horror and sex that masked what proved to be rather conventional supernaturalism—and, to boot, supernaturalism that was either poorly thought out or not thought out at all. Consider “Sex, Death and Starshine.” Here we are to imagine that ghosts of old actors are presiding over the final performance of a Shakespeare play at an old theatre about to be demolished. But how do these ghosts come to be, and why do the living actors these ghosts kill become ghosts themselves? Not the slightest rationale is offered for these events. “The Midnight Meat Train” takes place in the New York subways and veers from physical horror (a man going home late is trying to escape a serial killer in the next car) to absurd supernaturalism: the serial killer is in fact feeding the bodies he kills to “City fathers” living in the bowels of the subway! If there is some nebulous political message in all this, I am too dense to perceive it. “Rawhead Rex” is intended merely to inspire disgust at the sight of some immense non-human creature who eats children in the British countryside.

Even some of Barker’s better tales suffer from problems of conception and execution. “Son of Celluloid” begins powerfully in depicting a criminal who dies behind the screen of an old movie theatre and somehow causes the revival of the famous actors and actresses who enlivened that screen—but the supernatural means by which this was accomplished is said to be the criminal’s cancer, at which point the tale’s plausibility collapses. “In the Hills, the Cities” has been lauded for the ingenuity of its monster—a huge figure made up of thousands of human beings who practice for years to perfect the motions suitable for their respective places in the entity’s anatomy—but the tale is marred by facile satire against communism (it takes place behind the Iron Curtain, and the monster is a kind of symbol of mindless collectivism). Just as fatuous in its political message is “Babel’s Children,” where a group of aged individuals on an island off the Greek coast purportedly run the world’s affairs.

A few tales, however, can be singled out for commendation. “The Forbidden” grippingly depicts the cultural transformation of a middle-class woman who is studying graffiti in a ghetto, in the course of which she meets the Candyman, a sort of embodiment of the rumours that come out of the ghetto. “Confessions of a (Pornographer’s) Shroud” is also effective in its dissection of class distinctions. Perhaps Barker’s most powerful tale is “The Age of Desire,” the one story where he actually fuses sex and horror successfully. Here a man is given a drug that so stimulates his sexual desire that everything becomes seductive. As one character states: “All our so-called higher concerns become secondary to the pursuit [of sex]. For a short time sex makes us obsessive; we can perform, or at least we think we can perform, what with hindsight may seem extraordinary feats” (BB 5.136). As an exposition of the sexualisation of our age, this story is notable.

Barker somehow managed to put aside all his literary deficiencies and write The Damnation Game (1985), which stands as one of the finest horror novels of the past fifty years. Not only is this work impeccably written, eschewing the slovenliness that so frequently dogs Barker’s prose, but its supernatural framework is rich and complex. The novel revolves around Mamoulian, a mysterious figure who has never lost at cards. A petty thief and gambler, Joseph Whitehead, actually beats Mamoulian (or is allowed to win), and as an apparent result he becomes fabulously wealthy. But what exactly has he won at Mamoulian’s hands? It appears to be nothing less than the control of chance. As Mamoulian once told Whitehead, “All life is chance… . The trick is learning how to use it” (230). But how did Mamoulian himself gain this power over chance? He did so by learning the secrets of chance from a monk, whom he then killed. But, in a reprise of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, it is Mamoulian who now wishes to die at Whitehead’s hands. It is difficult to find a flaw in The Damnation Game: it is structurally perfect, rich in characterisation, and simultaneously evocative of horror, awe, and pathos.

Regrettably, the rest of Barker’s novelistic output over the next decade or more has been increasingly disappointing. Weaveworld (1987) is a lame fantasy about a magic carpet (meant to stand for art and imagination); The Great and Secret Show (1989) is an interminable and incoherent novel that also purports to be about art and imagination; Barker continues the account in the unreadable Everville (1994). Imajica (1991) is another ludicrous and intolerably verbose fantasy about the Five Dominions (whatever they may be). One wonders if Barker abandoned supernatural horror for this kind of pretentious metaphysical fantasy because he did not wish to be typecast as a horror writer; but if so, the end result is even poorer than the average run of his earlier work.

Joe R. Lansdale (b. 1951) is not a splatterpunk author tout court, but he contributed to the tendency toward extreme horror with The Nightrunners (1987). This unpleasant novel focuses on a married couple, Montgomery and Becky Jones; Becky is attempting to recover from the trauma of being raped, while Montgomery feels self-contempt because, as his own father said to him repeatedly, he has “no balls.” It turns out that the rapist, a teenage hoodlum named Clyde Edson, was interrupted before he could carry out the task of slitting Becky’s throat after he raped her (he had committed several rape/murders in the preceding months), and then, after a short time in prison, he killed himself. But his spirit somehow manages to infiltrate the mind of a fellow hoodlum, Brian Blackwood, whom Clyde is now urging to complete his unfulfilled mission of killing Becky. But Becky and Montgomery, with the aid of two policemen (both of whom die in the final conflict), manage to kill Brian and his cohorts and save themselves.

From this scenario it can be seen that the supernatural component of the story is almost entirely adventitious: it serves no vital function in the overall scenario, most of which is concerned with the exposition of the crimes—rapes, murders, animal cruelty, and so forth—of Clyde, Brian, and others. At one point Brian, under Clyde’s influence, reflects that he may be some kind of Nietzschean Superman—the vanguard of a new brand of humanity to replace a species that has been weakened by excessive pity and civilisation. But these reflections are so foolish that they can hardly be said to lend any depth to the work. There is also some vague mention of a God of the Razor, a kind of eternal force of evil; but not much is made of this either.

With the passing of years, however, Lansdale finally learned how to write, and later novels and tales show a certain gift for prose—even if the down-home Texas style that he has made his signature can seem at times a tad studied and artificial—and an engaging ability to meld humour and horror. This latter trait comes out in two supernatural tales, “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks” (1989) and “Bubba Ho-tep” (1994). The former takes the flimsy premise of a chemical accident that brings the dead back to life as the springboard for a gonzo extravaganza involving bounty hunters, religious fanaticism, sex with the living and the dead, and so forth; it manages to render the zombie concept—an even more imaginatively unfruitful trope than the vampire, and one that regrettably entered modern pop culture through George Romero’s cult film The Night of the Living Dead (1968)—moderately original and engaging. As for the latter, with its protagonist who is either an Elvis Presley impersonator or Elvis himself in his doddering old age, it similarly revivifies the mummy concept in a particularly ingenious manner. Many of Lansdale’s novels and tales are either of the crime/suspense or non-supernatural horror variety, such as the grim “Mad Dog Summer” (1999), and much of his work features a forthright, if not particularly subtle or nuanced, confrontation of the crude racism of his native region.

David J. Schow (b. 1955) coined the term splatterpunk in 1986, so one would suppose he is some kind of father to the movement; but, oddly enough, he refused to participate in the anthology Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror (1990), edited by Paul Sammon. Nevertheless, he appears to have established some of the foci and parameters of the school, which explicitly rejects the artistic restraint found in such writers as M. R. James, Robert Aickman, and Ramsey Campbell (a particular target appears to have been the Shadows anthologies edited by Charles L. Grant, with their advocacy of “quiet horror”) and a strong emphasis on physical gruesomeness, frequently mingled with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Sammon states in his introduction that “Incest, racism, rape, animal cruelty, serial murders, exploitation of the dead” are the subject-matter of the splatterpunks (a list notable for its exclusion of supernaturalism, although in fact many splatterpunk writers employ the supernatural), but adds loftily: “But please, not only for the shock value. For these stories carry profound subtexts, harrowing insights into our own sick and shining twentieth century” (xv). Whether the splatterpunk writers do or do not live up to these high expectations is the issue we must address.

But it is reassuring that this short-lived movement has produced at least one writer of substance, and that is Schow. Curiously, he published four books in 1990—the collections Seeing Red and Lost Angels and the novels The Kill Riff and The Shaft—although he had been writing professionally for at least a decade before that. All these books have points of merit. Schow is the one splatterpunk writer who, in short, can write; his prose is vibrant, scintillating, and laced with pungent similes and metaphors. And yet, he is far from being a Johnny-one-note; he wields a surprising variety of tone and mood. While his work is unified by a generally grim, dark worldview that sees little hope either for the social or economic underclass (what in The Shaft is called “anything that survives the outskirts of polite civilization” [5]) or for the middle class whose sole object is to avoid contact with the underclass and its zones of violence and despair, his tales themselves range from the brooding to the comical to the poignant.

“Red Light” (included in both his story collections) may be Schow’s finest weird tale, telling of a model who gains spectacular success only to suffer a hideous fate—a victim of “psychic vampirism.” In a sense the tale is an updating of Fritz Leiber’s “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes,” but it is told with power and panache. “Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You” is the horrifying tale of a dubious movie theatre teeming with vermin. This story may be nothing more than an evocation of the normal human disgust at cockroaches, but the handling is deft. Later tales, such as those found in Black Leather Required (1994), are also engaging. Here we are presented with tales that tread the borderline between humour and horror, such as the indescribable “Last Call for the Sons of Shock,” which puts Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula, and the Wolfman on stage.

Of Schow’s two early novels, The Kill Riff is non-supernatural, while The Shaft is emphatically supernatural. This fact alone is part of the reason why the latter is far more successful than the former. The Kill Riff focuses on a man, Lucas Ellington, who seeks to exact vengeance on a rock band that he blames for his daughter’s death. Although the evolution of Lucas’s character is well handled, the novel devolves into merely a series of tableaux where he systematically kills off the various members of the band. The Shaft is an entirely different proposition. This novel, about the drug culture that festers on the underside of Chicago’s tenements, is perhaps the only genuine contribution that splatterpunk made to weird literature. It embodies many of the central concerns in Schow’s fiction—the pervasiveness of drugs and their corrosive effects upon society and human lives; the insidious melding of the normally separate worlds of grinding poverty and middle-class yuppiedom; and the emergence of the weird and the horrific from the mundanities of daily life.

The crux of the supernaturalism in the novel is a ventilation shaft down which two of the characters drop two kilos of cocaine during a police raid; as a result, a huge tapeworm emerges and then, in some fashion or other, causes the entire building to become weirdly animate. The plausibility of this whole scenario leaves something to be desired, but some pungent supernatural effects are engendered—the walls bleed when they are damaged, and the rooms are able to enlarge and contract to trap some hapless tenant. In any event, the mingling of a clearly supernatural horror with the very real dangers involved in drug-running creates a uniquely compelling atmosphere.

Schow has still not received the attention he deserves, and he is anything but a bestselling author (to date, The Shaft has still not been published in the United States). Very different are the collaborators John Skipp (b. 1957) and Craig Spector (b. 1958), who wrote a succession of blockbusters that defined the splatterpunk movement for its short duration. But the curious thing is that these novels, for all their purportedly bold and radical approach and method—chiefly the inclusion of liberal doses of teenage sex and gruesome bloodletting—are curiously, even absurdly, conventional in terms of their supernatural manifestations. The Light at the End (1986) mingles vampirism with the punk lifestyle; The Scream (1988) implausibly and interminably tells of a rock band that is in some fashion the embodiment of ultimate evil; Animals (1993) is little more than a standard werewolf tale. In all these works, grim violence and an affectation of existentialist despair are made to serve in place of good writing and deft character portrayal. Skipp and Spector split up after the publication of Animals, but no one need mourn the surcease of their collaboration.