“Angelbait” by Ryan Harding (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

BigBookBlasIn another story from The Big Book of Blasphemy (see also Jeremy Wagner’s “Norwegian Woods”) three people – Tilda, Michael and Isabella – awake to find themselves chained to a wall inside a dark building. They are being held captive by a man named Otis and his leprosy-scarred assistant Simon. When asked for an explanation as to why he is holding them prisoner, Otis answers, “I can almost feel the holiness radiating from you.” He knows about their personal histories: that Michael acted as a missionary and medical volunteer in the developing world; that Isabella works in a soup kitchen; and that Tilda witnessed an alleged miracle involving a radiant, bleeding statue of Mary. He also knows that all three live within fifty miles of one another, a fact that he finds deeply significant.

Otis’ theory is that Michael, Isabella and Tilda are living saints, and so he has captured them to make use of their gifts: he wants their help in capturing an angel.

“Angelbait” is a cousin to the post-Saw/Hostel  cycle of films about people being bound up and tortured in dank rooms, and it shares something of their dimbulb characterisation: even after finding themselves held captive by a lunatic, the three protagonists still have time for pop-culture references and banter about whether or not it’s politically correct to call someone a “leper”. But the story is able to transcend its outward simple-mindedness thanks to its twisted religious imagery, the characters’ stomach-churning ordeal arising directly from a Christian tradition associating the divine with bodily violation and corruption. Otis outlines his way of thinking, after describing a visit to a leper colony:

“The lepers gave me the idea in a roundabout way, is the funny thing. I did some research because of that colony and learned some fascinating things.” Otis pinched a sore on Simon’s arm. The pustule burst, and milky white fluid dribbled into the bowl he held at the ready.

“It got me thinking about the role of debasement in sainthood. Everyone does the same religious rites now. The same ceremonies and lines, like Shakespeare plays with different actors. Maybe we don’t see the same miracles now because of that. Everything’s sanitized and rote. […] In the thirteenth century, Angela of Foligno drank the bath water of lepers. She compared eating one of their scabs to receiving the holy sacrament. Looks like we have a couple of those in Simon’s offering today, Tilda. You’ll have dibs.”

“It’s like Two Girls and a Cup centuries before the internet”, quips Isabella, “but they did it for God, so it’s okay.” The grotesque ordeal of leper-milking eventually gives way to the blood and torture of martyrdom; along the way, the story finds room to give its characters a little extra development. The spiritual curiosity of Tilda and piety of Michael are contrasted with the materialism of Isabella – who, it turns out, only began working in a soup kitchen as community service after vandalising a church that harboured an abusive priest.
The villain Otis, meanwhile, remains oddly underdeveloped. Even as he rattles off accounts of gruesome martyrdoms we never learn what led him to becoming an angel-hunter, or, indeed, exactly what he hopes to do should he successfully capture an angel (although his stated intention to “hunt some angelcunt” gives a clue). Excepting insanity, he has no clear motives.

But then, it is fitting that the story leaves its antagonist something of an enigma. “Angelbait” is a narrative that has all of the tactile shocks and visceral revulsion that come with torture porn, but it also benefits from a touch of the surreal and the uncanny. This element of the weird comes to the surface during the fantastical climax, which ends up raising yet more questions about the story’s spiritual dimensions.

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