Weeping Season by Seán O’Connor (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

weepingseasonA man wakes up to find himself naked in a forest, chained to a tree. Nearby is a young woman in a similar predicament. Neither person remembers of how they came to be there, or even who they are: their only means of identification are numbers tattooed onto the backs of their shaved heads. But whoever chained them up appears to be playful as well as cruel, as they soon find that keys to unlock their manacles have been provided.

Even when they are free from their chains, the man and woman are far from safety, as testified by the charred corpses fused to a nearby electric fence. Before long they find that fellow survivors have banded together into a communal camp. Some can remember details from their past lives; one, Tom, even recognises the man – whose name is Richard – and helps to jog his memory. The woman also begins to recollect her identity, remembering that her name is Tiff.

Exactly who is behind their ordeal remains a mystery, but a clue to their captors’ sadistic motives soon becomes apparent. The forest is rigged with cameras and loudspeakers, and the numbered survivors – even those who have found the comparative safety of the camp – are being watched. When the watchers desire further entertainment, they begin presenting terrible tasks to the people in the forest, tasks that must be completed if the participants hope to survive…

The premise of Weeping Season suggests a cross between Saw and an episode of Black Mirror. But Saw would have spent more time building a puzzle-box structure for the narrative, while Black Mirror would have played up the satirical aspects, with much scorn being poured upon the audience that is implied to be watching the survivors’ torture for their personal enjoyment. Weeping Season has little time for such narrative distancing: its main aim is to place the reader into the shoes of Richard and the other captives as they are gradually ground down.

The tasks presented to the captives are based upon their specific phobias, the organisers of the games having somehow procured psychological profiles for their victims. Stacy, who is afraid of germs, is forced to dive into sewage, while Richard is forced to confront his fear of being buried alive, and so on. Those who succeed are rewarded with clothing, food and rest periods for themselves and the rest of the band; those who fail are left to die.

Failure to comply is punished cruelly. After breaking one of the draconian rules, the characters are threatened with having their provisions suspended unless one of their number sacrifices three fingers. They decide to draw lots to find out who should be amputated, although this remains controversial:

“We should vote again,” Tiff shouted, having returned from the woods.

“This isn’t fucking Brexit, love,” Tom said. “The results are in and it’s time to choose. We’re running out of time here. How about we just use the old woman over there? None of us know her and she’s as good as dead anyway.”

“Yeah.” Nabil said in agreement.

“No chance you pair of fucking barbarians.” Richard shouted, “The vote was five to three. She was excluded as soon as Tiff opened her hand. Have you got any shred of human decency in you?”

All of this leads to an overwhelming sense of despair amongst the captives. Indeed, newcomers Richard and Tiff are the only ones determined to escape, the others being largely resigned to completing one demeaning task after another in exchange for basic supplies. The premise is limited, but Weeping Season manages to keep up a pace thanks to its relatively short length, a solid set of characters and a steady supply of intriguing hints regarding Richard’s life as a husband and father prior to being captured – and where his wife and child fit into his current predicament.

The novella eventually reaches a twist ending of the sort that completely reshapes all of the preceding story. A risky move, but a justifiable one: by that point, Weeping Season has already run its premise dry, and so there is little harm in throwing in one last surprise.

This is the main strength of Weeping Season: while it has a limited deck of cards, it knows when to play them. The violence and sadism could have become tedious, but the novella always has a trick in store that adds just the right amount of mystery and intrigue needed to keep things engaging.

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