White Trash Gothic Part Two by Edward Lee (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

whitetrashgothic2In this shorter sequel to the Splatterpunk Award-winning White Trash Gothic (itself a continuation of threads from other Edward Lee stories, most notably The Bighead and Minotauress) readers are taken on a return trip to Luntville, West Virginia. In this backwoods town, the locals follow their own code: all manner of hedonistic perversions are rampant, but at the same time, those deemed transgressors are punished without mercy.

The main character is a visiting novelist revered to simply as the Writer, recovering from a recent encounter with a doppelganger. The mysterious double set him a strange task: to exhume the body of Ephriam Crafter, a man reputed to have been a magician. The Writer is accompanied on his mission by amputee Dawn and albino Snowie, a pair of voluptuous but not-particularly-bright young women who are ready to help him dig up Crafter’s remains – so long as he can keep them from catfighting, of course. Together, the three head to the purportedly haunted house where the grave is located.

This is not the only story unfolding in Luntville. The preserved body of a monstrous murderer known as the Bighead has returned to life, and it is not long before this misshapen being is preying upon the townspeople once again, homicidal tendencies and ravenous sexual appetite fully restored.

White Trash Gothic Part Two is not a densely-plotted novella. The main narrative of the Writer and his cohorts heading to a haunted house to dig up a dead magician is thin, even when the characters are joined by a psychic clergyman named Case Peace; meanwhile, the subplot of the Bighead roaming the town killing people is thinner still. As is typical for Edward Lee, the point of the novella is not so much the overall storyline as the various individual scenes in which Lee pushes himself towards the extreme.

Sometimes these incidents are purely disgusting, as when the Bighead eats miscarried foetuses. Other times they are surreal, as when the Writer fantasises about having sex with a woman who has the face of H. P. Lovecraft. Like any extreme horror author, Lee is daring the reader to press on beyond whatever atrocity the next page may hold. But at the same time – and this is where it gets more interesting – he also appears to be daring himself to find a way of making it all work as a piece of literature. This manifests as repeated fourth-wall-breaking, the authorial voice regularly popping up to pass judgment on the plot and analyse the reader’s potential reaction, as in the scene where the Writer discusses the unsavoury sexual mores of a local pastor:

Dawn stared, goggle-eyed.
“What could be better than catching a super-rich TV evangelist on video, beating off with gummy worms in his dick?”
“It’s what he was, uh, ‘beating off’ TO,” the Writer contributed.
“You tell her, Snowie,” he said.
And then Snowie, with enthusiasm as robust as her bosom, went on to convey that Pastor Tommy Ignatius was feasting his eyes on child pornography whilst partaking in his most uncommon method of masturbation. Snowie even went so far as to describe in detail what was going on on the pastor’s laptop screen; (however, these details will not be retailed to the reader; and any readers who feel short-changed by being deprived of these details ought to be ashamed of themselves!)

This self-aware tone comes to characterise the book at least as much as the all-round degradation and depravity. No matter how exploitative the sex and violence, no matter how classist the portrayal of the West Virginian boondocks, no matter how chauvinistic the reduction of female characters to big breasts and small brains, the thick layer of irony does much to filter things.

This combination of full-on taboo-breaking content and an almost apologetic tone may seem self-defeating, but it sums up the essence of White Trash Gothic Part Two: this is a story about collisions between things that, by all rights, should not go together. The first book in the series concerned the highfalutin literary mindset of the Writer being gradually warped by the excesses of Luntville, and the sequel provides a number of similar contrasts. The intangible, atmospheric chills of the Writer exploring the haunted house of the long-dead magician are surrounded by free-flowing bodily fluids and people having painful things done to their genitals. Edward Lee’s omniscient narrative voice invokes the likes of H. P. Lovecraft, M. R. James and Alfred Hitchcock, only to deliberately underline how their considered craftsmanship is completely alien to Lee’s gleeful crassness.

Of course, to fans of the author, much of the above can be summarised in a few words: “a story by Edward Lee.” White Trash Gothic Part Two does little to expand Lee’s universe, instead revisiting memorable creations from past stories: the Bighead is back in action, and the Writer is heading still further into the supernatural world of Minotauress. Newcomers might be a little bemused, but longtime fans will lap it up – and perhaps even find it a touch nostalgic.

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