A group of people arrive at office block to take part in a contest, the winner of which stands to walk away with a life-changing sum of money. The competitors are given a series of ten questions, each one fitting a simple format: how much money would they accept in return for performing an unpleasant act? Each candidate is free to pick a sum as high or as low as they like, but only the individual who has chosen the smallest collective amount of money across the ten questions will win. The winner will be given their chosen sum in cash – but they will also be forced to carry out each of the acts.
The first question the candidates are asked is how much money would they take to drink a pint of cold, congealed gravy. As unsavoury as this challenge may be, it is tame enough that some of the players agree to do so for free, as a means of staying ahead while the game progresses. But later questions up the stakes, and before long, the contestants are no longer being asked to put disgusting substances in their mouths, but to take part in acts of self-mutilation and sexual degradation. They are free to drop out at any time during the course of the game – but there are those who press on to the bitter end, so tantalising is the cash prize.
It is not hard to sniff at a book like this. The characters in How Much To..? have little depth beyond a token motivation for being desperate enough to take part in the contest: Jennifer wants to escape her abusive husband, Michelle needs money after an accident, Laura simply wants a new swimming pool and so forth. The prose is not especially polished, and there is room to question the wisdom of including two separate characters named Steven. But all of this turns out to be immaterial. The rough style and thin characters do nothing to prevent – and perhaps even enhance – the novella’s ability to drop the reader directly into its horrific scenario.
As the characters contemplate the stomach-churning tasks and the amount of money they would accept in return, the reader is forced to do the same. It is impossible to read How Much To..? without imagining yourself chugging down congealed gravy – or much worse – in exchange for a life-changing sum of money. The effect is gruelling: the reader will have had each scenario run through their head in detail even before the novella describes the winning character having to do so. Consider Laura, as she muses over the implications of the seventh question:
Laura looked down to her non-dominant hand and imagined what it would look like, missing a finger. Just like the others sitting with her, she was wondering whether she would have the option of which finger she’d be made to cut off. The question was how much to cut off your own finger with a cleaver so it stood to reason that she would be the one to make the decision on both digit and hand and, if that was the case, the natural choice would be to remove the pinky on her non-dominant hand.
Her musings continue for paragraphs after this: will the cleaver be sharp enough to remove the finger in one blow? Will she be afforded medical attention after the amputation? Is there any point in her contemplating this at all, when in all likelihood she will not be the winner, and will leave the office block exactly as she walked in – with all fingers, but still desperate for money? None of these are pleasant questions, and all of them are neatly inserted into the reader’s head.
Although it deals with the same sort of gross-out material as Edward Lee, How Much To..? lacks the over-the-top humour that characterises Lee’s work. Any touch of comedy, fantasy or even mystery would run the risk of lessening the impact, and so the novella makes its setting as crushingly banal and matter-of-fact as possible. For example, the story makes no attempt to give the game’s organisers Steven and Nate any sort of villainous mystique: the narrative frequently hops over to their perspective, revealing them to be mere businessmen putting together a reality show. Like the contestants, they are willing to do terrible things for cash; the main difference is that they are in a position that allows them to do terrible things to others, rather than themselves:
In every experiment they ran like this, there was an idiot such as this guy. The worst was a drug addict who ended up doing everything for a hundred pounds just because he wanted to ensure he could at least get one hit. It was funny for he interviewers but tragic for him. A man so desperate for his drug fix that he would literally do anything for a hit. Normally the company went on to offer the winners more than the cash but, in this case, they gave him one final hit to remember and injected him with far too much of the good stuff for him to be able to survive and talk about what he had endured. But his was another story and one that wasn’t spoken about outside of the office walls.
The questions-and-answers session takes up the first half of the novella. After this comes the inevitable sequence of the winner being forced to carry out their promises; and even here, the narrative finds room to include additional twists and asides, just to make things all the more harrowing (a typical piece of dialogue runs “I don’t want to know what the lumps are given how hard I’ve sucked direct from his colon”). Then, finally, it ends, nihilistic to the last.
How Much To..? is a cold, calculated and clinical exercise in taking a straightforward and seemingly limited premise and eking out every last droplet of anguish and revulsion. Just the sort of thing that makes a worthy finalist for an extreme horror award, then.