This collection kicks off with its title novella “Dirty Rotten Hippies”, which takes up nearly a third of book. The story depicts a music festival being hit by a new drug called Delight that brings a great high, followed by an existential low, and finally turns the victim into a zombie. Mayhem ensues, and comes to embroil a range of characters who happen to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time: elderly Dan Ferguson, a man old enough to remember the first wave of hippies; his gun-toting wife Helen; Travis Kincaid, a college student with a love of the sixties counterculture; Oscar Perez, a music journalist; and Kyle Bile, a rock star with a grudge against Oscar. Things get even crazier when it turns out that the zombies are not the only flesh-eaters in the area: Travis falls into a trap set by a clan of cannibal meth-heads.
The novella’s cartoonish ethos can be found in a number of the collection’s other stories. In “Chainsaw Sex Maniacs from Mars”, backwoods America is invaded by coverall-clad grey alien rednecks (“Gonna blow a load of Martian spunk up yonder blondie’s poophole”). “Some Crazy Fucking Shit that Happened One Day” sees its protagonist argue with his former-porn-actress girlfriend before falling in with a busload of seductive cheerleaders; but this dream scenario comes with a catch, as the cheerleaders are devil-worshippers plotting a chainsaw-based ritual to resurrect a band of Nazi zombies. In his introduction, Bryan Smith reveals that he wrote the story in under 24 hours after his Facebook followers decided the subject matter via a poll.
But not all of the stories are quite so broad in conception, some instead opting for a quitter kind of strangeness. “The Restless Corpse” is an EC Comics-esque tale about a man who stashes his wife’s body in the cellar after accidentally killing her – and then hears noises coming from below. “The Barrel”, one of the strongest entries, is about a depressed divorcee who finds that a large metal barrel, contents unknown, has somehow turned up in his back garden; the only clue as to its origins is a Twitter hashtag printed on the side.
Two of the weaker stories are “The Thing in the Woods” (an eighties nostalgia piece about a beer-swilling teenage hooligan running into a monster, like a dudebro version of Stranger Things) and “A Slasher’s Dilemma” (about a serial killer whose latest murder runs into scheduling difficulties). The problem with these stories is that they lack satisfying pay-offs, each following a substantial build-up with flat, predictable endings. Yet they still show some of Smith’s strengths, namely his skill at making quirky scenarios believable. “A Slasher’s Dilemma” is particularly memorable for its dryly humorous portrayal of evil’s banality: the serial killer had a blandly normal upbringing, feels no misogynistic hatred for the women he kills, and shares his cosy suburban home with a wife who supports his homicidal career.
Readers who have been keeping up with the Splatterpunk Awards will recognise some of the stories, as they were originally published in collections that were nominated for the award in previous years. “Pilgimage”, about rock vans lipping through time and meeting the Manson Family, comes from 2019 finalist Welcome to the Show; “We Are 138 Golden Elm”, about a pair of serial killers running into a still worse monster, originated in the 2018 nominee Chopping Block Party.
The remainder of the stories in the collection are headed “seven deadly tales of terror” and are identified by Smith as owing something to the EC Comics tradition. These dial down the overt cartoonishness of the chainsaw-cheerleader and redneck-alien stories, but still retain a touch of humour and the absurd.
Some of them are set in the colourful world of homicidal maniacs. “Take a Walk” is a brief story about a man evading a serial killer, with results that surprise all concerned. “The Doll” is home invasion narrative in which a man finds a Barbie doll left in his apartment, and realises that an intruder is playing with him. Meanwhile, in “South County Madman”, an innocent man previously acquitted of murder charges has a nasty run-in with a vigilante who still believes him guilty.
Others are more supernaturally-oriented. The blossoming love between a pair of sci-fi geeks takes a dark turn in “Date Night”, while a devil offers a woman a chance to escape her abusive husband in “Highway Stop”. In “Bloodsucking Nuns for Satan” a man coming home from the pub stumbles across some nuns having sex in a churchyard; the title rather gives away what happens next, but the pleasure is in finding out how the story reaches that point.
On the science-fictional front we have “Implant”, another story included in a Splatterpunk Award-nominated anthology from a past year (namely, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 2). The narrative follows a man as he wakes up to find a strange lump in his neck, and later learns that he is embroiled in a sinister government mind-control conspiracy.
These seven stories are generally concerned with the thin line between good citizen and monster, sometimes in a literal-minded sense (people being turned into vampires or werewolves) other times with slightly more subtle depictions of banal lives hiding dark secrets, or the single shove it takes to push a normal person over the edge. True to the EC tradition they are structured as sick jokes, although again, Smith’s set-up is sometimes rather stronger than his punchlines.
Dirty Rotten Hippies and Other Stories has a touch of performance about it, almost as though we are watching a slightly twitchy stand-up comedian. The tall tales tend to ramble and the sick jokes do not always land, but this is beside the point. The simple pleasure of the book is in watching the author lay out an assortment of wacky and outrageous plot points, with tension arising from whether or not he will weave a workable story around them. More often than not, he succeeds.