And Hell Followed (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

43351589._SY475_And Hell Followed is an anthology with a premise that is simultaneously obvious and irresistible. The various authors featured have all derived their inspiration from a single text — one filled with depictions of worldwide violence and hallucinogenic weirdness; one ripe with potential for spiritual insights and shameless iconoclasm. That text, of course, is the Book of Revelation.

The anthology opens with Sam West’s “The Whore of Babylon”, a relatively tame story that works as something of an appetiser. While visiting a nightclub, a horror author with the Bunyanesque name of John Christian is approached by a busty blonde bombshell proclaiming herself to be the Whore of Babylon. Is she a gold-digger, wannabe writer, religious fanatic, or the real thing? The story becomes a brisk character study as the novelist has his insecurities and anxieties laid bare by this personification of the end times.

Amongst the following stories, the most popular topic is – unsurprisingly – the all-out massacres and mayhem depicted in Revelation, often with the Four Horsemen present and correct. Chris Miller’s “Behind Blue Eyes” is about a fantasy novelist left devastated by the death of his wife; but his reminiscences of their time together are interrupted by the blast of a horn from heaven. Everyone who hears the sound is thrown into physical agony; vehicles are thrown out of control; Death is on his way – and the protagonist’s fond memories of his wife are corrupted and twisted, deepening the story’s psychological aspect.

Wile E. Young’s “The Day and the Hour” follows a hard-skinned survivor as he makes his way across an apocalyptic America in search for relative safety, seemingly indifferent to the surrounding carnage and suffering. Despite his untrusting nature, he agrees to take shelter with a family – during which time the sixth trumpet sounds, and terrifying angels are sent to destroy a third of humanity.

“Fallen” by James Watts is set nearly two hundred years after the Four Horseman have lain waste to the world, and depicts a ravaged Earth in which survivors are menaced by various species of demonic beast. The main character, Roman, is a supernatural warrior who once had wings before they were taken from him as punishment; whether he is angel or devil is ambiguous until we reach an extended flashback.

In “Godless World” by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason a group of children shelter in an amusement arcade, where a backup generator keeps the games running. Outside, the woman who protects them battles citizens who have sided with demons, the pixelated violence of the games mirroring the carnage of reality. Mark Deloy’s brief story “Cult of the Angel Eaters” posits that angels and demons are equally evil, and share a common foe in the human race. The protagonist is a young convict whose cellmate manages to capture and kill a cherub, gaining superhuman powers after eating its flesh; the two escape from prison and start a cult together.

A number of the book’s stories take their inspiration less from the destruction depicted in Revelation and more from the prophecy’s images of dictatorial control. “The Old Man and the Lamb” by Patrick C. Harrison III depicts America as a society filled with church-sponsored abortion clinics, retailers that give out free contraceptives with every purchase, and drug-addicted sex workers who play their trade for as little as a denarius, all presided over by a ruler known as the Prophet. The story plays with ambiguity: is its scenario the work of the False Prophet – or is it an earnest attempt to prevent the False Prophet from being born?

Richard Raven’s “Mark of the Beast” begins with a pastor finding that a mysterious door has opened up inside his chapel; inside is a demon, who promptly sets about placing the congregation under his sway in a solid but routine tale of communal demonic possession. Another treatment of the Mark of the Beast theme is Delphine Quinn’s “Six Degrees of Separation”, which begins with a scene of two happy parents handing their newborn daughter over to receive an implant, courtesy of The Grand Counselor. In this era of world peace, the implant is used to keep close tabs on the child, starting with a merit score of 650 that will rise or shrink according to “her interactions with others, her online activity, even her thoughts, as the implant could detect hate speech, even in the mind.” Citizens over the age of 14 are expected to maintain a score of over 550 points, with reinstitutionalisation or worse awaiting those who fail.

Much of Quinn’s story is spent satirising political correctness, the authorities suppressing free speech in an ostensible effort to protect women and minorities – so that calling an fat woman a “whale” will lead to a lowered score (“She’d heard about the New East. There, women, people of color, overweight people, and even LGBTQ people were disagreed with and oppressed. You could get into deep arguments and discussions about the rightness of things, as if the Grand Counselor hadn’t already told everything what was and wasn’t right. Heathens.”) In best YA dystopia tradition, the teenage heroine finds forbidden love and hope of joining a resistance.

Not all of the authors take the end of days seriously, and multiple talees — amongst them Christine Morgan’s Best Short Story nominee “Censered” — use the images of Revelation as an excuse for cartoonish silliness. John Wayne Comunale’s “Apocalypse… Meh” imagines a heavy metal-themed apocalypse: the Four Horsemen become roadies, the dead rise from their grave as demonic beings in band t-shirts, and everyone on the planet – from toddlers to elderly arthritis-sufferers — suddenly develops an aptitude for drum, bass and electric guitar. The main character is a metal drummer who finds that he has new competition when Satan and Judas move into town, each with their own band.

“Ham and Pudge” by K. Trap Jones is another humorous story, and a quirky one at that: it posits that Jesus created a pair of small rodent-like beings with the task of sifting through the post-apocalyptic remains. If they find body parts in good condition, their role is to pull our their machetes and hack off the appendages for their boss – who apparently hopes to create a new humanity from the detritus. Only problem is, not quite everyone is dead, and some of the survivors are rather perverse in their sexual appetites.

In C. Derick Miller’s “Hell Paso”, Jesus returns to death – and is promptly shot in the face by Private Dan Daniels. “How was I supposed to know Jesus was brown?” he pleads. “Blame Caucasian society for that shit, not me! Sunday School told me he looked like a bearded Ewan McGregor, not the reanimated corpse of Osama bin Laden floating through the fucking sky!” Daniels and his superior Sergeant Cross are then pursued by demons, granted free rein by the unscheduled downing of the Saviour. The plot is thin, but the character-based comedy is strong.

One of the most inventive stories in the collection is “Horse” by Wrath James Wright. A new drug, called horse, sweeps the inner cities and becomes so popular that other hard drugs vanish off the streets, demand dwindling. The drug turns out to have a strange side effect: it causes a person’s prejudices to grow into full-blown violence, and before long the urban milieu descends into all-out war between women and men, whites and ethnic minorities, people who look normal and people who look strange.

Protagonist Brandon – a drug dealer who, despite adopting a hard-skinned ghetto gangsta persona, is actually a nerdy suburban gay guy – finds himself the target of bloodthirsty homophobia from his own clientele. The story stands out for its strong characterisation, social satire (Brandon theorises that the drug was unleashed by the CIA to cull poor people) and its thoughtful treatment of prejudice: Brandon survives by aligning himself with murderous man-hater Melody, pleading that – being gay – he has also been a victim of male persecution.

Another unorthodox take on the anthology’s pitch is “The Unveiling” by Cody Higgins, which depicts a small-scale apocalypse: one man’s death. As far as his wife and children are concerned, the world has now been given over to demons of anxiety and grief. The plot is thin, with the story instead deriving its power from dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness prose and a darkly surreal climax.

The collection is rounded off with Jeff Strand’s “Outpouring”. This begins with protagonist Caleb learning from his girlfriend Sophie that he has an unsightly sore on his back; due to Caleb’s dislike of hospitals, it falls upon Sophie to pop the foul-smelling growth. After this is dealt with, Caleb finds that the water in his fish-tank has somehow been contaminated. Sophie concludes that the prophecies of Revelation are coming to pass: first the harmful and painful sores, next the sea becoming like blood. The story achieves a tone of quirky, understated doom as Sophie tries to persuade Caleb that a localised apocalypse is going down in his home.

While the stories in the book show a good range of approaches, it is notable that they are generally slanted towards the irreverent. And Hell Followed comes across as the Devil’s anthology, with God frequently absent – if not actively malicious. Those who would prefer a more pious vision of the End Times might be better off sticking to Left Behind. But the authors of And Hell Followed looked at Revelation and saw an opportunity for over-the-top splatter, post-apocalyptic badassery, outright weirdness and side-helpings of psychological insight and social satire — all of which makes for an engaging horror anthology.

Just make sure that no seven-eyed lambs catch you reading it.

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