Killer Lake by David Benton and W. G. Gagliani (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

50817838._SX318_SY475_More than twenty years ago, a group of devil-worshippers led by a man claiming descent from Aleister Crowely performed a human sacrifice in the name of their dark god Asmodeus. Decades later, teenage friends Mandi, Anna and Krystal – accompanied by Danny, maladjusted nephew of Mandi’s old parapsychology professor – head to the coven’s stomping ground of Killdeer Lake. Unaware of the area’s dark history (the local nickname of Killer Lake is merely surfer-dude slang, they are assured) the girls hope to spend time with a bevy of sexy and wealthy young men.

The characters may be heading off the beaten track, but the reader knows full well that they are not straying too far from Hollywood: Killer Lake unabashedly evokes the atmosphere of eighties teen horror films. The main characters are a glamorous lot straight out of a tinseltown backlot (“her half-shirt exposed her impressive abdominal muscles, not to mention the lower part of her breasts”) with even Danny, the socially awkward boy treated as a pariah by most of the others, described as being rather hot. The threshold between normalcy and danger is marked by a run-down shop containing one of those eccentric old men who pop up in horror films to warn youngsters away, but our protagonists nonetheless cross over in the hopes of finding hedonistic delights (“Krystal wasn’t shy, grabbing their dicks under the murky water’s surface as they swam by. It’s like fishin’ for dick!”).

So, we know from the offset that Killer Lake inhabits the same territory as the horror sections of sundry eighties video rental stores – but we still have the question of exactly what corner of that territory it intends to explore. Will it be turn out to be a zombie story, as per Dawn of the Dead? Perhaps the tale of a backwoods murderer clan, like Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Or, given the prologue with the devil-worshippers, an Evil Dead-style story of blood-and-guts occultism?

The novel’s high-concept twist is that it manages to be all of the above.

Killer Lake cheerfully mashes together stock situations from seventies and eighties horror films in the same way that Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and its ilk did with films of the thirties and forties. Just as the protagonists have got to grips with one threat, another is suddenly dropped into their path: where most slashers would content themselves with a single antagonist, Killer Lake manages an entire greatest-hits compilation.

This is a risky path to take, considering the effort in persuading the reader to suspend disbelief for just one horror concept; any novel that integrates devil-worship, zombies, psychic powers, backwoods cannibals and more into its narrative stands a good chance of collapsing into incoherent nonsense. However, Killer Lake avoids this with the help of two tricks it has up its sleeve.

The first is its sheer commitment to recreating trash classics of the past – which means not merely repeating its inspirations, but making an effort to conjure up those teenage thrills of watching the latest grainy VHS tape, a task that involves a touch of imagination. Killer Lake never lets us forget its debts to vintage monster movies – at one point we are told that the zombies “moved in jerky motions, like real-life Ray Harryhausen Dynamotion monsters” – yet the novel’s living dead are, in fact, rather more inventive than a typical movie zombie. In a blending of the zombie and slasher genres, the lake’s revenants use novel methods to kill their victims, after which the elaborately-mutilated corpses join the ranks of the zombies. The results, while hardly subtle, have an undeniable verve and inventiveness:

His head was half-crushed, and bone, blood and brain matter was leaking out of what was left of his skull in a kind of pink stream. His jeans were ripped open at the crotch, a crimson gouge where his package had once been as if someone had taken a huge ice cream scoop to him.

Another one seemed to be trailing a length of his own intestines, which were hanging out of his ruined asshole. Drying bloodstains were on everyone she saw.

The only female thing that Kaylee could see sported a cute blonde pixie cut, and she was missing her lower jaw. It wasn’t actually missing, it was just no longer attached to her face and instead she was brandishing it as a weapon.

Another way in which the novel ties itself together is through the enjoyably ramshackle family saga that goes on in the background. All of the story’s seemingly disparate elements turn out to be interrelated in one way or another, and seeing Killer Lake’s bizarre family tree grow before our eyes is all part of the fun.

A book heartily recommended to anyone who wants to relive the innocent adolescent pleasure of watching the latest schlock horror saga roll off the magnetic reels.

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