Mike Ashbrook is struggling in life: his wife divorced him, he boss fired him, and his two daughters – one a teenager, the other approaching that point – are growing away from him. He has to find new work, not an easy task as a 45-year-old with no collage degree. He settles for becoming a janitor, and even then he draws the shortest straw: his new job involves cleaning up human remains. Picking out the shattered skull fragments of a man who committed suicide with a gun to his mouth, mopping up the blood of murder victims – all in a day’s work for Mike.
But things take a more positive turn when Mike meets his new co-worker: a beautiful young woman named Sage (“She looked like she should be selling lingerie, not filling up blood buckets”). At first, Mike believes that the gruesome task will be too much for her, especially given that their first job together is in a bedroom where two children were brutally murdered. But to his surprise and dismay, Sage finds the prospect utterly exciting: “She sounded like a kid seeing Star Wars for the first time. There was no shock or disgust, no horror, only childlike wonder.”
Sage is a fetishist of a particularly desperate sort, one unable to become sexually satisfied unless copious blood is present. Mike is torn between his disgust at this revelation and his attraction to Sage, but it is the latter that wins out, long enough for the two of them to have sex in a room spattered with children’s remains. This act leaves Mike consumed with guilt, shame, and remorse… until he meets Sage for the next day of work and love.
With Toxic Love, Kristopher Triana returns to a concept from his previous Splatterpunk Award winner, Full Brutal: a forbidden relationship between an everyday middle-aged man and a younger woman with a lack of scruples and a boundless appetite for necrophilia. But in Full Brutal, the murderous teenager’s affair with her teacher was just one part of the narrative, and seen from the girl’s perspective; Toxic Love changes the angle, making the relationship the core premise of the book and using the man as the point of reader identification.
The set-up provides the story with all of its requisite gore-wallowing, as when Mike and Sage are called to clean up the aftermath of a massacre in a supermarket:
She walked to the head of aisle three and gazed at the gooey remnants of a customer who’d bought her last Twinkie. The blood was so thick it was purple. Particles of bone dusted the spill like a flurry of snow. At the bottoms of the shelving units, ribbons of wet flesh were spattered amongst the Pringles cans. The woman’s bowels had been blown out of her, and the swamp-colored stool seemed to percolate under the florescent lights as they flickered insecurely.
At the same time, the novel makes the effort to craft a credible set of characters. More than just puppets in a bloody Punch and Judy show, they are given aspirations, disappointments and entire inner lives. Mike’s relationship with Sage is not entirely selfish: coming from a wealthy family she is able to provide him with money that could help his daughters. As the novel unfolds we learn that Mike was fired for attacking a co-worker who had made obscene comments about his teenage daughter; this lends a touch of tragedy (in a grand guignol sense) to his story: his descent into sexual depravity begins with an attempt to stand up against that very same thing.
Sage, who could have been an outrageous caricature, is also credible within the context of the story. Her fetishistic development is given a convincing history going back to a teenage fling with a masochist, and the novel avoids turning her into the fantasy construct of a middle-aged man: she makes clear that she has no attraction to Mike as a person, and sees him simply as a means to access quasi-necrophilic sex. “[I]f finding a good guy is hard,” she says, “then finding a good guy who is into fucking in a pool of blood is damned near impossible. Most guys won’t even fuck you when you’re on your period”.
Mike repeatedly tries to pull himself out of his clearly toxic relationship with Sage, but each time she manages to draw him back in to still further excesses. Before long, the two have migrated from lovemaking in pools of blood and bone fragments to having orgies with corpses (“When I regained my senses and looked down, Sage was removing the jawbone from her flushed, pink cunt”). All of this feels as though it occurs on a different plane of reality to more down-to-earth drama such as the scenes in which Mike spends time with his daughters, faced with the dilemma of trying to share his point of view on the break-up without turning them against their mother. It is a credit to the novel that, through strength of characterisation, it is able to bridge the gap between tender emotional drama and no-holds-barred splatter.
Mike’s emotional trajectory – a recurring cycle of temptation, indulgence and guilt, each element growing stronger every time – is harrowingly convincing. Countless horror novels force the reader to ask what the next atrocity will be; Toxic Love does this, but it also raises a more subtle question: when the story is done, how much of Mike’s basic human decency will be left?