Lakehouse Infernal by Christine Morgan (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

45448518._SY475_Following a special merge, part of Hell has bled out onto Earth. Only a comparatively small part – enough to fill Lake Misquamicus in Florida, to be precise – but even a fraction of Hell is bad news for us on the mortal realm. With the lake now occupied by six billion gallons of infernal effluent, and a prime location for visits from demons, damned souls and other denizens of the underworld, the US government has little choice but to construct a wall around it and forbid any crossings.

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Christine Morgan refers to Lakehouse Infernal as “total shameless Edward Lee fanfic throughout”. In particular, it follows on from his “Infernal” quartet (City Infernal, Infernal Angel, House Infernal and Lucifer’s Lottery) but also makes reference to a number of his other works – and even includes Lee himself as a character. Anyone who is familiar with Edward Lee’s distinctive brand of fiction will recognise the tone and narrative style of Lakehouse Infernal.

The novel chops and changes between the perspectives of various characters who have each, for one reason or another, ended up at the infernal lake. A group of youngsters on spring break decide to visit the area for thrills, even though this involves bypassing security (“Between Trevor’s wallet and Chelsea’s tits, the Carmichael twins were able to get pretty much anything they wanted”). Gregory Nachtwald, a pharmaceutical-smuggler, ends up at the lake after his plane crashes – but he receives aid from his anime-eyed guardian angel Ethriel. Also caught up in the chaos is June, a sexually-repressed woman who finds herself tugged along by a clan of Christian fundamentalists itching for a scrap with the forces of Satan.

Then we have the characters who are already living at the lake when the story begins. The locals include Sharon and her two kids, who happened to be in the vicinity when the spatial merge occurred and have decided to simply adapt to living in a tributary of Hell – after all, it beats living with Sharon’s adulterous husband. Such crossovers work both ways: Favius, a Roman legionary in life, spent millennia in the army of Hell before returning to the mortal world via the infernal lake. He has since initiated a project that involves constructing titanic golems for his army.

The weird sights of the hellish lake start out comparatively tame, but steadily grow more unnerving, as when the spring break visitors catch sight of a cobra-crab hybrid with a row of eyeballs down its side followed by glimpses of trees with agonised human faces staring from their trunks. Some details are genuinely macabre: Favius bears the faces of his victims across his body, complete with “the tender face of a neonatal fetus” stitched into the palm of his hand. Other hellspawn, meanwhile, are comically absurd:

Jubblies was, in fact, entirely made of tits. She was an ambulatory pile of tits. Tits of every size and shape, from budding puberty bumps to porn-star beachballs to saggy old-lady droopers. In every possible skin tone and several impossible ones…not just albino to ebony, but blue, green, gold, purple…finely scaled, lightly furred, insectile-iridescent…

With, of course, nipples of every hue, type and description. Broad pale flattish nipples, nubby raspberry nipples, stiff-poking pencil eraser nipples, dark chocolate-kiss nipples, pierced nipples, lactating nipples, nipples with shyly peeking eyes and fluttery eyelashes, nipples unfolding into tiny fragrant flower-petals…

Watching Jubblies cross the deck was like watching a humanoid-shaped bundle of water balloons learning to walk.

Such material is more cartoonish than horrific, and indeed, Christine Morgan shows a fondness for cartoons throughout Lakehouse Infernal. One goat-legged devil is directly compared to the comedic satyr in Disney’s Hercules, albeit with the detail that it talks like William Shatner rather than Danny DeVito; elsewhere, the novel invokes South Park, Marvel Comics, The Lion King, Futurama, The Magic Schoolbus and tentacle rape hentai. It benefits from this cartoonish imagery and morbid sense of humour being melded with genuinely inventive worldbuilding and a touch of satire.

At the infernal lake, pain can be used as a source of energy, something that Sharon’s children know only too well:

“Billy,” Sharon said, hands on hips in the universal gesture of parental exasperation. “How many times do I have to tell you? No using your sister as a pain-battery!”

“But Mo-o-o-m!”

“Don’t ‘but mo-o-o-m’ me, mister. Unhook her from that.”
“She likes it!”

Sherri, strapped upside down onto a cross-saltire, giggled. Her reddish complexion had gone redder than usual, almost maroon, from blood flow to the head. Alligator clips pinched the arch of each nostril and her septum. […] From the ends of the clips snaked thin wires, connecting into the guts of a circuit board from what used to be part of one of Billy’s science kit experiments. The device now bore little resemblance to what had originally come out of the box, since what had originally come out of the box was not etched with occult symbols […]

“If she likes it,” said Sharon, “then it’s not going to work very well, is it?”

This evidently had not occurred to her little warlock, whose face screwed up into a ponderous frown. “Can I cut some of her fingers off?”

Perhaps the best credit to be paid to Lakehouse Infernal is that it manages to work despite a near-total lack of structure. As its broadly-caricatured protagonists stumble their way through one atrocity or absurdity after the other there was every risk of the story becoming monotonous, but instead it retains its vitality to the end. Reading it is a little like spending a day at a demented x-rated animation festival – one that realises that repulsiveness and taboo-breaking need to be coupled with sharpness and imagination if they are to hold the audience’s attention.

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