“Phylum” by Tom Over (2021 Splatterpunk Award Reviews)

TomoverCollection(Full disclosure: I appeared alongside Tom Over in The Bumper Book of British Bizarro.)

The year is 2089, the place a Martian colony where a medical laboratory has been contaminated with a deadly life-form. Engineer Jacob escapes through the ceiling air duct after watching his commander and lab colleagues killed by the creatures. Jacob’s next aim is to rescue his pregnant partner Rachel, but without a working communication device his only means of finding her is by following her heat signal through the ravaged colony.

“Phylum” fits tidily into the genre of SF-horror typified by films like Alien and The Thing, the central concept being that the colony has discovered water on Mars only to find, rather too late, that the water appears to carry deadly properties. A parasitic organism spreads inside the bodies of the colonists with fatal effects:

Scully bellowed, discarding the jawbone and fell to his knees, clutching his head. Jacob put out his hands fearing another attack, but instead saw his superior’s face oddly shift, undulating over the bones of his skull like a liquid mask. Their gaze briefly met, a look of utter desperation in the flight commander’s emerald eyes, before they exploded. A hideous ripping noise accompanied the sight of Scully’s face blossoming outward like a scarlet flower. Jacob scrambled against the deluge of blood as a cascade of insectoid creatures burst out of the older man’s rupturing flesh.

Had this been a film, it could well have been one of the better Alien imitators. As it is, “Phylum” pulls off the commendable feat of compressing the entire plot of an actually-rather-good Alien-alike into a short story that will take only a few minutes to read. Jacob is given a convincing life-story that involves him starting a new existence on Mars after the deaths of his wife and child in a traffic accident. The history of his relationship with Rachel is likewise detailed in one of the story’s calmer sequences, as we learn of her splitting with another man – colony commander Scully – to pursue Jacob’s affections. We also find out about how the other members of the colony reacted to this juicy turn of events, details made all the more poignant given that we already know how many of the characters involved are now dead.

Not all of the colony’s victims are killed by the parasites – at least, not directly. In one scene Jacob comes across a colleague who has blown his face off with a smuggled shotgun to escape the deadly life-form; to make things still more macabre, Jacob finds that the man is still alive. Writing a story filled with gore is not itself a particularly notable feat: the trick is to balance different types of body horror and maintain variety, something that “Phylum” achieves.

The climax to the story involves a revelation about the exact origin of the parasite; this turns out to be both a solid science-fictional idea, and one leading neatly into a twist ending that amps up the body horror still further. In short, “Phylum” is an unabashed gorefest that nonetheless manages to keep its wits.

“Phylum” is not Tom Over’s only appearance on this year’s Splatterpunk Award ballot: Comfort Zones and Other Safe Spaces, the volume containing this story, is up for Best Collection.

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