“The Incident at Barrow Farm” by M. Ennenbach (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

CerberusRisingA group of police officers used to small crimes in their small town of Rusk find a change of pace when they investigate a possible murder at a hardware store. The proprietor Cassie Angler is missing, the

main clue to her disappearance being a trail of blood that leads to the doorway. One detective, Chris Miller, catches sight of a suspicious man in the vicinity – but before he can react, the suspect has produced a knife and slashed the detective’s throat.

Although the killer is overpowered and knocked unconscious by another detective, the double tragedy of Cassie’s disappearance and Chris’ death sends shockwaves through the close-knit community, including its police force. The killer is identified as local farmer Robert Alveritt, and while he remains unconscious, the cops head to his property in search of the missing woman. There, they find that he was not acting alone…

“The Incident at Barrow Farm” is a story that swings between smalltown murder and backwoods horror. It takes macabre delight in switching its setting from a place where everyone knows each other to one in which nobody knows who could be lurking around the next corner with a bloodied machete.

With the cop characters given only broad-stroke personalities, the Averitts emerge as the most intriguing figures: the story establishes that they once owned much of the town, but over the years were forced to sell off chunks of land. Their main reason for holding onto Barrow Farm was because, as its name suggests, it was used as a burial ground for generations’ worth of the Averitt clan.

This makes a prime setting for some rural American Gothic, and “The Incident at Barrow Farm” delivers. The plot is structured roughly along slasher lines – although, unlike slasher films that typically focus on each victim’s on-screen killing, this story chooses to instead emphasises the discovery of each new corpse to have been placed in a morbid tableau by the Averitts:

Suspended in the center of the barn by ropes tied to the arms and legs was a headless body. The buzzing of flies was so thick in the enclosed barn it sounded like a jackhammer pounding. The floor beneath it was covered in gore. Their view showed only the backside of the body hanging limply in the shape of an X. They wiped their mouths and spat into the hay at the edge of the ban. Fears of contaminating the crime scene had been lost at the first bile spray onto the ground […] Dallas reached the front of the body first, took one look, and bolted for the door. The corpse was cut from just above the breasts to the bottom of the stomach.

“The Incident at Barrow Farm” is part of the collection Cerberus Rising, itself up for a Splatterpunk Award. More specifically, the story comes from a section of the book themed around chaos. Author M. Ennenbach’s take on this motif involves building his fictional smalltown setting out of a series of big, chunky blocks, and then proceeding to methodically give each and every block a flip on its head. The story of a missing person becomes a litany of body horror. A single murderer becomes an uncertain number of killers. A set of protagonists who start off as dispensers of 1980s pop culture references become case studies in psychological trauma.

The effects are a little too confined to be truly chaotic, but this is not necessarily to the story’s detriment: “The Incident at Barrow Farm” is a carefully-considered and well-constructed literary slasher.

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