The God in the Hills by Jon Steffens (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

GodintheHillsEvery summer, the tiny Arkansas town of Hotspur fills to the brim with tourists eager to enjoy the adjacent river. Ageing local Dale Bellflower is the self-appointed “welcome ambassador” to Hotspur, and with the help of Deb (waitress at the town’s only bar) he persuades out-of-towner Keri to take a car trip around the area with him. Then Keri wakes up to find herself in a dark enclosure, naked and gagged with duct tape. Her attacker, however, is more than just a local creep: she has run afoul of a demon that haunts the hills around Hotspur – and she is not his last victim…

Although nominated in the Splatterpunk Award category for short stories rather than novellas, The God in the Hills exists somewhere between the two formats, apparently brief enough to qualify as a short story yet long enough to be sold as a self-contained volume and divided into six chapters plus an epilogue. The comparative length should not be mistaken for heightened sophistication, however, as the story turns out to be an extremely straightforward matter of one graphic monster-rape occurring after the other. The first, of course, is the fate of Keri:

Keri’s warm blood, gushing from her ruined reproductive organs and splashing down her legs, served as lubricant for her defiler. Keri fainted from searing pain and intense mental shock. Losing consciousness was one final mercy, as a few thrusts later in the throes of obscene, animalistic pleasure, Keri’s inhuman violater crushed her beneath its gargantuan weight, her spine snapping and her right arm torn from its socket. The contents of Keri’s stomach and bladder expelled onto the creature as it finished. A final “fuck you” from the young girl’s bowels. Disgusted, the baleful thing, tossed her broken body aside, her face smashing into the stone wall of its cave with the sound of a watermelon hitting concrete.

Characterisation is not a priority here. There is, for example, little to distinguish Keri from the next victim, Melina: both arrive in Hotspur, meet Dale, dismiss him as a dirty old man, consider that they might have been unduly harsh, and then get knocked unconscious by him and transported to the demon. With the story taking no time to give psychological depth to the girls brutalised by Dale and his demonic master, they inevitably become props rather than characters. The result is oddly weightless: the violence has no repercussions, the full-on degradation leaves no trauma, and nothing that happens truly matters in any emotional sense beyond the most basically visceral.

The story is nominally folk horror, but never commits to the folkloric atmosphere necessary for this genre to really work. Despite his intriguing name, the God of the Hills turns out to be a generic horned devil, the only mythology surrounding him being the standard business of human sacrifice and blood-daubed sigils. His existence raises questions – did the early pioneers know of his presence? Did he figure n the legends of the Native Americans? – but one passage alone even gestures towards exploring these matters:

She hadn’t been able to see Him, or anything at all, for what must have been days, but she will take the vision of His hateful face and His loathsome, powerfully built frame to her grave. He was like a massive ape devoid of eyes, smashed together with a goat and a wolf by a god driven insane with rage and malice. She didn’t know what He was, but she knew He was old. Not old in the way humans think, but impossibly ancient. He had been here when these hills were made, perhaps before. He was here when the first people came to this land. The first people respected and feared Him. They paid Him tribute. At first, with animal flesh, they came to know what He desired: human female flesh, fresh, fertile and very alive.

Such shortcomings are forgivable if we take the story in the spirit it appears to have been intended: as extreme horror comfort-reading. This may seem like an oxymoron; but every genre has its frothier side, with fiction written to serve as an undemanding diversion. Extreme horror is no exception: there is a market for stories that delve into graphic gore and degradation, but do so in a confined context with no surprises for anyone familiar with the genre. The God in the Hills consists of little more than a big demon stomping around molesting cardboard ladies, but for someone who simply wants six-and-a-bit chapters of undemanding gore to read on a noisy bus, that will be quite sufficient.

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