This is the sequel to a Splatterpunk Award finalist of the previous year, How Much To…?, the plot of which was based around a gruelling (and very much illegal) online game show. The premise was that the contestants were offered a series of increasingly repulsive tasks and asked how much money they would accept for undertaking them; the winner was promised their chosen sum as a prize – but only if they performed each and every task on the list, no matter how appalling or obscene. As a premise for a splatterpunk novella, this was quite clever: readers were forced to run each gruelling scenario through their heads even before the unlucky winner had to undertake them at the end. But is there really room for a sequel to repeat the trick?
As it happens, How Much 2 finds a neat way of retooling the original novella’s formula: by having the producers of the game show retool their formula. The story introduces us to Sharon Devlin and Nate Stephenson, each of whom have behind-the-scenes roles; but while Sharon is a traditionalist, Nate is a young rebel who wants to take the show in new directions – much to the distaste of Sharon, who associates new approaches with smaller audiences.
The story’s first victim is Kim, who has agreed to spend a night with her greatest fears. As part of the scenario arranged by Nate, she is initially forced to face her fear of being alone; this occurs when her husband, sister and brother-in-law are all brutally killed. The first victim is her husband Jim, who gets killed by a trap after stepping outside to investigate a mysterious portion of cheese:
Had there been no technical issue, the audience would have been treated to the sight of a six foot character running up to Jim and swinging a bear-trap straight at the man’s face. The jaws of the device literally ripped through the front half of his face. The metal teeth cleanly cut through and left him staggering on the spot with the cross-section of the inside of his head on display for all to see. From there, he dropped to his knees and then to his side. When he hit the deck, the inside of his head slipped out and splattered onto the cold wooden slats of the porch area as the murderer ran back off into the darkness.
The motif of cheese and traps relates to the fear Kim must face after her other two companions are killed: that of rodents. She is tormented by men in mouse costumes, who produce live mice for use in an utterly toe-curling torture scene.
All of this is framed as a past event, with Nate and Sharon watching Kim’s torture as filmed. The sequences in which Nate tries to justify his creative decisions to the unimpressed Sharon allow the story to deliver a sort of commentary track on itself: after the narrative provides Kim’s background as a trainee nurse, Sharon chides Nate (and by extension, the book itself) for including background information of no interest to the audience; when the torturers turn up in their mouse costumes Sharon points out how ridiculous this is, taking on a similar role to the two elderly men in The Muppet Show.
Sharon also repeatedly switches the video, causing the narrative to flip from Kim’s ordeal to that of another character, Angela, whose session of torment follows the same structure as the one seen in the original How Much To…? albeit with new indignities – being forced to eat pus and vomit, fellating a fellow contestant and then biting off his penis, et cetera – thereby reminding us of how the first story played out as we compare it to the sequel.
The result of this switching back and forth is that the first half of the novella generates curiosity more than tension. The reader is prompted to analyse the victims from a distance, as Nate and Sharon do; to see them as figures on a screen rather than characters in a drama; to try and second-guess what Nate’s next innovation will be, and whether the commercially-minded Sharon will approve. How effective this is will depend on the reader, but it certainly draws a distinction between the original and the sequel.
That said, halfway through its story How Much 2 reverts to the format of the first novella – albeit with the twist that the protagonist undergoing the tasks is Nate, who must make up for his showrunning shortcomings to keep his job (and house, and family).
Between them Nate, Kim and the other contestants in the story are forced to take part in acts of self-mutilation, bestiality, psychological torture, cannibalism and worse. Any limits are aesthetic rather than ethical: “rape is not entertaining”, says Sharon. “It’s just desperate men showing their pathetic lack of ability to form a normal relationship and win a woman over with charm.”
Replacing the unorthodox structure of the novella’s first half is a more straightforward framework in which each vile act is followed by a still viler act. Indeed, towards the end is a chapter that opens with a content warning advising readers to skip ahead if they find the subject matter upsetting. Of course, as the warning gives no clues as to the nature of the potentially upsetting sequence (after the novella has already detailed so many atrocities) the effect is again to pique curiosity more than anything else.
Given the taut nature of its premise, How Much To…? was not the easiest novella to write a sequel for, yet How Much 2 is inventive enough to succeed in following the original’s tough act. It does, however, give every indication that the concept has been stretched to its limit: a worthwhile How Much 3 would be a tricky order to pull off at this juncture.