Red Station by Kenzie Jennings (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

redStationA stagecoach journeys through a desert in the American West carrying passengers from varied walks of life. They include Montgomery Pickering, a medical doctor; Leeartus “Lee” Shurchell, a gunman; a woman named Patience Wilkson and her husband Finch Henry; and foremost of all, Clyde Northway. Clad in a striking red dress, Clyde gets tongues wagging with talk about her engagement to one Commodore Darrow – a man who, despite not being present on the stagecoach, somehow looms large in the narrative. The coach’s route is known to be dangerous: travellers have gone missing there, their fates something of a mystery as the area has no readily evident places for bandits to hide.

Eventually, the stagecoach reaches the home of the Adlers, a family of German extraction. The passengers disembark to shelter in the Adlers’ household away from a storm outside – and, in the process, learn the hard way just what happened to those people who went missing. The Adlers are killers, although their motives extend beyond greed and into something rather more perverse…

Like Christine Morgan’s The Night Silver River Run Red, Kenzie Jennings’ Red Station belongs to the Death’s Head Press Splatter Western series. The pace is slower this time; indeed, for its early stretches Red Station is notable for both a lack of splatter and a general lack of Western. The setting is the old American West, granted, but the story has little to do with the obvious iconography of the Western genre.

The story’s exact choice of era factors into this: gunman Lee ponders how the age when “shootouts were a thing and a man was worth his weight in ammunition” has been gone ever since the trains started coming through. This is the West in a transitional stage, when the romanticised age has already come to an end. What Jennings seems interested in more than cowboys and shootouts is the broad expanse of desert and its psychological effect on the characters, something foreshadowed by Dr. Pickering: “Careful now. Gives one a dizzy spell, that never-ending, circular pull of the land with the wind in one’s ears.”

When the brutal violence begins, it begins in earnest. the Adlers belong to that noble lineage of messed-up families that also includes Sawney Bean’s clean and Leatherface’s household. Gunman

Lee (who, as we learn in a flashback shortly before his demise, has more than his share of blood on his own hands) is the first to fall victim:

Before Lee could reach for his gun, the mountain lifted its leg and its heavy, boot-clad foot stomped his face with such force, Lee’s nose was instantly reduced to mush, bits of bone and cartilage cracking inward upon impact. His face, a mask of blood and gristle, burned, his screams muffled by blood and snot. His teeth were mashed from his upper jaw, lodging in his throat, making it near impossible to inhale that much needed air […] he didn’t need to see that killing blow, that boot coming down again and mashing his head to the consistency of jelly that matched his coward’s innards. Lee’s face disintegrated upon impact, caving in on itself. The giant, the Adler manchild, ground his foot into what remained of Lee’s head, twisting it back and forth, robbing the corpse of any resemblance of the man it had been.

This is followed by the “manchild” masturbating into Lee’s remains. More elaborate atrocities follow, from a sledgehammer finding itself embedded in a man’s head to a bladed brace being shoved into someone’s mouth; the most striking moments of horror, however, are the ones that utilise subtle implications alongside overt body-horror. One scene has the captured Clyde forced to sit next to a decapitated corpse, the body’s clothes being the only clue as to which character she had been when alive. Bubbling away beneath all of this mayhem is a twisted yet almost Austenian comedy of manners: the travelers come from different walks of life, and the situation forces them to act in ways not necessarily expected of their genders or social classes.

Like many horror stories of this stripe, Red Station plays with the theme of brutalisation, the would-be victims becoming almost as savage as their captors to survive. Clyde is the central case study here, evolving from the demure lady in red to the hardened killer in red, but she is not the only character placed under the magnifying glass in this manner. The novella repeatedly cuts away to the exploits of an Adler daughter, during which we see the story’s world through her red-hazed eyes – and, in the process, we are given the pieces to a narrative puzzle.

Although ultimately more splatter than Western, the novella finds a way to put its period setting to good use, injecting an analysis of nineteenth century gender norms into a stock backwoods horror scenario. The mixture works, giving new life to some old standards: Red Station feels as fresh as it does familiar.

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