The Slob has a premise that can be summarised in a single succinct line: a door-to-door saleswoman ends up in the house of a cannibal-rapist-necrophile and must figure out a means of escaping. Not exactly a groundbreaking concept for an extreme horror story; even the title recalls Rex Miller’s seminal 1987 splatterpunk novel Slob. But such a pat summary does little justice to just how engagingly twisted this book is.
The story takes a while to get going: discounting the in medias res opening chapter, protagonist Vera Harlow does not wind up in the clutches of The Slob until more than a third of the way through the slim volume. The chapters leading up to this point are put to good use, however. What could have been mere padding becomes a narrative that takes pains to set Vera up as the polar opposite of the uber-slovenly villain, with particular emphasis on her preoccupation with cleanliness
We learn that this trait began during her childhood when she visited a friend and realised the squalor of her own home (“There were places they could sit in their house… Piles of clothing that would never be worn didn’t comprise whole rooms… No dead or dying mice emitting shrill cries of agony, twitching in insensitive traps”); her troubled upbringing, sharing a family with a war-traumatised father and a sister with untreated bipolar disorder (“We were just entering the 70s and mental health and its myriad of deficiencies were still mostly a mystery”); the personal trauma of cleaning up the aftermath of her sister’s gunshot suicide (“I felt queasy looking at the mashup of tissue strewn about; there was even still one of Lisa’s eyeballs surrounded by meaty slop and wedged inside the partially cracked heating vent”).
All of these experiences led to a raft of psychological issues as an adult, but none grave enough to prevent Vera from finding love. Her biography runs into a marriage to paralysed Vietnam veteran Daniel, who she originally courted with sick jokes about cannibalism and strokes; this entire life story is narrated by Vera narrates with lashings of observational humour.
The novella maintains its tone of dry wit even after Vera’s ordeal in the lair of The Slob has begun. When she meets him, we are given a graphic physical description: he has teeth that “reminded me of a bumblebee because they were mostly yellow and black”; his stomach protrudes beneath his belt “in both directions, taking both the over and under like a bet that didn’t make sense”; his shirt bears armpit stains that “stretched so far out that it felt like there was a possibility that they might get to meet someday”; and the hairs on his head are “clinging together by a self-generated hair gel that used his own ingredients as a secret formula”. Vera employs the same tone of voice to describe the horrors within his home:
Figuring out what was connected to what was hardly as simple as the children’s song so many of us knew by heart. She was now essentially just a pile of chunks and sections. The torso and limbs had been divided up like pizza in a first-grade math problem.
Rather than make light of the situation, Vera’s sense of humour serves to increase the reader’s empathy. Her ordeal soon becomes gruelling to read – the fact that she is pregnant at the time of her capture leads to the most harrowing sequences – and her quirky wit feeds into the pathos. Faced with the prospect of her unborn baby falling victim to The Slob, she has mental images of staging a birthday party or bicycle-riding lesson for a pile of mangled fetal tissue.
Admittedly, the tone is not always stable. During the course of the story Vera meets a second captive, Sandra, whose dialogue is curiously indistinguishable from Vera’s first-person narration. The snarky observation, credible when presented in Vera’s internal monologue, becomes hard to swallow when actually spoken by a character who has been horribly mutilated and now fears for their life:
“After he took the top off,” she pointed to her raw skull, “he had me sit down. Then he forced me to watch him boil my scalp and hair. I sat there smelling my own flesh fill the air of that disgusting kitchen. Then, like a dog with a new treat, he gnawed on the rubbery skin for a while before slurping it down with all my hair like you would spaghetti. He seems to really enjoy that part. I kept praying he’d choke on a hairball but I guess that’s just a cat thing…”
Still, The Slob’s plot shows good enough construction for it to survive the occasional misstep. Surrounded by little more than the corpses of her captors’ other victims, Vera must become a final girl reincarnation of MacGuyver to survive, utilising the gruesome implements at her disposal to escape from The Slob. Her plans do not always go as intended, thereby adding still more twists to a plot which, on paper, sounds so simple.