North America is hit by an epidemic. The cause is unclear, but the symptoms are all too evident: the victims begin screaming. They scream incessantly, and are no longer able to eat or sleep. Deprived in this way, they go mad:
One of the Italians was climbing onto the table he’d been sitting at. He turned on his back, kicking his legs in the air like a child in mid-tantrum. His friend and the prostitutes who’d been sitting with him all recoiled. The man’s hands were at his head, ripping his hair out at the roots, trickles of blood sliding down his temples. Leslie shrieked. The brunette hooker’s face went pale as she scurried from the booth, tripping in her stiletto heels and falling to the floor, scrambling catlike. The friend grabbed at the screaming man’s wrists, trying to get his hands away from his bloodied scalp, but the screaming man shook him off effortlessly, even though his buddy was nearly twice his size.
Most end up killing themselves – often after killing a few bystanders along the way. As the epidemic spreads, people die in vast numbers. If they are not being killed by the Scream, they are falling victim to the Screamers.
Kristopher Triana will be a familiar name to anyone keeping up with the Splatterpunk Awards. In addition to his collection Blood Relations (a Best Collection finalist this year) he was previously nominated for his novels Full Brutal and Toxic Love, each of which were stories about a protagonist entering a twisted and violent sexual relationship. They All Died Screaming differs from these in plot, with a broader cast and a softer overall focus, but once again Triana’s characters are shaped and defined in large part by their warped sex lives.
The novel follows a small band of survivors as they flee the Scream, and none of them are exactly the stuff of suburban nuclear families. The central character is Chuck, a lonely 42-year-old man getting by on settlement money he received by faking a back injury at work. He meets Leslie, a middle-aged woman with a traumatic family history and suicidal tendencies. They bond over their mutually grim circumstances, and take part in various culinary sex acts:
The television mumbled softly, another news report about people going mad and screaming to their deaths. Leslie had removed the sandwich bun and was rubbing her labia with the roast beef, warm flesh to warm flesh, one living and one dead. The cheese sluiced into her with a wet suction sound as she kissed Chuck’s ear.
“You take it,” she said. “Please, Chuck. I need it. I need you.”
Chuck took hold of the sandwich and Leslie reached for more curly fries, moaning with her mouth full of them. Grazing the gray beef across her labia, Chuck massaged her breasts with his other hand, smearing grease and fry crumbs. He let th bun fall to the floor, working with just the meat now.
Joining Chuck and Leslie in their fight for survival are Eugene, a conspiracy theorist whose rapacious sexual appetite has so far been unfulfilled; the local barman, referred to simply as Barman, who presents as morally upstanding (“Just because things are chaotic out there doesn’t mean we start tossing dead kids out fourth story windows”) but has some substantial skeletons in his closet; Brittany, a 17-year-old schoolgirl who stars in Chuck’s sexual fantasies prior to his meeting Leslie (and who turns out to have something unexpected under her skirt); Shitty, whose nickname says it all; Angel, a sex worker; and Keisha, the best-adjusted of the group, who simply wants to rescue her two babies.
The novel swings between spectacles of extreme violence – as when an enormous Screamer crushes a victim with his body and then begins swinging her corpse as a weapon, to choose one of many memorable scenes – and quieter, more philosophical sequences in which the characters discuss the origins and implications of the epidemic.
Different characters offer various explanations for the Scream, blaming everything from God “making up for his past mistakes” to global warming. A scientist on television theorises that the Scream came about because viruses that had long been frozen and dormant where freed by the melting of polar ice caps, citing a real-life incident of frozen anthrax being thawed out during a heatwave. Barman sees the disaster as a just punishment: “We’re in a global crisis and ain’t nobody doing anything to fix it. A good mass death is just what we need to cool the planet down.” Shitty, meanwhile, relishes the potential for political overhaul: “Hope every democrat and republican in D.C. gets set fire. Eat the rich, that’s what I always says.”
Eugene, the conspiracy theorist, suggests that the Scream is caused by a biochemical weapon that the government is testing on its own people: “They already gave us radiation poisoning, SARS, rice blasts… they did it with chemtrails and vaccinations that give us autism. Putting fluoride in public drinking fountains. Then they took it one step further, experimenting with the water supply In Flint, Michigan. Now they’re going even bigger.” Citing a conspiracy podcast, Eugene declares that the Scream is actually a sexually-transmitted disease, and can be cured by having sex with a virgin before its effects set in. Barman is outraged by this suggestion:
“This isn’t a goddamn cure, you fucking imbecile. It’s just some far-fetched excuse for men to sexually assault women, even girls. There are no cops holding up law and order, only a basic moral code, so this podcast shitbird is trying to validate cruelty and incite violence upon women for his own twisted reasons. I’ll be dammed if I’m going to let you or anyone else take part in it.”
The chapters following Chuck’s band of survivors alternate with a subplot that takes place before the outbreak of Screamers and which – at first – has no obvious connection to the main plot. This thread begins in the eighties when a nine-year-old boy is abducted from a shopping mall and forced to work on a farm. The farm in question has two forms of livestock: pigs (used by the proprietor for sex) and women (used by the proprietor for meat, which he sells to many satisfied customers).
The farmer himself, whose body is gradually overtaken by an unsightly infection arising from his habit of frolicking in the mud with his sows, is a cartoonishly over-the-top creation; but in its way, this part of the novel is more devastating than the surrounding apocalypse. As the years pass and the boy grows into a teenager, we see him develop Stockholm syndrome, evolving from an unwilling captive to a young man who has come to see the farmer as a surrogate father – even calling him “pa” – and striving to earn his pride. He also adopts his captor’s misogynistic philosophy, viewing the female captives as no more than “veal” existing to fulfil his appetites. More than once it looks as though a prisoner stands a chance of escaping, of bringing the farmer to justice and freeing the other captives – including the boy – only for her to be apprehended and slain, allowing the cycle of abuse to continue unabated.
The novel gives a considerable amount of space to the warped philosophy that his held by the farmer and passed onto the boy. The bestiality-prone farmer has some limits, as we see when he reassures the nine-year-old that he has just kidnapped: “Ain’t no pervert. Ya won’t have to do nothing sexual.” While he has no qualms about cannibalism, his past as a slaughterhouse worker has turned him into a champion of animal rights where pigs are concerned: “Ya sit here scared of me, but let me tell ya kid, you dunno what real horror is. Real horror is transportin and slaughterin pigs. We’d take these beautiful creatures at only a few months old and cram ‘em into the back of a tractor trailer”.
The boy comes to share his abductor’s perspective: “The only real human beings in this world were himself and the man. All others were merely animals, and these girls were lowliest of all. The pigs not only outnumbered the veal, they outranked them… The pigs were not part of the farm, but part of the family”. In a grotesque parody of father-son coming-of-age moments, the farmer is shown enticing the boy to rape the female captives, telling him that this is just what a boy his age desires.
While the full connection between the boy’s story and the saga of the Screamers is not established until near the end of the book, a thematic link has already come into play before then. The small world inhabited by the boy, the farmer and the veal turns out to be a microcosm of the post-Scream world, where survivors’ sexual proclivities are laid bare by a collapsing society.
Although misogyny is a major theme, They All Died Screaming is not necessarily a misogynistic novel. If anything, it is the male characters who come off badly, being generally characterised by some predatory streak or another; the women, on the other hand, are largely distinct and well-developed characters rather than mere objects for abuse: even when a woman is labelled a “whore” by the narrative voice, this is not a moral judgment but simply a description of her occupation. The few moments of joy to be had by the characters caught up in the apocalypse come during sexual acts where the men and women are treated equally, and every penetration and ejaculation is described in the same loving detail no matter what members are involved.
The novel ends up propounding a nihilistic philosophy that divides humanity into a cycle of predators and prey that shall last until the apocalypse; throughout all of this, one of Triana’s strengths – the ability to wring aesthetic elegance from the bleakly brutal – is on full show. This word-picture is typical:
The dead whore sailed in the same star shape she’d been in upon the carpet, arms and legs outstretched, cutting the summer air on her way down to the car on the sidewalk. It was wrapped around a telephone pole. She seemed to float for a moment, light and ethereal, and then she hit the car’s roof, indenting it, her limbs snapping and contorting. Her body bounced off and she was briefly in flight again before smacking the pavement. There was no splatter of blood, but a pool of it quickly formed beneath her. Now her corpse was so twisted up it looked not like a star but a swastika made of broken bones.
As a fair warning, anybody who finishes the novel will likely desire something a little more upbeat as a palette-cleanser – might I suggest Rae Carson’s “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse”…?