They All Died Screaming by Kristopher Triana (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

TheyAllDiedScreamingNorth 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.

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Pandemonium by Ryan Harding and Lucas Mangum (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

PandemoniumBookA repurposed Philadelphia warehouse is home to a hardcore wrestling tournament dubbed BPHW (Bloody Pit of Horror Wrestling). Fans gather for the promise of brutality and bloodshed between their favourite costumed combatants, only to find themselves caught up in all-out mayhem as the wrestling goes seriously off-script. In the warehouse, amongst the wrestlers and audience members, is a magician named Lampini; and he seeks to open a gateway to another realm, unleashing demons upon the Earth…

Pandemonium is a novel inspired by two genres. One, of course, is hardcore wrestling. The other is Italian horror films, particularly Lamberto Bava’s Demons duology and their quasi-sequel The Church. Neither genre is exactly noted for sophisticated story structure and true to its sources, Pandemonium throws out the niceties of crafting a narrative in favour of gore-scene after gore-scene. The two authors show a skill for zooming in microscope-fashion on every gruesome detail, so that even a minor death sequence – like the scene in which some incidental characters are killed trying to pass through a door magically sealed by Lampini – are lavished with care and attention:

The door caromed back, catching Quincy again and the axe, essentially reversing the chop. The axe cleaved through Calvin’s head at the temple and the collision bounced him away. The luchador mask landed upright on the ground, effectively unmasking Calvin though still keeping his face inside. His body hit the deck with a grisly cavern staring back blankly.

Quincy watched all this happen in slow motion with the strobe-light effect of the flailing door, smashing more pieces within him, setting off further ruptures like a string of firecrackers. It did not stop for the better part of a minute until flesh and bone ceased any resistance, and the door rattled shut against the frame and came to rest. Disproportionate sections of Quincy and Yelp’s bodies slumped to the door, certain limbs and organs sequestered inside the Event Horizon with their counterparts inside, joined only by a pool of deep red spreading beneath the door.

Like any wrestling tournament worth its salt, Pandemonium strives to cram as many characters as possible into the mayhem. The closest thing to a central protagonist is Ana, who is the most fleshed-out of the characters (her central quirk is the habit of making up life stories for the strangers around her). With no personal interest in attending the BPHW tournament, Ana is cajoled into going by her partner Saul, who also insists on taking along his friend Dallas – despite Ana’s personal dislike of him.

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Dust by Chris Miller (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

DustChrisMillerThe year is 1879, and James Dee is shooting his way through Texas in search of a man called Dreary and a town called Dust. Elsewhere, the outlaw Dreary himself is on his way to that same town with a band of accomplices in tow. Dust is a strange town with strange things to offer its visitors: Dreary hopes to find a certain relic that he can use to his advantage, while James Dee is bent on stopping him before he gets his way.

Dust is still another entry in the Death’s Head Press Splatterpunk Westerns series, a line of self-contained novels and novellas united by genre (see also Red Station, The Night Silver River Run Red and The Magpie Coffin). In this case we have a novel that starts out as a straight western, complete with the stock opening of a lone gunman walking into a saloon looking for answers; although, admittedly, the ensuing action is rather more gruesome than might be seen in a typical Saturday matinee oater:

The watch belonged to the dead man with the giant hole in his head. You could see through it—the man’s head, not his watch—if you didn’t mind the stringy goo which slopped viscously through the hole, or the meaty gray pulp that slid slowly down the wall among the rivers of blood like macabre slugs.

The novel has more to offer besides blood upon the sawdust at the Last Chance Saloon, however. Protagonist James Dee turns out to be a man from the future, who has travelled not only through time but across parallel universes in pursuit of an otherworldly species that endangered his own time and place. He comes equipped with weapons from more than a hundred years in the future along with telekinetic abilities that he believes may be God-given.

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Slaughter Box: A Diablo Snuff Story by Carver Pike (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

SlaughterBocSlaughter Box one of a series of novels by Carver Pike involving an enigmatic group called Diablo Snuff. The secret society in question is part snuff film production company, and part Illuminati-like conspiracy that wields substantial (perhaps even supernatural) power. Its exact nature is hard to pin down, but one thing is clear: anybody who falls into the clutches of Diablo Snuff will forced to endure a hallucinatory hell. Over the course of the series a number of characters have been subjected to ordeals by the mysterious group, and the few who survive are left with a desire for revenge.

Amongst these is a man nicknamed Kong, who was introduced earlier in the series but now serves as the central character for the first time. Slaughter Box begins by delving into his backstory, from his childhood (when his habit of beating his chest during tantrums earned him his nickname) and into his adolescent years when the weirdness began. In an early sequence, a twelve-year-old Kong takes part in a séance arranged by his friend Josephine at a pit which, according to urban legend, leads to hell. They fail to summon any demons, however: the pit simply leads to the local sewer works, as the friends find out when Josephine’s younger brother Joey has a fatal fall. But something supernatural appears to be afoot after all, as at the time of Joey’s death, Kong glimpses the figure of a mysterious silhouetted man.

At thirteen he sees the figure again, and once more the sighting accompanies a death in his circle of friends. Even when Kong is old enough to join the army, the silhouetted man still follows him. In Afghanistan, after surviving an explosion that kills his buddies, Kong sees the sinister man once more – this time with other eldritch sights:

There he was. Standing over me was the tall man from my childhood. It was too dark to see his features, but I was sure I could make out the black nothingness where his eyes should have been. His long, stringy hair hung down like a chandelier only a few feet over me. I glanced right and saw other beings out there beyond my field of vision. They were demons. I knew it.

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The Magpie Coffin by Wile E. Young (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

MagpieCoffinSalem Covington is a man with a Gun. Not just any firearm, as the capital should make clear, but a weapon with supernatural qualities: as long as Covington carries it, he can never be killed by any ordinary gun. He was once a Confederate guerrilla, but the Civil War is over. He became the pupil of a Native American priest named Dead Bear, but the Indian Wars are over – one of the casualties being Dead Bear.

His current mission is to track down and slay each and every member of the Bad Hand Outfit, the five men responsible for killing his teacher, and he is prepared to take many more lives along the way. He is not be alone on his quest. Chained to his stagecoach is a coffin containing the body of Dead Bear, his spirit on hand to offer guidance to Covington.

Throughout The Magpie Coffin, layer after layer of Covington’s tough exterior is peeled away – much as he peels away the scalps of his victims – and each new layer serves merely to reaffirm what we already know: that Salem Covington is a hardened mass of physical and psychological scar tissue, built up over years in an environment where only the toughest survive. It has to be said that the novel’s protagonist bears more than a passing resemblance to the DC Comics character Jonah Hex: similar Confederate history, similar nihilistic philosophy, and even a comparable facial disfigurement (in this case, a brand on one cheek). But while it may be familiar in places, The Magpie Coffin works because of its unflinching commitment to its central archetype.

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If I Die Before I Wake: Tales of Deadly Women and Retribution, ed. R.E. Sargent and Steven Pajak (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

DeadlyWomenIf I Die Before I Wake: Tales of Deadly Women and Retribution is the third volume in the Better Off Dead series of themed anthologies, the topic this time being punishments meted out by femmes fatales. The range of variations on this motif turns out to be broad indeed…

“The Long December” by Steven Pojak is a full–length novella in which a mentally-troubled school administrator commits suicide after being abruptly fired, prompting her daughter to exact vengeance against both the doctor who let her down and the employer who terminated her. The story’s length allows it a good deal of emotional depth to explore on the way to its explosive climax – and this is just the beginning of the anthology, with more twisted tales of vengeance to follow. In “Lucy” by R.E. Sargent a man falls for a seductive woman at a bar only for her to make a strange offer: she asks him to chemically castrate her abusive husband. Her machinations, it transpires, reach far beyond this. Meanwhile, Red Lagoe’s “Black Feathered Fury” has an elderly woman with an affinity for birds avenge the murder of her girlfriend with a murder of crows.

Dysfunctional families are plentiful across the anthology. Chris Conteras Bahnsen’s “Sign Followers” is about a family of snake handlers consisting of a widower and his two teenage daughters, whose sheltered and deeply religious upbringing gives them only a partial understanding of their preacher-father’s incestuous desires. “The Door” by Scotty Milder revolves around a girl born to a metal-musician father, who named her Lamashtu after a baby-stealing demoness; the family saga comes to include divorce, bereavement, alcoholism and deals with an eldritch entity.

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Werewolf Wednesday: Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf by George W. M. Reynolds (1846-7) Part 1

ReynoldsMiscOne book I’ve been planning to cover for this column is Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf by George W. M. Reynolds; this was serialised between 1846 and 1847 in a periodical edited by the author, Reynolds’ Miscellany. I have to admit, though, that it’s taken me a while to pluck up the fortitude. I tried reading the novel a few years ago, but it was only a chapter or two before I started having flashbacks to reading Varney the Vampire — and soldiering through that monument to incoherence wasn’t an ordeal I was in a hurry to repeat.

But still,  no history of literary lycanthropy would be complete without covering Wagner’s adventures. To make things easier on myself I’ve decided to cover the novel piecemeal, with this post covering the prologue and first two chapters. Since I never finished the book on my first attempt (and to be honest, have forgotten what happened in the chapters I did read) this will be a voyage of discovery for me. Wish me luck — who knows, Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf might be a cut above Varney the Vampire after all.

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Psi-Wars: Classified Cases of Psychic Phenomena, ed. Joshua Viola (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

PsiWars“And When You Tear Us Apart, We Stitch Ourselves Back Together” by Betty Rocksteady is the story of a protagonist named Violet who wakes up to find that her conjoined twin has been separated from her. A group of researchers inform her that her sister is dead, but can be avenged: thanks to Violet’s psychic gifts, she is in the perfect position to fight in a war against the man responsible for the death of her twin.

Violet is far from the only character to be ushered into a strange and secretive psychic war over the course of Psi-Wars: Classified Cases of Psychic Phenomena. This anthology focuses on battles of wills in more ways than one: after an introduction by John Palisano that cites John Farris’ The Fury, David Cronenberg’s Scanners and the works of Stephen King, the assembled authors deliver various tales of telekinesis being put to military use.

The anthology’s contributors are capable of spreading the central concept across various different genres. Keith Ferrell gives us a short-form thriller in “Snake Eyes”, the story of a Scanners-style conflict between “psoldiers” that shows a Flemingian fondness for gambling as a backdrop. “The Jarheads” by Sean Eads and Joshua Viola is a straight-ahead, action-oriented story in which a group of psychics, who volunteered to take part in a military programme, realise that the powers that be have not been honest with them. Cyberpunk, too, turns up in the volume. “Under the Lotus” by Darin Bradley introduces the Lotus, a device that allows the user to achieve a state of enlightenment – consciousness without selfhood. After returning to normal, the user has no memory of what happened while under the influence of the Lotus; this poses serious problems when the device is hit by a virus.

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Crash Code, ed. Quinn Parker (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

CrashCodePrepare to receive two punk-suffixes in one with the Splatterpunk Award-nominated Crash Code: An Anthology of Cyberpunk Horror; as the title suggests, the volume is given over to exploring the grisly

and macabre corners of the cyberpunk genre. Hannah Trusty’s “A.U.T.O.” takes us on a ride in an automated car that goes horribly wrong. “The God Finger” by Dean H. Wild is set in the world of surgical technology, depicting a gauntlet that takes away pain – but turns out to have a serious side-effect. In Addison Smith’s “Hard Memory” a cop with a cybernetic brain implant is forced to kill a similarly-enhanced fellow officer in self-defence – leaving him with both the mystery of who hacked his friend, and the emotional fallout of his act. “Nervana” by David F. Shultz follows a band of glamorous pill-popping rebels as they go up against “copyright cops” and a weird cyber-cult in a neon city, the protagonist’s girlfriend having her mind transferred to a computer chip after she is killed in action.

By its nature, cyberpunk explores the low-society ramifications of high technology; this tends to require a good chunk of worldbuilding which, in turn, needs space. Crash Code has its share of mini-epics such as “Fight to Fight” by Sebastian Netman: this story is long enough to be less a sting in the tail narrative, more a potted thriller. It depicts a world where genetically engineered children are the norm, but are fought against by members of older generations; the protagonist is a cyborg who fights “geneticals” to avenge the death of his mother – but has a conflict of a different sort with his father.

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