“Sun Poison” by Stephen Kozeniewski (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)


“Sun Poison” opens with a colourful description of the effects of sunburn upon the main character’s feet:

I open my eyes. My toes have transformed into ten little cherry tomatoes. I hiss in pain. The heat radiating off my piggies rivals that of an Easter ham, fresh out of the oven.

She buries her toes in the sand to protect them from the heat but merely burns them even more, the lower layer of sand being somehow hotter than the surface. She looks for her parasol, but it has vanished from the beach. So, indeed, have all of the other sunbathers, including her own family. The protagonist is alone beneath a burning sun that continues to cook her.

“Sun Poison” is a short, brisk and surreal story. The narrator describes the familiar beachside sights – hotels, ships, pancake houses – that are inexplicably absent. She comes up with theories to explain her sudden isolation – shark attack? Oil spill? Storm? – but none fit the facts. All of her musings are no more than temporary distractions from the horrible reality that her husband and children have vanished and that she is being slowly roasted to death in a strange landscape where even the water is scalding hot.

As with any story that has such a short length and simple narrative, “Sun Poison” is pulled along by the strength of its prose. Author Stephen Kozeniewski does a remarkable job of avoiding repetition in a tale that is, for its most part, taken up by description after description of heavy-duty sunburn. The protagonist’s narration has a flair for the quirky (the sun is her “grinning yellow adversary”) and her descriptions are both weird and relatable:

The forty, fifty steps to the ocean go much faster than heading inland did. I’m gasping, lusting for the cool, dark embrace of the water. My feet still feel like two pats of butter sliding across a frying pan, but now there’s an end in sight. Temporary, yes, but respite, nonetheless.

The woman’s ordeal eventually reaches the most logical conclusion that the story’s surrealism could allow, and the final image earns “Sun Poison” its place in Battered, Broken Bodies, an anthology devoted to body horror (and which is, incidentally, itself up for a Splatterpunk Award in the Best Anthology category).

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