“Fireflies and Apple Pies” by Thomas R. Clark (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

58330440._SY475_In the introduction to his novella The God Provides, Thomas R. Clark explains how the first portion of the narrative – “Fireflies and Apple Pies” – started out as a short story before being expanded to fill a slim book. Yet it is the first stretch, rather than the novella as a whole, that found its way onto the Splatterpunk Awards ballot; and so, this review shall set aside the latter portion of the book and concentrate on the opening.

The story takes us to the Tully Foothills, where October has started – bringing with it the annual Apple Festival. But this year, the festival becomes the site of the town’s first murder in a century:

At first, it appeared as though preschoolers went to town practicing covering her mouth with lipstick.
“She looked like she stuck her face in a can of strawberry jam.” One of the workers told a TV reporter.
But no.
A closer examination revealed someone ripped out Sandy’s tongue and left her to bleed to death, alone in the dark. The girl graduated a year ago and, like many locals, she worked at the festival to make a few extra bucks. The day before her smiling face could be seen at a Fritter booth. Now no one could find her tongue.

This is not the last murder of the Halloween season. Another local is found, disembowelled and eyeless. The man who stumbles across her body is so distraught that he shoots himself. Still another victim turns up crucified to tree, her face flayed off and, again, her eyes removed. With the so-called “Foothills Slasher” abroad, Halloween is cancelled.

After this bloody bit of scene-setting, the story introduces us to Rose McEntire, who returns to visit her family after time spent outside the community. She arrives in time to find a curfew in place to protect the populace – a curfew that she is not entirely willing to respect…

“Fireflies and Apple Pies” sets out to be the prose equivalent of a trashy, gore-soaked slasher film, and it succeeds in this goal. Specifically, it emulates the sort of slasher where acting, scriptwriting and direction are not really the point, and splatter effects reign supreme.

The story has the occasional inkling of a world that exists beyond the scenes of murder and mayhem. We see hints of the local history, particularly concerning Rose’s family, and we get touches of social commentary arising from the old city-versus-rural divide, with the ironic twist that Rose’s punkish sister Erin is the one who hates the smalltown setting – despite living there. But in each case it is only a matter of time before any such detail is swept away in the latest wave of blood and guts.

This is fair enough, as the grosser aspects of human anatomy are subjects with which Clark shows clear verve: “A microsecond later, the organs in his body took their genetic suicide pills. Then they exited the premises, spilling onto the floor.”

The story retains some rudiments of a whodunnit structure from slasher tradition, although it is a rather curious variety of whodunnit as the only viable suspect is Erin’s southern-gentleman fiancé Chad. Still, as a straight-ahead gore story, this is sufficient. The reader has room to question their judgement: is the killer really Chad, when that would be so obvious a conclusion? Or is this very obviousness a double bluff?

Spending too much time on such matters is – again – missing the point, as the real guessing game is what will evacuate a character’s body next: “The gurgling in Rose’s bowels shifted and moved. Only partially sure it wouldn’t include any solid or liquid material, she let it out. A wet, clapping foghorn erupted from her ass.”

It bears restating that “Fireflies and Apple Flies” is ultimately a sequence from a novella, rather than the self-contained story that it has been nominated as. It introduces a supernatural element – tied to Irish mythology and werewolf movies – too late in the game to explore this new material. It falls upon the rest of the novella to delve deeper and to move from slasher to folk horror.

What we have here can be compared to a ragged chunk of meat offcut. Nobody is going to mistake it for a delicately-seasoned steak with all the trimmings – but someone hungry for a quick, meaty snack should not object.

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