“Start Today” by Justin Lutz (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

TeenageGrave

Miles allows himself to get pushed around at work. His co-workers are so used to treating him as a doormat that they even begin nicknaming him Mat – at first behind his back, and then in one chance slip of the tongue, to his face. He finally decides to stick up for himself, and finds inspiration when he comes across a flier promoting a men’s support group called Start Today: “Find your inner alpha, harness your confidence.”

He begins attending the group’s regular sessions and realises that – at long last – he has found people who understand him. The procedure recommended by Start Today, however, turns out to be a little more extreme than he had expected. When the group’s leader encourages Miles to peel away the worst parts of himself, this is not just a metaphor, and some very sharp implements are involved.

Taking up fourteen pages of the Teenage Grave anthology, “Start Today” is a comparatively slim story. It has this in common with one of its fellow finalists on the year’s Splatterpunk Award ballot, Stephen Kozeniewski’s “Sun Poison”. Kozeniewski’s story, by its nature, dropped the reader into a horrifically surreal situation almost immediately; Justin Lutz, on the other hand, takes the time to establish a mundane backdrop to the horror: “Greg led him up the driveway and introduced him around the circle of chairs, each man standing in turn and introducing themselves. Nondescript, typical names. Kyles, Dans, Howies, Duanes.”

Indeed, so mundane is this setting that the story is obliged to open in medias res with a scene of body horror, ensuring that at least some of the splatter occurs before the build-up starts:

“Will it hurt?” Miles asked. He shook in his chair, his arm held right against the table. The table was draped with a worn blue tarp. His arm sweated against the plastic.
Greg raised his eyebrows, a look that said he’d heard this question before. The planer sagged in his hand, his arm shiny and hairless with scar tissue. He brought it up in front of his chest, clicking the knob that controlled the blade depth.
“Of course it’s going to hurt.” He shrugged. “But this is what you want, right man? A new you?”

When the horror comes back later in the story, it develops into a sick-joke punchline based on a sort of thematic pun – all in the best tradition of 1950s EC comics. The virgin-to-chad subject matter may have a certain Jordan Peterson-era relevance, but in terms of structure, “Start Today” is content to follow the old favourites.

This review was based on a free copy provided by the publisher.

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