Sacrament is the third instalment of Steve Stred’s Father of Lies sequence, the first novellas being Ritual and Communion (a fourth story, the short “Eucharist”, was subsequently included in the omnibus edition). The villain of the series is Father, a cult leader who has made communion with demons and transformed into a distorted goat-legged being – “A dark God from the cosmos in the flesh!” His desire is to grasp Abaddon’s Box so that he can open the Black Heavens and obtain immortality alongside his faithful flock. “And to think”, says Father to his acolytes, “some of you doubted me!”
Opposing Father is Professor Bianchi, whose family has been blighted by the evil priest’s machinations. His father Adam, who lost his legs to the cult, is so filled with rage that he refuses to let his son refer to him as “Father”, the word having been tainted by the evil priest. Bianchi’s mother, having been used by the priest as a broodmare, is in an even worse state:
She lay exposed on the bed, naked and weathered. Her one human leg had wasted away, now pushed awkwardly under her animal appendage. The two pronged hoof shifted subtly […] The wrinkles and folds of her abdomen weren’t enough to hide the jagged scar that went from hip to hip, the gloating reminder of the child Father had cut forth from her in one of his failed ritual attempts. Her formerly large breasts were now hanging over her ribs, the deflated fatty sacs of flesh and nipple resting in the crook of her elbows. Her arms bent slightly so that the dried corpse of a fetus was cradled in her hands.
The conflict between Bianchi and Father soon becomes a surreal psychosexual swirl. Certain horrific elements, such as the motif of leg loss, turn up repeatedly like something out of a recurring anxiety dream, while characters like the red-haired temptress Hekate bring an erotic element to the narrative. Father himself has a sexual component, albeit one that borders on gross-out comedy:
The thing that was Father sat perched on a throne in the back of the tent. Bianchi found it was a larger space than expected, at least from initial outside appearances.
He was slumped back as though he’d been propped into place moments before Bianchi had entered. His animal legs were splayed out, his disgusting robe open and spread out on either side. His flaccid cock hung obscenely between his legs, a sticky fluid seeping from the opening on its head. When Father shifted, a long, thin string of the liquid appeared, keeping the old man’s dick still technically in contact with the seat.
Sacrament is divided into nibble-sized pieces, with 31 chapters across a print length of 110 pages. This leaves it with little room to develop its cast, particularly given that most of the characters are new or at least recent additions to the trilogy – even protagonist Bianchi did not debut until halfway through the second book. James Herbert had a knack for introducing, fleshing out and then gruesomely slaughtering a character within a single chapter, but this skill is never really evident in Sacrament.
What is evident is the novella’s ability to capture a distinct late-seventies, early-eighties Satanic-metal ambience: when Father claims that he “emerged triumphant, fueled by hatred and filled with venom”, the “V” may as well have been capitalised. The freeform narrative – and given that one plot point has its main character teleport halfway around the world by touching a magic object, a freeform narrative it is – recalls a metal album taking us from one horrific spectacle to another. Typical of the novella’s record-sleeve aesthetic is the scene where Bianchi awakes to find himself in the middle of a sexual orgy while the sky is raining blood:
A middle-aged woman came to him, unbuttoning his pants while kissing him passionately. Pulling himself away from her coated lips, she took his pants and threw them into a fire burning nearby. As each drop of blood fell and splashed into the flames, a scream sounded that mixed into the gathered choir. Two men came beside him, stripping his boxers off. At first the feeling of blood spattering onto his suddenly free dick was off putting, but as the dark rain increased in intensity, he felt it sudden. Only then did he notice every other male was dancing erect.
Rather like Jon Steffens’ The God in the Hills, a Splatterpunk Award finalist from last year, Sacrament belongs to the seemingly paradoxical category of extreme horror comfort food. Yes, the events it describes are utterly hideous; but the setting is so detached from reality, the characters thrown so abruptly into the chaos, that the story becomes a macabre romp with few real stakes. The effect is like listening to a friend describe a nightmare from the comfort of their waking life – or, again, listening to a favourite metal song by a band who we know is just having fun.
The tone changes drastically, however, when we arrive at the novella’s afterword, which outlines the real-life inspirations behind the fiction. Author Steve Stred describes a fascination with the brief life of Jon Nödtveidt, a Swedish metal musician who joined the Satanic organisation known as the Temple of the Black Light, was convicted for his involvement in the murder of a gay man named Josef ben Meddour and eventually committed suicide — according to some reports, inside a circle of lit candles before a copy of the Temple of Black Light’s Liber Azerate.
Stred’s research led him to a Satanic group active on the dark web. In Stred’s telling, the most disturbing thing he witnessed was a video depicting a sex act between two members called Father Abaddon and Black Dragon, during which some sort of apparition apparently manifested; this influenced a scene in the second novella, Communion. “It is one of the few times I’ve seen something online that actually scared the absolute shit out of me.” The account would have been unsettling enough even without this detail, given its outline of the ways in which the group’s members were required to prove their commitment. “It was the necessary ‘things’ they wanted people to do to work up the ladder to ensure they’d ascend that I found repulsive and grotesque”, says Stred. “And I grew up with Consumption Junction, Live Leak and Goatse.” He describes how the members of this group committed various acts of self-mutilation, animal sacrifice, arson, replacement of body parts with animal appendages – something like Father in the story – and, in some cases, eventual suicide.
Typically, when a horror story is over, the reader will be allowed a pleasurable return to the comforts of their mundane life. Sacrament, meanwhile, is at its most dismaying when the fiction runs out and the facts step in.