Talia by Daniel J. Volpe (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

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Talia is a young actress whose dreams of stardom led her to the theatre – after which came heavy debts that led her to a small film studio. Her new job is not quite what she had in mind: the studio, which has connections to the mob, specialises in hardcore BDSM porn. Talia’s role here involves slipping into dominatrix gear and, alongside fellow performer Simone, subjecting a succession of male porn actors to various forms of violent degradation.

The porn films are assembled by a motley crew of grotesques, headed by predatory director Mike Malone. Working alongside him is his similarly depraved scriptwriter Nathan (“Nathan turned on the charm, of which he had none. His last three sexual encounters had been with prostitutes and the one prior to that had been with his dog, Sandy”). Also involved are Nico, Luke and Tommy, the so-called “three amigos” tasked with tying up loose ends after shooting wraps. Finally, we have Salvatore “Sally” Testa, an unrepentant necrophile who acts as go-between with the mob.

As part of their job, Talia and Simone are forced into increasingly brutal porn flicks:

Nine lacerations lay wide open on the man’s chest. Blood did not weep from these wounds, it poured. The screams somehow intensified and then stopped.
He began gagging as he vomited into his ball gag. Viscous streams of puke, chunky and sour, poured from his nose. Small amounts escaped his mouth around the ball gag, but not enough.
Talia knew he was choking, but Mike wouldn’t stop the scene until she’d hit him more. She knew it and wound up again. The barbs wrapped around his waist, taking dime-size chunks of skin when she pulled back. Blood flew, speckling her nude body with crimson dots.
Simone retched, putting a hand over her mouth as vomit shot between her fingers. She ran from the room, slamming the door behind her.

Talia believes the studio’s dubious claims that the mutilated men are compensated with reconstructive surgery and large helpings of money, but Simone is less convinced. She tells Talia that she intends to walk out and alert the police – but the studio gets wind of her plan. Before she can contact the authorities, she gets a visit in the night and winds up dead. Only then does Talia fully realise just how dangerous her employers are…

Talia is, like fellow Best Novella finalist Only the Stains Remain, a rape-revenge narrative; but it has little in common with that book’s harrowing exploration of vulnerability and trauma. Its occasional dips into the wider palette of human emotions – as when Talia calls her father, spills out her heart, expresses her guilt and shame at her current line of work, only for him to cut her out of his life – are always offset by great dollops of luridness. The scene in which Talia contemplates her sexual attraction to Simone, accepting that this desire lacks warmth and can be summed up as “not exploitative”, captures the novella’s view of the world: there is exploitation, and there not-exploitation – and the latter makes for the most interesting subject matter.

The writing style is brash and unrefined, the grammar without polish and the perspective prone to freewheeling between whichever characters are present in a given scene. Yet the book is nonetheless able to deliver sharp slices of description and a steady drawl of grim observational humour:

“Even from the street, she could see the passenger was clearly dead, his head ripped open. Gristle, meat, tendons and windpipe smiled at her. She smiled back.”

“Sally’s teeth were red, his gums stained like he’d been eating fresh strawberries his mother and he used to pick before she realized he was a fucking monster.”

“Simone couldn’t read lines for shit. She could blow lines, that was for sure as evidence of the white powder inside of her nose.”

The novella never pretends to be a sober-minded exploration of the porn industry’s seedy underbelly, instead relishing in its trash aesthetic – something embodied by the story’s cartoonishly over-the-top villains. After Simone is done away with, the studio replaces her with Ingrid: a musclebound, six-plus-foot-tall, enormous-breasted lesbian ex-KGB agent. This character appears to have been constructed largely from fetishes – largely, but not quite entirely, as the revelation that she is the mother of two children grants her a little nuance.

Towards its climax, when we reach the “revenge” part of the rape-revenge formula, the novella segues from the cartoonish to the outright fantastical. The story introduces a supernatural element as Talia meets a magical homeless black man, a scene that recalls Stephen King in one of his less astute moments. As well as giving her the extra teeth needed to bite back, this genie-like figure gives Talia the ability to sense a person’s sins by touching them – allowing more room for the novella to delve into its antagonists’ sordid backstories.

This last detail cuts to the heart of the book. The main draw of Talia is its cast of grotesque characters, and every plot point serves primarily to give us a closer look at their depravities. This is a common enough tack for extreme horror stories – and in the case of Talia, the assembled reprobates have enough vitality to sustain the simple narrative.

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