Sinister Mix by Brian Bowyer (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

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The stories in Sinister Mix do not concern normal people thrown into strange situations. Instead, author Brian Bowyer shows a fondness for tales about strange people thrown into stranger situations. This is summed up by “Siren Song”, in which a pair of twin-brother serial killers run into a mythological siren. Granted, that particular story is something of an outlier, as Bowyer typically does not venture into the supernatural for his subject matter, instead preferring to take the familiar topics of sex and violence and adding novel twists.

A good example is the very first story in the book, “Losses and Gains”. This is a tale of date rape that turns into sexual torture, with the twist being that the conventional genders are swapped to create a female predator and a male victim (there is a second twist, with something very odd happening towards the end, but to say more would be to go into spoiler territory).

It should be stressed just how relentlessly bleak many of the stories in Sinister Mix are. “Maternal Flame” is a chillingly plausible account of a mother dealing with the abduction of her son – so plausible, in fact, that it seems oddly underwhelming as a story, being simply a (well-written) litany of terrible things happening. “The Box” – another story of a child going missing, this time a two-year-old girl – is equally grim, but benefits from a fanciful Saw-like element. The girl’s mother is forced to commit crimes as part of a ransom demand, leading her into a tangled web of interpersonal intrigue and outright sadism.

“The Black Yacht” is yet another story of child predation, this time written from the perspective of a heroin-addicted mother who trades her six-year-old daughter to a molester in exchange for her next fix. The story goes in a surreal direction: the predator, who promised to give the girl back in one piece, returns the unfortunate child with her arms swapped with her legs and her head stitched to her back. She is still alive after this elaborate surgery, her new shape forcing her to scuttle around like a four-legged spider.

Sexually abusive families are one of the collection’s recurring themes. In “Degrees of Separation” a man hires a sex worker to impersonate his deceased daughter. It turns out that this is not to satisfy his own incestuous desires, but those of his son – the dead girl’s twin brother – who “hasn’t been the same since she died.” From here, the escort plays along even as the family saga grows more sordid still. The exposition-focused dialogue gets somewhat clunky, but the narrative is engagingly twisted.

“Home Invasion” is one of the weaker entries in the book. This story is about a man breaking into a woman’s house and raping her; the narrative tries for an out-of-the-frying-pan twist, but this is not quite good enough to justify the exercise. “Casa Fiesta”, about a woman being murdered in Mexico, is similar in that it has absolutely no surprises: much of the plot could be imagined by anyone who has read news reports of real-life murders. The story also gives the underlying feeling that a tale with a Mesoamerican pyramid as a backdrop could have been more inventive.

More interesting are the stories in which the author explores fantasy or science fiction themes. In “First Date” a man who writes vampire fiction comes to date one of his readers, but soon finds that her family is strange enough to rival any of the horrors that he has dreamt up. The plot is straight out of a 1950s EC comic, but the execution – with characters’ life anecdotes to ground the events, offset by bouts of abrupt horror – lends it a feel of its own. “Yersinia-Z” is a post-apocalyptic setting in which most of humanity has been wiped out by disease; the scattered survivors indulge their various appetites: drink, sex, and (in the case of one character) killing and eating people Hannibal Lecter-fashion. “Long Way Home”, a ghost story about a woman returning to her childhood home, stands out for its comparative lightness of touch.

The longest story in the collection is “Deliverance”. This deals with a man who lost his wife and daughter in a car accident; the opening scene, in which the man destroys his garden because he cannot bear to have any beauty after losing his family, is one of the book’s most succinct moments of characterisation. He then begins having words pop into his head – is he going mad, he wonders, or telepathy? – and the story shifts from a portrait of grief to a more physical form of horror. We discover that both his wife and daughter survived the car crash, and we find out what really happened to them…

The book concludes with “Hollywood Ending” in which an antique dealer finds herself and her daughter embroiled in the machinations of a deeply sadistic married couple. The plot meanders and fizzles, but comes alive in minor, quirky details – like the male sadist, an equal-opportunity offender, making a point out of delivering racist death threats to people of every race, even his own.

While not every story in Sinister Mix is successful, the hits come to outnumber the misses. One virtue that stands out is that, despite Brian Bowyer’s reliance on a few recurring themes (and some recurring stylistic tricks, such as the usage of an omniscient narrative voice that makes dry comments on the unfolding violence), the collection sustains a fair amount of variety between stories.

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