Beyond Reform is a three-author collection in which Aron Beauregard, Jasper Bark and Jon Athan provide two stories each. Amongst the contents is Aron Beauregard’s tale of serial-killer fandom “The Martini Club”, which is also up for Best Short Story and has been covered elsewhere.
Aron Beauregard’s other contribution is the title story “Beyond Reform”, which follows a drug dealer named Marcus who abducts a pregnant woman only to find that she was actually bait for a trap. Soon, Marcus is facing retribution, with both his own drugs and his own sadistic predilections turned against him. Elements of torture films like Saw and the slasher genre are relocated to a gangland setting, as when Marcus’ nemesis lunges out from behind a shower curtain to slay one of his targets (although, since this is splatterpunk, he also takes the time to shove his victim’s head down the unflushed toilet). The plot reaches a twist ending of the more twisted variety.
Jon Athan enters the book with “Tortured Until Proven Innocent”. Here, a sexual predator tries to hook up with a 13-year-old girl online, only to find that he has (like our previous anti-hero Marcus) been lured into a trap. His captors are the parents of missing children, convinced that he is holding their kids hostage and willing to torture answers out of him. Most of the story is taken up by two tracks of ever-deepening, stomach-churning detail – one concerning the protagonist’s sexual proclivities, the other concerning the torture to which he is subjected – and derives a degree of tension from just how bad the predator is. While he is clearly a nasty piece of work, there is a possibility early on that the vigilantes have got the wrong man, and that their victim is not quite as bad as he has been painted; but then comes the alternative possibility that he is even worse than they had imagined. The twist ending makes some thoughtful points about exploitation culture.
Athan also contributes “Dead But Alive”, which uses that favourite splatterpunk theme of the necrophile mortician. Where Beauregard’s stories set up elaborate crime-and-punishment scenarios, Athan seems more interested in character sketches centred on outright depravity: in this case, the main plot is simply an exercise in seeing how far he sinks, even as he grapples with his inner shame and guilt.
And so we are left with the remaining author, Jasper Bark, who provides the collection’s quota of supernatural stories. His first entry in the book is “Midnight Glory”, which opens with a description of a husband and wife inflicting acts of casual sadism upon one another:
John picked up his knife and fork and inhaled deeply. “My dear, you’ve outdone yourself. Even your mother couldn’t make a worse meal.”
“My mother’s dead.”
“Which makes her more responsive than you in the bedroom.”
“Well, you’re welcome to exhume her if you’re a little lonely, sweetheart. Just be sure not to use the good sheets.”
“They won’t smell worse than when you’ve used them, darling.”
Jessica picked up a steak knife. “Silly me, I’ve forgotten a vital ingredient.” Before John could react, she lunged forward and drove the tip of the knife into his left eye socket.
All injuries they share will quickly heal, however, as the couple have supernatural regenerative abilities. A series of flashbacks show how they transformed from a loving pair of mortals to their present state; this was brought about by a wish-granting object which, like so many wish-granting objects, does not necessarily bestow waht the user had in mind. It also happens to be a mummified penis that both husband and wife used in acts of adulterous necrophilia, which accounts for the breakdown in their relationship.
Bark’s “A Most Chemical Wedding”, which closes the book, has a protagonist investigating a series of bizarre murders linked to the Hillview Tower fire (an obvious fictional stand-in for the Grenfell Tower fire). The fourteenth and most recent victim is Beth Madeley, the official who approved the flammable cladding that led to the disaster. The leading theory is that a left-wing vigilante was responsible – but a peculiar twist is that Beth appears to have been slain not by a human but by a wild beast, with her throat torn out. The investigator is aided by the fact that she can see and communicate with ghosts; and once she arrives at the site of the fire, there are plenty of ghosts waiting for her.
This plot thread alternates with scenes written from the perspective of Beth Madeley’s ghost, as both characters become caught in the machinations of an alchemist. In a time when urban fantasies are generally still assumed to be derived in some way from Buffy, Angel or Supernatural, this story harks back to a much earlier model – namely, the occult detective genre from the beginning of the twentieth century – and does a successful job of reviving the form, incorporating as it does the graphic violence and broad social commentary of splatterpunk.
Beyond Reform is a collection that emphasises the punk half of splatterpunk, and an irreverent sense of humour runs through. Sometimes this manifests as an overbearing edginess: the title story includes copious ugly sentiments about race and disability (coming, it should be stressed, from the characters rather than the author) while “Tortured Until Proven Innocent” edges into stereotypical territory by making its paedophile character Japanese. Other times, however, the trait takes the form of an endearing mischievousness as in “Midnight Glory”, or genuine social conscience as in “A Most Chemical Wedding”. Between them, the six short stories form a good cross-section of contemporary splatterpunk, showing a few of the genre’s weaknesses but also many of its strengths.