Battered, Broken Bodies, ed. Matt Shaw (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)


This is an anthology technically featured twice on the Splatterpunk Awards ballot, as one of its entries – “Sun Poison” by Stephen Kozeniewski – is up for Best Short Story. There is much more to be sampled, however: the book contains wide variety of stories based on the broad theme of bodily violation.

As extreme horror often blends gore with sex, it should not come as a surprise that a number of the stories deal with intercourse and reproduction gone wrong. John Athan’s “The Gift” is about a man who, for his own reasons, actually wants to acquire HIV. He ends up paying a large sum for access to an exclusive brothel where the workers host an exotic variety of STDs, the symptoms of which are described in loving detail (typical line: “It took him a moment to realize that her scabs had fallen off”). Matt Shaw’s “The Chicken and the Egg” is a two-part story in which a porn actress finds herself struggling to perform because of stomach cramps. These turn out to be the result of a party trick in which she swallowed a whole boiled egg: somehow, one such egg has caused her to become pregnant. The second part deals with her attempts to get healthcare. Weirder still is Duncan Ralston’s “Bait”, in which a woman gets a call from a friend who needs help. The relationship between the two characters is well-drawn enough for the story to sell a bizarre premise: as it happens, the friend’s predicament arises from an unfortunate situation involving a human corpse and a sexually-transmitted symbiont.

Overlapping with all of this are the themes of surgical procedures and medical malpractice. “Doctor Goodhew’s Method” by old guard Shaun Hutson sees a man with cancer sign up for an experimental treatment that is administered orally – and not in the usual sense. “Growth” by J. R. Park is a second-person story in which the main character (“you”) has undergone a surgical procedure. The narrative follows the character’s anxiety-ridden thoughts as they wonder what shape their body has been left in. “Feedback Loop” by Christine Morgan is one of the weaker surgery-gone-wrong stories, focusing on an anti-transgender activist who undergoes cosmetic surgery and gets more than she signed up for; there is little plot here, with the premise really just the framework for a rant about TERFs.

The stories in the anthology are often at their best when they embrace all-out weirdness. In Mark Cassell’s “The Incident at Trent Home” a schoolboy visits his grandmother in a nursing home, only to find that something has caused the residents to merge together into a fused, gooey mass – that still lives. Chandler Morrison’s “Superficial Harmonies” describes one man’s seriously bad trip after he drops acid and sees his college surroundings become a nightmare. Ryan Harding’s “Homecoming” follows a man with various familial and medical problems as he returns to his childhood home, where he is forced to confront both his memories of traumatic abuse and a grotesque body-horror hainting.

Kristopher Triana’s “The Garden of Ethan” is about a man developing a large tumour near his genitals, which subsequently sprouts an unnerving set of teeth; this story has all of Triana’s virtues when confronting well-drawn characters with grotesque happenings. “Skin Flick” by Nick Blake suffers from some clunky writing but benefits from dreamlike imagery: a man on holiday with his wife follows a trail on a beach – a trail consisting of the skin peeled from human body parts, snake-fashion.

Jasper Bark’s “Peekabo ICU” is one of the more thoughtful entries. A psychiatrist asks a patient about what appear to be the wounds of self-harm; the patient insists that his body inflicted the wounds itself: “My internal organs hate each other. They’re at war. They make incursion into each other’s territory. They’ve learned how to fashion weapons from other parts of my body. They’re locked in a battle to the death, my death.” This sparks a long medical debate: the doctor attributes the claim to depersonalisation-derealisation disorder, but the patient has worked out an esoteric theory of his own – and a well-earned hatred of big pharma. The skeptical psychiatrist soon finds that his patient’s claims are horribly true.

The weirder stories in the collection often straddle a gap between fantasy and science fiction. “Inside Man” by Rayne Havok fits more neatly into the latter area, depicting a future where people with disabilities can, if they possess both the desire and the money, have their minds transplanted into the bodies of felons on death row. The twist is that the consciousnesses of both people will share the body – but only the newcomer will have control. The story’s narrator has his mind inserted into the body of the man who killed his daughter, purely so that he can get revenge.

In an anthology of this sort, interest in psychology is arguably as important as interest in painful things being done to people’s bodies. This aspect is represented by a selection of stories that deal with what could be termed the culture of extreme bodily violation, exploring the mindset that could drive a person to commit, or subject themselves to, such abuse.

Aron Beauregard’s “The Invisible Path” is the story of a voyage into just such a culture. A man applies for a job as a moderator at a video-sharing website, and is forced to sign an agreement acknowledging that the material he will watch may potentially lead to PTSD. As it happens, his mind is affected not only by the videos themselves (“He stared at the door in front of him, but all he could see was the decapitated baby’s head”) but by the surrounding attitude of his new workplace. He is specifically told not to bother alerting the authorities to any of the atrocities he sees, as this will slow down productivity. – and still more sinister things are occurring further up the ladder.

In “A Threesome with Caricia” by Jonathan Butcher, a man hooks up with a woman who invites him to group sex with her sister – but warns that there will be something unusual. The sex takes place in a dark room, and only when the lights come on does he realise the sister’s secret. Another story of paraphilia is “Drainage” by Wesley Southard, where a dermatologist experiences sexual ecstasy while treating a man with multiple serious skin disorders.

The story that delves deepest into this culture of sex and death is the flamboyantly-titled “A Nec ‘ROMANTIC’ Love Story” by Rowland Bercy Jr. Protagonist Alex is a necrophile (typical line:
“Alex rolled his eyes into the back of his head and sighed but didn’t miss a beat as he continued to hump away at the corpse lying in the casket under him”) who not only has sex with bodies but speaks to them as well, enjoying surreal conversations that may or may not be in his head. When he learns of the existence of forensic body farms he decides to infiltrate one and have corpse after corpse to himself – until we reach the bleakly humorous twist ending.

This brings us to the more playful stories in the anthology: those that tweak, prod and chop up their writing forms just as they do their characters’ bodies. In “Cherry Tree” by Jeff Strand a little girl swallows a cherry stone, and her father tells her that a tree will grow in her stomach. This turns out to be the premise of an urban legend discussed by two narrators, who offer multiple different versions of how the events played out. Sam West’s “Gorehound” is the story of an English teacher disturbed by a student handing in a misogynistic, sadistic diatribe – and suspects that she is the person being fantasised about, providing a story within a story. Also included in the anthology are Matt Shaw’s “Drabbles”: one-paragraph stories in which the book’s crowdfunding backers fall victim to everything from buzzsaws to acid sneezes. The volume concludes with “Krokodil Fights”, a poem about drug abuse by Wrath James Wright.

Battered, Broken Bodies is focused on what must surely be the most basic theme for extreme horror, but it takes the breadth of its premise as an opportunity for variety rather than vagueness, showcasing a good cross-section of contemporary splatterpunk talent.

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