Don’t Go to Wheelchair Camp by David Irons (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)


The year is 1978, and sisters Tammy and Terri Wilcox are on a road trip with their parents: these are “a dad who was so cheap that the only reason one of them existed is that he tried to reuse one of his old condoms” and “a mother who would reply to being told that she apologized too much with, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way!’” While Terri is left alone in the car, her resentment at various different people (her school bullies, her abusive father, the two drunken jerks currently in front of the vehicle) prompts her to throw a tantrum. In her rage she accidentally dislodges the handbrake, and the car rolls backwards into a truck – with Tammy caught between the two.

Terri survives the incident that killed her sister but retains scars both internal and external. Five years later, the parents of the now-teenage Terri decide to send her to wheelchair camp, but any hope she has of escaping bullies is soon quashed: one of the first people she meets on her trip is bus driver Leonard Randell, who previously got in trouble with mistreating a disabled child and now contents himself with verbal than physical abuse. Then, after the group finally arrives at wheelchair camp, they find that a murderer has joined them…

Don’t Go to Wheelchair Camp has its roots in slasher films, and makes no bones about this. The title beginning with “don’t”, the cover that evokes classic slasher posters and the setting of the eighties (the genre’s heyday) are all details calculated to place wheelchair camp somewhere between Camp Crystal Lake and Haddonfield in the fictional landscape. Every slasher needs a villain, and the novel wastes no time in setting up potential culprits: could it be Leonard, the unhinged bus-driver who has already threatened multiple teenagers? Or perhaps there is truth to the rumours that the area was once home to Old Man Higgins, “one step away from being full-on Hills Have Eyes”, who supposedly murdered his wife?

Given the novel’s eagerness to embrace slasher convention, then, some readers may be surprised to find that it takes more than a third of the novel before the murders begin.

Until the killings start, Don’t Go to Wheelchair Camp is a study of troubled teenagers in the context of the eighties – a pre-PC era when, apparently, bus drivers could openly threaten young passengers – and filtered through an eighties-film aesthetic. Upon meeting her new acquaintances, Terri becomes fascinated with Tommy, a knife-wielding delinquent; it turns out that Tommy was injured in an accident that claimed the life of his brother – mirroring Terri’s own backstory. Another boy, nicknamed Beethoven for his skill with a Casio keyboard, once had a reputation as the resident tough-kid and resents newcomer Tommy for stealing his thunder. Other boys at the camp include Short Circuit, a video game enthusiast; Slugger, whose disability put paid to his dream of becoming a baseball star; and Hot Wheels, the only black kid in the group.

The female members of the camp, meanwhile, include the resident clique of mean girls. They are led by Mercedes, who Terri identifies as the top of the hierarchy:

The other girls all honked their appreciation. None of them were as perfect as Mercedes with her Botticelli angel features and golden, flowing hair, but they tried. They were more like Corvettes with good wax jobs – but they were no Mercedes. Terri could already feel the built-in hierarchy established with the girls. Mercedes was top dog: she sat in her perfectly polished wheelchair atop the scrap pile of the other twisted frames.

The camp’s authority figures are no better than its quota of bullies. One of the counsellors, nicknamed Love Muscle, shares cocaine with his co-workers; hurls racist and homophobic abuse with abandon; and starts a wildly inappropriate relationship with Mercedes. Contrasting with the openly bigoted Love Muscle is the head girls’ counsellor Cassie, “the classic case of Champagne socialism, living at the top and preaching to the bottom.” Cassie is just as prejudiced as her male counterpart Love Muscle, but tries to hide this behind a paper-thin veneer of liberalism:

A flash of rage reddened Cassie’s face. ‘I don’t know why you have to always lower yourselves. Especially you, Reggie. Isn’t life hard enough, being in a wheelchair?’ The voice in Cassie’s head added, ‘And being black?’ Luckily the words never met her lips.
On some level, as Hot Wheels stared into Cassie’s face, he sensed the words she hadn’t said, knowing that’s what she really meant. It wasn’t always the words snobbish white people said, it was more how they said their words that held the hidden truth.

Having taken the time to set up these characters and their network of twisted relationships, the novel eventually switches to full slasher mode and begins picking them off through various gruesome means. One victim is found in the local pond, still bound to his wheelchair, his body “so fat and pregnant with the water of Black River Pond as it was with death itself.” Another character is electrocuted and ends up “looking like an overcooked hamburger left in a microwave.” Still another has a Fargo-esque run-in with a woodchipper, the results of which are described in graphic detail.

The novel’s length gives it more space to play with structure than a typical slasher film. Towards its climax, it deploys some neat tricks to keep up the pace: minor characters long dropped from the narrative make surprise returns; an extended flashback sequence fills in the backstory; and the killer’s identity is kept tantalisingly out of reach even as multiple characters perish in face-to-face encounters.

How much Don’t Go to Wheelchair Camp succeeds will depend not only on the reader’s stomach for guts and gore but also their tolerance for the characters’ dialogue. The teens communicate in pop culture references and one-line put-downs that fizzle out at least as often as they zing: “Look at this oversized Lenny from Of Mice and Men motherfucker,” says Hot Wheels of Slugger. “His mama is so fat, she sat on a rainbow, and Skittles came out!” Elsewhere, Mercedes laments that “[w]e got a dead dork in the pond, Terri and Tommy’s freak-show, fuck-fest outside, and I‘m stuck in here with a pair of dykey-looking leg-walkers who look like they eat more pussy than cervical cancer!”

To a reader who expects slick, polished dialogue, this may come across as cringeworthy. But unrefined is not necessarily unrealistic, and the characters’ clumsy, over-hostile attempts to articulate themselves do have a certain credibility to them. This impression is strengthened by the well-earned adolescent frustrations shining through between the barbs and jabs, as when Terri delivers a speech to one of the counsellors:

“We all have our place here, and out little tracks we roll around and have to stick to. We have to follow the rules you made for us and do what you tell us to do. You’ve made this place so safe for us that anything outside the rules you set sets off alarm bells. We’re the troubled kids, we’re the kids who have the problems – so you treat us like it must be our fault. It couldn’t be our lovely bus driver or our lovely counsellors who have a problem; it has to be our problem – the kids’ problem.”

Not that the novel was conceived as an authentic portrayal of gen-X youth in turmoil. For all of its playful attitude towards formula, the novel ends up very much within slasher tradition, and the killer – when finally unmasked – turns out to be driven by the pulpy pseudo-psychology so beloved by every scriptwriter who watched Psycho and decided that vampires and werewolves were yesterday’s news. But while the films that inspired it typically arose from a desire to imitate a hit and make a buck, Don’t Go to Wheelchair Camp oozes a sincere affection for the genre, even in its trashier manifestations. Had this book been a film in the eighties it may well have become a cult classic.

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