The Maddening is the third book in Carver Pike’s Diablo Snuff series, or the fifth if we also count the side-stories Passion & Pain and Slaughter Box (and there is little reason not to do so, particularly given that the author advises us to read all four prior books before starting The Maddening).
The novel opens at a town in Mexico where partygoers on spring break are surrounded by vice and temptation. One character, Devin, goes to see an erotic circus performance with a friend; here, he encounters sexy tightrope-walker Secreta. He soon faces more than just a conflict between his Mormon faith and the town’s fleshpots, however. When the lights go out, the killings begin: the circus was organised by Diablo Snuff, a secretive and powerful organisation whose atrocities blend sex and homicide, and Secreta is just one of their lethal agents.
Secreta’s adventures in Mexico turn out to be just the first of several vignettes that open The Maddening. The next chapters play with a topic that has long haunted the horror genre: the exact relationship between fictional violence and real-life atrocities.
This theme is explored via the next group of characters to be introduced. First, we meet a gaggle of bong-loving Seattle geeks who revere an ecological science fiction novel called Apostle of the Stars, and end up committing an elaborate group murder-suicide in imitation of that story’s climax. Elsewhere, a dominatrix kills herself – along with the entire population of an underground sex club – in homage to her favourite BDSM novel. Still another self-destructive killer takes his cue from a violent crime novel called Bullet Riddled Flesh. Meanwhile, a work of militant feminist fiction entitled Lactatic Acid inspires numerous women to commit acts of mutilation and suicide as the ultimate rejoinder to misogynistic men.
All of the authors involved in this phenomenon share one thing in common: each one belonged to a writer’s retreat called The Grand Georgina. One of the novel’s main characters, T.K. Tantrum, is another member of this retreat, and is disturbed to see the violence dreamt up by his colleagues seemingly bleeding into reality. He is still more dismayed when he runs into his own fanatical readership, who hurl Molotov cocktails in an effort to bring about what they call “the Maddening”.
Here, the novel’s examination of extreme subculture segues from cult literature to social media: the Maddening turns out to be a phenomenon where violent youngters commit murders on video courtesy of Diablo Snuff’s very own TikTok-like app. Thanks to the app, clothing-store manager Melissa Clamp is able to launch a double life as Trixie Treats, saying goodbye to her old existence with a Black Friday sale. Her unlucky customers find razor-sharp surprises hidden inside discount clothes. “Just like the novel by T.K. Tantrum foretold, today was the start of The Maddening”, she gloats. “Even a fiction author couldn’t write the likes of Trixie Treats.”
Trixie develops a rivalry with Killjoy the Entertainer, a homicidal Day of the Dead-themed drag queen with a fondness for slaying victims in the throes of gay sex. There are many other stars on the DS app – including Hatred’s Hag, who commits murders in a witch mask while viewers place votes on which captive should be killed first – but Killjoy and Trixie are the focal points, and the only ones to take part in the circle of first-person narrators.
This phenomenon evolves from Fight Club to The Purge (both of which are directly mentioned by the characters) as the underground murders spread into nationwide chaos, with entire cities falling to would-be stars of the DS app. But there are also good guys amidst the mayhem: T.K. Tantrum falls in with Psalm 71, a group made up of protagonists from past books in the series. With his new allies Sammy, Mia, Michael and Kong, plus a few new characters who have survived attacks from Diablo Snuff’s devotees, he must confront this conspiracy-cult head-on and help to destroy it for good.
A later – and unrelated – novel by Carver Pike, Faces of Beth, has a thought-provoking introduction in which Brian Keene muses about where Pike’s work fits into the genre spectrum. Keene draws a distinction between splatterpunk (which pushes boundaries to explore social issues) and extreme horror (which pushes boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries). He then argues that Pike is able to straddle both subgenres, like a band that can draw upon both punk and metal: “Carver Pike is Motorhead. He’s motherfucking Motorhead, gang.”
This is evident in The Maddening. On the one hand, the book is a celebration of all-out mayhem and destruction. To pick just one of many examples, here is a scene in which Killjoy narrates an attack on a nightclub with caustic powder, relishing the casual brutality:
Into the camera, I yelled, “I’m pretty sure that won’t kill them, but it will hurt like hell.”
One woman dropped to her knees and raked at her eyeballs. She’d been one of the really high ones and must have looked up at the powder as it fell.
A young man with a backwards ball cap on screamed as his lips bubbled
They were all completely soaked with water and the powder was reacting exactly as I’d hoped. Even better. I could see women in spaghetti straps with shoulders frying
At the same time, the novel is clearly interested in exploring social issues. We have already seen how the early chapters, dealing with homicidal literary fan-cults, play with the age-old debates over violent fiction. The introduction of the DS app allows a similarly dark-humoured treatment of social media and e-celebs, as the assorted youthful killers discuss the points they earn for their atrocities: “I told you, a baby bashed against a wall. That got me twelve.”
Unusually for a novel in this genre, The Maddening has explicitly Christian overtones. This is not simply because the book uses concepts like demons and hell – which is common enough in horror – but in the preachy quality of its social commentary.
Kong states that, in finding allies for Psalm 21, most of his supporters came from the church: “the Catholic church and other Christian churches believed in demons, exorcisms, and the reality of true evil. That made us all part of the same team.” One of his religious allies is Nina, who delivers a speech about Satan’s hold on society: “It’s why people of different races have been so eager to have a go at each other. It’s why something as simple as political parties can incite such violent clashes. Satan’s fire has been stoked in people for so long they’ve forgotten God’s light can extinguish it with a snap of his fingers.”
Even more forthright is the moment where T.K. Tantrum, acting as narrator, outlines exactly how Diablo Snuff is corrupting the world:
Diablo Snuff has its hands in everything.
It’s the creepy librarians keeping tabs on the written word and pushing dark material to the masses.
It’s the few bad cops interspersed among the good to incite riots among the common folk.
It’s the crooked politicians making irrational decisions to further drive destruction and harvest hatred.
It’s the phone companies coming out with bigger, better and ridiculously expensive new devices that encourage you to record every rude act, share each insensitive situation, and make wrongdoings go viral – instead of letting go and letting peace spread further than hate.
It’s the leaders of religious organizations who seem to spread fear among their congregation and preach separation rather than the need to embrace nonbelievers and foster good tidings for all.
It’s the fishing for findings that would further infuriate those who’d be much more mellow if they weren’t forced to consider every possible past blunder the average person would never normally ponder.
The Maddening is at its weakest when it tries to detail specific social ills. The above starts out as an unconvincing attempt to paint the establishment as a network of basically good institutions suffering from a few bad interlopers, and ends up as a rant about Twitter.
The novel gets better results when it uses its demonic themes as a basis for surreal imagery. This comes to the fore in the second half of the story, where the heroes arrive at the headquarters of Diablo Snuff. Like Baum’s Wizard of Oz, the building shows a different external appearance to each member of the band: Kong sees the warehouse where he was brought in his past encounter with Diablo Snuff; Sammy sees the cinema where her own ordeal began, and so forth. Each of these buildings burnt to the ground earlier in the series; but, as Sammy observes, the Devil controls the flames.
This is just an appetiser for the high strangeness that exists inside. At the very centre of Diablo Snuff’s operations is a room that appears to be made out of flesh and hair. This is where the cult’s acolytes worship their demon-mother, Lilith – and, more than that, the room actually is Lilith. Her giant limbs act as columns; her torso forms a ceiling, with chandeliers hanging from her breasts like a stripper’s tassels; and her head and genitals are located at either end of the room. Hapless visitors to the inner sanctum tend not to piece together the spectacle until it is too late, however: “With a sudden, violent jerk, the hand slammed me downward and shoved me face first into the slit in the wall, right into her pulsating pussy.”
The entire Diablo Snuff series comes across as a determined effort to create the ultimate splatterpunk antagonist. This is an ambitious aim, and the five books have at times struggled to do their central idea justice. Whatever its shortcomings, The Maddening – with its orgies of violence, its satires of social media and cult literature, and its genuinely nightmarish climax – comes closer than its predecessors in achieving the series’ goal.