The Night Stockers by Kristopher Triana and Ryan Harding (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)


The year is 1992, and two grocery stores are locked in a rivalry for customers’ wallets. In one corner is Freshway; this is a perfectly normal shop, albeit one with considerable intrigue going on between the staff. Kyle is dating co-worker Mila, but as the latter is a chaste Christian, he is also holding an affair with “teen slut cashier” Stephanie. Elderly Ruby also has her eyes on Stephanie, but for different reasons: she wants to act as a mother figure to the young girl. Running the scene is store manager Todd Brown, who has a Napoleon complex and enjoys pushing around his employees, particularly the douchy janitor Fenton; he contrasts with Booker, the easy-going assistant manager.

Even at their most colourful, however, the staff of Freshway can hardly compare to their rivals at Devil’s Food. Here, we are introduced to a staff that includes Gore, collector of real death videos; deli cutter Eve, who models herself ipon Elizabeth Bathory; Marcel, a meat-cutter with a vampire aesthetic; and Laila, a giggling girl with a fondness for entrails. Calling the shots are metalhead store manager Desmond Payne and the gaunt regional manager, Alaric:

Alaric looked like most anyone in a regional managerial position–palllid skin, withering expression, appropriately soulless eyes. The black cowl might be uncharacteristic, but appropriate attire for him, and strangely formal with the nametag pinned to his breast.

None of this is a mere aesthetic affectation. Devil’s Food is a place where Coca-Cola cans are stacked in inverted-cross formation, while human semen and sacrificial goat’s blood are used to season deli meats. The staff members are devil-worshippers of the sort dreamt up in the Satanic Panic heyday, and will do anything for their master – up to and including human sacrifice. This is made clear in the novel’s prologue, where an I-want-to-speak-to-the-manager customer ends up with her face in the deli slicer.

But offing obnoxious customers is not enough for Devil’s Food. Bent on wiping out their competition, the staff begin arranging a brutal attack on Freshways – and before long, shopping aisles are awash with blood and guts. “Devil’s Food aims to be the most powerful grocery chain in the world”, declares Desmond Payne. “We’ve slashed prices – now we’re slashing souls.”

The Night Stockers, which won the 2022 Splatterpunk Award for Best Novel, has a few things in common with a contender from last year, Pandemonium. Both were co-written by Ryan Harding. Both are love-letters to cult entertainment: Pandemonium mixed pro wrestling with Lamberto Bava’s Demons films, while The Night Stockers is immersed in eighties/early-ninties metal and horror culture. And, underlying all of this, the two novels share a very similar central concept.

Stripped to their barest essentials, Pandemonium and Night Stockers are each based on the same premise: create a gaggle of colourfully over-the-top murderers, put them in a confined location (be it a wrestling arena or a supermarket) with some bystanders capable of fighting back, and watch the blood flow. Like its predecessor, Night Stalkers shows little regard for building a careful plot structure. Once the characters and setting have been established, the novel turns a hosepipe on the reader and lets loose with a thick and heavy deluge of gore. This, of course, is entirely appropriate for a book so bent on celebrating the excesses of death metal and splatter films.

The Satanists are the sort who play Carcass’ “Crepitating Bowel Erosion” while committing their atrocities, with the likes of Deicide, Morbid Angel, Death, Mortician, Dismember, Slayer, Obituary, Malevolent Creation, Immolation and Dio also being invoked over the course of the novel. Fashion could hardly be left out, and Night Stockers obliges with choice descriptions of its characters’ wardrobes: “Priscilla wore a shirt with the classic wood etching of Vlad the Impaler and carried a claw hammer, with carpenter nails stuck through the bun of her brown hair”.

One of the killers, Gore, is identified as a graduate of the Fangoria school of horror fandom, having left the likes of Argento Fulci, Buttgereit and Charles-Bronsonsploitation behind in favour of still sicker thrills. Yet he still pays homage to horror films through his choice of weapons, with Bloodsucking Freaks and Driller Killer inspiring him to slay using a portable drill and Dawn of the Dead showing him just what can be achieved with a humble screwdriver. The good guys are also able to draw upon violent entertainment for inspiration, as when Stephanie fights off an attacking rapist with a move picked up from her WWE-obsessed brothers.

This love of subcultural reference points extends well beyond the characters and into the entire third-person narrative voice, as when we read that “Desmond’s truck had obliterated the storefront like a Pete Sandoval blastbeat, ‘Ripped to Shreds’ level”. Elsewhere, the prose habitually makes comparisons to seventies-eighties genre films, with Duel, Ghostbusters, Willow, Big Trouble in Little China, Mad Max and The Warriors being amongst those brought up.

None of this is meant to be taken too seriously: Night Stockers headbangs with its tongue in its cheek. Set in an era when cutouts of Bart Simpson promote Butterfingers, the novel acknowledges just how dated some of the period’s pop-cultural transgressions seem today, as when its characters discuss the once-shocking Mortal Kombat (“You could rip out a motherfucker’s spine, which made it so much more hardcore than stuff like Street Fighter”).

A running gag is derived from the deadly rivalry between metal and grunge. One character predicts that grunge “isn’t, like, just some passing fad for Generation X” and that Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, Layne Staley and Scott Weiland will “be rockin’ out well into their 80s!” (The character in question is subsequently murdered by a gang of metalheads). On a less frivolous note, the novel also has some strong words about the real-life Satanic Panic, with Stephanie contrasting the fake stories about ritual abuse in daycare centres or Dungeons & Dragons sending kids to hell with the very real (but, of course, entirely fictional) activities of Devil’s Food.

As mentioned earlier, much of this is similar to Ryan Harding’s earlier collaboration, Pandemonium. The contribution of Kristopher Triana – an author fond of exploring twisted sexual connections in novels like They All Died Screaming and Toxic Love – can, perhaps, be identified in the various warped relationships between the characters of Night Stockers.

In this respect, the novel shows a willingness to vary the tone. Rather than end-to-end sleaze, it allows glimpses of normal sexuality and relationships to shine through, like adverts for household cleaning products airing in the middle of an MTV metalthon. We glimpse twelve-year-old Jamie’s rite-of-passage encounter with a humble Playboy magazine, and are allowed to empathise with the older, more conservative Ruby feeling desire to protect teenage Stephanie from negative influences.

And then we have the subplot of Darla, a pregnant Freshway employee. Darla’s condition is, for a stretch of the novel, treated with rather more tact and seriousness than the cartoonish gore that surrounds it. When Darla and her unborn infant reach their inevitable fate at the hands of the Satanists, the incident stands out as the single most horrific moment in the story: for once, a murder has a convincing human cost. This is unusual for Night Stalkers, where the death scenes reduce victims to prosthetic props in a music video – albeit a very stylish music video:

The blade still in, Antonio pushed on the little man’s head with his slick-proof shoe, pulled the cleaver back, and the head spilled off the neck, connected by a tendril of flesh like a wilting flower. Crimson jets exploded from the severed arteries on both sides in a shower-nozzle spray straight out of Shogun Assassin. Blood mixed with the detergent like some morbid water park ride.

By and large, the individual characters and their relationships matter little once they have been reduced to identical piles of bleeding offal. The point of Night Stockers is to pile on murder after murder, violation after violation, letting the situations and participants grow in absurdity until the time the shopfloor bloodbath is joined by a pair of katana-wielding conjoined twins (“with tits so bitchin’ they’d look right at home on the cover of Heavy Metal magazine”).

Really, the fact that the phrase “decapitated head” is used multiple times says a lot about the book in terms of both style and subject matter. But what The Night Stockers lacks in subtlety and finesse, it makes up for with its sheer, palpable enthusiasm for a bygone (some might say less jaded) era of transgressive media. The sharp sense of humour, which remains present right up to a satirical dig at police racism during the finale, adds to its appeal.

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