Midnight in the Graveyard (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

52948330._SX318_SY475_This anthology of ghost stories opens with two tales that, while very different, each succeed in creating a dense, oppressive atmosphere. “Devil’s Dip” by Shannon Felton is about a bitterly disappointed man who gets a call from an old friend, reminding him of a teenage incident on a reputedly haunted stretch of highway. Meanwhile, in Chad Lutzke’s “Tug O’ War” a bleakly unromanticised depiction of a dying man surrounded by his loved ones is followed by a climactic séance going horribly wrong.

The next few stories are gentler, although they tend to reach macabre conclusions. In “Euphemia Christie” a student becomes obsessed with a local grave, but faces hostility when she investigates the life of its occupant. “Justin’s Favorite” by Jeremy Hepler is the story of a woman who, while alone in her new home, meets a malevolent spirit with a connection to her partner. Todd Keisling’s novelette-length “Holes in the Fabric” examines the aftermath of a religious sect’s mass suicide, with a woman being forced to revisit bad memories and confront her religious faith when she meets the ghost of a childhood friend who joined the order. Kenneth W. Cain ‘s “Dog Days” is an epistolary narrative set in a house where, for decades, dogs have gone mad; the letters that make up the story turn out to have been written by now-dead occupants. Then comes Hunter Shea’s “Drown”, about two paranormal investigators visiting a haunted bed and breakfast.

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The Big Book of Blasphemy (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

BigBookBlasHot on the heels of And Hell Followed we have another religiously-provocative anthology, The Big Book of Blasphemy. The volume includes a total of thirty stories, including the Best Short Story finalists “Norwegian Woods” by Jeremy Wagner and “Angelbait” by Ryan Harding.

The anthology opens with “Faith”, a short piece in which the late Charlee Jacob gives a typically poetic, dreamlike and opaque treatment of the blasphemy theme. She takes the topic of martyrdom as a prism through which to examine male violence against women and children, the sex lives of saints, the concept of free will, and the idea of a mother goddess. All in all, a good introduction to the collection and its recurring motifs.

There are devils aplenty in The Big Book of Blasphemy, from the disfigured nun who welcomes a doomed army ambulance driver in Lucas Magnum’s “Sister Scar” to the demons in Ryan Harville’s “Selling Salvation” who take on the forms of a grotesque male predator and an unearthly temptress to put the faith of two Christian teenagers to the test. Angels are present, as well, if not always in reassuring form: “Sweeter than Honey, More Precious than Diamonds” by Mark Mills is a brief, surreal story that opens with the sentence “The rest of the congregation wanted to rape the angel before they ate it, but Fenton was having none of that” and continues along similar lines.

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And Hell Followed (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

43351589._SY475_And Hell Followed is an anthology with a premise that is simultaneously obvious and irresistible. The various authors featured have all derived their inspiration from a single text — one filled with depictions of worldwide violence and hallucinogenic weirdness; one ripe with potential for spiritual insights and shameless iconoclasm. That text, of course, is the Book of Revelation.

The anthology opens with Sam West’s “The Whore of Babylon”, a relatively tame story that works as something of an appetiser. While visiting a nightclub, a horror author with the Bunyanesque name of John Christian is approached by a busty blonde bombshell proclaiming herself to be the Whore of Babylon. Is she a gold-digger, wannabe writer, religious fanatic, or the real thing? The story becomes a brisk character study as the novelist has his insecurities and anxieties laid bare by this personification of the end times.

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Dig Two Graves: An Anthology of Revenge (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

DigTwoGravesThe title says it all, really: each one of the stories in Dig Two Graves involves revenge. How do the assembled writers approach this theme? Read on…

Some of the stories play upon everyday annoyances, as when a sociopathic waiter finds that unpleasant customers are dying one by one in “A Waiter’s Revenge” by Justin Boote. Others are more elaborate and disorienting, as with Feind Gottes’ Saw-esque story “The Forgiven Ghost in Me” in which a man wakes up to find that he has been trapped in a box by an unseen tormenter.

The stories have a varied range of settings. Christine Morgan contributes the historical novelette “Odin’s Eagle”, in which solid characterisation, layers of period detail and brutal violence combine for a gripping story about a teenage Viking and his family seeking vengeance against a rival chieftain. Meanwhile, “Murdock’s Magnificent Emporium” by Sean Seebach is a western-style story set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where a snake oil salesman and his companion end up in the sights of some seriously dissatisfied customers.

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Dead Sea Chronicles by Tim Curran (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

DeadSeaChroniclesDead Sea Chronicles is a collection of two novellas, “Weed-World” and “Devil in the Deep”, each set in the universe of Tim Curran’s 2007 novel Dead Sea. Not having read the original book, I came to this follow-up with no particular expectations.

“Weed-World” opens with the private jet of wealthy playboy Marcus Dupont breaking down in the middle the ocean and having to make an emergency landing on the sea’s surface. Marcus and his band – his secretary Ava, his yes-man Brice, his pilot Bisson and the story’s everyman protagonist Ethan – find themselves in a strange area where there is no wind, and the water is coated with dead seaweed of various unusual varieties. It soon turns out that dangerous creatures lurk beneath the thick weed – as Bisson, who tries to swim to the plane’s life-raft, learns the hard way when an unseen monster pulls him below the depths.

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Resisting Madness by Wesley Southard (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

ResistingMadnessResisting Madness is a collection of stories by Wesley Southard, whose novella One for the Road is also up for a Splatterpunk Award. As is to be expected from a collection that stretches back into the author’s early days, the book gets off to a shaky start. It opens with Southard’s first published story, “With Many Thanks to Newark”, in which a horror writer (a fairly transparent self-insertion) ends up on a plane filled with vampires: individual scenes have merit, but the overall plot is weak. Next is “Arrearages”, about an abusive man who wakes to find that the various women he has wronged are calling him via mobile phones that they implanted in his body. This is more effective but, like many EC Comics-style horror stories of ironic revenge, falls apart once the reader starts thinking about it – just how did they insert those telephones without him noticing?

After these early, rougher stories, we see Southard becoming more confident in his work while maintaining his fondness for absurd scenarios, sick jokes and broadly-rendered protagonists. “Minor Leaguer” is about a man tied to a goal in an ice-rink, where an unhinged hockey layer tries to torture answers out of him. “Between Those Walls” is a jailbreak story that segues into horror when the prison turns out to have a macabre secret. “King Cake”, which sees a group of bickering siblings get together to honour their departed mother only to find an unpleasant surprise in the cake, is an example of Southard’s skill at sketching out his characters.

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Various States of Decay by Matt Hayward (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

52960593._SX318_SY475_Note: I posted this review before it was widespread knowledge that author Matt Hayward was a harasser (see here and here for background). My comments on his book should in no way be taken as an endorsement of his behaviour.

Here we have a story collection that thrives on the idea that things are not always as they seem, in which high strangeness lurks between cracks in the everyday. This theme can be found across the individual stories, but it is also evident in the collection itself. What initially seems like a set of conventional horror tales turns out to be something more oddball and idiosyncratic.

To start with the comparatively familiar, Hayward shows that he is unafraid to homage past masters. “Where the Wild Winds Blow” reads like a sort of inebriated Poe story: a drink-driver hits a homeless man and is haunted by guilt as he tries to get back to his girlfriend. “Mutt” is a take on the Dorian Gray theme, its main character a boy from a broken home who moves to a new house with his mother, where he adopts a stray puppy; years pass, the mother develops health problems, but the dog remains a frisky young pup.

“The Call of the Children” explores Cronenbergian body horror. A boy hears from the local bullies that his missing brother has been found; he follows them to an abandoned house, only to find that his brother and the bullies are controlled by a strange slug-like creature. “Comes with the Rain” covers similar ground, the main character finding his dog weirdly drained and dehydrated by some sort of leech – which can also affect humans.

Some of the stories use settings created by other writers. “Dark Stage” was written for the Welcome to the Show anthology, in which all the stories involved a cursed bar; Hayward depicts a strange, ghoulish visitor taking the stage in an open mic night. Meanwhile, “Bangers and Mash” has J. F. Gonzales’ Clickers arriving in Northern Ireland, where they become a sought-after delicacy.

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Dirty Rotten Hippies and Other Stories by Bryan Smith (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

DirtyRottenHippiesThis collection kicks off with its title novella “Dirty Rotten Hippies”, which takes up nearly a third of book. The story depicts a music festival being hit by a new drug called Delight that brings a great high, followed by an existential low, and finally turns the victim into a zombie. Mayhem ensues, and comes to embroil a range of characters who happen to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time: elderly Dan Ferguson, a man old enough to remember the first wave of hippies; his gun-toting wife Helen; Travis Kincaid, a college student with a love of the sixties counterculture; Oscar Perez, a music journalist; and Kyle Bile, a rock star with a grudge against Oscar. Things get even crazier when it turns out that the zombies are not the only flesh-eaters in the area: Travis falls into a trap set by a clan of cannibal meth-heads.

The novella’s cartoonish ethos can be found in a number of the collection’s other stories. In “Chainsaw Sex Maniacs from Mars”, backwoods America is invaded by coverall-clad grey alien rednecks (“Gonna blow a load of Martian spunk up yonder blondie’s poophole”). “Some Crazy Fucking Shit that Happened One Day” sees its protagonist argue with his former-porn-actress girlfriend before falling in with a busload of seductive cheerleaders; but this dream scenario comes with a catch, as the cheerleaders are devil-worshippers plotting a chainsaw-based ritual to resurrect a band of Nazi zombies. In his introduction, Bryan Smith reveals that he wrote the story in under 24 hours after his Facebook followers decided the subject matter via a poll.

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This is a Horror Book by Charles Austin Muir (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

ThisisahorrorbookWith a history as a horror author, hip-hop artist, competitive powerlifter and self-proclaimed sorcerer, Charles Austin Muir is quite a character. It is hard to argue, then, with his decision to make himself the central character of This is a Horror Book.

The collection opens with its title story, in which Muir – after snapping out of a sexual fantasy involving Charlize Theron – finds a mysterious antique book lying in the ground for the taking. This elaborately-bound volume turns out to be a combination of intricate puzzles and evil texts (think along the lines of Evil Dead meets Hellraiser) and so the author and his buddy spend a drunken Halloween night summoning monsters from horror films. The story is a fond send-up of both horror iconography and dudebro culture:

When two guys get together, their intelligence quotients drop by half. When you give them alcohol and a national reason to watch horror movies, their intelligence quotients drop by another half. When you give them an evil book, their intelligence quotients drop by another half. That doesn’t leave much intelligence to spare—but enough to launch doomsday, unfortunately.

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Dawn of the Living-Impaired and Other Messed-Up Zombie Stories by Christine Morgan (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

LivingImpairedThis collection of nine zombie tales from Splatterpunk Awards regular Christine Morgan gets off to a humorous start with its title story, “Dawn of the Living-Impaired”. Zombies are running rampant, but the military can handle them – that is, until the Zombie Rights Movement intervenes, arguing that the walking dead can be rehabilitated. The story depicts a TV news debate between a military official and a psychiatrist who supports zombie rights; although opening as a parody of political correctness (“Whenever someone refers to someone else as ‘dead meat,’ or claims to be ‘dead on their feet,’ it reflects poorly on our clients”) the narrative evolves into something rather different. The central conceit is the development of an appetite-suppressing patch that, theoretically, can be used to turn zombies into productive members of society, perhaps even retaining memories of their loved ones. The reader is first invited to scoff, and then to take the idea seriously – even if doomed to fail, the scheme seems tragic rather than laughable.

“Seven Brains, Ten Minutes” is another story where gross-out humour is offset by a poignant touch. The narrator is a young man who has survived the zombie apocalypse by pretending to be a zombie himself; as he reluctantly prepares to keep up appearances by tucking into a human brain, he reminisces about how the zombie apocalypse started – and the friends he lost. While all of this culminates in a sick-joke punchline, the story does manage a considerable degree of emotional weight.

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