Bella’s Boys: A Tale of Cosmic Horror by Thomas R. Clark (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

BellasBoysIn March 1993 metal singer Corey Collins meets the girl of his dreams at a karaoke bar in the small New York town of Fenton. Named Sandy “Btella” Bellavia, she captures Corey’s attention not only with her physical beauty but also her badges honouring sundry metal bands: “she had sworn the blood oath at the altar of the Gods of Metal, making her hard as tempered steel.”

Bella takes Corey home with her, and he is initially eager for a night of sex and metal. It soon turns out that Bella is not all she appears to be, however, and Corey’s new beau is none other than an ancient demoness of ice and snow. Furthermore, with Fenton hit by a heavy blizzard, Bella is in her element – and Corey’s chances of escape are drastically reduced…

Bella’s Boys is based partly upon author Thomas R. Clark’s experience of being an early-nineties metalhead who found himself caught up in the vast blizzard that his the eastern US in 1993, with a twist of cosmic horror. In creating his eldritch villainess, Clark draws upon the mythology of multiple cultures. Bella originated as as Sbli’rldlnisa-aea, the Great Old Goddess of the Ice and Snow, but to the Norsemen who came across her she became Angraboda, the daughter of Hel and the Fenris Wolf. Native American beliefs also play a part, with Fenton located near an Onondaga reservation. In the folklore of this people, Bella is known as Ne-On-Yar-He (or “Neon Harry”, as Corey corrupts the term). We see Bella’s history unfold via sequences written from her point of view as she preys upon humanity through the ages.

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The Night Silver River Run Red by Christine Morgan (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

SilverRiverRedThe Death’s Head Press Splatter Western series is something that will be turning up rather a lot in this review series. Many of the books deal with grim-faced gunslingers, as would be expected from horror-western hybrids, but with The Night Silver River Run Red Christine Morgan bucks the general trend: the story is less Clint Eastwood and more Tom Sawyer, albeit with a greater degree of disembowelment than Mark Twain included in his novel.

The story begins with four children – Emmett, Cody, Albert and Mina – sneaking out of their beds at night to visit a freak show. Along the way, they encounter two boys and a girl who belong to the Truthers. This community, presumably a religious sect, generally remain silent around outsiders, although the girl breaks this tradition by giving her name as Saleel. Not all the people the roving children meet on their nocturnal jaunt are as benevolent, however, as becomes clear when they un into what appears to be a pack of human-animal hybrids:

Emmett had the briefest impression of a looming, lunging, shaggy-hair mass, some nightmare bear-buffalo thing coming at them, not slowing even as Cody let fly another pebble with Deadeye, and he lobbed the lantern at it with every bit of his strength […] the fiery missile struck dead-center, splashing burning kerosene, igniting that hairy-woolly-shaggy hide in a genuine conflagration. Oh, and the shrieks the thing made were unlike any Emmett had ever heard in his life, awful rising catamount cries mixed with the metallic screech of train-wheels when the engineer laid in hard on the brakes, while somehow terribly human too.

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Juniper by Ross Jeffrey (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

RossJeffreyJuniperJuniper is a small and obscure town in America’s deep south: “You wouldn’t find it on any map, try a you might, because it seemed to evade those looking for it, hidden within a crease or untraceable like floaters in the eye.” Those who live near the town despise it; those who live within merely survive it – something that has grown increasingly hard. A flood wiped out Juniper’s main industry of farming, and after this came an intense heatwave that plunged the town into outright famine. In desperation, the residents begin breeding cats for food, referring to their feline food-source simply as “livestock”.

Ross Jeffrey’s novella is in large part the story of two women. One is Betty Davis, an ambiguously-aged recluse who lives on the edge of town and has been forced to survive on roadkill scraped from the cracked tarmac. Her latest discovery, a large ginger tomcat, turns out to be – despite a serious amount of injury and mangling – still alive, and so it becomes her companion rather than her next meal.

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How Much 2 by Matt Shaw (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

HowMuch2This is the sequel to a Splatterpunk Award finalist of the previous year, How Much To…?, the plot of which was based around a gruelling (and very much illegal) online game show. The premise was that the contestants were offered a series of increasingly repulsive tasks and asked how much money they would accept for undertaking them; the winner was promised their chosen sum as a prize – but only if they performed each and every task on the list, no matter how appalling or obscene. As a premise for a splatterpunk novella, this was quite clever: readers were forced to run each gruelling scenario through their heads even before the unlucky winner had to undertake them at the end. But is there really room for a sequel to repeat the trick?

As it happens, How Much 2 finds a neat way of retooling the original novella’s formula: by having the producers of the game show retool their formula. The story introduces us to Sharon Devlin and Nate Stephenson, each of whom have behind-the-scenes roles; but while Sharon is a traditionalist, Nate is a young rebel who wants to take the show in new directions – much to the distaste of Sharon, who associates new approaches with smaller audiences.

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The God in the Hills by Jon Steffans (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

GodintheHillsEvery summer, the tiny Arkansas town of Hotspur fills to the brim with tourists eager to enjoy the adjacent river. Ageing local Dale Bellflower is the self-appointed “welcome ambassador” to Hotspur, and with the help of Deb (waitress at the town’s only bar) he persuades out-of-towner Keri to take a car trip around the area with him. Then Keri wakes up to find herself in a dark enclosure, naked and gagged with duct tape. Her attacker, however, is more than just a local creep: she has run afoul of a demon that haunts the hills around Hotspur – and she is not his last victim…

Although nominated in the Splatterpunk Award category for short stories rather than novellas, The God in the Hills exists somewhere between the two formats, apparently brief enough to qualify as a short story yet long enough to be sold as a self-contained volume and divided into six chapters plus an epilogue. The comparative length should not be mistaken for heightened sophistication, however, as the story turns out to be an extremely straightforward matter of one graphic monster-rape occurring after the other. The first, of course, is the fate of Keri:

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“My Body” by Wesley Southard (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

MidnightPentagramA new French bistro by the name of Mon Corps has opened up and already become a roaring success, prompting reporter Cynthia Owen to interview its proprietor Jermane Welkner. Given that every other restaurant to have occupied the building failed, and the small Indiana town that houses it is not the most likely location for such a high-end establishment, what exactly made Welkner’s bistro such a hit?

In the interview, the smug and obnoxious Welkner attributes the joint’s success partly to his own business sense and partly to the skill of his chef, Alexandre Boucher. The chef in question turns out to be something of an enigma: he remains tight-lipped when Cynthia speaks to him, no information about him can be found online, and he stores his meat in a personal sub-basement that not even Welkner himself is allowed to visit…

Food-themed horror is a theme in this year’s Splatterpunk Awards, with the anthology category featuring two volumes of such stories (Chew on This! and Brewtality). “My Body” will need to be a particularly strong variation on the motif to stand out – and as it happens, Wesley Southard has dished up a witty and well-constructed tale of gastro-terror.

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“The Incident at Barrow Farm” by M. Ennenbach (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

CerberusRisingA group of police officers used to small crimes in their small town of Rusk find a change of pace when they investigate a possible murder at a hardware store. The proprietor Cassie Angler is missing, the

main clue to her disappearance being a trail of blood that leads to the doorway. One detective, Chris Miller, catches sight of a suspicious man in the vicinity – but before he can react, the suspect has produced a knife and slashed the detective’s throat.

Although the killer is overpowered and knocked unconscious by another detective, the double tragedy of Cassie’s disappearance and Chris’ death sends shockwaves through the close-knit community, including its police force. The killer is identified as local farmer Robert Alveritt, and while he remains unconscious, the cops head to his property in search of the missing woman. There, they find that he was not acting alone…

“The Incident at Barrow Farm” is a story that swings between smalltown murder and backwoods horror. It takes macabre delight in switching its setting from a place where everyone knows each other to one in which nobody knows who could be lurking around the next corner with a bloodied machete.

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“Footsteps” by Janine Pipe (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

DiabolicaBritannicaStudent friends Becky and Felicity head out into the Dorset woods for a camping trip. As they try to rendezvous with the third member of their group, Loz, they find that the woods are inhabited by a monster with a taste for human flesh…

The Splatterpunk Award nomination of “Footsteps” (published in the Diabolica Britannica anthology) raises the question of what, exactly, a literary is award for. Some would answer that an award should honour the works with the most potential to become modern classics, destined to provide lasting value to future generations. Others would argue that there is no shame in an award celebrating literature of the moment: the sort of fiction that may be forgotten a year or two down the line, but which at least deserves a loud bang before fading away. The Splatterpunk Awards have generally favoured the latter philosophy, and we see evidence of that in “Footsteps” – a story with the simple aim of capturing the ephemeral thrills offered by monster movies.

The influence of cinema has already been plain in some of the other short stories up for the Splatterpunk Award, with “Next in Line” modelling itself on the kaiju genre and “Phylum” patterned upon the Alien/Thing school of space parasite movies, but “Footsteps” is even more determined to emulate film formula. It even opens with a scene in which a character is introduced purely to be killed by the monster and never seen again, like the prologue to a horror film or the pre-credits scene in a monster-of-the-week TV show.

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“Full Moon Shindig” by patrick C. Harrison III (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

VsiceralFrom Visceral: Collected Flesh (a book that is also up for Best Collection) comes this story of a young army recruit, Travis, who returns home after months of training and revisits some old acquaintances. The friends in question are a hedonistic lot, sharing an existence of drink, drugs and sex, and their individual traits are sketched in with quick descriptions.

Chandler presides over the gathering at his home while his parents are out; Franco brags about sexual conquests that may or may not have happened; Stan is a stoner who masturbates to porn films in full view of the others; Sofia hangs around the house naked from the waist down; Britney, who enjoys filming the grosser goings-on; Lance is introduced snorting cocaine; and rounding off the group is Gwen, Travis’ old high-school fling and Chandler’s current girlfriend.

The story sets up a contrast between the discipline of Travis’ new army life and the aimless lives of his friends – although, since almost nothing of Travis’ experience at Fort Worth is described, the aimlessness is far more pronounced. He shows little affection for his social circle – white powder on their noses, white globs down their legs – yet still spends time with them in hopes of finding some sexual action:

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“Phylum” by Tom Over (2021 Splatterpunk Award Reviews)

TomoverCollection(Full disclosure: I appeared alongside Tom Over in The Bumper Book of British Bizarro.)

The year is 2089, the place a Martian colony where a medical laboratory has been contaminated with a deadly life-form. Engineer Jacob escapes through the ceiling air duct after watching his commander and lab colleagues killed by the creatures. Jacob’s next aim is to rescue his pregnant partner Rachel, but without a working communication device his only means of finding her is by following her heat signal through the ravaged colony.

“Phylum” fits tidily into the genre of SF-horror typified by films like Alien and The Thing, the central concept being that the colony has discovered water on Mars only to find, rather too late, that the water appears to carry deadly properties. A parasitic organism spreads inside the bodies of the colonists with fatal effects:

Scully bellowed, discarding the jawbone and fell to his knees, clutching his head. Jacob put out his hands fearing another attack, but instead saw his superior’s face oddly shift, undulating over the bones of his skull like a liquid mask. Their gaze briefly met, a look of utter desperation in the flight commander’s emerald eyes, before they exploded. A hideous ripping noise accompanied the sight of Scully’s face blossoming outward like a scarlet flower. Jacob scrambled against the deluge of blood as a cascade of insectoid creatures burst out of the older man’s rupturing flesh.

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