Crash Code, ed. Quinn Parker (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

CrashCodePrepare to receive two punk-suffixes in one with the Splatterpunk Award-nominated Crash Code: An Anthology of Cyberpunk Horror; as the title suggests, the volume is given over to exploring the grisly

and macabre corners of the cyberpunk genre. Hannah Trusty’s “A.U.T.O.” takes us on a ride in an automated car that goes horribly wrong. “The God Finger” by Dean H. Wild is set in the world of surgical technology, depicting a gauntlet that takes away pain – but turns out to have a serious side-effect. In Addison Smith’s “Hard Memory” a cop with a cybernetic brain implant is forced to kill a similarly-enhanced fellow officer in self-defence – leaving him with both the mystery of who hacked his friend, and the emotional fallout of his act. “Nervana” by David F. Shultz follows a band of glamorous pill-popping rebels as they go up against “copyright cops” and a weird cyber-cult in a neon city, the protagonist’s girlfriend having her mind transferred to a computer chip after she is killed in action.

By its nature, cyberpunk explores the low-society ramifications of high technology; this tends to require a good chunk of worldbuilding which, in turn, needs space. Crash Code has its share of mini-epics such as “Fight to Fight” by Sebastian Netman: this story is long enough to be less a sting in the tail narrative, more a potted thriller. It depicts a world where genetically engineered children are the norm, but are fought against by members of older generations; the protagonist is a cyborg who fights “geneticals” to avenge the death of his mother – but has a conflict of a different sort with his father.

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Worst Laid Plans, ed. Samantha Kolesnik (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

WorstLaidplansWorst Laid Plans: An Anthology of Vacation Horror opens with “You’ve Been Saved” by S. E. Howard, in which friends Chris and Ethan take a trip to Las Vegas. When a girl in a diner hands them a napkin scrawled with the word “help” the boorish Ethan dismisses this as some sort of trick, but Chris – a heart surgeon and used to saving lives – makes it his mission to get to the bottom of the matter. A strong character-led narrative reaches a monstrous climax – and the anthology of strange holiday misadventures is just beginning.

“Sex with Dolphins” by Chad Stroup charts a Hawaiian honeymoon gone horribly wrong; it makes clear early on that the husband will drown, although exactly how – and the relevance of the title – become clear only at the very end. Patrick Lacey’s “Caught a Glimpse” is about a stressed-out man in a holiday cottage who spies upon an attractive woman next door, and then comes to suspect that she is violating his privacy in turn. Meanwile, “In the Water” by Mark Wheaton involves a police investigation of what appears to be a case of human trafficking in Thailand, the story developing into a weird saga of aromatic cannibalism.

Continue readingWorst Laid Plans, ed. Samantha Kolesnik (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)”

Chew On This! ed. Robert Essig (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

ChewonthisIn this anthology of horror stories themed around food, the scene is set by the utterly bizarre opening tale: “Meat or be Meaten” by Robert Bose and Sarah L. Johnson. The story is written from the perspective of a cat following the death of his owner, an elderly man obsessed with hoarding exotic meat. In fact, the man accumulated so many unusual items of meat that they have achieved sentience, becoming a meat-golem (his name is Darryl and he enjoys period romance novels). Together, they stumble upon the horrible truth behind the homeowner’s death.

A number of the anthology’s stories deal with secret ingredients – the delicious whiskey in Shenoa Carroll-Bradd’s “Barrel Aged”, to choose but one example – and do a thorough job of exploring the gross-out potential in this concept. “With a Little Salt and Vinegar” by John McNee is set at a Scottish port, where one of the dockers speaks of his impoverished childhood in an unspecified Slavic country, when he had so little food that he was forced to eat slugs; hearing this, his fellow dockers place bets on what increasingly disgusting food he would willingly eat. In “Seeds of Filth” by K. Trap Jones a fast-food waiter devices a disgusting punishment for verbally abusive customers, the story managing to eke a considerable amount of material from this basic concept.

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Welcome to the Splatter Club, ed. K. Trap Jones (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

WelcomeSplatterLacking any overriding theme beyond sheer gratuity, Welcome to the Splatter Club is a general extreme horror anthology offering thirteen more stories of the warped and the macabre…

Some of the tales in the book begin with mundane scenarios before swiftly heading into darker territory. In “Splatter Party” by John McNee a bunch of rambunctious partygoers annoy their neighbour – and find the hard way that he is the sort of neighbour who really should not be annoyed. “I Hang My Hat and There’s No Blood” by Robert Essig depicts a world of faded Las Vegas showbusiness, with a washed-up comedian as the protagonist; he resorts to shooting himself in front of a live audience – and this is just the beginning of the story. “Holiday of a Lifetime” by C.M. Saunders is about a middle-aged couple who decide to get adventurous on their holiday in Thailand; they start by having sex on the aeroplane, progress to hiring a sex worker for a threesome, and finally move into still more outrageous territory.

Then we have the stories that start out with one variety of horror, and then make a quick swerve into a different area of the macabre. Patrick Winters’ “The Big Bad Boy” is about a gunman who attempts to rob a shop, not for money, but for a particular brand of snack cake that he is hell bent on destroying in revenge for a bizarre and ghastly form of food poisoning. In “Code Black” by Matthew Weber a bullied teenager leaves a severed deer head and a circle of blood in the school gym. Police interpret it as a threat – but the boy has actually opened a portal to Hell.

Continue readingWelcome to the Splatter Club, ed. K. Trap Jones (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)”

Brewtality, ed. K. Trap Jones (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

BrewtalityBrewtality is an anthology of horror stories about alcohol. While the theme may seem a little confined, the assembled authors have interpreted the brief in a number of different ways. Most obviously, we have the tales about magic beverages of one sort or another. “Confessions of a Drunk Asshole” by Robert Essig involves a homebrew with truth serum-like properties, which the central character (who has just murdered his adulterous wife) uses to track down his romantic rival. Dev Jarrett’s “Infinity Bottle” also has a magic beverage being used for purposes of revenge, with even more gruesome results – although we do not learn the motive of the character responsible until the very end.

Magic drinks are not always used as agents of punishment, however, as the stories’ protagonists sometimes seek out these mysterious beverages for themselves, even if it takes great lengths to do so. Bob Macumber’s “Something to Warm the Spirit” is about an ageing man who makes a Faustian pact in exchange for a drink that restores his lost virility and allows him to live out his macho fantasies. Meanwhile, “The Drinking-Horn” by Christine Morgan is the story of Ullvik the Bottomless, a drink-loving Viking who embarks on a quest for the mythical horn that not even Thor himself could drain.

Then we have C. M. Saunders’ drily-humoured “Grower”, in which the magic drink has no real rhyme or reason to it whatsoever. The main character orders a craft beer and finds a human tooth inside; his disgust turns to intrigue when, over time, the tooth starts to grow into a complete human head – and carries on growing from there.

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Rhapsody in Red: “Dallas Teller’s Kill List” by Peter Molnar (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

RhapsodyRed“Dallas Teller’s Kill List” is the second of two novellas that comprise Peter Molnar’s collection Rhapsody in Red, the first being “The Remainders”.

Thirty-year-old high school English teacher Conor Crenshaw has won a local Educator of the Year award. But his young, gifted exterior belies inner trouble: Conor not only talks to himself, he hears a voice in his head that talks back. His self-doubts intensify after an incident in which one of his pupils, Dallas Teller, takes a gun to school; although this would-be school-shooter is apprehended before he can do any harm, Conor is left with the feeling that the local parents blame him for the near-tragedy.

After Dallas is taken into custody Conor learns that the boy had a list of victims on his person: a list that included nine students from Conor’s class and one teacher – Conor himself. Meanwhile the voices in Conor’s head continue to taunt him, making enigmatic references to the death of his mother Tilly; sure enough, he later hears that his mother has been found dead at the bottom of her cellar stairs. At that point, repressed memories begin flooding back for Conor…

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Rhapsody in Red: “The Remainders” by Peter Molnar (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

RhapsodyRedSplatterpunk Award for Best Collection finalist Rhapsody in Red consists of two novellas by Peter Molnar. Because they’re each quite long and substantial, I’ve decided to review them separately.

The first, “The Remainders: A Revenge-Fantasy”, introduces us to protagonist Natalie Kincaid as she prepares to follow in the footsteps of Amanda Fielding by drilling a hole in her head. This is a last, desperate measure to regain a psychic ability that she once had, and needs again to earn money: her occult shop is facing tough times and her landlord has already sent a heavy around to issue a threat of violence if she does not pay up soon. Her desire is to obtain communion with the spirit of Danica, her deceased wife and sometime fellow proprietor of the shop.

Natlalie does end up encountering a spirit, but it is not that of Danica. Instead, her head becomes occupied by the ghost of Gregory Gaither, a young black man who was murdered decades beforehand. He reveals that his killers were a pair of racist vampire twins who are still at large in the world: he wants to hunt them down and destroy them, but he will need Natalie’s psychic gifts to do so.

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War of Dictates by John Baltisberger (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

WarDictatesHere we have a first for the Splatterpunk Awards: while the Best Collection category is typically given over to volumes of short prose fiction, War of Dictates is a poetry collection. Or, perhaps, a single narrative poem divided into bite-sized pieces, depending on one’s perspective.

The narrator of the saga is the fallen angel Semyaza, who relates how – as per Genesis – he and his fellow sons of God lusted after the daughters of men (“We watched as they danced. Our new forms had appetites/We watched as they loved. Our new forms had loins”), a lust that finally reached an outpouring of violence:

The panicked screams were an astonishing hymn/sung by those torn limb from limb/until the only screams left were those of my quarry./The blood shed had been a new sensation/the fear in the eyes, now dumb deaf and blind/rolling free of sockets on the ground underfoot/ignited that feeling of godhood and I understood,/erect and throbbing with divine purpose/I turned my attention to the worthless;/I wrenched them apart/and clenched a blood-drenched wench/close enough to taste her heart,/I did not know her name, just saw her frame;/I knew I had to tame the flame in my newly formed blinking cock.

This excerpt is typical of John Baltisberger’s graphic and rhythmic verse, which is closer in tone and form to rap lyrics than to anything in Paradise Lost. There is a good deal of wit alongside the brutality, the rhymes often becoming outright sardonic: “Raising from the smeared mess/I realized we would need more finesse.”

The union between the fallen angels and the mortal women brought forth the giant Nephilim, who tear out of their mothers’ bodies and emerge as “wrong creatures/bleeding molten clay from veins of woven reality”. A war breaks out, one that implicates humans, angels and even golems; the book informs us that “Angel biology would not give in to bacteria” and so the celestial casualties are left to never decay: “the angelic corpses lay splattered on the cruel earth,/As fresh, bloody, and beautiful as the moment they were slaughtered.”

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Blood Relations by Kristopher Triana (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

BloodRelationsKristopher Triana is well-represented at this year’s Splatterpunk Awards, with two novels and this collection on the ballot, and those who followed the award in previous years will remember his books Full Brutal and Toxic Love. A major theme throughout his work is that of utterly twisted relationships, and Blood Relations homes in on this: the volume contains story after story of family values gone horribly, horribly wrong.

The collection opens with “Thicker than Water”, about a father and daughter who are only able to see each other in brief periods during prison visiting hours. Parental angst builds up, with Triana’s florid prose bringing emotional weight to the macabre subject matter – the recurring image of a porcelain doll thrown from a Ferris wheel being particularly memorable.

“My Name is Chad” is another tale of a warped parent-child relationship, this time from the perspective of the younger party. While preparing for a move a man finds a box of old home movies shot by his father. Playing them, he sees footage of himself as a child, becoming embroiled in a disturbing situation that he no longer remembers, and which makes him question everything he knows about his family. The story has a steep emotional trajectory: the protagonist’s aching hope that the videos will contain footage of his sister, who died when they were children, turns into revulsion when he finds out what actually happened to her.

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The Essential Sick Stuff by Ronald Kelly (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

EssentialSickStuffThe Essential Sick Stuff is an omnibus edition of three separate collections: The Sick Stuff, More Sick Stuff and Even Sicker Stuff. The first of these, originally published in 2009, includes a few stories from the early nineties when author Ronald Kelly’s career was just beginning.

“Housewarming” is a fairly straightforward ghost story in which a man moves into the house of his deceased aunt, whose lingering presence is symbolised by an infestation of spiders. While this story reserves graphic horror for its very end, “Diary” – about a serial killer sharing memories of his formative years – is less sparing with the visceral details. A typical passage: “They sent me to reform school when I was seventeen for cutting off my girlfriend’s breasts with a pocket knife. After all these years, I still haven’t figured out what my true motives had been. Maybe someday I’ll call her up at the state asylum and ask her if she remembers why I did such a horrible thing.”

The other early story in The Sick Stuff shows Kelly’s propensity for the outright bizarre. Entitled “Old Hacker” it has a narrator reminiscing about a strange local man who had the disgusting habit of hacking up gobs of spittle – that turned out to be alive.

The remaining stories in the first anthology are comparatively recent, being originally published in either 2008 or 2009. Nonetheless, the themes of Kelly’s early work are still evident. His fondness for fiction about serial killers turns up in “Mass Appeal”, about an eight-year-old boy who is obsessed with mass murderers and has dreams of spending time with historical evildoers: giving Vlad the Impaler a cake for his birthday, sharing bubblegum with Uncle Adolf and having target practice with Charles Whitman. “Pins and Needles” is about a man who hides poison and sharp implements in trick-or-treat candy for the banal reason that he dislikes children, and then receives an ironic punishment worthy of an EC horror comic.

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