The God in the Hills by Jon Steffens (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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“Next in Line” by Susan Snyder (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

devourtheEarthSome stories have a premise simple enough to be summed up in a few words, and yet capable of encapsulating an entire narrative in which everything fits together as neatly and as satisfactorily as a jigsaw puzzle. One such premise is “a rollercoaster gets attacked by a kaiju.”

“Next in Line” opens with its protagonist queuing to enter a rollercoaster through a tunnel shaped like the mouth of an animal (“To me, it seemed like a human slaughterhouse, forcing guests through the pen and into the chute”). The opening is, of course, the build-up to the real excitement: for the characters, this is the expected ride on the rollercoaster; for the reader, it is the expected attack by a giant monster.

And yes, this will be expected, because “Next in Line” was published in Devour the Earth: A Kaiju Anthology, making it fairly certain what will happen to the hapless souls queuing for the ride. The arrival of the beast is prefigured by a strange rattling from the rollercoaster and tremors on the ground below, and then by an eerie calm and quiet – an ominous stretch not unlike the gradual curve before a rollercoaster’s plummet. And plummet things do:

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