Only the Stains Remain by Ross Jeffery (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

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Even someone familiar with the genre must surely find it remarkable how broad a spectrum extreme horror has successfully covered with spraying viscera. Many stories up for the Splatterpunk Awards have made a point out of staying away from reality: whether this is done through supernatural fantasy or cartoonish absurdity, the effect is to constantly remind us that, no matter how graphic the subject matter may be, it remains far removed from anything going on in the real world.

Then, at the other end of the scale, we find Ross Jeffery’s Only the Stains Remain.

This novella tells the story of Jude, a survivor of child abuse who, as an adult, revisits the area where he and his brother Kyle grew up, including “the campsite where our childhoods were erased by calloused hands and cruel intentions”. As he does so, he begins a series of reminiscences that start with the final days of his terminally-ill mother.

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Sacrament by Steve Stred (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

Cover of Sacrament by Steve Stred

Sacrament is the third instalment of Steve Stred’s Father of Lies sequence, the first novellas being Ritual and Communion (a fourth story, the short “Eucharist”, was subsequently included in the omnibus edition). The villain of the series is Father, a cult leader who has made communion with demons and transformed into a distorted goat-legged being – “A dark God from the cosmos in the flesh!” His desire is to grasp Abaddon’s Box so that he can open the Black Heavens and obtain immortality alongside his faithful flock. “And to think”, says Father to his acolytes, “some of you doubted me!”

Opposing Father is Professor Bianchi, whose family has been blighted by the evil priest’s machinations. His father Adam, who lost his legs to the cult, is so filled with rage that he refuses to let his son refer to him as “Father”, the word having been tainted by the evil priest. Bianchi’s mother, having been used by the priest as a broodmare, is in an even worse state:

She lay exposed on the bed, naked and weathered. Her one human leg had wasted away, now pushed awkwardly under her animal appendage. The two pronged hoof shifted subtly […] The wrinkles and folds of her abdomen weren’t enough to hide the jagged scar that went from hip to hip, the gloating reminder of the child Father had cut forth from her in one of his failed ritual attempts. Her formerly large breasts were now hanging over her ribs, the deflated fatty sacs of flesh and nipple resting in the crook of her elbows. Her arms bent slightly so that the dried corpse of a fetus was cradled in her hands.

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Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid by James C. Carlson (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

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When it begins, Midnight in the City of the Carrion Kid gives little indication of just how bizarre it will eventually become. When we are introduced to heroin addict Alistair, his girlfriend Eden and his dealer Angel – and the characters’ dialogue points out to us the irony of people involved with the drugs trade having names like “Eden” and “Angel” – it threatens to be no more than a heavy-handed jaunt through inner-city squalor. As it transpires, however, this opening sequence is Dorothy’s Kansas, and there is an extremely twisted Oz in store for us.

After passing out from his latest fix, Alistair regains his senses to find that Eden has gone missing. When he goes looking for her, he runs into a band of monstrous nuns:

Peering from the nuns’ black veils are the pale, grotesque visages of nightmares. One has Saint Christopher medals lodged in the ravaged cavities that once housed her eyes. In her right hand, she clutches the wooden handle of a rusty-headed hammer. Beside her, the lidless, shriveled eyes of an especially twitchy nun stare dryly from her head. The corners of her mouth have been carved upward into a permanent smiling wound. In each bloody hand, she wields a sizable shard of glass like a deadly transparent dagger. The next noun looks as though her face has been crudely molded out of clay but never given features.

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“The Martini Club” by Aron Beauregard (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

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Part of the three-author collection Beyond Reform collection (which itself won a Splatterpunk Award this year) “The Martini Club” introduces us to Jane, Summer, Jody and Ellen. These dour true-crime enthusiasts were brought together by a shared interest in the life and crimes of Alfred Martini, an incarcerated serial killer who gained notoriety in the eighties as the Subway Slasher, Martini is a man most would see as a monster – but the women of the Martini Club do not necessarily agree:

“We’ve beaten this to a bloody fucking pulp, going back to when we all met in the chat room. Alfred Martini didn’t kill all those women, it was what society turned him into that killed them. It was his pedophile mother, abusive father, and the constant ridicule of his peers that perverted him. You guys all know how sweet he is in real life. He’s sorbet,” Jane explained exhaling with a deeply ingrained passion.

Between them, these four women have developed a plan to break the Subway Slasher out of prison, smuggle him to a retreat in the middle of nowhere and spend the rest of their days with him as the sort of family that would do Charles Manson proud.

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“Start Today” by Justin Lutz (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

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Miles allows himself to get pushed around at work. His co-workers are so used to treating him as a doormat that they even begin nicknaming him Mat – at first behind his back, and then in one chance slip of the tongue, to his face. He finally decides to stick up for himself, and finds inspiration when he comes across a flier promoting a men’s support group called Start Today: “Find your inner alpha, harness your confidence.”

He begins attending the group’s regular sessions and realises that – at long last – he has found people who understand him. The procedure recommended by Start Today, however, turns out to be a little more extreme than he had expected. When the group’s leader encourages Miles to peel away the worst parts of himself, this is not just a metaphor, and some very sharp implements are involved.

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“Fireflies and Apple Pies” by Thomas R. Clark (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

58330440._SY475_In the introduction to his novella The God Provides, Thomas R. Clark explains how the first portion of the narrative – “Fireflies and Apple Pies” – started out as a short story before being expanded to fill a slim book. Yet it is the first stretch, rather than the novella as a whole, that found its way onto the Splatterpunk Awards ballot; and so, this review shall set aside the latter portion of the book and concentrate on the opening.

The story takes us to the Tully Foothills, where October has started – bringing with it the annual Apple Festival. But this year, the festival becomes the site of the town’s first murder in a century:

At first, it appeared as though preschoolers went to town practicing covering her mouth with lipstick.
“She looked like she stuck her face in a can of strawberry jam.” One of the workers told a TV reporter.
But no.
A closer examination revealed someone ripped out Sandy’s tongue and left her to bleed to death, alone in the dark. The girl graduated a year ago and, like many locals, she worked at the festival to make a few extra bucks. The day before her smiling face could be seen at a Fritter booth. Now no one could find her tongue.

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Abigail by Daemon Manx  (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

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Adrian Billard is an artist who never quite fitted in, his obsessive-compulsive tendencies and homosexuality marking him as an outsider from his youth. His present social circle comprises an upcoming date and a local bartender; but if his quiet life is lacking in Wildean scandal, it is at least sprinkled with Wildean wit:

There was little that was subtle about Adrian if anything at all. He was flamboyant and overt, with a definite flair for the dramatic, especially when it came to displays of emotion. He had once been told by a former boyfriend that he wore his pain like a chartreuse ascot; loud, proud and in your face. Gabriel, the bartender, had been within earshot of the spectacle, took notice, and felt obliged to enquire. He had known Adrian for years and had been the one to point out the ascot/pain analogy.

Returning home from the bar, Adrian finds a wicker basket on his porch. Inside is a baby, left for him to adopt, the only explanation being a small card that gives her name as Abigail. The baby, it transpires, is a strange one indeed:

A wide pair of violet eyes looked up at him. Silver flecks around the reptilian pupils flashed in the pale glow of the porch light. A hypnotic chimera washed over him as he fixed on the strange gaze. Suddenly, he felt weightless and out of the body; the sense that he was floating several feet above ground was consuming. Adrian found himself face to face with the most peculiar vision.
“Gee-hee-he,” the strange baby looked up at him and laughed.

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“Sun Poison” by Stephen Kozeniewski (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

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“Sun Poison” opens with a colourful description of the effects of sunburn upon the main character’s feet:

I open my eyes. My toes have transformed into ten little cherry tomatoes. I hiss in pain. The heat radiating off my piggies rivals that of an Easter ham, fresh out of the oven.

She buries her toes in the sand to protect them from the heat but merely burns them even more, the lower layer of sand being somehow hotter than the surface. She looks for her parasol, but it has vanished from the beach. So, indeed, have all of the other sunbathers, including her own family. The protagonist is alone beneath a burning sun that continues to cook her.

“Sun Poison” is a short, brisk and surreal story. The narrator describes the familiar beachside sights – hotels, ships, pancake houses – that are inexplicably absent. She comes up with theories to explain her sudden isolation – shark attack? Oil spill? Storm? – but none fit the facts. All of her musings are no more than temporary distractions from the horrible reality that her husband and children have vanished and that she is being slowly roasted to death in a strange landscape where even the water is scalding hot.

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“Next Best Baker” by Jeff Strand (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

A group of contestants on a TV baking show are each given the task of putting together a cake that contains four specific ingredients: mint, carrots, pistachios and dog feces. This may seem a distinctly unorthodox assignment, but Tiffany, Cyrus, Helga and Mark all take things in their stride – because on Next Best Baker, making a cake from fecal matter is actually one of the less outrageous challenges. Come the final round, the game moves from the merely repugnant to the outright horrific…

“Next Best Baker” is gross-out humour of the driest sort. Its deadpan treatment of the repulsive subject matter is evident from the reactions to the dog-mess assignment. “I do wish that the dog shit was a bit more subdued”, says one judge of Tiffany’s cake; “it doesn’t really blend with the other flavors.” Mark, meanwhile, makes his entire cake from feces, with the other ingredients serving as decorative toppers: a little fence made of carrot sticks, a sprig of mint as a tree, and a pistachio with a face drawn on to represent a dog. “It could just as easily have been a happy pistachio”, remarks an unimpressed judge. “From an appearance standpoint, this is probably your worst effort all season.”

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