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Tabula Rasa

Splatterpunk

The Grossery List

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#6, 1995

Go to timeline entry
Why should not a writer be permitted to make use of the levers of fear, terror and horror because some feeble soul here and there finds it more than it can bear? Shall there be no strong meat at table because there happen to be some guests there whose stomachs are weak, or who have spoiled their own digestions?
The Serapion Brethren
ETA Hoffmann, 1821

The word splatterpunk is a product of the mid-eighties, coined by David J Schow at the World Fantasy Convention in Providence. The term splatter movies had already been brought into prominence by John McCarty in one of his various film companions, though it had apparently been previously used by George Romero. There was much debate in horror circles in the late Eighties over the term, the 'quiet versus explicit horror' argument, and in 1990 Paul M Sammon edited an anthology called Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror.

All that was five years ago, and it seems people have got sick of the whole thing. But Sammon has the sequel coming (arriving in Australia this month, no less) and, of course, the question itself is still a relevant one. Perhaps more relevant, because of the encroaching lines of censorship. If explicitness bows meekly to more traditional scares, then horror itself is giving up the argument against its continued existence.

The trouble comes when trying to work out just what Splatterpunk is. For one thing, it's not really helped by Sammon's essay on the topic in his first book. A lengthy and enthusiastic treatise, you get the feeling that a shorter and more measured approach would have served his purpose better. He starts off by saying that you need to remove the limits of society and so-called good taste. All the limits. He goes on about trail-blazing and outlaws. He then follows up with so many justifications and unwilling subjects that his hyperbole falls a little flat. The other essay in the book, I Spit in Your Face: Films that Bite, has a similar problem. Written by Chas. Balun, whose main contribution to film criticism was the Gore Score (yes, that is a vast over-simplification of his work), he doesn't actually seem to like any of the films he mentions. He even manages to sound apologetic about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

You'd be better off going to the introduction of Skipp and Spector's The Book of the Dead, wherein the Boys manage to do a pretty good job of both defining the ground and sounding pleased with the result. Incidentally, whilst they are both well worth the read, Splatterpunks is the better anthology due to the greater variety of its fiction.

So taking all that into consideration, are we going to be able to work out what we're talking about yet? The easiest way perhaps is to actually look at the stories of these two trail-blazing collections and see what unprocessed chunks of splatterpunk we can uncover. Which means if you're thinking of reading them yourselves in the near future, it's time to dive out now (after all, there ain't no contest between talking about stories and reading them for yourself).

We've got mutant shit-eating babies and a shit-eating school reunion. We have a woman writing to Oprah for help, ending in a blood-soaked massacre for the camera, and what is more or less a traditional rape-revenge story. Oral abortion (I mean, of course) and disenchanted youth, and the messiest post-apocalyptic tale you ever did see. Book of the Dead starts off with another rape-revenge story, in miniature -- newly undead vaginal muscles severing a penis. Then there's the coming of age for a girl raised by zombies, and the nightclubs where the zombies, gagged and without hands, 'dance' with the customers. Let me add an example from David G Hartwell's... quieter anthology The Dark Descent: a man calmly and precisely taking a scalpel to his own ears, vocal cords, tendons, eyes and carotid.

Is that starting to sound like we're disregarding all the limits?

Let's not forget novels here. What about the intimate knowledge the protagonist of The Shaft has of cocaine and its distribution (not to mention the two naked girls permanently attached to his boss's house, whose knowledge of the drug is even more intimate). And films too. A twelve-year old with a crucifix up her cunt -- a seminal influence that one. A man trying to disembowel himself whilst ejaculating blood. A woman raped 208 times. Corpses using their intestines like tentacles, and on and on.

This list is the gore score, more or less. It describes fifteen stories by the most (or one of several) shocking events. It's the sort of list people will produce to say this garbage should be banned. It's the sort of list gleeful fans will produce to measure just how far they've blazed that trail, or to quantifiably compare some of their favourite things. The trouble is that because such a list is not only controversial but easy to come up with (comprised of the details that are likely to stay in your mind) it tends to become the focus of discussion -- whether the story has been seen or not (witness American Psycho for the classic debate of extracts out of context).

I have a friend who recently described enthusiastically Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, using the final revelation of the murderer's trick with his mirror. He knew the film encompassed a lot more than that, was a film consciously and intelligently about voyeurism, but to the person he was describing it to, it could have been any low-brow slasher.

And yet... without some sort of big revelation Peeping Tom would have fallen flat, any insights would have been forgotten because the film would have been boring (a simplification about an excellent movie). The elements of the list are the high points of tension or revelation in the rhythm of the process of getting your audience through the time they've allocated to you.

Splatterpunk is not, I suggest, about making the list of its transgressions dominate proceedings. It puts that list in its proper place, and then has a great deal of fun filling the places on it with the most eye-popping stuff it can come up with.

Fun's an interesting word here. And very apt, because the outrageous is often presented with a sense of glee (just look at anything Peter Jackson has come up with). This fun, if not outright funny, side seems to apply especially to corpses, and David Schow's Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy is a great example. And what about the scene in Hellraiser where Frank reassembles himself out of the floor? It's filmed completely straight of course, yet you just know there's some director and special effects guys out there who are having the time of their lives.

But once again we're getting a little waylaid by the obvious. Looking at pretty much all the examples I've already used and you'll find excellence in areas that have nothing to do with how much gore is presented. You know, little things like plots, characterisation, atmosphere, satire, social consciousness (yes, Skipp and Spector published some fifteen pages of environmental information at the end of The Bridge) and just some damn fine writing and direction [1]. If Splatterpunk had only the mindset or execution of, say, a Richard Laymon novel, as most of its critics seem to think, it would still have an audience (never underestimate the depths popular culture can achieve), but it would be leaving so much wasted potential, and so many of the most daring artists high and dry, it wouldn't be breaking any limits at all.

The other point to keep in mind is that the gore score and this other list of 'desirables' are not necessarily separate, and certainly not mutually exclusive. The strength of splatterpunk is not putting in bloodshed to attract attention to your environmental policies. Keeping with Clive Barker, let's look at the excerpt Paul Sammon thought particularly summed up The Midnight Meat Train:

The carcass closest to him was the remains of the pimply youth he'd seen in Car One. The body hung upside-down, swinging back and forth to the rhythm of the train, in unison with its three fellows; an obscene dance macabre. Its arms dangled loosely from the shoulder joints, into which gashes an inch or two deep had been made, so the bodies would hang more neatly.

Every part of the dead kid's anatomy was swaying hypnotically. The tongue, hanging from the open mouth. The head, lolling on its slit neck. Even the youth's penis flapped from side to side on his plucked groin. The head wound and the open jugular still pulsed blood into a black bucket. There was an elegance about the whole sight: the sign of a job well-done...

He was not prepared for this last horror.

The meat of [the woman's] back had been entirely cleft open from neck to buttock and the muscle had been peeled back to expose the glittering vertebrae. It was the final triumph of The Butcher's craft. Here they hung, these shaved, bled, slit slabs of humanity, opened up like fish, and ripe for devouring.

Another pretty incredible scene, I think you'll agree. Well-written, well-detailed, lots of gore, sexually-suggestive. But its effectiveness is not so much the extent of the carnage or even the precise detailing of it. I would say that superior to the images of the woman's tortured back or the penis pendulum is the one at the end of the first paragraph. The line about the gashes is not particularly gory, but it is an easily-digestible fact that uses all that gore as an assumption and then adds some. It sums up the whole idea of the human carcass as meat animal, the preparation of it being a loving craft.

Look at the ever-surprising George RR Martin's contribution to the Splatterpunk anthology, Meathouse Man. It's a story of puppets -- zombies controlled by a human mind to do dangerous jobs, including prostitution. As Mr Sammon would say, it doesn't flinch, it takes its concept and makes a well-structured and deeply disturbing story out of it, and it doesn't cheat the audience with any trappings of artifice. Like the best work of George Romero, it's not a fantasy, it just happens to be about something that isn't likely to happen.

Perhaps the best story in the collection is Roberta Lannes' Goodbye, Dark Love (I've also read her Dancing on a Blade of Dreams, and let me tell you she's one to look out for). Once again it doesn't spare the reader the details, but it is the final revelation, almost absurdly simple, that gives those details such power.

The world isn't always a bad place, and people aren't always incredibly stupid or hurtful. But you and I know that incredibly destructive and inhumane things happen, and happen often. Usually but not always without malice or consideration or understanding. If those things are beyond social conventions of literature, it's about time those limits were broken. One of the most striking things about the Splatterpunk collection of stories is how truthful they feel, not all the truth, all the time, but capturing the texture of what can happen, and how we feel about it. It that's going too far, then it's time to throw away the map.

But if we're talking about truth now, in the latter third of the twentieth century, how does this differ from anything that came before it? Why is Splatterpunk here and now?

In that same essay I've been saying various rude things about, Paul Sammon answers the question succinctly and well. The three sources he cites are the splatter films of the seventies and eighties, the punk movement and rock music in general, and the proliferation of video pornography.

To the list I tend to add the Vietnam War because it was part of the whole process of disenchantment with authority (also characterised, in America at least, by the residue of the McCarthy era and Watergate), not to mention bringing the spectacle of violent death to the public during the news.

That feeling, combined with the technology that could bring the pictures into those loungerooms (not to mention everything from Debbie Does Dingoes to intricate economic analysis) has seemed to raise awareness of fact and fiction to a new level of understanding. Post-modernism, no less, wherein no story is an isolated entity, but floats around self-consciously in a sea of context (alternatively, it means the sound on your video shoot has stuffed up. Or is that avant-garde?) [2]

There's an arrogance in each generation about doing things differently, and these days we have computers and videos to prove our point. But do we approach fiction differently, or are we just forgetting the context and keeping the story (like discovering Lewis Carroll's Alice books are often intricate political and cultural satire)?

Whatever the case, post-modernism is important to horror fiction in two respects at the moment (three if you count the seemingly wide-spread support of Quentin Tarantino in the horror community. But as somebody has said, and I believe it was the vivacious Ms Ward, watching QT for the post-modernism -- that is, rendering it into an intellectual exercise -- is missing the point somewhat).

In a closely related note, po-mo seems to be turning into the bane of the modern horror film. How many movies lately have you seen that feature old horror flicks on in the background somewhere? By invoking the presence of Bela Lugosi or the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock, film-makers seem to think they can skimp on the set-up. If the audience knows it's a horror film, why do you need to try and make it scary? John Carpenter's In The Mouth of Madness is the most recent and most obvious offender, but there are plenty of others.

At the same time, however, and in the proper balance, post-modernism seems the crux of understanding the power of the splatterpunk movement. If George Romero is a pioneer of the splatter movie, he can obviously keep his symbolism well in line and not skimp on the story and the characters. I'm not so much talking about stories based around ideas, which is science-fiction's strength (and weakness), but of human interaction.

And its not just in splatterpunk. It applies equally to Lovecraft (who was an atheist) and his mythology. In Stephen King's The Shining, it is the audience's self-awareness that lets it see Jack Torrance's internal monologues as being fundamentally flawed. An even better example is the protagonist of David J Schow's The Kill Riff, whose mental state is the less than immediately obvious focus of the entire book.

But splatterpunk uses excess. For its symbolism, for its thrills, for covering up its less than immediately obvious concerns. Which all requires a little bit of audience self-awareness, and just goes to show that post-modernism isn't as modern as you might think. Because for every writer who seems to have been unaware of their subject matter (and Bram Stoker's sexual undertones is the obvious example) there are plenty over the years who have known and know precisely what's going on. Of course it can all be misused, or misinterpreted, or taken out of context, and splatterpunk even dares its opposition to do so. But looking at what is already in the field, the power is being welded in ways that aren't necessarily easy to stomach, but are hard to ignore.

Notes

[1] Speaking of sounding apologetic, can I include Nekromantik as representative of this list of traits? Hmmm. Actually it was a bit boring, really, and I could have done without the rabbit, but it did have a lot more going for it than a cursory summary might imply. II was, however, pretty dire, or maybe just way too long.
[2] Like splatterpunk itself, and political correctness for that matter, the word really has more of a texture than a precise definition, but that's good enough for me.
 

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