Ginger Nuts of Horror
I became aware of a new generation of writers who wrote these really cool horror stories that had grit, swagger and style in abundance and were just a total breath of fresh air. These writers, dubbed “Splatterpunks” were categorized as being prone to extremes of violence and gore which, in all honesty, was not how I remembered them. Sure, there were moments of really visceral and gut wrenching horror but the emphasis was always more on the punk aspect than the splatter. To an impressionable young teen like me, the stories I started to read had this vibrant pulse about them with ideas and content that pushed at and often broke through the boundaries of convention. I just wasn’t used to reading stories brimming with so much electricity and excitement that left me feeling pumped up by the end of the story. The writers that really made an impact on me were John Skipp and Craig Spector. Their writing collaborations were just phenomenal.
I first encountered them when I bought a book called “The Scream” about a band with the literal intention of raining hell. It was just an epic horror story that was bloody, exciting and chock full of these little sideswipes at culture, religion, morality and censorship, amongst other things. The book had a profound impact on me and I had to read more of their work. And so I did. Over the course of their writing partnership they banged out a set of books that were just blinding in their attitude and style. Books like “The Light at the End”, “The Cleanup” and “Dead Lines” to name but a few, were just brimming with jet black humour, sharp characters and even sharper dialogue interspersed with these jolts of bone crunching horror and this wicked flowing style.
But no sooner had they arrived on the horror fiction scene alongside writers like David J. Schow, they parted company and horror began to once again lose its luster for me. I suppose that old adage about “the fire that burns twice as bright lasts half as long” was right. That, however, was over twenty years ago. Fast forward to now and here I sit with a new collection of short stories from John Skipp called “The Art of Horrible People” wondering if that fire is still there. And, boy is it! That same jet black humour, electrifying writing style and turn of phrase is here but tempered with moments of heart and soul that feel very personal. That said, the eight stories and two appendices buzz with an energy, panache and wit that make me yearn for more which is my only gripe about this collection. It is just too short.
So, what delights are on offer? Well, following the introduction by John Mallerman, first up is a lovingly tongue in cheek tale skewering the world of performance art in the “Art is the Devil”. This story takes the notion of how splatterpunk was perceived as a movement of excess designed to shock and finds similarities in the world of performance artists who try to shock and appall by pummeling your senses with their object d’art and statements. One such artiste has pretensions of quite literally raising hell for a receptive audience but finds that the object of his intentions can be the biggest critic. It is the sort of story that typifies to me what splatterpunk is: loud, in your face with a sardonic wit and commentary about it. It is also a damn good read.
That quality is continued with “Depresso the Clown” though with a title like that if you suffer from Coulrophobia your fears are not going to be assuaged from reading this, unsurprisingly, is a grim look at the suffering that can be inflicted on a random stranger by someone with very specific fears. It is a really dark story but there is almost a beauty in the dark observations of people and how they deal with their own demons. Much like the opening story, “Rosie goes Shopping” is another tongue in cheek look at life in LA. This time the scenario is shopping for food during the zombie apocalypse where the actions of the titular character makes you question what you would define as the real danger, zombies or people.
Following on from it is the delightfully weird and bizarre “Worm Central Tonite” about what goes on beneath the surface of a burial ground and why worms love to dine out on the freshly interred. It is just a really surprising story take from a worm’s perspective on what makes corpses their preferred food. So far so splatterpunk but Skipp infuses it with this great perspective on mortality and existence that elevates into something beyond its’ taste challenging premise. What follows after this tasty little tale is the standout “Skipp’s Hollywood Alphabet Soup of Horror” which is a delicious collection of flash fiction pieces and short vignettes about Tinseltown and the movie business. Only in this case the streets are more likely to be paved with copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears than gold and glamour.
“Zygote Notes on the imminent birth of a feature as yet unknown” has an almost autobiographical slant to its narrative as a person visits a small town to visit his ailing dad. It has this trippy and psychedelic feel to the way it is narrated and described like some old 60s or 70s cult film. A sidestep away from horror, this has a poignant and emotional undertow to it that feels very intimate and personal. It is a feeling replicated in the offbeat “In the Waiting Room Trading Stories of Death” with its’ ruminations on the random cycle of life and death and ably demonstrates Skipp’s ability to shift between moods and styles of writing. The final story in this collection is the epic “Food Fight.” This story of delusion and grandeur set in a female psychiatric ward is a furious pummeling of the senses as it jumps between multiple perspectives. Each character has a very distinct personality and Skipp constantly shifts the perspective in such a way that you start to feel the madness of the place and the tension start to rise to fever pitch. It is just a cracking story. Oh, and then there are the appendices which are just as good as what has preceded them. The first, “Chronicling 1000 or so names”, is basically the best thank you will ever read. This is then followed by the poignant and heartfelt “Requiem for a Dog” which, unless you have a heart of stone, will have you in tears.
And this ably demonstrates why I love John Skipp’s writing. He can shock and revolt you one moment, make you laugh and think the next and then just as quickly make you sit there and shed a tear. It makes me wonder what I have been missing in the intervening years and it is something I am going to change right quick. The Art of Horrible People reminds me of the beauty that can be had from the ugly side of life. A highly recommended read.
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