In an earlier article, I wrote about the Splatterpunk movement of the late 1980s and the eponymous anthology it spawned. For those who missed (or simply don’t care to read) that article, you’re terrible people. Why do you want to hurt me? Just go read it.
In all seriousness, though—Splatterpunk was a reactionary movement to what was perceived of as a tameness in horror literature at the time, and aimed to take the genre back to what they saw as its real purpose and roots: completely ballistic stories filled with unfettered graphic violence and sex. Published in 1990, the Splatterpunks anthology may have been the high water mark for the movement, but it also marked the beginning of its rapid decline. As I pointed out in my last article (have you read it yet?), Splatterpunk didn’t last long for a number of reasons, chief among them that it was a reactionary movement without any real manifesto and that it was too closely related to the social conditions of the 1980s. Yet the anthology wasn’t quite a swan song. To see Splatterpunk in its death throes, you need to check out Splatterpunks II: Over the Edge, a 1995 collection that’s just as fascinating a historical artifact as its predecessor, and provides a look at a horror ethos taking its last gasps.
Just as the original provided a look at the state of short horror fiction at the end of the 1980s, Over the Edge is an insightful glimpse at the state of the genre in the first half of the 1990s. Fascinatingly, editor Paul Sammon’s opening screed could read like the introduction to an anthology written in 2017, as he emphasizes the fact that the majority of the authors being featured are women, voicing a need for the horror fandom to recognize and embrace the role that female creatives play in bringing the genre to life. It’s both a reflection of the socio-political climate of the 1990s as well as a sad reminder that, if any advancements were made in the ensuing decade-and-a-half, we’ve taken two steps backward for every one forward.
That social consciousness carries over into the content of the stories as well. The early 90s were an era in which alternative lifestyles, S&M, and awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence were coming out of the shadows and into the mainstream, and that cultural climate is reflected in such stories as Lucy Taylor’s Heels (involving transvestism and foot fetishism), Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s Imprint (a brutally effective story about incest and the cycle of abuse), and Christa Faust’s Epiphany (which takes some of the imagery of the BDSM community and carries it to its most logical and horrific ends). Keeping with the collection’s exploration of human sexuality, this time around there’s an equal emphasis on graphic violence and graphic sex. The overall tone is effectively set with the first story, Wildy Petoud’s Accident D’Amour, in which a woman dispatches her monstrous daughter to help sexually enslave the girl’s biological father, and carries through to the closing Epiphany, which reads like erotica written for Clive Barker’s Cenobites. It was a sign that Sammon, at least, was aware Splatterpunk couldn’t thrive on rebellion alone, and that he was attempting to steer the movement towards something a bit more socially relevant. It was a fascinating idea, but, as history (and the stories in the collection bear out), the gambit didn’t quite pay off. A large part of that has to do with the actual quality of the stories themselves: those with the heaviest political undertones are the weakest in the collection, often reading more like horror oriented cliff-notes on particular social issues, or the angry, unedited diary entries of a liberal teenager in a conservative small town. It was a bright idea with a dull execution—if Sammon wanted to deliver a political message, the stories needed to be less ranty and more revelatory. (Sammon was also apparently trying to attach a more scholarly bent to the ‘Punks. This time around, there are three high-brow non-fiction entries, including an essay by Anya Martin on the relationship between rock music and horror, an interview with Anton LeVay, and an essay on the films of Brian DePalma by none other than Martin Amis). Even moreso than the original Splatterpunks, Over the Edge has more value as a cultural artifact than for the quality of the writing inside.
That isn’t to say, though, that the collection is completely without merit. While the weakest entries are weak, Over the Edge also boasts some of the best short horror fiction to come out of the 1990s. John Piwarski’s Twenty-Two and Absolutely Free is a pitch-black satire about America’s fascination with celebrity criminals, set in a world in which serial killing has become an epidemic and nightly news reports keep citizens abreast of the latest themed murderers (one killer only preys on ambulance drivers, while another selects victims based solely on age). Written when Piwarski himself was only in his early twenties, it’s a surprisingly mature and darkly funny story that effectively demonstrates how to pull off the skewering of small town USA that so many horror writers attempt and fail at. Michael Ryan Zimmerman’s Dripping Crackers, meanwhile, is an unapologetically vile yet brilliant takedown of shock comedy and tabloid culture, while Kathe Koja’s Impermanent Mercies is an Outer Limits worthy tale of a little boy’s relationship with the dog from Hell. It’s Wayne Allen Sallee’s For You, the Living, though, that stands out as Over the Edge’s tour-de-force piece, a moving, disgusting saga of love and death against the backdrop of a very unique zombie epidemic.
Originally published as a limited-run chapbook, For You, the Living tells of the consequences of a mutated virus originally intended to curtail the spread of HIV, which instead turns its victims into mindless ghouls driven by their basest animal instincts (in a gruesome twist on traditional zombie lore, Sallee’s infected are just as likely to try and screw you as they are to eat you). The undead are unique here for another reason, too: rather than simply rot, the virus turns them into Cronenbergian abominations whose bones are driven out through their skin due to violent muscle spasms and whose flesh liquefies to the touch. Prefiguring the horror of It Follows, Sallee’s virus—called “Treats” as a warped Halloween joke— is sexually transmitted and remains dormant for a period after infection, allowing it to sweep across America at the height of early 90s club culture. While the reader is never made privy to the exact havoc Treats wreaks—the narrator admits it could be a regional epidemic isolated to the Southern and Midwestern US– it devastates Chicago. Uniquely for a zombie story, the city isn’t completely overrun at the get-go, and the reader follows the protagonists as they attempt to keep life close to something normal. It’s against this backdrop that the narrator meets and falls in love with Sherideen MacLaren, a fearless woman whose nonplussed reaction to nearly being disemboweled by a rampaging horde immediately endears her to the rescue team that finds her. The romance begins with the knowledge that it’s doomed—the fight to maintain control of Chicago is a train wreck occurring in slow motion, as Treats proves more virulent than previously thought and those fighting the infected begin to succumb themselves. Knowing their days are numbered, the narrator and Sherideen nevertheless enter a relationship vaguely approximating a marriage, opting to live out their final days enjoying what happiness there’s left to be had. Sallee proves himself able to deftly juggle multiple different approaches and succeed at all of them. The story is at once comically disgusting, nightmarishly terrifying, and profoundly touching, with no one tack dominating the others. It’s a perfect tonal balance that produces one of the best and most unconventional pieces of zombie fiction ever written, and that alone makes Over the Edge work seeking out.
Ultimately, the collection didn’t have the staying power of its predecessor. While the original anthology remains a ubiquitous staple of used bookstores and eBay auctions, the obscurity of the second points to its more ignominious reception. In 1990, Splatterpunks was both something new and something perfectly of the zeitgeist. The boat had sailed by 1995, though. While Splatterpunks was subversive, Over the Edge is more often than not sleazy—and not in the good way. To a certain extent, though, it’s the perfect denouement to the Splatterpunk movement—it’s something loud, mad, and in-your-face, unafraid of consequences and completely unfettered by any semblance of decorum or restraint. In that way, it’s the perfect capstone to a minor era in horror fiction.
In a sad postscript, John Piwarski died in 2009 at the age of forty; he only published a handful of short fiction and poems in his life, and Twenty-Two appears to be his magnum opus. Information on his life and work is scant online, and the partially parodic biography he submitted for Over the Edge—which Sammon himself admits is too brief and vague—offers little insight into his life or influence. If one of his friends or family happens to be reading this, please leave a comment below. He’s certainly an author who deserves to be remembered, and it would be a shame if his entry in Over the Edge is the only testament he left to the world.