In a previous article, I briefly mentioned the anthology collection Splatterpunks as a convenient way to find George R.R. Martin’s, Meathouse Man. I thought, though, that the collection deserves a bit more attention than just a passing reference in an unrelated article. Although it’s gone out of print, it’s both a fascinating look at the state of horror fiction at the end of the 1980s and boasts several great stories that are worth seeking out.
For the uninitiated, Splatterpunk was a cursory movement in the horror world in the 1980s and early 90s. Living up to its name, its goal was to upset what its adherents saw as a polite status quo in horror literature. Horror, Splatterpunks believed, was meant to be messy, violent, and extreme, and no one was being served by implied mutilation, bloodletting, or orgies. The rules of Splatterpunk were essentially that there were no rules—their manifesto is best summed up by ad copy for the first Hellraiser film, which editor Paul Sammon used as the anthology’s epigraph: There are no limits.
The movement never quite got off the ground, though. While it had its cheerleaders, it had an equal number of detractors—several of them within the horror community itself. While Robert Bloch infamously criticized Splatterpunk by saying “there is a distinction to be made between that which inspires terror and that which inspires nausea,” even many of the ‘Punks’ contemporaries shied away from the label. Tellingly, Sammon prefaces many entries in the anthology with the disclaimer that a given author has expressly asked not to be called a Splatterpunk or that they’ve publicly distanced themselves from the movement. Even the anthology’s concluding entry, Outlaws, an original essay by Sammon meant to highlight Splatterpunk’s star players, turns into a litany of talented horror writers who don’t want to be called Splatterpunks: The entry on Richard Laymon ends with a paragraph-length quotation from him about why he doesn’t want that association. The reasons—from both Laymon and horror writers in general— were myriad: Horror is already a subgenre on the periphery, and putting an author into an even smaller box within it only limits their potential audience appeal. Too, many authors didn’t subscribe to the politics of the movement, and simply wrote stories that happened to feature excessive gore sometimes. They weren’t making a statement or trying to upset the status quo—they were just writing.
Perhaps the biggest nail in the Splatterspunks’ coffin, though, was the march of time. It was a movement firmly born out of the Reagan-Thatcher 80s, when mainstream society was drifting towards a more conservative veneer even as people continued to flock to slashers and seek out video nasties, and when horror filmmakers were able to take advantage of advancing technology to create such visceral masterpieces as The Fly and The Thing. As the decade ended, though, and Reagan style conservativism went out of vogue, replaced by Gen-X grunginess, there was suddenly less and less to rebel against. Horror may still not have been a mainstream genre, but even the most ardent Splatterpunk had to sit back and consider the implications of Silence of the Lambs—a movie where a guy cuts off another guys’s face and wears it like a mask—winning all those Oscars. It was a movement built solely on rebellion, with no broader political agenda or ideology, and movements built solely on rebellion tend to lose their momentum quickly. With nothing left to rail against, Splatterpunk faded away, and its authors simply became horror authors.
Regardless of its longevity or direct impact on the horror world, the Splatterpunks—and those who asked not to be called Splatterpunks—left behind a fantastic body of work that’s worth checking out for anyone who wants to see what short horror fiction looked like in a very specific time and place. (With the exception of Meathouse Man, which was written in the early 70s and published in ’76, all of the stories in the collection come from the period 1984-1990). Regardless of whether they embraced the label or not (and most did not), the Splatterpunks anthology boasts early or lesser-known works by Joe Lansdale, Clive Barker, Mick Garris, and Richard Christian Matheson (who’s represented twice). Lansdale’s piece—The Night They Missed the Horror Show—is one of the standouts of the collection: A nasty slice-of-life story about two racist high school football players in the 1970s whose decision to haze a black classmate results in an encounter with even bigger human monsters than themselves. It’s short, nasty, and to the point, like if Flannery O’Connor had lived into the 80s and gotten blatantly seedy.
Equally worthy of note is Douglas E. Winter’s Less than Zombie, a pitch-perfect parody of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero with a horror twist. Winter—a Harvard alum who juggled litigation with writing horror critiques (including The Art of Darkness, one of the earliest serious scholarly studies of Stephen King’s work)—takes the nihilism of Zero and amps it up to 11. He tosses the protagonists of Ellis’ work into a world where zombies—or at least the idea of zombies—hold a quiet sway over an otherwise still functioning society, then watches what they do when they’re even more unfettered to do whatever they like. The collection also includes Chas Balun’s I Spit in Your Face: Films that Bite, which might be one of the first retrospectives written on grindhouse cinema following the demise of the movie palaces in the 1980s. Balun of course has limited space with which to explore the subgenre, so it doesn’t get to make a terribly deep exploration, and his style is more gonzo than academic, but it’s a fascinating read, especially considering it was written right at the end of the grindhouse era, when 42nd Street was beginning to clean up and and Bill Landis’ Sleazoid Express had been put to bed.
There are some real stinkers here too, though, and while you’ll see the best of the Splatterpunk ethos (or not Splatterpunk ethos) on display, you’ll also see its worst—stories where the blood and sex is there just to shock, wrapped up in subpar writing that exists only to serve as buildups to or connecting sequences. Alongside the higher quality work, the lesser stories become object lessons in how not to do sex and violence well in horror. I’m not going to name them, because I’m not one to throw shade, but, you’ll know them when you see them should you choose to seek out Splatterpunks—and seek it out you should.
It’d be amiss for me not to address that I have a personal connection to the Splatterpunks anthology. It was recommended to me by one of my best friends out of high school, Jeremie White, who loaned me his copy in exchange for my copy of Clive Barker’s In the Flesh. Jeremie was—and remains—one of the most dedicated and ardent horror fans I know, capable of waxing poetic, intellectual, or fanboy about all manner of obscure and unknown pieces of horror media, and I’m forever grateful that he hooked me up with Splatterpunks. At a time when I was still developing my voice as a writer, it was a fantastic piece of inspiration and education, and—as my projects have largely dealt with the 70s and 80s—it was an invaluable window into what the horror community was reading and producing during the time period I was concerned with. I still have the copy I bought after giving Jeremie his back, and it’s been one of the consistent staples of my bookshelf over the last thirteen years, even as other books have come and gone back to the used bookstore. That, for me, has become the dual beauty of the collection—it’s not just a look back at the heritage of horror writing, but my own. It’s a blast from the past—a past worth a brief visit, at least, if not an extended vacation.