Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 13 - The Best-Fed Citizens in Calcutta

So. Zombies.

It all began -- the kind of horror fiction that now dominates the field -- with zombies, in 1968, when a young generation of horror fans first saw George Romero's seminal low-budget classic Night of the Living Dead, and blah blah blah. The connection between Romero's film and the sharp increase in extreme gore in horror literature has not only been written about to the point of dead-horse-beating, but if no one had ever written about it all, the same conclusion would have still been reached by any reasonably intelligent horror fan, on his or her own. Why go over it again?

So I won't. But, by way of introduction to today's post, I will say that eventually, this violent surge in the genre gave rise to a half-assed "movement", a group of writers who dubbed themselves the "Splatterpunks". I know, they sound so dangerous, don't they? It's almost like you don't even know what a guy who calls himself a "splatterpunk" is going to say next. He'll say anything, that guy. His writing is sure to be "in your face", not to mention "full of attitude".

In 1990, a critic named Paul Sammon edited together a collection of short stories in this mode called, aptly, Splatterpunks. Hilariously, out of sixteen contributors, only four writers considered themselves part of the "splatterpunk" movement. To be fair, one of those was Clive Barker, who is a talented writer. But two of them -- John Skipp and Craig Spector -- wrote primarily as a team, so they sort of count as one (I've never read their work, so no comment). And the fourth (or third) was David J. Schow.

David J. Schow not only considered himself a "splatterpunk" (and he still may, although to my knowledge no one ever uses the term anymore, other than when they're referring to the time nearly twenty years ago when four writers referred to themselves that way); he coined the term. And he contributed a story to the story anthology that really launched the movement, such as it was. That anthology was not Splatterpunks, which came a year after, but rather The Book of the Dead. The premise behind this collection (edited, by the way, by John Skipp and Craig Spector...things are getting pretty insular at this point, aren't they?) was that each contributing author would write a story that sort of took place in George Romero's "zombie universe". All this really means is that all the stories are about zombies, and they're gross (okay, I haven't read them all, by any stretch), and they take place during a zombie apocalypse.

David J. Schow's story is called "Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy". I believe this story is now considered something of a seminal work in the genre, at least of the last twenty years or so. And, oh my Christ, that is so sad.

Here's what it is: after the zombie apocalypse has been going for some time, a guy named Wormboy has built his existence around luring zombies (which he calls "geeks") into his reach, killing them, and eating them. See, he feeds off zombies in the way that worms feed off of corpses. Okay, so that's pretty much all you need to know about him. The other side of this story involves an evangelical fundamentalist named Reverend Jerry, who considers the zombie uprising to be sign from God that all his fundamentalist beliefs were right all along. Jerry has also figured out a way to control zombies, so that they don't eat him (don't ask -- it involves snake venom, and makes no sense), and so he's able to use them as a sort of army.

Reverend Jerry and his undead army meet Wormboy, and we get passages like this:

It took no time for the air to clog with the tang of blackened geek beef. One whiff was all it took to make Wormboy ralph long and strenuously into the moat. Streaming puke pasted a geek who lay skewered through the back, facing the sky, mouth agape. It spasmed and twisted on the barbs, trying to lap up as much fresh hot barf as it could collect.

If you liked reading that, then you'll love this story. Because that's all it is. Actually, let me hold up a second, and see if I'm leaving anything out that, if I mentioned it, might make the story sound more interesting...well, you know that Reverend Jerry is a Christian fundamentalist. Can you guess that this easy target is taken down in exactly the same way over and over again? Now, Wormboy is an atheist, and a heartless nihilist. When I found that out, I thought Schow might be going somewhere, because Wormboy is unlikely to be embraced as an atheist icon, so you have the extreme end of the religious spectrum facing off. You knew where Schow goes with this? He goes nowhere. What we know about the characters' beliefs is that they believe them. Then almost everyone dies, one more toothless swipe is taken at Christianity, the end.

This story is wretched not because it's disgusting; it's wretched because it's boring. About two pages into this thing, and I saw I had twenty more to go, I was ready to quit. I could barely muster up the energy to read a twenty-two page zombie story.

Fuck it. Congratulations, Mick Garris, pop the cork on that champagne, because you've no linger written the worst story I've read this month.

* * * *

And so we turn to Poppy Z. Brite. Brite was a big up-and-comer in horror fiction, back in the early to mid-1990s. She had a lot going for her, on the surface, as someone the media could maybe possibly kinda sorta latch on to, if horror fiction was on their radar at all: she was young; a female, of all things; good-looking (and don't tell me it's condescending to mention that, because Clive Barker played up his looks, too. He still does, actually); and received early praise from the likes of Harlan Ellison and Dan Simmons, among others.

Honestly, I've only read this one story by Brite so far, so this is almost all based on what I've read about her, but Brite's star seemed to rise in the wake of Clive Barker's own ascendance. The two of them seem to have much in common, in that sex of all types feature prominently and graphically in their fiction, as does extreme violence. And like Barker -- and unlike most of the other young horror writers who followed his path -- Brite has genuine talent and imagination.

Her zombie story is called "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves", and it can be found in her only collection of short horror fiction, Wormwood (published in the UK under the more attention-grabbing title of Swamp Foetus). It's about a man born in Calcutta to an Indian mother and American father. The mother dies in childbirth, and the grief-stricken father whisks his son back to the US. Several years later, after his father's death, the son returns to Calcutta, right around the time that the dead begin returning from their graves to feast upon the flesh of the living.

Calcutta, you will say. What a place to have been when the dead began to walk.

And I reply, what better place to be? What better place than a city where five million people look as if they are already dead -- might as well be dead -- and another five million wish they were?

Brite's relationship to Calcutta in this story is very similar to the one Dan Simmons has in his first and (to me) still best novel, Song of Kali. To blunt, the city is depicted as a miserable, rotten death-pit, an open sewer and an open wound. This a very, very rough depiction of India at its most hopeless.

There is no real story here. "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" is kind of a mood piece. The narrator drifts through the city, observing this particular zombie apocalypse as it lays waste to a place that defines "zombification": Calcutta was dead, but it didn't know it. And along the way, he ruminates on the appropriateness of being in this place at this time, as he becomes more and more interested in meanings and portents that surround the Hindu goddess, Kali. There is a particular temple to Kali that he visits regularly, where he brings her offerings. And he's not the only one:

By day Kali grinned down upon an array of blossoms and sweetmeats lovingly arranged at the foot of her pedestal. The array spread there now seemed more suited to the goddess. I saw human hands balanced on raw stumps of necks, eyes turned up to crescents of silver-white...I saw severed hands like pale lotus flowers, the fingers like petals opening silently in the night...

These things the dead brought to their goddess. She had been their goddess all along, and they her acolytes.

This is a good story, and a strange one. And it's difficult to write about. As I said, it's a mood piece, which also happens to be disgusting, in a lyrical kind of way. I feel that if writers like David J. Schow (and believe me, guys like him are a dime a dozen) could achieve the effect that Brite nails here, they would. It would almost be nice to believe that...that the Schows of the horror world write what they do because they can't write in the way that Brite and Barker
can. So, they give up, turn to what comes easily to them, wrap that in as much attitude as they possibly can, and swagger around making claims that they belong to some kind of New Wave. Sure, Schow can disgust, but Brite can haunt.


Fox said...

I love the self-appointed genre names that cliques name themeselves... "Dogma 95", "Mumblecore", "Splatterpunks".It's no coincidence that these "trends" never seem to survive. (I'm assuming splatterpunk fizzled out since you said only four of them carried the torch...).

bill r. said...

Well, as a "movement", it's over, but the extreme violence that they made popular still hangs around. I'm not clear right now at what level, though, since I currently don't read much modern horror (meaning, horror fiction written within the last ten years or so).

Greg said...

the zombie apocalypse has been going for some time

Yeah, those zombie apocalypses can really outstay their welcome. I remember going through the last one, spring of 98, and thinking, "Man this is never gonna end!"

That picture of Chow or Schow or whatever is hilarious. What a maroon. I love these pathetic horror jerkwads who think they look deep and menacing. Yeah, whatever Chow, you and Rob Zombie couldn't give the willies to a trembling basket case with post traumatic stress disorder. They'd look at you and think, "Oh I'm fine, cause you're not scary at all."

By the way, I've read chat room blather between teenagers at my house - it's more interesting and better written than that excerpt you put up. How did these guys ever make it?

bill r. said...

When I was a kid, my school would only delay opening for two hours during a zombie apocalypse. Now they get whole days off. Lame!

My theory is, writers like Schow made it because standards were lowered by films. Oddly enough, some of those films were good (like Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but people learned the wrong lessons from them.

This was all going to be part of that essay I was pretending to write a while back. I guess I'm sort of covering all the bases this month, so I'll never finish that, which is probably for the best.

Greg said...

but people learned the wrong lessons from them

You've just described all of Hollywood history following blockbuster movies.

bill r. said...

Well, yes. It's SOP in popular art, I suppose.

Will Errickson said...

Wow, splatterpunk. I've still got all the books from its heyday in the late 80s/early 90s, and every now and again I'll reread some of those stories. Still have a soft spot for those old paperbacks, despite the fact that Schow makes me squirm with embarrassment nowadays. Skipp & Spector did their best work anthologizing the zombie books. Brite, who I haven't read in years, has moved on to some sort of New Orleans gastronomic fiction. Clive Barker I think is still oddly underrated for his young adult fiction and his astonishing artwork. Splatterpunk might be long dead, but from everything I've heard about his stuff, Chuck Palanhiuk seems to be an heir. And I suppose what Max Brooks is doing with zombies is the only logical outcome of that sub-genre. Do you have a copy of the second Book of the Dead? "The Old Man and the Dead" by Mort Castle, Romero by way of Hemingway, still holds up, I think.

bill r. said...

No, Will, I don't have the second zombie book, though I know I'll pick it up some day. I may not like splatterpunk, but I do like zombies, after all.

Yes, Palanhiuk does definitely sound like he's carrying on the tradition, which is one of the reasons I've never read him. Any writer who brags about how many people he's made vomit at readings (stories I find dubious anyway) doesn't share my priorities.

I also agree that Clive Barker is a terrific artist. I like his paintings and sketches more and more as the years go by. And why is the name "Mort Castle" so familiar to me? He sounds like an old-time comedian.

Anonymous said...

great post. I loved your description of the Splatterpunks. You really don't know what they'll do next ...

L. Rob Hubb said...

You might want to also look for MONDO ZOMBIE, edited by John Skipp - it's basically BOOK OF THE DEAD VOL. 3.

Coincidentally, Skipp and Spector broke up their partnership... not sure of the whole story, but supposedly Poppy Brite had some tangential involvement.

As for Brite, she tackled REAL horror - a biography of Courtney Love...