When We Were Splatterpunk

Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror (1990): edited by Paul M. Sammon, containing the following stories and essays:  Night They Missed the Horror Show (1988) by Joe R. Lansdale; The Midnight Meat Train (1984) by Clive Barker; Film at Eleven (1988) by John Skipp; Red (1986) by Richard Christian Matheson; A Life in the Cinema (1988) by Mick Garris; Less Than Zombie (1989) by Douglas E. Winter; Rapid Transit (1985) by Wayne Allen Sallee; While She Was Out (1988) by Edward Bryant; Meathouse Man (1976) by George R. R. Martin; Reunion Moon (1990) by Rex Miller; I Spit in Your Face: Films That Bite (1989) essay by Chas. Balun; Freaktent (1988) by Nancy A. Collins; Crucifax Autumn: Chapter 18-The Censored Chapter (1988) by Ray Garton; Goosebumps (1987) by Richard Christian Matheson; Goodbye, Dark Love (1986) by Roberta Lannes; Full Throttle (1990) by Philip Nutman; City of Angels (1990) by Jay Russell; and Outlaws (1990) essay by Paul M. Sammon.

Flawed but immensely enjoyable anthology about the ‘It’ sub-genre of horror in the 1980’s, splatterpunk, and the men and women who would define it. Released only four years after the term had been coined by David Schow in emulation of science fiction’s cyberpunk, Splatterpunks sees Sammon attempting to define the sub-genre in several essays while also offering a selection of splatterpunk and proto-splatterpunk work. The basic definition of splatterpunk — stories of extremely graphic horror with an ‘outsider’s’ attitude — gets stretched, folded, spindled, and mutilated herein, however, by the very people trying to define it.

The benefit of hindsight suggests that the greatest triumph of splatterpunk lay in how quickly it became mainstream. Indeed, Sammon views Clive Barker as being the formative, game-changing writer whose Books of Blood essentially started the sub-genre. And Clive Barker, thanks in part to that ubiquitous quote from Stephen King, “I have seen the future of horror and its name is Clive Barker”, became a best-selling writer with great rapidity after the publication of Books of Blood in 1984.

Of course, therein lies the rub. Maybe several rubs. Thoughout the anthology, Sammon claims ground-level, outsider status for splatterpunk as a whole. Its two essential qualities are “enthusiasm” and “truthfulness.” Like early punk as related to the rock-and-roll of the 1970’s, it operates at the fringes of established horror.

However, Clive Barker, Sammon’s pivotal writer, was a sales success almost overnight once he started publishing horror — and that was with two giant volumes of short stories as his initial offering in horror, which is about as unusual as it gets in a publishing market centered around novels. By 1990, Barker had vectored almost completely out of horror writing, instead working on movies, comic books, and gigantic fantasy novels. And all along, Barker maintained he wasn’t a splatterpunk.

Actually, pretty much everyone in this anthology whom Sammon asks to define themselves as splatterpunks refuses to do so. Some are willing to claim that some of their stories are splatterpunk. Others are not. And the person who coined the term? Well, while David Schow’s excellent first short-story collection in the 1980’s, Lost Angels, named him on the cover as the father of splatterpunk, none of the stories included therein could justifiably be viewed as splatterpunk (though Sammon tries really hard to make the case for Schow’s award-winning “Red Light”, a quiet horror story that Sammon tries to sell as splatterpunk because it’s “enthusiastic” and “truthful.”).

So it goes. But Barker’s success with graphically violent supernatural and non-supernatural stories of sex and horror wasn’t a one-off. By the early 1990’s, splatterpunk had been absorbed into mainstream horror. Or perhaps re-absorbed. Bleak or blackly comic, ground-level gross-outs have been part of horror for just about forever, as Sammon very briefly gestures towards in one of his essays. But Sammon champions splatterpunk while dismissing the “quaint”, “archaic” horrors of Poe and Lovecraft. But Poe wrote a lot of stories in which ridiculously bloody and grotesque things happened, with no moral in sight. Lovecraft, too, had his bodily horrors. So, too, so many others.

Sammon repeatedly tries to establish splatterpunk as the avant-garde, an impossible task given its rapid sales success and the existence of extremely popular antecedents. Sammon even cites James Herbert as an obvious proto-splatterpunk, and Herbert was Great Britain’s best-selling native horror writer of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. This is the gritty avant-garde?

Splatterpunk makes more sense as a reaction against the “quiet horrors” championed by American horror anthologist Charles L. Grant in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s in a variety of anthologies, most notably the Shadows series.  And there was definitely a literary feud going on there. Graphic short horror certainly began to become more prominent in horror anthologies, partially because self-defined splatterpunks such as Sammon, John Skipp, and Craig Spector started editing anthologies. And the splatter eventually got into everything, often mixing with the “archaic” types of horror that Sammon views condescendingly at points.

Sammon’s book touches upon some of the real-world reasons for a new taste for sex and violence in the 1980’s. A reaction against the hypocritical nostalgia of the Thatcher and Reagan regimes and their attendant censorship campaigns against ‘Video nasties’ and naughty song lyrics looms largest, aided by a gradual loosening of restrictions on what mainstream publishers would publish. And movies — especially independently produced movies — had been feeding an increasing appetite for gore since the late 1960’s saw George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead lumber onto the screen.

In any case, the anthology itself is a lot of fun, regardless of where one stands on the question of ‘What is Splatterpunk?’. Joe Lansdale’s “Night They Missed the Horror Show” still shocks the most, with its escalatingly brutal depiction of human horrors in a small Texas town.  Pieces by Mick Garris, Ray Garton, and Jay Russell all use babies or fetuses to horrific effect… hoo ha! Philip Nutman’s “Full Throttle” may be the finest story in Splatterpunks, a kitchen-sink bit of social realism, telepathy, and graphic violence and sexuality that stings more with its social commentary, and its ability to arouse sympathy for a couple of self-pitying, unsympathetic teenagers, than with its moments of horrific physicality. Highly recommended.

2 thoughts on “When We Were Splatterpunk

  1. Excellent and perceptive review! I remember buying this one when it came out and it was kinda my bible for awhile (helped me get into Burroughs and Ballard for sure) and when I reread it three or four years ago, I was happy to see much of it still worked well. Today readers use “splatterpunk” to describe somebody like Richard Laymon, which is fairly ludicrous because he has none of that outsider approach nor the attempt at psychological realism. Obviously the “punk” part was a reaction against bloated bestsellers by King, Saul, Koontz, et. al., ('70s punk rock vs. Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Yes, et. al.) and of course eventually they were co-opted into the mainstream. That's how culture works.

    “Full Throttle” is definitely a highlight; I also truly enjoyed George R.R. Martin's “The Meathouse Man.” And Lansdale's story is one for the ages.

    I did however find Sammon's attempts to link splatterpunk with Baudelaire and de Sade and other avant-garde writers a bit ludicrous, but again, that helped me expand my own reading interests, so some thanks is due!


  2. Yeah, I think the volume misses an obvious point (maybe more obvious in hindsight) that Ramsey Campbell's forays into kitchen-sink, lower-middle-class loner horror in the late 1960's and 1970's are extraordinarily important to the genre as a whole. Indeed, Nutman's story seems a lot like a Campbell story in setting and subject matter, though not stylistically.


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