From DJStories: The Best of David J. Schow
In the late 1980s, toward the apex of the golden age of paperback horror, there appeared what novelist, story writer, and screenwriter David J. Schow referred to as “a little genre spasm called splatterpunk, which ruined horror for everybody.” He was being falsely modest or deliberately ironic (or perhaps both): Schow is credited with coining the term splatterpunk to describe a brand of aggressive, gory, grindhouse-inspired horror that came into ascendancy with late-’80s writers such as Schow, Clive Barker, Joe R. Lansdale, Ray Garton, and Richard Christian Matheson. In his seminal survey of ‘70s and ’80s literary horror, Paperbacks from Hell, Grady Hendrix says that “splatterpunk started as a trickle of short stories before erupting into a mudslide of novels, zines, and anthologies.”
Schow’s jibe about splatterpunk ruining horror is somewhat self-deprecating, but it is also quite accurate, at least to an extent. The flourishing of hardcore works of grotesque violence, much of it sexual in nature, that seemed like wilfully defiant challenges to readers’ sensibilities took descriptions of degradation and dismemberment pretty much as far as they could go. But there was a sense, among readers and writers alike, that such cheap thrills were too easy and appealed too much to naked prurience absent any kind of subtlety or psychological heft. It got to the point where even writers included in anthologies with titles like Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror (edited by Paul M. Sammon and published in 1990) were disavowing the term.
But the splatterpunk moment, which arose out of the arch conservatism of the Reagan-Thatcher era, was not insignificant, and too often commentators rely on the “splatter” part of the equation and ignore the “punk” aspect. As Will Errikson writes, “these writers had ambition: they wanted to fuse extreme violence and horror (the ‘splatter’) with a confrontational social sensibility (the ‘punk’) to provide a countercultural, more streetwise take on our collective fears at the end of the century.”
One of the landmark anthologies of the splatterpunk era was the 1989 volume Book of the Dead, edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector, themselves on the vanguard of the splatterpunk movement thanks to novels like The Light at the End and The Scream. As might be surmised from the title, Book of the Dead is an anthology of zombie fiction, a collection that capitalizes on and extends the work of filmmaker George A. Romero (who wrote the foreword for the volume). That book, and stories such as “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy,” which was included in it before going on to find a place in the 1990 edition of The Year’s Best Horror Stories, set the template that The Walking Dead and countless other postapocalyptic zombie series, movies, and books have been exploiting – to greater or lesser effect – ever since.
Readers with delicate stomachs be warned: Schow’s story takes no prisoners. A representative moment features the eponymous Wormboy vomiting “long and strenuously” onto a zombie that has been skewered through the back by a spike; the zombie works feverishly to lap up as much of the vomit as it can from its compromised position. The story – about an overweight outcast named Wormboy who makes a stand against a venal reverend and his army of zombie disciples – is awash in gore and viscera and bile, all of it described in loving detail for a willing reader’s delectation.
That’s the splatter part. What about the punk half?
Readers who lived through the ‘80s will remember it as the decade in which the so-called moral majority held sway in the culture. Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center were busy slapping warning labels on albums they deemed too racy for young ears, and the evangelical movement in the U.S. was going strong, riding a crest of homophobia that was spurred on by the AIDS crisis and pushing for a return to the nuclear family values of the 1950s. The title of Schow’s story explicitly evokes Jerry Lewis (Jerry’s Kids was the name of the comedian’s charity that worked to help children with muscular dystrophy); the reverend’s zombie “deacons” are similarly given names of classic comedians – W.C., Curly, Moe, and Fatty. But the name also chimes with Jerry Falwell, a fundamentalist Southern Baptist and activist who opposed civil rights, homosexuality, and Islam in roughly equal measure.
In Schow’s story, Jerry is an eschatological fundamentalist who sees in the living dead a proof of real miracles and a new congregation to be exploited:
Jerry savoured the moment the dead had walked. He relished this revelation which had vindicated his own lagging faith, dispelling in one masterstroke the doubts that had haunted his soul for a lifetime. There was a One True God, and there was a Judgment Day, and there was an Armageddon, and there was bound to be a Second Coming, sooner or later, and as long as these events came to pass correctly, who cared if their order had been juggled a bit? The Lord had been known to work in mysterious ways before.
Schow’s writing is both psychologically penetrating and satirical – hardly the work of someone interested only in grossing his reader out. (Though make no mistake: Schow is definitely interested in that, too.) The blasphemous communion that Jerry and his deacons share – he has found a way to control the zombies by feeding them venom he has extracted from rattlesnakes – is echoed at the story’s close. Wormboy effectively assumes the deceased reverend’s position, sharing a grotesque “communion” with his new flock of zombies: together, they partake of eating the reverend’s skull.
Wormboy is himself an interesting character. Obese and outcast as a teenager, he has found himself thrust into the role of heroic zombie slayer in a postapocalyptic wasteland where the survival skills he honed at the hands of his adolescent bullies come in handy as he makes his stand against Jerry and his zombie congregation.
And in case the implication were not sufficiently clear, Schow has great fun satirizing the notion of organized religion as a kind of mind control, with followers acting as unthinking zombies willing to accept whatever they are told on the basis of faith. The story simply literalizes this idea: the reverend refers to his congregation as “Born Agains.” “Our God is a loving God, yet a wrathful God,” he preaches to his deacons, “so he smote down those beyond redemption. He closed the book on secular humanism. His mighty Heel did trample out radical feminism. His good right Fist did mete out rough justice to the homosexuals; His good left Fist likewise did silence the pagans of devilspawn rock and roll.” In place of this societal rot, Jerry asserts, the Born Agains have risen to prepare the way for the Rapture and a great reckoning. An army of mindless zombies is, for the reverend, more Godlike and holy than feminists or rock stars.
There is a mordant humour to all of this, as well as a biting (no pun) social commentary. If the virginal Wormboy can be seen in one regard as a kind of prototypical incel, his final transformation into Reverend Jerry’s replacement is a stinging indictment of the nature of power and the dangers of blind faith. All of which just goes to prove that for the most savvy practitioners, the short-lived splatterpunk subgenre provided opportunities to do much more than just spray a tonne of viscera and gore across the page.