Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book Reviews in Bulk - The Splatterpunks

So last time, I promised some non-update related posts. This is the first.

While the day job was driving me nuts, I went back to an old faithful for escapism. I read. I hit up the Kindle store looking to see if anything new was out there, and lo and behold discovered not something new, but something old re-released in eBook form. In a sense, this was better.

I grew up in the eighties and early nineties. During those formative years, I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on that was horror related. Some of my favorites were the splatterpunk authors who took horror and stood it on its head. These have been followed by today's "hardcore" horror writers, but those who led the way still hold a special place in my heart. Over the years, the paperbacks I had wore out and became unreadable, though I still have some of them. But now, many of those books are on Kindle. My bank account suffered this discovery, but my heart thrilled at it.

Here's some reviews of a few of those, freshly re-read for the first time in over fifteen years, and a couple read for the first time ever.

The Scream by John Skipp and Craig Spector
This was the one that got me hooked. For me, it was the other side of the Rock n' Roll / Horror connection that Alice Cooper and those who followed him presented. I loved it as a kid, so I decided to see how it held up so many years later.

From Rock 'n' Roll. Hell. Two great tastes that taste great together. Long before Elvis gyrated on the Sullivan Show or the Beatles toiled the smoky red-light bars of Hamburg, music has been sowing the seeds of liberation. Or damnation. With each new generation the edge of rebellion pushed farther. Rhythms quickened. Volume increased. Lyrics coarsened. The rules continued to be broken, until it seemed that there were no rules at all.
And as waves of teens cranked it up and poured it on, parents built walls of accusation to explain their offspring's seeming corruption. Sex and drugs, demon worship and violence are the effects. Music is the cause. Or so the self-styled guardians of morality would have us believe.
Meet The Scream. Just your average everyday mega-cult band. Their music is otherworldly. Their words are disturbing. Their message is unholy. Their fans are legion. And they're not kidding. They're killing. Themselves. Each other. Everyone. Their gospel screams from the lips of babes. Their backbeat has a body count. And their encore is just the warm-up act to madness beyond belief.
It emerged from a war-torn jungle, where insanity was just another word for survival. It arrived in America with an insatiable lust for power and the means to fulfill it. In the amplified roar of arena applause there beats the heart of absolute darkness.

The first thing that hit me was the pop culture references, usually through brand names that no longer exist but were top of the line in the mid-eighties when this came out. This time around, I understood those. The next was the writing itself, something I can appreciate so much better now that I'm older and have tried my hand at it. The descriptive turn of phrase, the use of metaphors combining things in a way I would have never imagined, the word choice. All of it was spot on, and one of the hallmarks I remembered from Skipp and Spector. When it came to splatterpunk horror, they could make it real in ways many writers never could. And that's a good thing.

Then there were the characters. Sometimes they seemed caricature, but in those instances you almost get the feeling they were intended to be. From Jacob Hammer, leader of the eponymous Jacob Hammer Band to Rod Royale, lead guitarist for the Scream and long-distance prodigy of the Marquis de Sade to Pastor Daniel Furniss, the obvious televangelist amalgamation, they all leapt off the page and could have been sitting in the room next to you. With some exceptions, you feel sympathy for the villains and see the faults in the heroes.

The story itself sometimes wanders, but even those side trips are fun and provide some of the motivations for why the characters made the choices they did and ended up where they are at each point of the story. The ending is a bit predictable, but considering the subject matter there really was no other obvious direction to take it.

All in all, it was the same joyful read I remembered it being, only with a deeper understanding of the subtext to make it that much richer in my mind.

The Kill Riff and Wild Hairs by David J. Schow
David J. Schow should be a familiar name to anyone who read Fangoria magazine in the nineties. He wrote a column for them called Raving and Drooling where he vented about whatever was on his mind, from censorship and the MPAA to long-forgotten classic horror movies, to whatever came across his black little heart.

Wild Hairs collects these, along with several other columns and articles he wrote over the years for other publications, and offer a prime example of where he shines as a writer. In addition to these magazine articles, Schow is also a scriptwriter, having worked on some of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies as well as The Crow starring Brandon Lee. It is of this latter where the heart truly comes into his column for Fango, and you can almost feel him using it as a way to deal with his grief over Brandon's untimely death on the set of that movie.

Basically, Wild Hairs is a step backward in time to those days where the MPAA seemed to have a vendetta against slasher movies and when those who worked behind the scenes in horror became as big as rock stars just by doing what they loved. If you are a true horror fan, check it out. Not every article was a winner, but there are enough to make the purchase worthwhile.

Then comes The Kill Riff, Schow's first full-length novel. Beware, spoilers ahead for this one.

Lucas Ellington is an LA ad executive who seems to have it all before it falls apart. His ex-wife commits suicide, leaving a note that blames him. Then his daughter Kristen is killed at a concert for the heavy metal group Whip Hand. After a self-imposed stay in a mental hospital where Lucas is "cured", he emerges a new man. One who intends to take out the members of the now-disbanded Whip Hand to avenge his daughter.

The story itself had potential, and for the first two acts, it lived up to it. Then we hit act three and it all came tumbling down.

The concept of revenge killing is not a new thing. It's been around for years. The story of a man blaming a rock band for his daughter's death is well within the realm of possibility, and could have made for a nice dual plotline. As he kills the band members, he begins to heal until he no longer needs to go through with it. As a reader, you sympathize with Lucas. As a parent, even more so. The scenes with the lead singer of Whip Hand, whom Lucas is saving for last, even paint him as the spoiled rock star who is so far above it all that the little people mean nothing to him anymore.

Lucas even gains sympathy when he saves a girl who knocks on the door of his secluded cabin in the mountains after her boyfriend beat the hell out of her and left her for dead. One could argue how believable her choice to stay at the cabin with him, knowing next to nothing about him is, but in the end it's irrelevant. She practically screams "plot device" from the moment she appears on Lucas's doorstep, but Schow makes you care enough about her that you can forgive that.

Then he throws that sympathy out the window. Lucas is not right in the head, sympathetic character or not. Well-adjusted individuals do not plan and carry out assassinations of rock stars as methodically as Lucas does with no remorse. That's all fine, though. We understand this going in since we first meet him talking to his doctor before being released from the mental hospital. It's when we learn the depths of his psychosis, that he is not merely troubled but flat-out psychopathic that things go haywire.

Two things in one scene seal the deal. The girl he helped, who is perhaps the most innocent character in the story as things turn out, has become what appears to be a strange hybrid replacement for Lucas's ex-wife and daughter. She reminds him of Kristen, but there is a sexual attraction there. The turning point comes as Lucas stares into his fireplace, the girl naked behind him after the two of them have made love. That Lucas bashes her head in with a stove of wood is not the worst part, though it is the first (but woefully not the last) innocent he kills. It's a single thought that runs through his mind while they're in the throes of passion. The thought that his daughter was not this good in bed.

Um, what?

This is near the start of act three, mind you. I tried to keep having sympathy for him, I really did. But after discovering that he was an incestuous psychopath who did not give two shits who he killed, I couldn't do it. His rationalizations that she had been the one to instigate things did nothing to allay that. The protagonist was gone, in his place another antagonist.

The role could have shifted. His doctor had been slowly figuring out what Lucas was up to the entire time, so I could have dealt with a shift to her for the protagonist role. To be fair, it seemed like that was exactly what was intended, but it didn't work. At least not for me.

The doctor spent too much time bemoaning the fact that if Lucas had played her, it wrecked her chances of having a relationship with him and was apt to ruin her career. Seriously? The guy's carrying out a planned mass murder and that's your focus. Exit sympathy for her, too.

So the book ends with no protagonist, and no real sense of closure other than the covers. It becomes only a minor quibble that occasionally the character dialogue sounds more like things Schow himself might say in one of his articles and not at all like normal people would talk around their friends and family. That I can forgive. The destruction of any character worth giving a damn about, not so much.

I like Schow's writing, don't misunderstand me. His script work is good and his magazine articles are top-notch. I seem to recall reading a short story or two of his, and they were okay as well. But for a novel, he dropped the ball and that disappoints me. I'll give him another chance. It looks like he's written other novels since The Kill Riff, and I can only hope they redeem him and show what I know he could do if he put his mind to it.

And that's it for now. I'll do more of these reviews, one at a time in the future, as I finish books that make me want to praise or condemn them. Hope you enjoyed this installment!

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