Horror is defined by the heart of its audience.
What makes one person shudder may bore another, more jaded observer.
As a hardcore horror fanatic, I have encounter many occasions where I am not only bored by some of the genre’s efforts but also baffled by their popularity. For example, I cannot understand the appeal of the Paranormal Activity films. They rely on jolt scares and I find it to be lazy writing. However, a lot of people find these flicks terrifying. I also remember thinking, at age seventeen, that Angel Heart was one of the scariest films I had ever seen (and I still stand by that). I told all of my teenaged buddies to watch it, insisting it would keep them up nights. After watching it, they thought I was an imbecile for deeming it remotely scary. I realized then that they wanted zombies, chainsaws and special effects, not morbid detective noir. But more importantly it was visceral horror that interested them, not cerebral. That same year I was thunderstruck by In the Mouth of Madness while they all hailed Demon Knight instead. Both are great genre films, but both are vastly different.
As I grew into a horror fiend I began to see patterns in tales of terror and began to predict the course of most horror films and stories. You can’t endure thousands of them without this happening. It isn’t a condemnation of the works, but rather a testament to the power of the human mind. Even books, which are always far less routine than films, began to lack surprise for me and the absence of suspense made the elements of horror fail to horrify a seasoned genre veteran like myself. I kept looking for newer, wilder mold breakers. I went from Stephen King to Clive Barker, then from Barker to classic Richard Matheson, then from Matheson to a wide variety of talented authors: Rex Miller, Tim Lebbon, Ramsey Campbell and more.
After burning through all the high art of these craftsmen, I found myself adrift in a sea of mediocre genre fluff. By my mid-twenties I felt burnt out and hungry for something fresh as a kill. While I loved all the classics I’d treasured over the years, I had gotten so tired of going to the bookstore and picking up one new horror novel after another, each of them always having a scary looking house on the cover, and all of them delivering zero chills. Some were trash – but others were indeed well written and thought out, and were compelling enough to keep me reading through to the end, but they just didn’t scare me.
I began wonder when horror stopped being horrifying.
Thankfully, that is when I first discovered Jack Ketchum.
My girlfriend at the time worked at a bookstore. When big publishing houses send bookstores books that fail to sell, the store mails back the covers of the books and gets full credit to their account. However, they don’t want the whole books back, because of the shipping cost. So my girlfriend would bring home piles of books with no front cover.
One day she brought me a copy of Jack Ketchum’s Red, based upon what the back cover described. I’ve always been a big western fan. I love Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood. So she thought I would enjoy this book about an old man seeking justice on the young punks who killed his dog.
And boy was she right.
Not only is Red an emotionally charged story of violent revenge, loyalty and perseverance - it is also a very well written piece of fiction. While not a horror novel, its boil-building plot seized me with a page-turning suspense, the very feeling of dreadful anticipation that had been so painfully absent in the horror schlock I’d been reading.
I looked into Ketchum who, though a genre heavyweight now, was an obscure horror author back in the early 2000’s. But of what little I could find about him online, there was one book of his that I knew I had to track down.
Readers and critics alike where very black and white about Ketchum’s notorious horror novel Off Season, and remain so to this day. People either see it as a ghastly, perverted, incorrigible pile of filth or they think it is one of the most brilliant and intense horror novels ever written - much as I do.
Telling the simple story of group of friends vacationing in rural Maine only to be attacked by a pack of wild cannibals, Off Season is survival horror at its finest. It is also so graphic and relentless in its brutality that calling it just a horror story would not give the reader fair enough warning.
This was my introduction to extreme horror.
This sub-genre is reserved for books and films that break taboos and delve into the unmentionable and the inhumane with unapologetic force. Even the most jaded horror fan can expect to be disgusted or offended. Shocking movies such as A Serbian Film, Nekromantik, Header, and The Burning Moon find themselves being banned in certain countries or being heavily edited for their release. Women’s groups vehemently attack books like American Psycho and the extreme works of horror author Edward Lee are often refereed to as mindless, gory sleaze.
But while some extreme horror is just gross for the sake of gross, and while much of it delves too deep into brainless torture scenarios, the genre can equally create simultaneous sensations of repulsion and mind-bending fear, and therein lies its power.
Think of some of the ghastliest moments in Se7en or Silence of the Lambs. These moments, though twisted and vile, were also part of a bigger whole – that whole being a masterpiece of modern horror.
For an author to not self-censor, and to expose the darkest corners of their imagination, can be the passport to new dimensions of horror storytelling. If the extremity is used correctly, as part of wider story arch and not just focused upon for its own sake, the overall effect can be staggering.
Hence the growing popularity of the before mentioned horror author, Edward Lee.
Lee has a lot of stellar mainstream horror fiction, such as his gripping Infernal series and his Lovecraftian works such as The Dunwhich Romance and The Innswich Horror. But lurking amidst his more mass friendly terrors are his underground novellas and collections, published on the outskirts, which seep with disturbing delights.
Books like Goon, Bullet Through Your Face and Brain Cheese Buffet are perfect examples of Lee’s spectacular skill at concocting the extreme. Brain Cheese Buffet was an awakening for me into a new world of horror fiction as foul as it was ingenious. The opening story, Mr. Torso, is one of the most haunting pieces of horror fiction my brain has ever been invaded by, and even though it falls into the forbidden extreme horror zone it still snagged the author a much deserved Stoker nomination. Additional stories in this vile volume include the utterly revolting The Dritiphilist and the uber-twisted The McCrath Model ss40-C, Series S. I encourage all true horror fans to seek out this paperback, but I am warning you right now that they will really test you.
You know that feeling you get when you watch a movie like Maniac? You like the movie but at the same time you don’t want anyone to walk in on you watching it? You kinda need a shower afterwards too, right? Welcome to every page of reading Brain Cheese Buffet. Put it in your safety deposit box when family visits, least they haul you off to a rubber room.
As a horror writer myself, I marvel at the talent and bravery of Lee and Ketchum for pushing a difficult and even unpopular sub-genre at the risk of damaging their writing careers. I’m so glad that it has all worked out in their favor too, and that the true horror fans came out to place their work on pedestals where they belong. Ketchum is so revered now by horror fans that when a movie is made out of his work, his name appears at the top instead of the director’s (such as in the movie Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door.)
This opened the floodgates for extreme horror fiction and films, which have been catching on more and more. As our genre floats in a sea of banal, big budget remakes, the indie horror scene, as well as the foreign markets, have been exploding with extreme films like Dead Girl, The Loved Ones, Inside, I Saw the Devil and Martyrs – movies that are not only extreme, but are some of the best horror films out there today.
In addition, newcomer authors feel less confined to old industry standards, so instead of just a sea of ghost novels with those scary house covers, there is also a world of small presses pumping out stellar, underground splatterpunk and high tension terror, such as Deadite Press, Dark Moon Books, Post Mortem Press, and many more. Magazines and anthologies are popping up offering a printed page home for horror writers like myself.
This month brings forth such an anthology that I am incredibly proud to be a part of, and puts my work in the company of some of these personal writing heroes.
D.O.A II is the sequel to Blood Bound Book’s popular extreme horror anthology D.O.A. This is the sort of mind-raping, stomach-pumping horror that I’ve been speaking of here. Along with one of my nasty short stories, this gruesome volume also contains some mean entries from Jack Ketchum, Wrath James White, J. F. Gonzalez, Robert Devereaux and many more.
In 2008, I met Jack Ketchum at a horror con and got him to sign a copy of his rare novella The Crossings for me. Now it is 2013 and I’m in a book with him! I’m sure you can appreciate the excitement this gives me, and I hope that after reading this article on extreme horror fiction that you’re all excited to check out this gnarly collection of carnage. And if you need a little more convincing about the book’s quality, just check out this blurb we got from the godfather of gore himself:
"Make sure your health insurance covers psychiatric counseling before reading this book, because you’re gonna need it. The experience of this collection may be likened to getting run over by a 666-car locomotive engineered by Lucifer. This is the cream of grotesquerie’s crop, a Whitman’s Sampler of the heinous, and an absolutely gut-wrenching celebration of the furthest extremities of the scatological, the taboo, the unconscionable, and the blasphemous.”
If we’re extreme enough for Edward Lee, then I’m one happy contributor indeed, and if you’re a horrorfiend hungry for newer, vivid abominations, I think I’ve given you plenty to go on. Just beware, the extreme horror writers are coming for you next, and there is no safe word.