Cautionary Splatter

I’ve been in the process of moving over the past few months. As you may imagine, there are a lot of books, magazines, and other items to be gathered and transported. I’ve been taking it slowly, and looking over a lot of the items I have. Some of which I had almost forgotten about.

I came upon the Footsteps Press chapbook edition of Douglas E. Winter’s Splatter: A Cautionary Tale. I had not read the story in many years, and it has always been a favorite of mine. So I propped up the pillows, climbed under the warm blankets, and read this chilling short story.

I was immediately taken back, as if by time machine. Back to a time when I was a newly born horror fan; fan as in fanatic. I always loved the genre, but by the mid-’80s I cared for nothing—nothing—as much as I did horror.

It was an amazing time to be a horror lover. Things were breaking wide open in so many ways. A revolution was underway in the horror fiction genre. I had loved the more urbane horror that has been coming out regularly in the ’70s and early ’80s, but by the middle of the decade, there was a new breed smashing through the barriers. Guys like John Skipp and Craig Spector, David J. Schow, Ray Garton, and Richard Christian Matheson were taking the genre by storm. Visceral horror was nothing new, of course, but the Splatterpunk people (as facetious and self-deprecatory as most considered the term) were as influenced by splatter movies and hard rock as they were King or Poe.

Then there was another revolution going on. By around 1986 just about everyone who was so inclined could afford an archaic device called a Video Cassette Recorder. I know how quaint and ridiculous these contraptions seem today, but at the time it was an amazing development. For the first time ever we could watch what we wanted, when we wanted to watch it. We could actually stop and start the movie at any time. We could fast forward, rewind, pause…mind blowing! And, best of all, we could tape and keep nearly any movie we wanted to own. And many of us felt the compulsion to burn copies of just about every decent (and indecent) tape we rented.

It seemed to be an especially potent time for horror fans. It was a time when the first gorehounds started coming up. There had certainly been serious hardcore horror fans in days prior to then, but it became possible to find so many elusive films that had previous been impossible to locate.

It was the era when European horror ruled the landscape. There were plenty of homegrown American productions, but serious horror fans craved, obsessed over, and coveted movies by Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Jess Franco, Lucio Fulci, Jean Rollins, Ruggero Deodato, Armando de Ossario, Umberto Lenzi, and others.

There was, of course, no internet, so information about these filmmakers was as precious as it was scarce. I drooled over Chas Balun’s indispensable Deep Red magazine.  I devoured each issue of Fangoria and Gorezone, with special attention paid to the columns by Tim Lucas. For my money, the greatest days of Fangoria were the first few years of Anthony Timpone’s leadership.

There’s a good reason for that. I was young at the time. Well, mid-twenties, which is very young indeed to me today. The passion I had for horror in those days was all consuming. It was literally the purest thing I had ever known in my life.

I wish I could have maintained that perfect, unbridled, uncynical, adoration for the horror genre, but I unfortunately have not been able to do that. Oh, do not doubt that I love horror, and that I always will. I have grown harder, though, as I have aged. I’ve grown critical. I still love a lot of silly horror movies and books, as well as the really well done stuff, but it’s not like the old days when I loved damned near every piece of shit direct-to-video movie I eagerly rented. It’s like, I guess, a drug. You always wish you could go back and get the same exhilarating rush you once got when you were a new user. This isn’t to say that I am not still addicted to the stuff…

Which brings me back to Splatter: A Cautionary Tale. Though it first appeared in Masques 2, I first read the story in David J. Schow’s magnificent anthology, Silver Scream. If you have not read it, you should make a point of doing so as quickly as possible. No single book exemplified the exciting things happening in horror fiction as vividly and as well as Silver Scream.

I loved a lot of stories in the book. Joe R. Lansdale’s “Night They Missed The Horror Show” is unforgettable. Robert McCammon’s “Night Calls The Green Falcon” is rip-roaring entertainment. Robert Bloch’s “The Movie People” is warm and nostalgic. Craig Spector’s “Lifecast” is incindiary, and I had the pleasure of seeing him read it live on October first of this very year. Most of the stories in Silver Scream are a lot of fun.

Then there is “Splatter: A Cautionary Tale,” which isn’t a exactly a barrel of laughs. It’s haunting and deeply thought provoking.

“Splatter: a Cautionary Tale” is written in a cold, detached style that is reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis. Now, I hated American Psycho, and I slogged through Less Than Zero. That sort of transgressive fiction is far from my liking. Give me Bloch, Fredric Brown, Bill Pronzini, F. Paul Wilson and other storytellers over a thousand hip Burroughs or Palahniuks any day of the week.

But it works in “Splatter.” The story is told in twenty-four very short chapters, each with the title of a classic gore movie, from Apocalypse Domani to Zombie. The intentionally threadbare plot deals with a new censorship law being passed in America. We get the perspectives of a successful horror writer, who seems to have been modeled after Stephen King, and a gore fan. But they may in fact be one and the same person. They are you and me.

Pressure groups are trying to kill explicit horror and doing a pretty good job of it. That’s scary enough, but the most frightening aspect of “Splatter: A Cautionary Tale” is that the censors might have some decent points.

Has anyone committed a murder modeled after a horror movie or book? Have any lovers of shooting games ever used guns on real people? Have any rap lovers been jailed or killed when trying to live up to the lyrics of the songs? Have heavy metal fans spent inordinate amounts of money on hairspray?

These are disturbing questions and I don’t think it is right to dismiss them outright. There’s a line somewhere in there, and it’s as fine a line as I have ever heard of.

Stephen King discussed these issues near the end of his underrated nonfiction book, Danse Macabre. Are creators of explict materials responsible for their output? Morally if not legally?

Sometimes people forget how much censorship we faced in the fabled boom horror years of the ’80s. Critics savaged slasher films, not so much for the filmmaking techniques, but for their very existence. The MPAA slapped an X on damned near every horror movie for a while. Gene Siskel committed an act of supreme douchery when he publicly printed the address of Betsy Palmer—Mrs. Voorhees, from Friday the 13th—and urged his readers to write and berate her for her involvement in the movie. Harlan Ellison insinuated that people who watch slasher movies were insane. Teachers and preachers decried videostores that rented R and unrated movies to minors. Movie prints were seized in England during the Video Nasty controversy.

The hysteria eventually died down. That’s because, I think, that what was once underground has become mainstream. Morals quickly decay when the almighty dollar is at stake.

It seems we’ve run the course. Horror has become almost unwatchable with things like Guinea Pig, Human Centipede, and A Serbian Tale. There’s an offshoot of horror fiction that specializes in over-the-top violence. Other than some stuff with Amazon refusing to sell a book here or there, we’re seeing little censorship these days.

That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

I’ve run my own course. I went from horror movies to things like The Cinema of Transgression and other underground materials. I’ve read the Edward Lee books and all the Richard Laymon and Jack Ketchum stuff. I’ve kind of moved on. I don’t necessarily shy away from the hard stuff, but I don’t seek it out either. For me hard core horror fiction hit its pinnacle with Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse.

We can pretty much read what we want, listen to what we want, watch what we want, and play what we want. Yet there are mass shootings in the news just about every week. We’ve become immune to it. Just as we have become immune and unaffected by the hardest of horrors.

I have no more answers than King gives in Danse Macabre, but at least I have had a lot to think about. Thanks to Douglas E. Winter, whose presence as a fiction writer, editor, and essayist are very badly missed in the genre.

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’sEight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents,The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover,The Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. He can be reached at horrordrivein@yandex.com, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

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