Updated: May 29
I Hate Splatterpunk...
...but I also love it. To be more precise, I have an ambivalent relationship with it. Some of it’s amazing, some of it’s awful, and a lot of it is painfully average. Given my strong opinions on the topic, I decided to write this essay on what I think makes a good splatterpunk story, and what makes a bad one.
What’s special about the splatterpunk genre?
The thing that makes splatterpunk special is the same thing that makes transgressive fiction special: it has no boundaries. I can explore any territory, no matter how disgusting, upsetting, or horrible. You know a good splatterpunk author isn’t going to fade to black at key moments to spare your feelings or your stomach. They’re going to give you all the details unflinchingly. Not just details of violence, but psychological details. You’ll get unfettered access to a character’s thoughts, no matter how obscene, misanthropic, or selfish they may be. You’ll get taken on a ride with no seatbelt, and there’s something inherently exciting about that.
What makes a splatterpunk story work?
The same thing that makes a splatter story work is what makes any piece of fiction work. It needs good prose. It needs compelling characters if it’s character driven. It needs a compelling plot if it’s plot-driven. Ideally, it should have both, along with good pacing and a sense of emotional realism. Some humor helps too, as does evidence of creativity. Basically, a good splatterpunk story needs to be a good story, period. The extreme elements of splatter are not replacements for basic storytelling. They are enhancers that can be used to enhance a story the same way spice can enhance a meal.
Some examples of Splatter that works, and why
Wetbones by John Shirley – this is easily the best splatter book I’ve ever read because it’s just a great book. It’s got well-crafted characters, good prose, intrigue, perfect pacing – basically, it’s got the works. The extreme violence and weird depravity don’t feel gratuitous or tacked on. They feel like an integral part of the novel, embellishing, like makeup on cheekbones, the beautiful structure that’s already there.
City Infernal by Edward Lee – this is one of the best worldbuilding novels I’ve ever come across. Lee’s visions of Hell is grotesque, anarchic, and darkly hilarious. Here we see Lee using extreme violence and depravity to flesh out the most appropriate topic imaginable – the landscape and society of Hell. It’s a vision of Perdition that outdoes Dante in its depth and creativity.
This Symbiotic Fascination by Charlee Jacob – this is a book with some seriously compelling, fascinating characters. It’s also packed with beautiful prose and hallucinogenic imagery. All the violence and transgressive content serves to pump up the volume on what is already a marvelous symphony.
Mother Maggot by Simon McHardy – this book deliberately tries to gross the reader out. Usually, I don’t have much patience for an agenda like that, but MM works because it’s fucking hilarious. The disgusting imagery enhances the humour, but it’s not the basis of the humour – McHardy is a guy who can tell a clean joke as well as a dirty one. If McHardy didn’t understand how to craft humour, this book would suck.
What makes splatterpunk suck?
Splatterpunk sucks when an author relies completely on shock value to capture the attention of the reader. This happens all too often. Many authors seem to think that as long as they have a baby being eaten, or someone being sodomized with a chainsaw, that they don’t need a good plot or compelling characters. Authors like this don’t use the extreme elements of splatter to enhance good storytelling – they use the elements of splatter to totally replace good storytelling. The result is not just bad splatterpunk, but bad literature. Ironically, this sort of material isn’t even shocking – it’s trite and banal, and has the same emotional resonance as a commercial for toothpaste. This is because it is inherently vacuous, and has no emotional reality.
Splatterpunk sucks when an author simply tries to disgust or offend people for its own sake. Simply being disgusting or offensive is not a meaningful artistic end. It’s easy to disgust and offend people. It’s much harder to entertain them or make them think. It’s even harder to make them cry. How many splatter books have enough pathos to make a reader tear up? Offending and disgusting people is a cheap and meaningless activity. If all an author wants to do is offend and disgust people, they don’t even need to bother writing. All they have to do is go take a shit on a crowded bus while calling everyone around them a cunt. Surely that would be an easier way to demonstrate their artistry than writing endless vignettes of violent rape.
TLDR: Good splatterpunk is defined by good storytelling. Bad splatterpunk relies purely on shock value and a misguided attempt to offend people for its own sake.
Thanks to anyone who bothered to read this essay.