The Splatterpunk Files

The Young Turks at Horror's Cutting Edge
PART FOUR: Splatterpunk Today: The Faces of the New Flesh - Ray Garton

(Text originally published in Nova Express, Volume 4 Issue 1, Summer 1988)

by Lawrence Person

[NOTE: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author. In fact, they are the opinions of the author as of 1988. HE may not even agree with himself these days. It is presented here in the context of its time.]

Ray Garton

One of the splatterpunk authors to attract the most attention of late is Ray Garton, whose novel Live Girls has already garnered a cult following and a Stoker award nomination. A vampire novel set in New York City (for more on this theme see The Light at the End, in Part 5), Live Girls tells the story of a coterie of vampires who set up shop in both a sleazy peek show off Times Square and in a macabre, high-class nightclub. Into their clutches falls Davey Owen, a too-nice-for-his-own-good associate editor at a third rate Manhattan publishing house. Davey soon finds himself entranced with one of the performers at Live Girls (the sleazy club), but only realizes the truth about her After Its Too LateŠ

Ray GartonThough Live Girls is a well written and competent novel, it does seem to lack something, and although interesting and entertaining, the book never really seems to take off. His characterization, though not trite, is never terribly compelling. And although Garton does a fairly good job of capturing the sleazy ambiance of midtown Manhattan, he does not quite have the skillful elan which Skipp & Spector bring to their New York novels. Still, Live Girls remains an important splatterpunk milestone, and has managed to disturb more than one reader with its macabre mixing of vampirism and sex.

Garton's latest book, Crucifax Autumn, shows a much more developed and mature style than Live Girls. Unquestionably splatterpunk, this work is also one of the darkest, most intense horror novels to be published in recent memory.

Set in the affluent, upper-middle class surroundings of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, Crucifax Autumn tells the story of a pied-piper like figure named Mace who arrives in town toward the end of a particularly hot summer. Accompanied by a veritable swarm of small, rat like creatures who act as his eyes, Mace proceeds to win the friendship of valley teenagers by plying them with drugs, sex-and unquestioning acceptance. Picking on those who have suffered emotional problems, parental troubles, loneliness, isolation, and rejection, Mace soon finds himself with a small army of followers.

Into this situation are drawn Jeff Carr and his sister Mallory, who happens to be dating Kevin Donahue, whose band Mace agrees to "promote" in exchange for spreading his message. After Jeff realizes out what Mace is up to, he finds that only himself, his guidance counselor, his girlfriend, and a fallen preacher stand between Mace and his victims. And time starts running out for all of themŠ.

This novel is close to a quantum leap for Garton, as none of the flaws present in Live Girls are apparent here. In this novel, Garton (like King) shows considerable skill at depicting the everyday traumas of growing up in America. In addition, the action is well thought out, the Southern Californian milieu skillfully drawn, and the characters entirely sympathetic and believable. Indeed, it is this skill with characterization that makes Garton's work all the more haunting. Because his characters are both achingly real and wholly human, one feels all the more for them as they become victims of Mace's machinations. As such, it is a much darker novel than even The Damnation Game, for instead of Barker's all encompassing nihilism we have universe in which good does matter, in which we care for evil's prey. And that makes their defeat all the more tragic.

Another point in favor of this novel is the speed with which the plot moves along. Like Skipp & Spector or King at their best, Garton's story flies along for page after page, as gripping as it is horrifying. In fact, the plot moves along so fast that I read this novel all in one day.

This is a bad idea. Do not attempt this at home.

It's a bad idea for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that the ending of this novel is extremely (indeed, almost unrelievedly) depressing. Good does not triumph, worthy people are not saved, and the survivors come out of the ordeal anything but unscarred. And Evil, or Garton's incarnation of it in this novel, does seem susceptible to permanent defeat. The creature that is Mace has apparently piped his deadly tune since time immemorial, time after time drawing those lost souls into the outer darkness. Crucifax Autumn is a cautionary tale painted the darkest of colors, cast on a canvas of midnight black. In Garton's world good cannot seem to win or even draw, but merely cut its losses.

cover And perhaps the oddest thing about this novel is that it is a parable of sorts, a black fable for the modern world. Into this lean, shocking tale of horror Garton has crafted a skillful allegory that (like the ancient tale of the original piper himself) provides a warning for parents of all ages. And what it says is that, in the end, its not the drugs, or the sex, or the bad crowd, or the rebellious attitude that leads children to follow the Maces of the world. No, the simple truth that Garton wants every parent to face is that no matter what the outer signs, the fault for their children's fates can lie with none but themselves, that in the struggle to provide for a child's material wants the most important element, love, often slips through the cracks. It is, to be sure, an important message, but one that will indubitably go unheeded, for the very people who need to read this novel the most are the ones who would most likely condemn it for its explicit sex and violence.

There are a lot of elements in this novel that are going to shock people. First of all, we have the most common dual elements of a splatterpunk story, blood and sex, taken to some shocking extremes. Though most of it is fairly tame by post-Barker standards (incest just doesn't seem to raise hackles the way it once did.), all but the most jaded of horror readers will surely blanch at Garton's graphic description of an unnatural abortion performed by cunnilingus, a scene that ranks right up there with the "baptism" in "Rawhead Rex" for sheer shock value and taboo breaking intensity.

But in the end it was a simple, quiet image that haunted me the most: that of Mallory whispering to brother "Please come with me Jeff" --just before slitting her own throat. Crucifax Autumn is dark, depressing, unrelenting -- and one of the finest horror novels published in this decade. Though flawed (Garton never really tells you the extent of Mace's powers, or what rules he and his furball army operate under) this book is still a major work, and should be a strong contender for this year's Stoker award if there's any justice in the world.

(Note: The Pocket Books mass market edition of the book (entitled simply Crucifax) has had some of the more intense scenes excised, including (most notably) the aforementioned abortion. Do not buy this edition. If book publisher can get authors to sign contracts that allow them to cut explicit or graphic scenes out of their work, that's their privilege. But we don't have to buy them.)

to Part Five: Splatterpunk Today: The Faces of the New Flesh - Skipp & Spector
to Splatterpunk Files Index

Photo Credits:
Ray Garton by Beth Gwinn
Cemetery Dance edition of Live Girls