The Splatterpunk Files

The Young Turks at Horror's Cutting Edge

PART FIVE: Splatterpunk Today: The Faces of the New Flesh - Skipp & Spector

(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.]

Skipp & Spector

Among the best (and most prominent) of today's upcoming crop of American splatterpunk writers is that happy-go-lucky, rock n' roll twosome of the splat pack, John Skipp and Craig Spector. In the space of a mere two years this dynamic duo have already carved out quite a name for themselves while turning out three excellent novels and a handful of chilling short stories. They hit the ground running with the publication of their first novel and haven't let up since.

Skipp & SpectorThe Light at the End is everything a vampire novel set in New York City should be -- fast paced, "lively," and a hell of a lot of fun. It tells the story of a nihilistic, young "graffiti artist" named Rudy Pasko who gets "the bite" while taking a subway ride to hell in the small hours of the night. As Rudy's ever growing atrocities are attributed to "The Subway Psycho" by the city's yellow press, a group of people (including his wimpy friend, his terrified girlfriend, a beefy, vengeance hungry messenger and a frail but strong-willed survivor of Treblinka) band together to stop him.

This novel has a lot going for it. It's fast paced, action filled, humorous, gripping -- and very, very bloody. In addition to the aforementioned decapitation, Rudy also manages to skewer one of his pursuers with a stake and comes that close to performing a psychic, sodomic rape upon his wimpy ex-friend.

However, a lot of the joy of reading this novel is the obvious zest with which The S Guys wrote this thing. The authors had a ball creating this book, and they have tried to let you in on the fun as well. What Stephen King does to suburban Maine, Skipp & Spector do to the heart of Manhattan, transforming it into amusing and instantly recognizable territory. There are parts of this book at which one laughs out loud with delight. One scene that is especially good is where one of the characters drives off the vampire by literally making fun of him. It brings back that old Monty Python line about the dread ability of Doug Piranha: "He usedŠ sarcasm."

!n addition to this wicked sense of humor, Skipp & Spector also share Monsieur King's skill at characterization, bringing every one of their players (major or minor) alive with deft grace. And just as King does, they use this ability (and the readers empathy) to heighten the horror. In this book (as with the The Cleanup below) there is that terrible sinking feeling you get about two-thirds of the way through when you realize, "Gee, they just killed off my favorite character."

And always, underlying everything, is the concept of New York City as Hell. Needless to say, most of us had come to this conclusion a long time ago, and the only people you will meet these days who won't agree that New York is Hell have either never visited there or have lived there all their life so they don't know any better.

That vision also underlies their second novel (I'm not counting their Fright Night novelization), The Cleanup. It tells the story of Billy Rowe, a not-so young, formerly idealistic guitar player who is well along in the process of fucking up his life. He's approaching the bitter end with the realization that his dreams of fame are probably not going to come true, is three months behind on his share of the apartment rent, and is completely screwing up his relationship with his sexy and successful dancer girlfriend. Then, over the space of a day, two amazing things happen to him: he witnesses the latest in a series of slasher murders -- and Christopher walks into his life.

Christopher, you see, is (or at least purports to be) an angel. And he bestows on Billy a gift.


Lots of Power.

Skipp & SpectorNow, as Billy finds out, this power is not infinite (at one point he wishes for Manhattan to experience thirty seconds of peace, and it happens-but not before almost turning his brain into tapioca from the strain), but it comes pretty damn close. He can wish for things (like a clean apartment) and they come true. He seems almost invulnerable to any physical harm. And, most assuredly, he can kill ‹ kill in ways that are as endlessly imaginative as they are bloody. With this power, Billy Rowe sets out to clean up the streets of New York.

Though not quite as much fun as The Light at the End, The Cleanup is still an immensely enjoyable novel, and one that is more intense to boot. The same gimlet eye, wry humor, and near perfect characterization are still there, but the horror hits a lot closer to home. In addition to the psychotic slasher listed above, Billy must also contend with a pair of vicious rapists. Indeed, one of the major themes of this novel is the way street crime (and especially rape) affects the average New York citizen, thus bringing up questions that hit far closer to home than most supernatural stories. As such, parts of this book resemble what Douglas Winter calls "Anti-Horror," works that reveal the real horror underlying everyday life.

It's also a good example of the classic maxim about power corrupting. As Billy first begins to use his newfound power we cheer at the way he deals out swift and bloody justice to the very lowest of Manhattan's criminal scum. Yet as Billy's power grows, and attacks upon his friends push him closer and closer to the edge, we stand appalled at what is capable of doing to the innocent as well as the living. Or, as one of Joe Lansdale's characters might say, "This here is a novel with one of them there moral thingees."

After The Cleanup, the Skipp-headed smile-Spector decided to step outside of Manhattan for their next opus, The Scream. A somewhat more complex novel than their previous works, The Scream tells the story of a heavy metal band (named, not surprisingly, The Scream) whose allegiance to demon worship is far more than mere show. While that band travels across the country, killing its fans and turning into heavy metal zombies in the service of grinning demon named Momma, Jacob Hamer and his band fight a coalition of anti-rock TV evangelists while preparing for a big Philadelphia benefit concert called Rock Aid. However, Hamer soon finds that he has much more than Bible-thumpers to be scared of as he begins to realize the truth about The Scream. And that's when the horror really begins to hit close to home.

Once again Skipp & Spector have turned out a highly engrossing, finely crafted horror novel that's a hell of a lot of fun to read. If anything their characterization is even better than in their previous two novels. Further, this is definitely the most outre of their three novels, featuring some of the most bizarre mixings of eroticism and violence this side of De Sade. The concert scenes are also well done, and you can almost hear the throbbing, malevolent thrash of The Scream's "Critical Mass" as their final concert rocks its way towards a shattering, apocalyptic climax. And what a climax! At the end of this book Skipp & Spector show what gonzo horror is really like. This scene shows what happens when a couple of twisted splatterpunks decide to throw caution to the wind, kick out all the jams, crank the amp to eleven, and party.

In short, Skipp & Spector know how to rock and roll.

Skipp & SpectorSadly, however, despite all of this to recommend it, The Scream must rank as the least successful of their three novels. Again, though more ambitious than their previous efforts, this falls just short of reaching those ambitions. One of the problems is that they've stepped outside the Manhattan setting that provided such endless amusement and delight in their previous works. This would not be a hindrance except for the fact that they have not come up with a cohesive scenic texture with which to replace it. Further, all of the Vietnam flashback sequences (which set the stage for The Scream's appearance two decades later) have a deus ex machina feel to them, as though their only purpose was to set up that future conflict. They are bloody and intense, but too disjointed to have much of an impact.

And that is a problem with the novel as a whole. Its diverse elements do mesh, but not with the seamless precision that the authors showed in their previous works. The Religion vs. Rock subplot starts out as an important part (both thematically and plot wise) of the novel, and includes a great deal of rather interesting thematic exploration of theological questions (there's even a Scripture quoting battle between one of the evangelicals and Hamer's wife that's an absolute riot). However, about midway through the book that subplot gets pushed aside, then dwindles and dwindles until it is little more than a atrophied appendage, a loose and unnecessary thread badly tied.

The book's climax, gonzo though it us, must ultimately be judged unsatisfying. When Momma finally makes its long awaited appearance we expect to see a climatic battle between the powers of Good and Evil, and instead are treated to Peace Through Superior Firepower. A noble sentiment, to be sure, but one that is somewhat out of place within the context of the book. All in all, this work gives the feeling of being just a little bit rushed, as if the authors were working under contract deadlines. Not extremely rushed, mind you, but just a little, around the edges.

However, all of the above comments should be viewed in the context of comparing Skipp & Spector to themselves. That's because their work was already so damn good that its hard to find someone to compare them to. Despite some rough edges, The Scream is one of the best horror novels published so far this year, and comes highly recommend.

The Skipp/Spector combo is probably the best "author" among today's up and coming crop of splatterpunks, and also the most fun. It is interesting (and informative) to compare their work with Barker's, since despite common strengths in splatterpunk basics (i.e. strong and grotesque imagination, skill at graphic depiction of horror, etc.) their works are otherwise extremely diverse, one's strength being the other's weakness. Where Barker's work is grim, Skipp and Spector's is droll, where Barker's characterization is shaky, S & S's is vibrant. And, where The S Guys insert recognizable terrors into the fabric of everyday life (vampires, demons, etc.), Barker creates Brave New Horrors and landscapes that far surpass most people's wildest imaginations.

Still, if there were one horror author that Skipp and Spector are best compared to it would have to be (despite the heartfelt misgivings about a comparison far too frequently invoked) Stephen King. When it comes to brilliant characterization and a firm grasp of every day American reality, Skipp & Spector seem to be the only ones who are even in King's league. While they are not quite up to Big Steve's level of commonplace perfection (where even his very least novel is all but impossible to put down), they are at least within shouting distance. You heard it here first: Skipp and Spector will be thehorror superstars of the 1990's.

to Part Six Splatterpunk Today: The Faces of the New Flesh - Joe R. Lansdale
to The Splatterpunk Files Index

Photo Credits:
Skipp & Spector haunting the subway (circa 1986)
The Cleanup CD photo
Skipp and Spector by Beth Gwinn