1980 AD. Jimmy Carter is in the last full year of his presidency, Mount St. Helen’s awakens from her slumber, AC/DC’s singer Bon Scott drinks himself to death, the US pulls out of the Olympics in Moscow, the Rubik’s Cube frustrates millions, Iron Maiden is born and John Bonham dies, Darth Vader is Luke’s father, AC/DC is Back in Black, and Ronald Reagan ushers in a new wave of conservatism.
The beginning of the 80’s was rife with change and turmoil. The Cold War was still raging on despite obvious cracks starting to show on the Iron Curtain. In New York and L.A., punk ruled the music scene, with bands like Bad Religion, Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and The Misfits, among many others, kicking out the jams to those eager for something fresh and new. The rise of evangelism as well as a highly visible and public-loving Catholic pope was met with equal cynicism and disdain by those growing weary of having religion constantly shoved down their throats.
Many of the changes in 1980 sprung from long-standing issues world-wide, especially considering the Cold War and the Iran Hostage crisis. With President Carter’s failure to get the hostages home, many grew fearful. Reagan’s conservatism tapped into that fear and gave him a landslide victory. The following year, the crisis was over, but it was also the beginning of a war that would soon become the status quo for America. As of this writing there is an entire generation that has never known a time without war in the US, and while those battles are fought away from home, the consequences are felt daily. If the liberal/progressive mindset is one of hope, conservative ideals thrive on despair and anxiety. The people most affected by these political changes, the youth of America, lashed out the only way they knew how, by rebelling every step of the way with fashion, music, and attitude.
Horror fiction was celebrating a massive boom, thanks primarily to Stephen King. With several bestselling novels under his belt, as well as his first collection Night Shift, King was beginning to become a household name, especially with Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s The Shining. With Peter Straub’s Shadowland, as well as Ramsey Campbell’s The Parasite, horror fiction was thriving. Thanks to Charles L. Grant’s continuing Shadows series, readers were exposed to excellent short-fiction from established writers as well as never-heard-of-before new writers. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. As popular as horror was at the time, readers were growing tired of the same-old-same-old. They were starved for fresh horrors. The gothic foundation was cracking at the seams. The everyman character, heroic, strait-laced, and unfortunately, usually a middle-aged white guy, was boring, and readers couldn’t relate to that character anymore.
In the late 1970’s there were grumblings of a new breed of horror fiction. Whitley Strieber’s The Wolfen, often thought of as a thriller with speculative undertones, was actually a breed of horror of a different kind. And while the main characters were cut from the same cloth as those you’d find in your typical police procedural story, the setting of the story, the blasted landscape of The Bronx in the middle of massive urban decay, laid the groundwork for the stories yet to come. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris marked the beginning of modern serial killer fiction, as well as identifying one of the defining traits of splatterpunk: the character living on the fringe of society. Will Graham, ex-FBI, is physically and emotionally damaged. Manipulated back into the crime scene because of his gift (or curse) of empathy, he finds he must confront his demons head-on if he’s to crack the identity of this new serial killer. All Graham wants to do is fish and work on his boat motor, and here comes Crawford with a pocket full of pictures he knows Graham can’t resist looking at. The punk-rock aspect is embodied by tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds, a real sleaze ball adept in navigating in a world of sleaze, and Jack Crawford, who sees Graham first as a tool to be used before seeing him as a person to care for. Harris’ tenure as a journalist honed his writing style to dizzying heights, allowing him great latitude for lush poetic introspection as well as crisp, visceral description of the grotesque executed with skillful clinical detail.
Many sources claim the first splatterpunk story—the proto-splatterpunk story—is ‘The Autopsy’ by Michael Shae. Published in 1980 and anthologized several times since, this tale deals with a coroner called in to examine the bodies of miners killed in a strange explosion. Riddled with cancer, our main character is quite aware of his personal impending fate. While examining the bodies in a makeshift coroner’s office, he discovers the reason for the explosion, and that he’s not as alone at the location as he thought he was. What follows is a deep examination of personal identity coupled with a clinical, yet grisly, account of how he exacts his revenge against this strange invader. Science-fiction horror at its finest, Shae’s story predates the introduction of Clive Barker, another visionary known for his clinical yet brutal descriptions, by four years.
And then there’s Richard Laymon. While his descriptive prowess couldn’t remotely be described as “clinical,” his depictions of violence, blood, and gore are pretty much unmatched in the genre even to this day—ruling out hardcore or extreme horror—and any discussion of splatterpunk and its origins would be grotesquely incomplete without some homage to him. Like the Shae story, Laymon’s debut novel The Cellar predated Barker’s Books of Blood by four years, seeing it’s first, and quite successful, publication in Leisure Books in the fall of 1980. It simultaneously resonated with fans and incensed critics, becoming one of the most controversial books to be published that year with its depictions of violence, gore, and sexual exploitation. Laymon wasn’t afraid to gaze into the darkness, steeped with gore though it may be, and many critics were taken aback at his willingness to look directly and graphically at the atrocities and suffering he visited upon his characters.
But there was a third group in the mix, a group of mostly younger writers, who sat up and took notice and notes, many of whom were periodically mentored by Laymon along the way. Included in the list of willing participants in the bloodbath were greats like Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, and Joe Lansdale, not to mention the man who is said to have coined the term “splatterpunk,” David J. Schow. And they weren’t the only ones to pay attention. There was a willing and ready fan-base, an entire generation looking for directions and cultural norms to call their own and the fare of the day would no longer cut it. They wanted fiction that pushed boundaries of acceptability, they wanted it to bleed and scream, they wanted it to defy propriety and conformity. Laymon was there to deliver. He was the death metal bard of horror, singing a darker, more visceral, maybe even a little more honest, song.
Where the ‘60s and ‘70s had been a time of cultural expansions and excesses, the ‘80s were damn near a complete about face, and 1980 in particular was a year of incendiary catalysts. Nuclear proliferation, financial uncertainty, and the onset of Satanic Panic brought about by the book, Michelle Remembers by Lawrence Pazder, provided the tinder for a conflagration of change. And, when it comes to splatterpunk, Richard Laymon was the spark that ignited it. By this point, certain norms and traditions had been established in the horror genre and for the most part, everyone towed the line. But it’s important when thinking of the subgenre to remember the “punk” in splatterpunk. Much like punk rock and cyberpunk, splatter kicked those standards resoundingly in the cojones, tossing any nod at reverence or boundaries to the winds and letting the blood and violence stand out in full Technicolor brilliance.
Laymon continued to make things bleed and scream all the way through the ‘90s and to say he was influential would be the understatement of the century. With a body of work that includes more than forty novels and countless short stories, it’s safe to say he was a founding father and the driving force that shaped the movement. You can still feel his touch and his influence today throughout the horror genre. The works of authors like Brian Keene, J.F. Gonzalez, Monica J. O’Rourke, and Wrath James White, just to name a few, might have never stood a chance were it not for that one, daring book that Laymon was ballsy enough to write and Warner Books was ballsy enough to publish in an age of uncertainty.
The next installment in this series begins with 1981, and the beginning of the career of Dallas William Mayr, more commonly known as the aforementioned Jack Ketchum. Join us then as we dive deep into one of pioneering writers of the splatterpunk movement and learn why Mayr was one of our best writers in any genre.
BOB PASTORELLA and SHANE DOUGLAS KEENE