While many of us enjoy reading thrilling horror novels about haunted houses and assorted supernatural creatures, others are attracted to the darker side of horror, where serial killers and cannibals reside. The splatterpunk horror genre reveals the most gruesome sides of humanity, giving audiences an unrestrained image of explicit violence and brutality that mainstream horror wouldn’t dare to depict. If the depths of human barbarity fascinate you, this genre is just what you’re looking for. Keep reading to get a glimpse of the most heinous parts of the human psyche… if you dare.
What is Splatterpunk?
Splatterpunk is a subgenre of horror that emerged in the 1980s. It is characterized by uncensored gore, graphic depictions of violence, and the countercultural ideology often conveyed in these narratives. The genre is a response to traditional horror, which is generally inoffensive and mild, especially when compared to splatterpunk horror. Splatterpunk authors reject the watered-down brutality of mainstream horror, instead leaning into explicit and vivid descriptions of savagery that might disturb general audiences.
The Origins of Splatterpunk
In 1980, author Michael Shea published his short story, The Autopsy, which is regarded as one of the first entries in the splatterpunk genre, though the term was yet to be invented. In this gruesome science fiction tale, a coroner is tasked with examining the bodies of 10 miners who died in a presumed mass murder to determine whether the mining company must compensate the miners’ families. It is suspected that one of the miners purposefully set off an explosion with the intention to kill himself and the other men, and since the company is only obligated to compensate the families if the men died while in the act of doing their job, this could provide a loophole to get the company off the hook. However, what the coroner discovers during his examination is equal parts chilling and otherworldly.
The genre was finally given a name in 1986 when American horror author David J. Schow coined the term at the 12th World Fantasy Convention, held in Providence, Rhode Island. The term is a portmanteau of the words “splatter,” meaning “splash with a sticky or viscous liquid,” and “punk,” which refers to “an aggressive form of rock music.” This combination encompasses both the gory nature of the genre and the anti-establishment spirit of the punk subculture.
Schow is regarded as a pioneer of splatterpunk for his coining of the term and also his early contributions to the genre, such as his 1988 debut The Kill Riff, which tells the tale of an advertising executive who goes on a revenge-induced killing spree of the members of a rock band after his daughter is trampled to death at one of their concerts.
Some more prolific splatterpunk writers include Jack Ketchum, Clive Barker, Brian Keene, Richard Laymon, and Poppy Z. Brite. Their additions to the genre during the rise of its popularity have helped to define its legacy and mold splatterpunk into its current form.
How the Genre Evolved
The splatterpunk genre was most alive in the 1980s and the 1990s, and while works that could be categorized as splatterpunk persist today, they are more commonly referred to as “extreme horror” or another more recognized subgenre. This subgenre is a bit divisive within the horror community, and some fans disagree on what constitutes splatterpunk, but to this day, there remain a handful of authors who self-categorize their books as splatterpunk, so though the heyday of the subgenre may be over, splatterpunk is still alive and kicking.
Contemporary splatterpunk authors include Wesley Southard, Matt Hayward, Kristopher Triana, Nicole Cushing, and Seán O’Connor.
Common Tropes and Plots
Some consider splatterpunk to be a precursor to the “torture porn” genre, which centers around acts of torture and mutilation. Similarly, splatterpunk is known to frequently include body horror, excessive gore, depictions of abuse and sexual assault, sadism, psychological torture, and general depravity.
Therefore, common plots in splatterpunk stories include being hunted by cannibals, as in Off Season by Jack Ketchum; escaping, becoming, or even developing a romantic or sexual relationship with a serial killer, as in This Symbiotic Fascination by Charlee Jacob; and committing heinous crimes like sexual assault or murder as in Natsuo Kirino’s Out.
When picking up a splatterpunk book, readers expect to see transgressive and graphic acts of violence, as well as commentary on or criticism of sociopolitical systems. There is no boundary these books won’t cross, which is a massive appeal of the genre for some and a major drawback for others.
A warning before you check any of these books out: as previously mentioned, they depict extremely gory and grotesque scenes of violence, and they often deal with sensitive topics, such as sexual assault and incest. For unseasoned horror fans, these books should definitely not be your entry point into the genre. Please read with caution!
If you’ve decided to take a whack at splatterpunk, the classics are always a good way to go.
The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
I didn’t exactly enjoy it [the novel], not in the traditional sense, but rather it wormed its way into my brain and it’ll no doubt stay with me.Red Lace Reviews
Seeing Red by David J. Schow
Seeing Red [is] a very solid collection of short stories, and a great starting point for anyone unfamiliar with this founding splatterpunk’s oeuvre.S. Michael Wilson, Goodreads
The Woods Are Dark by Richard Laymon
The Woods are Dark, released seven years after his death, may be Laymon’s greatest accomplishment. It is everything you want in splatterpunk. The narrative is unrestrained. Three decades later it still shocks and disgusts.Horror Novel Reviews
Additional classics to check out:
- The Cipher by Kathe Koja
- The Safety of Unknown Cities by Lucy Taylor
- The Books of Blood by Clive Barker
Want to jump right into Contemporary pieces? Look no further!
Various States of Decay by Matt Hayward
Various States of Decay is a nice little collection of short horror stories that is sure to leave you confused, frightened, and at the edge of your seat in fearful anticipation.Cultured Vultures
Weeping Season by Seán O’Connor
O’Connor’s Weeping Season grips the reader in madness and uncertainty from page one and never lets go. A sinister mystery unfolding fast and hard in the woods, a group of scared, wounded people left with nothing but fragments of memory, Weeping Season gets under your skin like a chill and carries you along in its icy tide. Read it and shiver.Mary SanGiovanni, Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of Behind the Door
Full Brutal by Kristopher Triana
Full Brutal is Splatterpunk gold. It delivered exactly what it intended. There are no limits in this story. Nothing is out of bounds. I have never curled my toes so tightly and had my stomach churn so violently whilst reading.megsbookrack
Additional contemporary titles:
While splatterpunk is far from palatable for many readers, it retains a passionate fan base several decades after the height of the genre’s popularity. If this subgenre piques your interest, give some of the books mentioned above a try. But remember, you’ve been warned: these books are not suitable for the faint of heart.
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