There is a certain logic that says that “best of” collections and anthologies are, in and of themselves, lacking in originality or the ability to challenge convention. There is a certain reality in this criticism, yet it really comes down to who is actually curating it and what kind of boundaries are being broken. When that critique is one that simply chastises those volumes for lacking in graphic brutality, then that comes from its own place of conventionality and conservatism.
A couple of years ago an anthology collection came out for the real “hardcore” horror fans, the ones way to hardcore for any of your traditional volumes. They aren’t going to take your silly Lovecraftian creatures and miming ghosts. They are too hardcore for that shit.
The Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 1(which seems to be the only volume) is a collection for fans of horror that also enjoy very detailed descriptions of violence and “sexual depravity.” These kinds of volumes are often red flags, not because violence of any sort is going to be problematic, but because their belief that this makes something “hardcore” is both silly and sophomoric. A term like “hardcore horror fans” actually lends itself to people who like serious genre exercises, the kind of works that have little crossover appeal since they are attuned more to convention and academic exercise. There is certainly nothing wrong with that; we see that regularly in well-crafted Cthulhu Mythos books.
That is not what Hardcore Horror is, yet it still had a lot of possibilities for being a well-crafted collection. It could simply be that extreme violence was often viewed poorly in the horror scene more broadly, and therefore this volume would be collecting great stories that were left out for challenging material.
No. Not really. Not at all.
The introduction to the book, which is only two pages, lends some serious insight into the train wreck that landed on our door. The blame for the book lands directly on the editors, Randy Chandler and Cheryl Mullenax, who from their couple hundred words at the beginning seem barely able to put together a literate sentence as well as to actually determine what type of horror actually challenges readers.
The introduction, which we were tempted to actually print in its entirety since it is both insulting and humiliating to those who wrote it on the page, starts with some clichéd line about the horror being all around us. It then went into a tired diatribe that went from silly simile to reactionary racial politics.
Wherever in the world you were, you knew it was there, even if it didn’t touch you directly. You knew it might be reaching for you at most any moment, from any direction, coming at you as an 18-wheeler with a dying driver at the wheel or as an innocent-looking suicide bomber pushing a baby-less pram packed with explosives. With the world sinking deeper into chaos and war raging round the world, refugees fled into bordering countries, inadvertently creating more chaos as they went. War, famine, pestilence and paranoia set the table and we were all invited to the feast of fear. While the Doomsday Clock ticked ever closer to Apocalyptic Midnight.
Take the bad writing aside, the question really arises if the authors even have a basic understanding of geopolitics and what the “wars raging” actually were. Instead, they threw in a jab at refugees, playing on the recent notions that it is actually those populations responsible for crime rates in neighboring European countries.
The point of this, as it goes on, is to say that this generation of authors, the ones housed in Hardcore Horror, are from a generation that is seeing unprecedented terror and violence in the real world, and therefore reflecting it in their work. Objectively, this is nonsense, every generation has seen “unprecedented” interpersonal violence, and the generation of first-world authors in this work are likely some of the most sheltered and privileged in history. That is not to throw an unfair criticism at them, but to suggest that they have some kind of uniquely twisted perspective because of world events is bizarre. This is also a line that is used yearly as a way of justifying a certain volume, whether or not the works included are actually of any verifiably disturbing nature.
The introduction then goes on to explain that there are graphic depictions involved, comparing brutal violence with “depraved sex,” a surprisingly conservative idea thrown in the mix. Graphic sex is not at all like graphic violence, one is something people engage in happily throughout the world at any given time, and the other is its core opposite. To suggest they are both a part of the “disturbing” perspective that makes Hardcore Horror unique gives a little insight into lack of perspective the editors bring to it.
They note that while some stories in the book are shocking, “others may contain only one shocking moment of brutality.” In even other stories, “The hardcore aspects may be less graphic and subtler than you might expect. Some of these quieter tales offer the reader some time to recover from the more disturbing ones preceding.”
So what is it? Is Hardcore Horror defined by its graphic brutality, or is it not? It sounds like they just threw together some stories, justified the graphic ones with some silly lines about world events and then used some hollow rhetoric to justify the more subtle stories that punctuated it. Beyond its offensive perspective on horror and sexual violence, it cannot even promise distinctiveness or consistency.
It next talks about some of the different places the stories come from, including a collected anthology dedicated to G.G. Allen. The editors suggest that readers go to YouTube to watch G.G. Allen videos, therefore wrapping their heads around his phenomenon. We hate to dissect this two-page introduction even further, but this may be the most revealing passage. For those who do not have even a basic sense of what “challenging convention” or rebellion actually means, G.G. Allen is a Saint of Superficiality. Known for defecating on himself, shooting Heroin, and sexually assaulting women, people believe his lack of decorum to actually be some sort of anarchistic challenge to authority. As you can see in almost any interview, G.G. Allen represents an incredibly loud version of the conventional American male, self absorbed, hateful towards women, lacking in anything remotely challenging systems of actual power. But hey, if you cannot actually get a complex thought or analysis about capitalism and the state, why actually pick a hero that does anything other than shit himself and yell on stage? To then think that an anthology of horror stories, something he has no connection to, makes sense is only in the silliest understanding of what ‘horror’ means.
That leads us to the collection himself. Though we have been harsh on the collection, we need to say loudly that not all authors deserve this harsh condemnation. They did not curate the volume, most of their work was published elsewhere, and we would never suggest that they should have contested their inclusion. It is hard to make a career as a writer out there, and if you have an offer to be including in a “best of” collection, any “best of collection,” they should probably take it.
Jeff Strand’s ‘Awakening’ is a funny short bit about a serial killer that awakens from a blackout, and ‘Readings of the Charts’ is a mildly clever internal narrative from a person reluctantly joining on a ghost hunt. ‘The Most Important Miracle’ by Scott Emerson is a strange narrative about Breakfast Gods, though even these stories would be pretty low on quality outside of this volume. Most of the stories in the book barely rise above amateurishness, which is also a testament to how embarrassing most of the volumes they pulled from.
When we get to ‘Clarissa,’ the story that the editors likely knew would raise red flags; the volume really becomes what we all expected it to be. The story, told in barely any purpose or literary flares, follows a women who is a trapped sex slave kept for years in a basement. She is pregnant and when the abusive man enters her cell, she hits him with a hammer. She then realizes, suddenly, that he is her father. They struggle for a bit, she throws him down the stairs, appearing to break his neck. She gets up to the living room finding her mother, a decrepit abused woman. She realizes her mother was complicit in the abuse, wanting the baby from the forced incest as her own. At this point the violence has forced an immediate birth of the trapped woman’s baby, and after murdering her mother she gives birth to the babe, who is dead and covered in blood.
The story itself is stripped of anything of value: commentary, empowerment, real characters, writing devices of any kind. The editors and their supporters will likely read this review and say that it is either conservatism or liberalism/feminism that is driving this review, depending on their own orientation. They will say that we just can’t “handle it,” and that is what “real horror is.” This is the rendition that got classic pieces of filth like I Spit on Your Grave to be “classics,” and why we continue to get bad remakes of rapesploitation films even today. Just jamming the most horrific abuses from society into a volume does not make it horror, it just makes it unpleasant. To make someone disgusted, sick, or horrified is not really the function of horror, but that doesn’t even seem to be the function of this. Instead, it is meant to pry open lurid obsession, to play on a culture of sexual violence to titillate the reader.
We absolutely believe there is not content, graphically exposed or not, that should not be allowed in a horror volume. The story ‘Clarissa,’ told from good writers and with thoughtful perspective, could be wonderful. But it wasn’t, and its not.
The rest of the book is generally embarrassing, lacking in most of the qualities you would expect from a professional book of real authors. Since the “Volume 1” doesn’t seem to have been followed by a “Volume 2” then hopefully that means that this exercise in splatterpunk is over.
The Amazon listing of this book is filled with 4 and 5 star reviews. If you look closely, every one of those reviews came from someone who was given the review in exchange for their reviews. This is likely the case on places like Goodreads as well. This has allowed the publisher to jam out enough volumes into the horror community to make their money back, and because of the lack of serious attention this book received there will be few thoughtful responses to it. Hopefully this will be one, and we hope that the authors included will be able to find great collections in the future that do not exploit their content to separate it from its purpose.
Great horror fiction is not due to a videogame style inclusion of violence, but because of the ability to craft fantasy and terror from the reader. If you think that the existence of terrorism is a reason to have purposeless exercises in the sexual abuse of women, then what you want is to indulge your own misogynistic masturbatory fantasies.
And please, take that shit somewhere else.