Well, with Halloween getting closer, I thought that I’d look at how one old sub-genre of horror fiction can teach you about writing… even if you don’t write horror fiction. I am, of course, talking about splatterpunk fiction.
This is a sub-genre of horror fiction that was popular in the 1980s-1990s, although it has pretty much been absorbed into the “mainstream” horror genre these days. It’s a pivotal genre in the history of horror fiction because it was the first time that horror writers stopped relying on subtle implication and actually described the grisly parts of their stories in a level of extreme detail that varied from coldly clinical to poetic word-painting depending on the author.
Although I read quite a few old second-hand splatterpunk novels when I was a teenager and have read a few vaguely splatterpunk-style modern horror novels (such as “Double Dead” by Chuck Wendig) during my twenties, it’s a genre that I’ve drifted away from somewhat. But, it’s still a genre that has had an influence on my creative works. So, what can it teach you, even if you don’t write horror:
1) Pacing, contrast and descriptions: Although there are some notable exceptions to this rule, one of the fascinating things about the splatterpunk genre is that how splatterpunk writers sometimes varied the detail level in order to emphasise parts of the story. Most of a splatterpunk novel might be written in a fairly “ordinary” kind of way but, whenever something horrific or gruesome happens, then the level of description skyrockets.
By describing certain scenes in considerably more detail than others, a writer can lend those scenes a lot more dramatic impact. However, and this is the important part, highly-detailed descriptions only stand out when they are contrasted with shorter and more “mundane” descriptions in other parts of the story. It’s kind of like how a lightbulb might not look that bright in the middle of a sunny day, but it looks significantly brighter in the middle of the night.
If there’s one thing that you can learn from splatterpunk fiction, it’s that it’s worth saving the extensive, poetic descriptions for scenes where they really matter.
2) Cover art: Although people might tell you not to judge a book by it’s cover, cover art matters. And the splatterpunk genre contains so many great examples of this. With a couple of notable exceptions, many splatterpunk authors weren’t famous. So, if their publisher wanted to attract new fans, attention-grabbing cover art was essential.
If you look through a second-hand bookshop, you’ll be able to recognise the 1980s-1990s splatterpunk novels at a glance. They’re the novels with the ominously dark covers that are often emblazoned with dramatic macabre imagery. For example, the cover art of the very first splatterpunk novel I read (“Assassin” by Shaun Hutson) just featured a decaying zombie’s hand holding a revolver, contrasted against a solid black background.
Publishers of splatterpunk fiction knew how important dramatic cover art was. They knew that, even if the audience didn’t know what the genre was called, they still needed to be able to easily recognise splatterpunk novels. So, they made sure that the cover art gave the audience a general expectation of what to expect if they bought the book.
3) Trends, meaning and variation: One of the more amusing trends during the heyday of the splatterpunk genre was a weird craze for writing about plagues of evil animals. This probably started with James Herbert’s “Rats” novels, but it led to things like two novels about flesh-eating slugs by Shaun Hutson and a series of novels about giant homicidal crabs by Guy N. Smith.
The interesting thing about this trend is that no other author seemed to be able to replicate what made a couple of James Herbert’s “Rats” novels so creepy. The first “Rats” novel is, from what I can remember, as much about poverty and the misery of everyday life in 1970s London as it is about giant rats. Likewise, the third (and best) novel in the series (“Domain”) is genuinely chilling because it’s more about the horrific aftermath of a nuclear war than it is about giant rats. In both books, the killer rats aren’t really the only source of horror.
But, seeing the success of these books, other authors probably assumed that they were popular because they contained plagues of evil creatures. This, of course, led to some hilariously silly – but enjoyable – monster novels. But, although these novels are brilliant examples of how to create original variations of a pre-existing concept, they’re also a cautionary tale about what happens if you follow trends without looking at why something was so effective or popular.
So, if you’re fascinated by a literary trend and want to be a part of it, then ask yourself why the things that started this trend became so popular. The answer might surprise you.
4) Extremity (isn’t everything): If there’s one word that defines the splatterpunk genre, it’s “extreme”. The genre was truly revolutionary for the time because it took the horror genre to new extremes of gruesomeness and grotesquerie. No-one had really done this before.
There’s something to be said for extremity in fiction. It’s something that gets authors noticed and talked about. It’s something that makes the audience remember what they’ve read. But, it has to be done in a sophisticated way in order to stand the test of time.
To use two non-splatterpunk examples, Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts” is a short story that will probably shock, disgust and repulse you the first time you read it. But, once you know what happens in the ending, a re-reading of the story will make all of the story’s underlying hilarious dark comedy stand out a lot more.
On the other hand, I once read a couple of chapters of Charlotte Roche’s “Wetlands”. This is perhaps the only story I have stopped reading out of genuine revulsion. Yes, it might be because I was too easily-shocked, but there didn’t seem to be anything there to accompany the “shock value” and turn it into something greater.
Many splatterpunk novels feature ludicrously gory descriptions, but these are often accompanied by things such as a mysteriously thrilling storyline, dark comedy or other types of horror (eg: psychological horror, supernatural horror etc..). In other words, they contain more than just extremity.
So, if you’re going to include any kind of extremity in a story, then there has to be something else there to give the extremity value and meaning. Extremity for the sake of extremity rarely works well.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂