A Pint of Splatter, Hold the Punk…

Even guidelines have guidelines, and chief among these is for every author to read and follow a publication’s submission guidelines. If you’re a horror author, you’ll often find specifics on what type of ‘scary’ a given publication is asking for. Quite often I find the caveat ‘no splatterpunk.’

Of course, every editor has a right to ask for the kind of writing they like the most. And so if splatterpunk is not what they like, so be it. But I’ve never personally been entirely clear what the suffix ‘punk’ means when added to a genre name. I associate the term mostly with ‘cyberpunk’ and William Gibson. I think of 80’s and 90’s music and movies, black jackets and black jeans with short fashionable haircuts that couldn’t quite decide if they wanted to go hardcore or emo. A whole separate essay could address the differences between punk and metal in the realm of music. And yet when it moves over to contemporary horror fiction, I feel like the term has taken on different connotations.

In a time rife with cartoon-culture, and in a time when I feel like horror movies and horror fiction are markedly different in their aesthetics and audiences, it strikes me that the term ‘splatterpunk’ comes across as something of a caricature, a diminution of the moods, purposes, and themes of violent fiction. Now, I’m aware there is a history to the term among convention goers as a specific movement within horror fiction that features what is dubbed to be ‘extremism’. Personally, however, I don’t feel moved to be pro or con with regard to splatterpunk, because I believe ‘level of violence’ is not a good marker for genre categorization.

Take a novel like Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, with its trees full of dead babies and volcanoside massacres. Its level of violence certainly meets the qualifications of splatterpunk. Indeed, I find it more visceral and satisfying to my tastes in dark fiction than a lot of novels that purport to be horror. But nobody would call McCarthy’s work ‘punk’, because as someone who’s considered a ‘literary writer’, ‘punk’ would sound too frivolous.

Punk as a suffix has a ‘kitschifying’ effect. It seems to calm things down and brush them off by cartoonifying them. “Oh, that’s just gore for gore’s sake,” it seems to say.

Now, I say all this with the understanding that there are a lot of violence-heavy stories out there that are very, very bad stories. I would never fault an editor for not being interested in a bad story. But the term ‘punk’ for me carries with it cultural baggage that precludes assessment of a story’s true nature.

A better system of categorization would be something more along the lines of the way heavy metal subgenres work. Death metal and speed metal are different subgenres of heavy metal, and yet it is the heaviness and aggression that they have in common. The tempo, melody, and lyrical themes are relevant factors in their differences. I think emphasis on elements of theme would also be more useful in categorizing subgenres in horror fiction—say, zombies, vampires, and werewolves could each be genres unto themselves, with all also possibly fitting into a ‘traditional monsters’ category. And while there are times when extreme violence could be considered a subject matter unto itself, I think the common practice of categorizing work on differing levels of violence, as in say, a pair of quality zombies stories, is of lesser importance.

Of course, I fully understand that there is a practical side to asking for stories not to contain extreme violence. If an editor is weary of getting the same types of stories over and over, and such statements help prevent that, then it’s useful. But I might aim to emphasize a preference for ‘subtle supernatural horror’ if such is what one wants, rather than to emphasize not submitting splatterpunk.

Because in the end, when I go to a metal show or pick up a horror novel, whether its lead guitar or suffering humanity, the sounds of screams are a big part of the thrill.