Sickness in Hell by Tarl Warwick
While spinning down the post-election rabbit hole (yes, I voted for Hillary), I decided to take a trip to the dark side of underground news. A search for the term alt-right led me to a young, youtube philosopher, one Styxhexenhammer666, and despite disagreeing with some of what he spouts (which he seems to do all day long, sometimes never changing out of his bathrobe), I am finding his channel a strange, and addictive, delight. Perhaps der junge occultist has cast a spell over me and his other 70,000 plus subscribers. It could be the glasses, but every time I watch one of his videos, I flash on the exorcist in Ken Russell’s The Devils–I hope the reformed Satanist is not offended. What I find interesting and refreshing about this prolific vlogger is his demonstrable talent for speaking off the cuff and very articulately. He covers a variety of topics from libertarian-leaning political views to horticultural, to trip reports (the philosopher stoned) to the occult, about which he appears legitimately knowledgeable.
He is also a writer; and because I am looking for indie horror novels to review I was curious to see if he writes as well as he speaks. So I helped fill his coffers a bit by purchasing his self-published novel Sickness in Hell: The Death of Mankind by Tarl Warwick (Styx’s real name I assume). The novel is a graphically depicted tale of what happens when the small town of Hillcrest becomes infected by toxic mushrooms via a tainted food processing plant and turns the population into mutating flesh-eating abominations at war with one another–Hell on earth. In one of his YouTube videos, he describes this story as something he began as a class assignment in his AP English class. I am instantly flashing on a few of my former students–black trench coats, high SAT scores, scowling behind their Stephen King novels like they wanted to murder me. Years later, I run into them at the neighborhood bar and everything’s cool. But back to Sickness in Hell. Considering the work’s origin, I was expecting juvenilia, and in a way, it does have a certain adolescent let’s see how far I can gross you out quality that I find distancing, but that is also the essence of the genre. I like a little more meat on my neighbor’s forearm when I’m chewing on it, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to like (enjoy is not the right word) about this story.
The protagonist, Germaine Wordsworth, and his sister, Dawn (for whom he has some incestuous yearning, gratefully not depicted) both become infected with the toxic chemicals. Germaine immediately turns into a mutated human who has an insatiable hunger that he satisfies on the spot by eating an equally infected hobo. Dawn responds to the infection by sprouting huge breasts and growing mushrooms out of her ass (spoiler: there is a lot of ass in this book). An explosion at the processing plant spreads the toxic fungi through the small town of Hillcrest, causing the citizens to become infected with the bizarre body mutation infection. Germaine and Dawn and a few other citizens including a funny old lady named Gran, stake out a citadel around a church to fight off other infected zombies. The story picks up when Satan himself appears along with my favorite character, an old witch who creates all kinds of necromantic hi-jinks. There is even a brief Candide-esque cultivate your own garden utopian reprieve before the dramatic Armageddon showdown at the end (a nice piece of writing depicts the harridan processing plant owner attacking the citadel as the Whore of Babylon on an 18-wheel chariot). Sprinkled in between the distended anuses and dangling labia (I’m not joking) is a bit of philosophy and some alchemy lessons.
As in any self-produced work, there is an expectation of rough spots that could benefit from a keen editor’s eye, and Sickness in Hell has its clunky moments, but overall what impressed me the most is the author’s wickedly sick sense a humor and attention to detail. The Satan character is particularly well-rendered in the comical tradition of Marlowe’s Mephistopheles. In the foreword of the book, the author describes emitting maniacal laughter while writing this. Well, I was right there with him. Maybe I have a diseased mind, but some of the passages made me laugh out loud, one-time blowing soy milk out my nostrils and all over the page, which is not a degradation considering the subject matter.
I am not easily offended, but I prefer the less is more variety of horror, so Sickness in Hell, although entertaining, is more comical than scary (at least for this reader). There are certainly fans of this genre, but the built-in flaw of splatterpunk is that by not holding anything back, there is little suspense built, and more problematic, a lack of humanity that makes the reader care and connect to the characters. I’d be interested in reading more mature works from Warwick that show the level of insight and intellect he expresses in his videos.
So if you can find sport in the intent of how far to the dark side a bright imagination can go, you will probably enjoy the sick laughs of Sickness in Hell. I hope Styx/Warwick continues to develop as a writer and an intellectual (maybe get out of the house once and awhile). I will continue to watch, fascinated.