Friday, 7 March 2014

AN.AL—The Origins by Athul DeMarco, 2013

Insanity, like misery, never walks alone.

I was more than a little sceptical when Bharti Taneja of Fingerprint Publishing, New Delhi, wrote to me saying that she was sending a review copy of their latest release based on splatterpunk genre. The reason was that splatterpunk, a term attributed to American author of horror fiction David J. Schow, is horror without limits. It refers to graphic depiction of violence, sex, cannibalism, bloodshed and the kind. Examples are Jack Ketchum's Off Season and Edward Lee's The Bighead. However, Bharti assured me that the book was very interesting and not as violent as I thought.

And so I read Indian writer Athul DeMarco’s debut novel AN.AL—The Origins and got acquainted with horror within horror for the first time. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. In fact, I quite liked the story. It was weird and unconventional and like nothing I’d read before.

The main character is a man with two heads, Andy (AN) and Alfie (AL), who investigate the bizarre and macabre deaths of a backpacking wayward tourist, the young son of a wealthy and influential couple, and a stray dog stuffed inside a gunnysack and found in their home. All three bodies are mutilated. The killer is Anita, a young and attractive girl, whose staple diet is human flesh and bones. She has sworn to destroy the two-headed monster but the twins don’t know it.

Andy and Alfie are conjoined, their heads attached to a single body, but they are as different as night and day. Andy is the silent one who likes to read and think before he does anything while Alfie is the spirited type who likes to sleep, drink, and smoke. Both have a keen intelligence and a rare understanding. They argue and quarrel like normal siblings but they are clear about their work as amateur detectives. The adventurous twins are hired as consultants by The Department with No Name (The Department of Weird) to investigate peculiar cases that defy explanation. They report to Eugene Francois, a good-natured cop who works under Superintendent Roth, a wife-beating ambitious and crooked police officer.

Anita owes her cannibalistic nature to her circumstances–she was alone and bullied in school, sexually abused by a doting father, ran away from her dysfunctional family, and was adopted by a clown couple, Peter and Rita, the only survivors of the Human Cannibal Project of the Third Reich. The Pollacks, who have been preying on humans for more than thirty years, train their “daughter” to become a predator, just like them.

“It’s okay, love… But you know what we really want. We want the man with two heads. Kill him and you get back everything you loved.”

The characters
There are very few characters in the story apart from the twins, Anita, and the two cops. There is Dominic McManus, the owner of the McManus Pub and the only friend Andy and Alfie have, and Mr. Robbins, their landlord, both of whom, in return for favours, offer the boys a lifetime of free food and accommodation. There is also Manny, the superintendent’s resourceful assistant.

The story centres on Andy and Alfie and their seemingly difficult life. They manage quite well in spite of their abnormality. The twins are enterprising, sharp, enthusiastic, and witty. You can’t help warming towards them. At the same time you can’t help wondering about the more personal aspects of their life, their inner desires and feelings. After all, they are two heads, two minds, and two personalities. The author skims over this issue. A case in point is when Andy has an intense dream that Alfie is hugging and kissing him on his lips or when Alfie feels romantically inclined towards a hospital nurse. Of course, these mean nothing in the story.

Anita, on the other hand, is a closed book. Just as you feel sorry for her abused and unwanted character, she transforms into a man-eater without heart and soul. Unlike the twins, I thought she lacked depth and goes through the motions of hunting down her prey.

Final Word

Author Athul DeMarco has come up with an original story idea. AN.AL—The Origins is well-written, absorbing, and quite fast paced. There is a dark quality to the storytelling. It has suspense but it is not scary. The setting is interesting but ambiguous with names of places (or titles of chapters) like 201 Swann Street, McManus Pub, Costa Le Roux, Bellingham County Hospital, Vansdoor, and Summerfields. Likewise, the characters could be from anywhere.

On the flipside, the discovery of rotting and mutilated corpses and carcasses, while disturbing, does not evoke horrifying imagery. I also felt that the novel was long at 251 pages; there were parts that could have been left out. But then, length is a writer’s prerogative.

Bottom line: I was happy with my initiation into splatterpunk fiction with DeMarco’s debut novel. I would read his second book.

One thing I realised about splatterpunk is that it touches many genres like crime, horror, sf, and fantasy, and it would appeal to anyone who likes to read in one or more of these categories.

Recommended

16 comments:

  1. I wrote some splatterpunk back in the day. Most of it is collected in my anthology, In the Language of Scorpions." There was some creative stuff came out of that movement.

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    1. Charles, I was sure you'd be familiar with the term and that you might have used it in your fiction. I'll look out for your anthology. Spatterpunk is entirely new to me though it might not be everyone's cup of tea.

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  2. Wow! This is almost like a surreal absurdist parody of splatterpunk. Is this written with tongue in cheek? I wouldn't be able to take this seriously. To me it sounds like Harry Stephen Keeler meets George Romero.

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    1. John, it's not written with tongue in cheek. In fact, it is a fairly dark and intense novel that has some amusing moments involving the twins. I'll have to read other splatterpunk fiction for a suitable comparison. I'm afraid I don't know who Harry Stephen Keeler and George Romero are (or were) but I'm guessing they are (or were) into horror fiction. I'll read about them right away.

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    2. George Romero is a horror movie director (Night of the Living Dead and all its sequels) who is largely responsible for re-inventing zombies by turning them into the cannibalistic brain eaters we know today. Harry Stephen Keeler was an oddball mystery writer who basically made fun of the genre by writing books with absurd convoluted plots that are populated with freakish characters including legless women, killer midgets and Siamese twins.

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    3. John, thanks for the brief profiles of George Romero and Harry Stephen Keeler. I recall seeing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD though I didn't know Romero had made it. It's interesting that Siamese twins has been done before in horror fiction.

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  3. This sounds like it would be interesting to read, making a change from my usual books. I read Lee's THE BIGHEAD a few years ago. Ok but I didn't rush to read anything else by him.

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    1. Col, it was a change for me too. There is so much variety in Indian fiction, a lot more in recent years. This was a fine example of it.

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  4. Very different, and I might read it someday, with your recommendation. I hate to admit that I have never hear of splatterpunk. I admire you for giving this one a try.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. I was reluctant to read this book but in the end I'm glad I did. It was very different, yes, and besides I'm trying to read more Indian fiction, old and new. I'm also going to dig deeper into splatterpunk.

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  5. Is there some significance to the title being a play on "anal"? That can't be accidental, knowing what I know about the genre.

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    1. Kelly, the title is not "accidental" and there is a twist to it only in the end but it is not significant in the context of the story.

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  6. I like that plot, Prashant. Nothing new under the sun but, for me, that's a unique sounding story.

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    1. David, it was a "unique" story with some interesting characters and places including a cop who breaks into French. Much of the focus is on the Siamese twins.

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  7. Thanks Prashant - I have to say, as persuasive as you are (and you are), I really don't think this is for me - probabyl showing my age a bit here but I've never really been into horror much and ... well, there you go really, I just don't connect with it! Really enjoyed your review and enthusiasm for it though chum.

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    1. Sergio, thank you. I understand your point of view. This is a different kind of horror, one that encompasses suspense, fantasy, and even sf, depending on how one sees it. I thought it was a brave experiment on the part of the author, especially for a debut novel.

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