Exploring the Work of Splatterspunk Author Edward Lee
The writings of Edward Lee are truly transgressive in a way that most art that tries to brand itself as such canít pretend to be and wouldnít want to be if it could. No matter how open-minded and progressive you think you are, I suspect you would find certain pages of Ed Leeís 1997 novel The Bighead not just repulsive but morally abhorrent. I can tell you I did--which is what first interested me about it.
A friend gave me a copy of The Bighead several years ago, less as a gag than as a curse, like a Monkeyís Paw. He assured me that it was reputed to be "unspeakable." My initial reaction to The Bighead was not unlike my reaction to my fatherís old copy of Anśrobic Infections, a book--illustrated with color plates--I would sometimes dare myself to open as a child. Once every year or so Iíd remember that The Bighead was on my shelf, warily take it down, and randomly read something such as
His dickknob felt her insides startiní ta pop, aní things breakiní inner, aní he couldía swored he felt his big pecker pop that baby right in the eye, aní thens she broke her water, which Bighead cupped in his hand and dranked, aní it were warm aní good, but it were no con-ser-lay-shun.
before remembering why Iíd shoved it back there shuddering with revulsion and shame the last time.
The Bighead was my introduction to a sub-subgenre of horror fiction called splatterspunk--a term (derived from splatterpunk, in turn derived from cyberpunk) coined in a review of The Bighead by Leeís colleague Jack Ketchum. It is distinguished, as its name suggests, by pornographic violence and sex.
Ed Lee, 49, is championed in blurbs and hype as "the bad boy of horror," "the hardest of the hardcore writers," and "the One Who Crosses the Line." Heís a local, born Lee Seymour in Bowie. He worked here as a night watchman in a retirement community while writing by day for 15 years before moving to Seattle in 1997 and then St. Pete Beach, Fla. He is the author of about 20 novels, not counting collaborations and story collections, including Coven, Succubi, Incubi, Ghouls, and Flesh Gothic. He is currently at work on the third book of what may prove to be a teratology set in the modern city of Hell. An independent movie called Header--donít ask--story by Lee, premieres this month.
The Bigheadís main characters are a shy, repressed girl whose main problem turns out to be the shaggy-dog setup for a dirty joke; her kindly aunt who runs a boarding house; a nymphomaniac journalist; a foulmouthed Vietnam vet priest; a couple of rapacious and sadistic moonshine runners named "Dicky" and "Balls"; and the strapping but retarded hired hand Goop. There is also, of course, the Bighead himself, whose head is quite big and who suffers from several other congenital disfigurements and deviant behaviors, such as neurophagy. "Gawd damn," he exults, "but werenít it good to et a raw brain busted fresh out the skull!"
Events contrive to converge all these characters on an old abandoned abbey in the Appalachians that harbors a terrible secret. At the bookís frenzied climax, one character shrieks convoluted 11th-hour exposition while being raped and split open, unholy family secrets are revealed, demons and aliens appear, the dam literally bursts, and all hell--again, literally--breaks loose.
I am not necessarily recommending The Bighead. The book reads as though it were ripped out in a single draft in about a week and a half and indifferently copyedited, scattered with malapropisms--can "feebled" be a verb? Is "obtusion" even a word?--and sentences such as "Charity felt flensed, the skin of her reason peeling back at the loss of what she conceived of as sanity."
Lee seems to take the same perverse satisfaction in the creative mangling of the language as of fictional victims, tossing off emetic coinages such as "girlyworks" and "peckersnot." In writing from backwoods Appalachian charactersí points of view he affects a demented, cartoonish hillbilly dialect--"werenít no fun humpiní redneck pussy when yer rod were going in aní out of a busted cervix aní posterior wall"--except he also insists on putting diction into their mouths and heads that he acknowledges they wouldnít conceivably use: "not that The Bighead hisself would ever know . . . what a cervix aní posterior wall was." Sometimes he spells words out phonetically: "Feller-ay-shee-ohís what theyíse call it in the City, Iíse think."
But Iím also not here to write some arch appreciation of Ed Leeís work as camp. There is a ghoulish, blasphemous humor in it--I especially enjoy the cameos by Christ--but I donít find it unintentionally funny.
Reading Lee puts you in instant and uncomfortable touch with the conservative, book-banning guardian of decency deep within yourself. What I want, reading Leeís description of a hillbilly sodomizing an old womanís colostomy stoma, or two nuns urinating through catheters into a priestís mouth and urethra, is not just not to be reading it anymore--a wish I could easily grant myself by closing the book--or even just for nobody else to want to read it, either. What I want is for it not to exist.
This is a troubling thing for me to want. Iím a First Amendment hard-liner. I donít like feeling squeamish or priggish or square. It places me in the uncomfortable position of those humorless cranks who call my own work "sick"--a label thatís always seemed, to me, like a more reliable indicator of the criticís own repression than of the artistís pathology. This is not an easy reaction to provoke, and itís some sort of testament to the raw power of Leeís writing.
I did find myself, to my concern, getting gradually desensitized to the violence as I forced my way through The Bighead, so that by the time a character was heaved off a cliff with a rope tied around his genitals so that they popped off as he plummeted to the rocks below, I was like, Ehh. In the end, my main objection to these scenes is that although theyíre upsetting, theyíre not frightening.
The popularity of splatterpunk novels and slasher films, and the ascendancy of the serial killer over the quaint old roguesí gallery of vampires and werewolves as our cultureís bogeyman, strikes me as a symptom of spiritual impoverishment. The worst horror we can imagine is corporeal; not the loss of our immortal souls but our precious flesh ransacked and turned to offal. The genre has degenerated into the desperately inventive destruction of the body, an adult version of kidsí "Whatís grosser than gross?" riddles. This seems only incidentally similar to true horror literature, which, at its best, inspires that awefull dread that is the dark side of wonder.
And yet, as I read, I realized there is something more than depravity and carnage going on in Leeís work. He drops some unexpected names in The Bighead: Thomas Aquinas, SŲren Kierkegaard, and Thomas Merton. Beneath its noisome surface lurks an uncompromising morality, derived in equal parts from the Old Testament and EC Comics. The Bighead rends a child molester asunder with his monstrous penis, and delivers unto "Dicky," who hasnít been so much an active perpetrator of evil as a passively titillated spectator to it (not unlike The Bigheadís readers), a physiologically implausible but ghastly comeuppance. A hero who has killed unambiguously evil characters in following what he believes to be the will of God is summarily damned, and Renť Descartesí concerns about a Great Deceiver prove to have been well-founded.
"Maybe Godís a harder-ass than we think, and maybe He should be," Lee suggests. "You can be good, but who can be good enough?"
In real life, Ed Lee is, of course, a total sweetheart. I met him at Horrorfind, a weekend horror convention at the Hunt Valley Marriott. As someone whose readers are routinely nonplussed to learn that I am clean-cut and well-mannered, I was not shocked that Lee turns out to be polite, thoughtful, and erudite in the history of his genre. He often uses the word "fun" in talking about his writing. Heís a guy with whom Iíd be happy to spend an afternoon talking about Arthur Machen and M.R. James over Belgian ales. The thing I find most disturbing about him is that he prefers Dungeness to blue crabs.
Lee is genteelly closemouthed about his religious beliefs; all he says is that heís "an Existentialist Christian, or a Christian Existentialist. You figure it out." I have yet to figure out how Lee reconciles his Christianity with his Sadean fantasies, but Iím beginning to suspect that gore only fascinates him as a crude metonym for evil. "I think itís healthy to be curious about the worst that humanity has to offer," he says. "How black is your blackest heart?" I wonder whether writing is not, for him, a kind of confession or exorcism.
Lee would never presume to call himself a "literary" writer, but he is a serious one, whose work I have come, to my surprise, to respect. He cites H.P. Lovecraft as the author whoís influenced him the most, and although he, like Lovecraft, is fixated on fleshly corruption and filth, the real horror in their works is ultimately spiritual. Lovecraft saw the universe as alien and amoral, a blind ravening void, but Leeís vision is at heart deeply conservative. He insists that there is "a Christian-positive message" in all his books, and I believe this is true. But itís far from the self-congratulatory, told-you-so apocalyptic rhapsodies of the Left Behind series. Beneath all his grisly games, Edward Lee is trying to disinter what may be an urban, educated 21st-century readerís most deeply buried fear: that God might not be dead after all.
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