Ruthless, edited by Shane McKenzie

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Ruthless: An Extreme Shock Horror Collection

Author: Collection edited by Shane McKenzie

Type of Book: Horror, extreme horror, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Extreme horror will always have a place on this site.

Availability: Published by Pill Hill Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I think that I may have reached my saturation point in terms of what can horrify me. I can recall the first time I saw the movie Scarface and watched the scene with Angel and the chainsaw. I was still technically a kid and I remember feeling nauseated and light-headed. It was the first time any form of media had that effect on me, but now it’s like every movie has a chainsaw, even the romantic comedies. Even so, it still happens from time to time, that feeling that I might vomit as I am being exposed to something terrible, but not often. The Throbbing Gristle song “Hamburger Lady” is the only form of media I can think of that still upsets me when I am exposed to it. It’s not even the lyrics. It’s the strange, gravelly but warbling siren sound that recurs in the song. My microwave makes a similar sound when the glass plate inside gets unstable, so my microwave also upsets me a little. It’s a sound that always makes me feel desolate, like no matter how good and careful I am that my life could still end up an exercise in pointless brutality disguised as medical advancement, that I could end up in a place of unending agony perpetrated against me for my own good. This is an unpleasant feeling to have come over one’s self when reheating leftovers.

That sense of nauseated terror or grim but panicked fear of pain is what I expect of extreme horror and it seldom happens anymore. It could be because I am too hardened, having exposed myself almost relentlessly to the real and fictional bad men can do. But mostly I think extreme horror often goes for the gross out, cartoonish violence that has no punch after the initial sense of “Gross!” The Three Stooges with cleavers. Luckily this collection has more good stories than bad, and given some of the really unimpressive collections I have read over the last couple of years, just being better than average means this collection stands above the rest.  But little of it was particularly horrifying as I read it, and that which did horrify me crossed the lines of a personal taboo that I suspect fans of extreme horror would not find that upsetting. There was no “Hamburger Lady” equivalent in this collection, but there was enough gross out combined with good writing that allows me to overlook the absence of the sort of extremity that can truly affect me.

The collection starts off with the best story of the bunch, “Bebbel” by John McNee. This was a seriously disturbing and upsetting story. Bebbel is a part of a trans-humanist freak show, living in a dark, silent cage between performances, his body brutally modified against his will. The Mistress of Ceremonies, Sally – The Keeper of Dark Secrets, has created a repellent cast that performs on her command, feeling adoration and loathing for their cruel maker. The story is full of body horror, creepy trans-humanist revisions:

Lupi is operated via remote control. Somewhere off-stage a switch is thrown and she rumbles into life. Her body begins to shake, shoulders quivering, head lurching. The exhaust pipes jutting out from between her ribs belch black smoke. Blood seeps out through her gritted teeth. There’s a motorcycle engine in her belly. The block is visible where the metal has split the skin. Under her seat is a single motorcycle wheel, and it starts to roll now, inching towards the front. When the revs get up, Lupi vomits blood. She can’t make a sound, poor Lupi. Her throat is full of liquid. Can’t speak, laugh, or moan. But her eyes are screaming.

The story is plagued by poor editing, as are many in this collection, but in most horror books from small presses, you will see similar lack of attention, if not worse. But in terms of creating a horrific story that is truly upsetting and foul without crossing over into the sort of comic overkill that dominates much of extreme horror, McNee succeeds quite well. The reason this story is different from all the other trans-humanist freak show stories is Bebbel. Bebbel, a victim like the others, grows into his role as a monster in a surprising way. Imaginative, frightening, and very unpleasant, this really is the best story in the collection and it’s nice and somewhat unusual that the editor led with his strengths. Generally the best story is buried under lesser stories.

“Sanctity of Passion” by Daniel Fabiani was a middling-to-better story in the collection. It’s a typical story of a malevolent psychiatrist. The story was not completely original but Fabiani’s prose was pretty good. The gore is decent enough, and he manages to convey the arrogant and pretentious tone of a nasty man and at times the tone got a little thick but overall it was a solid story.

“To Boil” by Lucas Pederson is another not-entirely-bad story. The details in this one approach being the sort of utter foulness I expect when something calls itself “extreme horror.” This one had a Ramsey Campbell mixed with Ed Lee on a good day feel to it. A woman kidnapped by a pretty rancid cannibal manages to stage an escape by the skin of her teeth but she may be too mentally affected by what has happened to her during captivity to pull it off. This is a story that will appeal to gorehounds and overall it should have tied “Bebbel” for the top story but ultimately I found the heroine’s breakdowns too convenient. It verged into the same sort of groan-worthy territory of the young heroine in slasher movies who just has to take a shower in the dark, creepy house. Otherwise, it was not bad.

“Your Tender Loving Touch” by Danny Hill was an utterly predictable story about a man whose refusal to let his wife rest in peace or have bodily integrity in death comes back to bite him in the ass. Not poorly written, but I more or less knew what was going to happen by the second page. And given the protagonist’s actions, it’s hard to care when his gory decisions lead him down a sorry path.

“Pumpkin Soup” was unexpectedly fun while being demented and grotesque. A young woman making pumpkin soup on Halloween discovers she is her own best ingredient. It’s more of a gross and, strangely enough, whimsical sketch and an interesting execution of extreme horror. Generally I don’t expect extreme horror to amuse me. Sometimes authors try to infuse humor in their violence and gore and end up with a ham-handed story that is neither funny nor foul. Robertson manages to have a sort of fey humor in her story, coupled with some pretty intense nastiness.

“True Love” by Shane McKenzie is the tale of a couple who end up on a demented game show, answering questions about their relationship. Wrong answers have dire consequences and, of course, the couple find out unpleasant things during their intense torture. Gory, and while the plot was a bit predictable, the writing was tight and overall the story was compelling.

“The Bloodmites” by Jared Donald Blair is the story of a man whose housekeeper’s befuddling behavior vexes him, and the reason behind her strange behavior proves to be a horde of insects. Mildly nasty, this story has a sort of gothic feel to it that I have a hard time describing, but it was not that extreme. And I will admit that I am tiring of the ending wherein a victim almost immediately relates to their captor or tormentor or some horrible force that moments before had them terrified, but these trends come and go in fiction, it seems.

“Adaptation” by Lesley Conner mines a familiar vein. A childless woman, ambivalent about having children entirely, is stalked by a demonic baby. And Conner almost pulls off sending the story into a completely different direction explaining the presence of the evil baby, but falls deep into the well of “show, don’t tell.” I seldom call anyone out on this because in some stories, it has to happen. There is no way to show vast swathes of history in a short story. Yet this was jarring enough that I felt the old admonitions about showing and not telling had their place. Add to it that I am unsure about the motives in the story – is it a feminist reaction or is it just incorporating common ideas about modern women into a story with no greater motive? Don’t know, and these problems made this story one of the weaker stories in the collection. Still, it was not a bad story. Being a weak story in this collection isn’t the condemnation it might be with other collections.

“Finally Alone” by David Bernstein is another abduction story. A woman is kidnapped and kept in a coffin, forced to drink periodically. Her captor also adds poisonous insects into the coffin, giving her antidotes to the poisons he is forcing into her system. This story suffers from a weak, twist ending and at times less than convincing dialogue. The torture of time in the coffin was interesting, however, and reminded me of the movie Buried.

“Rise Up Nanking” by AJ Brown is the story of a Japanese soldier who is haunted by the atrocities he was forced to be a part of in the Japanese sack of Nanking. This story was pretty strong writing that was quite extreme and that the extremity comes from actual historical events gave this story a heavy punch. If you’ve ever seen the horror/exploitation films dealing with Unit 731, know this is in that vein, discussing repellent history. This story has a heavy morality, though, making it clear that war is no excuse for not resisting evil and I’m not sure how many gorehounds will appreciate the lesson. Still, a strong story.

“Mother’s Little Helper” by Tom Olbert suffers a bit because it was created around the same time other similar stories in print and film came out (not calling it derivative because sometimes it just happens that the zeitgeist works this way). A religious fanatic and scientist abducts women contemplating abortions. This story is very elaborate in the steps that the protagonist takes to ensure women can’t abort their feti and has another WHAT A TWIST moment. Lots of abducted women, lots of twists in this collection and the stories toward the end suffered a bit for it. Still, not a bad story, but definitely toward the back of the pack.

“Saucy” by Nate Burleigh is an angry-hooker-rape-victim WHAT A TWIST story. Easily my least favorite in the collection.

“Crankin'” by John “JAM” Arthur Miller is the story of a crack-addicted boxer who has to fight a death match or his family will be killed. Nothing new here, but Miller is a fine writer and the scenes in the ring are compelling. And the absence of a twist ensured I enjoyed it even more. Also sports a far sunnier ending than I have come to expect from extreme horror, but rest assured, gorehounds will like this story.

“Birthday Song” by Thornton Austen, I had to stop reading after the first page because it features a dead dog. It could be a great story, it could be a terrible story, but I can’t abide too much abuse toward animals. You’d think all this gore I read would toughen me up in this regard, but no dice. So sorry, Austen.

“The Abortionists” by Aaron J. French is another story of young women seeking abortions being kidnapped and held by a violent, religious nut. Two stories with more or less the same theme, if not outright same topic, in one collection is a bit odd, but French is not to blame for that poor editorial decision. A crazy fundamentalist woman kidnapped three women who successfully had abortions and is torturing them in her basement as she manages her incredibly dysfunctional, asshole family with blinders on to their faults. They too don’t seem to know she has kidnap victims in the basement. Not a lot of gore – mostly psychological torture. The ending was strange to me too, as it was hard to see how it really impacted the women who aborted their babies. This story was hampered by its ending and by incorporating characters who were almost exclusively caricatures.

“Little Messiahs” by Eric Stoveken features a kidnapped man who is tortured by another man with strange religious ideas (note to self: do not ever write a story featuring an abduction with a religious nut as a character because, as this collection shows, it’s been done). Roger tortures Leonard in horrible ways, only to stitch him back up and save him for more abuse. It’s a demented, tense story of a man who, in a sense, creates sin-eaters via his torture of others. At least this abduction tale had a bit of something unusual to it to set it apart.

“Strength” by Alec Cizak tells the tale of an elementary school-age boy whose Jewish last name has made him a subject of torment by his classmates. His parents have chosen a life of service that also requires their son to live in dreadful poverty. He develops a twisted world view that causes him to become a monster and right about there I had to stop reading because, again, animal torture. I was dumb enough to scan forward to see if maybe the torture stopped but it got way worse. For the right gorehound, this story may be top notch but I couldn’t take it.

“The World Without Souls” by D. Krauss is the story of how the world falls apart when it is proven God does not exist. A tired trope with redneck stereotypes that didn’t really do much for me.

“Little Blenny Blunting” by Airika Sneve baffled me. There were several sections where I had to reread just to get a handle on what was happening because it was all strange and unconnected. And those rereads didn’t help as much as I would have liked. A young man with Down’s Syndrome is – wait for it – kidnapped by a black man named Cyrus, and taken to a strange bus. Blenny boards the bus with other passengers, is taken to Bleak Street, is confronted by a scary dog and some other stuff happens and I have no clue. I think Blenny has sex with a gross old woman. A dead whale is mentioned. Maybe? If you read it, come back and tell me what the hell this was about, okay?

So, all things considered, this was not so bad. Repetitive tropes are difficult to avoid in the horror genre entirely, but I question the editorial decision to include so many abduction/abortion/religious loon tales in one volume. And like most small presses, it could have used better editing in general to eliminate grammar and substitution errors. But even keeping all of this in mind, this collection still offers better stories than most extreme horror anthologies. The tally:
–19 stories
–2 involved too much animal abuse for me to finish
–2 were pretty bad or not to my tastes
–1 was inexplicable
–15 ranged from good enough to excellent

Fifteen good stories is nothing to sneeze at. I promise, being called good enough is not damning with faint praise. Increasingly I read lots of garbage that in the process of recycling the same old story lines brings nothing new to the table in terms of characterization, handling of gore or even the ability to write well enough to keep my attention. Fifteen good enough stories means the average extreme horror reader will find a lot to like in this collection. So I recommend it, if you have the stomach for the content.

15 thoughts on “Ruthless, edited by Shane McKenzie

  1. Thanks for throwing us gorehounds a bone! I read this collection recently, but only about half the stories you reviewed sound familiar to me, so I must not have thought all that much of it.

    I don’t think you missed much with “Birthday Song.” It had some good passages — on the whole I liked the portrayal of the psychopath, and the depiction of his town and neighbors was something Stephen King probably could have spun a good tale out of. But the ending is straight out of EC comics, and left me less than satisfied.

    I liked “Pumpkin Soup” quite a bit for its completely straight-faced strangeness. As a home cook I related to the story in a way I can’t define — maybe it’s meant to be a satire of overly fussy cooks?

    “Little Blenny Blunting” — I doubt that I had any better idea of what this story was about than you did, but I enjoyed the surreal imagery and over-the-top gross-out descriptions. I just can’t hate a story that includes lines like “he unzipped his corduroys and plunged his manbit into the scabrous stoma.” The whole thing had a dreamlike quality that makes me suspect this was an actual nightmare the author had, that compelled her to leap out of bed and scribble it down.

    I guess I liked this book all right — at least, the stories I remember. I’ll have to go back and reread the unfamiliar ones. My biggest complaint, which is true of probably 80% of the stories I read in these extreme horror collections, is that some of these authors seem to have very little grasp of character motivation and psychological realism. “To Boil” was a good example of this. Where the protagonist ends up makes no sense to me except in terms of horror story logic.

    You can see the author’s calculation: this is how I want the story to end, so everything that happens up to that point is going to force the character to that ending, whether it makes any actual sense or not. A lot of these stories are like that. It’s just like, here are the gross-out/horror points I want to hit, so whatever story there is between those points is just there to move the characters quickly from one to the next.

    Ah well. I guess when you have a sub-genre that’s defined by a single quality, you’re going to get a ton of stories that just write to that quality, at the expense of everything else.

    1. Ah well. I guess when you have a sub-genre that’s defined by a single quality, you’re going to get a ton of stories that just write to that quality, at the expense of everything else.

      Part of what is happening in extreme horror is that many writers are trying to legitimize the genre. Or at least that is my suspicion, because many are trying to shoehorn coherent plot into places where it does not belong. That’s why I think “Pumpkin Soup” worked so well. Just a little sketch of utterly strange grossness with no greater attempt at legitimate characterization or reasonable plot. Some can pull it off, mixing the extreme horror with the trappings of a traditional story, but it’s damn hard. And it’s all the more notable when it is done well.

      But what you say about remembering only a handful of stories was true because when I sat down to discuss this book, I only remembered three clearly: “Bebbel,” “Pumpkin Soup,” and “Little Blenny Bunting.” And the latter I only recalled because it stymied me. But I am glad to know it makes little sense to you either and I think I likely blocked out the part about the stoma. Holy crap.

      We had discussed Wrath James White and how I was unsure of him because of a couple of books I had read that really annoyed me. I finished one of his books a couple of months ago and may review it sooner than later just to show how it is that extremity of content can be married with excellent characterization and a fine plot. I am beginning to think it was Lee and not White who shat up Teratologist.

      But even though so few get it absolutely right, I love it when it happens. I just wish I could find something that would leave me queasy again. That ship has probably sailed, though…

  2. I must be getting old. Nothing used to shock me. But a few years ago a picked up a Poppy Z. Brite novel at a yard sale, and a couple dozen pages in, the progagonist (could that possibly be the right word?) kidnaps a boy and force feeds him lots of LSD and begins peeling his skin off. Burroughs’ejaculating hanging boys were like Anne of Green Gables by comparison. Even though Brite’s writing style isn’t too bad, I just couldn’t read any more. It’s in a landfill near an airport right now, not decomposing quickly enough.

    1. Exquisite Corpse is the PZB book you are referring to, and I also recall feeling, at the time when I read it, that it was the pinnacle of nastiness and just foul horror. Because I was interested in necrophilia and its use in literature, I kept reading and found an almost Baudelaire-sort of revel in the sexuality of death. But believe me, I understand why you put it down. It’s interesting what sort of foulness I can tolerate and what I can’t.

      Thanks for reading, Gregg, and thanks for the comment. And sorry it took so long to reply.

  3. I read this book recently and over all, I loooved it! I enjoy anything that pushes the limits. “Bebbel” was definitely one of my favorites, just reread that one earlier. The descriptions of Sally’s monstrosities are beautifully disturbing and cruel, as is Sally herself.

    “Pumpkin Soup” is my second favorite, unexpected and made me cringe as well as giggle. It brought to mind the time my husband and I just slaughtered a deer and I had to stand over the sink, wringing out bloody chunks of fresh meat before putting in in a pot of boiling veggies. Go fig! lol

    As far as “Little Blenny Bunting”, yeah, WTF? I read that before going to bed and I was afraid to go in there and turn off the lights because the image of the old lady and her crazy lady parts (if you want to call them that) were still fresh in my mind. No idea what the point of that story was.

    I enjoyed the story “Strength” as well, but had to skip over the kitten part (can’t take animal torture either). The end where the kid finally snaps and throws another kid out the back of the bus onto a speeding Mercedes was classic!

    Overall, a great read for horror fans who want something less typical.

    1. MaryJane, sorry I am so dreadfully behind on my comments. Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing your opinion.

      Since you and others found the “stoma” section of “Little Blenning Bunting” so… visceral, I decided to reread it. I still have no idea what the hell was happening in that story but I can now tell you I feel the same gross reaction. :twitch:

  4. Ever Google yourself? I don’t, often, but I’m glad I did today because I got to read this and bask in the warm feelings of smug self-satisfaction that enveloped and soothed me for the next few moments.

    I’m glad you and other commenters rated ‘Bebbel’ so highly, though I’m sad to report it is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever written.

    I do write almost exclusively in the horror genre however, and if you should ever fancy indulging in another ‘extreme’ collection, allow me to recommend D.O.A., Steamy Screams or Gospels of Blood, Psalms of Despair. I have stories published in each and they can all be located with relatively little effort. Not for the faint of heart, though. D.O.A. and Gospels, especially, contain works by other authors that disturbed me more than anything I read in Ruthless.

    Thanks again and keep reading.

    1. Hello, John! I’m so pleased you found my discussion and our mutual admiration of your short story. I’m curious to see how different your style is from what I saw in “Bebbel” and have added Gospels of Blood, Psalms of Despair to my wish list and will definitely check it out as soon as I am a bit better organized.

  5. I continue to stumble across reviews of this book as well as complaints about the “animal torture” in the story I wrote. I’m a little perplexed by this reaction. When I wrote the story way back in the early 2000s, I felt that stage of the evolution of a serial killer was common knowledge and would not be read as simply torture for the sake of grossing out the reader. “Strength” was meant to be an intimate portrait of the conditions that lead a child to becoming a killer. My own contribution to the common theories was the issue of bullying, which has become a trendy social issue in the last few years. To simply dismiss what happens to the rat and the cat in “Strength” as nothing more than “animal torture” and refuse to read the story on that basis takes those scenes out of context and makes a reader of the review associate my name with animal torture and possibly deter them from reading anything else I’ve written (I’m pretty sure this is the only time I’ve included this sort of thing in any of my work).

    Overall, I enjoyed this review and the comments section (maryjane is the only person so far who seems to have grasped the underlying meaning of “Strength”) and I especially like the discussion of horror going on. I tend to write noir fiction (or, “dirty realism,” if I’m speaking with university types) because, though I love horror, I feel it is almost impossible to do it correctly. In my mind, horror should prevent one from sleeping. If I can’t produce an idea that gives me goosebumps, how do I expect the reader to be scared?

    1. Alex, I had a really long response but I realized I can share what I wanted to convey in a far shorter reply. I don’t think you need to worry about this plot element being associated with your name. A quick Google showed that the first three pages dealt mostly with a detective mag you edit. I also think that it may never be a good idea for an author to leave a comment to such an old discussion of a relatively obscure collection, explaining authorial intent and expressing angst, but I also know that criticism, when the author feels it is missing the point, can hurt. But it seldom looks good when authors do this.

      I’m glad you shared this response with me but, even though you didn’t ask for advice, I am going to give you some: don’t try to redeem this short story any more, no matter how many more negative reactions to the animal abuse you stumble across. Animal abuse seldom evokes fear – it almost always evokes emotional disgust – and if people didn’t like it, they didn’t like it. In my quick Google, I see people not wanting to read the content of your story but no one really savages it. It’s just that people were unlikely to separate the anger and nausea at the abuse element from the realization that they were seeing a serial killer in the making (and even then knowing that this kid was going to become a monster was not that much of a revelation, let alone likely to evoke fear). Sometimes you win, sometimes you get the point across, but sometimes you don’t. But it’s pretty unlikely that the animal abuse in this story will ever be associated with your name unless you leave too many more comments like this.

      I’m glad you shared your reaction to this entry and I hope the best for you in your current works!

    2. This evening I surfed your name. Honestly? I don’t think this early story of yours is even a blip on your career-radar. Pulp Modern sounds like a hoot. And I am going to write Pulp Modern, edited by Alec Cizak out so that if Google indexes this comment hopefully this adds to the idea that you are about a lot more than an old grue element in an older story. 🙂

  6. Thanks for the advice. I just don’t want folks to ever think I find torturing animals (or humans, for that matter) ‘fun’ or ‘entertaining.’ I’m sure I’m just being paranoid.

    I often wonder about authors responding to reviews–the Internet makes it possible for authors to interact with readers, which could make for interesting dialogues. Part of me, however, feels that once a story is published, it belongs to the readers and their interpretations and the author should stay out of the conversation (and I believe this applies to all the arts). I recently read an article about Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree in which two journalists gave conflicting readings of it. In the comments section, dozens of people added their own interpretations. Nobody read the book the way I did and I doubt the author ever intended for the book to be taken as much more than a comment on generosity. So maybe it is a good idea for writers to write the story and leave it to the audience from that point on. The many interpretations simply proves there is a natural, Occidental order to the world where each person is capable of an individual opinion. In my opinion, that’s a good thing.

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