Well, I can thank Brian Keene for directing me to Bryan Smith’s latest novella, Kill for Satan! from Grindhouse Press. I love Mr Keene’s work, including the podcast that he hosts, The Horror Show with Brian Keene. It’s a fantastic podcast that looks at all of the different corners of the Horror genre, including the latest news, book reviews, general discussion about issues affecting the genre as a whole, and some phenomenal interviews with authors, publishers and performers that are often deeply personal and always hugely informative. Frankly it should be seen as required listening for anyone even vaguely interested in the Horror genre, and I listen to a new episode every week when it’s released. Mr Keene has regularly discussed horror author Bryan Smith, recommending his titles, and I’ve often meant to seek them out and dive in, but never quite got around to it until now. But then scrolling through Twitter, I saw that Mr Keene had retweeted a tweet about Mr Smith’s latest title, Kill for Satan! Something about title – perhaps it was the deliciously simple and direct title, or the exclamation mark at the end – drew my attention, and then the cover art for the novella entirely sealed the deal. I’ve come across some fantastic cover illustrations in my time reading, particularly in the Horror genre, but until now I’d never come across one that made me stop and physically exclaim ‘That is the raddest thing I’ve ever seen’. Is ‘rad’ still a thing with people? Honestly I don’t know or care enough to find out – all I know is that the cover art for Kill for Satan! is absolutely amazing, and perfectly sums up the contents and themes to be found in the novella. By artist Matthew Revert – who also did the fantastic cover art for Crystal Lake Publishing’s Lost Highways anthology – the cover is stained the colour of blood, with darker arterial splatter sprayed across the top and bottom edges of the image. A hooded figure stands over a prostrate figure, obviously a victim of some forthcoming satanic sacrifice, and a pentagram can faintly be seen encompassing both figures. An upside-down cross is imposed over the hooded figure’s face, rendering them anonymous and threatening, and Kill for Satan arcs in a semi-circle around the top of the cover in bright yellow, tubular font. It’s just absolutely incredible, and I’m going to see if I can find a copy to own.
The cover and title are incredibly well-chosen, and the back cover blurb just sealed the deal for me. A satanic cult that infests a medium-sized, back-water town in America is commanded by Satan to sacrifice all of the virgins in the area, all the while that a cheesy horror marathon runs through the day and night – how could I do anything but adore that description? I purchased the novella and jumped straight into the story, and was immediately presented with a deeply engaging, memorable and quietly terrifying prologue. The members of the Satanic cult begin to gather in the deepest part of the local woods, for a monthly virgin sacrifice and blood-stained orgy, only to be confronted with a different energy in the air, a highly-charged and distinctive atmosphere that can only mean one thing – Satan himself has appeared, assuming the figure of the cult’s High Priestess. Those in attendance are commanded to begin finding and killing every virgin in town, for unspecified but clearly evil ends – and soon afterwards, the brutal murders begin to sweep across this unsuspecting slice of Small Town USA. I absolutely loved this opening – not only does Smith create an immersive, haunting atmosphere that rapidly becomes drenched in blood and gore, it’s also laced with a rich and dark humour that has a wickedly-sharp edge, so dark that it’s practically obsidian. The perfect example of that humour is how Smith presents the monthly blood sacrifice-cum-bloody orgy – it’s brutal, with detailed, stomach-churning descriptions of a virgin town girl getting sacrificed and her skins, organs and entrails getting consumed by those in attendance. But Smith also starts to show that sense of humour in the first page of the novella – there’s a sense of an almost lackadaisical attitude towards the monthly gathering by the cultists, prior to them being shocked out of complacency by the arrival of Satan; like these gatherings are just another thing to put into the Outlook calendar, a little reminder popping up at the same time every month: ‘Orgy & Sacrifice @ the forest bring blankets for your knees this time’.
It made me smile, and not just because of that dark humour, but also because it’s when Smith begins the dissection, deconstruction and subversion of so many of the tropes and cliches that are associated with Satanism, and which began to crop up during the ‘Satanic Panics’ of the early 1980s. Throughout the novella, Smith openly revels in these tropes and plays them up to the hilt, and in doing so highlighting just how ridiculous they were (and still are). So for example, one of the protagonists, Micah, only joined the cult as a result of being seduced by his girlfriend, a tattooed goth who is festooned with occult symbols and only ever wears black clothing. But underneath this is also a distinct and very intense level of quiet horror, as Micah realises just what he’s gotten himself into when he realises that the group isn’t the religious equivalent of cosplayers but actually the real deal, and I sympathised with the mixture of shock and confusion that Smith evoked in Micah as a ritual sacrifice was followed by a blood-soaked orgy that simultaneously thrilled and terrified him to be a participant in. Any attempt by Micah to flee from another ritual is suppressed by the almighty power of Satan himself in the clearing, and he’s unwillingly set on his path to Satanic worship – yet another example of a trope played exceedingly well.
As the novella progresses towards Halloween and the advent of the Satan-directed sacrifice of virginal townsfolk, Smith continues to effortlessly maintain that intense atmosphere of blood-soaked horror and sharp-edged satirical humour which makes Kill for Satan! such a good piece of horror fiction. The town’s youth abstinence group is acronymed as YALL, populated by teenagers who are either fanatical God-botherers, or youngsters like Seth, forced to attend therapy and then YALL because he was caught watching lesbian (and therefore homosexual) pornography. It’s all very Small Town USA, something I can recognise and empathise with despite being on another continent, and Smith perfectly evokes the indigent hypocrisy and shallowness of such a town, thereby creating a great backdrop to the coming Satanic chaos. To me, Kill for Satan! tended more towards quiet, psychological horror, as Micah tried to come to terms with the cult he’d joined and the cost of suddenly having so much power, and characters like Seth struggled to deal with the oppressive form of extremist Christianity that his parents pushed on him; but at the same time it can’t be denied that there’s plenty of blood, gore and severed hearts to be found in the novella. The level of detail never quite goes to Extreme Horror or Splatterpunk levels, but Smith is definitely liberal with the crimson, especially as the sacrifices ramp up in number, and his descriptions are so potent that I repeatedly cringed at people getting stabbed, gutted, eviscerated and their blood drunk by evil Satanic cultists. A scene where a daughter is sacrificed by her mother and father, all hopped up on Satanic love more than familial love, was particularly hard to read at the same time that it yet again subverted another ‘Satanic panic’ trope. It’s all skillfully knitted together with a well-judged pace for the narrative, which becomes an almost irresistible urge to see how the story concludes, and I races through the novella in less than a day, sneaking a few pages in during my lunch break at work, which very rarely happens.
The pacing, characterisation and narrative are all top-notch, and they’re all brought together into a tremendously entertaining and chilling final product by the level of Smith’s writing. It truly is some of the best I’ve ever come across in the Horror genre – and in the past year or so I’ve read a huge amount of quality horror fiction from a wide variety of authors. Honestly I can’t quite put my finger on it to describe it, but there’s something about the authorial voice he uses in Kill for Satan! that really brings the whole gloriously over the top story to life, and imbues it with both an air of horror and that same obsidian humour I mentioned earlier. I don’t usually quote in a review, but the below paragraph really stayed with me and epitomises that skillful prose:
“Each time Sindie answered in the affirmative, it sounded like she was spitting out a tooth. It was clear she had a lot of pent-up negative feelings where her family was concerned. He wasn’t sure whether mercilessly slaughtering them all was the healthiest way of expressing her feelings, but they were sort of past the point where an alternative path could have been pursued.”
It’s absolutely fantastic writing, and is one of the top reasons you should immediately be purchasing this novella as soon as you’ve finished this review. This is a title that can make you cringe in horror, and then laugh out loud within the same few minutes, if not even the same page, and how often do you actually come across an author who can create an atmosphere like that? I won’t spoil the rest of the novella, because there are further twists and turns in regards to the plot that really need to be read to be fully enjoyed, but suffice to say that the slaughter joyfully continues. There’s some more character development, the amount of which takes place is hugely impressive given the small wordcount, and a final, bloody crescendo as the 24-hour horror film marathon finally collides with the Satanic butchery. In what I can already tell is Smith’s signature writing style, there’s an incredibly odd and weird ending that ramps up the bizarreness to a whole new level; I’m not sure if the character in the epilogue is a new character, or one that Smith has introduced from another one of his works, but she’s amazingly evil in just a couple of pages.
Skillfully plotted and written, with some absolutely amazing prose work to be found within its covers, not to mention a deliciously and outrageously over-the-top subversion of the tropes and cliches of ‘Satanic Panic’ conspiracy theories that swept across the United States of America in the 1970s and 1980s, Kill for Satan! is one of the most bizarre, outrageous and, above all, captivating pieces of horror fiction I’ve come across in 2018. I hope there’s more to come from this universe, but regardless, I’ll be reading more titles from Mr Smith and Grindhouse Press.