Stephen Kozeniewski & Stevie Kopas
Sinister Grin Press
Sinister Grin Press had a pre-Halloween sale for a number of their titles, and I took the opportunity to pick up a fair few – not only was the low, low price an attraction, but in my experience they’re a fantastic publisher who put out high-quality titles by a variety of excellent authors. So it only seemed natural to pick up books by authors such as Stephen Kozeniewski, Patrick Lacey and Matt Hayward – amongst others – to review. First up in the bunch is Slashvivor! co-authored by Stephen Kozeniewski and Stevie Kopas; and while I wasn’t familiar with Kopas, I was very much a fan of Mr Kozeniewski, having recently reviewed his blood-spattered, terror-inducing space horror novel The Hematophages, as well as the prequel novella Skinwrapper. So I was confident that I was in good hands regardless, but the combination of the title, cover art and back-cover blurb easily swung Slashvivor! into the purchasing pile. After all, how could I resist such a jaw-droppingly so-bad-it’s-actually-good pun as the title, or that awesomely over the top cover art that’s deliberately designed to look like a poster for a madman’s notion of a reality show? Let alone the blurb which assured me that this was a tale of psychotic murderers facing off in a post-apocalyptic game show where the only prize seemed to be getting killed in a slightly less gruesome manner than your competitors. The cherry on the top was that this was set in an Alternate History, another love of mine. Every part of that positively screamed ‘FUN’ to me, so I started reading.
To my delight, the B-Movie-esque feeling stretches into the entire novel and not just the cover art. The entire thing is structured like a B-Movie – so instead of a Prologue we have an Opening Scroll and, to my delight, even adverts; and, sticking to the practices of the best cult B-Movies, Slashvivor! combines tongue-in-cheek humour, narrative simplicity and buckets of gore and body parts. Our PoD (Point of Departure) for this reality is a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States of America in 1983. Rather than investigate reports of American nuclear launches as he did in our timeline, realising it was a data error and refusing to retaliate falsely, in this world Colonel Stanislav Petrov blindly follows protocol and unleashes the Soviet nuclear arsenal. In the ensuing apocalypse, the United States comes off significantly worse, ending the Cold War a decade early and with a decisive Russian victory. What’s left of the United States is radioactive and sparsely-populated, formed of a crazed patchwork of successor states and Soviet client states. And while the alternate history is really only a tertiary concern here, I would like to give props to Kozeniewski and Kopas for developing a more coherent and lively alternate history than many full-time AH authors manage; while they’re only mentioned in passing and done primarily to produce a smirk or a laugh, things like the Allied Texas Republic, Cuban-occupied Florida and President Scott Baio do give the air of an interesting and original background setting.
To keep the remaining American population entertained, when they’re not dying or suffering from a wonderfully diverse array of shlocky mutations, a hellish version of a reality gameshow called Try Not To Die! airs on a regular basis. Unlucky contestants are rounded up and dumped into an arena full of death-traps, psychotic killers, insane robots and the dubious prize of not being horribly butchered if they ‘win’ by the end. Again, it’s very much in line with cult movies like The Running Man and drenched in blood, gore, neon colours and revolving flame-traps; but in line with other things I’ve read by the authors, especially Kozeniewski, it’s obvious that a lot of thought has been put into its development and depiction, and it brims with style and panache that sits at the heart of the narrative.
That narrative is (sometimes deceptively) simple. Survivor Dawn is captured in the search for new contestants and unceremoniously dumped into the latest showing of Try Not To Die! and is forced to work together with her fellow contestants to try and survive. To say it isn’t easy is the understatement of the year, and the authors gleefully delight in throwing every sort of crazy, clichéd and trope-fuelled obstacle possible at Dawn as she has to dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge again just to survive. There’s killer gimps, giant mutant brawlers, sexy female ninja assassins, crazed cannibal doctors, random explosions and even – to my utter joy – an animatronic killer Abraham Lincoln nicknamed The Great Eviscerator, a pun of such brilliant terribleness that Kozeniewski and Kopas must surely have high-fived as soon as they conceived of it. Add in some torturous (quite often literally) course designs, over the top weapons, and a level of blood and guts that often reaches levels even Tom Savini might have quailed at, and you have the basis for a gore-soaked funfest that easily mirrors the greatest B-Movies.
And if that’s all that Slashvivor! achieved then it would be a good book, but for me what pushed it into the realms of ‘Great’ for me were the care and consideration that the two authors put into the characters and their background, life stories and motivations. Dawn has an interesting character arc that develops as the story progresses, going from a sheer need to survive to aiming for vengeance on those who run the twisted gameshow, and even the generically-named Tim, cast as the poor anonymous redshirt, has surprising levels of depth to him. But Kozeniewski and Kopas provide the most attention and imagination to the cast of freaks, psychos, mutants and deranged killers who make up the hunters in the gameshow. It isn’t easy, but the two authors make them both three-dimensional in their motivations and emotions, and often even sympathetic at times; I didn’t think I would be supporting the brutal killing sprees of a Hannibal Lecter pastiche, and yet I found myself cheering him on by the end of the novel as he and Dawn led a ragtag band of serial killers against the real antagonists of Try Not To Die! There’s some good satire to be found here as well, used to intelligently dissect and spoof the genre of films that Slashvivor! is so lovingly based upon, and there was more than one occasion where I found myself pausing to ponder something that the authorial duo had raised in between limbs being severed and high-velocity blood spatter.
Fast-paced, gory and action-packed, yet also laced with biting satire and an obvious love of B-Movies, 1980s action flicks and cheesy horror movies, Slashvivor! is an incredibly enjoyable title that I’ve found myself re-reading several times since I finished it, a sure sign that Kozewniewski and Kopas have written something special. It’s another winner both for the authors and publisher Sinister Grin Press, and I can only hope that we see a sequel (Slashvivor! The Next Generation anyone?) or another collaboration in the future.