Autotomy Cocktail (Short Sharp Shocks! #71)
Zachary Ashford may only be at the start of his career as a horror author, but he’s already caught my eye with the vivid imagination, skilful writing and fast-paced, atmospheric plots found in his stories. His first entry in the Short Sharp Shocks! series – The Encampment by the Gorge & Blood Memory – delivered a pair of compelling and deeply memorable stories founded upon a carefully-considered and nuanced take on the racism and horrific abuses heaped upon the indigenous population that resulted from the history of colonialism in Australia. The atmosphere and writing in the stories were top-notch, and paired with a vivid and thought-provoking imagination. My high opinion of Ashford was further buttressed by the two novellas he produced for Unnerving’s Rewind or Die series. Sole Survivor, and its direct sequel Sole Survivor II, saw Ashford unleash a horde of drop-bears (mythical creatures that combined the cuteness of koala bears with the Terminator-like relentlessness and love of violence found in Honey Badgers) first on an island full of reality show contestants; and then, in the follow-up, expanding the setting to an entire city and its unfortunate residents. The two novellas were absolutely fantastic, blood-soaked masterpieces with fast-paced, energetic plots seasoned with just a hint of dark humour; they perfectly evoked the 1980s, VHS Horror Film ethos that the Rewind or Die series aimed for, and provided firm evidence that Ashford was a rising star of the horror genre. While I’m still patiently waiting to see his first full-length work, whatever that should be, I’m always eager to see more of Ashford’s excellent short-form horror fiction; and as such, was immediately drawn to his latest publication, the curiously-named Autotomy Cocktail, his second entry in Demain Publishing’s genre-defining Short Sharp Shocks! series. The cover art by Adrian Baldwin was as eye-catching as ever, that black background and red spine deftly contrasting with a DNA strand explosively breaking apart; and the back-cover blurb tempted me with its description of “…an over-the-top tale of bad science, bad decisions, bad jokes, and bad mutations.” I couldn’t wait to get stuck in and see what Ashford would deliver this time.
Serge Couture has a problem. Well, two problems but he can’t really do anything about his name, so let’s focus on the main problem: an incurable disease. An incurable, life-altering disease that’s slowly destroying him both physically and mentally, and casting a dark pall over a life that appears to be destined to be grimly shortened. Addicted to oxycontin for the pain, and living with an overbearing mother and irritating younger brother, and frustrated with dealing with a slowly-degenerating body, Serge turns to a desperate solution: a DIY gene-editing kit brought over the internet. After all, given that his future only holds crippling pain and a descent into crutches, wheelchairs and then immobility, it doesn’t seem like his life could get any worse. You may be surprised to find out – though you really shouldn’t, know the author and publisher- that things for Serge actually can get worse. Far, far worse, as it turns out. Because while taking genetic samples from his brother’s starfish and injecting a neon-green substance into his veins initially helps him, things soon take a far darker and bizarre turn. The ‘improvements’ to his body soon turn into outright mutations that he struggles to control, and slowly but surely Serge begins to morph into something both more – and less – than a baseline human. Terrified of the changes to his body, which begin to occur at an increasingly rapid pace, and pursued by the police, a mysterious scientist and a terrifying hitman, Serge desperately searches for a way to deal with a body that is slowly spiralling out of his control.
Ashford really unleashes his inner Cronenberg with Autotomy Cocktail, to the extent that I actually found myself grimacing at some of his intensely vivid and discomforting descriptions of the bodily mutations that Serge undergoes as the story progresses. There are also some distinctly unsettling conflicts with the mutations coming out of Serge, particularly when it comes to the weird toothed and tentacled horror that grows out of his arm; there’s a sequence where it grapples with another character and begins dissolving their face and eyes that’s going to stay with me for a long while. It’s definitely a gory and often darkly hilarious story, Ashford channelling that black humour to be found within the Sole Survivor novellas; but as delightful as the blood and gore is, and the delightfully imaginative descriptions of mutations, there’s also an emotional core to the story. Ashford presents us with an exhausted, emotionally-drained man trying to fight his own genetics, frustration leading to poor decisions and rapidly-escalating problems. Ashford does a fantastic job of bringing us into Serge’s head even as his body – and the world around him – mutates and spins wildly out of his control, and makes it easy for the reader to sympathise with Serge and just why he took such a desperate risk. Developing a three-dimensional protagonist is something that many authors struggle to achieve across an entire novel, so it’s deeply impressive that Ashford achieves it in only a handful of pages in Autotomy Cocktail. That characterisation, when combined with the vivid descriptions of mutations and death and destruction unleashed later on in the story, is what makes the novelette so successful and ensures it stays with the reader after finishing it and moving onto other titles.
Autotomy Cocktail is a potent blend of body horror and bizarro horror, with just a dash of dark, bleak humour to make it stand out even further to the reader. Reminiscent of classic Cronenberg films, leavened with solid characterisation and a genuinely emotional core that helps connect the reader with the protagonist’s struggles throughout the narrative, Autotomy Cocktail ably demonstrates that Ashford can move seamlessly between various subgenres within Horror at will, able to deliver a fast-paced, gore-splattered tale that vibrates with imagination and deft, vivid writing that energises the whole story. It’s another superb achievement by Zachary Ashford, a tale that only becomes more engrossing – and horrifying – with each reread, and points towards a long and distinguished career in horror fiction for Ashford. I cannot wait to see what he has published next – and I’m particularly intrigued by mention of his upcoming novel, the post-apocalyptic Beneath the Craggy Steep. You can be sure that I’ll be reading and reviewing that as soon as I can get my hands on it.