Str8 Laced by Pheare Alexander
Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
Splatterpunk is kind of a hit-or-miss genre. More often than not the author gets too caught up in their own sadistic fantasies, and the word “gratuitous” doesn’t even begin to describe the ensuing onslaught of blood and gore. Splatterpunk can be exploitative in the cheapest sense, a simplistic attempt to shock the reader by thinking up the most bizarre and unusual forms of torture and depravity. While often, erm, admittedly unique, the author often settles for shock and shock along, leaving little for the reader to actually glean from the reading aside from a few disturbing concepts.
My favorite splatterpunk novel is probably Stranglehold by Jack Ketchum. While chock full of horrible occurrences including but not limited to child rape and murder, it is also a thoughtful exploration of how women are undermined and exploited by men—both personally and legally. It balances the sadism with complex and thoughtful social criticism, which elevates the novel beyond its mere shock value.
Pheare Alexander’s Str8 Laced doesn’t quite match the depth of Ketchum’s novel, but it does perform another laudable feat—it manages to be extremely graphic and dark without glorifying itself for these features.
Take an Eli Roth movie for instance. (Context: I loathe Eli Roth.) Roth is enamored with creating disturbing scenes. But that is really it. No logic, no depth to them beyond his gore. He does little to take into account the psychological impact that the world he creates have upon his characters, incorporates little sensitivity into his work. Roth’s filmography, like so many splatterpunk novels, is ultimately a tired and empty sequence of torture. The phrase “torture porn” is more apt here than splatterpunk, because the latter designation suggests actual weight and philosophy behind the style.
Alexander turns this around. Str8 Laced features torture, rape, genital mutilation, mindfuckery, child abduction, cannibalism—but it also has some surprising heart to it. Her twisted descriptions are treated with maturity, the characters becoming complex and sympathetic.
Str8 Laced concerns psychologist Jocelyn Reynolds, who nine years ago was kidnapped and tortured for two months by a woman known as McClaine. She escapes, but the nightmare still haunts her. Then a new killer threatens her family and friends, and Reynolds is thrown back into that horrible world. The novel smoothly flips back and forth between present and past, gradually revealing more and more about what happened to Reynolds during her time in captivity. It is an excellent use of flashbacks, and the mystery of that incident kept me pushing through the novel even through its most mundane passages.
It is a quick read to be certain—something that I appreciate about the writing is its efficiency and brevity. The more gruesome bits will stick with you in your mind for a long while after, but Alexander doesn’t dwell on them needlessly. The horror comes in explosive little packages. The author understands that more doesn’t necessarily mean better. She tells the most with the fewest words—creates nightmarish sequences without having them go on endlessly.
And what nightmares they are. Unlike a lot of horror novels, Str8 Laced is genuinely terrifying throughout. At times it is full-on depraved and at others it contains doom and foreboding bubbling beneath the surface. It never really lets the reader relax, and I mean that in the best way. There is always something to fear, a sense that something awful could happen at any moment.
The one major disappointment I had with this novel was its ultimate thematic shallowness. Many interesting problems are touched upon, namely mental health and marital strife, but they aren’t explored as much as they could have been. By the end the narrative relies on B-movie plot twists—delightfully twisted ones, to be sure, and turns that the reader definitely doesn’t see coming right away, but B-movie plot twists nonetheless. Clever but definitely more for shock value than anything else. This novel has more to it than many other splatterpunk novels, but it isn’t quite there yet.
This said, Str8 Laced is the best novel on this list so far in terms of true scares. Although perhaps not the most interesting stylistically (Crystal Connor) or the most literary (Tananarive Due), it understands its position as a horror story above all else and commits to that distinction. It left me wanting more in terms of meaning, but delivered in fright.