Horror Rewind #6 – ‘The Cleanup’ by John Skipp & Craig Spector (1987)

‘Splatterpunk’ was a short-lived tag applied to a generation of younger horror writers who appeared in the mid-80s and took the levels of explicit gore pioneered in the late 70s to new levels. John Skipp and Craig Spector were twenty-something US horror authors at the forefront of the movement. In an interview with them in the launch issue of FEAR magazine (July/August 1988), Philip Nutman suggested that the development of such a sub-genre was almost inevitable:

“horror gained a degree of mainstream credibility from the likes of King, Straub, Barker…but…horror fiction is confrontational and it…appeared to be losing some of its sharpness”

They viewed splatterpunk as an approach to horror, or “angle of attack”: “we’re throwing the reality of violence, the anatomy of violence, in the reader’s face.”

The Cleanup was their second novel. Their third – The Scream – was, as far as I recall, confrontational from the very first paragraph, but The Cleanup, a supernatural vigilante novel, I found much less “in your face” than I expected.

Nutman described The Cleanup as “Dante’s Inferno designed by HR Giger and photographed by Anton Corbijn”. Although perfectly readable and enjoyable enough, time has tamed whatever extremes it may once have embodied. Three decades later it “reads” more like a glossy hair-metal MTV promo than a Giger/Corbijn collaboration, and is as “in your face” and threatening as the shot in Highlander where Kurgan wishes some nuns a “happy Halloween”. Wooooh!

Billy Rowe is a singer/songwriter in a downward spiral, stuck in a rut. His girlfriend Mona is on the verge of dumping him in favour of the more successful Dave (of the fictional rock band David Hart & The Brakes). He witnesses a murder, and this is the trigger for him to sort his life out, aided by the appearance of Christopher, a guardian angel¹ who gives him The Power. This ‘Power’ lets Billy reshape the world (and the people within it) as he sees fit, and that means ‘cleaning up’ the streets of the Big Apple, while putting his own life in order at the same time. Christopher, however, is not as angelic as he first appears, and as absolute power does to Billy what absolute power will, we realise that Christopher is from a lower sphere of influence than heaven…

It may just be the most ‘1980s’ book I’ve ever read, though I’m not sure I would have appreciated that at the time. The slang, the attitudes, the habits and lifestyles of this grimy New York form a perfect time capsule (at least in my imagination: although I’ve never been to New York, I have been to the 80s).

The background music (as embodied by David Hart & The Brakes) is MTV-friendly pop rock along the lines of Huey Lewis and the News². This quasi-forgotten generic 80s sound is a much more authentic signifier of the era than any band that the passage of time has retrospectively deemed cool or iconic.

What of the famed Skipp & Spector gore? “Visually extreme and always visceral. We want to shock complancency” they say? Well, the violence on show here is not repellent, but the politics are scattershot. A product of – and clearly in awe of – its socially conservative time, The Cleanup can’t escape it. As is often the case with artists who claim to stand on neither left nor right, there is nonetheless an inherent conservative bias. For instance, what few Hispanic or African American characters exist in Skipp & Spector’s New York are petty criminals; women are judged on the basis of their looks, and men on their levels of machismo (or lack of it).

There are a group of militant, lesbian, feminist terrorists who Billy (though increasingly flawed, still our point-of-view character and thus ostensibly sympathetic) by way of punishment turns into men. This is so they can feel what men feel. Now, even a middle-class white male like me can’t help but feel there’s something just a wee bit misplaced going on there… yes, it could illustrate how far over the edge Billy has gone, but it looks like special pleading given that men are entirely responsible for almost every loathsome act in the book3.

The Cleanup may be in awe of the shiny, fast-living 80s, but buried deep there’s a lament for what seems to be a lost musical, social and political golden age:

“Billy found himself wondering what would have happened if John Lennon had been granted the power: to both Mark David Chapman and the world at large.

No answers availed themselves.

“We gave peace a chance, johnny boy,” Billy heard himself saying. “now its time to try something different.””

…although the fact that those very same 60s Boomers were, by 1987, the ones with their hands on the levers of power, complicates such easy nostalgia. This perfectly encapsulates the way in which The Cleanup is a heartfelt if conflicted ode to 80s New York.

1987 was a bumber year for Horror, which I took a quick look at in a previous Horror Rewind. Some of the most iconic 80s horror books and films were released in this year, the true peak of the Horror Boom: IT (in paperback), Hellraiser, Weaveworld, The Lost Boys…and Skipp & Spector’s follow-up, The Scream.


¹ Inspired by the Guardian Angel vigilantes in early 80s New York?

² A personal guilty pleasure, sadly rendered impossible to write about thanks to American Psycho.

3 All rape scenes are unpleasant, but the one in The Cleanup is particularly so.

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