I’ve written before about how extreme horror novels can get away with so much more than films can due to the fact that they’re just words on a page. Sure, they may be repulsive, but at the end of the day the reader is filling in the blanks on their own rather than being shown the nastiness by someone else. Today, I’d like to take a slightly different approach to extreme horror by looking at two titles that take radically different approaches to splatter. One of them, Duncan Ralston’s Woom, is a deeply disturbing psycho-sexual thriller about the grip trauma can have on a person, while Wrath James White’s Succulent Prey is cannibal pornography that goes so far it’s basically a comedy. Both are effective in what they set out to accomplish, but despite being in the same sub-genre, they couldn’t be more different if they tried.
Suffice it to say that I’m going to be discussing some pretty repulsive subject matter here, as well as full spoilers for both books. If you’re sensitive to topics like psychological trauma, mutilation, abortion, cannibalism, and sexual trauma, I’d recommend not reading this article.
Anyway, let’s take a deep, deep breath, and dive in to the splatter.
Woom by Duncan Ralston
The plot description for Woom is rather vague, with it simply stating that Room 6 of a place called the Lonely Motel has experienced seriously dark things, and that the two characters who occupy it both have their own troubled pasts. Angel hires a sex worker named Shyla, and tells her stories of bad things that supposedly happened in room 6 while masturbating her with sex toys. Each chapter is a conversation between the two, and Shyla has a couple of stories of her own to share. But as the night goes on, it becomes clear that something isn’t right with Angel, who seems less interested in Shyla as a means of sexual gratification.
I say without hyperbole that some of the stories in Woom hit me like a freight train, and more than a few actually made me feel ill to the point that I had to stop eating during a couple of them. I can’t recall the last time a piece of media did that to me, and instead of going for over the top theatrics and buckets of blood, the stories revolve around people doing terrible things to their own bodies. Yes, the extreme body horror of Woom is firmly planted in reality, save maybe one chapter that is more darkly humorous than it is disturbing.
For instance, in the first main chapter, titled “Cram(ps),” Angel tells Shyla about a couple, Johnny and Jenny, who turn into drug mules and use Room 6 as a meet up spot for their dealer. It’s clear that Johnny is the loser of the relationship, with Jenny sleeping around and basically disrespecting Johnny at every turn, but then one night she decides to try and smuggle the dime bags of heroin up in her vagina after she tries and fails to smuggle them in her stomach. Everything is described in graphic detail, from her being unable to keep the bags down, to her putting them in her genitals. And things get even worse when the bag tears.
Rather than feeling exploitative, though, this kind of unflinching eye that Duncan Ralston uses feels like it only serves to make the reader feel the full impact of what these characters do to themselves. And unlike other stories in the extreme horror genre, the characters feel like real, regular people that have fallen on very bad times. It’s clear that Ralston has sympathy and respect for them as individuals even though they themselves don’t have any self-respect. And as more and more chapters go by and we learn about different instances of self-inflicted trauma, it becomes clear that the recurring character in Angel’s story is him. He is Johnny, and he has been through some stuff. There’s one chapter in particular that goes into a coat hanger abortion where the mother slips and falls in the tub and accidentally kills herself. Her baby is saved, though, and that baby is Angel. This scene, in particular, is one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever read due to how far it goes in the description of the attempted abortion.
Something that sends up alarm bells in Shyla’s head as the story goes on is that he keeps inserting larger and larger sex toys in her vagina in some strange attempt to see just how wide she can go. He doesn’t seem to have any actual sexual interest in her, and he brushes her attempts at coming on to him aside, particularly when she tries rubbing his crotch. In the penultimate chapter, titled “Man(nequin),” we learn that on Johnny’s prom night, he came back to Room 6 with his date, who had an unhealthy sexual fixation on a mannequin once owned by her mother. In the middle of foreplay, Johnny is knocked out by the chemicals on his date’s lips, and when he wakes up, she is belt sanding his genitals off to try and make him like the mannequin she loves so much.
While this is supremely messed up, it also goes a long way toward characterizing Angel and what he’s all about. It also plants a seed in the reader’s mind about what he wants from Shyla, and the reality is much worse than what they might expect. Angel is a deeply traumatized individual, from finding out that his mother didn’t want him due to social pressures, to seeing his girlfriend die from a self-inflicted overdose, to being made into what he perceives as something less than a man during his first attempt at intercourse. The title Woom comes from the fact that he has a speech impediment that makes it difficult for him to pronounce Rs, but it also recontextualizes just what Room 6 is. It has informed every aspect of his life, and he wants to be reborn as something or someone else.
It’s why the final chapter is so upsetting. He knocks Shyla out and puts his head inside her vagina, and everything is described with the signature unflinching eye. It creates physical trauma inside Shyla, and he himself starts suffocating before Shyla comes to her senses and has to flex her muscles as if she’s giving birth. It’s a scene that goes so far that it could have been darkly humorous, but everything we’ve learned about the characters makes it feel more tragic and twisted. Neither character dies, at least not on the page, but both have been irrevocably changed. For better or worse is difficult to say.
Woom is an extremely repulsive piece of work, but the sympathy for its traumatized characters makes everything feel earned. Rather than coming across as exploitative, it instead feels like a pitch black character study about how places and the past can catch up to the present and cause terrible things to continue happening. It’s definitely not for everyone, and the body horror is so detailed as to make almost anyone’s stomach churn, but it is a highlight of just what the extreme horror novel can be when executed in a particular way. I’ve never read anything else quite like it, and beneath its nasty exterior is a painfully human story about the terrible things people do to themselves. It’s stuck with me ever since I read it more than a year ago during the height of the pandemic, and it’s likely to stick with me longer than that. Part of that is, of course, the horrific violence, but the other part is the well-written drama and psychology of the book’s cast.
In other words, it’s a genuinely good novel. Dark, repulsive, disgusting, and depressing, but good. Whether the same can be said for the next novel I’m here to discuss is something I’m still trying to figure out.
Succulent Prey by Wrath James White
This book is about Joseph Miles, an exceptionally troubled young man who is struggling with the fact that he thinks he was given a serial killer virus by the murderer who tortured him as a teenager. The book’s opening pretty much sets out the mission statement for Succulent Prey, with some graphic and upsetting details of the torture Joseph Miles went through at the hands of his tormentor. It cuts away before it goes further than good taste would dictate, but that’s okay because the rest of the book makes up for it.
Joseph Miles is described like something out of a comic book. He’s extremely tall, supremely muscular, and sports a gigantic member that women just can’t seem to get enough of. He also harbors a terrible craving for human flesh. He satisfies his urges by going to a sexual addiction support group and reading online forum posts about people being eaten alive, and in almost every scene involving this, he has multiple orgasms, sometimes in his pants, sometimes out. And we’re always reminded of just how well-endowed he is whenever he comes.
Yes, in case it isn’t clear, Succulent Prey isn’t exactly a highbrow thriller about where serial killers come from. Sure, the overarching plot involves him digging into werewolf lore to try and find some scientific connection between his urges and his past trauma, but the actual meat (pardon the pun) of the story is page after page of some of the most vicious and tasteless gore I’ve ever read about. He is constantly observing the people around him, and we’re treated to detailed descriptions of their bodies, and it’s never long before he starts wondering what they would taste like. When he meets a curvy woman named Alicia, he is torn because he, like, really really wants to eat her but he also likes her.
It’s less than a third of the way through the book that he actually eats his first victim, and it only gets worse and worse as the book goes on. He seduces people with his good looks and giant penis before eating them, and of course there’s semen flying around everywhere in these scenes. It is, without hyperbole, cannibalistic serial killer pornography, with the descriptions coming across as being designed to titillate. Or, at the very least, satisfy someone’s own craving for extreme violence mixed with perverse sexuality.
In other words, it’s basically shlock, and only gets more absurd as it goes on. It isn’t until the book’s back half that Joseph decides to go after the killer that tortured him when he was a teenager, which is where the bulk of the actual plot happens. The logic is that there are versions of werewolf lore that if someone kills the werewolf that bit them, the curse will be lifted from them. Of course, along the way Joseph kidnaps a man that he met on the cannibal forums he frequents and he’s been slowly eating him. This man really wants Joseph to eat him, so Joseph eventually obliges by spit roasting him in the middle of a public park in broad daylight. This scene goes on for pages, with detailed descriptions of a spike being driven through the man’s anus, and yes, both Joseph and the man have multiple orgasms while all of this is happening.
The mixture of sexuality and cannibalism is so gratuitous that it borders on being darkly comedic. Funny in a “what the hell am I reading” sort of way, but funny nonetheless. Suffice it to say that Succulent Prey doesn’t cater much to people with an appetite for only the most extreme violence for its own sake. Unlike in Woom, where the body horror was pretty much always in service of the book’s plot and characters, the reverse is true in Succulent Prey. The story is there to provide an excuse for gory theatrics peppered with semen and vaginal fluids. This fact makes it tough to recommend even to people who like this stuff; despite all the guts and gore throughout, the actual story doesn’t really kick in until the book is more than halfway done, and by then it feels like a rush to the finish line.
For those who care, when Miles confronts his tormentor, the killer reveals that he himself was actually kidnapped and tortured by Joseph’s own father. It turns out that Joseph has inherited his father’s sadistic tendencies and, wouldn’t you know it, killing his father does nothing to satisfy his own bloodlust. If anything, it makes it worse, as the book ends on a cliffhanger where Joseph is in jail but is visited by one of his former college classmates who cut off her own nipple for him to eat. And yeah, he comes while he eats it.
I have yet to read the sequel titled Prey Drive mostly because I feel like I need to mentally prepare myself for its likely nastiness. There are some decent ideas at play, with the initial premise of a serial killer virus appealing to me. Joseph’s struggle with his own desires early on is interesting, and the potential to explore how parents mess up their kids was there but was sadly left untapped. The thing is that these good ideas are buried beneath page after page of blood and sex.
And here’s the thing: there is clearly a market for this stuff. Wrath James White seems to be a generally well-respected author in the extreme horror field, and I’ve read mostly positive reviews for several of his books. If what you’re looking for is cannibal serial killer pornography, well, Succulent Prey definitely delivers. It is entirely successful in what it sets out to be. The question left in my head is how worthwhile it is. It’s certainly stuck with me even though I grew numb to the violence as the book went on. But it also fails to deliver on the promise of its premise in being so gratuitous.
Succulent Prey is the polar opposite of Woom despite the fact that they both occupy space in the same horror sub-genre. It’s fascinating to me how the books couldn’t be more different if they tried despite both featuring plenty of messed up stuff. To me, this pair of books are representative of what an author can do in the confines of extreme horror. An extreme story can be a genuinely compelling but extremely dark look at human psychology, like with Woom. An extreme story can also be little more than an excuse to tap into the very niche market of extreme pornography. Both have their place in this world, it seems. Whatever the better take on the sub-genre is comes down to the individual. For me, I vastly prefer Woom because it feels like it justifies the lengths to which it goes. But I’d be lying if I said Succulent Prey hasn’t stuck with me.