John Skipp and Craig Spector are American horror authors who rose to prominence in the mid-1980s after breaking into Twilight Zone magazine. The publication by Bantam of their first novel, The Light at the End, in 1986, ushered in a new wave of horror fiction with sharp edges and deep hurts. Skipp and Spector ended up as central figures in what came to be known as the “splatterpunk” movement, a term coined in jest by author David J. Schow. The term caught on, for better or for worse for these authors, since they would forever be regarded as a part of this movement, which ended fairly definitively in the mid-1990s — along with everything else horror-related that were direct offspring of the tumultuous, fear-mongering, devil-worshipping, video store-scented, Headbanger’s Ball-watching, PMRC-stamped 1980s. A handful of other authors were considered a part of the movement. While some might argue the splatterpunk style never died, my personal take is that the movement itself died an uncharacteristically quiet death around 1995.
It’s important to me to get the discussion of splatterpunk out of the way up front. Although it seems like these guys embraced it for a while, if for no other reason than it represented something new, edgy, and controversial, their work in my mind transcends the label even today.
Skipp and Spector started working together in the early 1970s not as authors, but as rock musicians. When they started writing together, they confessed in interviews their process was a lot like jamming together, tossing ideas back and forth, working a story into a rhythm. They later composed rock scores to some of their novels.
Their early novels hit the scene like nuclear warheads: The Light at the End in 1986 — their self-confessed attempt to take everything to the utmost maximum and de-romanticize vampires; The Cleanup in 1987 — featuring one of the most controversial scenes in horror fiction at the time; and The Scream in 1988 — which took all of the fears of Tipper Gore and the conservative right wing and made them come true in novel form. What if rock bands really did do all of the terrible things the establishment accused them of: ritual sacrifice, tapping into forces of evil, and using that power to influence listeners toward diabolical ends? Of the seven novels Skipp and Spector wrote together, The Scream remains my favorite. When I read it, I was a 17-year-old steeped in heavy metal and horror. This novel brought both of my favorite flavors of art together in a way that had never been done before and it resonated with me deeply. This book made me a fan for life.
The Cleanup had a similar impact for me. I got in bit of trouble in my high school years and ended up going to a school for troubled youths in Colorado Springs. One day, I said to hell with this place, I’m done. I left the campus, which was down by Maizeland and Academy, walked up to the Austin Bluffs Mall, and shoplifted a copy of The Cleanup. This bit of work complete, I hiked into Palmer Park, found a rock to sit on, and read for the rest of the afternoon. The main character had failed at everything — failed rock star, jilted lover, and all around fuck-up. This certainly resonated with me. It was a powerful story and connected with me at critical levels of my being. I don’t remember how I got home that day, but I remember reading that book thirty years ago. The Cleanup and The Scream solidified one thing in my mind: Skipp and Spector were my new literary heroes.
The duo drew equal amounts of negative criticism and accolades. Some critics excoriated their work. Some prominent writers protested the visceral approach, but they had the support of powerful forces in the industry such as Clive Barker and editor T.E.D. Klein, who purchased their early stories for Twilight Zone magazine. Despite detractors, there was no denying that horror and the metal attitude of the 1980s had cross-pollinated to attract a following of excited fans. In 1989, Skipp and Spector edited the landmark Book of the Dead anthology, which revived Romero-esque zombies in fiction with plenty of talent; the book contained a forward by George Romero, with stories by horror luminaries Stephen King, Robert McCammon, Ramsey Campbell, Joe Lansdale, Richard Laymon, Brian Hodge, David J. Schow, and Edward Bryant, among others.
Skipp and Spector dabbled in Hollywood stuff, too. They wrote the movie novelization of Fright Night in five weeks in 1985 when they were halfway through the writing of The Cleanup and ran out of money. An interview in the Fall 1988 The Horror Show recounts an ill-fated project where they worked on a screenplay for an unnamed small budget film, but ultimately the deal went south and they were sent packing without credit for the work they had done. The pair wrote the original story for Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child in 1989. Skipp also did some uncredited work on the script for Class of 1999. Three of their novels — The Light at the End, Deadlines, and The Bridge — were optioned but never went into production. Animals was adapted to film in 2008.
In all, John Skipp and Craig Spector co-wrote seven novels together and sold millions of copies of their books. They met with a great deal of success. Alas, it was not meant to last forever. The pair parted ways in 1993 and have not collaborated since. In all, for me, this is a sad development. I loved these guys’ work, and while I have enjoyed some of the individual books they have done since then, it’ll never be the same. Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, or maybe it was lightning in a bottle, something that happened at the time and the energies of the universe have now realigned. Romero (R.I.P.) never made another film like Dawn of the Dead. Iron Maiden will never make another album like Powerslave. These are things I grudgingly accept. And though I am saddened that the collaboration came to an end, I will always have these novels to enjoy. And I’m glad. Because no matter what label was slapped on these guys, their fiction connected with me at a critical time in my life, was powerful, visceral, moving, and had real depth. Maybe only certain people can relate, but I believe their work is of a lasting quality that future horror fans will read with awe and respect.
Discovering these guys for the first time? There are many editions available — the original editions are not terribly rare (well, some of them are), but all of them except for the Fright Night novelization are available in ebook editions here.
These cover scans are from the library of author Christopher Fulbright.