Review: Brian Warfield’s Shotgun Torso
Review by Emily-Jo Hopson
A gleeful exploration of body horror, Brian Warfield’s Shotgun Torso defies definition. Surrealist? Prose poetic? Narrative is hard to find, character near impossible to place, beyond Warfield’s authorial voice and the unnamed object of his lust, horror, hatred, yearning. Shotgun Torso is an abstraction, a collection of images and reactions, pacey and immediate. At times, a literary sketchbook of cartoon gore passed winking under the table and, at others, genuinely sinister. Not for the faint of heart.
There’s something of the 1980s video nasty here: shock for the sake of shock. Thematic clues are scattered throughout, but none of them lead anywhere particularly interesting. For a chapbook that strives to be different from the rest, it’s odd that Shotgun Torso should rely on such familiar themes as birth followed by sexual discovery followed by death, filtered through the young white male’s eternal existential panic. Warfield makes a valiant attempt to defamiliarize these themes but, for me, he hasn’t quite managed.
Put aside the shock tactics and fumblings at meaning, and what we are offered is a display of technical brilliance. Warfield’s prose is remarkable. Throughout each of Shotgun Torso’s three chapters, beautifully crafted lines are thrown at the page without fanfare, as though he has them in infinite supply. Several are so wonderful that to read them had me pumping my fist in the air or whooping with delight. Exclamation marks pepper my notes. Highlights include the lines: Trees purple accusingly at me; I lean her body against my temple and pull the trigger; I hate noses. Wrong shape launching off the face. And my personal favourite: Morning falls through the window like a suicide. Annotated: GORGEOUS.
The process of Warfield’s work is fascinating—this is not storytelling, but the vivid transcription of thought. Despite its thematic stumbles, the work moves well. Although lacking most of the visible stitches of narrative that we are accustomed to seeing, it is compelling, and I dare you not to read it in one sitting.
The use of the horror aesthetic is generally well-executed and often interesting; here, oceans are spat from the mouth and transmuted into blood; jawbones fall from their hinges and clatter on desks “like half of wind-up chattering teeth.” Moments of genuine horror are present, both bloody and psychological, but it is overwhelmingly the latter I prefer. Too much shocker imagery in one place can be deadening. Various TV shows tell me that, in a scenario in which one must torture another human being, it is necessary to vary the method regularly, to avoid allowing the brain to numb the affected areas. Warfield aims to discomfort his readers but, when his methods of doing so become familiar, one can find comfort in their predictability. Shotgun Torso’s relish for fucking, decapitation, amputation, stench, stink, fetidness, rot, cannibalism, all-too-quickly becomes comical, and so it is the quieter horrors which stick, the “hair of 60,000 people in a pile, all colors, braided together.”
So determined is Warfield to shock us that his efforts to do so can become mannered, and here there is a tendency to stray into horror cliché: as wolves bay, premonitions of death are had and eyeballs are seen “aghast with blood.” These instances might ordinarily slip past unnoticed, but against the backdrop of Warfield’s otherwise strong, original prose and formidable descriptive talent, they stand in stark contrast—sometimes to the detriment of the whole. As a child “walked out of me spouting latin sprouting horns” [sic], images are evoked from folklore, the meeting of paganism and early Christianity, but evaporate quickly as we are confronted with “arms twitching on the floor spurting blue-black blood.”
Perhaps, as in film, the gore would be more effective if left to our imagination. Twitching, spurting limbs have limited effect because they are concrete; a short, sharp shock. “Horses disassembled” offers myriad possibilities to linger in the mind, as does, “He didn’t trust himself with the scissors. Noses.” The implication of gore is a more effective tool for unsettling than maggots and eyeballs.
In its entirety, Shotgun Torso is strong work, a dark, surrealist word association game which doesn’t fail to interest. Literary comparison is difficult; there is something of the old French surrealists here, a good dash of postmodernism and a healthy existential influence, but Warfield’s panicked, gore-struck ramblings are closer to the dark lyric of modern musicians than they are to the Kafkas and Kaufmans of the past. I am reminded of Thom Yorke’s robotic prayer to mundanity, “Fitter Happier” (OK Computer, 1997), and of the Robert Smith of Pornography (1982) and Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (1987). Indeed, Warfield’s website provides a playlist for your read-along pleasure which includes The Cure, alongside Nine Inch Nails and Napalm Death.
In common with these artists, Warfield’s writing is saturated in the need to be different, to transcend the boundaries of general and popular literature. Open any writers’ journal, blog, or magazine and you will find list after list of What To Write and How to Write It in Order to Please Your Audience. Warfield rejects these lists, and what his rejection has produced is, for the most part, a delight to read. Not a book to take home to your mom, sure, but you might want to keep it under the bed for a while; read it under torchlight while everyone else is asleep.
Brian Warfield lives in Philadelphia and publishes chapbooks through Turtleneck Press.
Emily-Jo Hopson is founding editor of Corvus Magazine. Her creative writing has appeared in Catch Up, The Delinquent, and Smokelong Quarterly, and reviews are forthcoming in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine and PANK.