Review by Joel Kreissman
[image cropped due to adult content ;) ]
When I first saw the call for submissions to Thurston Howl’s Electric Sewer I was uncertain what they meant by “Neon punk.” It’s only after reading it that I think I know: gritty noir set in the 80s or 90s, in this case mixed with THP’s characteristic erotic horror. Electric Sewer is a shared world anthology, meaning that all of the stories take place in the same world. However it’s looser than most similar projects I’ve seen, with the only common element being a nightclub called the Electric Sewer. There, clothing is optional, and blood and cum flow freely on the dance floor, and into the drinks. Don’t visit the back rooms if you know what’s good for you.
The book includes a mixtape list of suggested songs to listen to while reading (https://tinyurl.com/electricsewer). Along with a bunch of cocktail recipes based on the different stories. The content warning just before the first story pulls no punches and gives no crap about what is in this book. Yet it still fails to do this pink-lit cesspool justice. DO NOT skip it. The print and PDF formats use a black background and a different color text for each story. The bright colors in the darkness fit the neon night's theme, but ink might rub off on your hands while reading. I haven't had many opportunities to try the cocktails, but the playlist certainly helped immerse me in the dark alleys and dimly lit dance floors.
The first story in this anthology, “Electric Groove” by Thomas “Faux” Steele, pitches the reader headlong into the brutal setting of the Electric Sewer. Our protagonist is a respectable government employee by day, party animal by night. But even disguising his species (arctic fox) with red fur dye won’t keep him safe from a bloodthirsty mob hitman. This story establishes the anthology as ridden with gore, both in and outside of sex scenes. But while the villain uses blood as lube I thought it was actually his running a family car into a semi that established his character as a ruthless cat who would slaughter anyone who got in the way of his target.
“A Fat Jackrabbit and Other Bargain Oddities Based on a True Story” by Nikolas James has a lengthy title for such a short story. You’ve got a rabbit who has severe erectile dysfunction, and feels like a failure as a male and a bunny. Fortunately, there’s this new food truck in the Electric Sewer’s parking lot that sells this incredible tasting stew with questionable ingredients, and a magical effect on his dick. It could be interpreted as an exploration of societal concepts of masculinity, and the lengths men go to to be seen as manly, but the Electric Sewer seems almost irrelevant here. The food truck of horrors could have been parked anywhere, even a regular sex club or porn shop would have rubbed poor Lonnie’s ED in his face the same way.
Cedric G! Bacon’s “The Jack” is the longest story in the book by a wide margin, about a cocky beagle who thought he could beat the unbeatable. While narrated by a would-be card shark, the real focus of the story is Carlos, the Electric Sewer’s rat bartender seen mixing a cocktail of semen and blood on the cover. Carlos is an avid card-player, and as our beagle friend discovers, he plays for very high stakes, and never loses. Try to cheat, and you lose even more. Something that stuck out to me was the beagle claiming he lived a hard life on the streets, but without showing much of his life outside the club it’s hard to see his wager as worth the risk.
“The Glow” by Linnea “LiteralGrill” Capps is the only speculative fiction story in this “neonpunk” anthology. I’ve seen a lot of furry characters with “tattoos” with no explanation how they show through fur. This story has a half-feasible version in fluorescent “chem-brands” that stamp permanent glowing designs into the fur. But when a doe develops a fixation with glowing lights after a club encounter with a polar bear covered in chem-brands, could it be that there’s something more than benign chemicals to the brands? The ambiguity of the Glow intrigued me, I’d like to see more about it.
Thiger’s “Not Enough” is slow to start, but pays off in time. The POV character is dating a wolf who seems oddly cold, detached, distant. Sometimes he comes home with fresh wounds. One day, the protagonist happens to visit the Electric Sewer during the day, and finds his boyfriend in one of the back rooms. From there, everything changes. This offered a chilling glimpse into the crapsack world the Sewer exists in, our viewpoint character is a club “outsider” of sorts, unaware of the darkness lying beneath his world, much like the readers themselves (one hopes).
Thurston Howl’s own story, “Sharp,” is the last story of this collection. We’ve got a gangbanger who leads a gang called “the Razors” and who believes he runs the neighborhood, including the Electric Sewer. Two other gangs, the Pentagrams and CyberSk8ters, have been giving him some trouble for a while, but tonight the Pentagrams have presented him a “peace offering” in one of the Sewer’s back rooms. It’s erotic, it’s horrific, the characters are straight out of a 90s film, it exemplifies the kind of story this anthology was looking for.
Neonpunk is still a new subgenre with few stories in it yet. I look forward to what other authors might make of it in the future.