There’s something unabashedly exuberant about 1980s horror. Whatever tone it aimed for – cheekiness, campiness, gore, or outright, full-blown terror – horror in the eighties went for it with every ounce of energy it had. This isn’t too surprising, of course, coming from a decade famous for cocaine consumption, power suits, and hair metal – there was nothing that the eighties didn’t do 100,000%.
But the eighties get a bad rep for a perceived superficiality that permeated the decade. This isn’t entirely unfair – people commented on this during the decade itself, so it clearly isn’t just a case of judgmental hindsight. But alongside the shimmering plastic and mindless bubblegum pop, there was an intense preoccupation with legitimate artistic expression, a desire for unique originality that was so strong it generated conflict with the plastic façade that dominated suburban pop culture at the time.
Ray Garton’s splatterpunk masterpiece Crucifax dove straight into those cultural rapids with unapologetic viciousness. The central conflict of the novel is a familiar one. Kids love sex, drugs, and heavy metal. Parents hate sex, drugs, and heavy metal. Kids run away from parents. Bad things ensue. But Crucifax doesn’t use this backdrop simply as a crude excuse for blood, sex, and rock and roll, as so many pulp horror novels of the eighties did. Crucifax is a punk rock sermon that surprises you by knowing what it’s talking about.
Anyone who lived through the eighties can probably (and painfully) recall the popularity of moral panics during the decade – back then, every other neighbor was a child molesting devil worshipper, every game of Dungeons & Dragons ended in psychosis, and every rock album induced instant suicide. These were ludicrous notions latched onto by an ignorant public, people too psychologically weak to trust their fellow man to operate at a level beyond simple cartoon logic. Bad psychologists and evangelists with a shaky understanding of Christianity latched onto the general public fear of the unknown and rode it to the bank, telling anyone who would listen that it wasn’t lack of acceptance or conditional love or harsh judgmentalism that was ruining the nation’s children – the culprit, they said, was anything and everything even remotely different from the (white, patriarchal, upper class) norm. If someone wore leather or listened to metal or liked reading books where sorcerers battled dragons, they were in league with evil. Crucifax took this crippling reliance on excuses over responsible parenting and gave the divide that the mindset bred monstrous personification.
After a summer of heat so brutal that it inspires fits of madness throughout the San Fernando Valley, a charismatic man begins to gain a devoted following among the Valley’s youth. He is everything disaffected children in the eighties could want: cool, kind, accepting, a rock god solely through the force of his otherworldly personality. He is an instant friend and a compassionate listener. He does for the Valley youth what no one else seems to: he cares.
Mace immediately draws aspiring, misunderstood rocker Kevin Donahue under his influence, and with Kevin comes his girlfriend Mallory Carr. Things aren’t easy in Mallory’s life, either; her father abandoned his family years ago, and she and her mother can’t speak without screaming at each other. Her friends don’t approve of her dating Kevin, and neither does her beloved brother Jeff. Mallory, like Kevin, is drawn to Mace’s warmth and generosity. He is a man who gives freely of his drugs and money and compliments. But as Mace’s influence grows, so grows concern over the effect his influence is having on the children he befriends.
The novel played out like a metal shock opera, bathing its story in blood and sex, but like any responsible splatterpunk novel, the violence and sexuality serve a point in carrying the themes Garton set out to explore. Crucifax questioned which influences are truly the corrupting ones – heavy metal, strict parents, dogmatic religion, peer pressure, sex, drugs – lines that seemed clear cut as the novel started began to blur and ultimately dissolve as the narrative progressed. Influences that seemed to uplift earlier began to eat away at the characters who embraced them. Conversely, lifestyles that seemed dangerous and scary eventually provided a legitimate level of positive, constructive support. There are no clear scapegoats here.
The book drew a lot of its power by playing off the idea that corruption sprouts when there is no one around to care enough to keep it at bay. The children Mace recruits aren’t inherently wicked; on the contrary, they are largely innocent and kind-hearted, but simply face holes in their lives where compassion and understanding should be. Parents are depicted as largely uninvolved; many abuse drugs, actively deride their children, impose their wills on them, or outright abandon them. Some parents become wrapped up in status, ignoring their children’s emotional needs. Others become defensive in the face of normal adolescent outbursts, and allow resentment to bloom between themselves and their young. The parents aren’t necessarily bad people, or even entirely bad parents; they’re just not very good parents.
But even the most good-hearted people have dark secrets that can be exploited and manipulated. Reverend Bainbridge, a youth minister devoted to his young flock, is weak before the temptations of drink and sex. Mallory’s devoted older brother Jeff has feelings for his sister that go beyond sibling affection. Their mother Erin is ashamed of the sex work she must take on to make ends meet, and school counselor J.R. Haskell is far too eager to take the weight of the world on his solitary shoulders. These are essentially good people, who are too quick to focus on their faults, and under Mace’s influence, such harsh self-criticism may blind them to their own goodness, critically weakening them.
Initially, Crucifax seemed to set up its conflict as one between the corrupting influence of heavy metal, and the righteous path of honoring God and respecting your parents. But that was Garton’s genius in writing this novel; the book lampooned that very dynamic. As the book progresses, you find that the “respectable” influences – school, family, religion – can be unsupportive and outright antagonistic, while the “corrosive” elements – metal music, sexuality, even mild drug use – are the only positive forces keeping some of the characters afloat. The danger doesn’t come from what the characters use – the danger comes from why they use it.
Garton made no bones about identifying elements he believed to be corrosive in society, but refreshingly, he also acknowledges that the problem of disaffected youth was (and still is) messy, multifaceted, and, in some tragic instances, unavoidable no matter how well a parent nurtures their child. This is shown clearly in the dichotomy between siblings Jeff and Mallory: while Mallory is openly hostile and shown to be deeply affected by the lack of time her mother can afford to spend with her, Jeff is shown to be largely obedient and responsible, and he is generally understanding of his mother’s situation. The fatal weakness for Jeff, and one that makes him a target for Mace, isn’t his absent father and overworked mother – it’s his incestuous lust for his sister, a desire that fills him with shame and guilt, and creates the “gap,” as Mace calls it, that allows the villain to slink into his life.
Concerning Mace, Garton did a great job writing him as someone who would be able to bewitch the young and wile them away from their loved ones. He has sledgehammer charisma, commands attention from his looks alone, and when he asks you what’s wrong, he means it. He is a Pied Piper of sorts, a trickster come to steal the children away from those who have failed to pay their “debt” to the youth by ignoring the stress they face in life. Mace does not threaten the kids. He does not imprison them or drug them, though he will allow them to get high. Mace smiles, and listens, and accepts them for all that they are. He gives them all they want, asks for little in return, and welcomes them into his family with his symbol, an axe-bladed crucifix called the Crucifax. Mace’s origins are hinted at cleverly throughout the book, and Garton played well to the reader’s intelligence by never outright explaining him in one passage. There are hints of demonic origins, hints of a collective consciousness, but it is the reader’s job to piece it all together. It’s there, it really is, but Crucifax is a book you have to pay attention to as you read.
A major strength to Crucifax’s plot was its fearless willingness to explore taboo subjects in a manner suggesting that everyone has at least one shameful secret they’re fighting to hide. As Mace says at one point: “We’re all gray. Some are blacker than others, maybe a few are all black, but I can promise you one thing, Reverend. Nobody… nobody is all white.” Mace is a tempter, who strives to tell the youth that they aren’t evil, that their wickedness is just as important as their goodness. The authority figures in the children’s lives have, in their strictness, pushed the children down a path that to them seems like Hell. Mace offers what seems like Heaven, but just as too little understanding can destroy a child, so too can too much. Sometimes, children should be deprived of the things they want. The catch is in knowing where to draw the line.
Crucifax is a novel that dared to be intelligent while it thrilled with inspired pulp violence and depravity. While it surely delivered on prurient sex and gratuitous gore, it also bounced cleverly between feelings of hopelessness and hopefulness. It’s a novel that refused to give clear cut answers to the moral and ethical questions it explored. How much blame do parents deserve for ruined youth? How far can you extend yourself to protect the children of others? Crucifax seemed to want to muddy the water, and Garton showed no sympathy to those who cried out for clear and easy answers.