Welcome to Freaky Fridays, that magical time when you touch the forbidden shampoo bottle and the Wishing Buffalo appears to read you a book from the musty and ancient land of 1987.
Collectors of fine art. Avengers of the weak. Men of taste and refinement. No, I’m not talking about Harvard graduates, I’m talking about serial killers (although there’s probably some overlap). In real life, serial killers are usually poorly educated rapists with substance abuse problems who are prone to bed wetting and setting fires. Yet Dexter, Hannibal, and Bates Motel will convince you that any mother would be proud if little Johnny grew up to murder her, stash her corpse in the basement, and make a vest out of her skin. Many of the most critically acclaimed cultural moments of the past decade (True Detective, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, No Country for Old Men) and previous decades (M, Psycho, Arsenic and Old Lace) would be incomplete without these compulsive masturbators and necrophiliacs.
Of course, if Hollywood told the truth about serial killers no one would watch because the number one rule of screenwriting is that you can never kill an animal and pretty much every single serial killer started out offing animals. But never mind! They know their wines! So now, meet Slob, the serial killer novel that Stephen King called “almost too crudely terrifying to read.” Well, he’s right about the crude part.
Hailed as a bold new book in the splatterpunk wave, Rex Miller’s Slob appeared in 1987 to much sweaty-palmed page-turning. Serial killers weren’t a super-trend yet, but already writers knew they needed to offer different flavors of sociopath if they wanted to hook their readers. And so Miller gave them Daniel “Chaingang” Bunkowski, a 469-pounder who might just be the most ridiculous serial killer in literary history. Many 400 pound people complain about not being able to fasten their seatbelts, but Bunkowski can lift a man with one hand, wield a tractor chain like a bullwhip, and slither down manholes into the sewer system like greased lightning. Furthermore, he “warped every curve, deviated from every chart…he was that rare human being called the physical precognitive, regularly experiencing biochemical phenomena that transcended the mechanistic laws of kinesiology and kinetics.”
Basically that means he has spider sense.
But he’s not just any physical precognitive, he has a “cold objectivity, unusual even in the extreme precognates.” He’s also, “an autodidact, a self-taught killer whose alarming proclivity for violence was surpassed only by what appeared to be a genius intellect.” He has a photographic memory. The ability to detect the presence of human life. He knows about “the role of the mystagogue in televangelistic fund-raising, cellular phenomena, theoretical fluid mechanics, noncyclical phylogeny, classic profiles of psychologically externalized business failures, fundamentals of resupination cosmology, hypno-inducing properties of crystalline hydrates.”
He’s “a master at camouflaged doublespeak” able to make anyone believe anything with almost no effort because “Along with his many unique gifts, Bunkowski had the natural skills of a consummate actor: keen powers of observation and mimicry, a predisposition for thorough preparation, the ability to instantly summon up stored emotion, and the feel for a character’s center.” He knows how to make “a smart bomb activated by an ordinary kitchen food timer. A recipe for mixing powdered potassium chlorate with a modified Vaseline-base paste that bakes a very nasty cake. A device for starting an undetectable fire. A place inside an ordinary home where a five-hundred-pound giant can hide and not be found — even by trained dogs.” He is also immune to poison ivy.
Bunkowski, nicknamed Chaingang, prowls the Midwest, murdering at random, committing sex crimes against women he tricks into lowering their guard and pulping the skulls of men who annoy him with his tractor chain. But if you thought this was a book about an actual serial killer, a junk food addicted monstrosity who puts away 40 egg rolls at a time and whose breath smells like “stale burritos, wild onions and garlic, bad tuna, and your basic terminal halitosis” you’re wrong because Bunkowski was part of a secret government program that taught him how to be a super-killer and sent him to Vietnam to kill for Uncle Sam. Now, back in America, he can’t stop murdering people and Rex Miller can’t stop telling us how HORRIFYING this FIVE HUNDRED POUND KILLING MACHINE is in ALL CAPS on every OTHER LINE.
Slob was advertised as the most shocking of the shockers, a book that would push the boundaries in bold new directions, kicking off with someone’s head being pulped to jelly, and then delivering a lengthy description of Bunkowski abducting a woman, raping her, then breaking her neck while masturbating on her face. I’m sorry, but I have the internet. I’ve seen worse things than that in pop-up ads. Throughout Slob, as Bunkowski goes up against a tough Chicago cop named Jack Eichord who’s an expert in profiling serial killers, Miller constantly tries to RATCHET up the TENSION by beating us over the head with the fact that Bunkowski is a FIVE HUNDRED POUND KILLING MACHINE and if he ever learns your name you are going to REGRET IT. I’ve seen more shocking sex on The Robin Byrd Show and worse violence in Schindler’s List.
Miller wants it both ways, at one moment painting Bunkowski as a man whose smell is “a combination of rank body odor and sewage and sulfurous stink of rotten food” that “assails your nostrils with the foulness of evil” and the next he has his titular slob convincing a matronly spinster that he’s a respectable, gay antiques dealer. Nevertheless, Slob was successful enough to spawn a sequel three years later called Slice, and then Silence of the Lambs won five Academy Awards and suddenly Miller had a franchise character because Anthony Hopkins’s scenery-chewing, Oscar-winning hambone performance in Silence had suddenly made serial killers hotter than Bunkowski’s butt crack on a broiling July day.
By the time Miller wrote Chaingang (1992), Savant (1994), and Butcher (1994), Bunkowski was transformed into a good guy who only kills people who “deserve” it, like drug-dealing street gangs, evil psychiatrists, and coldblooded psychotic snipers sporting micro-penises and armed with futuristic ray guns, who graduated from the same government black ops program he did. That’s from Savant, the last of the Chaingang novels, which reveals Chaingang has an implant in his head and the government has been tracking him this entire time, there are other assassin/killers in his old program, and they’re worse than he is because they kill indiscriminately and they have sex with prostitutes, unlike Chaingang who, by this point, is only killing the people who abused him as a child, and those who are mean to puppies. Literally. Also, he doesn’t have sex with anyone anymore. He’s even kind to old ladies. By the time Savant ends, Chaingang has demonstrated the ability to turn invisible in darkness by regulating his respiration and heart rate like a ninja, he’s mailed a teeny tiny possum heart to the government doctor who created him, and he’s adopted five adorable puppies who jump all over him licking his face.
The serial killer is no longer a menace. He’s not even a cartoon. He’s become our hero.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, just came out this past Tuesday. It’s basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.