In the Summer of 1998, when I was living merrily through my largely-broke college milieu, I returned to my high school job as box office wonk at Mann’s Criterion, a now-defunct six-screen movie theater in Santa Monica, CA. This was a job that not only afforded me unlimited free movies (and, yes, that privilege led to the consumption of piles of cinematic garbage), but my shifts were constructed in such a way that I was free to do a great deal of reading. I managed to consume several enormous novels over the course of the summer, not to mention a few 200-page quickies here and there. I was broke, but it was a golden time.
And where was I getting all these books? Right across the street from The Criterion was Midnight Special, one of the best book stores Los Angeles had at the time. Midnight Special was the “offbeat” bookstore. It carried obscurities, imports, and edgy political books. The Borders down the street had your run-of-the-mill Stephen King; Midnight Special was busy stocking multiple copies of Georges Bataille’s STORY OF THE EYE.
It was here that I discovered, bought, and — with no small amount of nausea — read Matthew Stokoe’s 1998 horror vomitoruim COWS.
Few have read COWS. Those who have… well, they probably remember it all too well. COWS, to this day, is the only book I’ve ever encountered that had a content warning printed on the back cover. It warned me that the book I was holding contained images of extreme gore and violence. I had already read several Clive Barker novels, and none of them had a warning like this. I, of course, had to buy the book right away.
Matthew Stokoe’s COWS is the greasiest, grossest, bloodiest, most unsettling piece of literature I have ever encountered. It peels back all of the gloss from regular thrillers and horror stories, and gives us pure, unadulterated filth; even Irvine Welsh’s FILTH doesn’t have this much filth. There are acts of self-mutilation, murder, and sexual explosions the likes of which I hadn’t previously imagined. For those who need their horror to be extreme, I offer COWS as one of the most extreme of all horror novels.
COWS tells the story of a 25-year-old man named Steven who lives in a tiny, dingy, greasy, disgusting apartment with his monstrous, fetid, unwashed, cackling, half-mad sadist mother, whom he calls The Hagbeast. Early in the book, The Hagbeast flashes Steven, and Stokoe bothers to describe the stench that wafts from her genitals. Yeah, it’s that kind of book.
Desperate for escape, Steven takes a job at a local slaughterhouse, where he finds a weird state of meditative catharsis killing animals. He also finds that the other slaughterhouse workers are secretly having gatherings after hours. Eventually, Steven learns that the other workers are not only having after-hours orgies, but are using the cows in their twisted sex games; how the cows are used I don’t quite have the stomach to describe. Needless to say, it goes beyond mere bestiality.
Steven’s weird growing mad understanding of the dark, bloody works of sex meat, oddly enough, causes him to grow as a person. Soon he’s dating and impregnating the mentally ill woman in his building (she performs self-surgery to remove the pockets of liquid “evil” in her body), and taking charge of the slaughterhouse. But alongside his growing confidence is a growing madness that manifests itself in the form of a talking cow that’s been hiding in the air ducts of the slaughterhouse. It won’t be long before Steven is corrupted and he’s leading a cow uprising against the human oppressors.
Crippled dogs, aborted fetuses, self-surgery, bestiality, murder, rape, death. This book is a party.
Most horror is cathartic in some way; not only does horror give readers a safe fictional haven to face their in-born fears, but they present a very healthy venue to explore the various philosophies surrounding our own mortality. A very good horror story will be thoughtful about death. COWS occupies a low end of the spectrum of horror, where the world can only be seen through a dirty prism of body parts, fluids, meat, and dirt. When one tries to see beyond the base, the physical, the filthy, one can only find death and madness.
COWS is nihilistic in a way that I’m not used to seeing outside of Lars Von Trier movies; it exists in a world devoid of compassion. Love is a sticky pocket of evil that needs to be cut out. And the one thing we think can save us — modest ambition — will destroy us with insanity. COWS takes place in a world so dark and disgusting that even the tiniest glimmer of hope is tantamount to apocalypse.
And here’s the kicker: It’s an immensely readable book. It’s brief, to-the-point, and skips trippingly along its dark plot with an alarming amount of ease. Stokoe doesn’t bother to use flowery language; he’s not trying to dress up his filth. He just lays it bare, letting you eat up this greasy horror sausage with no toppings.
COWS is still in print in the US, where it remains to be constantly discovered by hapless seekers of the most extreme forms of horror. If you’re looking to test yourself, seek it out. If you’re already disgusted… maybe stay away.