No book I’ve read is better at tapping into the visceral violence of 1970s horror movie classics The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes than Bryan Smith’s 2009 novel Depraved. Smith penned the 322-page book “in just over six breathless, exhilarating weeks,” according to his introduction in the Grindhouse Press edition.
“It was as if I had a window into an alternate world where these events were actually occurring and all I was doing was transcribing those events as fast as I could possibly manage,” Smith writes.
Indeed, the pace is as relentless as the horrific action, and it reads like the writing of a man possessed. While Smith has cranked out dozens of outstanding extreme horror books and Tarantinesque crime novels, Depraved remains his most popular, and for good reason. It’s the best kind of horror novel, because it’s written for true horror fans, which means no PG-13 cop-out scenes and no easy ways out. Smith thrusts the reader into a gut-wrenching tale of sickening lust and intense brutality where the worst-case scenarios get worse, and the twists get more twisted.
Inbred backwoods cannibals
The plot centers on the remote town of Hopkins Bend, Tennessee, where clans of inbred backwoods cannibals torture captured travelers, while the sheriff operates a sex-trafficking ring with the inhabitants. Smith places a handful of main characters in horrific situations and forces them to decide how far they will go to survive. He makes his morally dubious protagonists tap their own reserves of depravity to survive the horrors of Hopkins Bend.
Depraved follows the stories of a recent rape victim named Jessica, a ne’er-do-well named Hoke, and an easygoing couple named Pete and Megan. All of them encounter the degenerate residents of Hopkins Bend and must make some tough decisions. While the barbarity takes center stage, Smith manages to add an unexpected emotional layer to the story by introducing one of the locals, a young woman-child named Abby, who’s slowly understanding her cannibal family’s ways are not quite right.
The first two chapters introduce the best character, Jessica, and the insufferable part-time drummer Hoke. She’s cruising along in a Ford Falcon Futura and nothing’s as it seems. With the snapping of a twig, Depraved starts its descent into the underbelly of Hopkins Bend. Soon, Jessica is running for her life, and Hoke is wishing he could run for his.
Next up, we meet Pete and Megan whose road trip together ends at an isolated gas station called Hopkins Bend General Store. Pete disappears in a van with the store’s employees, while Megan meets a Hopkins Bend Sheriff Department deputy during her search for Pete. Neither encounter ends well.
Then we meet Abby, a clan member who is slowly growing a conscience about the evil ways of her family. Her bond with a prisoner (scheduled to be dinner) is the only way to escape her dreadful life.
‘There’s two Hopkins Bends’
About a third of the way into the story, the sex-trafficking Sheriff DeMars explains to one of the main characters (before selling her for $5,000 to a cannibal family), “There’s two Hopkins Bends. There’s where you just came from, and that’s the public face of Hopkins Bend. Then there’s the hidden Hopkins Bend, where the old families live, out in the woods.”
It’s a telling statement and symbolic of the duality of mankind and the designs of its institutions to mask its corruption. The deranged tale of survival steps up a couple of sadistic notches after we meet Sheriff DeMars, yet Smith’s writing ability grounds the plot even when it goes off the rails into bizarro territory with Hoke’s storyline.
Smith’s passionate about the prose, and his respect for horror’s past shows up on every page of Depraved. He’s inspired by it and seems to be having as much fun writing it as we are reading it. The truth is Smith’s one of us, a fervid fan of the genre who just happens to have the uncanny ability to write wonderfully warped fiction.
In Depraved, Jessica is the badass of the bunch with her never-say-die attitude. She’s like a Tarantino femme fatale, which is not surprising since that’s Smith’s favorite filmmaker. While Jessica steals the show, the fates of the other characters are equally compelling. Hoke learns the hard way if a cannibal family curse is real or not; Pete teams up with his cage mate for some payback; Megan navigates the Sin Den; and Abby is trying to escape her life by helping a prisoner escape to freedom. It’s all wrapped up in a fun epilogue showing the aftermath of the ones who lived.
‘Something big, memorable, and sickening’
If the Splatterpunk Awards (which recognize the best in extreme horror) were around in 2009, Depraved would’ve been a slam dunk for a Best Novel nomination. But the awards didn’t debut until 2018. Smith, by the way, has already received two Splatterpunk Awards. He won Best Collection for Dirty Rotten Hippies and Other Stories in 2020 and Best Novella for Kill for Satan! in 2019. Also, he has three other nominations, Merciless for Best Novel in 2020, Last Day for Best Novel in 2019, and Dead Stripper Storage for Best Novella in 2019.
Depraved spawned three entertaining sequels, featuring Jessica as the protagonist, and the Grindhouse Press edition of Depraved includes a bonus story about two secondary characters that Smith calls an “in-between-quel.”
As for the sequels, all three are as extreme as the original and expand on Jessica’s badassery. Her actions in Depraved weren’t the result of adrenalin-fueled survival instincts. It turns out that she had a knack for surviving – and killing – all along.
Smith says in his Grindhouse Press introduction that he wrote the sequels to capitalize on the popularity of his most successful novel, but he made sure they passed his Depraved litmus test.
“I have tried my best to make the sequels live up to what the reader experienced in that first book,” he writes. “First and foremost, the events in the follow-up books have to justify that title. The depravity has to be audacious and unapologetic, and each book must feature a big central set-piece scene that at least comes close to living up to the ‘human dildo’ scene in the original Depraved.”
Brian Keene, recipient of the 2014 World Horror Grandmaster Award, is a collaborator and fan of Smith’s work. Smith writes in his introduction that Keene said the human hibachi scene in Depraved 2 “broke” him.
“That’s always the goal, something big, memorable, and sickening,” Smith writes.
Keene also called Depraved 3 the best extreme horror novel of 2016 and touted Depraved 4 as his favorite of the series.
While some readers prefer the Depraved sequels, the original remains my favorite of Smith’s novels. It truly captures the unrefined essence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. As a horror fan, what more do you want?