“Served Cold” by Gary Couzens

I often think that with the horror genre the label itself is something that has to be surmounted. As a brand name it prompts us to expect to be shocked and disturbed, but that expectation in itself dilutes the anticipated effect – violent death in a horror film is just business as usual, but if something similar occurs in a film billed as a family comedy then it delivers a shock to the system, and sometimes shocks to the system are necessary.

Such a shock came courtesy of “Served Cold” by Gary Couzens, a writer who was a regular in The Third Alternative, but as far as Black Static is concerned has only this appearance in #11 on his CV. While Black Static has a reputation for subtle, atmospheric horror stories, this tale is very much an ‘in your face’ story of extreme violence that, for many readers, brought to mind the type of material which used to feature in the lost and lamented Nasty Piece of Work. I wouldn’t want such work to appear regularly in the magazine, but on occasion, as here, a story of this type can pull the reader out of his or her discomfort zone, remind us that there is nothing we can take for granted.

As the title suggests, with the implication of ‘a dish best served cold’, the story is about revenge.

There are two strands. The main one, set in the past, tells the story of Felicity, by her own admission ‘a slag’ and proud of it – ‘Someone told me that some guy I’d shagged had rated me on a website eight out of ten. I was tempted to phone him up and demand, Why only eight?‘ There is a pattern of learned behaviour here – ‘I started early. By the time I was twelve I was showing my knickers to the boys behind the bikeshed for a pound a time.’ Felicity wants to be popular, and providing sexual favours is a way for her to win the attention of men, if not their love or friendship. She is somebody who gets used, and the ‘hard’ face she presents to the world, the mask of unfeeling promiscuity, is nothing more than a front.

Only now Felicity has slept with Kelly’s boyfriend, and that was a serious error of judgement. Kelly and her two friends, Dawn and Sharon, abduct Felicity and take her away to an isolated spot, where she is subjected to a prolonged period of abuse and torture, culminating in death, with the body dumped in a local pond.

Intercut with this is a chain of events set in the present day, in which Felicity (the character is never named, but the implication seems clear) stalks and murders the three women. Felicity is a revenant, a spirit returned from the grave in search of revenge, and this adds another frisson to the use of the word ‘cold’ in the title.

The level of violence in “Served Cold” is repulsive and intended to be so (Couzens dedicated the story to fellow writer Marion Arnott, who told him ‘it wasn’t nasty enough’), but never seems gratuitous, with none of the gleeful description that is symptomatic of torture porn, the matter of factness and detailed nature of the account adding to the chill. The brutality is made even more shocking in that it is inflicted by women, the supposedly gentler sex, and on that score the double standard is very much to the fore. Felicity seems to accept predominantly patriarchal value judgements, a system in which she can be either ‘a slag or a prude’, and chooses the former, but the consequences of acting in that manner are predicated on her gender. Kelly expresses no opinion regarding her boyfriend’s behaviour – the blame is laid at Felicity’s door only. Men who follow their sexual impulses are just ‘doing what comes naturally’, but women must be punished.

Each of the three women has a distinguishing trait. Kelly is the instigator, Dawn the follower, who goes even further in her attempts to impress and ingratiate herself with Kelly, while Sharon is the reluctant one, not quite prepared for what she has got herself into, but finding it is too late to back out. And curiously, when Felicity kills them she feels that somehow Kelly is the least culpable of the three, that she at least had a reason for how she acted, unacceptable as that was, whereas the other two were just hangers on.

What comes over very clearly here is the ordinary and mundane nature of evil. Kelly and her cohorts are not archetyal monsters along the lines of Michael Myers or Jason, but three ordinary women who simply don’t realise when the line has been crossed. In a feedback loop of violence and abuse they dehumanise their victim, and each act leads inexorably to the next until murder is inevitable, with only Sharon voicing any reservations. Felicity is not like them, and so whatever happens to her by their lights is deserved. It is, in many ways, a textbook example of how extreme bigots think and rationalise/justify their inhumanity.

In adulthood the three women are perfectly ordinary – one works in a shop and one is a mother. Their lives are unremarkable, for such monsters, with the hint of potential that was lost and betrayed – of the athletic Sharon we are told ‘talk at school of her representing the county or even the country never happened’. All the dreams of youth came to nothing.

Ugly as the story is, perhaps the most overtly violent piece to appear in Black Static (and also one of the most powerful), it ends on a possibly upbeat note, Felicity turning away from the dying Kelly and towards the woman’s baby girl, telling her that she’s safe, that she’s beautiful, offering up to this innocent the love she could never genuinely give to another while alive. Underlying this though there’s a note of ambiguity – is the ending touched with irony, the start of a new cycle of bad role models and double standards, or does it signify hope for the child, that for her things will be different, somehow better?

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2 Responses to “Served Cold” by Gary Couzens

  1. This is a sensitive review, Sir Peter, of a story that is more powerful and subtle than I remember when I read it back in 2009–I primarily remember it being horrific and violent, and like most revenge stories leaving me empty. Having said this, your reading is convincing, so I’m doubting my recall more than I am disagreeing with your interpretation.

    This is exactly the sort of thing that I’d hope good horror fiction can do: not just shock and titilate with vile details, but tell a story with real social impact through the medium of the tropes of the genre.

    • petertennant says:

      I see you managed to post here, but linked to twitter, not blogger?

      On the subject of gender roles in SF (yeah, I peeked at your twitter), you might be interested in Samuel R. Delany’s novel “Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand”, which presents a universe in which everyone is a woman (regardless of actual gender) but their sexual/romantic partner is always referred to as male (regardless of actual gender). For example, if I was in a relationship with Kylie Minogue, we would both be women, but she would be my man and I would be her man.

      There’s also interesting stuff in Sturgeon’s “Venus Plus X” (Ledom, an engineered society of hermaphrodites, which is contrasted with human society and its demarcations along gender lines), and Philip Wylie’s “The Disappearance” (from the 1950s and with a scenario in which the world ‘divides’, men in one reality and women in the other).

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