The story “Hard Core Kelli” by Wrath James White is a visceral tale with some excellent ideas, some fantastic gore, and an interesting main character that falls flat simply because it can’t convince me of its reality. It’s over top, but that’s part of the charm. It’s full of sleaze, swearing, and slimy, slicked-up, blood soaked pandemonium, and that’s one of its better features. But where it loses me is plausibility, which is perhaps the strangest criticism I can offer any pulp piece. After all, one could argue, pulp isn’t SUPPOSED to be overly meticulous in its logical: in fact, the more ridiculous and absurd, the better! Yet Lovecraft can convince me of Cthulhu, and Robert E. Howard can convince me of Conan. Popcorn action movies can convince me of the violence-laden exploits of loose cannon cops like John McClane and Martin Riggs. But “Hard Core Kelli” simply can’t draw me into the plausibility of its plot. I will attempt to explain why, but first, the plot itself.
Katy is a down-and-out boxer who has been through it all: abusive relationships, a humiliating defeat in the ring, drugs, and finally, a career as a stripper. One night, a customer attempts to sexually assault her in the club parking lot and she knocks him out cold: as in, cold as a corpse. Knowing that with her spotty record she’ll never stand in court, she decides to hide out at her estranged mother’s house in small town America. Thankfully, her mother and little sister Samantha are only too happy to see her and don’t ask too many questions about why she’s hiding out in their domicile. All very heartwarming and Hallmark, no?
When Halloween arrives, Samantha wants her big sister (who she barely knows ) to take her trick-or-treating. And she thinks Katy is the spitting image of her favorite comic super heroine, a punisher-esque grunge goth badass called Hardcore Kelli who decapitates criminal scum with a giant battle axe. She lends Katy her collection of comics, and Katy immediately gloms onto the character, ultimately agreeing to her sister’s plan of making her up like the demented comic vigilante. Not only does Katy put together a makeshift costume (our Kelli looks a bit like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac crossed with Harley Quinn), but lo and behold, Samantha has a battle axe she can borrow.
Yes. A twelve year old got a battle axe at the local comic con. Apparently, she traded some comics for it. As you do.
But as you can guess, these two are in for a horrific Halloween. It all starts when Samantha fails to come home from school. Katy and her mom get a call from the cops saying that Samantha has been abducted. While mom breaks down, Katy dons her Insane Clown Posse Goth Girl with a Final Fantasy Seven Weapon get-up and goes looking for her sibling with an intent to punish whoever is responsible. Apparently, Samatha is in the clutches of one of Hardcore Kelli’s numerous supervillain sleazoid enemies, Creepo, a sadomasochistic rapist who is more than willing to throw hands with our heroine. The maniacal little child abductor lives up to his name, but Katy easily takes him out in a comic-style gore-riddled battle wherein she decapitates him.
Only, it’s apparently not real. Katy comes to herself standing over the body of a headless heroin addict with her sister tied up in the back of a car. What is real? Who cares? Instead of calling the cops, our two heroines decide to track down another of Kelli’s enemies, Murder Man, a cyborg assassin (reminiscent of Overt-Kill from Spawn). Apparently, one of the local ne’er do wells, Sam Black, resembles Murder Man a bit too much, and Katy (now fully into the LARP of being hardcore Kelli) wants to shut him down….permanently. But it’s even more complicated than that because, as it turns out, Sam Black is also the man who raped Katy in her high school youth and was the initial catalyst that sent her down her path of south destruction. You can already guess where this is going.
But, for an added twist, we the reader are soon privy to the fact that Sam Black is also a serial killer, who abducts local women to torture and rape in a trailer behind his domicile at the dump. And of course, he has a shot gun. With a lot of bullets. In the best part of the story, Katy charges Sam’s trailer through a barrage of gunfire that leads to some wince-inducing bodily harm, stomach-churning horrific discoveries, and a satisfying scene in which a truly awful human being gets exactly what he deserves. And the gore: oh my, but there is some wonderful gore!
The cops come, and wouldn’t you know it, law enforcement with long-range weapons can’t handle an ex-boxer with a melee weapon. Now completely consumed by her delusion, Katy makes mincemeat out of the local fuzz and dashes into the night, leaving a dumbstruck Samantha behind. The story ends with her crashing a Ku Klux Klan rally and enacting her version of vicious justice on some po-duck racists in white sheets.
So why does this not work? Lets start with the nature of mental illness. To be fair, the seeds of Katy’s instability are planted early. It’s made clear that she has led a rough life, and suffers from PTSD, drug addiction, and potentially even brain damage from boxing. There are several scenes where she slips in and out of reality, and even a scene where she has a PTSD flashback and physically injures here sister. This is all well and good. But about halfway through the story, we take a BIG leap from mental disorder into absolute insanity. Mental health is something that, in my opinion, deserves a tad bit more delicacy than what we see here. A spiral would have served the writer better than the sudden transition from damaged but determined boxer to absolute cackling maniac. There are sparks of character development that make this situation plausible: the real issue here is velocity. I, the reader, needed more time with Katy, watching her slowly generate in her hometown as old memories slowly creep in and erode the little control she has left.
The overall plot is very first draft-y, where we see plot points shoved together into a succession that doesn't take the reader's intelligence or ability to suspend their disbelief into account. It feels less like a novel and more like its Hollywooded up movie adaptation.
Now lets talk about Samantha, because this part really irked me. I love children’s books, even as an adult, and have always been a big fan of the comic Calvin and Hobbes. The imagination of children is a fascinating subject, and I love stories that touch on the inner cosmos that children effortlessly build for themselves. As such, I find it something of a literary sin to treat kids like they’re stupid. Samantha is supposed to be twelve, but she talks and acts like a five-year-old. And frankly, I can’t imagine any kid over four subsuming her sister’s bizarre behavior and coming up with the genius idea that maybe her sister REALLY IS Hardcore Kelli. Folks, I don’t care what age you are: if I was anywhere between four and fifteen and I saw my sibling chop some bugger’s head off, I’d be dropping a Wonka Factory’s worth of fudge in my britches before waddling to the nearest police station. The fact that Samantha continually decides that all is well in big sister’s brain given Katy’s increasingly erratic behavior flies utterly in the face of reason. Kids might be naïve, but they’re not stupid, and I think a twelve old could easily put two-and-two together in this situation.
But one thing I do like, and its really the fulcrum of the story, is the comic character Hardcore Kelli, the fictional vigilante within our fictional universe. I like meta stuff, and I really enjoy it when a story focuses on the fiction within the fiction. And Hardcore Kelli sounds like one HELL of a comic! I love over-the-top 80s and 90s craziness, and to this day, I enjoy the gritty gore of Spawn, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Ghost Rider, and the like. HK is a well-thought-out homage to the genre, almost its zenith. Just listen to this description:
Hardcore Kelli had black hair separated into two ponytails, and pale
bloodless skin, black eyeliner and eye shadow, black lipstick and nail
polish, like every Depeche Mode and Marilyn Manson fan Katy had known
in high school. She wore torn, black, fishnet stockings beneath cut off black
mini-shorts. She sported black combat boots that came almost up to her
knees. She had a torn black T-shirt with a white smiley face on it, only the
face was snarling angrily rather than smiling. The woman looked like some
sort of angry goth clown. Despite Katy’s cynicism, she had to admit,
Hardcore Kelli did look pretty badass.
I agree Katy: badass is the word for it. She even has a pretty interesting rogues gallery of sickos and nutjobs that make Batman’s cadre of Gothamite criminals look like The Care Bears. Dudes with names like Creepo, The Cutter, Maniac, The Pusher, Murder Man, the Poison Preacher, all of whom just SOUND interesting. And frankly, all of whom I would like to see more of in the story.
Now, here’s where things get messy. Kelli’s backstory is spookily similar to Katy’s. Kelli was an ex-boxer who got slipped some experimental steroids (Captain America style) and turned into a vigilante with healing abilities and super strength. In the story, the background similarities are passed off as an (in my opinion) implausible coincidence, which is a shame because a simple reversal could have led to some real character development. In the story, it is Samantha who is the HK fan that introduces Katy to Hardcore Kelli comics. But what if it were the other way around? Katy introduces Samantha to a character whose comics she enjoyed reading as a kid, as a bonding experience. After all, Kelli sounds a lot like a 90s gore-slicked vigilante: why not run with it? Katy liked those comics as a young girl, and shows Samantha her stash of Kelli paraphernalia. As an 80s-90s homage, Kelli’s comics would fit nicely in the era that Katy would have grown up in and I can buy that as a teenager she would have been a fan of the comics. THEN, the similarities in background are not just some random coincidence or inexplicable similarity, but an unconscious series of decisions on Katy’s part. As a woman who often felt victimized and powerless, she began imitating a fictional image of power, strength, and justice from her childhood. This would even compliment the story’s meta-fictional themes about the influence of fiction on the minds of vulnerable people. But instead: the similarities are there because The Plot Says So.
That brings us to the ending. I love the character of Sam Black as a vicious antagonist, and he even fits the role of a real-life counterpart to comic book villains. Comics have a running theme of the main antagonist either creating the vigilante through some vicious act (killing their parents, for instance) or being created by the hero accidentally (i.e. being dropped into a vat of acid). In this story, it is Sam Black who starts Katy down her pathway of self-destruction: thus, it makes perfect sense that he takes the role of Kelli’s archnemesis, Murder Man. And indeed, as we find out, that name suits Sam the local psychopath to a T.
And again: I wish there was more exploration of his character and his relation to Katy. Maybe Katy is out for a drink at the local dive and runs into Sam. They exchange passive-aggressive barbs. Sam makes a pass and Katy humiliates him in front of his drinking buddies by knocking his ass out. Then he kidnaps Samantha as revenge, thus prompting Katy’s final descent into her assumed role as Hardcore Kelli. Escalation is the name of the game, a step-by-step progression where the reader KNOWS something is coming….and yet feels helpless to stop it. This would also make the ending more meaningful, the final stage of a long rivalry rather than a single out-with-a-bang moment in time.
Overall, I think this story has some good ideas, and some pretty damn fine violence. I like Katy as a main character whose struggles form the crux of the plot. I also LOVE Hardcore Kelli and the idea of Katy becoming a makeshift real-life superhero due to her identification with the character. There’s some great gore, too, and I think the writer has a real talent for visceral scenes of blood-splattered viciousness. Ultimately, this story could have worked stupendously if a little more care had been given to the plot and character development. As it is, despite all the good intentions buttressing it, I found that “Hardcore Kelli” did not live up to its potential.