Author: Matthew Stokoe
Release date: Originally 1997, rereleased April 10, 2013
It’s interesting how your TBR can conspire against you to bring similarly themed/content books together. Recently I read ‘Tender is the Flesh’ by Agustina Bazterrica. This was followed by the ‘Twisted Anatomy’ anthology through Sci-Fi and Scary. Meanwhile, I was also diving into ‘COWS’ by Matthew Stokoe. All three featured similar moments of wretched repulsiveness, while all three had great depths of philosophical ideas buried beneath the grotesque content.
‘COWS’ has become a cult classic, much in the way ‘A Serbian Tale’ has for the movie watching community. I’d been recommended this a few times by different people. I’m not sure if it was because they wanted to see my thoughts on it or if they wanted to know if I had the fortitude to dive past the garbage that floated at the top of the water and see the story that lay on the ocean floor, but either way, I finally realized I wanted to dive in and truthfully, while this book is DEFINITELY not for everyone, I was stunned with the story Stokoe delivered.
I’m going to do my best to stay spoiler free, but I wanted to just say – this is a book that if you need any sort of trigger warning, you’ll not make it very far into it. Have you watched 2 Girls 1 Cup? What was your response? If it was anything other than ‘what is the art behind this’ you’ll be best to pass. Things that occur – animal abuse and torture, self mutilation, matricide, infanticide, beastiality, scat play and ingestion and homicide just to name a few.
What I liked: ‘COWS’ is a story that follows our main character, Steven, who longs for acceptance in a world he’s unable to participate in. He sees the dream on TV. Wife, kids, house, pet, happiness. And from that, he desperately wishes to find a way to achieve it and leave the horror that is his current existence behind. His mom, referred to as the Hagbeast, is mentally and physically abusive to him and constantly tortures his pet dog. When Steven gets a job at the local slaughterhouse, a door is unlocked in his brain and he begins to find the pieces he needs to put the puzzle together towards the ideal life he so desperately craves.
Look, there is a lot to try and get past in this book. Each person featured in here, and the Guernsey cow, are damaged and mentally destroyed. Stokoe has covered them in a layer of mud that won’t wash off and each character struggles to act ‘normally’ while battling this unseen poison that has infected them. The most obvious example of this is Steven’s love interest. She can feel this ‘thing’ festering under the surface, always growing and grabbing a hold on her insides and the depression it creates, where she understands that one day it’ll kill her, is horrifying to watch. Stokoe does a masterful job of showing various forms of mental health issues and how Steven, while suffering through his own issues, keeps trying to find hope and positivity. That one day, he’ll have a home that is filled with happiness and some aspect of his life will have meaning.
The closest thing I’ve read to this would be Danger Slater’s ‘I Will Rot Without You.’ I’ve heard others mention Duncan Ralston’s ‘Woom,’ hell, even Duncan has said he’s not read the book but people say it’s similar to ‘Woom,’ but I didn’t fully make that connection. Maybe because ‘COWS’ read as more of a Bizarro book and ‘Woom’ reads as a horror story centering on a man’s lingering trauma.
What I didn’t like: As insane as this may sound, I had no issues with the subject matter. Maybe it’s from being a clinician in my real life who deals with amputation and open ulcers frequently, or maybe it’s from having a four year old and a dog and dealing with their messes, I found it was more of a metaphor for the characters lives that Stokoe used those elements.
For me, I wasn’t a big fan of the Cripps character. While he was important for Steven’s development and self discovery, I found his character to be too-over the top for the rest of the story.
Why you should buy this: It’s interesting to me that the book I kept thinking of while reading ‘COWS’ was ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl. ‘COWS’ itself is just that, a young man who longs to break free from the chains that he’s been born into and find happiness and meaning, if only it is an idea of what it should be and should look like. Stokoe has crafted a story that does have significant depth and had me really thinking and it is an engaging piece of fiction, if you can get past that layer of filth and look for the treasure chest resting at the bottom of the sea.
This one will absolutely not be for everyone, but I see now why it’s gained such a long and warranted life in the dark fiction community.
I personally am glad I took the chance and read it. Stokoe has done a superb job of putting this one out into the world.