Bovine Grindhouse: A Review of Cows by Matthew Stokoe

Advisory: The book under review is graphic everything. The review omits details but there is still content some readers might wish to avoid.

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A cow named “Vaccination”. Coloured aquatint by M. Dubourg, 1810. Wellcome Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The cow, the old cow, she is dead;

It sleeps well, the horned head:

We poor lads, ’tis our turn now

To hear such tunes as killed the cow.

(A.E. Housman, from A Shropshire Lad. 1896)

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Cows, by Matthew Stokoe. Fair use for review.

Cows is about the good life gone bad, the land of plentiful gone peccable. MOOtiny on the bounty so to speak. Cows is a book written to be revolting and if that doesn’t whet your appetite you’d be best to avoid it. I won’t be discussing the details in this review but be assured there is everything here that would keep it right there on the children’s cartoon channel: Vio., Mur., Bes., Sad., Tor., Mut., and Sex — and lots of each.

Steven is 25, he lives with his mother, the Hagbeast, and they attempt to best each other in abusiveness within a no exit scenario. “He thought her madness equal to his own and that in seeking to flee she would run the track he laid for her.” Steven’s dog named Dog crawls around half paralyzed, legs out like a wheelbarrow, the result of his mother chucking a brick. The poor thing is still a dutiful dog, using a newspaper to do his business, “Snapped in half and still killing itself to please.” Upstairs is the abnormal love of Stephen’s life, a woman who is seeks out poison that she believes must be evident within people’s bodies, literally, she’s into surgery and vivisection. After all this, what’s mommy dearest serving up for dinner? Fried sheep stomach of course.

We can’t say that Steven is the type of main character we want to live within, he’s probably mad too, as in insane, and matching him is every other human in the novel. Cows too are mad, but as in a mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore way.

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Detail from Argus, Mercury and Io, by Jacob van Campen, 1630–1640(?). Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis. Wikimedia Commons.

Steven snags a job at a slaughterhouse. From behind an air vent grate a cow whispers to him. Things are changing. The world is MOOving. The cows know, as Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, “Never listen when they tell you that Man and the animals have a common interest, that the prosperity of the one is the prosperity of the others. It is all lies. Man serves the interest of no creature except himself.” A cow revolution is in the low bellowing and Steven, soon becomes the cow-back riding ringleader in a power struggle between cows and humans. Steven proclaims, “I am not teaching you to destroy men, but to become like them.” The herd hears, they gorge on the sacrament of human meat and realize that “They were changed and they were happy with the change….they knew themselves for what they were — beasts with drives and the ability to satisfy them. They were no longer the frightened, hiding property of men.”

Now I must admit it’s a bit weird to read Cows (2015) and then pick up the pulpy Fevre Dream (1982) by R.R. Martin, which I’m currently slogging my way through, and read the following: “He is a higher order of being than his cow. It is his nature to kill and eat, and the cow’s to be killed and eaten….You errors rise from being raided among cows, who have taught you not to consume them. Evil, you talk about. Where did you learn that concept? From them, of course, from the cattle.” I can’t help but wonder in such circumstances about influence.

The cattle in Cows are not the dullards we imagine then to be. No, they plot and they get invigorated by exacting revenge. But this novel is not a grotesque meditation on evil or morality for that matter, it’s not deep. Rather, it’s a stampede in the grisly realm of the grindhouse film. It’s not Frank G. Slaughter nor Slaughterhouse-Five, it’s only slaughter, to the right of them, to the left of them, behind them. It seems fair here if not strategic to bet on cult status rather than literary prowess. Cows too makes most mass market horror look like a crewelwork convention at the convent and this is good; we need more extremely weird novels to kick back at this age of relatively safe, capitalist eye of the needle through which anything artsy is pushed.

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Abb. in Johann Baptist della Porta: De Humana Physiognomia, 1650 — Korrespondenz der Physiognomischen Gesichtstypen einer Kuh mit der eines Mannes. 1650 or earlier. Wikimedia Commons.

Violence builds and cows stomp with wanton carnage. Sometimes the Guernseys are led by Steven. Yep mad cow disease is contagious. Might there be another way to live? Well, Steven sees the good life on TV but he notices that lacking are directions about how to obtain it. So no, it probably won’t get much better. Ok that’s a fib. Things get way, way worse. The cows ramp up their hoofy havoc. Steven shacks up with Lucy and rather than marriage à-la-mode it’s marriage à-la-monstrosity. At the end we reflect with the author on all that has happened: “And there has only been horror at the ease of it all, the sickening backward flip of approaching fugue — not the sunrise of a new way to live.” The moral of the novel: Two legs bad, four legs badder. Test it only if you dare.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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