Wednesday, 21 September 2022

The Caduca, by Elaine Graham-Leigh (The Conrad Press) | review by Stephen Theaker

A disclaimer first: we’ve published three stories by Elaine Graham-Leigh in TQF, so do bear in mind that I may be biased in her favour. But I suppose it wouldn’t be a surprise that after liking her stories enough to publish them I liked this a great deal too, and for a similar reason: she puts the reader in the middle of the crisis and makes us care about it.

This serious science fiction novel returns us to the universe seen in “A Gift for the Young” (TQF67). Ar’Quila, an ambassador from the Office of Interplanetary Protocols, is sent to bring peace to Benan Ty. The civil war has been going on since she was still at school, and like many students she idolized the rebel leader, Mara Karne, daughter of a deposed, murdered president. But Mara is long dead and the rebels have turned to ever more extreme violence, locked in a death struggle with an oppressive government that sends its soldiers to destroy entire towns in retaliation.

Quila’s job is a very difficult one. Few think there is any chance of success. And if she fails to arrange successful talks, she knows that United Planets troops will follow, to bring peace (in theory) by eliminating the combatants.

It’s a political and thoughtful novel, that clearly draws upon a rich understanding of similar conflicts on our own world, such as in the Middle East and South America. Quila is not our only point of view character. For example, we spend time also with the president, with government soldiers, and with Terise, a member of the rebellion on Benan Ty, and learn what her motives are for continuing to fight, even though she knows they’ve gone too far. Our time with each character shows us another link in the chains of violence that keep people trapped in these conflicts.

That might make it sound a bit miserable, but it’s not, it’s a thriller, with shoot-outs, assassination attempts and incognito cross-country trips, and, about two-thirds of the way in, a murder mystery element (or attempted murder, at least) is introduced that leaves the reader genuinely curious as to the assailant and their motives. It’s an entertaining and exciting book about a serious subject.

Plus, we spend much of our time with Quila, whose optimism gives us everything to root for, even while showing us what it’s like to a be a person of good intent in a powerful organisation of somewhat different intent. And it’s a book full of the small kindnesses that people do for each other, even in the most rotten of situations: a bottle of beer shared, or a few minutes spent listening to someone who has no one else to talk to. I think our readers will enjoy it as much as I did. ****

Wednesday, 14 September 2022

She-Hulk by Dan Slott: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1, by Dan Slott and chums (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

A marvellously chunky 413pp collection from Marvel gathers together a complete twelve-issue She-Hulk series from 2004 and the first five issues of a slightly inferior 2005 follow-up. Most of it is fairly light-hearted, though a serious storyline going on in the Avengers – where she was apparently sent berserk and smashed up an entire town – has ramifications here.

The story sees Jennifer Walters, after the She-Hulk has been thrown out of the Avengers Mansion for her dissolute ways, take up a role at a new law firm, one that specialises in superhuman law. This premise is used to springboard her into lots of bizarre stories, from miniaturised supervillains trying to escape prison on her arms, to fighting the champion of the universe to settle the rulership of a planet in a boxing ring of law.

A running theme is Jen’s difficulty in controlling her powers. Her power levels fluctuate, and she sometimes has trouble switching between Jen and She-Hulk and vice versa. The book retcons some past storylines in explaining why this happens. At one point she makes a new discovery about how to increase her strength as She-Hulk, a clever character twist that made perfect sense.

John Byrne’s popular runs on She-Hulk were notable for her ability to break the fourth wall, long before Deadpool and Gwenpool began to make a habit of it. She doesn’t do that here, but metatextuality remains present and intact thanks to the lawyers often referring back to the Marvel comics produced within the Marvel universe to find relevant rulings and precedents.

Though many artists contribute, especially to the celebratory issue 100, regular artist Juan Bobillo’s artwork is particularly good – he’s adept at capturing the weirdness of She-Hulk’s world, and while he draws both She-Hulk and Jennifer to be appealingly attractive, it’s not in a way that feels grotty. (In contrast to, say, the way occasional cover artist Greg Land turns the lower half of her costume into a thong.)

Overall, a very entertaining book, even for someone like me, who isn’t a die-hard Marvel fan. ****

Monday, 12 September 2022

Controversy Meets Positivity: UNSPLATTERPUNK! 6 Submissions Open

More “icks” for part six: submissions open for sixth instalment in UNSPLATTERPUNK! “smearies” of audaciously vile stories with a positive message. 

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, purportedly the UK’s second longest-running science fiction and fantasy zine, is seeking fiction submissions for UNSPLATTERPUNK! 6, slated for release in summer 2023. Authors may submit stories of up to 10,000 words until 31 January 2023.

Unsplatterpunk stories unite splatterpunk fare (e.g. over-the-top violence, excessive gore, deviant subject matter) with a positive message. Thus, we’re challenging writers to teach us a moral lesson while shocking us with jaw-droppingly disgusting stories.

Once again, editorial duties go to Douglas J. Ogurek, author of the recently released unsplatterpunk collection I Will Change the World… One Intestine at a Time, published by Plumfukt Press. Texas-based horror raconteur Edward “Eddie V” Villanova returns to design the cover art for this issue. 

The UNSPLATTERPUNK! canon smothers readers with bursting bodies, hacked-off limbs, torn skin, and objects both chewy and pointy getting shoved into uncomfortable places. And slathered over all of it is a gleaming layer of viscera, blood, vomit, and excrement. Thematic elements range from helping the underprivileged to healing the ailing environment. It’s all disgusting… and it’s all enlightening. Dig into the first five anthologies:

Tips for Writers

Unsplatterpunk submissions get rejected for two key reasons:

  • Not controversial/visceral enough – You’ve just written a story full of decapitations, amputations, and eviscerations? We can get that by turning on the TV. How will you take it to the next level?
  • No positive message – You’ve completed a subversive piece that will shock and disgust even the most dedicated splatterpunk enthusiast? Great, but if it doesn’t have some positive message, we’re not interested.

Other nuggets:

  • Make your story as attention-getting as a pool of vomit at a buffet entrance. 
  • Make the content so revolting that readers think to themselves, Why am I reading this? 
  • Imagine a man with a violin standing next to you as you write. Each time your writing gets dramatic, he starts playing. Don’t let him play! In other words, don’t impress us with your language – impress us with your story. 
  • Steer clear of revenge stories. Exacting vengeance on somebody who did something awful is not a positive message. 
  • Our thoughts on classic creatures: Vampires brooding around a castle? Cliché. Zombies wandering through woods? Dumb. Werewolves at a sexual harassment training seminar? You have our attention. 
  • Read previous anthologies in the series. Why not? They’re free. UNSPLATTERPUNK!, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 2, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 3, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 4, UNSPLATTERPUNK! 5 
  • Read every splatterpunk story that you can get your hands on, then write about something that’s never been written about. 
  • Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t write your story in a chatty style full of colloquialisms. You’re writing to your reader, not your BFF.  
  • Know how those writing guides and instructors talk about subtlety? Fuck that. 

No Pay, No Play?

Contributors will not receive a monetary payment. However, contributors (and everyone) will get free pdf and ebook versions of the anthology, which will also be available for hardcopy purchase at Amazon.

Before you pound your fist on your desk because we’re not taking your future as a bestselling author seriously, consider this: in our experience, many publishers with paying anthologies select contributors from a small pool of friends and acquaintances. Moreover, those same publishers often offer zero feedback on submissions. 

We take a different approach here. First, our sole criterion for acceptance is a good story that follows the parameters. Thus, everyone who submits has an equal chance of getting a story selected. Second, we read every submission from beginning to end. If we reject it, we tell you why. If we find promise in a story, we work closely with the contributor to make it as illuminating and nauseating as possible. 

The Gory Details

Send stories (no poetry, please) to TQFunsplatterpunk@gmail.com. Put “UNSPLATTERPUNK! 6 submission” in the subject line. In your cover letter, include a bio and tell us about the positive message your story conveys.

  • Deadline: 31 January 2023
  • Max word count: 10,000
  • Reprints: No
  • Multiple submissions: Yes
  • Simultaneous submissions: No. We’ll get back to you within a couple weeks.
  • File type: .doc (preferred) or .docx files only
  • Payment: This is a non-paying zine. However, free epub and pdf files will be available to everyone.

After publication, you are free to reprint your story elsewhere, but please credit Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction for original publication. See the TQF standard guidelines for additional information on rights and legal matters. 

Have the Guts to Take a Stand

What’s wrong with the world? Environmental degradation? Poverty? Speciesism? Intolerance? This is your chance to combat that problem using the tool of stomach-churning fiction.  

Join the ranks of Hugh Alsin, Garvin Giltinan, Joe Koch, Eric Raglin, Triffooper Saxelbax, Drew Tapley, and many others who’ve earned the unsplatterpunk badge.

Teach us a lesson, and while you’re at it, make us sick. 

Ready. Set. Gross!

Lead photo: Pavel Danilyuk


Wednesday, 7 September 2022

The Death of Captain America, by Ed Brubaker and chums (Marvel) | review by Stephen Theaker

This lengthy omnibus collects a twenty-four issue spell of Captain America’s comic following the end of the Marvel comic universe’s Civil War, and, since those events (as the title of this book rather gives away) left Steve Rogers out of action, these issues focus on his friends, like Bucky Barnes (aka the Winter Soldier), Agent 13, the Falcon, the Black Widow and Tony Stark, now head of SHIELD.

Usually, with a very long graphic novel like this, I’ll read an issue or two at a time, then switch to other books and read a few issues of those, but this was so gripping, the issues flowing one into the other so swiftly, that I read it start to finish in a few days. That meant I didn’t get to savour the cliffhangers properly, but on the other hand I did get the satisfaction of reading the entire saga all at once.

There is an overlap of a few issues with the previous book I read in the series, the hardcover Captain America by Ed Brubaker Omnibus, though I was glad of the recap. The Death of Captain America continues the serious, dramatic tone of the earlier issues, both in storytelling and art, and it’s no surprise that this series inspired some of the best films Marvel have to offer.

The major antagonist appears at first to be the Red Skull, who you’ll be delighted to hear has given up on fascism, though unfortunately not on world domination. Many other villains make appearances, such as Arnim Zola, Doctor Faustus, Crossbones, Doctor Doom and the Red Skull’s daughter, but all are woven into an ongoing storyline rather than popping up for one issue as the villain of the month.

It reflects on such matters as the role of violence in a superhero’s life, the limits of freedom and self-determination, and the way that even after losing a friend we never stop wanting to live up to their expectations. I found it to be a terrifically satisfying read. It was thrilling, thoughtful, full of intrigue, and right up there with some of my favourite modern Marvel comics. It wasn’t funny, but then I never wanted it to be. ****

Sunday, 28 August 2022

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #72 is now out in paperback and ebook!

The cover of TQF72, showing a robot army.
free epub | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Welcome to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #72, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood!

This issue includes six short stories:

  • “Spending the Government’s 28” by Ross Gresham
  • “The Ninth Mandala” by Zachary Toombs
  • “Father Figure” by Harris Coverley
  • “Don’t Be Afraid of Orange Juice” by Ralph Robert Moore
  • “Tartan” by Julie Travis
  • “Cretaceous” by Ashley Stokes

Plus reviews by Stephen Theaker and Douglas J. Ogurek of Anchor’s Heart by Cavan Scott, Monsters: a Field Guide to Blood-Thirsty Beasts by Dave Elliott et al, The Death of Captain America by Ed Brubaker et al, and She-Hulk by Dan Slott. The cover is by Steve Upham.

Our thanks to the contributors for their patience: it took Stephen far too long to finish off this issue. But we think you will find it is worth the wait. It might well be our best issue ever. We always say that, but we always mean it!

It is, as ever, available to download for free from the links above, and to buy on Kindle and in print at a remarkably low price.


Here are the tremendous contributors to this issue.

Ross Gresham teaches at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. “Spending the Government’s 28” originally appeared in M-Brane SF Quarterly #3, while other stories in this series appeared in TQF34 (“Name the Planet”), TQF41 (“Milo Doesn't Count Coup”), TQF44 (“Milo on Fire”), TQF46 (“Wild Seed”) and TQF49 (“Ut in Fumum!”). Milo and Marmite also made an authorised guest appearance in TQF55 (“The Stone Gods of Superspace” by Howard Phillips).

Zachary Toombs is a writer and artist currently situated in Central Florida. Check out his publications in Fine Lines, Mad Swirl, Freedom Fiction and Against the Grain Magazine as well as his website, www.zacharytoombs.com.

Harris Coverley has had short fiction in Curiosities, Hypnos, The Periodical, Forlorn and Rivanna Review, amongst many others. A former Rhysling nominee, he also has had verse in Polu Texni, Star*Line, Spectral Realms, Scifaikuest, Tales from the Moonlit Path, Novel Noctule, Corvus Review, View From Atlantis, Yellow Mama and elsewhere. He lives in Manchester, England.

Ralph Robert Moore’s fiction has appeared in America, Canada, England, Ireland, France, India and Australia in a wide variety of genre and literary magazines and anthologies, including TQR, Reed Magazine, Black Static, Cemetery Dance, Shadows & Tall Trees, Nightscript, Midnight Street, ChiZine and others. He has been nominated twice for Best Story of the Year by the British Fantasy Society, once in 2013, and again in 2016. His books include the novels Father Figure, As Dead As Me, Ghosters and The Angry Red Planet, and the story collections Remove the Eyes, I Smell Blood, You Can Never Spit It All Out, Behind You, Breathing Through My Nose, Our Elaborate Plans and The Sex Act. His website is here.

Julie Travis is originally from London but now lives in the far west of Cornwall. She has had many short stories published in the British, North American and French independent press since the early 1990s, has two collections published by Wapshott Press and was nominated for a British Fantasy Award in 2020 for her novelette Tomorrow, When I Was Young (Eibonvale Press). Should you want more information, please see her blog/website: www.julietravis.wordpress.com.

Ashley Stokes is the author of Gigantic (Unsung Stories, 2021), The Syllabus of Errors (Unthank Books, 2013) and Voice (TLC Press, 2019), and editor of the Unthology series and The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings (Unthank Books, 2016). His recent short fiction includes “Subtemple” in Black Static; “Fields and Scatter” in Weird Horror; “The Validations” in Nightscript; “Black Slab” in The Ghastling; “Replacement Bus Service” in Out of the Darkness (edited by Dan Coxon, Unsung Stories), and “Fade to Black” in This Is Not a Horror Story (edited by J.D. Keown, Night Terror Novels). Other stories have appeared in Tales from the Shadow Booth Vol. 4, BFS Horizons, Bare Fiction, The Lonely Crowd, the Warwick Review, Storgy and more. He lives in the East of England where he’s a ghost and ghostwriter.

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in more than fifty Earth publications. Douglas’s website can be found at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com and his Twitter account is at www.twitter.com/unsplatter.

Stephen Theaker’s reviews, interviews and articles have also appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism, Dark Horizons and the BFS Journal.

Steve Upham provides the cover art for this issue. He previously published some smashing books as the proprietor of Screaming Dreams, and some great stories as the editor of the Estronomicon ezine.


As ever, all back issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Monday, 8 August 2022

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #71: Unsplatterpunk! 5 – now out!


free epub | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Welcome to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #71: UNSPLATTERPUNK! 5, edited by Douglas J. Ogurek!

A driver’s killing spree reveals the repercussions of laws built on racism. A netherworld imp’s attempt to win the praise of his demonic superiors indicts the profit-hungry orchestrators of factory farming. Middle-class naivety meets working-class outrage in a profanity- and carnage-ridden satire that shoves down readers’ throats what it means to be a good neighbour. The onslaught of agony delivered by a scarred dominatrix becomes a lesson on the transformative power of stoicism.

Welcome to the fifth instalment in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction’s UNSPLATTERPUNK! series. It’s all the blood and guts of splatterpunk plus a positive message.

As you wade through the pierced skin, rotting innards, and soiled undergarments, just remember: there’s more, much more, beneath the blood and viscera. Invest in this volume and maximize your gross profits.

The cover artist is Steven Brite.


Here are the gore-spattered contributors to this issue.

J.N. Cameron has had horror and science fiction stories published in various small presses. He Door Dashes for money and writes for the love of it.

David F. Shultz writes from Toronto, Canada, where he is lead editor at Speculative North magazine. His 80+ published works are featured through publishers such as Augur and Diabolical Plots. Author webpage: www.davidfshultz.com.

Jessie Stang lives in a mystical land of abundant pleasure and everlasting sunshine where they turn decades of emotional pain into stories that combine erotic elements with dark dreams. Even so, they haven’t given up hope for the good in people and keep searching for it, often finding it in unexpected places.

Hugh Alsin’s story “Convention Hitler!” appeared in Unsplatterpunk! 2 (TQF63). “A Knock at the Fucking Door” is his second published story. It may well contain more swear words than all 70 previous issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction put together.

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonymous and sophomoric founder of the unsplatterpunk subgenre. He edits this book and supplies all of its reviews. His short story collection I Will Change the World… One Intestine at a Time (Plumfukt Press), a juvenile stew of horror and bizarro, aims to make readers lose their lunch while learning a lesson. Publications have rejected Ogurek’s work nearly 2,000 times. However, some of the world’s leading literary journals thanked him for submitting manuscripts in (form) letters. One highly respected publication even said, “We want to thank you for your kindness in letting us see your work.” Thus, Ogurek is a kind author. More at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com. Twitter: @unsplatter

Steven Brite, the creator of the anthology’s cover art, is a graphic artist, painter, illustrator, and writer. Inspired by a short story idea developed during the COVID lockdown, the artist explored his addiction to social media and discovered visually how extreme the dependency had become. “The internet would not go away,” he said, “so I had to lose a piece of myself to be free. Fortunately, I escaped quickly, and I don’t miss the app(endage)s.” Steven recently finished the first draft of his first novel and is discovering the pains and joys of editing.


Note that we haven't supplied a mobi version for this issue, since they can't be emailed to Kindles any more. But if you still need that format for other devices let us know and we'll put one up.

As ever, all back issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Sunday, 17 July 2022

Monsters: A Field Guide to Blood-Thirsty Beasts by Dave Elliott, C.J. Henderson and R. Allen Leider (Hylas Publishing) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Killer ants, 500-foot-tall moth-goddess, and everything between: manual gives tongue-in-cheek overview of cinema’s most famous monsters. 

Turn to the “Reptile” page of Monsters: A Field Guide to Blood-Thirsty Beasts and you’ll see a black and white photo of a woman dressed in a bad snake costume. The makeup is crusty, the fangs are obvious fakes, and one of her buggy eyes faces the camera while the other faces a different direction. What a perfect symbol for this irreverent guide to monsters both villainous and heroic.

This book’s strength is the humour that occurs in its descriptions of the characteristics, behaviours and backstories of the monsters that star in the most well-known horror, sci-fi and fantasy films. Each monster profile has a photo accompanied by quips about its physical features. 

There are many references to contemporary culture (or at least what was contemporary when the book was published in 2008). One example is the “relatives” box within each entry. Here the authors claim, for instance, that the Beast from the 1980s TV series Beauty and the Beast is related to Jon Bon Jovi – it’s got to be that rock star hairdo. One of the funniest parts of each entry is the “description”, especially when the authors give an underwhelming summary. A creature, for example, might simply be described as “red”.

The authors reveal flaws with sardonic flair. Why, for instance, does the Creeper from the Jeepers Creepers franchise wear a heavy overcoat in the summer weather? Then there’s Colossus, who wears a cloak so that people won’t recognize he’s a nine-foot-tall robot. Each creature also has an endorsement. Jack Torrance from The Shining has The Overlook Hotel, Count Vlad Dracula has the Red Cross and the Children of the Damned have Trojan.

Each summary uses red dots on a map to pinpoint where the creature(s) is found in the world. The Thing, for instance, shows one dot in Antarctica, while the “Savage Bees” from The Swarm consume the map. The map for Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey zooms out to show several planets with a red dot on the periphery. Entries also show the size of a creature compared to a familiar object, most often a man. The objects, however, range from something as small as a book to as large as the Statue of Liberty. 

Chapters are divided into categories ranging from “Manufactured Monsters” to “Mutated Vegetables”. In the “Mutated Lizards, Fish, and Dinosaurs” chapter, the authors latch on to their subjects’ one-dimensionality and penchant for mindless killing. Jaws targets young swimmers, especially those who like to skinny dip. They also contrast western dragons, known to destroy everything in their path, with eastern dragons, which prefer more harmless pursuits, like studying with monks, playing with kites, and communicating with other creatures living above the cloud line. The “Monster Men” chapter offers classics like Leatherface and Norman Bates, as well as several doctors gone rogue. A chapter on “Mutated Men, Women, Animals, and Insects” has everything from Wasp Woman to killer ants, while the “Supernatural Monsters” chapter has good guys like the Crow and Blade and bad guys like Dracula and his many manifestations. 

The only drawback of this collection is that it makes our most iconic monsters a little less… monstrous. Maybe that’s a good thing. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****


Sunday, 19 June 2022

Butchers | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Dirt, blood, organs, sweat, sadism, lunacy … and Shakespeare. Film adds artsy touch to country bumpkin horror. 

Butchers, directed by Adrian Langley and clearly influenced by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, takes the typical farmhouse slaughter-fest and adds a tad of the intellectual and, um, aesthetic? I’m thinking of a scene in which the camera lingers on hacked-up pieces of flesh with flies buzzing around them. Artsy, right?

Yes, the backwoods brothers Owen (Simon Phillips) and Oswald (Michael Swatton) Watson will inflict on their victims the physical torment common in country bumpkin horror, but this film also offers a psychological component, particularly through Owen, the verbose shot-caller in this sibling relationship. He gets into the faces of his victims. He sniffs them. He wields his power. He threatens them with painful consequences if they don’t follow his rules. He even pits his victims against one another. 

The film, which takes place in the eighties, resorts to a coincidence for its inciting incident: a car transporting two couples breaks down on a back country dirt road. Two of the young adults, Taylor (Anne-Carolyne Binette) and Mike (James Gerald Hicks), are having an illicit affair. It isn’t long before the couples encounter Owen, owner of Watson’s Garage, and Oswald, a deranged lunatic who carries a weapon – it looks like a cross between a machete and a saw – and walks through the woods looking for victims. 

Jenna (Julie Mainville), the jilted lover, is portrayed as the film’s main protagonist. In contrast to her more traditionally floozy counterpart Taylor, Jenna is quieter and bolder. When she’s threatened by her tormentors, she stares at them defiantly. 

The brothers keep their captives in a dilapidated barn. In one room, the camera repeatedly offers glimpses of a growling figure in an adjacent space. This leads the viewer to consider: who/what is that and will he/it make an appearance? 

Butchers could be the first horror movie of its kind in which a mentally unstable character reads the most famous passage from Hamlet. What was the point of this? To add an artistic bent? Or to kill time? Interestingly, Oswald gets stuck on the word “consummation” and his brother, without looking, offers the correct pronunciation. One wonders how educated Owen is, and what he is helping his brother consummate.  

If horror movies that devalue women irritate you, then this one probably isn’t for you. But perhaps this comes with the territory – dirty bearded guys who live in the country and refer to women as “pieces of meat.” Watch this movie, if for no other reason than to remind yourself that if your car breaks down and you come across hairy, dirty men who act bizarrely, then you’d best run the other way. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****


Sunday, 29 May 2022

Emerging Horizons, edited by Allen Ashley (The British Fantasy Society)

I have a story in this anthology, so it would be unethical for me to rate and review it, but I will talk about it a bit. My history with this book goes back a long way. In September 2015 the British Fantasy Society's publishing schedule was running late, as usual, and so I proposed producing a quick anthology. No need, said the society's chair, because one is already in the works. And this is it, published in December 2021, a mere six years later! Part of the problem was a change of chairs at the society: an incoming chair apparently didn't fancy publishing it, and then the chair who took over in 2021 didn't want to have it printed either, so it crept out at last as an ebook-only publication.

Reading it was an odd experience, then, because I was on the alert for clues as to why successive chairs declined to publish a print anthology that members had been promised so long ago, and to which members had been asked to contribute, especially when the society's publishing programme has been so threadbare. (I'm writing in May 2022, and this is the only BFS publication, ebook or otherwise, to have been released since July 2021, and that one (BFS Journal #22) was the only print publication the society has released in the 17 months since December 2020. Were the stories in this terrible? Was it badly edited? (Obviously not, with the ever-conscientious Allen Ashley in charge, but I knew that certain other BFS publications had been delayed for that reason.) Was there something problematic about the book?

Now obviously I'm biased, as a contributor, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The premise of the anthology is that all the authors are at the beginning of their fiction writing careers, including me (I've written and published quite a lot of fiction, but only in my own magazines, and for the purposes of this anthology self-publishing didn't count), but the stories are, on the whole, as good as anything I've read in other BFS publications. None of the stories offered any clues as to why the anthology hasn't seen print.

The only story I could imagine anyone classing as problematic was "The Hanging Tree" by Kim Gravell. It's about hanged witches and the desire of their descendants for justice, but I suppose that, looked at from another angle, you might say it's about a woman who realises she is in love with the man strangling her to death and afterwards says to him that "love and hope are strong enough to conquer anything". But it's still an interesting story and I can't imagine anyone would think it so problematic as to compromise the anthology.

I suppose there isn't much sword and sorcery for a fantasy anthology, but "The Uninvited" by Nicola Gifford offers some as valkyrie battle the Devil, his wyvern and an army of zombies. The sword in "The Giant's Rib" by Elliott Simpson only ever gets used against a couple of trees, rather than the half-giants the protagonists encounter. Another story that leans more towards the fantastical end of fantasy is "The Mysterious Mister Fox" by Liz Tuckwell, a fairy tale about Betsy Heysham, who can see through the wiles of a handsome soldier, while her smitten sisters cannot.

"Wayland" by Mark A. King is written in an unusual, declamatory style that I found rather appealing. It's about a magical place where children who died young get to live for a lifetime in the course of a single day. "The Return of the Zookeeper" by Robin Lupton is about a chap with psychic powers who uses them to control his troupe of performing animals; it all starts to go wrong after he wears them out and finds himself in a pool with two uncontrollable crocodiles. "Archon Joe's Creation" by Nigel Robert Wilson is another story with mythical and biblical elements, this time about the guy who kept working on what seems to be our planet after the original Creator left.

Darker stories include "Skin" by Suzy A. Kelly, about mother and daughter selkies held captive by a drunken man, and "The Conveyor of Souls" by Dolly Garland, about Maithli, who almost died and can now communicate with troubled souls to uncover the grievances still binding them to our world. In "The Darkness Inside" by Michael J. Nicholson a curtain-twitcher and her husband see something peculiar happening out on the street. A good story, but I wasn't sure about its characteristation of a "typical marriage" as one in which the husband fantasises about killing his wife! "Eyeballs" by Michael Button is about two chaps whose favourite hobby is to pick a person each to stalk for the day and then meet up to compare notes. Although it is very good – perhaps my favourite in the book – and extremely creepy, it's not a fantasy story so far as I could tell, so perhaps an odd inclusion in a fantasy anthology.

My story, "The Reader-Queens of Tranck", is wisely placed at the end. I say wisely for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because the goofy tone of it is completely different to the rest of the book, which tends to be very serious, whatever the subject matter. I think it's also the only story that doesn't take place on Earth. And secondly, because the premise of the story is that as typos start to creep into the text, the protagonists notice and realise that the integrity of their world is crumbling. If it had been the first story in the book, readers might have assumed from the first few typos that the book was poorly edited, but by the end of the anthology it will have earned their trust.

I submitted the story for the anthology so long ago that (a) I have since written three entire novels about the main characters and (b) I had forgotten about the deliberate typos myself. So as I reached the first one I thought, oh my god, how did I miss this? How did Allen Ashley miss this? But as it went on it I realised what was happening and it really tickled me. There were many bits that made me laugh out loud, a few very nice turns of phrase, and even some excellent advice for proofreaders. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm one of my own favourite writers: what's the point of being a writer if it's not to write exactly the stories you want to read, with the sort of jokes that really make you laugh?

Overall, one of the best BFS publications I've read in a while, even if I am biased. If more anthologies were this length, instead of rambling on for five or six hundred pages, I'd read a lot more of them.

If you like the sound of it, the way to get the anthology is by joining the British Fantasy Society. Their monthly bulletin for members includes a Dropbox link to a selection of past publications, including this one.

Monday, 23 May 2022

Till Death | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Makeup on a robot: it’s Home Alone 6, starring Barbie! 

There are two things you can be certain about in Till Death, starring Megan Fox as Emma, a chilly trophy wife who spends most of the film dragging around her husband’s corpse and dropping f-bombs. First, despite all the trials that Emma undergoes in a remote cabin in the middle of the winter somewhere in New York, her makeup will not get ruined. Second, no matter what the plot throws at Emma, her tepid responses will fail to gain the sympathy of a discerning viewer.

Emma’s lawyer husband Mark (Eoin Macken), whom she met when he successfully prosecuted the man who attacked her, is the controlling type – he tells her what to wear and what to order off the menu. Mark, who gives no indication he’s aware she’s having an affair with one of his employees, takes her on an ostensibly conciliatory getaway to a remote lake house to celebrate their eleventh anniversary. Then he dies.   

The film, directed by S.K. Dale, offers some of the mysterious note-leaving and brutality of Saw and some of the suspense of the typical home invasion story in which an underdog uses her ingenuity to try to outwit would-be killers. However, Till Death seems to be so focused on maintaining Fox’s Barbie-like complexion that it falls short in other factors. Her robotic performance leaves her cold to her husband, cold to her lover, and unfortunately, cold to the viewer. Moreover, as antagonists pursue Emma within the lake house, one wonders how hard it is for able-bodied men to find a barefooted woman handcuffed to a bloody corpse.

Most log lines about Till Death say something about a woman awakening to find herself shackled to her dead spouse. Not only does the film take too long to build up to that inciting incident, but that description leaves out a technicality that plays into the way the story evolves. Rather than building up to this scenario, a more compelling structure might have started with the handcuffed spouse discovery, then shifted between Emma’s more well-defined past and her attempts to escape. 

The most interesting, albeit weakly explored, facet of this film is the concept of the beautiful young woman kept as an object by an older, wealthier man. Perhaps Till Death would have been much better if its makers dropped the horror aspirations and injected Emma with more backstory, depth, and life.—Douglas J. Ogurek **

Sunday, 1 May 2022

SHINE: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction (Solaris) edited by Jetse de Vries | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

A hopeful change: anthology turns the tables on dystopic sci-fi to shine a light on technology’s role in global healing.

If you’re a little tired of dystopic sci-fi, then awaken to SHINE, for which editor Jetse de Vries challenged writers to explore more hopeful outcomes. Though we hear a great deal about the negative effects of technology, this anthology shows how it can be a means of connecting people and healing our ailing environment. And despite its being more than a decade old (published in 2010), the anthology holds up to the test of time.

Some of the stories might be harder to grasp for the reader who, like me, isn’t much of a tech wizard. I suspect that devoted readers of hard sci-fi will have less trouble with these stories. Nevertheless, the anthology introduces a variety of intriguing inventions. Examples range from ocean bots programmed to collect garbage and robot spiders that help women ascend in a chauvinistic West African village to techwear and nanoparticle soil that uses solar energy.

One theme that repeatedly emerges is control—in particular, mankind’s ability to use technology versus being controlled by it. Eva Marie Chapman’s “Russian Roulette 2020” proposes a flip from using technology for the “Just Nowism” of shallow pursuits to applying it for the benefit of society. The author takes the current dependence on technology to the next level by introducing a group of American kids addicted to devices called ZiSleeves. They visit a special school in Russia that has used technology to benefit the surrounding community. Protagonist MV is the American embodiment of instant gratification, whether that means playing with technology or scoring with young women. Then he meets Rada, a beautiful Russian tech whiz who also likes doing cartwheels and spending time outdoors. Rada, disappointed by Americans for exploiting the planet, advocates taking time to break away from attention-demanding technology to be still. 

Though it’s hard to tell what’s happening at certain points in Gord Sellar’s “Sarging Rasmussen: A Report (by Organic),” the story brings up the idea of control again. The men in it begin by using an elaborate digital game to manipulate and bed women, then discover their ability to manipulate people’s minds can make a more meaningful, ecological impact. 

Another theme that repeatedly surfaces in SHINE is the critical role that children play in the future of our earth and how teaching them correctly will make an impact. “Castoff World” by Kay Kenyon, for instance, introduces a girl and her grandfather who live on an island floating on recycled plastic bottles while they try to reconnect with humanity. A third major character is Nora (nanobotic oceanic refuse accumulator), the nanobots that recycle materials that pollute the ocean. 

Ken Edgett’s “Paul Kishosha’s Children” shows the role art and storytelling can play in teaching children to respect the environment. A scientist gives up his NASA job to move home to Tanzania, where he resurrects a sci-fi children’s story he created at age nine, then uses it to teach children about science, animals, and ecology. 

Holly Phillips’s “Summer Ice” is a near-future story that deftly combines art and ecological preservation. The protagonist is a female artist who, in her own way, combats climate change in the unnamed city to which she moves. “During the years of awkward transition from continental wealth to continental poverty,” writes Phillips, “the city’s parks were abandoned to flourish or die.” The artist-protagonist’s creation symbolizes a resurgence of hope in humanity doing its part to improve the environment and instil these values in the next generation. 

“Overhead” by Jason Stoddard involves a moon community of 1,300 people who wanted to get away from earth and start a new life. It’s a tense story that shows the benefits of raising youth appropriately. 

If you’re fed up with stories about artificial intelligence taking over mankind, then check out “The Church of Accelerated Redemption” by Gareth L. Powell and Aliette de Bodard. Lisa is an American in Paris doing programming for a church that uses AIs to take prayer requests. She meets a Bedouin protestor focused on the liberation and uplifting of AIs. The story also explores the complexities that might occur when a human has feelings toward an AI. Yes, that’s been done before, but the authors here handle it well.

Another impressive story is Jason Andrew’s “Scheherazade Cast in Starlight,” in which an Iraqi narrator reveals how technology can connect people across borders and oceans to fight oppressive governments that restrict people’s views.

“Twittering the Stars” by Marie Ness covers a four-year space exploration to mine iridium for batteries to power millions of vehicles for fifty years on Earth. It’s told in Twitter fashion with the latest tweet at the beginning. The reader is best served by starting at the end and moving backwards. The stream reveals a botanist/microbiologist’s struggles with love, death, and alien life forms. 

No story in this anthology has as much over-the-top fun as Alastair Reynolds’s “At Budokan.” 

Robots. Dinosaurs. Heavy metal. Is there a better combination? The 12-year-old boy in many male readers will rejoice when he reads this one about how genetic engineering achieves the next level of heavy metal.—Douglas J. Ogurek****


Sunday, 27 March 2022

Candy Coated Madness by Jeff Strand (Independently Published) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Sweetly preposterous: comedy horror collection offers cartoonish violence, linguistic mischief, and eccentric characters

After causing a horrific death, a murderer in one Candy Coated Madness story says, “Nice.” When the corpse’s loved one walks into the room and can’t see the body, the murderer moves to offer a better view. Such scandalous flippancy and blatant sadism are the hallmarks of Jeff Strand’s fiction, and thankfully, they emerge repeatedly within this collection of comedic horror. 

No surprise that within his fourth short story collection, Strand keeps the reader entertained with his patented characters ranging from dumb to sociopathic and, in many cases, indifferent to the suffering of others. And what do these characters want? To kill a family while in human (versus werewolf) form. To score with a date by showing bravery on a haunted ride. To stab a thousand people with candy canes. To rob a bank while wearing green suits that are too small. The ludicrousness of these objectives alone solidifies Strand’s reign as the foremost comedy horror author. 

Like its predecessors, Candy Coated Madness puts new spins on the typical horror fare (e.g. cannibalism, stabbing, delimbing). Sometimes, Strand’s characters completely strike out and end up humiliated, their objectives foiled. Other times, they achieve what they set out to do, but still don’t get what they really want. 

The reader gets treated to major doses of Strand’s characteristic snappy dialogue, whether his characters are using rational arguments to persuade irrational people or arguing whether you blow a person’s brains or brain out. In “Captain Pistachio’s Charming Rampage”, the titular character, made of pistachios, encourages a woman’s children to eat the nuts. She points out that it’s strange he’s encouraging people to eat what he is. That doesn’t make him happy.

Then there are the amusingly abrupt violent deaths. A character, weary of talking, stabs someone in the neck. A man can’t reply to another character because he’s been eaten by something. 

The idiocy of many of Strand’s characters knows no bounds. When a character uses a slingshot to fire a silver bullet at a neighbour he suspects is a werewolf, the bullet bounces off the neighbour’s chest. A performance artist puts his own spin on popular ’80s songs by playing the original version on his phone and singing his slightly altered lyrics over the vocalist. Leave it to Strand to transform such an innocuous hobby into a bloodbath. 

The ultimate ignoramuses make their appearance in “Giant Mutant Cockroaches in the Old West Versus Zombies”. When Doc Rollins Jr. asks the townsfolk how to defeat the zombies, for instance, one character suggests dinosaurs.

Typically, it’s a no-no to use characters prone to deep reflection. But Strand’s contemplative players pull it off because of the absurdity of what they’re thinking. In “Faerie”, the mentally unstable narrator questions himself whether the faerie he sees is real or a figment of his imagination. 

The collection has several stories I read in other venues. No problem. They were a pleasure to reread… and will be a pleasure when I read them yet again. One such work is “Pointy Canes”, the story that made me aware of the sweetly piercing personality of Strand’s short prose. The first-person narrator’s Uncle Jack wants to start a “blood ritual” for a nefarious purpose. His means of doing so is delightfully illogical. 

Another familiar story, “Beware! The! Beverage!”, introduces two teenagers discussing Rocketship, an energy drink made of Martian blood… from the planet of Martia, of course. When one tries Rocketship for the first time, he feels incredibly powerful. Violence ensues.

If you asked me what happens in a story and I told you, “Two guys talk,” you’d likely want to avoid that story at all costs. And yet, “Dismemberment Fraud” is one such story that manages to be engaging from start to finish. In it, an unscrupulous lawyer speaks with a prospective client who has wanted to kill somebody since he was eight… and who has killed a prostitute because he couldn’t bring himself to kill a dog. Not a problem for this lawyer – if everyone was the same, he reasons, life would be dull. 

No Strand collection would be complete without a hearty measure of selfish jerks. Candy Coated Madness doesn’t disappoint. Readers get a commitment-avoiding fellow whose girlfriend starts making connections between the gross sore on his back and the Book of Revelation, a young man who wants to smash someone’s head in like a pumpkin, a doctor with a flagrant disregard for his patient’s well-being, and many more. 

Another enjoyable aspect of this collection is its attention to language, particularly the thoughtless or contradictory things that people say or the things that other horror authors gloss over. Strand even has fun at his own linguistic expense. One character mentions the “weird, indescribable – except for calling it weird – sound of” something. Another psychopath realizes he’s repeating himself, then proclaims, “I’ll be as redundant as I want in my own narrative.”

Stories pay tribute to films both classical and contemporary. They include a warped version of West Side Story involving grotesque lab experiments, an anticlimactic take-off on the Hostel film series, and a fantasy-infused tribute to the “Great Stone Face” Buster Keaton of silent film fame.

A couple of stories offer more serious – as serious as Strand gets in this collection – subject matter. “The Fraud” introduces the goings-on within an asylum while a sandstorm brews outside. In “Rotten Eggs”, a girl tells her younger siblings if they don’t find some buried Easter eggs, the Easter Bunny, who has fangs, will be angry and hurt them. 

Not a Dud in the Batch

The author-protagonist of “Gave up the Ghost” has fourteen unpublished novels and a high opinion of himself… so high he thinks his latest magnum opus is going to get a Nobel Peace Prize. Something goes to extreme (and hysterical) lengths to prevent the distribution of the novel. 

Fortunately, this author-protagonist is not Jeff Strand. Every story in Candy Coated Madness is a hit, whether it involves a character who wants to avoid tomatoes on his burger or a serial killer who compares sawing off arms to eating cake. The author never lets the language get the better of him by resorting to million-dollar words. And if he ever did such a thing, he’d surely call himself out. 

Warning: after you read this, any attempts at serious horror fiction might seem a little silly to you. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****


Sunday, 20 February 2022

Dates from Hell, ed. Theresa Scott-Matthews (HellBound Books Publishing) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Make a date with this anthology… just watch out for jealousy, unrequited love, fanaticism, and blue goats.  

This is an anthology of horror stories loosely connected by the concept of dating. Sometimes it’s two people (or otherwise) going on a date. Other times it’s an individual’s experiences in the wake of a date… or even an extended love triangle. The characters range from jilted lovers, call girls and drama queens to trash-talking reanimated corpses and demons who steal faces.

Some of the stories don’t pass muster. Stories that info dump and overindulge in details are the biggest culprits. I don’t care how tall something is, what colour a person’s hair is, the distance between x and y, or (God forbid) what the weather is doing… unless it contributes to the story. One story reads more like a dull history essay, while another abounds in characters thinking and even talking to themselves merely to reveal information to the reader. Another spends too much time building up to an outcome that the reader already knows. Then there are the stories that withhold the identity of the characters in the first few paragraphs. Just say who the person is.

And now for the good news: while there are a few duds in here, most of the works are entertaining and a few are astounding. The anthology further solidifies one of my contentions about horror fiction: when authors take their stories too seriously and/or attempt to write a scary supernatural story by drawing from horror tropes, their work often feels silly… like an undergraduate poetry student trying to write something scary for the first time.

Conversely, the writers in Dates from Hell who exploit the inherent humour in merging horror and dating offer the most impressive works. In Carlton Herzog’s “Out of Town Strange”, for instance, a mortician takes a reanimated corpse possessed by a wisecracking Wendigo on a wild date in his ’65 Mustang. This corpse is a feisty Alabaman who in some places fits in, but not so much in others. Her words and actions are exaggerated and vibrant. In exchange for going places, she dangles the carrot of letting the forty-year-old virgin narrator “poke” her. She gives a new meaning to the phrase “expose oneself” and encourages him to think of her as his “date from hell”. The story, rich in wordplay and witticisms, leaves one wanting more. I could see a whole book with these two going on various adventures. 

Another comedic favourite, “She Has My Heart” by Sonny Zae, is about Nash, a lowly zombie from Putrefaction Palms in Hollywood. He falls in love with Carolanna, a female zombie who has literally stolen his heart by reaching into his chest and snatching it. There is a problem with them seeing each other because she’s part of the most powerful zombie family in LA: the Corpsicana Cannibals. Like Herzog’s piece, this one is full of verbal acrobatics and invention, such as the zombie holiday called ThanksLiving, during which they eat a roasted Turk and open gravy. Zae writes amusingly about the details of Carolanna that Nash finds attractive. Her tongue, for instance, is a “delectable blue gray”. Her teeth remind him of “scattered yellow gravestones in an abandoned cemetery”.

In “Quality Meat”, a ridiculous yet captivating piece by Fulvio Gatti, a couple is on a date in an Italian restaurant when the waiter opens a covered dish to reveal something unexpected. The couple attempts to escape the restaurant while being pursued by a psychotic family. This has the feel of an ’80s action film: it’s funny and the characters’ reactions are unrealistic. When the reason for the family’s pursuit of the couple is revealed, it seems shallow. And yet, I want more. 

Dates from Hell isn’t all fun and games. Its creepiest entry comes courtesy of Scott McGregor. “The Girl Who Loved Senpai” offers a moral: those who will stop at nothing to get what they desire may very well pay a steep price. Akari-chan, a junior at a Tokyo high school, wants more than anything to have the dashing senior Senpai fall in love with her. The problem is that Senpai doesn’t even notice her. Akari-chan has a brutal plan that will ensure he falls for her and they will live happily ever after. 

What “The Girl Who Loved Senpai” does for unrequited love “Zara-Lena’s Surprise Dinner” by Eowen Valk does for fanaticism. Initially, I was wary of this one when I discovered that the protagonist is a writer. Valk, however, makes it work. Horror writer Cedric Shard holds a contest, the winner of which gets to spend time with him at a location of their choice. Zara-Lena, the seductive winner, brings him to a home in the middle of a lake, then takes her fandom to the extreme. This one has the makings of a classic horror story in the vein of Stephen King’s Misery and one of those darling shorts from Creepshow 2.

Dates from Hell also offers a couple strong stories about womanizers learning a painful lesson. In Adam Bell’s “Alpha Male”, Frankie, who is used to one-night stands, represses his “player tricks” in a more honest attempt to bed Marianne, a lesbian he finds extremely attractive. He falls for her, and now he doesn’t understand why she has him tied up. Despite its brutality, the story comments on shedding the male desire to conquer the woman sexually and instead embracing a more fulfilling relationship. Ramsey, the “protagonist” in “slriG, slriG, slriG” by W.P. Johnson, has gone through a string of women. He’s the kind of guy who will tell women what they want to hear to make them his sexual conquests. But Ramsey meets his match with goth girl Steph, whose online profile reveals some eccentric behaviours. Who puts their dead cat in the freezer anyway?

Get ready for some major violence in Michael J. Moore’s “The Mean Girl”. Five months after her friend goes missing, the unnamed narrator who considers herself “damaged goods” visits the mobile home of Kirk – a poor, yet handsome high school classmate. She’s had her eye on Kirk for some time, but she can’t “afford to be seen” with him until now. She insists she’s not a mean girl like the one from the movies. Key to the story’s enjoyment is the unpredictability of the unnamed first-person narrator and Kirk. The piece explores class differences and throws in some twists. 

A few stories take on a more literary bent as they delve into complex relationships and the ensuing painful emotions. And what better emotion to characterize young love than jealousy? In “The Tart” by Alexandria Baker, Liz steals part of a strawberry plant owned by Nellie, who not only lands the man that Liz is interested in but also gloats over her conquest. Baker offers vivid descriptions of the berries, which come to symbolize Liz’s bitterness, jealousy, anger, and inability to let go. 

Victoria Witherkeigh’s “Teenage Wasteland” covers several years in the lives of three friends who meet at a California beach once a year starting at age ten. It’s apparent at the outset that there are jealousies, especially among the two boys. These feelings bubble to the surface and interfere with their lives as they grow older. The ocean and its tumultuousness become a reflection of what’s happening within the characters. 

Dates from Hell even dips into the bizarro subgenre with “Wears Her Heart on a Rope” by Eddie Generous and Theresa Braun. Although it has some lack of clarity in the beginning, the story quickly redeems itself to become a thoughtful commentary on the generational impact of domestic violence. On the surface, it’s about a male figure who has transformed a woman into a goat and dyed its hair blue. On a deeper level, the story comments on the way some men treat women (i.e. like a goat), with the blue dye suggesting the shallow external beauty that comes when males bestow upon females ornamental gifts that make them feel special. Despite what this man has done to her, the she-goat continues to look to him as her protector. This is a story that begs the reader to, like a goat with its cud, keep chewing on it – each cycle is likely to unveil something new.

Reading a short story anthology is comparable to a speed dating event. In Dates from Hell, some dates won’t appeal to you, but chances are that many will. And maybe if you really like a few authors, perhaps you can check out more of their work and a long-term relationship will blossom.****Douglas J. Ogurek


Friday, 11 February 2022

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #70 is out at last in paperback and ebook!

free epub | free mobi | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Welcome to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #70, edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood.

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #70 is here at long last! It features four short stories: “Some Things Drift Apart” by Allen Ashley, “See How They Run! See How They Run!” by Harris Coverley, “July Job Offer” by Charles Wilkinson and “In the Shadows of the Past” by Alex De-Gruchy. Plus Rafe McGregor and Stephen Theaker review the work of Elaine Graham-Leigh, Shona Kinsella, Joe Dever, Alex Garland, and Scott Frank and Jon Cohen. The cover art is by Steve Upham.

Note: we've held two stories that were originally planned for this issue – “Spending the Government’s 28” by Ross Gresham and “The Ninth Mandala” by Zachary Toombs – over to issue 71. Out soon!


Here are the tremendous contributors to this issue.

Allen Ashley is an award-winning writer and editor based in London, UK. He has recently featured in BFS Horizons and in the anthologies Time We Left edited by Terry Grimwood (The Exaggerated Press) and Terror Tales of the Home Counties edited by Paul Finch (Telos). Allen is a former President of the British Fantasy Society. His most recent book is the poetry collection Echoes from an Expired Earth, now available as an ebook for 99p on Amazon UK: www.amazon.co.uk/Echoes-Expired-Earth-Beats-Ballads-ebook/dp/B086XH41WH/.

Harris Coverley has had short fiction published in Curiosities, Hypnos, The Centropic Oracle and The Periodical, Forlorn, amongst many others, as well as previously in this magazine. He is also a Rhysling-nominated poet, with verse in Spectral Realms, View From Atlantis, Scarlet Leaf Review, Corvus Review, Ariel Chart and elsewhere. He lives in Manchester, England.

Charles Wilkinson’s publications include The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions, 2000). His stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990 (Heinemann), Best English Short Stories 2 (WW Norton, USA), Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), Confingo, London Magazine and in genre magazines/ anthologies such as Black Static, The Dark Lane Anthology, Supernatural Tales, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Phantom Drift (USA), Bourbon Penn (USA), Shadows & Tall Trees (Canada), Nightscript (USA) and Best Weird Fiction 2015 (Undertow Books, Canada). His anthologies of strange tales and weird fiction, A Twist in the Eye (2016), Splendid in Ash (2018) and Mills of Silence (2021) appeared from Egaeus Press. A full-length collection of his poetry came out from Eyewear in 2019 and Eibonvale Press are soon to publish his chapbook of weird stories, The January Estate. He lives in Wales. More information can be found at his website: charleswilkinsonauthor.com.

Alex De-Gruchy is a writer whose work has included comic books, videogames, prose fiction, film, radio and other audio, poetry and more. Find out more at www.alexdegruchy.wordpress.com or on Twitter at @AlexDeGruchy.

Rafe McGregor lectures at Edge Hill University. He is the author of two monographs, two novels, six collections of short fiction, and two hundred articles, essays, and reviews. His most recent work of fiction is The Adventures of Roderick Langham, a collection of occult detective stories.

Stephen Theaker’s reviews, interviews and articles have also appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism, Dark Horizons and the BFS Journal.

Steve Upham provides the cover art for this issue. He published some smashing books as the proprietor of Screaming Dreams, and some great stories as the editor of the Estronomicon ezine.


As ever, all back issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Sunday, 5 December 2021

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Superflu survival story combines low tech with high pressure

It’s hard to believe that in the middle of Station Eleven, a novel that is, on its surface, about people trying to survive decades after a superflu, there are interviews between high-profile job coaches and corporate executive administrative assistants, or between tabloid journalists and movie stars. This oddity comes thanks to author Emily St. John Mandel’s unique (and in this case, effective) structure. 

The story revolves around a live performance of King Lear during which two major things happen: prominent actor Arthur Leander dies and the Georgia flu that will decimate 99% of the world’s population takes hold. The rest of the novel moves back and forth in time, from the events immediately following Leander’s death to the new world that exists decades afterward, and back to the stories of Leander and his acquaintances well before the event. Among the characters, all of whom are connected to Leander, are his wives, fellow actors, business associates, friends, and the adult manifestations of those who were children when he died.

The post-apocalyptic protagonist is Kirsten, a member of the Travelling Symphony that performs orchestral music and Shakespearean plays in a world where people will kill you for the contents of your backpack. The symphony uses a caravan of pickup trucks that run not by gas — that ran out three years after the collapse — but by horses. The front of the caravan bears a slogan: “Survival is insufficient.” And thus St. John Mandel poses a question to the reader: if survival isn’t enough, then what is?

The symphony confronts a cult led by the Prophet, a charismatic and cryptic smooth talker with some questionable behaviours. After they abandon the cult, the performers are concerned that it might have long tentacles … tentacles that come after them. 

Woven into the novel are highlights from Arthur’s life including his ascent from a nobody on a small island in British Columbia to an internationally revered film star and the many complications that come with such fame. 

Miranda, one of Arthur’s wives, is the creator of Station Eleven, a far-future sci-fi comic book, which not only foreshadows the actual novel’s apocalyptic events, but also ends up revealing the long-lasting and unpredictable power of art. With his trademark Pomeranian and red fedora, Dr. Eleven, along with his colleagues, lives on a moon-sized space station (Station Eleven) that resembles a water planet. Miranda sees Dr. Eleven and his strange world as a source of comfort. She is not concerned about publication — it’s more about the love of creation. The obscure comic, gifted to Kirsten by Leander before he dies, will play a pivotal role in her story. 

Another storyline follows Arthur’s longtime friend Clark, a former C-suite coach who lives at an airport after the superflu. There he curates an exhibit of technologies that no longer work. Among the unique cast of characters at the airport are Elizabeth (Leander’s second wife) and her son Tyler. 

Just as much as it is a post-apocalyptic survival story, Station Eleven is a reflection on mankind’s accomplishments and foibles. In one excerpt, St. John Mandel reflects on the things lacking in this new world that characters (and we readers) took for granted in the modern world … things like the internet and airplanes. With or without those things, the reader learns, there are going to be problems and opportunities.—Douglas J. Ogurek****


Monday, 8 November 2021

Pinocchio (2019) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

No strings attached: sometimes he’s a hero, sometimes he’s a jackass

Poor carpenter Geppetto (Roberto Benigni) carves Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi) from a piece of magical wood. Geppetto proudly proclaims his love for his son. Alas, Pinocchio is much more an adventurer than he is a student, and because of his disobedience, he gets separated from his father and their small Italian village. Thus begins a quest to make it back to Dad.

During his journey, Pinocchio undergoes several challenges and encounters a variety of eccentric characters. Some of the adults, many of which are thinly disguised as animals, have malicious intents, while others want to help the wooden boy. Examples range from a seemingly avuncular old man who transports carriages full of boys to a place where they can play all day to a cautionary cricket and a melancholy tuna.

This Italian version, directed by Matteo Garrone, resurfaces most key elements of the original story. I was taken aback by the brevity of the nose-growing scene. Shouldn’t this classic Pinocchio detail be given more screen time? As it turns out, the original Disney version only had a brief scene as well.

Initially, I was also disturbed by Pinocchio’s lukewarm desire, which isn’t expressed until halfway through the film, to be a boy. But then, this is a boy—how many boys know what they really want? Sure, he misses Geppetto and wants to get back to him, but there are so many opportunities for fun. Like a boy, Pinocchio is easily distracted and flits from one thing to the next. The way to become a real boy (or is it a man?), the film suggests, is to give up selfish aims and instead focus on caring for others. 

In a commendable departure from CGI, this film relies on human actors to play animals. Nevertheless, shysters Fox and Cat, two such characters that get the most screentime, offer stagy performances (e.g., overblown gestures, extreme facial expressions, funny voices) that compete with the annoying exuberance of typical CGI characters. But children like such exuberance, don’t they? Fox and Cat waylay Pinocchio and attempt to steal his coins so they can fulfil their obsession of finding something to “nibble.”

Pinocchio’s absence of strings is another interesting consideration. When he gets involved with a traveling puppet show, his fellow puppets are all controlled by strings. Interestingly, those who control the strings are never shown. Thus, when the puppets are outside, for instance, their strings lead back into the trailer. The protagonist’s missing strings comment on Geppetto’s strength as a father . . . his willingness to sacrifice control and let Pinocchio learn from his mistakes. 

Most enjoyable about this film are the details with which the settings are rendered, from the muted colours of pubs and woodworkers’ shops—it’s as if everything has been coated in a layer of ash and sawdust—to the vibrant fields that Pinocchio traverses. 

This is the kind of movie that makes you want to sit in front of a fireplace in a wooden chair and smoke a pipe or sip a whiskey on a winter’s eve. Do you really want to do that, though?—Douglas J. Ogurek***

Saturday, 2 October 2021

Ghosts of War | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Soldiers sit in a mansion and wait for bad stuff to happen to them.

For some reason, five American soldiers get tasked with watching over a mansion that the Americans have commandeered from the Germans in Nazi-occupied France. The group that they’re relieving is eager to get out. The five fellows sit around and drink and smoke while the mansion’s nefarious objectives intensify. And there’s a mysterious word that keeps popping up: “Vetrulek.” 

The Ghosts of War players include the following: Butchie (Alan Ritchson), a musclebound brute who likes fighting; Tappert (Kyle Gallner), a southerner who enjoys cutting off body parts and yanking out gold teeth from dead Nazis; Kirk (Theo Rossi), a guy with an itchy foot; Eugene (Skylar Astin), a scholarly type; and Chris (Brenton Thwaites), an unmemorable leader. What they have in common is a lack of development and little to put the viewer in their corner. The most engaging of the quintet is sharpshooter Trappert, whose off-his-rocker comments and contradictory actions give him some zest. Trappert’s cohorts are more than a little perturbed about the game of cat’s cradle he played with Nazi youth.

Ghosts of War, written and directed by Eric Bress, attempts to merge Saving Private Ryan-type soldierly bonding with the typical haunted house fare. Among the clichés are hushed or threatening voices, scraping, creaking, jump scares, cryptic symbols, and of course, creepy dolls and music boxes that start on their own. There’s even a brief scene when Eugene—he’s the one who wears glasses and drinks Earl Grey, so you know he’s the cerebral one—stands before a bookshelf and lectures. 

The revelation of what is happening in the mansion is likely to make jaws drop for some and eyes roll for others. One thing is for certain—the reveal is hard to predict. 

One aspect that sets this film apart from the typical war story is the threat of a secondary enemy. When they do take place, skirmishes get spiked with a supernatural elixir to make them more entertaining. Hence the military horror categorization. A more action-oriented and satisfying contender in this subgenre is Overlord (2018). Nevertheless, Ghosts of War is worth the watch, if merely to experience its twisty resolution.—Douglas J. Ogurek***


Sunday, 12 September 2021

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi (Tordotcom) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Sci-fi and urban magic realism merge in near-future tale that explores the challenges and potentials of young black adults.

Though Riot Baby suffers from clarity issues because it moves so quickly, this short novel does a fine job commenting on the difficulties that black Americans face. Kevin, the titular character, is born in South Central Los Angeles during the 1992 riots in that region. By the second chapter, Kevin, his sister Ella, and their mother have moved to another dangerous neighborhood in Harlem. 

Ella has magical powers – Kevin calls them her “Thing” – that enable her to levitate (or crush) objects, manipulate temperatures, and fly. She can also see into the future and mentally transport herself and others… to other countries, to a racetrack, or even back in time to her mother giving birth to a stillborn. Their mother worries that Ella will do something bad. Fortunately, when Ella’s powers begin to move toward major destruction, she retreats to a desert to get them under control. 

The most compelling part of the novel involves a young Kevin navigating his Harlem neighborhood while dealing with various threats. Another section details Kevin’s experience as a prisoner at New York’s notorious Rikers Island, where everything is a threat. Here Ella “visits” Kevin and slips into the heads of various people to see what they’re about to do or what is about to happen to them. 

This story’s rapidity, along with the flipping back and forth in time, makes it a little hard to follow. Nevertheless, Riot Baby makes a statement about racial injustice and encourages the empowerment of black individuals. ***Douglas J. Ogurek

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Full Throttle by Joe Hill (William Morrow) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Hill conjures another masterwork of genre fiction with a literary bent. 

“I’m always ready to see Another Marvelous Thing. Are you?” So says the narrator in “Late Returns,” one of thirteen stories in Full Throttle. That narrator’s comment relates to the magic of books, but it’s also author Joe Hill’s invitation to readers to drop their concerns and come along for a ride . . . and such a memorable ride it is. Are you open to thinking about how different things could be . . . and maybe are? Are you ready to accept that all may not be as it seems? 

Full Throttle is a fitting title for Hill’s fourth collection—the stories grab the reader and refuse to let go as the action barrels forward and the conflicts stack up. I was so captivated by one story, “Fawn,” that I ate half my wife’s bagel without even noticing. 

Though Hill references “full-throttle” action films and books in his intro, these stories are far from shallow—they plunge far beneath the surface with a potent mixture of themes, backstory, and perspectives, while charming the reader with sensory details (a house that smells like “Bengay and neglect,” for example). 

The characters within these tales straddle a wide spectrum. Sometimes, a would-be villain turns out to be a hero. Other times, an ultra-conservative bigmouth—these turn up several times in this collection—surprises the reader with a glimpse of compassion. Some of Hill’s characters undergo dramatic changes. Others seem on the brink of a major shift, but instead revert back to their old ways thanks to Hill’s refusal to conclude every tale on a positive note. 

In the introduction, Hill talks about his literary ascent. How inspiring it must have been to see your parents, Stephen and Tabitha King, pounding away at their typewriters and keyboards day after day. Hill reflects on the books his parents would read to him, bumps in the literary road, his pivotal experiences with makeup artist Tom Savini on the Creepshow set, and his switch from more literary writing to horror. 

The opening story, “Throttle,” cowritten with Stephen King, is a pedal-to-the-metal ride in which a demented trucker goes after a motorcycle gang. It’s a masterful story that offers intense, brutally violent scenes, but also explores tension between characters. 

Don’t start reading “Dark Carousel” if you have something to do—you won’t be able to put it down. The story, which Hill refers to as “a cover” of his father’s work, reminded me of one of the lovely Creepshow 2 (1987) segments called “Old Chief Wood’nhead.” This time, four teens run into a conflict at a carnival and something awful happens as a result. This story exemplifies Hill’s knack for details, especially with the carnival. He writes about the smells of cotton candy, the puke with popcorn floating in it, and the carousel operator’s lips. The “chill factor” of this story is off the charts.  

In “Wolverton Station,” a satirical piece about class and capitalism, an idealistic youth turned American corporate scoundrel opens a coffee business that employs children in foreign countries and decimates mom and pop shops. Saunders is the kind of guy who fires a pregnant woman with a dismissive text. His life changes when an atypical passenger sits right next to him on an otherwise empty first-class train car in Britain. Astonishingly, Saunders isn’t afraid to talk back to this rather intimidating character, who has some negative things to say about Americans who think they can bring their moneymaking franchises into other countries. 

Brothers Joel and Ben Quarrel (interesting surname) and their friend Gail London discover a dead plesiosaur that has washed ashore in “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain,” a multi-layered story about our inability to control death. A fog surrounds not only the children, but also the reader (as it relates to our understanding of death). Is the creature, essentially a symbol of death, nothing more than a large rock as the characters initially suspect? Or is it an actual dinosaur? The story, which also takes on loneliness and parental abuse, is at once still and sinister.

“Faun,” a fairy tale version of Jurassic Park, follows a group of trophy hunters who get the opportunity to pursue prey unlike anything they’ve encountered, but there is a cost. This one has everything one could possibly want in a story: characters with depth, plot twists, a fantastical setting, and much more. “Fawn” condemns not only people who perpetuate crimes against the environment, but also those who sit back and do nothing about it. 

In “Late Returns,” a man gets a job on a bookmobile, where he encounters some visitors with unresolved issues. He discovers a way to comfort them by letting them borrow books. In the hands of a less capable author, this story would have been a disaster: clichéd, boring, etc. But Hill pulls it off. 

“All I Care About Is You” is a sci-fi story that is in some ways Cinderella-like and in other ways, the opposite. The 16-year-old girl protagonist wants to wear a mask that gives her a different face that will impress her friends—it’s like an expensive pair of blue jeans or sneakers today. Hill explores the figurative masks that people wear and the idea of being content with what you have versus always wanting more. 

Mal (that means “bad”), the female protagonist in “Thumbprint,” has returned from Iraq, where she and her fellow soldiers did some questionable things while interrogating an Iraqi prisoner called the “Professor.” The story comments on trust and how war affects different individuals. 

Paragraphs in “The Devil on the Staircase” look like steps. A little gimmicky, but entertaining nonetheless. After protagonist Calvino commits a horrific crime, he descends an outdoor staircase that purportedly leads to hell. He then meets a boy who gives him a bird that releases a beautiful song every time a lie is told. 

“Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” is told in tweets from a teenage girl whose family stops by a circus after a vacation. During the first half of the story, she’s bored to tears and fed up with her mom, but she does enjoy her jokester brother’s antics. Then they stop at a circus and things change… Hill was wise to use tweets to tell the story, which explores the negative impacts of social media. 

“In the Tall Grass,” also cowritten with Stephen King, might be classified as “eco horror.” It details the travails of an adult brother and sister who enter a field of tall grass in Kansas with hopes of finding a child they hear calling for help. The first third of the story is superb: the siblings discover that within this grass, direction and distances are skewed. Leap up to see above the grass. A church appears on the horizon in one spot. Leap up again and the church appears to have moved. The prospect of returning to their car grows dimmer. At one point, the reader feels a bit disjointed with what’s happening in the story, but perhaps that’s how getting lost in a field of tall grass would feel. 

“Mums” focuses on thirteen-year-old Jack, whose father is a right-wing southern separatist who plans to do something extreme. The story starts strong, but the eventual introduction of supernatural plants speaking in a cryptic fashion is a bit silly. However, I appreciate the point that Hill is trying to make about the nation being divided and the role of the environment in our ascension. 

The collection concludes on a note that is both beautiful and frightening in “You Are Released,” a tense story that merges three-dimensional characters and deep meaning. It focuses on an event as experienced by passengers on a flight. Hill releases evidence of the catastrophe not in one massive explosion, but rather in much more frightening fragments. The reader feels the seriousness of the situation and the terror of the passengers. The narration jumps into the perspectives of a diverse cast of characters that encapsulates all the divisiveness, complexity, and potential of humans. Though the action is restricted to the goings on within a single airplane, the story acknowledges that humans are, for better or worse, stuck together. 

The stories in Full Throttle are so diverse that it’s hard to fathom that they were written by the same author. Most of them achieve the rare distinction of entertaining on the first read, but also tempting the reader to return to them to discover new insights. 

Within this volume, you will find characters who will astound you and piss you off, characters who are heroic and characters who are irredeemably selfish. One story will drag you down, then the next will lift you up. Up and down Hill goes.*****Douglas J. Ogurek