Saturday 31 December 2022

Texas Chainsaw Massacre | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Idealism impaled: latest instalment in Texas Chainsaw Massacre die-nasty is a gore extravaganza populated by cardboard characters.

If you find millennials and Texans getting their brains bashed in entertaining, then you’ll enjoy Texas Chainsaw Massacre directed by David Blue Garcia. Though this is far from the worst of the many films spawned by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), it further proves the impossibility of achieving the shocking rawness and brutality of the original. The latest iteration of Leatherface, whether he’s strapping on a human skin mask, bludgeoning someone with a sledgehammer, or doing his maniacal chainsaw dance, can only exist as a distilled version of his inaugural performance. 

In this Netflix-produced version, four idealistic teens from the progressive city of Austin, Texas decide to invest in the all-but-abandoned town of Harlow, also in the Lone Star State. Chefs Dante and Melody want to open a restaurant, Dante’s fiancé Ruth dreams of launching an art gallery, and Lila (Melody’s sister) is consumed by a troubled past. The quartet plans to host a party for young urbanites who are presumably considering making an investment in the town. When something happens to the caregiver of a large, mentally unstable man—guess who—he does what any sane mourner does: goes on a killing spree. 

An element of absurdity rips through this film. Leatherface’s chainsaw cleaves bodies as if they were butter. He can easily elevate his victims over his head or snap limbs like twigs. And most perplexing, his young and ostensibly fit victims allow him to annihilate them without fighting back. 

The film does have a few things going for it. First, it clocks in at just 81 minutes and quickly gets to the meat of the matter. It’s clear from the beginning that Harlow locals aren’t thrilled about these young city people invading their town. 

Another of the film’s strengths (for the gore aficionado) is that it holds nothing back. You’ll see torn-open faces, protruding bones, and limbs doing things they shouldn’t. And the ending holds up as an exhilaratingly theatrical tribute to slasher brazenness. You want subtlety? This is not the film for you.

The continuing popularity of the slasher subgenre suggests there must be something satisfying about watching dumb young adults get killed. In earlier decades, victims mostly focused on scoring and getting high. Here they seem more ambitious, but don’t be fooled – they’re still dumb. Case in point: Ruth, as she walks through a ghost town that seems more amenable to a poncho-wearing Clint Eastwood character, considers where she might locate her art gallery.   

This film also pulls a common horror movie stunt by bringing back The Texas Chain Saw Massacre final girl Sally Hardesty, now a world-weary older woman who’s been hunting Leatherface her whole life. With her cowboy boots and denim, Sally is the silly Texas version of Sarah Connor. 

Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with its characters hiding in the typical places and succumbing to the typical violations, offers nothing new. It does, however, stay true to the brand.–Douglas J. Ogurek***

Sunday 11 December 2022

A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill (Vintage) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Small-town kid confronts cape-wearing wolf and traverses the dark corridors of mental illness.

A Cosmology of Monsters tackles many elements of the typical dysfunctional family story: sexuality hurdles, financial struggles, unrequited love, adultery, parent/child quarrels, and suicide. Oh, and it has one more thing: a relationship between the narrator boy Noah Turner and a wolf-like creature, which may or may not be the only one of its kind.

The connection between Noah and the monster – it initially communicates by writing terse messages in chalk – becomes more complex (and even weird) as Noah ages. The creature becomes a comfort to Noah as he deals with his own conflicts and those between his mother and his two sisters. Considering Noah’s family’s history of mental illness, is this monster, with its orange eyes and red cape, really visiting Noah? Is it a hallucination? Is it a physical manifestation of a mental illness? 

Author Shaun Hamill indulges in a fair amount of narrative sleight of hand. Noah narrates, for instance, how in 1968 his father Harry (whom he never knew) meets and courts Noah’s mother Margaret. Noah reflects on her decision to choose his father over a safer, more financially stable prospect. Harry, a local with a passion for paperbacks, pulp magazines, and comic books, particularly horror and Lovecraftian fiction, admits he lives with his mother, who is contending with paranoid schizophrenia. Moreover, what a jarring experience when Noah details Margaret contemplating the abortion of a child that turned out to be him. 

Much of the story revolves around The Wandering Dark, a haunted house the Turners build in their Texas town. Noah, assuming the role of a wolf – now there’s something to think about – learns how to move through the facility’s secret corridors to achieve the maximum scare. 

The book also details Noah’s interactions with his family members. Most compelling is the relationship with his sister Eunice, who serves as a second mother while battling her own demons. 

The Wandering Dark, reconstructed based on Harry’s old drawings, is a haunted house, but it is also a symbol of the life that Noah, existing in the shadow cast by mental illness, must navigate. Though the novel resorts to dream/nightmare sequences that I found abrasive, Hamill redeems himself with some impressive world-building.—Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Sunday 27 November 2022

Bad Candy | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Unsavoury horror anthology mostly lives up to its name

Chilly Billy (Corey Taylor of Slipknot fame) and his sidekick Paul (Zach Galligan) host a Halloween-themed radio show at 666 on the dial. Clever. People call in and ask Billy to spin horror tales, which are portrayed in the short films that make up Bad Candy, directed by Scott B. Hansen and others. 

The lack of cohesion, clichéd content, subpar CGI and poorly drawn characters give one the impression that these pieces were cooked up by high school boys. Among the one-dimensional scumbags who populate the film like so many rotting confections are a beer-guzzling deadbeat dad, a creepy old man who taints candy, a drug dealer, a would-be rapist and a sexy, acid-dropping mortician who finds herself attracted to one of her male specimens. Through each of the stories wanders Bad Candy, a creepy clown who enjoys showing his long fingers and mindlessly killing bad people.

The best tale in the batch involves three military vets who play a yearly Halloween game involving rabbits and pumpkins. This one has humour, intriguing dialogue and some impressive makeup. It also offers a unique take on the close-up shot of the man inside the mask, a filming technique made famous in the Iron Man series. 

Another of the film’s shortcomings are the unrealistic and lifeless representations of children. A young boy, looking forward to trick-or-treating, says, “This is going to be awesome” as if reading out of a book. A little girl trips and looks up to see Bad Candy looming over her. Rather than going into conniptions as one would, she unhurriedly jogs off without making a sound. Don’t be like that little girl – run away from Bad Candy as quickly as you can.–Douglas J. Ogurek*   

Saturday 12 November 2022

Blood Red Sky | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Hm. They already did a plane with venomous snakes on the loose. So how about… vampires?

This vampire version of Snakes on a Plane (2006) gets a bit silly with all the hissing and thrashing and baring of fangs, though it does create tension by confining two threats (vampires and hijackers) in one inescapable place.

Blood Red Sky, with its intriguing German/English language hybrid, asks the question that consistently turns up in vampire flicks: can a person who is inherently good resist the evil that vampirism draws them toward once they are infected? A less typical question that the film asks is whether desperate people can join forces with a would-be enemy to take on an even greater enemy. As expected, some people will act completely out of self-interest, while others will emerge as heroes. Then there’s the more obvious question: how are these people going to get out of this?

Director Peter Thorwarth creates a partnership with the viewer by opening the film with an awkward emergency landing in Scotland. Snipers train their rifles on the plane. Hostage negotiators attempt to assess the situation. Elias (Carl Anton Koch), the film’s boy protagonist, climbs out of the plane. We know, therefore, that the plane has landed and the boy is safe – what we don’t know is what’s happening inside. Everything else in the film will build to this moment. 

Peri Baumeister effectively portrays Elias’s mother Nadja. Before boarding and as the flight begins, the skittish and sickly Nadja struggles to keep something at bay. During the flight, the film offers a series of flashbacks, some of them a bit on the sappy side, to tell the story of how she acquired her affliction. 

The most entertaining of the characters is maniacal hijacker Eightball (Alexander Scheer), who revels in bloodshed. As Eightball bullies and threatens the passengers – he’s not afraid to target the weakest and youngest – his co-conspirators repeatedly refer to him as a “psycho” and suggest that he’s taking things too far. But those who take things too far often make the best villains. 

Does this film do enough to separate it from the mountain of other vampire movies out there? Yes, to an extent. It does lead one to wonder… what’s the next threat filmmakers are going to put on a plane? – Douglas J. Ogurek***

Sunday 9 October 2022

Dirty Rotten Hippies and Other Stories by Bryan Smith (Grindhouse Press) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Blue-collar horror at its best: a beer-, rock ’n’ roll- and chainsaw-fuelled romp starring lazy losers

Within Dirty Rotten Hippies and Other Stories, Bryan Smith’s second collection of short horror fiction, there is no hidden agenda, no profound commentary on the state of humanity, no literary acrobatics. Instead, the collection enables the reader to simply bask in engaging stories that, at their best, echo the clear and concise prose of Richard Laymon. Though these works are mostly populated by doomed, domestic beer-guzzling, blue-collar types who like rock ’n’ roll and lack ambition, make no mistake – Bryan Smith knows how to write. 

Among the characters one encounters in this collection are hippie-torturing hillbillies, chainsaw-toting satanic cheerleaders, a serial killer aiming for work-life balance, and a crass, sexually aggressive date who is volatile to the extreme. Many of the storylines are ridiculous, but Smith’s clean, no-frills writing style escalates the entertainment quotient. Some characters awaken to find something strange inserted into their body or sitting on their lawn. Others get chased by or stumble upon predators.

Despite its too-long first scene with too much character indecisiveness, the opening novella “Dirty Rotten Hippies” rapidly shapes up to become a humour-infused apocalyptic nightmare in which a drug called Delight turns concertgoers into malodorous, purple-skinned zombies who go on a rampage. The story takes on more than zombies: a former LGBTQ activist and her gang of murderous hillbillies, a rock critic, and an older heavy metal singer named Kyle Bile who doesn’t even know his sixth wife’s name! Particularly inventive is the hippie trap the hillbillies use to lure an unsuspecting concertgoer into their hideaway. 

“Some Crazy Fucking Shit That Happened One Day” is impressive for a story the author claims to have completed within twenty-four hours. Its loser protagonist gets into a pickle with a serial killer, Nazi zombies, and a bus full of chainsaw-wielding lesbian satanic cheerleaders. One such cheerleader even slaps him when he says the Lord’s name. 

In “The Restless Corpse,” we quickly discover that the common man narrator – he refers to erectile dysfunction drugs as “boner pills” – has just inadvertently killed his wife and is concerned her corpse might become reanimated. Though the outcome isn’t surprising, following the narrator’s train of thought is humorous at times. 

“Chainsaw Sex Maniacs from Mars” offers exactly what the cover promises. A woman decides to use an outhouse at a country bumpkin party. What happens from there unsubtly and comically merges the sci-fi and slasher subgenres.

“The Thing in the Woods” introduces four teenage hoodlums getting smashed on Budweiser and debating Van Halen’s latest album in a house under construction. When the cops chase the boys into the woods, the protagonist encounters something unexpected. 

The protagonist in “A Slasher’s Dilemma” is a serial killer who’s been in the game for twenty years. As he waits in a bedroom closet for what could be his last hurrah (i.e., torturing and killing a babysitter and her boyfriend), the pressures of family responsibilities weigh on him. 

In “Pilgrimage,” Jason, George, and Karla (on whom Jason has a crush) get off a Las Vegas tour bus when it stops in a parking lot in which punk rock legend Johnny Killgore of the Sick Motherfuckers killed himself. Things get trippy and nightmarish when the drunken guy on the back of the bus gets off the bus with them. Be prepared to travel back to a legendary concert and meet some infamous characters. 

The couple in “We Are 138 Golden Elm,” one of my favourites, plans on doing something nefarious to another couple anticipating a kinky couples’ night. The would-be predators’ evening, however, takes a turn for the worse when they step into the eerily silent house. 

“The Barrel” resembles a Black Mirror story. An alcoholic whose wife left him wakes to discover a barrel in his yard. The concept has intrigue built into it – we all want to know what’s in the barrel. The guy’s dog goes crazy while he delivers a series of crass DMs with someone on Twitter who claims the barrel is a gift. But all gifts come with a price, don’t they? Initially, I was concerned Smith was going to stretch the concept too much, but he reeled it in. This concept has been done before, but Smith proves it can be done again and done well. 

In “Take a Walk,” a man who’s fed up with failed relationships, entertainment options, and life in general takes a walk at one in the morning. After a harrowing experience, he ends up with a new vocation, though not necessarily a good one. 

The average Joe in “Date Night” is hoping for a good time (and maybe a little action) with an attractive woman he met at a cosplay convention. When he takes her to an Avengers movie, she turns out to be much more than he bargained for.   

They say you’re not supposed to start a story with a character waking up, but in the case of “The Implant,” it works. The protagonist, who has had several DUIs, wakes up with something embedded in his neck. Must be aliens … or maybe not. 

“Highway Stop” introduces a family on the way back from a vacation where everything went wrong. When the abusive husband goes into a gas station, his wife receives a frightful visitor while her children sleep in the backseat. The ensuing conversation reveals more about the husband. The wife’s lack of terror despite her visitor escalates the humour of the piece.

In “The Doll,” an overweight security guard freaks out when he discovers a doll on his table. By the end of the story, you will discover why the doll terrifies him.  

“Bloodsucking Nuns for Satan” is about a man who decides to walk the long (and wrong) way home. Hint: if you’re walking down roads with names like Impaler Avenue, you might want to be vigilant. When the man investigates the female moaning coming from a nearby church, he finds something both arousing and threatening. 

“South County Madman” involves a Vietnam veteran falsely accused of being the South County Madman and getting into a row with his accusers.  

True to ’80s culture and B horror films, Smith keeps his stories light and his mostly male characters, who may not necessarily be good, dumb. They get into trouble and either die or come close to it. Even if Smith is sometimes covering topics that have been done a thousand times before, he finds a way to make them fresh and undeniably entertaining.—Douglas J. Ogurek****

Wednesday 28 September 2022

The Flame and the Flood, by Shona Kinsella (Fox Spirit Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Talis and Almoris are a bonded pair of mid-level drones, spouses, who run a boarding house for factory and dock workers. Both are secretly wielders, which means they can magically control the elements: water for Talis, fire for Almoris. Unfortunately, in the colony where they live, wielders must keep their powers secret, else risk being accused of trumped-up crimes and enslaved in the factories. They use their powers to help runaway slaves escape to more enlightened colonies. In this story, one such slave reaches them, a wood-wielder, and gets them into a lot of trouble.

The narrator uses ze/hir pronouns for all characters but doesn’t explain why, so the reader has no idea whether this is a species that only features one sex, or whether it is a species that prefers not to refer to sex, or whether it is just the narrator who prefers not to refer to sex. Functionally, it has exactly the same effect that redacting all the pronouns would have in any other book. It’s interesting in that the reader has to fight back stereotypical assumptions that a character doing certain actions is either male or female, but mostly it’s an irritation. A fictional text is a document telling us to imagine something, and withholding such basic information gets in the way of that.

On the other hand, this is quite a basic tale of oppressed superpowers, with very little actually happening, and it is lent a little bit of novelty by its unusual degree of narrative withholding. As well as not being told the sex of any of the characters, we aren’t told directly what type of species they are, just given clues here and there. We learn early on that that they have antennae and four arms. A slaver and some drones have wings. But we don’t find out until page 70 of 91 that as well as the skin mentioned throughout the book, Talis also has a partial shell, and not till page 76 do we find out that Almoris has two legs.

Some reviewers have taken them to be insects, given their antennae, thoraxes and the colonies they live in, and that the narrator talks about eggs and larvae. But unlike insects they have skulls, spines, noses, tongues, necks, stomachs, guts, chins, teeth, hearts, chests, torsos, waists, skin, hair on their heads, and knuckles that lose their colour when tightened. Also, they drink whisky, eat cheese, keep chickens and goats, use tables and chairs, tie their shoelaces, run small businesses and in all other respects behave very much like us.

In a science fiction book, this would all feel like a half-hearted failure to imagine an alien civilisation. (Compare it, for example, with the insect novels of Lorinda J. Taylor, interviewed in TQF66, who didn’t just imagine insect civilisations, but also their languages.) Little has changed other than that they have four arms and blue hair, and there’s no sense at all that their biological differences from us have affected their society, other than that their buildings are hexagonal. But in what I took to be a fantasy book, it felt quite novel. And I did enjoy the absurdity of all the characters in a serious, humourless book randomly having four arms.

There are a handful of typos, none of which would normally be worthy of comment, but it’s not often you read an award-nominated book that gets may/might, their/they’re and complimented/complemented mixed up. (It was up for best novella in the British Fantasy Awards.) And as often seems to happen with neopronouns, perhaps because authors and editors haven’t got used to them yet, there are places where an overabundance of the same pronouns make it difficult to know who is doing what, e.g. “Fire flowed over hir scalp just before ze was pulled off hir feet. Ze fell onto hir behind and caught hir tongue between hir teeth.”

Overall, not great, not terrible, and in some respects an interesting experiment. ***

Sunday 25 September 2022

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Strange passageways and treacherous crossings: seminal work of urban fantasy throws an ordinary life into tumult, gives “mind the gap” a new meaning 

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman’s novelisation of the 1996 miniseries of the same name (also written by him and others), tells the story of Richard Mayhew, an ordinary fellow with a controlling girlfriend. When Mayhew decides to help a young woman named Door evade some pursuers, he gets thrust into London Below, a world of secret passages, talking rats, strange markets, light-emitting wine, and life and death challenges. Examples of the latter range from a wooden plank a thousand feet above rocky ground to an underground river that you do not want to fall into. London Below is a place where climbing out of a sewer will put you on the side of a building or walking through a home’s entry will lead you to a street. 

To navigate this strange world, unlikely hero Mayhew aligns himself with Door, so named for her ability to unlock any kind of door. They join forces with the eccentric Marquis de Carabas and an incredibly skilled female fighter called Hunter. During their quest to find an angel, the quartet will encounter a colourful cast of characters and challenges aplenty… all while dodging assassins Croup and Vandemar. These sadists, who’ve made their home in the cellar of a Victorian hospital, stand out as some of the more eccentric villains in contemporary fantasy. Croup, the brains of the operation, likes to destroy beautiful things, whether they be an ancient piece of art or a person. His righthand man Vandemar, a goon to the highest degree, has a fondness for breaking bones and eating live animals. 

Gaiman’s London Below has some of the elements of the London we know, but it also diverges in many ways. The market that the heroes visit, for instance, resembles the iconic Harrods, but it’s a “bizarre bazaar” with people selling all kinds of weird products. 

One of the more enchanting characters is the Earl of Earl’s Court. He and his court operate on a train car that appears dark from the outside but is full of life within. The Earl’s elderly guards hit up vending machines for candy bars and Cokes that they drink from expensive chalices. 

Gaiman deserves praise not just for his world-building skills, but also for his ability to create three-dimensional characters – especially his underdog protagonist – that change when confronted with extreme challenges. One of the book’s tensest scenes involves the Black Friars’ three tests: one physical challenge, one riddle and one ordeal. Among the themes that emerge as the Neverwhere characters undergo their tribulations within this strange domain are revenge, betrayal, sacrifice and especially self-respect.—Douglas J. Ogurek****

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. ****

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.

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:

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 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:

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:

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 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.