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.