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 *****