Friday 27 January 2023

The Rack and Cue by David Owain Hughes (Plumfukt Press) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Motorcycle gangs, bounty hunters, and sadomasochistic killers: nobody’s safe at The Rack and Cue. 

Full disclosure: Plumfukt Press has published my work. Therefore, I will not give this novel a star rating. If I did, however, it would be many. 

Get ready for shattered bones, broken teeth, torn skin, and mashed genitals. Oh, and there are billiards. David Owain Hughes’s The Rack and Cue contains two longer works loosely connected by one character and the titular pub located in the wilds of northern England.

In the first story, lashing rain drives various commuters to the pub, where its ostensibly gregarious proprietor Porky encourages them to participate in a single-elimination billiards tournament. If the winner defeats Porky’s son the Champ (nowhere to be seen), that individual walks away with two thousand pounds of prize money. Supposedly. 

Competitors glimpse hints of maliciousness within Porky’s avuncular exterior for good reason — what they don’t know is that two of his deranged relatives lurk within the bowels of the pub and wait to brutalize their unsuspecting victims. Doc enjoys dismantling bodies for a Sweeney Todd-inspired motive that Hughes makes no secret of. More imposing is Baby, whose name belies her “beastly” appearance and sadomasochistic yearnings. Like the classic cinematic monster, Baby, covered in a skin-tight dominatrix outfit, kills indiscriminately. She resembles a Rob Zombie character, minus the indulgent, trying-too-hard-to-be-weird-and-threatening dialogue — Baby speaks through her merciless actions. Hughes’s visceral descriptions of the violence she enacts are sure to elicit teeth clenching and leg crossing among readers. 

This first story is not solely a barrage of brutality; Hughes also proves himself a master of tension. Beyond the ever-thickening dramatic irony stemming from the competitors’ obliviousness to imminent danger, there’s also the conflict amid competitors, especially between a gruff trucking duo, a motorcycle gang called the Boas, and an undercover cop. Diesel, a top-ranking Boa, intends to walk away with the cash prize, regardless of whether one of his underlings wins. 

The second tale slightly reins in the slaughter but maintains the tension by detailing an impending confrontation at The Rack and Cue. A legendary Boa named Venom, his girlfriend Toni, and one character from the first tale hunker down at the pub and prepare to do battle with an approaching enemy. Venom and Toni possess a gift; it won’t take the reader long to discern what that gift is. 

The jailed head honcho of the Huns (the Boas’ arch enemies) hires soldier of fortune Johnson and equips him with an army of thugs to take down Venom. The action alternates between the two parties, neither of which has a single candidate for humanitarian of the year. Johnson and his goons will do anything to claim their prize. In one particularly vicious scene, Hughes assaults the reader with the sights, sounds, and even smells of a torture-fuelled interrogation. 

Hughes also makes The Rack and Cue itself a character, endowing it with a Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde appearance that heightens its occupants’ uncertainty. The pub’s rundown exterior – one character calls it “the Munster’s weekend cottage” – and chimneys pumping out black smoke contrast with its warm, clean interior atmosphere. 

The characters who occupy The Rack and Cue are not the most insightful, nor are their actions the wisest. Rather, these are hard-drinking brawlers and unhinged tormentors, and when they collide, it isn’t just billiard balls that will get racked and broken.—Douglas J. Ogurek

Saturday 21 January 2023

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (William Morrow) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek


Ambiguity infiltration: a home invasion story unlike any you’ve encountered.

The typical home invasion story involves a group of malicious individuals who physically and psychologically torment their victims. The motivation might be economic, or it could be simply to have fun. In Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, however, the intruders and their purpose are much more complicated… and elusive. 

The opening scene in which seven-year-old Wen, the adopted daughter of Eric and Andrew, collects grasshoppers in a jar foreshadows what Tremblay does with his seven characters (and the reader): he stuffs them into a remote cabin in New Hampshire. It’s appropriate that the girl’s name is Wen because we as readers wonder when? When will this come to a head? When will the truth behind what’s happening be revealed?

The leader of the invading foursome is 24-year-old Leonard, whose calm and rational approach makes the barbarity of his request that much more perplexing. The fear he provokes comes not from righteous indignation or anger – he has neither – but rather from the strength of his conviction. Leonard models a new kind of villainous leader… if a villain is what he is. 

The trespassers, and especially Leonard, frequently checking his watch and the news, want this family to do something unspeakable for a reason that seems senseless. Just as they hold the family captive, Tremblay holds the reader bound to a question: is what Leonard and his cohorts want pure insanity, or is it legitimate? 

The differences between Eric’s and Andrew’s shifting perspectives compound the ambiguity. While one constantly considers ways of escape, the other, absorbing the extremity of the situation, starts to lose touch with reality. Or maybe not. The backstory, which provides some explanation of the two men and their motivations, may or may not involve one of the invaders. Even the intruders’ strange implements, long wooden poles with sharp objects at the end, lead one to wonder whether they are tools or weapons.

The point of view shifts between that of Eric, Andrew, and Wen. At one point, a jarring, though no doubt purposeful shift into first-person collective point of view (i.e., “we,” “us”) underscores a united understanding between key characters. 

Tremblay has a talent for stretching out scenes to maximize tension. The porch showdown early on, for instance, becomes a master lesson in tension. The visitors withhold their motives, which makes the situation even more alarming. 

The protagonists in the distorted love story that is The Cabin at the End of the World confront a question that all of us will encounter at some point in our lives: when it feels as if the world is crashing down, will we give in, or will we keep fighting?—Douglas J. Ogurek*****