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