When I received a reviewer’s copy of David Owain Hughes’s Wind-Up Toy and Other Stories, I was told it would “knock your boots off”.
The collection features a few short stories bookended by a novella and a longer short story. The diverse and inventive subject matter ranges from a jinn living in an unexpected place and a garbage-eating monstrosity to mash-ups like organised crime types meeting Santa’s deadly doppelganger and thugs confronting zombies.
If you’re looking for nuance and subtlety, pick up the latest edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. If, however, you want violence and debauchery at their indelicate finest (with a generous coating of humour), then Hughes’s collection is highly recommended. He trounces the status quo and constantly throws new obstacles at his characters.
The opening novella Wind-Up Toy introduces Toni, who works at the Samaritans hotline for people with psychological problems. Despite her blossoming relationship with coworker Stu, Toni can’t stop thinking about her latest caller Simone. She’s a university student with a bright future. He’s an unemployed sex slave. During their discussions, Simone reveals a childhood marred by sexual abuse, a stripper/porn actress mother, and the giving and taking of pain.
As a boy, Simone uses toys with names like Spiked Mace and Rape Charge to torture other toys. His most trusted confidant, however, is Mr. Tickles, a clown whose influence on Simone goes well beyond childhood.
As the point of view flips between the two main characters, the story “winds up” by slathering on the dramatic tension, which immerses the reader (but not Toni) in the delusional, sadomasochistic, murderous pervert that Simone is. When Simone uses a scalpel, it’s not for surgery, and a hammer in his hands won’t be pounding any nails.
The more that Toni and Simone talk and the more outrageous his behaviour gets, the reader can’t help but wonder: will the goody-two-shoes and the predator ever meet? And what will happen if they do?
Everything within the novella progresses at cartoon speed. There are no writerly reflections or philosophical meanderings, and that’s a good thing. Instead, Wind-Up Toy keeps the reader curious about Simone’s next caper, whether it’s as a youth encountering bullies, a teenager spying on a sexy neighbour, or an adult welcoming a solicitor into his apartment.
If you’ve read Hughes’s The Rack and Cue, then you know he has a penchant for writing about dangerous and violent women. Simone’s dominatrix master Chaos fits the bill. Hughes waits to reveal what she’s like, and once he does, it’s off-the-rails sadism… heaping humiliation and physical abuse on Simone.
The story’s biggest weakness involves characters talking to themselves through internal dialogue or even out loud. This technique can be endearing, but it can also border on annoyance. Additionally, some of the scenes, particularly earlier ones involving Toni’s ordinary life – driving around or making tea, for instance – come across as superfluous. Nevertheless, those scenes help ground the reader before the onslaught of deviance and carnage that is to come.
A handful of shorter stories ranging from so-so to exceptional follow the novella. In “Jinnism”, the funniest and most original of the shorts, a nerdy man struggles to resist an attractive woman’s advances – you’ll find out why.
The two main characters of “King Shit” discover the top-secret fate of the dirty diapers they pick up on their daily route. Jeff, on the job for twenty years, thinks his employers have taken advantage of him. The younger Paul has no loyalty to any company and plans to jump from job to job. Their discovery and a moustache-twirling type of villain will put their lives at risk and rattle their perspectives.
“Blood, Bullets and Baubles” pits tough guys with names like Valentine and Hammer against Klaws, a supernatural figure who supposedly brings bad children and adults to Klaws Hell. When they hear “Whore, whore, whore!” instead of “Ho, ho, ho!,” things start getting messy.
If you like ’80s action movies, then you’ll enjoy the concluding longer story “Wasteland Warfare”. Something unexpected happens when two Welsh gangs, the Pickaxe Handles and the Commandos, decide to battle it out for territorial control. What do you get when you mix a graveyard, toxic chemicals and blood? Zombies, of course! This story, with its macho characters and extreme violence, rolls right along. Not bad considering this is a zombie story.
One character in “Wasteland Warfare” smiles and winces when he sees another character killed. This is an incongruous reaction that the reader will repeatedly experience in Wind-Up Toy and Other Stories, a collection that is partly sick, partly funny and wholly entertaining. Get ready to have your boots knocked off.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****