Friday 24 November 2023

The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke (Berkley) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Runes, grimoires, hexes, and bone triangles: three timelines weave together a complex tale of female empowerment.  

Something strange has happened on the Scottish island of Lòn Haven, and the answer hinges on a horrible occurrence at a lighthouse called The Longing. 

The Lighthouse Witches moves between three different timelines. The central story, which takes place in 1998, focuses on British artist Olivia “Liv” Stay and her three daughters facing economic peril. The wealthy and conspicuously absent owner of the ramshackle lighthouse commissions Liv to paint odd symbols on its interior. Liv meets a man named Fin and gradually learns more about Lòn Haven’s residents and history. She also learns there’s much more to the lighthouse than the water on the floor and the bats on the ceiling; this lighthouse has a history that is not favourable toward women.

This first portion also dips into the point of view of Liv’s combative oldest daughter Saffy, who seeks to learn more about the lighthouse by exploring the caves beneath it. 

The second timeline occurs in 2021 and is told from the perspective of Luna, Liv’s middle daughter and presumably the only surviving member of the family. Luna, now pregnant, is haunted by a sketchy memory of getting tied to a tree in a forest while her mother and two sisters disappeared. When Luna’s long-lost younger sister Clover resurfaces, her appearance and behaviour shock Luna and lead to complications. 

The third story, narrated by Patrick Roberts through his grimoire, takes place in 1662. It details his travails on the island, including a relationship with a special friend named Amy and an accusation made against his mother. 

Cooke pulls off an impressive balancing act with the alternating timelines, breadth of years, and variety of points of view (i.e. first-person past, first-person present, third-person present). She also uses Lòn Haven’s gloomy weather to thicken the pall of mysteriousness that shrouds the island, a place whose residents fear supernatural creatures called wildlings and where some children have numbers branded on their arms. Perhaps the novel’s greatest accomplishment is its treatment of the age-old problem of the suppression of women.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday 20 November 2023

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #75: out now!

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #75 is now out in pdf! Paperback and ebook versions will follow shortly!

free epub | free pdf | print UK | print USA | [Kindle UK] | [Kindle US]

Welcome to our seventy-fifth issue of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. Thank you for your patience, which we have repaid with four short stories, an essay by Rafe McGregor on "The World-Ecology of Climate Change Cinema", a lengthy report from FantasyCon 2023, and forty pages of reviews!

The stories in this issue are "Piggyback Writer" by Matthew G. Rees, "Kleptobiblia" by Harris Coverley, "Recovery Mission" by Eva Schultz and "Two Friends" by Antonella Coriander, the final chapter in the story of Beatrice and Veronique, which began all the way back in TQF47.

Our reviews this issue are from Douglas J. Ogurek, Rafe McGregor and Stephen Theaker, who consider the work of Josh Malerman, Nate Southard, R.B. Lemberg and David Owain Hughes, plus the films Blue Beetle, Children of Men, Knock at the Cabin and Terrifier 2, plus the television shows Carnival Row, Season 2, and Star Trek: Picard, Season 3.

The cover art for this issue was generated using Wombo Dream, based on a photograph by Stephen Theaker.

Here are the tremendous contributors to this issue.

Matthew G. Rees is the author of several story collections, his most recent being The Snow Leopard of Moscow & Other Stories, a collection of tales set in Putin-era Moscow, where Rees lived and worked for a time. Rees has, among other things, been a journalist, a teacher and a night-shift cab driver. He grew up in the border country between England and Wales known as the Marches. His published fiction to date has tended to “the literary strange”. Forays into humour of the macabre kind have featured. His debut story collection Keyhole (Three Impostors, 2019) contains tales set in Wales and its borderlands. The Feast (2021) is a collection of stories of strange dining. Rees is also a playwright. He has a PhD from the University of Swansea. More at

Harris Coverley has short fiction published or forthcoming in Penumbric Speculative Fiction Magazine, Penumbra, The Space Cadet Science Fiction Review, and Unspeakable: Volume Two (PulpCult Press), amongst many others, as well as four consecutive issues now of TQF. A former Rhysling nominee, he also has had verse most recently in Star*Line, Spectral Realms, Silver Blade, Scifaikuest, The Crank, Tigershark, View From Atlantis, Yellow Mama, and elsewhere. He lives in Manchester, England.

Eva Schultz lives in Aurora, Illinois, where she is a business writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her work has appeared in The Worlds Within, TDotSpec’s Strange Wars anthology, and Backchannels. She lives with a big orange cat named Gus and enjoys drawing, painting, and collecting typewriters. Visit her online at

Antonella Coriander knows when you’ve been naughty, and she’s going to use that information against you. The eight previous instalments in this series appeared in TQF47, TQF48, TQF49, TQF50, TQF51, TQF55, TQF57, TQF62 and TQF74.

Rafe McGregor is a critical theorist publishing on culture, climate justice and policing. He is the author of thirteen books, including Literary Theory and Criminology (2023), Narrative Justice (2018), and The Adventures of Roderick Langham (2017). He can be found online @rafemcgregor.

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonymous and sophomoric founder of the unsplatterpunk subgenre, which uses splatterpunk conventions (transgressive/gory/gross/violent subject matter) to deliver a positive message. His short story collection I Will Change the World … One Intestine at a Time (Plumfukt Press), a juvenile stew of horror and bizarro, aims to make readers lose their lunch while learning a lesson. Ogurek also guest-edits the wildly unpopular UNSPLATTERPUNK! “smearies”, published by Theakers Quarterly Fiction. These anthologies are unavailable at your library and despised by your mother. Ogurek reviews films and fiction for that same magazine. Publications have rejected Ogurek’s work nearly 2,000 times. However, some of the world’s leading literary journals thanked him for submitting manuscripts in (form) letters. One highly respected publication even said, “We want to thank you for your kindness in letting us see your work.” Thus, Ogurek is a kind author. More at Twitter: @unsplatter

Stephen Theaker’s reviews, interviews and articles have appeared in InterzoneBlack StaticPrismDark Horizons and the BFS Journal. His story “The Reader-Queens of Tranck” appeared in the BFS anthology Emerging Horizons, edited by Allen Ashley. He has written many novels, none of them well-regarded. The full range of his enthusiastic literary endeavours may be viewed on his ISFDB summary bibliography:

As ever, all back issues of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Monday 13 November 2023

Dream Scenario | review by Stephen Theaker

Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) is a mid-to-late-career professor with tenure. He is married to a beautiful wife (Julianne Nicholson), has two daughters, and lives in a big gorgeous house, but he is still dissatisfied with life. He dreams of finding a publisher for his book on ant intelligence, but has never actually got around to writing it. His classes are poorly attended, engagement from students is low, and he can't do anything about an old colleague who is planning to build on his unpublished work.

And then he starts to appear in people's dreams, just wandering through them, not doing much other than waving or walking by. When an old girlfriend writes an online article about him appearing in her dreams, and what she thinks it means, it turns out that many other people have been dreaming about him too. He is delighted to have his fifteen minutes of fame, but after a mutually unsatisfying extramarital encounter with a pretty young woman from his new management firm, his mood worsens. His appearances in dreams become frightening, and everyone turns against him.

I thought this was an interesting film. During the earlier, more humorous parts, I felt it would have made a better film for Adam Sandler, or a younger Woody Allen, actors who are both very good at portraying doofuses caught up in situations beyond their control. According to IMDB, it was in fact in development as a film for Adam Sandler, to be directed by Ari Aster, before writer Kristoffer Borgli took the reins. But as it turns darker, Nic Cage's casting made more sense to me.

As Paul's students and acquaintances turned against him, utterly unfairly, for events that had only happened in their imagination, it was impossible not to think of real-world incidents of campus cancel culture – such as Kathleen Stock in the UK, or Carole Hooven in the US, to name just two – where academics have been driven out of their jobs by students, colleagues and administrators because of the people they are imagined to be rather than what they have actually done or said.

I was quite pleasantly surprised when the film made that metaphor explicit. The boss of Paul's wife says, even while dropping her from a job, that he doesn't like cancel culture. The students talk in terms of safety and trauma and triggers regarding his presence in class, even though he has done nothing at all to them. And Paul's new manager (played to perfection by Michael Cera) says the hostility doesn't mean they will drop him, they will simply pivot to controversy being his brand, and see if they can get him on Joe Rogan.

At that point the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson gets a mention. Given that Peterson is (I believe) to some extent a Jungian, and the underlying premise of the film is that (slight spoiler here, I suppose) the collective unconscious is real, mentioning him and not bringing him into the story, as a talking head on a television show or something like that, felt to me like a broken link. What would he have made of it all? What would other Jungians have made of it?

But I suppose that reflects my biggest problem with the film, that although its main character is an academic, he makes no effort to study or explore what is happening to him. It just happens. He doesn't even try staying awake to see if that prevents his appearances in other people's dreams. Perhaps that reflects his character, that he passes up the chance to get down to work and study a truly remarkable phenomenon. But for a science fiction fan the film was unsatisfying in that regard, especially when it takes a more science fictional and satirical turn towards the end.

As a portrayal of cancel culture, though, I thought it was excellent. That's exactly how it works: students attacking their teachers over the thoughts in their own heads, and colleagues so afraid of getting the same treatment that they do nothing at best, join the mob at worst. And as a study of a disappointed middle-aged man, it was excellent too. More dreams might have been fun, but the images from the dreams they show are extremely memorable. Don't watch it late at night unless you want Paul Matthews in your dreams too. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday 5 November 2023

Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare (HarperTeen) | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Town mascot turned madman: young adult slasher tale with political underpinnings explores the battle between tradition and change.

Have you ever been in a situation where you thought older people weren’t listening to you? Of course you have. What about a scenario where younger people push for a change you don’t want? Admit it: you’ve been there as well. These are the issues at play in Adam Cesare’s Clown in a Cornfield, though the stakes are likely much higher than you’ve ever encountered. 

When financial hardship hits, Dr Glenn Maybrook and his teenage daughter Quinn move from Philadelphia to Kettle Springs, Missouri. Here, elders view teens as a threat to their rural town’s hallowed traditions, and teens suspect adults are trying to impose their values on them. 

Quinn soon meets Cole Hill, a charismatic quarterback. You know the type: attractive, confident, admired by his peers yet haunted by his past. She gets involved in Cole’s group of ne’er-do-wells: Janet, Ronnie (who clearly likes Cole), the bodyguard-like Tucker, and the beer-swigging party boy Matt. Power-hungry Sheriff George Dunne, resenting the changes happening under his watch, has his sights set on the teens. 

Overshadowing all of this is Frendo, the unofficial town mascot invented by Cole’s grandfather. Initially, the only evidence of Frendo that Quinn sees is the faded painting of the clown on a burned-down factory across the cornfield next to her house. But Frendo will make more appearances, and not all Frendos in Kettle Springs are kid friendly. 

Though there’s nothing groundbreaking about this young adult horror story in which characters gradually get picked off by someone or something, it zips along and keeps the reader engaged. The over-the-top weaponry (e.g., chainsaw, circular saw, machete) fits the typical slasher fare. 

Not only does Cesare defend the voice of young people, but he also combats the notion that heroines need to be rescued by a male figure. Quinn Maybrook is a strong, thoughtful, and brave young woman not prone to swooning at the slightest threat. Cesare also explores the complexities of Quinn’s relationship with her father and how her mother’s drug problem complicated their lives.

At its core, the novel advocates for youth-inspired change, which is nothing to clown around about.—Douglas J. Ogurek***