Bunny, by Mona Awad

My name is Octoclot, and I read literary fiction. I read more literary fiction than genre fiction. I’m a snob and I’m not sorry. That said, there’s nothing better than sinking my tentacles into the juicy unicorn that is the literary genre novel, and Bunny fits that bill perfectly.

I’d read Awad’s previous novel, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, and didn’t much like it. So I wouldn’t have read Bunny if I hadn’t attended a reading and fallen in love with Awad’s voice. Seriously smooth. I’d also recently read The Secret History (yes, I’m late to most parties), and the parallels intrigued me. I mean, Bunny.

Samantha is a scholarship student enrolled in a creative writing program at an elite liberal arts university (shades of Tartt and Ellis). Desperately poor and lonely, she’s recruited into a cult of beautiful women in her workshop that dress like little girls, eat miniature food, hug for hours, braid each other’s hair, and call each other Bunny.

Naturally, a cruel obsession lurks beneath the glossy cupcake frosting. In an MFA program fixated on the concept of ‘the body’, deconstructing it in their workshop to the point of meaninglessness, the Bunnies have summoned the power to create life, to create a boy, from a bunny. Though not exactly boys, they’re rough work, malformed drafts. Built to serve until required to ponder a sense of self and then they unravel (or explode, in the more gruesome scenes). They seem to think that Samantha, their unrefined, emotionally wooden newbie, has what it takes to do better, to create a real boy.

In this bizarre story described as The Secret History meets Mean Girls, the juxtaposition of the saccharine with the sinister evokes a dreamlike dread that’s hard to shake. Samantha is more disturbed that you think. The Bunnies, more hollow. The drafts, more calamitous. Make no mistake, this is a horror novel, an erotic horror novel, masquerading as literary fiction.

One of my favourite things about Bunny is the mythic references. We’ve got swans, lambs, wolves, and rabbits. The best part is the complete lack of subtlety. I mean, they go to Warren College for Christ’s sake, and there is almost literally a big bad wolf. Lit fic values nothing so much as metaphorical murk and obfuscation, and to see it explicitly splashed across the page in such an outsized way is terrifically fun. She also refers to poets as Lizard People. Seriously Mona, I feel seen.

And the end, oh the end! No spoilers, but the climax bricked me right in the heart. Let’s just say there are worse things than someone you love dying. And the more beautiful the lie, the more tragic the truth.

For this reader, Bunny was not about mean girls. Or classism. Or the ridiculousness of MFA culture. It’s about desire and loneliness, and the lengths we’ll go just to be loved. Without sentimentality, Awad suggests that perhaps that’s all we’re made for.

5/5

The Arby’s S’mores Milkshake Experience

Sometimes Lola Silkysocks wants to go where nobody knows her name and the feature milkshake is orange. Where Picasso prints line the walls, an annoyed shift worker slouches behind the counter, and the place is usually a graveyard. Until it’s not.

After the Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich catastrophe, I’d learned my lesson to not experiment at Arby’s, to just order my goddamn beef n’ cheddar and enjoy the fuck out of it under the sallow cubist gaze of the deserted dining room.

I do not peruse the menu. I know what I want. Noggy and I place our orders. The bored cashier asks if there’s anything else. I swear it’s another voice coming out of my mouth.

“I’ll have a S’mores Milkshake.”

As you may or may not know, Noggy has two glares. There’s affectionate exasperation or I suffer you to live, and they’re functionally identical. Though after the way I carried on about the buttered steak, you can guess which one this was.

How to describe the S’mores Milkshake? It makes you wonder things you never wondered before, like, “What are marshmallows supposed to taste like?” When a marshmallow forward milkshake prompts this question, you know you’re in shark infested waters and Terry is about to offer you a shrimp.

I slurp some more. There are chunks. I’m 60% sure they’re graham crackers. A vague thrill of chocolate runs through the whole business, though little more than it takes to lull you into a false sense of trust.

Meanwhile people are wandering into Arby’s by the dozen. Boomers ordering coffee, bougie boxing week shoppers, a mom berating her small child like she’s his parole officer. Arby’s employees leap into unprecedented levels of animation. The meat trays empty and full baskets of curly fries sizzle in their vats. Metaphysical laws are being broken. This is Arby’s. The very gates of Purgatory. No one comes here intentionally. But it is the season for Deadly Sins, and I’m heavily distracted by this confusing confection that is the S’mores Milkshake.

Eventually it had to happen. “Hey Nog, try this.”

In my defense, he didn’t have to drink the whole thing. But he did, and he can tell you the rest…

It should be obvious, if you’ve been paying attention, that Lola has this thing about trying ‘new’ and ‘possibly interesting’ items on the menu at our vintage Picasso adorned local Arby’s. Undeterred by the nightmare that was the Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich, and ravenous after running for thirty days straight, she swore they couldn’t possibly fuck up a milkshake.

Yeah.

I should have known something was up when Lola had a couple sips, pushed it across the table, and said “Try this.” She had that look in her eye. That glazed look. The kind you get when you’re teetering on the edge of a coma. And it wasn’t so much an offering, as a challenge. Sadly, I can’t resist a challenge, or any eatable substance jammed in my face.

Well, I’m going to come right out and say it. It’s not that it’s… bad. And not that it’s… good. It’s just… sickly sweet. Like you used a Christmas elf to clean your teeth with and then washed it down with liquid marshmallow juice. While it does taste vaguely S’more’ish (as any combination of graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow tends to) it’s a pale imitation of the actual heavenly camping staple.

Regrets? So many. Within minutes, my stomach began to gurgle. Within an hour, I was little more than a perturbed sea cucumber, nastily expelling both my stomach and twenty feet of large intestine, while hastily scrawling my last will and testament on three sheets of toilet paper I couldn’t actually spare.

Will I drink it again? Uncertain. I guess that depends on if she thrusts it in my face next year.

Noggy and Lola went back and forth on a flame rating and ultimately split the difference between the not totally terrible flavour profile and post-shake warp core ejection.

2/5

Arby’s Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich

When it comes time for The Seventh Terrace Strategic Planning meeting, there’s only one place to go. Conveniently located directly across from Starbucks, midway between Purgatory Towers and the Factory. Yes, I’m talking about the much-maligned Arby’s. Willing our dreams into reality, one quarterly meatcraft gorging at a time.

Here’s the thing about Arby’s, kids. We’re not saying it’s the best. The menu is semi-monstrous. They have a weird selection of pseudo-Greek items for some reason, and their usual feature milkshake is orange. The ambience is total ass. Vinyl. Plastic. Wretchedly faded impressionist prints. But the primal satisfaction and sensual flavours? Curly fries? Half pound Beef n’ Cheddar sandwiches? They’re goddamn delicious, so stop lying to yourselves and the world. It’s okay to love Arby’s. We do, and we’re not sorry.

My point, and of course I have one, is that nothing that will make you want to throw up your hands and let it all burn like Arby’s new Garlic Butter Steak Sandwich.

WHAT. THE. HELL?

No one asked for fine dining, Arby’s. No one asked for anything with an identifiable organic origin or visible grain. No one asked for steak. We like our meat in grey-brown tatters crumpled under a blanket of hot cheese.

Arby’s has never disappointed me before, and when that happens, you really take stock of all the choices that led you to that moment. Staring down a ciabatta bun (I’ve had it with all the different buns, but that’s another review) piled with uniform strips of steak, lettuce, tomato, and a thin drool of garlic butter. If only it was vile. That would be easier to process emotionally. But it was fine. It was devastating. It was no Beef n’ Cheddar. My darlings, at this juncture I must remind you that Octoclot loves food and requires frequent feedings but I left this abomination not even half eaten on the tray. Not even Horsey Sauce could save it. Even the glorious curly fries couldn’t lift my spirits.

I can’t blame Arby’s. They’re taking risks, a quality I admire. This one is on me. There’s a time and a place to experiment with food, and Arby’s is not it. That steak sandwich broke my heart.

2/5

A Body of Work, Colleen Anderson

Colleen Anderson is one of those versatile authors who can write in any form and any genre and you know it’ll be solid, entertaining, and probably oddly disturbing, even if you’re not entirely sure how or why.

This collection from Black Shuck Books is case in point, sixteen short stories spanning the gamut of science fiction, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, cyberpunk, and outright horror. As with any collection, some stories claw into your brain more than others, but I enjoyed them all, even the ones that left me thinking WTF.

My favourites? In no particular order: The Collector (I loved how the elemental magic worked, and I’m a sucker for soul reaping spirit stories), The Blade (who doesn’t enjoy a self serving intelligent sword?), A Book By It’s Cover (Virtual nirvanas are never what they seem and really, really be careful what you wish for, it might come true), Red (There’s ALWAYS a bigger predator in the forest), Season’s End/The Brown Woman (A pair of excellent Green Man tales), and The Book With No End (A little Indiana Jones, a lot ‘this is going in a very sinister direction and I’m not sure what direction that is.. exactly.’).

Great stuff – track down a copy, worm your way into your blanket tent, and prepare to be entertained.

4/5

The Author: Colleen Anderson

The Publisher: Black Shuck Books

Dreams of Lake Drukka & Exhumation, by Mike Thorn

If you’re looking for someone to deliver impactful short sharp shocks, you’ve come to the right place. Mike Thorn has crafted two delightfully dreadful stories demonstrating that family secrets are best kept buried and once you leave home, there’s no going back.

Dreams of Lake Drukka: Two sisters return to the scene of a sinister family mystery and learn the true price for success.

I loved the sister’s strained, yet connected, relationship with both each other and their father, and the atmosphere built up as they discover what’s waiting for them in that cold, grasping lake.

Exhumation: A man returns home after many years to attend a family funeral – and gets way more than he bargained for.

This one is creepy as hell and reminded me why the next funeral I’ll go to is probably my own. Really. Don’t go to funerals and talk to people you don’t remember. Don’t!

Mike impressed me with his fabulous collection Darkest Hours, and these two tales are a solid addition to his body of work. Well worth your time! (and while you’re at it, check out the rest of the Short Sharp Shock’s series – great stuff)

5/5

About the Author: Mike Thorn

Mike Thorn is the author of the short story collection Darkest Hours.

His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies and podcasts, including Dark Moon DigestThe NoSleep Podcast, DarkFuse, Unnerving MagazineTurn to Ash and Tales to Terrify. His film criticism has been published in MUBI NotebookThe Film StageThe Seventh RowBright Lights Film Journal and Vague Visages

He completed his M.A. with a major in English literature at the University of Calgary, where he wrote a thesis on epistemophobia in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. 

Publisher: Demain Publishing

Only Pretty Damned, by Niall Howell

Who doesn’t love clowns? Oh right… Well, better question. Who doesn’t love those small, cool circuses and carnivals that rolled into town periodically when you were a child (and yes, I’m assuming everyone reading this is both ‘this’ tall and ‘this’ old -> points to to the wooden cutout of a cartoon character)? You know the ones I mean. If you close your eyes you can still still smell the popcorn and the elephants, imagine the aerialists and the knife throwers and, yes, the clowns.

Rowland’s World Class Circus. You see the sign and know you’re in for a real treat. And you are entertained! How could you not be. Every performer a talented professional. You especially love the warm up for the main event. Freddy Folly. A clown’s clown. Once a headliner on the trapeze, but… well, let’s just say it’s complicated.

Toby (Freddy) has been with the circus a hell of a long time. He has his ups, his downs. Drinks entirely too much (but hey, it’s a stressful job). And knows things. Dark things. About the circus. About other performers. About himself. And he knows most of all, he wants back on the trapeze. One way or another. It’s noir, however. Carnival Noir. So the going is going to be rough.

I love the atmosphere of this book. The feel of it. All the bits oozing out as the character’s populating the story come alive, transporting me to a different time, though definitely not a simpler time. So next time you see a clown, wonder what he or she is thinking of under that makeup, understand that they probably aren’t plotting your unfortunately demise – but if they are, you probably deserve it.

4/5