Horror and eroticism are both challenging to write well, and it is even rarer to encounter a writer who can do both whilst also throwing a bit of humour into the mix. Nikki Noir is one such author, and her novelette, Cucumbers and Comforters (available exclusively from Godless) manages to titillate, horrify, and make you laugh out loud in equal measure.
The story follows Jen, a lonely teenager who is convinced she has seen one of her only friends, Dale Oberman, by the river. Dale is a younger kid with a learning disability who loves listening to stories about Kappas: Japanese water demons with a penchant for cucumbers. The only problem is that Dale Oberman is supposedly missing, and no one will believe that Jen’s seen him.
Things only get worse when people start to get eviscerated. One by one, they’re found arse-up and guts leaking out of their hole. It’s gruesome stuff, and Nikki Noir pulls no punches when it comes to the frightening process by which these victims are turned inside out, although, in very Clive Barker fashion, she often misdirects us with a sexual encounterfirst. Noir writes like an erotic sadist in this regard, toying with our expectations; will we receive gruesome horror or an erotic thrill? We are never quite sure, and it is this duality, alongside the surprisingly layered plot, that keeps us on tenterhooks until the final page.
It’s clear that Cucumbers and Comforters was fun to write and is intended to be taken partly in jest. The image of a humungous cucumber on the front cover, and the blurb that tells us demons “want your ass”, is as tongue-in-cheek as it gets. But as with all great spoofs, there is a serious undercurrent, and I believe that’s the case here. Jen is an empathetic figure. We can all relate to her troubles with acceptance and her savage treatment by peers and adults alike. And Jen is not the only outsider. Dale Oberman is another, due to his learning disability. And Shaggy, Jen’s unlikely weed-smoking ally in the investigation, is a third. Nikki Noir handles these characters with surprising tenderness and we feel for them as they are disbelieved and maligned by the less sympathetic characters of the story. Beneath the ass-plumbing demons is a tale of how unlikely friendships form and become a comforter against social evils.
There is also an exploration of the modern fascination with asses, anal, anilingus, and scatology. Women want it. Men want it. And the “demons” certainly want it. Interestingly, it is only when the line is crossed, that a character actively seeks out this once-taboo sexual gratification, that the Kappa demons seem to arrive on the scene. I doubt Nikki Noir is writing a prudish warning against anal intercourse given the startling eroticism of much of her work, but I think there is certainly an advisement that we should be careful what we wish for.
This leads to the final thing I want to talk about: which is the theme of desire and punishment through Cucumbers and Comforters. Jen desires to be accepted. But there are other characters, and I won’t say who or what for fear of spoilers, who desire less wholesome things, and they are prepared to go to great lengths to pursue these desires. But does pursuing our desires without regard for others have a consequence? At what point do our desires destroy us?
Whilst I eagerly await a return to the balls-to-the-wall occultism of Nikki Noir’s Black Planet series, Cucumbers and Comforters is a brilliant novelette that is deeper than a book about ass-obsessed demons has any right to be.