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Review of Cucumbers & Comforters by Nikki Noir


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. 

Pick up Cucumbers & Comforters on Godless.

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Review – Steve Stred’s The Stranger

My first introduction to Steve Stred was his novella The Girl Who Hid In The Trees. That novella was one that took me completely by surprise. It depicted a group of children, troubled by disappearances, who end up spending a night in the woods to disprove a local legend. What follows is a series of horrific encounters that flay the mind of the reader. The most impressive thing about the novella was the way it developed its characters, and the relationships between them, in such a short space; an all-too-convincing portrayal of adolescent anxiety, love, and friendship. The other thing that impressed me was Stred’s ability to ‘go there’. We see some pretty horrifying things happen to these people we come to care about. I greatly admired Stred’s fearlessness.

I knew that Stred was a major talent working in the field of horror from that moment. So, when I saw he had released another novel, titled ominously The Stranger, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.

The Stranger sees us returning to the woods, which seem to be a source of anxiety or perhaps intrigue for the author. This time, we follow a family: Malcom, a hard-working but racist son-of-a-bitch, his wife Sam, and his two children, Britney and Tom. The family spends every year at the same nature resort. It’s almost as if Malcom is drawn to this place, though he isn’t sure why. He assumes it’s just because of the hiking, nature trails, and bike paths.

This year, however, things are different. The camp is being run by a strange man in an expensive suit and a necklace of what looks like (surely it can’t be) human teeth. And, even more to Malcom’s annoyance, they have a new neighbour, a native American man called Wandering River that Malcolm instantly dislikes. Steve deftly portrays the inherent racism at play without laying it on too thick. He drops us subtle clues throughout about Malcom’s attitudes and motivations which explain his actions and behaviours later on.

We sense Malcolm’s distain not only towards Native Americans, but also towards his environment. In other hands, Steve’s two big themes: our environmental footprint and the lack of equality in modern society, could be clunky or even preachy, but he ensures that we are invested in the characters and that the story itself remains king. Throughout, we alternate between sympathy and loathing, between understanding and repulsion. These undertones build along with the horror-tension, until one explosive scene where all hell breaks loose, and Malcolm and his family will never be the same again.

You see, Malcolm’s family take something from one of the ancient structures lying in the depths of the park. Now, the spirit that presides over the forest, the being known only as The Stranger, must take something from them…

Steve Stred’s handling of the supernatural elements in The Stranger is so potent it’s alarming, genuinely making me want to turn the light on at night. He shifts genre effortlessly: from family drama with racial undertones, to explosive Evil Dead-style splatterpunk, to a dark quest into an almost fantastical landscape. His explosive storytelling feels a little like the pacy prose of the great Carlton Mellick III, but with an added mix of bleak Japanese horror (Stred’s horror is similarly all-powerful and inescapable, which makes it all the more terrifying). The Stranger is even more effective than The Girl Who Hid In The Trees because he holds back for the first third or so of the book, building our expectation to excruciating levels. There are so many memorable moments in this story, both of the horrifying and emotive kind. His unflinching portrayal of loss and human suffering sets him apart from many other writers.

Alongside asking us to care more about our environment and our fellow man and woman, Stred asks some other big and bold questions. He asks whether its really is possible to redeem ourselves, and whether any apology is sufficient make up for catastrophic wrongs. He asks the question of what a creator of a universe might look like once they realise how screwed up human beings have become. And, he asks us to look at ourselves, because as we discover in The Stranger, can we really be sure who we are anyway?

In a way, I guess, the real stranger is the one we are to ourselves.