Chew On This! ed. Robert Essig (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

ChewonthisIn this anthology of horror stories themed around food, the scene is set by the utterly bizarre opening tale: “Meat or be Meaten” by Robert Bose and Sarah L. Johnson. The story is written from the perspective of a cat following the death of his owner, an elderly man obsessed with hoarding exotic meat. In fact, the man accumulated so many unusual items of meat that they have achieved sentience, becoming a meat-golem (his name is Darryl and he enjoys period romance novels). Together, they stumble upon the horrible truth behind the homeowner’s death.

A number of the anthology’s stories deal with secret ingredients – the delicious whiskey in Shenoa Carroll-Bradd’s “Barrel Aged”, to choose but one example – and do a thorough job of exploring the gross-out potential in this concept. “With a Little Salt and Vinegar” by John McNee is set at a Scottish port, where one of the dockers speaks of his impoverished childhood in an unspecified Slavic country, when he had so little food that he was forced to eat slugs; hearing this, his fellow dockers place bets on what increasingly disgusting food he would willingly eat. In “Seeds of Filth” by K. Trap Jones a fast-food waiter devices a disgusting punishment for verbally abusive customers, the story managing to eke a considerable amount of material from this basic concept.

Using food as an analogy for sex is nothing new in literature, and the anthology cheerfully combines the two on more than one occasion. This results in “Magick Brew” by Nikki Noir, where a love potion backfires at a Halloween party, and Kristopher Triana’s “The Feeding”. The latter story is about a lonely old man and his obsession with a beautiful girl who delivers sandwich takeaways; the man feels as though the sandwiches are restoring his lost youth and vitality – but his doctor disagrees.

Restaurants, of course, are used as settings for multiple stories. In “Consumption” by S. C. Mendes a popular food vlogger is invited to an exclusive event built around the most exotic and dangerous dishes – and then goes missing, prompting her colleague to journey into the world of extreme gastronomy to find her. Sylvia Anne Telfer’s “Hungry Ghosts” is about a theatre manager who arranges for his clients to have a special dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The stuck-up, bigoted manager treats the restaurateur’s culture with utter contempt – and is duly punished.

The weirdest of the restaurant-based stories is “Mermaid Caviar” by Victorya Chase. This is set in a future where the synthetic creation of babies is commonplace, and many prefer to order babies with disabilities or disorders because these are more interesting than able-bodied children. The story’s world is described in fairytale imagery, with a “Rapunzel Liberation Front” rescuing captive girls from castles where their hair is forced to grow (presumably to be harvested for DNA). The main character is a mermaid – or at least, conditioned to believe that she’s a mermaid – and is ordered to provide caviar to an exclusive club. Chase’s prose is brilliantly twisted:

The Rapunzel liberators and their actions had been growing in intensity. The last attack made the news because the castle collapsed killing all inside. Twelve young girls, hair glinting gold in the sun, were shown lined up next to each other, faces bloodied and covered in soot. The rags they wore burnt showing lithe limbs, also charred from the fire.

It goes without saying that cannibalism is a recurring theme in the anthology, but the authors generally avoid using the old Titus Andronicus/Soylent Green revelation as a twist in itself – that would too predictable. Instead, they tend to focus on the warped events leading up to the

cannibalism, or alternatively spend time exploring the aftermath. In “Made to Order” by Mark C. Scioneaux a struggling corndog vendor with an unpleasant wife finds a way to kill two birds with one stone – and all of that occurs in the first half of the story. Meanwhile, “A Woman’s Work” by Tonia Brown develops into a psychological story more subtle than might be suggested by its opening line: “Marcy was washing dishes when her husband brought home the dead baby for dinner.”

Grossness is the entire point of the anthology, but this does not mean that it lacks empathy or compassion. “Roly-Poly” by Vivian Kasley, about the ugly side-effects of a weight-loss pill, is notable for balancing stomach-churning depictions of bodily functions gone wrong with a sympathetic treatment of its fat protagonist.

A few of the stories use food as a plot device without specifically being about food as a theme. In “Grandma’s Favorite Recipe” by Ronald Kelly the narrator reminisces about a recently-departed grandmother, in the process telling a tale of intrigue and vice beneath a close-knit religious community; food comes into play when poison enters the plot. In Chad Lutzke’s “Cherry Red” is a good portrayal of childhood culture in which a boy eats vast amounts of breakfast cereal to get a toy car hidden in certain packets – and when he fails to obtain the prized item, he resorts to still more desperate measures.

Another food-as-plot-device story is Armand Rosamilia’s “Pork Roll, Egg & Charnel”. The protagonist here is a Vietnam veteran who, since returning to America, has literally smelt of death; he consequently becomes a recluse hell-bent on getting one of the few things to give him pleasure: a good pork roll. Meanwhile, “The Insomniac Gods of Blackberry Court” by Chad Stroup starts with rubbish piling up outside a derelict bungalow, and through a series of twists, heads in a direction that is first science fictional and then psychedelic.

This element of weirdness is crucial to Chew on This! The idea of a horror anthology about food may seem limited at first, conjuring up images of story after story about cannibalism or gross-out ingredients. As it happens, though, the authors are ready and willing to plunge into bizarre directions and give their readers something deliciously off-kilter.

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