May Cause Unexplained Ocular Bleeding by Nikolas P. Robinson (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

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This collection lays out its ethos with its opening story, “Drive Me Home”. The main character here is a college student who hits a man while drunk-driving and takes drastic measures to dispose of the body. Throughout much of the plot, there is a predictable twist ending in sight; yet this ending is ultimately swapped in favour of a different, much bleaker twist. What this story achieves – taking a simple premise and playing to great effect with the reader’s expectations – is a trick that turns up repeatedly throughout May Cause Unexplained Ocular Bleeding.

“The Right Tool for the Job” demonstrates author Nikolas P. Robinson’s playful attitude towards structure and pacing. It begins with a woman opening her door to find a neighbour covered in blood; at this point, the story effectively pauses to zoom in on the oddness of the situation, largely because the two neighbours were not particularly close. Their limited biography together is deconstructed for much of the story’s first half, while the second half explores the reason for the excess blood in much the same tone of analytical curiosity until it eventually reaches another twist ending.

A core strength of the book is how it is able to wed strong concepts with brisk pacing. Some of the stories are very brief, yet nonetheless pack punches. “Midnight Massacre” is a short, punchy story about a teenage boy coming across a pile of mutilated corpses at night; “Wake Up” is a second-person piece charting the quick narrative of a protagonist awakening to a nasty surprise; and “The Worms” drops us into the mind of a man convinced that he has screaming worms inside his head, and can silence them only through a combination of alcohol and abrasion to the cranium.

Robinson shows himself to be as comfortable with mundane horrors like vehicular homicide as he is with some flat-out bizarre subject matter. The latter is represented by “The Journey”, in which a man heads into the wilderness to investigate UFO sightings. As he nears his destination, he finds his penis has become a talking vagina that swears at him in French from inside his trousers – and this is just the beginning of the transformations. Similarly oddball is “Hell is for Rabbits”, a twisted comedy story in which a man finds his niece and nephew distraught because an accidental blood ritual has caused their rabbit to become demonically possessed. It turns out that the rabbit was not the only victim of the possession and the weird body horror that comes with it:

Mrs. Smith’s body appeared to be made up of nothing more than two opposing sets of grossly swollen labia with stubby legs and vestigial arms protruding from the normal places, and her head balanced on the top. Tattered strips of bloody flesh trailed down toward the ground at the edges and, at the center, the distinct crease hunting at a vaginal cavity. To Robert’s mind, it looked like the older woman’s vagina had somehow expanded and grown up her body, stretching from the normal crevasse between her legs up to her neck, consuming everything else along the way.

The stories that visit well-trodden genre ground still have merit. In “Horseplay” a narrator describes an illegal porn video that segues from bestiality to snuff: as familiar as the snuff-film premise may be, this is a strong treatment of the theme. Meanwhile, “It’s Fine…Everything Is Fine” is a zombie apocalypse story that treats the chaos and disorientation of the scenario with more humanity and conviction than is typical for this subgenre.

The collection ends with “Troglodyte”, an offbeat story in which a man moves back into his childhood home, keeping his presence a secret from his elderly parents by sleeping in a crawlspace beneath the house. The plot then follows his progress as he digs an elaborate tunnel system to live in – pausing along the way to reflect on his military career and failed marriage – until, more than a decade later, he returns to society and finds a changed world. The story meanders a little but hits a few poignant notes, and culminates in a classic EC-style twist – complete with pun.

Also included in the collection is a chapter of notes in which Robinson sheds light on his inspirations. The first story, with its drunk-driving theme, turns out to have been derived from the author’s own disgust at what he calls “my irresponsible, reprehensible behavior when I was altogether too old to pretend that I was young and dumb.” Other influences on Robinson’s fiction include his social anxiety, his habit of looking up extreme online videos during his youth, his reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic and – of course – his weirdest dreams.

Running through May Cause Unexplained Ocular Bleeding is a steadfast refusal to settle for the obvious. Even in stories that may, when summarised, seem like standard horror formula, Robinson’s determination to put his raw emotions on the page, and to surprise the reader by the end of each tale, remains evident.

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