Baker’s Dozen, ed. Candace Nola (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

BakersDozen

Its title a cute double-meaning, this anthology gathers together thirteen horror stories that are all, in one way or another, themed around baking. One – “Next Best Baker” by Jeff Strand – was also a finalist for Best Short Story. But what of the other twelve…?

Some of the stories treat the baked goods themselves as the sources of horror, with various questionable morsels issuing from ovens. In “My Lil’ Cupcake” by Lee Franklin, a gross and slobbish fisherman eats a cupcake made by his wife before a round of angling. This morsel has unforeseen effects: he has to deal with painful bodily functions at one end and bizarre hallucinatory visions at the other, in what turns out to be the start of a shaggy dog story involving a love triangle. In “Just a Local Thing” by Kenzie Jennings, a preteen girl visiting Florida with her parents is delighted to find a novelty bakery selling a cake shaped like an alligator eating a naked man – and markedly less delighted when she later sees the real thing. Daniel Volpe’s “Of Dough and Cinnamon” starts as a Last House on the Left-esque story about a Jewish baker, his daughter and a gang of rapists, and for much of its run it is a solid execution of an overfamiliar premise. Then comes a fantastical twist ending that makes novel use of both the story’s cultural backdrop and the motif of baking…

These are the stories with literal interpretations of the baking premise; others explore the symbolic aspects of the theme. Carver Pike’s “Blueberry Hill” follows a high school senior who is taken advantage of while drunk at a party, and her YouTube channel is subsequently bombarded with obscene comments – many comparing her to a blueberry pie – and revenge porn. An examination of high school culture at its ugliest, the story arrives at a supernatural twist: the main character happens to be friends with a witch who helps her to obtain revenge with the aid of cursed food.

Folktales feature some iconic examples of baked goods – think of the house of the witch encountered by Hansel and Gretel, or the doomed flight of the gingerbread man – and a few of the tales in Baker’s Dozen tap into this folkish ambience. “Pretzels of God” by Christine Morgan details the rivalry between two monks – one the saintly Brother Jehan, the other the anonymous narrator, who resents Jehan for his piety, the (unrequited) attention he receives from the nuns, and for his skill at baking pretzels. The protagonist’s desire to bring down his better shifts from spite to brutality, and the story climaxes with a scene of the fairy tale macabre. In Ruthann Jagge’s ruritarian tale “Piebird”, a young woman who works in her parents’ bakery dreams of finding a man to take her away – but her disfiguring facial burns have rendered her an outcast, with superstitious locals calling her a witch. She receives aid in the unlikely form of a talking cat, which asks for payment in the form of increasingly gruesome pie varieties.

One of the longer entries is Chris Miller’s “Apple Pies & Diamond Eyes”, a shaggy-dog story in which a woman named Karen (and conforming to the characteristics associated with that name) attempts to obtain an apple pie, leading her into a situation where she must contend with an armed robbery, a drug addict with a fixation on the baker, and a bevy of hormonal cheerleaders.

Some of the stories make only a tangential usage of the baking element. In “A Muffin in the Oven” by Aron Beauregard, two women visit an eccentric friend who announces that she is pregnant – and then claims that she was impregnated by “the people in the sky”. Her friends are disturbed by all of this, particularly when it turns out that her claim is no mere delusion, This story’s sole relevance to the theme of the anthology is through its usage of baking as a metaphor for pregnancy, with the woman putting a muffin in her oven at the start as an announcement to her friends.

“They’re Always Watching” by Patrick C. Harrison III is similarly themed around meeting a loved one who exhibits strange behaviour. This time, a woman helps her dementia-suffering mother with cooking and is disturbed to find that the latter owns a gun, and keeps making enigmatic references to thieves and murder. The story is successful, offering a poignant vision of the characters’ relationship while unease grows steadily until the twist ending, but the baking element is very loose: the two could have just as easily been carrying out any number of other household tasks. “Homegrown Comeuppance” by Rowland Bercy Jr, is one of the weaker stories. As well as the baking element being arbitrary (the main character is a baker, but again, he could easily have been given a different job), the storyline of the baker panting a carniverous tree meanders around but never takes off. “Death, and a Donut” by Michael Ennenbach also has a tenuous connection to baking, but the story is funny enough for this to be forgivable: it follows a day in the life of the Grim Reaper as he purchases donuts, balloons and even a Build-a-Bear; along the way, he extends the lives of those who do him small favours, and mercilessly terminates anyone rude to him.

The anthology’s editor, Candace Nola, also has a story on show: “County Contest”, in which a baker and his assistant (the latter of whom has a shady history) encounter a deeply unpleasant customer in the run-up to the county jam-making contest.

It would be hard to wrap up a review of Baker’s Dozen without resorting to some sort of food metaphor: the temptation is just too great (as tempting as a big, pink-iced donut, perhaps). What we have here are thirteen baked delicacies; some are fluffy, heavily-sugared pieces of comedy-horror, while others are a little more savoury, with enjoyably bitter aftertastes. One or two could perhaps have spent more time in the oven, but even in these cases, there is always another tasty morsel lined up on the counter.

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