Last Meal in Osaka and Other Stories
As part of #DemainDecember on this blog, I’m reviewing as many titles from Horror publisher Demain Publishing as I can in December. Because, quite frankly, nothing typifies the spirit of Christmas more to me than seven days (at least!) of high-quality short-form Horror fiction encompassing a number of different subgenres. So over the coming week, as well as any other reviews I manage to write up, I’ll be reviewing some of the Horror, Sci-Fi (and Crime) novellas recently released by Demain, as well as a number of titles in their excellent Short Sharp Shocks! imprint.
Given the relatively short length of all of the titles in the Short Sharp Shocks! series, I was initially somewhat sceptical when I came across Martin Richmond’s Beasties & Other Stories, the first multi-story entry in the series. I was uncertain that such a limited word-count could be utilised effectively to produce more than one horror short story; but I was very happy to be proven wrong, with all three of Richmond’s stories being engaging and unsettling and horrifying in equal measure and not feeling rushed in any way. So I was looking forward to reading the next multi-story title, and was therefore thrilled to discover Gary Buller’s Last Meal in Osaka and Other Stories in the latest tranche of SSS! titles to be released by Demain. I was curious to see what this last meal might consist of, and the context around it, and my (literary) appetite was further whetted by one of Adrian Baldwin’s iconic covers, featuring a rather delicious-looking bowl of food.
We open this trilogy of short horror fiction with Swashbuckle Cove, a tale of two brothers, a family holiday and a cheap, washed-up and poorly-maintained holiday resort. Brothers Greg and Harry decide that the resort is too boring and undertake a bout of illegal urban exploring, moving into the depths of Swashbuckle Cove, which appears to be a disused and abandoned water ride on the grounds of the resort. As an added bonus, their father used to go on the ride when he was a boy, so there’s a family connection that adds an extra reason to go and investigate the ride. However, it becomes obvious early on that Swashbuckle Cove isn’t the aquatic delight it was in their father’s day, and there’s a very good reason that it isn’t in use any more. Buller gets the relationship between brothers down perfectly, the blend of constant one-upmanship that means neither wants to give up and disappoint the other; a mechanic that only further contributes to the horrors lurking in the waters they slowly sail through. Add to that the grim atmosphere of a disused, damaged and run-down amusement park, and you have an enjoyable, fast-paced and atnospheric monster thriller to open the collection
The collection then continues with the titular Last Meal in Osaka, in which a middle-aged Westerner attends a strange Japanese restaurant, which appears to be oddly isolated and small in size, to the extent that only a single person can be served at a time. But the food and drink provided are absolutely exquisite, and the service second to none – quite literally the best that (a significant amount of) money can provide. Indeed it should be of that quality, given the price (and not just in money) to actually deliver them. You see, protagonist Curtis is dying of a rare and incurable disease, and the restaurant is serving him his final meal – but there is a catch to eating in this particular establishment, one that I genuinely hadn’t seen coming. That rather shocking reveal, not to mention a last-minute twist that had my eyebrows raising to the stratosphere in surprise, made this tale the highlight of Last Meal in Osaka and Other Stories for me.
The curiously-titled Rise of the Chiggy-Pigs rounds off the collection. The Chiggy-Pigs themselves are the nickname given by a boy’s father to woodlice – or rather, a strange kind of woodlice-type creatures suddenly unearthed in the garden during an innocent bout of playful digging. They’re a sinister force in that garden, lying in wait as the family disintegrates under social and employment pressures, and then again when the protagonist ventures out into his own, flawed life that slowly but surely disintegrates. It’s slow-paced and terrifying story, especially for the fact that what happens to the protagonist has no rational explanation or specific reason, and it’s a great slice of weird horror to finish off the collection with.
I thoroughly enjoyed Last Meal in Osaka and Other Stories and found it to be a short collection of varied, imaginative and coldly horrifying stories that deftly demonstrated Gary Buller’s skill as a writer of horror fiction. Although the collection in general was limited by the short nature of Short Sharp Shock! titles, Buller was still able to produce three distinct and creative stories that were unsettling and often outright chilling in terms of their plotting and implications.