This anthology of twenty three tales mirror their subject matter, flavorful as a triple burger and fries and as dangerous as hot grease Fried! is the first project from horror genre newcomer Graveside Tales.
Fried! starts with "Meat Drippings" by D.L. Snell, the story of a young man stuck in a job at a burger joint with coworkers who are more than willing to serve him up to minimize their own workload. With a zombie-inspired roaming pack of cannibal bums on the loose Kevin's co workers can't even make sure he gets home safe, exiling him as outside their social status. When Kevin stumbles into a random attack by a homeless bum his job becomes a benefit and an eventual way out of his lackluster life. This tale doesn't follow the expectations it sets up from the first line, which keeps the reader in a dark suspense, and only suffers from a poorly segued nightmare sequence that leads the reader to question if the final climax is a dream or not from the sudden jump between scenes.
"Bad Fish" by Gregg Winkler serves up an appetizer of unique voice and follows it with a main course of darkly amusing story. When Curtis and his brother take over their father's fish restaurant Curtis has the great idea to offer a "15 Pound Special" where the locals could come in and get any fish they caught over fifteen pound fried up by the cooks. Curtis thinks it's a great idea, but his brother is worried about the effects of cooking up a bad fish. When they finally do run into one of the foulest of the lake dwellers it's not the sort of "bad fish" one might normally expect.
"Station 19" by Michael Josef is the first completely serious tale in the line up and the best over all. While awkward in prose at times, perhaps because it's both first person and present tense, it couldn't be written any other way and capture the same feel. Here the restaurant isn't serving the people, but instead is a well manned, well baited trap for the zombies that live outside the perimeter of the town. Once their ingrained instincts call then into the blood scented, familiarly shaped building the humans close in and mow the zombies down, all in an effort to keep their town disease free. After the light tones of the previous pair of stories this one hits the reader hard, using both the life we know, and the zombies we know in a wonderful new way.
"Red, Yellow and Green" by Christopher J. Dwyer is the unlikely tale of a carnivorous ball pit. While interesting it doesn't move much past the concept or explanation stage, falling a little short of what it could be.
The title character in "The Drain" by Michael Hultquist is a voice that emanates from the sink of foul greasy spoon, casually telling main character Billy that his girlfriend is cheating on him and that his father is setting him up for sexual abuse by forcing him to remain in a job with a boss who hit on him. The only logical way to solve the problem is a killing spree of course. A familiar story in the trenches of horror, abuse and hopelessness due to feeling helpless, the story is competently written, but brings nothing new to the menu.
"Veggie Burger" by Bret Jordan is too short, too told rather than shown. The idea of an innocent looking veggie patty, chock full of strange seeds, and the strange people peddling the burgers with impossible green eyes, is intriguing, and has potential. But monologues of explaining almost never go off well in such a short space. Perhaps the future will bring a more in depth story from Jordan which is more of a meal than a free sample.
"Sugar Pie, Honey Pie" by Shanna Germain is a more subtle tale, weaving together beehive mentality, fast food and a touch of bitterness. It stars a young single mother trying to do better for herself and her daughter, to break away from her ailing sister who is supporting them, by training to become a manager at Bee's Burgers. As the reader can guess there's more to Bee's than it seems and the name isn't a marketing device, but an allusion to the chain's true nature. What is most enjoyable about this story is how the author weaves a sad sense of hopelessness into the new Queen-in-Training's life, making a last minute threat by the hive merely the straw that breaks the camel's back rather than the sole motivation for the new Bee.
"Something in the Water" by H.F. Gibbard is the tale of a fast food place gone nuts, at first it seems, due to a strange cult that wanders into the restaurant after their revival. But there's no supernatural cause to this insanity, instead it's just a biological one, reminding readers that devouring isn't the only way hidden danger can enter the body.
The tale of fast food icon coming back to show his disapproval of being modernized "An Army Marches on its Stomach" by Andy Kirby is too short, but packed with a strong sense of dark dread.
"The Applicant" by Kevin Lightburn is a straight forward, amusingly-overwritten slice of life story about about kid getting a job at a local burger joint. While the prose is dramatic, the plot is not, but it could have been if it centered around the narrator's musings about the nature of the restaurant and its manager.
"Clipped" by Jodi Lee is the only non-theme tale in the story. It is, however a tale of consumption, specifically a tale of pica, the compulsion to eat nonfood items. Norman, an accountant working alone one night is quite creepy in both his obsession with coworker and the pica. Like other stories in this book the tale could have been strengthened if pica was part of a progressive storyline rather than making it the story itself.
"The FNG" by James Patrick Cobb is almost the reverse of the previous story "The Applicant". Instead of a deceptive, deadly manager, it's the new employee, hired to work nights, that has a bizarre, dark secret. The author leads the reader well, as through the "FNG" he warns everyone, but the outcome is still unexpected.
"The Playspace" by Cody Goodfellow is stuffed full of fast food and parenting nightmares, from an over worked single dad very firmly under his toddler's thumb to secret parts of those twisting plastic play tubes. Theo's fear of screwing up his daughter's life by failing to expose her to other children or play alone experiences is a driving factor, along with the undertones that his darling girl might not have the sweetest of natures. When screams come from the playground Theo isn't sure if his daughter has hurt someone, or is her herself, but hidden in depths of the tubes is something Theo would have never expected. A bit messy at moments it is rather fun to see a dark, twisted version of Baby Einstein.
Rodney J. Smith's "Take Away" is the tale of a young backpacker who stops in a lonely dinner for some fast money to continue his travels. A bloodless addition to the anthology, "Take Away" is a metaphor for the endless, repetitive jobs found inside fast food doors.
"A Bad Case of the Meat Sweats" by Stephen Leclerc is a bizarre tale of "You are what you eat". As a man sits at his regular seat in his favorite restaurant reality takes a break and the man starts to hallucinate that he is morphing into the entrees. This one is for fans of the surreal and the bizzarro subgenres.
"Shift Change" by David Dunwoody is another tale of the truly bizarre, centering around a series of people all with a link to a fast food store. The scattered tale is like describing a dream, with a logic all its own, and leaves the reader feeling as if the tale has slipped through their fingers a moment faster than they can grasp it.
Lisa Becker's "Meat" is a moody piece about fading redneck whose past time is driving through the back roads with his best buddy, looking to make some roadkill. His rather vicious, but good natured idea of fun is soured when he discovers his friend isn't quite who he thinks he is when their latest piece of meat is something bigger than an ambushed deer. Becker weaves Clem's horror into the tale well, along with the shaking effects of a mid-story head wound.
"Snailwart" by MP Johnson is just ew, ew, ew. A psychotropic journey from something as simple as buying a pet to mutilation and gore this one has fast food, gross out and a powerful off-kilter feel. One of the best in the book.
Cheryl Rainfield's "Comfort Food" is the tale of a girl who finds herself at a typical fast food place, with her father for their weekly breakfast out. Only she can't remember how she got there or where she was the night before. With a plot out of a made-for-TV movie "Comfort Food" is laced with mental drama, inaction and a sudden, somewhat convenient end.
"Lunchtime at the Justice Cafe" by Ken Goldman is down home viciousness. McAllister is a salesman who stopped at a tiny off-the-map town for a sale and a meal and finds far, far more than he can handle. Sweet and bitter as rotted fruit Goldman's got the twisted hick tale down.
"Happinex" by KJ Kabza is a mix of hallucinations and fast food, the tale of a guy, trying to drug himself into normalcy which means a job slinging burgers in a haunted restaurant. The ghosts are almost out of context, mentioned and used for "Are they real or not?", "Is he crazy or not?" tension. The characters and the plot aspects fail to completely congeal, setting up readers to leave this story as uncertainly as they began it.
"The Bocan" by Joel A. Sutherland a little girl meets a grim, wicked version of a fast food mascot when left unattended by her mother in the play area. Readers will be hard pressed to feel any sympathy for the mother, who only seems to be there to complain. As for the child herself, faced with tough choices there are no surprises in her answers, self-profiting and manipulated by a creature she doesn't understand, little Faith will likely never forget this particular trip for a meal.
Summing up the anthology is "Feeding Frenzy" by Matt Hults, possibly the longest story in the book. Ron and Greg are drawn to a burnt out restaurant on the edge of the highway, up for sale, cheap and only requiring a bit of work before it's ready to go. But as soon as the men and the Realtor, Wendy, are inside customers start showing up and the restaurant starts regenerating itself. "Feed the customers... Obey the rules!" a sign on the wall says and Greg, Ron and Wendy quickly find themselves trapped in a fast food hell where the in the junk food slinging life there isn't a metaphor for a soul sucking job or a statement on the gullibility and greed of humans, there's the rules of life and death itself. A strong end to the book this one's worth skipping a head for.
"Fried! Fast Food, Slow Deaths" isn't a book for the awards circuit or those who want to push the genre into bold new spaces. Fried! is an anthology of guilty indulgences, B-movie and made-for-TV tales that much like the theme, we know we shouldn't consume in such vast quantities, but we do anyway.