★★★ Sex, drugs, and a supersized dose of nefarious magical realism reign supreme in Keith Starblue’s Dark Stories for the Mind: A Dream or a Nightmare, the author’s second short story collection. Starblue digs into the male consciousness to deliver flashes of terror and torture amid masochistic flights of pleasure. Through clipped dialogue and detached perspective, Starblue arranges his characters as dolls in a mad dollhouse, where he alone pulls the sadistic strings. There’s dealings with the devil, aliens, magical gloves, and many other plot devices that all tell stories with a singular central theme—men alternating between dominating and succumbing to female sexuality.
Even with the warning on the title page, this was a challenging book to read due to the pitch-black thematic elements. The constant violence against women, especially sexually, is stomach turning and done very lightly—the women in the story are merely mechanisms for men to learn the moral of the story (or lack thereof). The dark fantasy of this collection could be improved upon by giving the women in the stories agency, rather than just active sex drives, which would also serve to make the collection appealing to a wider audience. Dark fantasy is a very popular genre right now, but the books that succeed allow the reader to connect with the characters in a complex manner. In A Dream or a Nightmare, the characters lean hard into a duality, with no room for layered development. This, more than anything, puts a wall between the story and the reader, preventing their full connection (and therefore immersion) to the haunting world created by the union of these short stories.