Posts will primarily focus on Science-Fiction and Fantasy titles, with an occasional dip into other genres such as crime, and will include the following content:Book Reviews, Graphic Novel Reviews, Author Interviews
This is the first collection of Horror fiction that I’ve come across from Demain Publishing, previously only having focused on the short stories published under their Short Sharp Shocks! Imprint. However I’m a keen advocate for expanding the amount of historical Horror currently being written, as I think there’s far too much being written that focuses on the present day period, and to me a collection of stories centred around the experiences of the First World War is exactly what I think the genre needs to stay fresh. The Darkest Battlefield is a spiritual sequel to a collection called Darker Battlefields, which was published by The Exaggerated Press in 2016 and collected supernatural Horror stories that primarily focused on the Second World War.
In the Foreword he contributes to The Darkest Battlefield, author Adrian Chamberlain – who also edited Darker Battlefields – highlights why it’s so important to have Horror fiction that is set in and around the conflict that raged between 1914 and 1918. Although the nature of the Second World War provides much-needed moral clarity, Chamberlain deftly highlights that the seeds of that conflict were sown during the First World War, with Marshal Ferdinand Foch himself stating in 1919 that the end of the conflict was merely “an armistice for twenty years”. The war had a multitude of effects on those who fought in it, and wider society as a whole; and the tales contained within the collection are an attempt to merge supernatural horror with the entirely man-made horror of the First World War.
The collection opens with Where the Wounded Trees Wait by Paul Edwards, an ethereal and often intensely atmospheric tale that takes an indirect approach to the horrors of the French battlefields. A woman arrives at Mametz Wood, one of the many areas that saw horrific fighting and bloodshed during the Somme campaign in 1916. At first, Edwards gives us the impression that she is simply there to try and find the exact location where her grandfather died during the campaign, something that countless families have done over the decades; it’s strongly hinted that she has picked up the baton from her grandmother, who died before being able to finish the melancholy task.
But it isn’t long before the author begins to weave in supernatural elements, and it becomes evident that protagonist Caryl is a tortured soul, plagued both by a tumultuous childhood and fractured adult relationships, and a psychic gift that she only partially understands. Together they drive her further and further away from reality and into the past, seeking out the relationship between her grandmother and grandfather that represents a cherished ideal for her. The story features some moving and deeply engaging characterisation, as Edwards unravels a skein of complex and often obscured relationships, all of which serve to propel the plot forward towards its tragic and entirely bittersweet ending. Allied with some fantastic writing, and intriguing thoughts on the nature of nationality and belonging, Where the Wounded Trees Wait is a slow-paced, emotionally-wrought and deeply thoughtful piece of horror.
Maria, by Terry Grimwood, takes us back to the conflict itself and, in a rare case of looking at the other side in the war, focuses on the character of Major Ernst Dreyer of the Imperial German Army. Although set during the latter part of the war, the origins of the horror inflicted throughout Grimwood’s tale are to be found during Ernst’s childhood. Raised by a distant, emotionless mother and a father who inflicted horrific punishments on him for perceived slights, a terrified Ernst makes a hasty pact with a kindly woman to save himself from further abuse. But the woman is far from what she seems, and the price of temporary salvation is permanent bloodshed. Childhood abuse is a difficult subject to tackle, even if well-suited to the Horror genre, but Grimwood deals with it in a sensitive and engaging manner that makes it crucial to the plot and advances the narrative. Ernst is an interesting and likeable character, moulded by his early experiences and remaining principled, even rejecting the influence his father’s title would have conferred upon him.
The bulk of the plot takes place in the dying months of the conflict as the German Army begins to reel under the hammer blows of repeated Allies offensives, with Ernst trying to find balance between his duties and the sacrifices demanded by to his childhood pact. Those sacrifices are found in the fighting at the front, and Grimwood delivers some grimly realistic portrayals of men dealing with the horrors of war that I’ve seen in a long time; even more so when you consider the rarity of seeing the German viewpoint depicted in English-language fiction. Scenes where the Germans cower under the power of a British artillery bombardment, flesh and sanity fraying and then snapping, are both intense and brutal. The ending to the plot is rather easy to guess in all honesty, but it’s skillfully executed and is enhanced by the superb depictions of trench warfare found in the story
The third of the four stories is All Hell by Richard Farren Barber, which moves the focus of the collection to the home front in Britain. The horrors of war were felt just as keenly at home as they were in the trenches, and Barber unflinchingly highlights the devastating reactions to the news of death. There is a scene early on in the story, where wives wait outside their doors, for the arrival of a War Office messenger delivering formal notices of a husband or son being killed or missing in action, that is harrowing in its depiction of loss and grief. The author does a good job of showing how the wives and lovers try and cope with the atmosphere of fear, and then delves into some of the more fascinating, and lesser-known, reactions to that loss.
The rise of psychics who attempted to contact those who died during the First World War is one of the lesser-known aspects of the conflict. Though they were all frauds, often doing little more than scamming their victims, it was reflective of the chaos, destruction and horror that the conflict wrought on the home front and an attempt by loved ones to try and make sense of it all. Mary, the protagonist, comes into contact with one of these psychics – who claims she can keep sons and husbands alive – but at a price Mary and her friends can barely comprehend. Barber vividly describes the stranger, especially the repulsive odour that lingers around her, and announces her sinister presence; she’s one of the most memorable characters in the entire collection.
As the story progresses, the subdued and emotional horror of the story gives way to more explicit and surreal horror, and as a reader we’re lead down the path of questioning just how real the entire situation is. Barber makes it very clear that war breaks down social boundaries and common mores, leading people to do things they’d never dreamed of previously. Is the pale woman real – did she really exist at all, or was she just a figment of imagination created out of desire to protect, frustration, impotency? The ending is rather clichéd, the literary equivalent of a jump-scare, unfortunately rather spoiling the ambiguity of the bulk of the story. Despite this, however, All Hell remains a superbly atmospheric and chilling piece of historical horror that focuses on a neglected ‘front’ of the conflict and blends together the effects of faith and fear.
Finally we come to Anthony Watson’s The Lost, which is a more traditional and straight-forward story than the others, an action-orientated tale of two men frantically racing against time to stop an ancient horror being unleashed in No Man’s Land. I was eager to read Watson’s contribution to the collection, having thoroughly enjoyed Shattered, his contribution to the Short Sharp Shocks! imprint from the same publisher, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed. Although the plot itself is less ambiguous than the others in The Darkest Battlefield, this is more than compensated for by the intense atmosphere that Watson generates within the novella’s pages, and the superb characterisation. Our two protagonists are a field surgeon and a priest, and the horrors of their vocations during wartime are memorably brought to life. We get to experience the exhaustion and despair of being a doctor in the trenches; the hopelessness generated as the latest weapons of war defeat your ability to save the lives of grievously-wounded soldiers; the need to go on despite everything you’ve seen because you swore an oath to save lives. Much the same applies to the chaplain, who sees just as much suffering, pain and death on a daily basis, tending to the wounded and dying after the latest pointless fighting.
In many ways the two men and their professions make a natural pairing to investigate the case of an apparently haunted medical station near the front-lines, and Watson does a superb job of humanising the two men and showing how a blossoming friendship is relied upon to face both human and supernatural horrors. The daily – hourly – horrors of the trenches are then enhanced by the knowledge that an ancient sorcerer is attempting to use the deaths of the men on both sides to finalise an apocalyptic spell, and then two men are forced into a desperate race against time to stop the spell from being completed. The blood-spattered, shadow-wreathed medical station is almost a character by itself, with a cold and foreboding atmosphere, and is part of what makes the story so impressive. The Lost was by far my favourite of the collection, and I’d love to see a sequel published by Demain in the near future.
The Darkest Battlefield is an important collection of historical horror, being one of the few attempts I’m aware of to tackle the subject of the First World War in the context of the sub-genre. The four stories found within its pages are superbly written and tightly plotted, and filled with psychological, supernatural and often all-too human examples of the horrors to be found in the context of that world-altering conflict. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through The Darkest Battlefield and would hope that similar collections, looking again at the First World War and also at other conflicts, are to come from Demain Publishing.
[Please note that the author kindly provided a review copy in return for an honest review of this title]
I first came across author Wesley Southard on The Horror Show with Brian Keene back in 2018, in a highly enjoyable and often frank interview about his career as an author and the influences on his writing. As I’ve never gone wrong in reading titles highlighted or recommended on Mr Keene’s podcast, I made a note to look out for Mr Southard’s work; and while I wasn’t able to read any titles previously, Mr Keene’s weekly email mentioned that Mr Southard had a book coming out in June 2019, and that ARCs were available. This seemed like the perfect opportunity, and Mr Southard was kind enough to send me an electronic ARC of One For The Road in return for an honest review.
A couple of things caught my eye right away, the first of which was the stunning piece of cover art provided by publisher Deadite Press. What at first just appears to be a (blood-soaked) forest setting gradually turns into something much more unsettling the more you stare at it; you notice the gigantic eye-stalk hovering in the background or, more worryingly, the eerie teeth-bedecked creatures that are coming out of the shadows. Then there was the cover blurb: how could I resist the tale of Spencer Hesston, a disillusioned guitarist who wants to quit the heavy metal band he’s fallen in with, only to find that quitting is far harder than he imagined when a drunken night turns into a hellish day?
Heavy metal-infused horror isn’t something that I’ve come across previously, but I’m a huge fan of that style of music, so this novella instinctively appealed to me; and as I read One For The Road, I quickly discovered that the very essence of the genre runs through the novella. When Hesston describes discovering heavy metal when he was young and describes it as “Music with style, an edge – one with a driving force that makes you think differently…” he’s mirroring my attitude exactly when I discovered it myself. That style and edge runs through the entire novella, propelling the narrative along and using it as inspiration for imagery, creatures and a general sense of atmosphere that wouldn’t look out of place in your average heavy metal music video. Hesston himself is something of a rough and ready character, open and honest with the reader and obviously a talented guitar player, but burnt out and disillusioned with touring with a band that’s never quite taken off. He has a distinctive voice and an engaging personality, something which is rarely easy to pull off when writing in the first person; and Southard deftly portrays a musically gifted but sensitive soul tired of his crass bandmates.
That portrayal extends to the other members of Rot in Hell, and one of the best parts of One For The Road are the pen portraits Southard assembles. From the charismatic but overbearing and deeply arrogant lead singer, to the weird bassist and the terrifying presence of the groupie/enforcer who looms over all of them, all six band members feel fully fleshed-out and authentic despite the relatively short length of the novella. They’re all more than a little odd, which appears to be de-rigeur for a heavy metal band, and Southard skilfully builds up the tension and atmosphere of barely-restrained desperation as they tour to increasingly miniscule crowds. The relationships between them are built up in the opening chapters, with conflict becoming all but inevitable as a split forms, personalities sparking off each other in some memorably tense scenes of verbal and near-physical sparring.
Then once that complex web of relationships, frustration and barely-concealed anger is established, Southard drops the group into a hellish landscape. The group were barely holding it together in their own reality, and when they enter a strange town whose landscape changes constantly. The horror builds up slowly as Southard ratchets up the tension, and there’s this fantastic use of noise, contrasting the constant, overbearing noise that musicians live with during their tours with the oppressive silence of the town. But when the horror starts, it really starts and Southard hits you with surreal, terrifying creatures that are some of the most disconcerting monsters I’ve ever seen described. The monsters aren’t just physically terrifying but also psychologically scarring, digging into the band member’s psyches to haunt them.
Physical horror blends with surreal imagery and psychological terror, and the already-tenuous bonds of friendship and solidarity fray apart completely as Hesston and the others desperately try and escape. At its heart One For The Road is a skilfully-orchestrated character study of what happens when a group of people are put under intense, soul-shredding pressure; and it would not work anywhere near as well if the members of Rot in Hell were not so well-developed. The novella’s pace is superbly judged, especially towards the end of the novella, and it feels like every other page has Southard introducing something deeply unsettling yet instantly memorable up as he tortures the band. There were scenes where I cringed harder than I have for a long time, and also one completely fucked-up scene involving a giant rabbit that had me simultaneously laughing and near-gagging at what Southard was depicting.
Deftly written, horrifically imaginative, and imbued with the spirit and character of the heavy metal genre that Southard then twists to his own dark ends, I’m confident in calling One For The Road an instant classic of the Horror genre that I have no doubt will stand the test of time.
I continue to be impressed by the quality of the titles being released by Demain Publications, who are rapidly (and rightfully) earning a reputation for being one of the best new publishers in the Horror genre. Their Short Sharp Shocks! imprint is continuing to deliver – as the name implies – high-quality short slices of Horror fiction that range across the genre, all for the incredibly low price of 99p (or free on Kindle Unlimited). There’s even the great news that the publisher is moving to expand their range with the announcement of Mystery and Science-Fiction imprints, and I eagerly look forward to seeing what comes out of those projects. I’m continuing to focus on their Horror output for the moment, however, and a few of their latest titles have caught my eye; beginning with Dulce et Decorum Est from author Dan Howarth.
Once again we have the usual impressive cover art from Demain, the stark contrast between black background and blood-red border, the latter garnished with an ominous skull, and the monochrome picture – this time of a Victoria Cross, linking up with that ominous and infamous title. I don’t think there’s a schoolchild in the UK who won’t have at least a passing familiarity with the poem that the phrase comes from, and despite its saturation it’s still a powerful piece of poetry. The accompanying back cover blurb sets the tone of the piece – a homesick child on a school trip to the battlefields of the Somme; the recognition of a doppelganger in a picture of soldiers who died in the area; and a face that comes to haunt him, quite literally.
It’s a fantastic idea for a short story, especially as it’s one that so many people of my generation (and others) can readily identify with. I’ve been there myself, and as I began reading Dulce et Decorum Est, I immediately identified and empathised with protagonist Gareth; I was exactly the same as him, the quiet, gawky child who had a huge interest in military history but suffered from intense and depressing bouts of bullying from classmates and alleged friends. Howarth sets the tone of the piece expertly, deftly portraying the emotional and physical isolation suffered by Gareth as the trip progresses, the only kindness offered to him displayed by a teacher who seemingly can’t help but blend condescension in with kindly advice. As if that wasn’t enough, the discovery of a doppelganger in a photo of soldiers only increases the pressure on him, as it’s used by his classmates to further torment him. The similarity of the face haunts Gareth, and Howarth does an excellent job of maintaining the ambiguity of whether the doppelganger is actually haunting him throughout the trip, or whether it’s simply a case of a young child’s psyche bending and breaking from peer pressure and bullying.
Howarth lacerates the whole story with a sense of unreality and deep, intense uneasiness as Gareth is forced to confront that doppelganger and his classmates, and the tension is regularly ratcheted upwards as his bizarre twin’s appearances increase. That unease is only increased by the way in which Howarth depicts the Ypres, a city that continues to be haunted by the violence of the First World War, displaying an uneasy tension between trying to honour the past while carrying on with the present, and it makes a fitting location for the story, often feeling literally smothered in regret and bitterness. That bitterness comes in the form of a generation of young men who died for a nationalistic project but couldn’t comprehend why, and that anger is directly projected onto the unfortunate Gareth.
The ending, when it comes, is unexpected, brutal and makes no sense, but it’s not meant to, because it reflects the reality of the death of Gareth’s doppelganger and his fellow soldiers on the Somme. It is simultaneously meaningful and meaningless, and left me feeling uncomfortable for some time after I finished reading it. Dulce et Decorum Est is a fantastic piece of Horror fiction from author Dan Howarth, and yet another triumph for Demain Publishing.
Three strangers arrive on a cemetary world, an entire planet dedicated entirely to the deceased of the Imperium of Man, meeting in one of the thousands of plazas on the surface and surrounded by funeral biers that stretch as far as the eye can see. The only other living things on the planet are servitors, lobotomised androids that maintain all of the monuments to the fallen. None of them can remember exactly how they arrived on the planet, nor do they know why they have been summoned there. Their only link appears to be that they are loyal servants of the Emperor of Mankind – a Commissar, a senior officer in the Imperial Guard, and an Ecclesiarchy missionary. Confused and unsettled, they decide to each take their turn in describing the last thing that they remember, in the hopes that some shared commonality will enlighten them.
It’s a classic scenario for a piece of horror fiction, harking back to old black and white Hammer Horror films, and it certainly grabbed my attention. But I’ll readily admit that I was somewhat skeptical as to whether The Wicked and the Damned could really produce something distinctive enough to warrant being published under the new Warhammer Horror imprint. Horror is of course inherent to Warhammer, especially the 40K universe, what with its demons, eldritch gods, sanity-shredding warp travel and an endless, futile conflict against countless alien races and Chaos-worshipping cultists that has lasted tens of thousands of years. But I’ve always felt that even the best stories have been somewhat constrained by the fact that they, at heart, fiction based on a miniature wargame system. Although that system has changed occasionally, especially in the past few years, those changes have always influenced the titles released by Black LIbrary, and never vice-versa. I therefore wondered if it was possible for Warhammer fiction to break out of those constraints, and produce truly transgressive Horror stories.
When I picked up my copy of The Wicked and the Damned, the portents were certainly good. There was that lavish piece of cover art by illustrator Allan Ohr, a trio of shattered skulls surrounded by smaller skulls and creepy red candles, all on a pitch-black background with a suitably devilish font. And the three contributors couldn’t have excited me more – although I hadn’t encountered Phil Kelly before, I’d heard good things about his fiction, and in my opinion David Annandale and Josh Reynolds are two of the best Black Library writers, demonstrating an innate understanding of the Warhammer universe and the horrors to be found within it. So there was an excellent writing pedigree, a sharp-looking cover that effectively portrayed the themes of the book, and the physical book has some neat black-tinted pages at the bottom and side, just to make it stand out more.
The collection opens with Josh Reynolds’ The Beast in the Trenches, and right away you can tell that there’s something inherently different about the stories in this collection, compared to previous offerings from the Black Library. There have been many Warhammer stories focusing on the role of the Commissar, but these characters have always had to be contextualized to the Warhammer roleplaying game – assigned to an identifiable Imperial Guard regiment, or stationed on a planet known to the canon (even if new) and fighting an identifiable enemy. Reynolds completely disregards all of these anchors. Commissar Egin Valemar is assigned to an unknown regiment, fighting an unseen enemy, on an unnamed planet. The Commissar as a trope in Warhammer is supposed to be fanatically loyal and intensely paranoid, but Valemar is entirely unhinged, convinced that an unseen enemy has infiltrated the regiment, and taking increasingly extreme measures to prevent its alleged corruption. Valemar’s actions take place against a backdrop of an intensely atmospheric and highly ambiguous conflict in First World War-style trenches; casualties are high and continuous from artillery that seems to come from both sides, and a complete absence of an actual enemy to fight. Even the terrain itself kills, the mud and ooze of the trenches shifting randomly, sucking in men and women without warning. Reynolds masterfully evokes the hellish conditions of trench warfare and the stressors caused by fighting in such conditions, and weaves that into Valemar’s narrative; fanaticism clashes with expediency, and men and women just trying to survive in a seemingly-endless conflict that kills them for no real reason. There’s also some delicious ambiguity by the end, as it becomes less and less obvious what the regiment is doing, and what the Commissar is actually achieving in his mindless pursuit of loyalty and purity.
After that strong opening to the triptych, we come to Phil Kelly’s The Woman in the Walls, a grimdark take on the classic Horror scenario of a guilty party being haunted by a vengeful spirit. An ambitious officer in an Imperial Guard regiment, Leana Venderson arranges for a rival to have an accident, to allow her to advance in rank, only for the accident to turn fatal. When the regiment departs onto a troopship to advance to the next warzone, Venderson and her compatriots finds themselves trapped on the ship being hunted by an impossibly strong and angry ghost. I enjoyed the way that Kelly developed the complex, class-ridden relationships to be found within the regiment, which forces Venderson to use a murderous assault as a way to advance, and he uses the claustrophobic nature of the troopship to excellent effect, creating some tense chase scenes and bloody murder scenes. It’s an enjoyable and often chilling story, albeit the weakest in the collection for me because the high quality of the writing was never quite matched by that of the plot; it never quite stood out from previous Warhammer 40K stories I’d read in the past that were set on vessels affected by the Warp.
Finally we come to David Annandale’s The Faith and the Flesh, which in my opinion is the best of the three novellas in The Wicked and the Damned, just about outdoing Mr Reynolds’ contribution, as well as being one of the best sci-fi horror stories I’ve come across in some time. A ship-breaking station in the depths of space, isolated and crewed by a tiny handful of crew-members, is the setting for a story that cuts to the heart of the concept of faith, belief versus evidence, and the inherent horror to be found in answers to those questions in the Warhammer 40K universe. Oswick Marrikus, an Ecclesiarchy missionary, travels to the station to visit an old friend and tend to the needs of the crew; or at least that’s his excuse. In fact Marrikus is a man with a crisis of faith, struggling with the demands of duty, faith and love, issues that Annandale deftly intertwines as the plot progresses. Just as he reaches his nadir, Marrikus and the crew discover an ancient ship with a cargo that seems like an Emperor-sent opportunity to discover the true meaning of faith and solve all of his problems. Unfortunately, rash actions lead to something ancient, eldritch and terrifying being unleashed instead. Annandale uses his novella to relentlessly and ruthlessly interrogate the nature of the Imperial Faith – and, really, all religious faith – in a way that I’ve never seen before in a Warhammer story; there aren’t any easy answers, just more and more difficult questions. Add to that some brilliant atmospheric writing and characterisation, especially for Marrikus, and a tense and horrifying second half that feels like an even terrifying version of Event Horizon, and you have a story that perfectly demonstrates Annadale’s intrinsic understanding of the Warhammer universe.
The Wicked and the Damned is formed of three great pieces of Horror fiction, two of which are especially transgressive and deliver unique angles on the Warhammer 40K universe, and all three delivering spine-chilling and stomach-churning horror and terror in equal doses. The collection is really only let down by the connective passages – the three interludes between the stories. Although Part 1 sets the tone and themes of the story well enough, there just isn’t enough detail to join the three novellas together. The last Part is particularly frustrating; although as well-written as the rest of the book, it just doesn’t feel anywhere near long enough to do the three writers and their novellas justice, and feels like the author was forced to hit an arbitrary word-count limit and leave certain elements of the plot unfinished. But this is a relatively minor concern, and I have no hesitation in calling The Wicked and the Damned a brilliant start to the Warhammer Horror imprint, and I’d love to see all three authors do more stories for it.
Well, another day and another attractive cover from illustrator Adrian Baldwin for the latest entry in Demain Publishing’s Short Sharp Shocks! series. I’m having a lot fun doing mini-reviews of these horror shorts, all of which so far that I’ve read certainly living up to their series title. Another tranche were just released by Demain, and to my delight one was written by Calvin Demmer, an author I encountered all the way back in May 2018 when I reviewed his first title, the short story collection The Sea Was A Fair Master. I found it to be an impressive and assured title that demonstrated an inherent understanding of how to write good horror, and I looked forward to seeing what he would come up with in The Town That Feared Dusk.
The story opens with a fairly brutal opening, exposing some home truths about journalism that could as easily apply to being a writer – in the Horror genre or otherwise – with the same sparse, tight and effective prose that Demmer demonstrated in The Sea Was A Fair Master. Desperate to find a story that will ensure she doesn’t share the fate of her late colleague, journalist Sylvia finds something – scraps of story about a ‘Suicide Bridge’ that takes her to a town plagued by suicides. Demmer easily sketches out a Rust Belt town, like something from a New Yorker election year article – dated diner, single gas station, quiet locals. But there’s a sinister secret hiding just under that rural silence, something to do with the bridge and the setting of the sun.
As always with the Short Sharp Shocks! series, their brief length means I can’t go into detail without comprehensive spoilers; and in this case that’s all for the better, as Demmer’s contribution is certainly the best in the series so far. It’s creepy as hell, to start with, Demmer deftly pairing the boring, almost generic nature of the town with the inhuman phenomena inhabiting the bridge to great effect; and creating a particularly intimidating and unsettling supernatural presence to boot. The mythology around the bridge, and exactly why it’s never been investigated by outsiders before is also skilfully done, with two engaging but violently differing sides presented as the narrative progresses. But by far the best part of The Town That Feared Dusk is the sense of history that Demmer imparts, especially in such a small word-count; through character discussions and his excellent descriptive prose, he builds up a picture of a town struggling with a secret that stretches back decades, and sacrifices made – both professional and personal by those trying to keep it from affecting the outside world.
Perfectly paced, deftly written and infused with an intense atmosphere of horror and unbearable tension, The Town That Feared Dusk is another outstanding piece of Horror writing from Calvin Demmer and another feather in the cap of Demain Publishing
There’s a giant Troll on the cover of Operation: Norway, the seventh title in author William Meikle’s S-Squad series. Like, an honest to god, mythical Troll, the kind that you read about in mythological and folklore books. It looms over the S-Squad members with an expression that says, to put it lightly, that it is not happy to have been disturbed by them. The bullets striking the stone-like skin of the Troll don’t seem to be doing anything other than annoying it; and this certainly seems like something that should be avoided at all costs if the Squad want to survive longer than the next thirty seconds or so.
If I make a big deal of what’s on the excellent cover art provided by publisher Severed Press, it’s because until this entry in the series, the S-Squad have generally been fighting cryptozoological beasts; mammals or reptiles or insects that have grown to ridiculous sizes and are aggressively violent, but are still variants of some natural species. Yes, okay, there was that trip to Antarctica with the frozen undead Nazis and the UFOs, but was more non-euclid than anything, and anyway it was all Winston Churchill’s fault when you think about it carefully. The point is, Mr Meikle has never had the S-Squad come up against something from mythology before, so I was eager to see how Captain Banks, Sergeant Hynd and Corporal Wiggins would deal with this.
At first, Operation: Norway seems like it’s going to fit into the usual S-Squad mold – our sweary Scottish squaddies turn up at a deserted, long-abandoned scientific research station. The writing is still up to Mr Meikle’s very high-quality, particularly his captivating and engaging descriptions of the barren, icy scenery, but the plot falls into the comfortable rhythm of the series. There’s some abandoned buildings, some of them destroyed, and skeletal remains that indicate it wasn’t abandoned because its occupants had wanted to leave under their own duress. There’s even the central Meikle trope of the abandoned diary, handily left behind so that the protagonists can learn some of the backstory for the ruins around them. Just after some key discoveries, the titular monster attacks – and I settled in for what I expected to be a tense game of cat and mouse between an enraged Troll and S-Squad.
And I couldn’t have been more wrong; if I’d been a betting man, I’d have lost a lot of money on assuming how the rest of the novella would proceed. Without wishing to spoil a genuinely enjoyable set of twists and turns, suffice to say that Mr Meikle completely defied both my expectations, and the tropes of the genre, by doing something very unexpected. The action is curtailed suddenly, the setting changes completely, and an entirely new dimension to the appearance of the Troll is introduced. Even the occasionally over-used diary trope is used sparingly, making it that much more effective, and instead there’s a focus on the humanity of the Troll which dives into its tragic background and the notions of vengeance, forgiveness and even redemption to a certain extent. There are ruminations on the unforgiving, violent and often short lives of soldiers, as well as the burden of command and duty – no matter how long ago something occurred.
It’s completely unexpected, especially in the seventh book in a long-running series, but it works amazingly well. The narrative and plot benefit from the characterisations and fleshing-out of the key S-Squad members that Meikle has achieved in the previous titles, particularly Captain Banks and Sergeant Hynds; and there’s also enough action and gunplay to be found in the brutal and surprisingly emotional finale to satisfy fans of that particular element of the genre. Operation: Norway is a surprise in all the best ways, Meikle throwing genre conventions to the wind in order to produce an outstanding action-horror title that takes the reader on a whirlwind journey in a number of different and unexpected directions.
When I saw that one of the next tranche of Short Sharp Shock! titles from Demain Publishing was written by author Benedict J. Jones, it was a natural purchase for me to make, especially as Demain have priced all of the releases in that range at a mere 99p (or free with the Kindle Unlimited service). That’s because late last year I came across Mr Jones through his excellent Second World War horror title Hell Ship, released through the Sinister Horror Company. Based around the survivors of an Allied warship encountering an abandoned Japanese cargo vessel, and the results of a mass-sacrifice of Prisoners of War by their Japanese captors, I found Hell Ship to be a deeply chilling and visceral slice of historical horror that also shone a light on war crimes that have, unfortunately, been mostly forgotten in the public consciousness. I greatly enjoyed it, and when I saw that Mr Jones’ contribution to Short Sharp Shocks! was based in the Soviet Union – an under-utilised period of history for horror fiction – I just knew that I had to pick up The Devil’s Portion and see what he could conjure up from the isolated fringe of a terrifyingly totalitarian state.
There’s already a baseline of horror to be found within the setting of the Soviet Union – repression, surveillance, state-sponsored violence and pogroms and the ever-present fear of being denounced and sent to a Siberian Gulag where near-certain death awaits – and to his credit the author creates an atmosphere fermented in the demands of a State where non-compliance is punished with intimidation and violence. Those elements are perfectly embodied in the form of the Political Commissar, such as the protagonist Chichenko, sent to investigate the disappearance of a colleague at a distant collective farm, which itself has been reporting a drop in the productivity standards demanded by the State. Chichenko is a troubled man, with Jones providing hints of a troubled personal life and a fragile mental state, hardly conducive to investigating an area plagued by a sullen, near-hostile population and its supernatural secrets. Although accompanied by rifle-toting guards and an arrogant bearing that tries to paper over personal doubts, Chichenko makes little progress, and is rapidly confronted by the a much older – and stronger – than the USSR; the best elements of The Devil’s Portion by far are where Jones superbly illustrates how even a Commissar wielding the full force of a modern, totalitarian State – where obedience and compliance are presumed automatically – struggles to overcome an entrenched, ancient religion and the powers of the deity it worships.
The descent into horror is perfectly paced and extremely well-written, with an atmosphere that darkens and thickens with every page, and Chichenko’s growing sense of disbelief, which then bleeds over into outright dread, is near-palpable and a testimony to Jones’ writing skills. Indeed the whole short story is thrilling to read, and the only downside is the very ending of the story, in the last page or so; it was far too abrupt for my tastes and disrupted the flow of the story, despite an intriguing postscript, and it felt like a (tantalisingly) larger story had suddenly been cut down to accommodate the required word-count. That’s really the only downside to The Devil’s Portion I can think of, however, and it is entirely worth paying the ridiculously low price in order to read, as it’s a tense, atmospheric and well-written slice of horror based in a severely under-used setting and period.
[Please note that this title was sent to me by the publisher in return for a fair and honest review]
I do enjoy a good Lovecraftian horror anthology, and was on the hunt for one to read when I was approached by the lovely people at 18thWall Productions about their new collection, The Chromatic Court. I’ve admired their work before, though not reviewed any, and I readily accepted a review copy. The title of the anthology intrigued me, as colour played a key role in several of Lovecraft’s original stories, and exploring that role appeared to be a genuinely original angle in a genre that often seems to be running out of fresh ideas. The cover blurb lured me in with talk of new authors mingling with veterans of the Mythos, as well as the fact that lesser-known deities within the Mythos would be covered; while I can happily read about Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep and Tsathoggua for eons at a time, it is nice to see some different Great Old Ones and their hangers-on get some time in the limelight. However what made me want to review the collection more than anything was Johannes Chazot’s gorgeous piece of cover art, a wonderfully ethereal piece with a striking use of colour which perfectly evokes the dream-like realm of Carcosa, and its enigmatic patron entity The King in Yellow.
[As per my blog policy for anthology reviews, to save myself and my readers time I usually only specifically mention tales that I particularly enjoyed or that affected me in some way, though this should not be taken as a slight against those not included in the following review.]
The anthology’s introduction, The Color of Things by editor Peter Rawlik, is one of those rare beasts – an introduction that is actually both entertaining and informative. I hadn’t realised that the original King in Yellow mythos didn’t include Hastur, and that this was only a later invention, with the two eventually becoming conflated together. It’s interesting that there are therefore ‘purists’ who won’t include Hastur, and others who will go with popular perception of the two being one and the same. Then of course there’s the great idea of having collection of stories based around colour-based avatars of the other Mythos entities; it seems like a unique dimension to explore both the King in Yellow and the Mythos in general, and I couldn’t wait to see what had been produced.
Christine Morgan opens the anthology with When Lavender Is In Bloom, a multi-layered and complex tale about the effects scents and smells can have on the memory, and how even mere flowers can convey deep and detailed meanings and messages. Morgan is one of my favourite horror authors, always able to find a unique and terrifying angle on whatever slice of horror she’s writing about, and this tale is no exception. I’d never really considered just how powerful scents could be to someone, particularly in evoking and controlling emotions, but here Morgan provides a masterful reminder. You certainly won’t be able to look at something so pure and simple as Lavender in the same way after finishing such an evocative and quietly haunting story.
In The Grey Queen by Paul St John Mackintosh, Cassie is a young Scottish student focusing her studies on Trompe-l’œil and other such optical illusions becomes enamoured with a strange, shimmering pattern that suddenly appears in her University Library. Unfortunately for her it’s the Yellow Sign, associated with a certain banned play, and her growing obsession leads to nothing good. There are some fascinating ideas in this story, with Mackintosh really digging into the theories and psychology behind the Yellow Sign and what would make it so attractive and so deadly, even before the fatally memetic nature of the play itself becomes involved. I absolutely adore Cosmic Horror and Lovecraftian stories that don’t just take a trope for granted, but actually start to analyse it as part of the narrative. That angle makes the narrative stand out from so many others written about the King in Yellow, and it’s well-written and has an even pace that brings you along on Cassie’s ill-fated investigation. Add to that some truly evocative atmosphere that evokes the oppressive, claustrophobic and dull surroundings of Glasgow as a comparison to the liveliness of the Yellow Sign, and you have the makings of an excellent Lovecraftian horror story. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, so to speak, with the last few pages feeling rushed and the ending feeling rather baffling and controversial for controversy’s sake; but it’s still the kind of writing needed to keep the Cosmic Horror genre fresh, particularly where Carcosa is concerned. I look forward to seeing more stories from Mackintosh in the future.
I’ve said many times before in previous reviews that there isn’t nearly enough historical Lovecraftian fiction, so I was delighted to see that Rick Lai’s contribution to the anthology, The Man in Purple Tatters, revolves around the translation of a pair of 18th Century stories from a book of French folk tales, which apparently drove the translator to suicide. Lai presents us with a fast-paced, multi-faceted story that encompasses a number of potent ideas and concepts: the Crusades; Islamic vs Christian ideology; the nature of human groups such as these interacting with supernatural and eldritch groups and entities; and even the complex hierarchies to be found amongst the latter beings. Wonderfully complex with political infighting, scheming cultists and plenty of masks and disguises, The Man in Purple Tatters is one of the best stories in the anthology, and represents the kind of historical focus desperately needed to keep Lovecraftian fiction from going stale. Following on is The Green Muse by Jon Black, another story that opens with a hook that grabbed me immediately. A rash of murders in early 20th Century Paris attracts the attention of the media; but the murders are of cubist painters, people who produce a type of art reviled by more conservative lovers of art. An art journalist is assigned the job of doing undercover and learning more about the murders, with the aim of producing salacious, gossipy articles that will discredit cubism forever. That’s an amazing concept, and I loved the snark in the opening pages about various types of artist, the (real-life) snobbery to be found in the heat of competition between hierarchies of artists, and the conferring of respectability.
But of course this is Cosmic Horror and not mere historical crime fiction, and it soon becomes clear the dead artists had stumbled into something eldritch to do with their paintings. As the investigation begins, we get a detailed and fascinating look at pre-1914 Paris, with Black deftly bringing to life a city of duality; a snobbish and charming exterior that has a chaotic underworld, one full of artists, pimps, anarchists and a thousand other types. It’s intensely atmospheric writing, and makes the weird, unsettling nature of the murders feel somehow integral both to the nature of the Cubist artists, and the city’s anarchistic culture at that time. I really enjoyed the central mystery that unfolds, becoming more eldritch and unsettlingly ill-defined as time goes on, and the way that Black is able to make the theoretical underpinnings and philosophy of Cubism so central to that mystery. There’s even a cameo from the previous story, The Man in Purple Tatters, which is much appreciated and helps build a shared universe between stories. An enthralling and disturbing story in equal measure, The Green Muse is another stand-out tale in the anthology.
The Songs of Burning Men by John Linwood Grant takes us to the trenches, mud and shattered bodies of Flanders in 1915, and an isolated company of British troops whose officer is slowly losing his sanity from the constant fighting and death all around him. Grant certainly has a way of getting inside a character’s head and making the reader empathise with them; within only a few pages I felt like I was vividly experiencing this hellish reality. As if being stuck in the trenches wasn’t enough, a strange French record begins to obsess the soldiers; even when it isn’t playing on the phonograph, they’re whistling the weird, brooding tune. Things only get more grotesque and disturbing as the plot goes on – disappearances, insubordination, visits from mysterious senior officers, all revolving around that off-sounding tune. Grant blends all of it incredibly well with the horrific conditions of being in the front-line trenches, creating a deeply sinister yet compulsive atmosphere that brings you along with it. Grant himself describes it perfectly thus: “…the shared sensation of being the only two sane men in some terrible asylum.” The ending is grim, depressing and yet thematically perfect, in many ways the purest invocation of the anthology’s themes.
Curse of the White Inferno by Glynn Owen Barrass, is set in a rather unusual location for a Mythos tale, but also very welcome because of that: the set of a radio studio, focusing on the performers as they undertake the titular play, an episode in a popular crime-fighting radio serial. It’s a short, sharp and to the point tale, which the author executes with great flair and imagination, really using the radio studio and cast to their full potential. In many ways it feels like a Call of Cthulhu scenario brought to life, and I’d love to see it converted into one for players to run through.
I don’t think I’ve ever vocally sworn in shock when starting a story – at least not until I read the opening to Tatterdemalion in Grey by Micah S Harris. The first sentence is like a physical force, a sucker punch, followed by a sort of queasiness in the pit of your stomach as Harris continues the story. I am always wary of stories set in the Holocaust or any other genocide, particularly Lovecraftian ones, as those I’ve read before have often crossed the line into triteness or even just plain bad taste; but here Harris judges the pitch perfectly, delivering a story that evokes the horrors of the Holocaust without demeaning them. For once I won’t go into my thoughts on the plot, as it would spoil such a powerful piece of fiction; suffice to say that the tale of a Jewish puppeteer enacting a banned play to gain vengeance on the Nazis is a stunning idea, and one that the author merges well with the innate horror of the killing fields and death camps. A powerful, difficult piece, and one that deserves multiple re-reads to truly comprehend.
After the previous story some lightening of the tone is sorely needed, and fortunately David Bernard provides it via his contribution, The Frieze of Helmsly Ainsworth. It’s a darkly humorous, almost comic, tale of a ridiculously rich dilettante who stages scandalous art exhibits to generate controversy and make him infamous. When he becomes involved in an art installation that appears to defy the laws of physics, it’s up to his jaded attorney to try and implement the exhibit and keep his client out of danger; but he was only expecting legal danger, not a threat to the his client’s soul – and his own if he isn’t careful. Very well written, with an enjoyable and suitably ironic twist at the end courtesy of a certain Lovecraftian entity.
Ink and tattoos, the permanent marking of skin with signs and sigils, is certainly a cool way of introducing the Lovecraftian deities into a story; and it’s a process that is central to The Duke of Rust by Matt Loughlin. It turns out that browsing an antiques shop while bored and making an impulse purchase of an ancient spellbook, and then using the symbols as inspiration for tattoos, might not be the smartest move. Tattoo artist Cricket discovers this, unfortunately post-tattoo, and falls prey to one of the lesser known – but just as deadly – deities in the Mythos. Some great atmospheric writing, and creative ideas around linking ink work and the power of names in mythology, makes a disturbingly fitting end to the anthology.
The Chromatic Court is one of those increasingly rare beasts in the Lovecraftian genre – an anthology that actually came up with a unique take on the Mythos, courtesy of veteran editor and author Peter Rawlik, who brings together a group of new and experienced authors to execute the concept flawlessly. All of the stories found within the collection are well-written, engage fully with the Mythos, and are filled with grotesque, terrifying and often unsettling themes and imagery, with some particular standouts from Christine Morgan, John Linwood Grant and Micah S Harris amongst others. It’s another knockout publication by 18thWall Productions, and I would hope to see a follow-up before too long.
When I reviewed author Anthony Watson’s Shattered recently for this blog, I was really impressed by the quality of the story, and made a note to investigate any other works written by Mr Watson. However, I was also struck by the calibre of the work done by the publisher, Demain Publishing, particularly in terms of the brilliant cover art and branding choices that they had made. Smart, slick and eye-grabbing colour usage was paired with offset monochrome pictures that matched thematically with the published story, along with a simple but easily-identifiable publisher logo. New publishers releasing quality titles seem to be a bit thin on the ground in the Horror genre recently, so I decided to take a look at what else Demain had published, particularly in the same Short Sharp Shocks! banner that Shattered had been released under.
A number of releases caught my eye, and may be the subject of future reviews, but there was one in particular that jumped out at me. Asylum of Shadows by Stephanie Ellis featured a strange-looking doll on the cover, and the title implied a focus on that stalwart of the genre, the insane asylum; the cover blurb only cemented my interest, mentioning a new hospital in the Limehouse slums of 19th Century London. A new hospital indeed, but one with a disturbing secret lurking in the shadows at the back of the building; the St. Carnifex ward, where those who have died from public hanging are watched overnight, to ensure they are not cheating death. If anything, the cover blurb could perhaps be said to give too much away about the plot of Ellis’ short story, but fortunately it cannot hold a candle to the taut, haunting prose and sanity-shredding narrative to be found within Asylum of Shadows.
As with Shattered, this can only really be a mini-review, for a full-length write-up would be at risk of comprehensively spoiling this dark gem of Gothic Horror, but suffice to say this isn’t a story to read last thing at night, or away from a goodly number of light sources. Marian, the daughter of a man dying from a diseases that destroys his mind and raises lesions on his skin is suddenly surprised by the charity of a mysterious doctor; she and her father are transported to a new hospital in the slums, where he will be cared for in his dying days and she will be put to work as a seamstress. At first the work is grim, but easy, making shrouds for the dead; but before long she is shown the other area of the hospital – St. Carnifex ward, where the recently hung must be watched to ensure they do not escape justice. From here on in, the story becomes, somehow, even darker as Marin’s other duties are revealed; watching over dead bodies to ensure they are truly dead before they are transported away. A dark, claustrophobic room, her only company dead bodies reposing on slabs, her only source of light a candle, Marian’s sanity begins to fray.
Asylum of Shadows is truly a beautiful piece of horror fiction, with Ellis fully exploiting the inherent dread and horror to be found within a slum hospital, and particularly the grim, haunting atmosphere of a room where ensuring the dead stay dead is the only, final duty. Ellis employs stark, illustrative prose to vividly convey the atmosphere of the hospital and St Carnifex ward to the reader, the wording matching the Gothic imagery of Marian and her surroundings. As her duties begin to press on her, particularly when her father becomes involved, her mental state begins to decay; Ellis deftly portrays her descent into madness, propelled by the sinister nature of the ward, and time and memory begin to blur in some deeply unsettling sequences. Asylum of Shadows is another success story, both for Stephanie Ellis and Demain Publishing, and is another high-quality entry in Demain’s Short Sharp Shocks! series,
The more titles that I’ve read in my journey into the depths of the Horror genre, the more that I’ve been able to identify which particular subgenres I’m particularly interested in reading; those that somewhat hold my interest; and the ones that either don’t interest me at all, or are so stomach-churning that my brief encounters with them have made me all the more determined never to come into contact with them again. In the latter category sit subgenres like body horror and splatterpunk, where despite the obvious quality of many of the stories and the talent of the authors involved – often some of the most well-known authors in the whole of the Horror genre – I’ve quailed at the horrifying descriptions and often disgusting imagination to be found in titles in these subgenres, to the point where I’ve felt physically sick. I know that can often be the point of these stories, but I’ve discovered my limits – and they run out well before then!
I have a soft spot for quiet horror, and an enduring love of cosmic horror in all of its forms, not just the Lovecraftian titles that often dominate that area of the Horror genre; but in the past few months I’ve come to realise that ‘my’ niche in the genre – the one that I’ve come to gravitate to naturally, and which seems to speak to me on some instinctual and even soul-deep level – is Weird Horror. Give me a horror story where things are not just terrifying, but are downright bizarre, confusing, genuinely and mind-bendingly weird. Where you finish reading a story and have no idea what the hell you just read but you know you loved it, or based on subjects that you hadn’t even considered could be used as the basis for a story, let alone a slice of Weird Horror. That’s my particular fetish, and luckily enough there are more than enough authors and publishers in the subgenre to entertain me.
It was Muzzleland Press and author/publisher Jonathan Raab that really started me down this path, with the fantastically weird titles published by Muzzleland: anthologies like Terror in 16-Bits where the stories were based around video game tropes, and High Strange Horror, filled with tales based on paranoia and damnation. And of course the incredible Sheriff Kotto titles, where a conspiracy theorist-turned backwater county Sheriff discovers that *all* of the conspiracy theories he believed in were true, and that he was the only one able to fight them, willingly or not.
Muzzleland was a revelation for me, being a publisher solely focused on Weird Horror, and from there I found a number of its authors that had published further stories; not under the auspices of Muzzleland but in the same subgenre. To my complete delight, several of them had even banded together and begun writing stories set in a shared universe of sorts, which allowed them to focus on all sorts of weird and strange themes. Authors Tom Breen, Matthew M. Bartlett and Joseph Pastula have together created the fictional Orford Parish, a small, insular and intensely *strange* backwater town in the depths of New England, which has become the setting for all manner of Weird Horror tales. As I became enmeshed in the good Parish and the tales set within and around its environs, I discovered that it was rather like the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, focusing on strange and surreal horror stories where things are never quite as they seem, embellished with a healthy dose of New England mythology. But unlike Welcome to the Night Vale, there is a much purer and tighter focus on the Horror potential of the setting, and no in-jokes and plot arcs that might drive away or alienate New readers. Just pure, weird, New England-infused horror.
And I love it.
Therefore I’ve decided to start reviewing all of the Orford Parish publications, as they really touched a nerve with me, and impressed me with their utter weirdness and wonderfully perverse and surreal imaginations. Each title has some unique take on weird horror, zeroing in on a theme or topic that I never would have considered as something to base horror stories on, but which is then taken as a prompt for writing some amazingly strange and chilling pieces of horror. I first encountered this approach with the Letters of Decline collection, which took the innocuous yet stressful topic of job interviews as the basis for a unique blend of weird horror, conspiracy theories and cutting satire of the bland and soulless nature of the corporate mindset. I’ve chosen to begin with three of the shorter publications from Orford Parish, which individually would be difficult to review due to their short word-count and chapbook style; but which I have instead brought together to form this blog’s first MEGA-REVIEW.
We start with author Tom Breen’s solo title, titled Orford Parish Murder Houses: A Visitors Guide and featuring a cheerfully-coloured cover that evokes those rather macarbre publications that provide an oversight of the famous murders and scandals in a particular State or County in the UK or USA. A family of tourists, complete with garish shirts and cameras, take pictures of a roped-off crime scene and its chalk outline; only the victim doesn’t appear to be entirely human and has received some disturbingly explicit injuries during their (its?) murder. It was a brilliant idea of Breen’s to create a chapbook-style title that gives an overview of Orford Parish itself – filling out the fictional universe of the Parish, its inhabitants and its blood-spattered history – in the form of a pamphlet written by what is effectively the tourist board of the Parish. It allows Breen to develop Orford Parish and the murder and/or disappearance of some of its most famous inhabitants through history, creating a world that other authors can then work within, but also maintain that bizzare and weird air that pervades all of the Orford Parish publications.
The murders that Breen details in the chapbook are always wonderfully bizarre, inventive and disturbing – my favourite is by far the the story of the infamous Elderkin Tavern, and the notion of a Revolutionary War-era hero actually having a dark and incredibly sickening secret life – and deftly provide insights into Orford Parishes culture and its inhabitants unique take on religion. They’re also used, as with all of the best horror fiction, as a base for social commentary, and some probing and often uncomfortable questions about the United States and its colourful history with revolutions, racism and minorities.
Breen achieves all of this with a dark, wry and above-all subtle sense of dark humour – from comments about the early 20th Century being “A time of tremendous activity for America’s ax murderers” in an attempt to excuse one of the Parish’s more infamous murderers, to a delightfully strange and almost perverse reimagining of early American history though the influence of the Parish and its colonial inhabitants. Or simply mind-bendingly odd, yet enthralling, scenarios, such as a man confessing to murdering his mail-order bride: not a woman from overseas, but something quite literally purchased from the advert in a magazine. It’s a deeply impressive title, packing a huge amount of depth and imagination into a mere 56 pages, and provides the base for other authors to build on the culture, weirdness and strange inhabitants of Orford Parish.
We then turn to Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror, another short chapbook featuring a story each from Tom Breen and Joseph Pastula.’Flag-orientated horror stories’ might be the weirdest phrase I’ve ever written, review or otherwise, and yet the two stories found within this anthology not only situate themselves in that description, but are also some of the best pieces of short-form horror I’ve ever come across, at once both superbly imaginative and genuinely unsettling. They both play on the transgressive nature of bringing together horror and the sacred nature of the United States flag, adding an extra dimension to the horror invoked by rejecting the implicit and explicit social conditioning that states that the flag could ever have anything other than positive connotations. It’s a very brave move to make, and one that could easily have gone wrong, potentially turning into a turgid and unreadable mass of anti-Americanism or anti-imperialism. Instead, what Breen and Pastula provide are two thought-provoking and chilling horror stories that ruthlessly interrogate the nature of the flag and what it means, both to societies and the individuals that form those societies.
After an intriguing short introduction that creates some fictional context for Breen and Pastula writing the stories while living in Orford Parish (and disappearing shortly afterwards), we come to Orison for the Departed by Joseph Pastula. With this story, Pastula goes straight for the metaphorical jugular, taking on the social obsession with American flags; as someone from the UK, I’ve always been surprised and mildly disquieted by the sheer number of Stars and Stripes flown in the United States, and this is something that Pastula targets. Our protagonist returns to their hometown to deal with the house of a recently-deceased relative, and is disturbed by the sheer amount of flag-based paraphernalia to be found in the house, with flags of all sizes and descriptions to be found inside, particularly in the bedroom. Bemused, the protagonist removes many of them, only for flags to keep reappearing outside. Soon it become evident that the locals really like their flags, but not for purely patriotic reasons; there are actually entirely practical reasons for having as many flags around as possible, a lesson our newcomer learns extremely well. The second story in the anthology is Tom Breen’s Our Hearts’ Blood Dyed In Every Fold, which looks at another town obsessed with the Stars and Stripes, but for much more sinister reasons. Breen peers into the darkened corners of suburban America and conjures up a supernatural tale of townspeople wrapping themselves in the flag and taking to the psychic skies to defend against those who would pray on them and their children. But there is more to these rumours than newcomers to the town are being told, and finding out too late could come at a very steep price. Both stories are very well written, thought-provoking and, above all, very weird horror fiction that makes one wonder about what flag worship actually means in a modern society.
Finally we come to my personal favourite of the three titles, 3 Moves of Doom: Weird Horror from Inside the Squared Circle with stories by Matthew M. Bartlett, Tom Breen and Joseph Pastula. This chapbook is rather different from the others mentioned above – not only because it comes in a .pdf format but why it comes in that format. 3 Moves of Doom is focused on the Weird Horror aspects that can be pulled from wrestling, but not the sanitised, mass-market, corporate-friendly wrestling of today; instead, it takes as its inspiration the old-fashioned, blood-spattered indie wrestling in backyards and outside events in trailer parks. The whole book comes across as a passionate love-letter to the indie, anti-corporate, almost anarchistic style of wrestling. Not only do we have three stories in the chapbook, but the .pdf format allows the authors to mimic the format, layout and design of an old wrestling fan magazine – from the cheery introduction from the editor all the way through to the wonderful adverts scattered across the pages for VHS tapes of scantily-clad female wrestlers and gimmicks to build muscles or…avoid being cursed?
It doesn’t take long to see that unsettling elements have infiltrated this magazine, starting with Matthew M. Bartlett’s The Dark Match, a wistful, almost lyrical look at the sort of wrestling events that would take place at old seaside towns – amateurs and semi-professionals going at it in the ring with minimal supervision. Only our protagonist, newly-moved to the town, discovers that more than just a little blood can be shed in such arena and that certain eldritch and ethereal competitors can come together to wrestle as well. It’s a fantastically haunting tale that slowly builds up the tension until the final pay-off, and is a joy to re-read. After some more adverts we get A Severance of Roots from Joseph Pastula, which is an intriguing tale of obsession and rivalry in the square ring. Hunting down old wrestling fanzines – real obscure ones – leads a particularly curious wrestling fan to meet an old wrestling legend, and learn some unwholesome truths about a legendarily brutal match that took place decades ago. The horror at the end of stomach-churning enough, but Pastula peppers in enough wrestling know-how and trivia that it becomes very easy to get drawn into the world of old-school wrestling, and the intoxicating feeling of belonging to some rare, almost exclusive club that focuses on a very niche subject and can lead to obsession. The final tale, The Vision of James Lee Dawson, King of the Deathmatches goes fully surreal, following an aging amateur wrestler as he travels across the country for yet another wrestling match, one that he fears may be one of his last due to money drying up and people slowly becoming less interesting in the hobby. But one final match against a mysterious foe who refuses to follow the usual rules and gimmicks leads to a strange, reality-distorting match with potentially dire consequences.
All three of these chapbooks are wonderful when experienced separately, but when read one after the other (the order really doesn’t matter) you can truly begin to see the genius of the authors involved; Breen, Bartlett and Pastula have captured and bottled up the true essence of Weird Horror and then slowly uncapped it, leaking it into these brilliant publications. Chilling, unsettling, often bizarre or transgressive, and always well-written, all three chapbooks demonstrate why Weird Horror is in such safe hands – along with fellow author and publisher Jonathan Raab – and are a must-have for any fans of Weird Horror, or just quality Horror in general.