Review – “Slaughter Beach” by Benedict J Jones

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I got the impression that this new horror novella from Dark Minds Press was a tribute to the shock cinema and pulp novels of the 1970s and 1980s. I wondered if it would be a re-tread of that era – warts and all – or a contemporary update, and it’s actually a bit of both. Lurking beneath that splendid cover is an exciting story that squeezes out the lesser elements of its source inspiration, and concentrates on the ride.

Slaughter BeachThe story is appropriately simple and familiar. It’s the late 1970s-ish in a non-specific tropical harbour town where we meet Don Curtis: a jaded Vietnam veteran who scrapes together a living with his boat. But Don’s humdrum life changes one day when his boat is chartered by a glamour photographer, Marshall, to take him and his entourage to a remote island for a photoshoot and an excuse for a party. But guess what? The island is already home to a blood-thirsty killer, so it’s not long before gouts of arterial spray and severed heads are ruining the postcard scenery.

While a pseudo-homage requires the cast to be of a certain expected stock, the characters here are 3-dimensional enough to avoid being dull. Don Curtis steps us as the tough, investable hero who can play the killer at his own game, and Marshall assumes the role of coke-snorting rich bellend. The assorted assistants, glamour models and local crew hired for the trip provide plenty of knife fodder for our murderer, but one cliché they don’t observe is the bad dialogue of the old-school shocker. The plentiful conversation is natural rather than absurd which keeps both the story and our interest alive.

This is what I like about “Slaughter Beach”. Given the very nature of its inspiration, there’s little originality, but the author has tweaked it for the contemporary reader. As well as the polished lines, he opts for intelligent and resourceful female characters instead of squealing damsels in distress. In fact, Tammy – the photographer’s personal assistant and potential love interest for Curtis – always looks like being one of the few characters who might make it through by her own steel. While the author sprinkles in pleasing grindhouse tropes, these cause a fond smile rather than a groan and I didn’t experience a single “Oh, please…” moment. It’s a fine line, but Benedict J Jones has gauged it well and also ensured his tweaks don’t kill the gorgeous retro vibe.

For a novella-length thriller, “Slaughter Beach” pretty much ticks all the boxes. It’s well written and the atmosphere of isolation is bang on from the sticky heat of day to the unnerving shadows of night. Once it gathers momentum, the story is a blast as the rapidly-depleting group are hunted down and exterminated in graphic and grisly ways. The menacing aura of the hunt is relentless, death often catching you unaware, and although some of the characters are rather likeable, that doesn’t stop their brutal executions from being enormously macabre fun.

As the story peaks, there are a couple of surprises in wait and I really enjoyed the finale. It wasn’t expected, and rounds off the tale on a suitably gruesome and impending note.

“Slaughter Beach” is the first novella from Dark Minds Press and I hope there are plenty more to follow. This gripping but subtly modernised nod to the lurid, bloody fun of the 70s and 80s is a fine way to spend a couple of hours.

Review – “Darkest Minds” edited by Ross Warren and Anthony Watson

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The third in a solid anthology series from Dark Minds Press, this book presents a dozen horror tales, eleven of which have not been published before. This time the theme is crossing a border, either literal or figurative, and the authors have provided some great riffs on the concept. Our protagonists struggle with mental and physical transitions, find themselves uprooted regarding location or tackling paranormal experience, and even cross time itself. In addition to the theme, I found that all the stories are thick with an askew atmosphere of darkness waiting to pounce, and this provides an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

darkest mindsThe fun starts with “Vacation” by Glen Krisch, the only reprint of the anthology. It’s narrated by Mr Callahan, a financial big hitter out of sync with life, who hands over a fortune to a strange facility for some kind of vacation. This is built up in a shroud of mystery, beginning with his immersion in a warm, gelatinous pool sunk into a lightless chamber, and I loved Mr Callahan’s reflective train of thought as his “journey” commences. The wild concept perfectly suits the theme, at one point nimbly changing from past to present tense with great effect. The conclusion rounds it off nicely and it’s one of those tales with a pleasing penny-drop moment that puts a smile on your face.

Much more grounded in bleak reality is “Refugees” by Robert Mammone. We find Grace, a woman who works at a refugee detention centre in Australia, dealing with the application of a Pakistani woman and her grandfather. The impeccable social realism soon gives way to creeps as we realise that something’s askew and some kind of dark magic is at play. A couple of things left me slightly confused, but this is an evocative, human tale that keeps the reader guessing.

Beginning in a grey, rain-lashed flat, “The Great Divide” by Clayton Stealback is told by Edd, a lone man left adrift after his wife has left him. A short mood piece with a twist, it’s a tight and emotional ride with a chilling conclusion.

Next up is one of the finest short stories I’ve read this year. In “The 18” by Ralph Robert Moore we are introduced to Nate, a gentleman who loses his wife Holly of many years. Having lived and worked together for so long, he is crushed by grief and tempers this with alcohol and alienating himself from life. But then he starts to glimpse Holly in different places – on television, around the neighbourhood – and although his rationality tries to explain it away, he can’t shake the feeling that something deeper is going on.

Nate is completely investable in his grief and we’re treated to plenty of truly touching moments. Not a single word is wasted in this story and I was wrapped around the author’s finger by page two. The eventual explanation for Holly’s repeated sightings is both brilliant and brave, and the finale beautifully rounds off this triumph of concept and heart.

“Time Waits” by Mark West is a slick, Twilight Zone-esque short in which Martyn – an ordinary married man going about his day – realises that time always seems short, sparse, and increasingly so. On his way to work, his perception of time and space really starts misfiring and it’s to the author’s credit that I got an eerie Langoliers vibe from the rewritten time-rules and the atmosphere of unspoken but impending doom.

In “The Catalyst” by Gary Fry we meet Emma, an ageing lady who lives with her chain-smoking grump of a husband. One day while digging in the garden of their new home, she finds a buried tin that turns out to be the grave of a pet mouse and although she’s spooked, the discovery prompts a change in outlook. With strong characters and place, this sobering tale crosses the thematic border with a bang.

Particularly memorable for its voice and storytelling is “Under Occupation” by Tom Johnstone. It’s narrated by Kev: one of two council workers retrieving the corpse of a desperate widow who committed suicide. But the boundaries between the two men’s personal and professional lives soon blur, especially as Kev’s guilt-troubled colleague had once goaded the deceased when previously meeting her as a bailiff. One particular element of this story baffled me towards the end, but it has humanity, a thorough social conscience and a convincing slippery slope feel as the anxiety ferments.

Benedict J. Jones presents one of his trademark dark Westerns in “Going South to Meet the Devil”. A modern day tale, we meet Whitey and Ignacio, two cowboys who venture out to hunt down a pack of wild dogs that have slaughtered some steers. They trail the pack into a canyon with grisly results, and plenty of great dialogue cements a tense read.

“When I wake I remember that I used to be. Someone.”

Thus begins “Bothersome” by Andrew Hook, a very immersive experience that initially seems rather surreal as we try to work out the whos, whys and wherefores. But the dreamlike confusion is actually a very concrete perspective and things fall cleverly into place as old memories jostle and collide. I know this is somewhat vague, but I don’t want to spoil anything and you should read it blind as I did. This is multi-layered writing that requires concentration and perhaps patience, but savour the reading and your time will be rewarded.

Another visit to Twilight Zone territory occurs in “The Sea in Darkness Calls” by David Surface. Here we find divorcee Jack, spending time at his brother’s seaside home and remembering the happier times he had there with his kids. Things quickly get strange when he notices a window across the road through which he can somehow see the ocean, even at night. An emotional tale, I like the way it fills in back story whilst simultaneously adding more mystery. There’s a great tone of displacement and the slow burning unease doesn’t relent until the powerful finale.

“Walking the Borderlines” by Tracy Fahey begins with a woman recalling a trip to Paris as a youth. Here she met a fellow “borderliner” –  those who can see and hear the paranormal – with whom she also shares a general interest in the darker, spiritual side of life. They end up in a haunted flat together, and the result is a spooky but modern piece, well placed between the more intense stories either side.

The final story – another of my favourites – is the longest in the anthology so stick the kettle on and settle in because you’re in for a treat. Stephen Bacon never fails to impress me and with “It Came from the Ground” he manages it with the opening line.

“We’d been in Rwanda for only a few days when we saw the child with the machete.”

This is a splendid teaser, and what follows doesn’t let it down. The story is narrated by a Pulitzer-dreaming photographer named Jason, recalling the story of his travels to militia-torn Rwanda. Accompanied by his partner, another colleague and a local guide, he was looking to snatch some shots of the aforementioned child, said to be a terrible warlord despite only being 12 years old. But while staying overnight at a convent before trekking to the warlord’s rural compound, talk of devilry, jinns, and superstition abounds.

The author keeps you wondering as to where the menace is going to manifest. There are many possibilities – his own group with its relationship troubles, the warlord child, or perhaps it is something else malevolent out there in the unfamiliar and dangerous African countryside. The account is perfectly paced – definitely the “page-turner” of the anthology – and boasts an immense sense of place and an appropriate sense of grim reality.

Although there are stark moments of fear and ghastly action, it’s the subtle touches that really notched it up for me. Sometimes a simple and deftly timed paragraph delivers an ominous chill, catching the reader with their guard down. One example is this line, which suddenly cranks the threat after Jason has posed for a casual group photograph at the convent:

“Just last week I was looking at the photo in my apartment, realising that it captured the final time we were all together before death swept in.”

We know it’s coming, and soon, but what is it? The author whisked me through Jason’s grim, exciting journey with some superb turns of phrase towards a monstrous showdown that I never saw coming, and it concludes the anthology on a very satisfying note.

I enjoyed Darker Minds. Ross Warren and Anthony Watson have created a colourful anthology, rich with imagination, and all the stories presented are well written. The numerous 1st person tales work well, testimony to the editors’ ability to spot an accomplished voice, and there’s plenty of social commentary and conscience to bring depth to the thrills and chills.

If you’re familiar with the contributors – a fine array of indie horror writers – then you’ll know what to expect. If not, this is a sound opportunity to add some new genre talents to your list.

Review – “Darker Minds”

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Just like Dark Minds – its predecessor from last year – this book is simply subtitled “An Anthology of Dark Fiction”. A solid, tactile paperback, it impressed me from the off with its cyberesque cover and decorated author and contents pages. There’s no editorial credit or introduction, the proceedings simply presented by Dark Minds Press, which whether deliberate or not, makes it a pleasingly mysterious entity. And that entity has gathered together an impressive collection of 15 disturbing stories.

The theme is simply the power of the mind. There’s grim tales of abduction, mental illness and domestic paranoia. There’s wry tales of possession and graverobbery, and plenty of askew and threatening realities. It’s a book where nothing ever seems quite right, but is that really the case, or just the delusions of an unravelling mind?

So onto those stories that particularly stood out. First is “Reflections from a Broken Lamp” by John Travis, a violent murder mystery explained from varying points of view. But although it begins with an air of whimsy, the author gradually turns down the lights and establishes an appropriately dark tone. John Travis’s fiction has real personality, and this colourful creepshow makes a great curtain raiser.

Equally memorable is “Slip Inside this House” by Daniel Kaysen in which we meet Clive. He believes he’s being persecuted by some kind of note-scribbling “double” that’s causing havoc in his marriage. An intriguing piece cemented by convincing characters, it has plenty of tricks up its sleeve.

Stuart Young’s “Houses in Motion” is a well-written story narrated by a man who bumps into his former nemesis of a boss. But he soon realises that the old bully is now withered by dementia, setting the stage  for a poignant and sobering reflection upon reality and the consequences of detachment.

“The Way of the World” by Gary Fry introduces Oliver, a young student on holiday with his new girlfriend and her parents. The author doesn’t miss the opportunity for some awkward dialogue and sexually-charged scenes, which all serve to maintain the unease in this sharp and well realised story.

For me, two neighbouring pieces form the anthology’s peak. First is “The Man Who Remembered” by Stephen Bacon. Lisa is waiting for her boyfriend in a café and speaks to an old gentleman who claims to know the details of his own immiment death. This perfectly evoked tale is all about life, the intricacies and effects of existence, and concludes a thoughtful concept with a bang.

Second, I also loved “Waste Disposal” by Ray Cluley. This concerns Walter, a gentle widower, who is caught short walking his dog in the park and runs into some menacing youths. It begins with a melancholy yet stoical flavour, but soon descends into unease, and then sickly fear. Natural empathy, pathos and a masterful ratcheting up of the threat make this a very immersive experience, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the wild and grossly imaginative – or is that imaginatively gross – finale.

While we’re reeling from that, Robert Mammone takes us on a very uncomfortable journey with “Seeing Things”. This features a pair of lovers on a trip to winery, but our narrator is troubled by sinister shapes lurking in his peripheral vision, and a guilty accident ensues. Despite a couple of formatting and spelling errors, this is a heady and intoxicating experience that saves a grisly punch for the pay off.

The finale is a masterpiece of bleak cinematography. Gary McMahon leaves us with “Cinder Images”, a brutal short centred around the screening of a war film. It has all the author’s trademarks – satire, anger, vicious elegance – and also an intrusive conclusion that perfectly rounds off both this story, and the book as a whole.

I enjoyed this anthology. With a no nonsense attitude, it allows the fiction to speak for itself. There’s the occasional guessable twist, and a couple of the stories were slightly less conclusive than my tastes would’ve preferred, but there certainly aren’t any hangers-on. All 15 authors have worked the theme hard, and spoil us with crumbling sanities, nightmares and cruel consequences galore.

Darker Minds is recommended for those who like to find substance lurking in the darkness. Order here.