Review: “Join Me in the Club” by Matt Shaw


There are two kinds of extreme horror writer. One type thinks that graphic gore, bloodshed and nastiness are all that is required. The other realises that you need characterisation and investment for the aforementioned scenes of horror to have any impact. Matt Shaw is definitely one of the latter.

“Join me in the club” is an immediately engaging story based around an interesting dystopian concept. The world is over-populated and low on resources, so the government has decided that the solution is to prune the unfortunate population. They hold special events at “the club” for which people are randomly selected via the receipt of a red or white token. The red tokens will die, but as a farewell bonus, they get to be in charge of how they spend their last night. They are paired with a white token who will survive, but have to fulfil whatever the red token’s desires might be, as well as being instrumental in their death which is conducted in the manner of their choosing.

The main character is Gary, a regular family man, who has received a white token, and the story begins with the build up to his night at the club. Rather than going straight for the jugular, the tale shows how an ordinary family are preparing for the potential fallout from such an event. This could include damage to Gary’s marriage, as some red tokens insist that the white tokens sleep with them before they die, and Gary’s wife is understandably upset about this possibility. And although he will survive, how will they continue as normal after he has killed someone?
The realistic concerns, frustrations and arguments of a couple forced into this horrible situation are handled with aplomb, and we are drawn into their predicament before the horror has even kicked off.

The timeline jumps back and forth between the club night and the domestic events leading up to it, which creates a pleasing pace, and we also learn a little about Mary: Gary’s red token partner for the night. There’s some real darkness in her soul, and this sets a suitably ominous tone.

The book also features the plight of Justin – a pleasant man and a doomed red token holder – and his wife Emma. Palpable and tragic, this section is a beautifully written vignette with an elegiac tone that both contrasts and elevates the gruesome shenanigans about to be unleashed.

As this is extreme horror, the last section of the book naturally becomes quite inventively brutal. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the grisly surprises that lay in wait, but strap yourself in. Because we’ve already invested in these characters, it becomes an uncomfortably powerful read, and the tale ends on an open yet very satisfactory note. There’s certainly potential for a sequel – which would please me no end – but it works as a standalone piece regardless.

I enjoyed “Join me in the club”. It’s a short book of novella length, and very easy to fall into and devour in one sitting. If you’re a fan of extreme horror, you’re probably familiar with Matt Shaw and will demolish it too.
If not, but you’re feeling adventurous and would like to dip your toe into this controversial sub-genre of horror fiction, I’d say this is a good place to start. The author brings quality storytelling and emotional depth to a fascinating concept, and while the graphic elements are shocking – and quite rightly so – they are undercut with a psychological darkness that takes it to a whole new level.

Party like there’s no tomorrow.

Review – “Monster” by Matt Shaw and Michael Bray


I’m a sucker for books with ominous warnings of offensiveness on the cover, and they’re usually there for a reason. But while it means that some extreme horror is on the way, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s any good.MonsterOn this occasion, I needn’t have worried. One of Matt Shaw’s infamous “black cover” series, this joint effort with Michael Bray is a bleak yet entertaining short novel.

We meet Ryan, a young office-worker, who wakes to find himself chained up in a grimy chamber of cold concrete and rusting pipes with no idea as to how or why he got there. It turns out that just prior to this, he’d discovered his short-term girlfriend was pregnant. Rather than head home to deal with the issue, he instead went to the pub with a friend to blow off steam, and this is the last thing he remembers.

Also introduced is Christina, a young mother working in a petrol station who entertains herself during the dull shifts by making up macabre stories about the customers being psychotic serial killers. One day however, she is somewhat too close to the truth and also finds herself imprisoned in the same dilapidated building.

Kicking off with a somewhat cinematic start that put me in the mind of “Saw”, I liked the immediately engaging character situations presented by “Monster”. These are normal people in whom we can invest, and there’s a tight air of mystery along with the anticipation of nastiness that surely awaits them. Because as well as Ryan and Christina’s initially-hidden captors, the building also seems to be home to an enormous mentally-ill man loping around the filthy corridors.

The book is pacy and well crafted, filling in the back story by switching between the 1st and 3rd person. The aura of menace cranks up slowly, and both Ryan and Christina’s reactions under the mounting terror are convincing. They have moments of sheer panic followed by stoical resolve and then back again, sometimes the desperation leading them to hope that all this is just one big extreme prank. One scene in which Ryan is fed morphine to stop him passing out from pain could have been darkly amusing in a different setting, such is his garbled, comical speech, but here, it’s used to true chilling effect.

As the book progresses, we meet the faces behind all this and learn their horrible plans. Their histories are just as dark as the current scenario, and they’re anything but one-dimensional monsters. These kidnappers are broken by being the victims and/or perpetrators of genuinely upsetting physical and psychological abuse, and the book riffs on some classic questions. Who’s the monster? Is there even one? Can somebody so damaged be evil? But the answers are not black and white, and the story didn’t pan out the way I thought, playing with my sympathies all the way.

As the warning would suggest, there are some harrowing scenes. I was pleased to discover that they aren’t gratuitous – there really is nothing more boring in horror – but essential to the questions that “Monster” presents. I’ve read stories that are more extreme than this, but finished them with a shrug and a whatever. Here, the horror is gauged just right to get under your skin. It’s not just the actual violence that disturbs, but also our potential for it, and the numbing consequences of systematic, accumulative abuse. There’s no humour, and some sections of the book are both deeply touching and depressing.

Being picky, I have two small gripes. The prose is generally slick and unintrusive, but there were a couple of times when the character POV changed mid-scene without warning and took me out of the moment. There is also a scene in which one character is forced into a terrible act, and it just seemed to happen a little too easily for me. But they’re my only complaints.

The finale is appropriately painful and sobering, but there’s also a nice little epilogue that raised a smile. It’s a classic vignette with a tone of ominous fun, and the only time that this very dark novel has a wry twinkle in its eye.

So there you have it. An eloquent introduction from both Matt Shaw and Michael Bray explains the nature of extreme horror, pushing the boundaries, and the fine line such authors tread. It’s refreshing to see such thoughtful reasoning in the subgenre, and that the shocks are intended to be a means to an end and not simply the end itself.

Happily, “Monster” is just the right side of the line. It succeeds by luring your ghoulish curiosity, working in some solid character investment to stop you getting away, then drags you off to hell. The themes of survival and the nature/nurture argument are tackled intelligently without playing killjoy to the grisly shenanigans, and I liked the lack of distinction between good and evil. And it certainly gets its hooks in. I read it during a work day, and snatched every coffee break or bus journey to get back to that grim place of blood-stained concrete and death. I’ve already downloaded another of the black cover books by Matt Shaw, and I suspect it won’t be the last.