First published back in July of 2015, US author, tattooist, illustrator and amateur boxer, Dan Henk’s book ‘Down Highways In The Dark…By Demons Driven’ offered up a novella-length tale, along with a collection of selected short stories all sharing a similarly nihilistic theme.

Down Highways In The Dark – 111 pages
Aaron Law was fourteen when he ran away to New York City.  There was nothing for him in North Carolina but his overbearing, super-conservative father.  He’d arrived into Times Square with just twenty dollars to his name. Hitch-hiking the whole way with a rough old fella in his beat-up Mustang.  They’d listened to metal the entire journey.  Aaron had never felt so god damn alive.  Scared but alive.

But New York didn’t work out the way he hoped it would.  Within minutes of arriving he’d witnessed a tragic accident down in the tubestation.  Anger bubbling up between two men, had led to one falling onto the tracks.  His life only extinguished when the train was forced to move off his irreversibly mangled torso.

However, Aaron had seen something else that day.  The man who’d died had reached out to him.  Called for his help.  Pleaded for Aaron to make things right.  Only this had been after the train had moved off his mashed body.  After his eyes had closed down and his life had exited his body.

Aaron had witnessed something would change his perception on life.  That time in the New York City underground had plagued his mind.  He’d seen something beyond the natural scope of life.  He’d heard the man speak to him.  Seen the man reach out for him.  Even after death.

Two years later in Northern Virginia it had happened again.  Another tragic death.  Another vision that couldn’t be explained.  But this time someone saw Aaron’s troubles.  This time he didn’t just blend into the background.  This time he was spotted for what he was.

Aaron had a special gift.  One he seemed unable to control.  He’d been walking between worlds.  Reaching out to closer dimensions.  Travelling to places beyond our world.  But his gift was dangerous.  Many would like to control it.  But plenty would rather eliminate it than let Aaron fall into the hands of another.  Which made every minute that Aaron was walking around potentially his last…

Henk’s opening story is a novella-length offering of Lovecraftian-style cosmic horror that delves into the chaos of an unsuspecting young lad uncontrollably flittering between dimensions.  Written in the first-person-perspective, the story starts off almost akin to a diary from a rebelling adolescent.  A faux-journey through struggling teenage years, and beyond, written in hindsight by the author of these strange happenings.

The tone of the tale as it unfolds is increasingly unsettling, snowballing into a mindboggling series of far-reaching experiences, almost dreamlike in its unpredictability.  As a reader, staying on point with what’s transpiring across each page is a task unto itself, but one that nevertheless adds to the tale’s strength, rather than detracting from it.  Akin to piecing together a strange puzzle within a vortex of spiralling chaos, with our narrator stuck in the very epicentre of the swirling storm.

Although undeniably character-focussed, the tale nevertheless unleashes a swathe of action and adrenaline-pumping sequences, as Aaron Law finds himself repeatedly confronted with fight-or-flight dilemmas in the blink of an eye.

This is cosmic horror reaching out to terrifying and truly unnerving dimensions.  Don’t go walking down this shadowed highway expecting science-fiction to be the principal dominating force behind the tale.  It’s bleaker, darker, more nerve-shredding than that.  It’s fantastical in its imaginatively near-limitless scope, but the overshadowing cloud of horror is constantly looming and far more oppressive.  And that’s what makes it so fundamentally compelling.  So skull-crushingly bleak.

The Beauty Of Ignorance – 19 pages
He was only ten years old when he found the body in the waist-high wild grass.  The decaying remains stagnating in the woodland’s autumn air.  The sight had scared him.  Of course it had.  After all, he was only ten years old.  He’d run off through the pine trees until he was panting for air and feeling increasingly lost. Which is when he came across the decrepit old farmhouse, hidden away in the tangled overgrowth of the woods.  Inside he found a bitter old man lying on the floor, his right leg ending in a bloody stump, just below the knee.

That day he’d learnt what true dread was.  He’d stumbled upon something that would linger with him.  Carve out a pathway he’d one day return to.  On that day he’d unwittingly uncovered an old ancient evil from a millennia ago.  But the terror, the terror was still there.  And its pull never leaves you…

Did I say Dan Henk’s stories were dark?  Well, I’m beginning to think that analogy doesn’t really cut it when trying to describe his work.  It’s bleak to the extent it pounds on the door of utter nihilism.  It’s so gut-churningly cold it feels like you’ve downed a vat of barely-frozen swamp water.  Take this story as a prime cut of such.  We follow the dreamlike movements of our narrator, treading on his very heels as this eerie dream-like sequence gradually mutates into what can only be described as a hauntingly vivid nightmare.

Like with the first story in the book, this tale plays with a lost youngster unwittingly taking the wrong turn in life.  Treading down a pathway where there’s no returning from it.  I’m talking in a metaphorical sense here, but in this particular example there’s a very real, physical sense of this as well.  But it’s the draw back to the darkness (for want of a better word) that ultimately gets under your skin.  The return to a place of absolute coldness.  A curiosity borne from loss.

Yeah, it’s bleak and full of whispered symbolism that sets your mind alight trying to stitch everything together.  And it does come together.  Finally, in a patchwork of coldness, it all comes back around in circle upon itself.

The Small Spaces In Time – 17 pages
He’d woken to find the plane deserted.  Not a soul in sight.  The silence of the empty plane, deafening to his ears.   Along the long unending corridors of the airport he found nothing but the same desolation.  No one was out there.  A lifeless shell of a building.  Not a movement to be heard.  Empty.

That was until he stumbled across the woman.  Their chance meeting in the vacant corridors brought a spark of hope for him.  Perhaps he could still get out of this?  Find others somewhere else.  Although his unrelenting hunger and thirst from days of searching cast a looming doubt upon such thoughts.  But he clung on regardless.  Keeping his inner monster hidden.  If only she knew the real him.  If only she knew…

By now, like me, you’re probably getting a pretty damn good picture of the style of horror Henk paints through his bleak-as-hell tales.  In this collection they don’t necessarily follow what some would call your standard story structure.  They’re more like nightmarish dream-sequences.  Scenarios and settings where pretty much anything can happen.  They have a sort of limitless scope, never confined to the usual everyday rules of our world.

Here we have exactly that again.  A waking hell.  Almost a textbook nightmare, where the mundane setting of an airport is flung into a terrifying solitariness by taking out all signs of life amidst an endless labyrinth of modern construct.

For me this story showcases exactly what Henk does best.  It takes a setting, however familiar, and corrupts it.  The result is a terrifying reimagining.  A deeply unsettling premise that’s never truly explained, although any attempt at rationalising it would undoubtedly feel wholly unnecessary.  We don’t need to know the answers.  We’re not even going to pose the questions.  The focus is all on what’s to follow.  What’s around the next white-washed airport corridor?  Where and when will Henk unleash the next volley of gut-crushing punches, leaving you gasping for air?

This is how nightmarish horror is done.  Ask no questions.  Simply succumb to its terror.

Eye Deep In Hell – 12 Pages
It’s March 1919.  The war ended months ago.  Yet in a French war hospital a man has been brought in mumbling a warning about the Germans.  A tired and disorientated figure found stumbling aimlessly within the abandoned trenches of what was once no man’s land.  Since these opening warnings, the man hasn’t uttered another word.  He’d undoubtedly seen things.  Terrible things that still plague his mind.  But what was so horrific to do such a thing now the war had ended?  What could be left in those empty trenches that could disturb a man to such a degree?  What sort of nightmares still reigned in those twisting mud-caked passageways, so many months after the war had come to an end?...

For this next story Henk has flung us back to the months shortly after the First World War had ended.  Instantly we’re dropped into a setting of grime and hurt and loss.  Death still lingers in the clinging damp air of no man’s land.  But for this man the war isn’t over.  We’re thrown back into the chaotic madness of warfare.  The desperation, the explosive violence, the constant threat seems to be everywhere we turn.  Henk paints this picture masterfully.  The horror of it feels gut-wrenchingly real.  But there’s more in these mud-and-blood-caked trenches than lingering echoes of war.  There are secrets that throw the doors open for so much more.  This is terrifyingly real horror painted with the blood-splattered brush of a master in madness.

Dr. Seuss Is Dead – 26 pages
It was the summer of 1987.  Fourteen-year-old Jay had three long months until he had to go back to school.  Three months of getting up to no good.  Three months of skateboarding, shoplifting and hanging out with Kevin.  Today was going to be no exception.  He’d already started off by hitting the various record stores in town, pilfering albums, more for the hell of it than a real want for the songs they contained.  Then it was over to the trailer Kevin shared with his mum.  They’d play a few games of cards then head out to the construction site.  Smoke some shit then see what there was to do around there.  Although what had seemed like a textbook balmy summer’s day plan, would quickly change the course of Jay’s life forever.  In an old underground sewer, in the dark and gloom of that long forgotten chamber, Jay’s life will be ripped away from under his feet.  In the dark, anything can happen.  Anything can be altered.  Anything can be lost forever…

Here once again we see Henk whisking us back to a young adolescent’s rebellious teenage years, with a Stephen King-esque backdrop setting the scene for the troubling cosmic-cum-supernatural twist to follow.  The story gradually unfolds, letting you inch closer and closer to the inevitable injection of what is surely an unleashing of horror to come.  What you won’t anticipate though is the sudden shifting in direction that Henk purposefully derails the course of his story with.  In the blink of an eye, the tale is shunted into a whole new time.  All of a sudden we’re readjusting, trying to get a grip on what’s going on, what’s happened and what the hell is causing the very real sense of escalating danger.  It’s a story that suggests more than it spells out.  And for that it works perfectly.  Effortlessly creepy.

Oh The Horror… The Horror – 36 pages
He’d flown over from America to take in some of the rural charm Scotland had to offer.  A further excursion over to Loch Ness was too much for him to resist.  As such, Jon was soon aboard a rusty old ship, heading across the wintery water of the vast lake.  But they were far from alone out there.  Something was out in the water with them.  Something that would cause untold mayhem, slaughtering the crew and all the tourists aboard.  He’d survived the ordeal more by luck the judgement.  But now he found himself all alone in the bitter cold of the Scottish Highlands.  He had to find help.  Had to find shelter.  Had to find someone.  Anyone…

Here we have Henk trying his hand at an old school Lovercraftian style horror, with plenty of creeping chills giving the tale more scenes of escalating terror than you can shake a veritable stick at.  Our narrator is your typical Lovecraft principal protagonist:- an American venturing into the snow covered hills of the Scottish Highlands, hoping to experience all that the picturesque rural landscape has to offer.

Of course, his trip isn’t going to be all hearty walks and rural quaintness.  Instead we have the Loch Ness Monster slaughtering the entire ship’s worth of people other than our narrator, leaving him alone and in desperate need of help.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Not by a long shot.  From here out hapless protagonist stumbles upon a remote stone cottage with a far from understanding inhabitant, before things start to snowball like a motherfucker and everything gets really fucking over-the-top.  I kid you not, it’s like Lovecraft on one bastard of a bad trip.  Time and again you’ll think you’ve reached the peak of the madness, only for Henk to throw another ladleful of horrific wackiness into the mix.  Absolute carnage.  Manically good fun.

Christmas Is Cancelled – 32 pages
Santa had been doing the job for years.  Blindly obeying the will of the old ones.  Each year going out on his aging sleigh; travelling across the furthest corners of the world, delivering presents to all the good children.  He’d been doing the job so long he could no longer remember why he did it.  The purpose.  The reasoning for it.

This Christmas Eve hadn’t gone to plan.  He’d not long left his grotto and headed out into the darkened, snow-filled sky, when a series of glowing lights had startled his faithful reindeer.  Before he knew what was going on, he was hurtling downwards, thumping hard onto the blanket of snow-covered earth below.

It was some time before he came to.  When he did, it took him just as long to work out what the hell had happened.  His reindeer were there around him.  Shaken but alive.  All except his beloved Prancer, whose head was bent at an awkward angle.

Santa knew he had to find his sleigh if he was to have any chance of getting out of this mess. But as the hours slipped by, hunger crept into him.   A deep seated hunger that gnawed at his bones. He needed to eat if he was going to survive this cold Christmas night.

Luckily there was food out there.  Tasty, succulent, protein-rich meat.  With his sleigh back in action he could get back into the night sky and start visiting the homes of all those good young children.  Squeezing down their chimneys or in through their unlocked doors.

Once inside, he knew what he had to do.

All those quietly sleeping children were in for one hell of a surprise.  He was Santa.  And Santa had to eat…

Ho-ho-holy shit is this some dark and twisted festive horror fun.  Santa losing his way, losing all sense of purpose, losing his mind and going on a cannibalistic children eating rampage.  This my horror-loving friends is one hell of a grisly Christmas treat.

For its page count, it’s initially a bit of a slow burner.  The first third or so of the dark tale sees Santa coming into trouble, then wandering around a seemingly barren, snow-covered wilderness with a deep-rooted hunger driving our once-jolly present-giving anti-hero onwards.

The story then jumps to Young Timothy who’s waiting in his family home, hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa.  And he can’t believe his eyes when the big man comes scrambling down his chimney.  But the Santa that emerges is far from the one Timothy has been brought up to love.  This Santa is wild, drooling and his beard is encrusted with gristle and splatterings of blood.  He’s hungry and after more meat to fill his aching gut.

It's from this moment, when we meet Timothy and his younger sister Wendy, that the tale really cranks up the horror gears.  All of a sudden the story has twisted into some grisly-as-sin pulp horror.  Sure enough, what follows is a good fifteen-or-so pages of high-adrenaline horror, akin to a nightmare sequence that seems to see no end.

Furthermore, if you’re thinking there’ll be a seasonal joy-inspiring ending then you’re sadly mistaken.  Oh no, there’s no light at the end of this hellish tunnel.  Poor old Timothy and his blubbering sister aren’t going to have much of a Christmas this year.  In fact, no one is.  You see, Santa’s hungry.  And when Santa’s hungry, he won’t stop until his big fat belly’s full.

From start to finish this short fucked-up Christmas tale was nothing but a horrific blast.  Utterly entertaining, full of the very blackest comedy, and about as sinister as they come.

The story was first released as a standalone story in the Splatterpunk Zine chapbook ‘Christmas Is Cancelled’ (2012).

The collection runs for a total of 278 pages (including nine black & white full-page illustrations by Henk).

© DLS Reviews





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