First published back in August of 2016, the ‘Darker Battlefields’ anthology, edited by Adrian Chamberlin, offered up six novellas exploring the supernatural underbelly of war in all its dark and deviant horror.

Foreword – Barbie Wilde - 2 Pages
Canadian-born actress turned author – Barbie Wilde – opens up the anthology with a short foreword highlighting the strength of “cross-genre” writing.  Altogether a perfect opening couple of pages to commence an anthology that wholeheartedly embraces this splicing of genres.  

Introduction – Adrian Chamberlin - 2 Pages
Author and anthology editor Adrian Chamberlin follows with a short, sharp introduction speaking of the use of warfare in telling stories, and how through injecting in an element of the unnatural, the authors of the anthology have been afforded the opportunity to explore the humane that little more.

Odette – Richard Farren Barber – 62 Pages
All around them the distant sound of tanks and heavy artillery reverberated through the dense woodland of war-torn France.  They knew that any moment a German patrol could be upon them.  They just had to hold their nerve and to keep pressing on.

However, it wasn’t a patrol that broke the cover of the woodland and entered into the adjoining field.  It was a lone German solider, no more than a boy, who ventured out into the open before them.  Frank, Jim and Bobby kept their heads down, not wanting to draw any undue attention to their own position.  After all, who knows who else could be in the vicinity.  Who else could be watching.

George had other ideas.  That was George Scanlan all over.  As soon as he spotted the German solider, his rifle was raised and he took the lone solider down.  Not a thought for the consequences.  Not a thought for his companions.

Of course, at some time or other, you’re luck’s going to run out.  That’s exactly what happened to George.  As it turned out, there were other Nazis in the vicinity.  Before they knew it they were being shot at.  In flurry of movement, the four British soldiers darted off into the woodland, but not before George took a bullet to the chest.

With the group’s options running out, the four soldiers carry their wounded companion to an old isolated barn nearby.  However, within the dark and dank confines of the decrepit barn, the troops will witness the true destructive power that man’s hate can unleash.  In the shadows of the old barn, two silhouettes, dark as war and cold as death, will visit a horror upon the four desperate troops.  A horror bred from the dark atrocities that had been born from hate itself…

What an opening story this is.  British author Richard Farren Barber sets the dark and oppressive atmosphere of WWII within minutes of commencing his tale; smothering the reader with a cloying bleakness that seems to penetrate every word spoken by these four desperate British soldiers.

Set in the middle of a war-torn France, one occupied by the Nazis and pounded by a constant barrage of heavy artillery, although the story purposefully skirts around the fighting, it nevertheless incorporates much of the horror and emotional strain forced upon those engaged in this brutal conflict.

The story is told from the perspective of one of the four soldiers:– a tired but level-headed soldier named Frank.  Although Barber only offers up a brief whisper of a backstory regarding any of these men, he nevertheless manages to build up significant emotional bonds between them and the reader and indeed their spiralling and increasingly desperate plight.

The story’s standout strength is undoubtedly in the almost palpable atmosphere that permeates the entire story.  It’s grim and bleak and swallows the reader up as the tale continues.  The horror - that is the spectral, wholly unnatural horror - echoes the darkness of the war and the characters’ deteriorating psyche perfectly.  It’s not a bombardment of visceral horror.  It doesn’t pounce on the reader, or drench them in blood.  Instead it creeps through the gradually descending shadows of the piece, edging its way to the foreground without revealing its true face until it’s too late run.

However unnatural the chilling horror is, it nevertheless maintains a truly haunting human element to its touch.  It stands out in complete juxtaposition to the physical fighting that we’re all too aware is taking place just out of sight.  The end result is something that lingers in your mind for some time after the final page has been turned.  Truly a masterclass in cold, bleak and utterly human horror.

The Searing – Paul Edwards – 36 Pages
Their already crumbling marriage finally collapsed when Cameron found out about Beth’s affair.  Of course, it was made that much harder because of their young daughter.  Following their separation, Jess’s disdain for her mother never really went away.  It came to such a point that she didn’t want to visit her mother at all.   She’d plead with her father not to have to go.  It was the last thing Jess ever asked of Cameron.  Her last plea.  And it still tore him apart.

Cameron had struggled to come to terms with his daughter’s death.  Life had lost all meaning.  His existence had become an empty void.  And then he’d seen the advert.  A self-help group for those who felt angry, lost or scared.  That was Cameron.  That was all that was left of his life since the fire.  So he’d gone.  And there he’d found Megan.

Suddenly his life had been granted a whole new beginning.  Through Megan the faintest shimmer of happiness was allowed to blossom.  But there were still many things troubling him.  Cameron had seen the way Megan’s father and sisters seemed to control her.  The self-help group seemed to dominate her life.  She’d become obsessed by it and the strange pilgrimage she was now counting down the days to.  But with Jess and Beth no longer in his life, what else did he have?  Nothing.  Nothing other than Megan.  In his heart he knew that she was now his all…

This is a bit of a weird one.  Firstly, and probably foremostly, it has very little at all to do with dark battlefields or indeed any sort of supernatural warfare.  The only reference to such themes comes at the very beginning with a mention that “We’ve all got our wars to fight” in reference to the inner battlefield and emotional war that we, at some point or other, all go through during our lives.  It’s one hell of a loose connection, flimsier still by the fact that after that there’s no further mention of such an ‘inner battle’ again.

Outside of this, the story itself is a strange rambling mystery unto itself.  Indeed, author Paul Edwards purposefully scatters suggestive mentions of weird ‘cultish’ sounding beliefs throughout the characters’ dialogue.  It certainly helps to build up an air of thought-provoking mystery, however, if truth be told, the way in which it’s repeatedly alluded to starts to feel a tad on the contrived side after a while.

That said, Edwards certainly knows how to build up some teeth-grinding suspense.  As the tale begins to edge closer and closer to its conclusion, and all is to (hopefully) be revealed, it’s hard not to get caught up in the churning wheels of the unravelling mystery.  Thankfully the story does end fittingly well.

It’s a story that feels gently whispered close to your ear rather than flung brazenly in your face.  And to be fair, it’s an approach that does the quiet coldness of the story absolute justice.

Winter Storm – Anthony Watson – 58 Pages
The orders had come to move position.  To edge higher up the mountain.  And so the back-breaking trudge through the snow had begun.  And then the storm had hit.  Within minutes it had obliterated everything around Private Victor Kovalenko.  Marching through deep snow on the steep sides of a mountain had already split the men up, wide gaps forming between each of them.

The arrival of the driving snow had made worse an already poor situation.  And then the dreaded moment came when the Ukrainian solider realised the others were no longer visible to him.  Victor knew he would have to reconnect with the battalion soon – or at the very least find some kind of shelter – or he would surely perish out there on the mountainside.

With his options dwindling by the second, fate offers him a helping hand in what appears to be a hunter’s lodge, peeking out from beneath a blanket of snow.  Upon entering the lodge he finds food and wine laid out on the table – all of which he hungrily devours.  However, Victor is not alone in the hunter’s lodge.  As he rests with his stomach now full, a figure moves out from the shadows.  Victor is about to come face to face with the beast that haunted his nightmares as a child.  As he’s sent into the borderlands – a meeting of worlds – Victor will be faced with a choice.  Live or die.  But everything comes at a price.  For the demon before him is Erlik…and death is his dominion…

I’ve got to admit, I’m an absolute sucker for horror stories that utilise a hostile stormy backdrop, or indeed one that’s set within a ravaged war-torn town or city.  Anthony Watson’s offering includes both.  Furthermore, you’ve got the whole ‘Pact with the Devil’ thing going on, with Victor forced into making a Faust-like bargain.  There’s plenty more left in the story (although I don’t want to give too much away), however, it’s with all the other details in the tale that Watson really excels.

The Devil’s often glimpsed with a pig’s head – possibly a reference to ‘
Lord Of The Flies’ (1954) or some other piece of literature – which does nothing if not add a particularly creepy edge to the fallen angel.  The intrinsically painted backdrop, the lovingly detailed characterisation, and the sinister undertones that rumble through the entire story, make for a truly compelling and utterly engrossing read.  There’s just so much to like about this story.  So many layers and subtle complexities.  This is what ‘Darker Battlefields’ is all about.  A superb offering from a wonderfully talented writer.

This Envious Siege – Adrian Chamberlin – 86 Pages
Now that he was no longer just a boy, no longer a mere powder monkey for the British fleet, he finally felt strong enough to face the man that had brutalised him; the man who left his back permanently scarred and disfigured.  Some ten years ago, when he was a twelve-year-old aboard HMS Hydra, he’d found himself at the receiving end of Captain Richard Franklyn’s merciless wrath.

Accused of blasphemously desecrating the Captain’s precious bible, the punishment the young lad - known by all as Nipper – was to receive for the supposed crime was a vicious flogging.  However, even though his guilt was completely unfounded, the Captain had shown no mercy to the young boy.  That day, in the year of 1805, Nipper had almost died.

The crew had seen the cruelty brought down upon the powder monkey for the barbaric and wholly unjustified madness that it was.  And so, with a little help from aboard the Hydra, over the days that followed, miraculously Nipper managed to recover from the vicious flogging.

And then the Spanish and French fleet were upon them.  The time had finally come for battle to commence.

But the men aboard the Hydra would be up against a far darker power than mere soldiers.   In the enemy’s ranks, the ship that had once been the saviour of Nipper and his mother – the Revelation - now sailed not for the British, but for the Spanish.  On its prow the ship bore a foul figurehead.  A blasphemy in guilt and ebony; a seven-skulled monster, each blackened visage that of a goat that had decayed in the desert; snake-like appendages writhing from its seven gaping mounts, terminating in human-looking tongues that curled up around the crown of thorns that surmounted each head, lasciviously licking the horns sprouting from the rotted skulls.  A vision from Hell itself.  The Beast of Revelation.

Nipper had once been told by his father - the mad Arab prophet - that the Gates of Hell were closed, although the keys were still amongst them.  It was a warning that had gone unheeded by the master and commander of Hydra.  As the crew of the Hydra would soon learn, the Gates of Hell can be found in many places.

As the clouds of smoke that drift across the sea clear, the vessel that now bears down on the Hydra will prove to the awaiting crew once and for all, that Hell itself can be opened on sea as it can on land…

Hell yeah!  If there’s one thing that Adrian Chamberlin can do fucking well, it’s write a thoroughly unnerving and damn good historically set horror story.  It’s undoubtedly his forte.  His writing is so utterly suited to it.  His obvious passion for the period, his near obsession with those intricate details that make it so utterly believable.  So unbelievably captivating.  Of course ‘Darker Battlefields’ is the perfect home for one of his stories.  And trust me, you won’t be disappointed with the one he has to offer.

What we have with ‘This Envious Siege’ is a story bookended by our protagonist, the once young powder monkey, now some ten years later, confronting the man who unleashed such a torrent of cruelty upon him.  Throughout the length of the novella, the story jumps back and forth between the now (1816) and when they were out at sea battling the Spanish fleet (1805).

Chamberlin tells the story through a gradually unravelling mystery, with the intertwining elements surrounding the interaction of the story’s key characters slowly coming to light, until finally, everything is revealed in a moment of perfectly executed clarity.

The writing and wonderfully poetic wordsmanship throughout the story is absolutely second to none.  This is Chamberlin’s secret weapon.  He can write so unbelievably well.  So effortlessly enchanting in an almost classically bygone manner, yet with such an easily-accessible rhythm and unpretentious air about it.

Another standout strength in the story, as is so often the case in one of Chamberlin’s historically set tales, is how skin-crawlingly dark it can feel.  The ship that Franklyn’s crew now face - the ship that had once sailed as the Revelation but now sails as a blasphemously corrupted version of its former self - carries such a stench of evil about it that you can’t help but feel somehow tainted by the dark grime spewed out by it.  Everything about the horror, about the blasphemous evil on show, is so grotesquely visceral, so immediate and so cloyingly palpable.  It’s hard not to shudder at the thought it.  At the madness.  At the darkness that threatens to swallow you whole.

This my friends, my dear fellow readers and horror enthusiasts, is how historically set, battle-blooded horror is written.  This is visceral, bleak, dark and twisted horror at its absolute, gut-wrenching finest.

The Exercise – Mark West – 66 Pages
They were due to undertake another routine military exercise.  Each squad would be led by a corporal, assisted by a lance corporal.  Although he’d only known the men in his squad for a week, Corporal Ray Ward was happy with his selection.  Joe Kelly was Ray’s secret weapon.  Joe had a lot of experience along with an authority that made the other men listen.  Under Joe and him they had Private Arthur “Gracie” Fields, their designated navigator – and a damn fine one at that.  Private Alan “Porky” James was their radio operator.  A thick-set man who could lug the heaviest of equipment without any objection.  And finally there was Private Danny Price, known to all as “Half”.  The sort of guy who could charm the birds from the trees, or as was often the case, the women to his bed.

The exercise they were to undertake was a simple one.  The squad would be dropped off at an unknown location, whereby they had the night to make their way to a specified rendezvous point.  The squad would need to trek across the countryside, avoiding roads and open spots, in order to stay out of sight of Sergeant Harold Lloyd’s patrolling troops.  It was an exercise that Ward was fairly confident they could tackle with relative ease.  And it had been looking like that was exactly the case, until Half stepped on a man trap, leaving him requiring immediate medical attention.

Luckily they were able to flag down a passing troop, and were soon whisked away to nearby Sinclair House - a supposed rehabilitation unit dealing with those suffering from post-concussion syndrome.  There the small squad were offered a warm welcome, and offered food and a bed for the night.

However, Sinclair House isn’t what it seems.  In the huts out in the orchard, the blood-chilling sounds of screaming and endless moaning can be heard.  Furthermore, the sheer volume of military personnel in and around the property seems unjustifiably extensive. Ward and his men know something is seriously wrong with the operation at Sinclair House.  The question is what?...

This is another absolute corker of a tale.  With a somewhat familiar story to that of Rakie Keig’s ‘
Home Ground’ (2012) along with a healthy dose of ‘Re-animator’ (1985) about it, British author Mark West offers up a tightly-paced tale of madness leading to a spiralling descent into some properly explosive, high-adrenaline horror.

For a relatively short novella, West somehow manages to cram in plenty of nicely fleshed-out characterisation between the five comrades on the military exercise, as well as a handful of residents at Sinclair House.  Of course everyone introduced into the tale has their own roles, their own part to play in the unfolding story.  And the carefully concealed mystery surrounding the true objectives of Sinclair House is hinted at perfectly, but never truly revealed until the very end; purposefully drawing the reader into the tale with a snow-balling pull of intrigue and suspense.

When the horror is unveiled it hits the reader like a sledgehammer to the face.  To say it’s explosive is an understatement.  One minute we’re settling down for a well-earned rest, the next all hell’s broken loose along the dimly lit corridors of Sinclair House.  From here it’s high-adrenaline, pulse-thumping action, as we hurtle to its ever-approaching conclusion; with echoes of the ending scenes to ‘28 Days Later’ (2002) blending into the early sequences from ‘28 Weeks Later’ (2007), West well and truly offer up one hell of a bastard finale.

Descensus Christi Ad Inferos – Dean M Drinkel – 95 Pages
Thomas had met Jules in the bar.  The two had subconsciously homed in on each other, selecting the other from the throngs of people in the busy French bar.  Jules was markedly younger than Thomas, but that didn’t seem to perturb either of them.  They sat, drinking spiced rum and talking about their lives.  Their pasts.  The events that had brought them to where they were now.

Thomas was carrying the heavy weight of regret on his shoulders.  He’d let what was possibly his one true love go.  Now he had to live with the loss.  Now he had to settle with knowing that Vincent was gone forever.

Vincent and he had been passionate lovers.  Having only known each other a short while, their love seemed to reach far beyond physical lust.  They had a connection.  Both of them knew it.  But Vincent had his own cross to bear.  His own regrets pulling him down.  The blood of innocents still staining his hands.

Elsewhere the suffering of man continued.  Although his age was witling away what was left of him, Claude still had enough presence of mind to know that his son needed him.  He could hear him calling.  Pleading with him.  Crying out from Hell itself.

So Claude had done what any loving father would do.  He’d gone in search of his lost son.  Gone to collect him from Hell, to set him free once and for all.  Which is how Claude found Father van Bergen.  The priest had been casting the blood-splattered remains of another victim into the furnace as Claude emerged from the basement’s shadows.

Hell it seems, is truly what you make of it…

Dean M Drinkel is the first to admit his affection for Clive Barker’s work.  He’s not shy about the influence that Barker has had.  He doesn’t hide from it.  Indeed, like with Barbie Wilde or Peter Kane’s fiction, the undeniable influence that encompasses the stories feels like an extension on a quietly whispered mythos.  And for that alone it sends shivers down any Barker fan’s spine.

For his contribution to the anthology Drinkel offers up a tale of remorse, regret, loss and passionate loyalty within the murky waters of a manically fragmented story.  However, amongst this chaotic mayhem there’s a very human element rising up out of the blood-drenched trough of hurt and pain.  Somewhat akin to Barker’s later work, Drinkel’s tale embraces homosexuality in an entirely open and unashamed way.  Indeed, some may find such an explicit show of male-on-male sexuality quite uncomfortable, however the physical and emotional connection brought out through the sexual acts depicted is integral to the tale as a whole, and far from a mere splash of provocative titillation.  It paves the way between the fragmented islands, underpinning the motivations and connecting the dots of the meandering plot.

Of course, this is a Drinkel tale so you need to expect darkness vividly painted with an air of almost poetic grace.  There’s a murk to every angle.  A sinister tone that coats every sentence and every turn in the tale.  But there always seems to be a purpose to it all.  Something that’s always hinted at.  A wisp of a suggestion added to everything that takes place.  And running underneath all of that a distorted, quietly-corrupted religious element to it all.  The title alone prods the reader towards such associations: “Descensus Christi Ad Inferos” roughly translated as “Christ’s descent into Hell”.  And as you’d expect, the story is littered with connotations suggesting many such links, should you wish to dig deeper.

The story is textbook Drinkel.  If you’ve come across Drinkel’s work before, if you’ve already delved into his ferociously dark and deviant mind - somewhere where demons and angels seem to blur - then you’ll know exactly what to expect here.  This is how Drinkel writes.  This is his love affair with Barker’s vision of a tangible, far more seductive and intrinsically human Hell.  It’s got it all in there.  And holy fuck does it drag you into a dark and endlessly chilling embrace.

The anthology runs for a total of 413 pages.

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