First published back in August of 2018, British author Benedict J. Jones’ 1944 set novella ‘Hell Ship’ offered up a blood-drenched helping of escalating sea-bound psychological horror.

DLS Synopsis:
The Empire Carew was a big ship.  But no ship is too large to stand up to the might of a Japanese torpedo.  Which is exactly what the crew of the Empire Carew faced when a Japanese WWII submarine let loose a torpedo in the Malacca Straights.

Nine survivors managed to get off the burning ship and onto a jolly boat as the Empire Carew burned.  Supplies were low on the boat.  Just enough bottled water and biscuits to see them through for a short time.  The group knew they were in trouble.  If they didn’t find help fast then their lives would be in serious jeopardy.

Among them were three of the departed ship’s sailors, one of who was badly burned and in dire need of proper medical attention.  There was also a young officer, a radio operator, a nurse, a cook, a wartime singer and her manager.  They weren’t the toughest or the most seasoned of survivors.  But they all had one thing in common – they all wanted to get through this.

With the Empire Carew long since swallowed up by the dark waters of the Indian Ocean, the survivors drift aimlessly in the vast expanse of sea, hoping someone will cross their path before it’s too late.  With supplies dwindling away to nothing, the jolly boat enters a thick bank of fog.  And as the survivors peer through the near impenetrable blanket of fog, the shape of a vast ship is gradually revealed.

The ship is the Shinjuku Maru.  Despite being a Japanese vessel, the survivors still see the ship as their hopeful salvation.  Boarding the ship, they find it seemingly deserted.  Dirt and silt streak the ship’s sides, the dirt-encrusted decks showing worrying splatters of blood.

However, there is something far worse than Japanese aboard the abandoned ghost ship.  Something that will tear apart the bonds formed between the marooned survivors.  Lost at sea, adrift an empty ghost ship, these nine survivors will face a terror beyond their worst nightmares.  What at first seemed to be their salvation, will soon become their undoing.

This is the Shinjuku Maru.  This is the Hell Ship…

DLS Review:
Inspired by the massacres the Imperial Japanese Navy enacted aboard The Behar and Tjisalak ships during WWII, author Benedict J. Jones takes the real-life horror of these horrific events to create a story bursting with a deeply sinister horror.

It’s pretty much ‘Event Horizon’ (1997) only lost out upon the choppy Indian ocean.  There’s also more than a touch of Adam Baker’s ‘Outpost’ (2011) in there, along with a thick wedge of Mats Strandberg’s novel ‘Blood Cruise’ (2018) for the setting.

This is only a novella length tale, so you shouldn’t expect much more than the singular narrative to see you through.  That said, the story has more than its fair share of characters rubbing shoulders in it.  In fact, the cast of characters Jones draws upon is perhaps a tad too many for the tale.  With such a short page count it can feel cluttered at times with all the different perspectives.  Furthermore, none of the characters are fleshed out much more than a light sketching and backstories are pretty much non-existent.

That said, none of this particularly detracts from the story all that much.  Although as the action unfolds, at times it can become a little confusing which character is which due to the lack of any substantial characterisation.

Nevertheless, it’s still the characters themselves who drive to narrative forwards with a purposeful and near-unstoppable gusto.  Certainly in the early chapters, aboard the small jolly boat (basically a lifeboat), whilst these nine tired and hungry survivors cling to the hope they’ll somehow get through being lost out at sea with virtually no food or drinking water.

Once they’re aboard the eerie ghost ship, the desperation built up during those early chapters is seamlessly replaced by a creeping, downright unsettling tension that permeates everything.  The Shinjuku Maru is a creepy vessel.  The quiet unknown of it smothers you in a blanket of unease.  Jones paints the dark, decaying corridors, rooms and decks of the ship perfectly.  The atmosphere from here on is second to none.  It clogs your pores.  Encases the narrative in a body of stagnant water; the very air seeming stale, yet rife with something untoward.

Of course we know this abandoned ship isn’t going to be the salvation these nine desperate souls are hoping it’ll be.  The gradual unveiling of a dark horror aboard the ship therefore comes as no real surprise.  Although that doesn’t detract from any of the uneasy dread that the author manages to instil.  There’s a constant sense of something lurking, watching and waiting in the gloom of the boat.  Knowing it’s undoubtedly there brings with it the skin-crawling chill factor.  The carefully-paced unveiling of this only adds to the novellas tension.

Surprisingly for a story of this nature, claustrophobia doesn’t really play much of a part in the tale.  Yes, the characters are trapped with pretty much nowhere to go, but the size and scale of the ship’s expanse reduces the trapped confinement within the story, so much so, that it’s more the idea of what else could be lurking in the unexplored regions of the ship than the feeling that there’s nowhere to run.

Another notable strength of the novella is the sense of the period it’s set within.  We’re talking 1944 here.  Deep in the death, dread and chaos of WWII.  The characters and their dialogue all fit in with the time.  The descriptions of the ship’s interior and the various equipment encountered further maintains the realism of this period in history.  And through that the whole story feels that much more real.  That much more frightening.

This is not so much a supernatural horror as it is a darkly psychological one.  It’s a novella that feeds you into a churning wheel of escalating horror, capitalising on the author’s strengths at creating a truly terrifying atmosphere each step of the way.  And once the creeping, crawling darkness gets underway, it doesn’t stop ripping away at you with an unrelenting intensity that pounds down the ships decks until the final page is turned.

A magnificently and horrifically entertaining read.

The novella runs for a total of 124 pages.

 © DLS Reviews



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