First published back in November of 2013, British author Matt Shaw’s novella ‘Once Upon A Time’ formed the fourth instalment within his ‘Peter Chronicles’ series, with this book forming a prequel to the original ‘Happy Ever After’ trilogy.

The novella was later re-released within the ‘His Name Was Peter’ (2017) complete collection, which compiled all the ‘Peter chronicles’ stories – apart from the short story ‘Before Vanessa’ (2019) – into one complete volume.

DLS Synopsis:
When Stephanie looked into the eyes of her twelve-year-old son, she saw the child she’d always wanted to look after and love.  She also saw something else.  When she looked into Michael’s face, she also saw the death he’d brought into the world with him. 

This was her life.  This was who she was now.  Stephanie.  Mother to a son who should never have called her his mother in the first place.

They lived together in the isolated house.  Just the two of them.  They didn’t need anyone else.  It would be too much of a risk.  Even after Fiona changed their names, it was too much of a risk.  If they knew what she’d done to keep Peter, what she’d sacrificed for his existence, they’d throw away the key.

Of course, Peter was none the wiser.  He had no idea of his real name.  Of who his real parents were.  Of who this woman claiming to be his mother really was.

Peter had no real memory of his father, other than the incident in the kitchen.  The memory which troubled him even to this day.  Only after Peter had stabbed the man in the back, was he told it had been his father.  Peter killing him had to be their secret, or the police would take him away from her and lock him up.  

The next day Fiona had put Peter in a dress.  It was a way of making him more like a lady.  More like the child Fiona had always craved for.

What Peter had done had been a brave action from an otherwise meek boy; a boy who only wanted to save his mother from a bad man.  Now she wanted to save Peter from the memory turning him into a monster.  She would not allow her son to be a monster.  What she was doing – what she had done since it had first happened – she knew was the best way of keeping him safe from the evil lurking within him, and more importantly, keeping him close to her for as long as she possibly could.

Peter was dead.  Michael was born.  And Fiona wanted to turn him into someone else.  Someone without that killer instinct.  Someone who’d want to stay with her forever…

DLS Review:
The whole story of Peter originally started with the novel ‘Happy Ever After’ (2008).  The ‘9 Months’ trilogy (i.e. the first three instalments in the series) were written and released later on, by way of a prequel trilogy.  ‘Once Upon A Time’ was a prequel to ‘G.S.O.H. Essential’ (2011), which itself was a prequel to ‘Happy Ever After’ (2008).  As you can see, the order in which the stories were written and released makes the ‘Star Wars’ sequence of releases seem simplistic.  However, when reading the stories in the (highly recommended) chronological order (rather than the original order they were written and released in), you get to observe and really appreciate the full evolution of Peter into the psychopathic monster he’ll one day become.

With this instalment we have an absolute critical slice into this formation of the man Peter will become.  We’re now twelve years on from the ‘9 Month’ trilogy, with Peter (renamed Michael to hide his real identity by his ‘mother’) close to becoming a teenager.  Peter has become a quiet, introverted child, dominated by his overbearing mother.  It’s that classic serial killer premise.  The ‘nature versus nurture’ argument, weighted heavily towards the side of nurture in this particular narrative.

At twelve Peter takes his first life.  In a moment of desperate panic, he thrusts a kitchen knife into the back of a man who’s strangling his dear old mother.  Of course, fruit-loop Fiona has Peter believe he’s just killed his own father, rather than the truth of the matter which is it’s one of the sleazy punters she has visiting the house for her ‘personal services’.

That key moment, seeing Peter kill a man, pushes Fiona further down the spiralling abyss of her madness.  She starts dressing Peter in dresses in an attempt to make him more ‘ladylike’.  His action figures and other toys are replaced with dolls and make-up kits.  It’s all incredibly creepy, especially as it’s told from the perspective of Peter, who’s innocent mind is understandably confused by everything that’s going on.

The small family unit Shaw paints with Fiona and Peter (aka Stephanie and Michael) is one which worsens and worsens.  The regular occurrence of male visitors to the house, the home-schooling Fiona does, the strange sexual undertones to everything, it’s all so gut-churningly fucked-up.  But that ain’t nothing.  It’s when Fiona starts allowing the men to have their way with Peter that the whole fucking thing plummets off a cliff edge.

If you’re not accustomed to the hardest of extreme horrors, or the very darkest of messed-up thrillers, then this is one to be very wary of.  This is brutal, uncompromising fiction at its darkest.  Utterly sick.  Emotionally proactive to the nth degree.  The sort of thing that’ll haunt you for a long old time afterwards.

Shaw doesn’t go into graphic detail on the repeated rape of poor young Peter (thank fuck for that).  However, the suffering he undergoes is painted in the darkest of hues.  I guess it’s the fact that his ‘mother’ – or rather the women portraying herself as his mother – allows these vile acts to go on.  She actively facilitates it.  A sort of Rose West without the contributing factor of a psychotic husband urging her along.

If you can stomach the heinous brutality of the story, then you’ll find it a damn solid piece of truly troubling horror fiction.  Shaw’s clearly no stranger to true crime serial killer cases.  The textbook signs of a “serial killer in the making” are all there.  The overbearing lunatic mother, the animal torture, the lure into sexual practices at a terrifying young age, and the distancing of the child from those of a same age.  They’re all the contributing factors to the gradual corruption of the poor, impressionable and heartbreakingly devoted young boy.

In this instalment, perhaps more than in most of the other books, Shaw really shows his undeniable skill at writing powerful and deeply unnerving fiction without the need to delve into graphic, visceral extremities.  His writing in this story is so furiously evocative, it gets into your head as well as ripping at your every one of your heartstrings.

But be warned.  This really is an incredibly tough read.  Do not take that warning lightly.

The novella runs for a total of 82 pages.

 © DLS Reviews

Other ‘Peter Chronicles’ instalments:



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