North Sea Hunters
I first encountered author Brad Harmer-Barnes when I was browsing through the back catalogue of publisher Severed Press. I’m a fan of Severed Press and the fiction that they publish, particularly their undead and ‘creature-feature’ titles, the latter including the S-Squad books being written by William Meikle. Mr Harmer-Barnes’ latest title, Vietnam Black drew my attention thanks to the fantastic cover art it featured; and I found that the content of the book itself was of a similar high standard, particularly the author’s descriptions of the gigantic, flesh-eating centipede creature that stalked a squad of American soldiers as they made their way through the jungles of Vietnam. Having enjoyed his latest title, I decided to take a look and see if he’d published anything else, and was delighted to see that he had two previous titles, also published by Severed Press. It’s always a good feeling when you find an author you like, and then discover that they have a back catalogue that you can immediately jump into, rather than have to wait for their next novel or short story. Once again, the covers for both titles drew my attention, and in particular the cover for North Sea Hunters, Mr Harmer-Barnes’ first title. While it doesn’t quite live up to the incredibly high standards of Vietnam Black, it’s another skilled usage of stock imagery and good font choice, depicting a gigantic shark, likely a Megalodon, rapidly approaching a German U-Boat under the sea, jaws opened wide in an attempt to attack the boat.
I do like a good horror/creature-feature book, especially one set during the Second World War, so happily ‘dived’ into the book and started reading. Harmer-Barnes starts with a brief introductory page outlining the nature of the German Kriegsmarine and the duties of a U-Boat commander, with a focus on the early period of the conflict in 1939-1940, as well as the vulnerabilities of a U-Boat in general. It’s a succinct and incredibly useful page, because while I’m entirely familiar with the period and the Kriegsmarine, there will obviously be many readers who are not; so kudos to the author for taking the time to write this up, and if only all historical novels (creature-features, horror or otherwise) took the time to do this. Although the exact date is not specified, the introductory text and the relatively confident outlook of the crew of U-616 at the beginning of the story would seem to indicate that this takes place in the early years of the conflict; and that’s a smart move by Harmer-Barnes. The period 1940 – 1941 was when the U-Boat threat was at its height, and although there is an argument that could be made for setting it during the latter years of the war, when tension was higher, the narrative arc benefits from the freedom that U-616 has to sail the North Atlantic and hunt targets, and eventually be pursued by the creature that comes to hunt it.
I found that one of the outstanding elements of North Sea Hunters was the manner in which Harmer-Barnes subtly drew parallels between the U-Boat and the shark. They are both predators by nature, lurking under the waters of the North Atlantic in search of prey to attack, constantly moving except for rare periods when they need to rest. Indeed, the overarching narrative of the story is of two apex predators – one of the modern era, one from ancient times – clashing together. Another big positive is the author’s portrayal of the creature hunting the U-Boat; although to me, the setting and the nature of the shark didn’t allow quite as much creative freedom as it did for the titular Vietnam Black monster centipede-style monster portrayed in Vietnam Black, Harmer-Barnes still does a magnificent job in bringing to life the utterly terrifying nature of an underwater predator that is likely as old as the seas themselves. His descriptions of what comes to be termed the ‘White Ghost’ by the crew of the U-Boat really bring the gigantic shark to life, and the scenes in the middle of the book, where it locates the U-Boat and begins to target it, are tense, claustrophobic and nerve-wrenching, making it incredibly easy to imagine this terrifying predator toying with the boat and its crew before trying to destroy it.
The author also does a good job in portraying the nature of what it would be like to serve in a U-Boat, once again highlighting the research obviously conducted during the writing process. The cramped, claustrophobic and dingy interior of the submarine is well realised, as are the range of emotions experienced by the crew and their captain, from the highs of watching a target be successfully sunk, to the terror of the tables suddenly being turned and being depth-charged by a British escort. The addition of a survivor from a Norwegian vessel that is initially attacked the ‘White Ghost’ was an interesting choice to make, and pays off towards the end of the book, giving the hard-nosed Captain Krauser an effective foil and someone to advocate for fighting the shark instead of attempting to flee and inevitably being overtaken and killed.
The writing in North Sea Hunters continues to be of an extremely high quality, and once more the pacing is judged perfectly, Harmer-Barnes shrewdly judging when best to have the creature attack openly, and when some periods of relative calm are needed to lull the crew (and the reader) into a false sense of security and further enhance the tense atmosphere in the book. There are some great action scenes, both in the distance (the initial torpedo attack against the Norwegian merchantman is a fun read) and up close, as the crew attempt to repel the shark in hand-to-hand combat, with a particularly grim ending for all concerned. There is the occasional rough edge – at one point, a character is forced to jump into the sea, floats around for quite a considerable amount of time, and is then able to jump back onto the U-Boat and into action without any apparent side-effects from being immersed in ice-cold water – but they are few and far between and in no way detracted from my overall enjoyment of the title. North Sea Hunters is another winning title from Mr Harmer-Barnes – full of tension, atmosphere and blood-spattered action, allied with excellent writing and a well-researched narrative – and makes an excellent addition to the creature-feature genre. I am looking forward to reading the last of his titles, Tempest Outpost, and very much hope to see Severed Press publishing more titles by him.