Benedict J. Jones
Sinister Horror Company
There were two things that initially attracted me to Hell Ship by Benedict J. Jones when I saw it scrolling through my Horror genre recommendations on my Kindle app. The first, as with so many titles I come to review, was the high quality of the piece of cover art commissioned by the title’s publishers, the Sinister Horror Company, and created by artist Vincent Hunt. It’s certainly one of the more visceral and evocative covers I’ve seen recently – the blood-stained font is most definitely eye-catching, and appropriate for the content of the novella, as is the strange nature of the cover art itself; it’s a discomforting blend of paint, scratches, blemishes and what appear to be stains that is genuinely uncomfortable to look at for more than a few seconds at a time, and deftly plays into the themes of psychological horror and questionable realities that are to be found within Hell Ship.
The second thing that attracted me to the title? Well, that would be the cover blurb. You see, although I’ve only recently begun exploring the Horror genre in full, I’ve always had something of a soft spot for occult horror set in the Second World War. I grew up reading Commando and Battle comics, later moving into the works of H.P. Lovecraft and other cosmic horror authors, and so finding a subgenre that merged the two together has always been a sweet spot for me. But what I’ve noticed is that the subgenre is firmly dominated, indeed saturated, by a focus on the Western powers – until I encountered Hell Ship, I can’t think of a single title I’ve read that wasn’t about some obscure or fanatical element within the Third Reich trying to make use of occult powers to turn the conflict in their favour. The SS, the Abwehr, the Ahnenerbe – it’s always some group of Nazi soldiers or spies trying to summon an occult deity, or non-Euclidian beastie so that they can cement the Thousand-Year Reich, and never any of the other Axis powers, like Italy or Japan. So when the cover blurb for Hell Ship announced that it was forces of the Japanese Empire that were trying to harness the occult, I was absolutely onboard with the title and downloaded it to read. After all, god knows there’s enough material to exploit that’s lain fallow – the war crimes of Unit 731, the Bataan March, the Rape of Nanking, and that’s even before you begin to consider the richness, depth and variety of Japanese mythology that can be involved. Hell Ship had an original take on a subgenre that had become stale – if it was ever, really, fresh – and I was eager to see what Benedict J. Jones would deliver.
What I found certainly didn’t disappoint me, and I raced through the novella, finishing it within a day. Although the overarching plot for the title is a well-worn one – a small group of people, in this case survivors of an torpedoed Allied merchantman, suddenly come across an abandoned Japanese freighter after drifting for days in a lifeboat – the relocation of the plot to the Far East, and the brilliant atmosphere that Jones weaves throughout the story, makes it fresh and engaging for the reader. Indeed, the prologue to the novella, focusing on the British and Commonwealth prisoners of war who are sacrificed to enact the occult ritual, is both stomach-churning and poignant, particularly as it is based on events that took place in reality during the conflict. Jones has obviously done a great deal of research for those opening pages, because the authenticity in the portrayal of the inhuman, horrifying conditions that the prisoners were kept in, and the casual brutality that was inflicted upon them, not only rings true but also sets up the chilling atmosphere for what comes next.
When the survivors of the Allied vessel finally make it onto the Shinjuku Maru, Jones quickly and deftly sets up that something terrible has happened. From the complete absence of the crew, like a militarised Mary Celeste, to the rust-coloured blood staining the deck, it’s clear to the small band that this isn’t a vessel they should be on – and yet they have no choice if they want to survive. Despite this being a novella, and therefore with a smaller word count, Jones still does a good job in setting up his protagonists – none quite fall into the genre’s staple tropes, and they’re all imbued with sufficient detail to make you care when they do meet a grisly demise. I particularly enjoyed the decision the author took to have a civilian singer, and her touring manager, as two of the survivors; and the subtle changes in relationship that took place between the gruff, near-insubordinate Busby and the nervous officer Snell, leading to some genuinely emotive moments in the last few chapters. The good characterisations are allied with some fantastic writing, with Jones developing a low-key, tense atmosphere on-board the Shinjuku Maru, and there’s a natural plot progression as the occult ritual enacted on the vessel begin to take a toll on the survivors, accompanied by a mysterious and rather unsettling Japanese sorcerer. The muted whispering and raving, demented suggestions that begin to appear in the minds of characters are well done, and they dovetail nicely into the tide of insanity that washes through the vessel, eventually accompanied by some gruesomely disfigured creatures that hunt those few left. Such is Jones’ descriptive powers that it’s entirely too easy to realise how these creatures were formed from the unfortunate, damned POWs on-board the freighter and other souls.
Hell Ship is a classic example of the way in which an author can find a fresh, original angle on a subgenre that has become tired and repetitive due to a general lack of imagination. The writing is superb, accompanied by great characterisation, and a commendable amount of background research that leads to an incredibly tense atmosphere throughout the novella. In particular, the prologue to Hell Ship could easily be a horror novel in of itself, especially – as the author notes in an afterword – as it is based entirely on true events that took place towards the end of the conflict in the Far East. In the hands of a less talented writer, or one with less sensitivity, these events could have been used as mere fodder for a story; instead, Jones uses Hell Ship as a way to shine a light on war crimes that have, unfortunately, been largely forgotten in the public consciousness, and then uses them as a stepping stone to write a deeply chilling and visceral piece of horror fiction. A fascinating blend of military and occult horror – and with an ending that hints towards a move into alternate history-based horror – Hell Ship is a title that I can highly recommend, and which should take top place in the reading pile of anyone interested in good horror writing.