Ever since I discovered his latest novel, Vietnam Black, I’ve been a huge fan of author Brad Harmer-Barnes, and I’ve been going through his back catalogue of titles to make sure I’ve read all of them. All of his previous ‘creature-feature’ novels, published by Severed Press, have impressed me with the high quality of their writing, which is delivered in an engaging and straight-forward manner, their uniformly fast pace, which is well matched to the nature of the creature-feature genre, and in particular how highly imaginative they are in regards to the creatures that appear in them. Vietnam Black saw a band of Vietnam-era US soldiers battle a gigantic, armoured-plated centipede in a series of intense and claustrophobic underground and jungle firefights; and North Sea Hunters saw the crew of a Second World War U-Boat desperately fend off the fatal attention of an ancient, battle-scarred Megalodon that chased it through the ocean. Given this pedigree of quality, you can understand that I was readily anticipating diving into the last of Mr Harmer-Barnes’ titles that I hadn’t read, his second publication entitled Tempest Outpost. Once again, Severed Press have done an excellent job with the cover art for the novella; while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Vietnam Black, which I consider to be one of the best pieces of cover art I’ve ever come across, the cover art for Tempest Outpost is much better than that of North Sea Hunters. An impressively gigantic spider towers above an array of snow-covered buildings – the titular Tempest Outpost – while a terrified person flees in vain, horror etched across their face. It sets the tone nicely for what is to come in the story itself, and most certainly whetted my appetite.
As with the other titles written by Harmer-Barnes – and indeed many of the titles published by Severed Press in general – Tempest Outpost hews closely to the standard set of tropes for the ‘creature-feature’ genre – stereotypes that you’d recognise from books and films. The plot rather reminded me of John Carpenter’s seminal creature-feature film The Thing – an isolated research station in the Antarctic, home to a small band of disparate scientists, suddenly discovers something under the ice that is incredibly old, something that should have stayed hidden, with terrible consequences. So far, so old hat – but what the author does, as with his other titles, is to take those hoary old tropes and imbue them with a great deal of imagination, thereby escalating them from the sort of potboiler that litters the genre, into something far more engaging and interesting. The protagonist is an intern who’s flying into Tempest Outpost to observe the scientists for a six-week period, which not only allows a fresh point of view at the same level as the reader, but also allows basic questions to be asked about the outpost and its research without resulting in page upon page of dense exposition. Indeed, although Tempest Outpost is only novella-length, Harmer-Barnes once again manages to create a small cast of characters who have actual personalities rather than just being the equivalent of cardboard cut-outs, or literary redshirts. Although the demands of the genre dictate that the majority will perish in various horrible ways by the end of the book, it’s a sign of the author’s skill that he is able to creates character you can actually become at least slightly attached to before they die.
The plot itself revolves around a huge, experimental drill named Prospero, which has been situated in an area of the Antarctic where the researchers believe something might be worthwhile digging up with the new technology provided by Prospero. It’s a small point, but it was rather refreshing to see an inversion of one of the more common tropes in the genre – instead of trying to locate something mysterious under the ice, everything is based around Prospero, with the scientists essentially drilling randomly to try and find something that would justify the expense of the outpost. The author obviously did his research around this type of drilling technology, because Prospero – with its complex mechanisms and telescoping action, allowing it to drill further into the ice than any previous drill – is not only described in realistic detail, but it’s also done to a level that actually made sense; at no point did it degenerate into the sort of fictional ‘techno-babble’ that might have been used by a less confident author. By the end of the novella, in fact, Prospero almost becomes like another character in the cast; the entire plot hinges on its operation, and Harmer-Barnes describes it, often in ominous detail, as it accidentally frees the creatures hibernating under the ice.
The tension within the novella is established early on, with an air of mild desperation hanging over the outpost – something has to be found soon, to justify the drill’s existence and operation. But once it breaks through into ancient and uncharted depths of the Antarctic soil, the creatures – the spiders seen on the book’s cover – are unleashed. That tension ratchets up nicely, as what appear to be fossils warm up and begin to move around, and there’s another clever inversion, with the creatures actually being on the defensive early on, as they struggle to warm up and gain strength. But once they begin hunting, the plot sweeps forward and hell is unleashed. Once again, Harmer-Barnes has created an innovative and imaginative foe, giving the spiders some interesting powers, as well as a genuinely unsettling way of attacking the scientists in the outpost. Of course, it wouldn’t be a creature-feature title without the humans trying to fight back, and there’s a pleasing change of pace as the scientists respond; rather than the usual scenes of gunfights and brutal, hand to hand combat, we see physically unfit civilians having to make use of their brains. Without spoiling it, there’s a distinctly unsettling process the characters use to see if their colleagues have been infected by the Spiders; several scenes featuring it made me cringe several times, and that’s increasingly difficult to do as I read more and more in the Horror genre. When they are forced to engage the spiders, the action scenes are brief, intense and very well-written, with Harmer-Barnes deftly putting across how desperate and unprepared the scientists are in these situations.
Tempest Outpost is a much more ambitious and skilfully-written book than the author’s first title, North Sea Hunters, and that’s not just demonstrated in the better quality of characterisation and generation of atmosphere; it’s also found in the smart, rather sly streak of self-referential humour that’s laced throughout the book. I found myself smirking a number of times as I read, for example as characters poured scorn on the unrealistic nature of films like The Thing, and it really helped to move the plot along. It felt like Harmer-Barnes was confident enough in his writing to occasionally slyly acknowledge the absurdity of the plot, and perhaps even the creature-feature genre as a whole. Taken as a whole, Tempest Outpost is hugely enjoyable, a fast-paced and tense action thriller that features great writing, memorable characters and some imaginative creatures that are creepy as hell as they hunt their unfortunate prey. It’s another success story for the partnership of Brad Harmer-Barnes and Severed Press, and I hope to see more titles in short order from the author.