Benedict J. Jones
When I saw that one of the next tranche of Short Sharp Shock! titles from Demain Publishing was written by author Benedict J. Jones, it was a natural purchase for me to make, especially as Demain have priced all of the releases in that range at a mere 99p (or free with the Kindle Unlimited service). That’s because late last year I came across Mr Jones through his excellent Second World War horror title Hell Ship, released through the Sinister Horror Company. Based around the survivors of an Allied warship encountering an abandoned Japanese cargo vessel, and the results of a mass-sacrifice of Prisoners of War by their Japanese captors, I found Hell Ship to be a deeply chilling and visceral slice of historical horror that also shone a light on war crimes that have, unfortunately, been mostly forgotten in the public consciousness. I greatly enjoyed it, and when I saw that Mr Jones’ contribution to Short Sharp Shocks! was based in the Soviet Union – an under-utilised period of history for horror fiction – I just knew that I had to pick up The Devil’s Portion and see what he could conjure up from the isolated fringe of a terrifyingly totalitarian state.
There’s already a baseline of horror to be found within the setting of the Soviet Union – repression, surveillance, state-sponsored violence and pogroms and the ever-present fear of being denounced and sent to a Siberian Gulag where near-certain death awaits – and to his credit the author creates an atmosphere fermented in the demands of a State where non-compliance is punished with intimidation and violence. Those elements are perfectly embodied in the form of the Political Commissar, such as the protagonist Chichenko, sent to investigate the disappearance of a colleague at a distant collective farm, which itself has been reporting a drop in the productivity standards demanded by the State. Chichenko is a troubled man, with Jones providing hints of a troubled personal life and a fragile mental state, hardly conducive to investigating an area plagued by a sullen, near-hostile population and its supernatural secrets. Although accompanied by rifle-toting guards and an arrogant bearing that tries to paper over personal doubts, Chichenko makes little progress, and is rapidly confronted by the a much older – and stronger – than the USSR; the best elements of The Devil’s Portion by far are where Jones superbly illustrates how even a Commissar wielding the full force of a modern, totalitarian State – where obedience and compliance are presumed automatically – struggles to overcome an entrenched, ancient religion and the powers of the deity it worships.
The descent into horror is perfectly paced and extremely well-written, with an atmosphere that darkens and thickens with every page, and Chichenko’s growing sense of disbelief, which then bleeds over into outright dread, is near-palpable and a testimony to Jones’ writing skills. Indeed the whole short story is thrilling to read, and the only downside is the very ending of the story, in the last page or so; it was far too abrupt for my tastes and disrupted the flow of the story, despite an intriguing postscript, and it felt like a (tantalisingly) larger story had suddenly been cut down to accommodate the required word-count. That’s really the only downside to The Devil’s Portion I can think of, however, and it is entirely worth paying the ridiculously low price in order to read, as it’s a tense, atmospheric and well-written slice of horror based in a severely under-used setting and period.