Dulce et Decorum Est
I continue to be impressed by the quality of the titles being released by Demain Publications, who are rapidly (and rightfully) earning a reputation for being one of the best new publishers in the Horror genre. Their Short Sharp Shocks! imprint is continuing to deliver – as the name implies – high-quality short slices of Horror fiction that range across the genre, all for the incredibly low price of 99p (or free on Kindle Unlimited). There’s even the great news that the publisher is moving to expand their range with the announcement of Mystery and Science-Fiction imprints, and I eagerly look forward to seeing what comes out of those projects. I’m continuing to focus on their Horror output for the moment, however, and a few of their latest titles have caught my eye; beginning with Dulce et Decorum Est from author Dan Howarth.
Once again we have the usual impressive cover art from Demain, the stark contrast between black background and blood-red border, the latter garnished with an ominous skull, and the monochrome picture – this time of a Victoria Cross, linking up with that ominous and infamous title. I don’t think there’s a schoolchild in the UK who won’t have at least a passing familiarity with the poem that the phrase comes from, and despite its saturation it’s still a powerful piece of poetry. The accompanying back cover blurb sets the tone of the piece – a homesick child on a school trip to the battlefields of the Somme; the recognition of a doppelganger in a picture of soldiers who died in the area; and a face that comes to haunt him, quite literally.
It’s a fantastic idea for a short story, especially as it’s one that so many people of my generation (and others) can readily identify with. I’ve been there myself, and as I began reading Dulce et Decorum Est, I immediately identified and empathised with protagonist Gareth; I was exactly the same as him, the quiet, gawky child who had a huge interest in military history but suffered from intense and depressing bouts of bullying from classmates and alleged friends. Howarth sets the tone of the piece expertly, deftly portraying the emotional and physical isolation suffered by Gareth as the trip progresses, the only kindness offered to him displayed by a teacher who seemingly can’t help but blend condescension in with kindly advice. As if that wasn’t enough, the discovery of a doppelganger in a photo of soldiers only increases the pressure on him, as it’s used by his classmates to further torment him. The similarity of the face haunts Gareth, and Howarth does an excellent job of maintaining the ambiguity of whether the doppelganger is actually haunting him throughout the trip, or whether it’s simply a case of a young child’s psyche bending and breaking from peer pressure and bullying.
Howarth lacerates the whole story with a sense of unreality and deep, intense uneasiness as Gareth is forced to confront that doppelganger and his classmates, and the tension is regularly ratcheted upwards as his bizarre twin’s appearances increase. That unease is only increased by the way in which Howarth depicts the Ypres, a city that continues to be haunted by the violence of the First World War, displaying an uneasy tension between trying to honour the past while carrying on with the present, and it makes a fitting location for the story, often feeling literally smothered in regret and bitterness. That bitterness comes in the form of a generation of young men who died for a nationalistic project but couldn’t comprehend why, and that anger is directly projected onto the unfortunate Gareth.
The ending, when it comes, is unexpected, brutal and makes no sense, but it’s not meant to, because it reflects the reality of the death of Gareth’s doppelganger and his fellow soldiers on the Somme. It is simultaneously meaningful and meaningless, and left me feeling uncomfortable for some time after I finished reading it. Dulce et Decorum Est is a fantastic piece of Horror fiction from author Dan Howarth, and yet another triumph for Demain Publishing.