This is the first collection of Horror fiction that I’ve come across from Demain Publishing, previously only having focused on the short stories published under their Short Sharp Shocks! Imprint. However I’m a keen advocate for expanding the amount of historical Horror currently being written, as I think there’s far too much being written that focuses on the present day period, and to me a collection of stories centred around the experiences of the First World War is exactly what I think the genre needs to stay fresh. The Darkest Battlefield is a spiritual sequel to a collection called Darker Battlefields, which was published by The Exaggerated Press in 2016 and collected supernatural Horror stories that primarily focused on the Second World War.
In the Foreword he contributes to The Darkest Battlefield, author Adrian Chamberlain – who also edited Darker Battlefields – highlights why it’s so important to have Horror fiction that is set in and around the conflict that raged between 1914 and 1918. Although the nature of the Second World War provides much-needed moral clarity, Chamberlain deftly highlights that the seeds of that conflict were sown during the First World War, with Marshal Ferdinand Foch himself stating in 1919 that the end of the conflict was merely “an armistice for twenty years”. The war had a multitude of effects on those who fought in it, and wider society as a whole; and the tales contained within the collection are an attempt to merge supernatural horror with the entirely man-made horror of the First World War.
The collection opens with Where the Wounded Trees Wait by Paul Edwards, an ethereal and often intensely atmospheric tale that takes an indirect approach to the horrors of the French battlefields. A woman arrives at Mametz Wood, one of the many areas that saw horrific fighting and bloodshed during the Somme campaign in 1916. At first, Edwards gives us the impression that she is simply there to try and find the exact location where her grandfather died during the campaign, something that countless families have done over the decades; it’s strongly hinted that she has picked up the baton from her grandmother, who died before being able to finish the melancholy task.
But it isn’t long before the author begins to weave in supernatural elements, and it becomes evident that protagonist Caryl is a tortured soul, plagued both by a tumultuous childhood and fractured adult relationships, and a psychic gift that she only partially understands. Together they drive her further and further away from reality and into the past, seeking out the relationship between her grandmother and grandfather that represents a cherished ideal for her. The story features some moving and deeply engaging characterisation, as Edwards unravels a skein of complex and often obscured relationships, all of which serve to propel the plot forward towards its tragic and entirely bittersweet ending. Allied with some fantastic writing, and intriguing thoughts on the nature of nationality and belonging, Where the Wounded Trees Wait is a slow-paced, emotionally-wrought and deeply thoughtful piece of horror.
Maria, by Terry Grimwood, takes us back to the conflict itself and, in a rare case of looking at the other side in the war, focuses on the character of Major Ernst Dreyer of the Imperial German Army. Although set during the latter part of the war, the origins of the horror inflicted throughout Grimwood’s tale are to be found during Ernst’s childhood. Raised by a distant, emotionless mother and a father who inflicted horrific punishments on him for perceived slights, a terrified Ernst makes a hasty pact with a kindly woman to save himself from further abuse. But the woman is far from what she seems, and the price of temporary salvation is permanent bloodshed. Childhood abuse is a difficult subject to tackle, even if well-suited to the Horror genre, but Grimwood deals with it in a sensitive and engaging manner that makes it crucial to the plot and advances the narrative. Ernst is an interesting and likeable character, moulded by his early experiences and remaining principled, even rejecting the influence his father’s title would have conferred upon him.
The bulk of the plot takes place in the dying months of the conflict as the German Army begins to reel under the hammer blows of repeated Allies offensives, with Ernst trying to find balance between his duties and the sacrifices demanded by to his childhood pact. Those sacrifices are found in the fighting at the front, and Grimwood delivers some grimly realistic portrayals of men dealing with the horrors of war that I’ve seen in a long time; even more so when you consider the rarity of seeing the German viewpoint depicted in English-language fiction. Scenes where the Germans cower under the power of a British artillery bombardment, flesh and sanity fraying and then snapping, are both intense and brutal. The ending to the plot is rather easy to guess in all honesty, but it’s skillfully executed and is enhanced by the superb depictions of trench warfare found in the story
The third of the four stories is All Hell by Richard Farren Barber, which moves the focus of the collection to the home front in Britain. The horrors of war were felt just as keenly at home as they were in the trenches, and Barber unflinchingly highlights the devastating reactions to the news of death. There is a scene early on in the story, where wives wait outside their doors, for the arrival of a War Office messenger delivering formal notices of a husband or son being killed or missing in action, that is harrowing in its depiction of loss and grief. The author does a good job of showing how the wives and lovers try and cope with the atmosphere of fear, and then delves into some of the more fascinating, and lesser-known, reactions to that loss.
The rise of psychics who attempted to contact those who died during the First World War is one of the lesser-known aspects of the conflict. Though they were all frauds, often doing little more than scamming their victims, it was reflective of the chaos, destruction and horror that the conflict wrought on the home front and an attempt by loved ones to try and make sense of it all. Mary, the protagonist, comes into contact with one of these psychics – who claims she can keep sons and husbands alive – but at a price Mary and her friends can barely comprehend. Barber vividly describes the stranger, especially the repulsive odour that lingers around her, and announces her sinister presence; she’s one of the most memorable characters in the entire collection.
As the story progresses, the subdued and emotional horror of the story gives way to more explicit and surreal horror, and as a reader we’re lead down the path of questioning just how real the entire situation is. Barber makes it very clear that war breaks down social boundaries and common mores, leading people to do things they’d never dreamed of previously. Is the pale woman real – did she really exist at all, or was she just a figment of imagination created out of desire to protect, frustration, impotency? The ending is rather clichéd, the literary equivalent of a jump-scare, unfortunately rather spoiling the ambiguity of the bulk of the story. Despite this, however, All Hell remains a superbly atmospheric and chilling piece of historical horror that focuses on a neglected ‘front’ of the conflict and blends together the effects of faith and fear.
Finally we come to Anthony Watson’s The Lost, which is a more traditional and straight-forward story than the others, an action-orientated tale of two men frantically racing against time to stop an ancient horror being unleashed in No Man’s Land. I was eager to read Watson’s contribution to the collection, having thoroughly enjoyed Shattered, his contribution to the Short Sharp Shocks! imprint from the same publisher, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed. Although the plot itself is less ambiguous than the others in The Darkest Battlefield, this is more than compensated for by the intense atmosphere that Watson generates within the novella’s pages, and the superb characterisation. Our two protagonists are a field surgeon and a priest, and the horrors of their vocations during wartime are memorably brought to life. We get to experience the exhaustion and despair of being a doctor in the trenches; the hopelessness generated as the latest weapons of war defeat your ability to save the lives of grievously-wounded soldiers; the need to go on despite everything you’ve seen because you swore an oath to save lives. Much the same applies to the chaplain, who sees just as much suffering, pain and death on a daily basis, tending to the wounded and dying after the latest pointless fighting.
In many ways the two men and their professions make a natural pairing to investigate the case of an apparently haunted medical station near the front-lines, and Watson does a superb job of humanising the two men and showing how a blossoming friendship is relied upon to face both human and supernatural horrors. The daily – hourly – horrors of the trenches are then enhanced by the knowledge that an ancient sorcerer is attempting to use the deaths of the men on both sides to finalise an apocalyptic spell, and then two men are forced into a desperate race against time to stop the spell from being completed. The blood-spattered, shadow-wreathed medical station is almost a character by itself, with a cold and foreboding atmosphere, and is part of what makes the story so impressive. The Lost was by far my favourite of the collection, and I’d love to see a sequel published by Demain in the near future.
The Darkest Battlefield is an important collection of historical horror, being one of the few attempts I’m aware of to tackle the subject of the First World War in the context of the sub-genre. The four stories found within its pages are superbly written and tightly plotted, and filled with psychological, supernatural and often all-too human examples of the horrors to be found in the context of that world-altering conflict. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through The Darkest Battlefield and would hope that similar collections, looking again at the First World War and also at other conflicts, are to come from Demain Publishing.