SJ Larsson (ed.)
[Please note that a review copy was provided by one of the authors in return for a fair and honest review of this title]
When I think Severed Press, I think of fast-paced, explosive action stories that usually feature some combination of dinosaurs/aliens/zombies or other terrifying creatures fighting the military, the police or perhaps a team of explorers. They’re always well-written and feature intense, gun-blazing action in the best tradition of 1980s action movies, and they’re my go-to publisher when I want to read something that can get my adrenaline racing and heart pumping. I was certainly in the mood for a book like that recently, and I was lucky to receive a review copy of Prehistoric, the first anthology from Severed Press. The title, and the cover image (a distinctly hungry-looking dinosaur looming out of thick jungle foliage) gave me a rough idea of what the theme was, and I was delighted to see that the publisher had included a range of their authors, including some of my favourites. In the Table of Contents I discovered personal favourites like Brad Harmer-Barnes and William Meikle; horror veterans such as Tim Curran and Tim Waggoner; and a handful of authors that were actually new to me. That combination of authorial quality, engaging cover image and intriguing back-cover blurb enticed me in, promising high-quality tales of cretaceous chaos, and I eagerly dived in.
[Note: As always with my reviews of anthologies and short story collections: to keep my reviews as brief as I can, I only focus on those stories that I particularly enjoyed, or which resonated with me in some special way. This is not necessarily a reflection on any authors whose tales I do not discuss, or the quality of their work; it is simply a way to ensure I don’t ramble on forever about a single book.]
The Keldos by David Achord, an author unfamiliar to me, opens the collection. It’s always an interesting choice to create a thoroughly unlikable protagonist, such as Fred Menske, an arrogant, rude scientist who fell from grace after certain horrifying pictures were found by the authorities on his computer harddrive. However it does make it all the more enjoyable when bad things happen to them, as occurs to Fred when a late-night car accident means he is forced to return to Keldo Laboratories, where he now works in near-disgrace. Working for an arrogant tech billionaire who is trying to clone dinosaurs; trying, and succeeding, actually. It’s Fred’s job to feed and care for the dinos, to take bloods and conduct research. But what might happen if Fred became aware of certain HR decisions being taken about his career? What might someone with nothing to lose in life do then, with pliant dinosaurs at his disposal? David Achord knows, and delivers in a tense and blood-stained tale of dinosaur-related vengeance.
In Apex, author Jeff Brackett has a CIA special operations team investigate a terrorist biochemical lab deep in the Bolivian jungle, only for tem to discover bloodstains, severed limbs, and then something in the dark that starts to hunt them. Something that has too many teeth, razor-sharp claws and looks a bit, well, prehistoric. Tense, gun-blazing action and an awesomely imaginative and over-the-top plot that feels like it came from an unfilmed sequel to Commando make this a hugely enjoyable read; not to mention a far better (and more coherent) dinosaur story than the last couple of Jurassic World films. Following on from that is Cult of the Cretaceous from Hunter Shea, who gives us the premise of another Waco-style siege, only this time the cult is on an island too isolated for tanks or helicopters. So when mysterious reinforcements arrive, the agents are baffled as to how they’ll break the siege and rescue the young children in the cult’s compound. That confusion doesn’t last long, once they see just how this unit of prehistoric tanks deal with the cultists. But Shea cleverly throws a twist into what seems like a straight-forward story of cloned dinosaurs versus insane cultists. Even gene-forged by man, dinosaurs are still base-instinct animals, and their nature can be fickle; and is there any difference between a man who would build an apocalyptic, abusive cult and one who revels in the massacres his genetic abominations can inflict? Cult of the Cretaceous is a surprisingly dark and thoughtful story that subverts your expectations, and one of the stand-up stories in Prehistoric.
Jake Bible always writes a great story, and No Tears Left in the Flipside is no exception, following a Fish and Wildlife Service officer as they explore a part of Wyoming that’s suddenly become a weird, prehistoric jungle, complete with a terrifying population of dinosaurs. Joining up with a group of heavily-armed mercenaries, FWS officer Jennifer learns about the insane theory behind what happened to the area, and the literal nature of the term ‘Flipside’. The Flipside concept – entire sections of the planet flipping around randomly, like two sides of a coin, is a fascinating one to me, and Bible populates it with an array of vicious predators and weird fauna. A cracking story with some engaging characters, and one that’s got me looking to buy the two Flipside novels, also published by Severed Press.
Brad Harmer-Barnes’ first book from Severed Press was the excellent North Sea Hunters, and his contribution to Prehistoric is a call-back (and pun) to that title and also something of a prequel. Norse Sea Hunters sees a pair of veteran raiders and a seer lead a longship on a road to the English coast, the two veterans lamenting the loss of excitement that comes with advancing age. Fateful words, of course, and before long the Norse raisers are fighting for their lives against something ancient from the depths. Harmer-Barnes always writes engaging characters, and Olaf and Gunbjorn are no different; lively and with a loud and raucous sense of humour, which nicely fleshes them out as characters, you easily root for them as the story progresses. Add to that some lightning-fast and brutal hand to hand combat, as well as a hideously-realised aquatic prehistoric horror, and you have the recipe for another quality creature-feature from Harmer-Barnes.
Operation: Severn was the story I was most excited for in this anthology, as it features William Meikle’s S-Squad, my favourite group of sweary Scottish squaddies. Fated to go from one close shave to analanbaxterother, battling whatever cryptozoological creature Mr Meikle’s research and prodigious imagination can come up with, the S-Squad books are always hugely enjoyable adventures. This particular takes finds Captain Banks and his men tasked with cleaning up yet another military experiment gone disastrously wrong, albeit this one a century old. The squad encounter the ancient creatures left over from the experiment, and once again Mr Meikle has outdone himself, bringing to life some particularly unsettling and vicious predators while also imbuing them with some personality, which is never an easy job. Alongside the usual excellent action scenes I expect from Mr Meikle, we also get a glimpse of what the creatures were developed for, a scenario which just cries out to be written about in detail. All in all, Operation: Severn is another excellent entry in the S-Squad series.
The First Man on Earth by Geoff Jones has a story opening that really grabbed me – A nervous man drives a glorified motor home into a world filled with dinosaurs, trying to evade them and get to his destination. He seems ill-prepared for whatever he’s tasked with doing, but determined to get it done. As he grimly drives along, his mission becomes clearer, as does the reason he’s been forced to cross into another reality; our Earth isn’t in a good way, to put it lightly, and his mission is perhaps humanity’s only chance for survival. Jones’ tale made a nice change of pace for the anthology, with an everyman protagonist rather than a soldier or scientist; I appreciated the ad-box solutions that Ray had to come up with to navigate the land, lacking in weapons or specialist knowledge. There’s even a poignant and upbeat ending, which made me like this tale even more than I had when I started. An excellent addition to the anthology, that balances out the general ‘guns versus dinos’ theme.
I know knew Tim Curran based on his horror writing, so I was interested to see what direction Sauria would take. In the aftermath of something called The Big Impact, a disparate group of people hunt packs of dinosaurs in an attempt to clear out a town so that the remnants of humanity in the area can reclaim it and try and survive in better conditions than they currently had. Curran has a real knack to composing atmosphere in his books, laying down the ‘feel’ of the particular reality he’s writing about; here he readily draws you into a world where Cretaceous-era plants and dinosaurs are blending in with modern buildings and infrastructure with some deeply impressive writing. Although the dinosaurs are a constant threat, Sauria is at heart a masterful character study, about how a group of people in the post-apocalypse cope under tremendous pressures, and where a desire for vengeance can lead to death. It makes for a great read, and that’s not even mentioning the creepy as hell ‘X-Predator’ that stalks the group through the literal urban jungle.
Trouble at Fete by Alan Baxter delivers a tale that lightens the tone of the collection a bit, as a group of pompous, stereotypical upper-class hunters accidentally unleash a portal to the Jurassic period in the middle of a country mansion in the Yorkshire Moors. The survivors, accompanied by a reporter who was there to do a fluff piece on the expedition that found the portal-unleashing artefact, pursue the dinosaurs to an unfortunate village fete taking place nearby. It’s a darkly comic situation – rural England meets apex predator – and Baxter plays it up delightfully, from donkey rides getting butchered to a vicar making imaginative use of a large crucifix.
Tim Waggoner, appropriately, finishes up the anthology by providing us with Closure. A layered, deeply emotional tale of sundered bonds between a father and son, Waggoner takes the prehistoric theme and narrows the scope until it becomes a way to focus on the relationship between these two individuals. Dinosaurs are terrifying, but they’re also the unknown, and therefore meant to be scary; family are familiar to a child and should never be a source of terror and fear. Therefore it will always be infinitely worse when family becomes the terror – when the sound of fists hitting flesh replaces unconditional love. Chilling and often raw, Closure is the perfect way to end the anthology
There’s a real sense of variety in Prehistoric, as each author takes the general theme of the collection and then makes their own unique mark on it with their story. Many of them go delightfully over the top with it, delivering beautifully ridiculous plots and explosive, bullet-riddled action scenes that would make 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger feel inadequate at the resultant body-count. Yet others take a more nuanced approach that helps to balance the collection out and give it some depth, even making it thoughtful at times. That results in a well-balanced and thoroughly enjoyable anthology that delivers equal parts bullet-riddled creature features and tense, atmospheric thrillers. Well worth the price of purchase, Severed Press have outdone themselves with Prehistoric, and I can only hope that it does well enough that the publisher moves forward with other anthologies.