Sinister Grin Press
[Please note that the author sent a review copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review]
I think that the cover art for Skinwrapper, the latest novella from Stephen Kozeniewski and published by Sinister Grin Press, might have the most disturbing piece of cover art for a Horror title that I’ve ever seen; or indeed a title from any genre. It is quite frankly a stunning piece by illustrator Matt Davis, in multiple senses of the word: the bright, clashing colours, especially blood red bandages contrast with the dirty white ones covering the face of the unfortunate victim at the centre; the terrifying way that the person’s face is covered by a hand growing out of their chest; and all accompanied by ethereal, dream-like font design. It perfectly matches the theme of Mr Kozeniewski’s novella, and creates exactly the right atmosphere needed for the reader as they begin reading.
I haven’t read a great deal of Mr Kozeniewski’s works so far, but I first came across him during an interview on The Horror Show with Brian Keene podcast – surely required listening for any Horror fan – and was able to read his zombie crime thriller Braineater Jones, which I thoroughly enjoyed. However the book by Mr Kozeniewski that I most wanted to read was his space horror novel, The Hematophages, though to date I haven’t had the opportunity to read it. So when I was offered the chance to read and then review Skinwrapper, which acts as a prequel to The Hematophages, I eagerly put it to the top of my burgeoning To Be Read pile
In Episode 237 of The Horror Show with Brian Keene, the discussion of Skinwrapper highlights that there’s a general absence of space-based titles in Horror fiction, and I have to admit that, apart from the various Alien tie-in novels, I couldn’t bring any to mind. So I was intrigued to see what Mr Kozeniewski could do with that particular subgenre. Perhaps the first thing that I noticed as I began reading is that there’s absolutely no extraneous padding to the novella – the entire narrative is a lean, mean, horror-producing machine. After just a couple of pages, which Kozeniewski uses to deftly set up the main character’s family life, and her experiences on-board a spaceship, disaster has struck the vessel and a pressurised bolt has exploded from a porthole and smashed through someone’s face and skull. It’s a stunningly quick and brutal death, yet Kozeniewski doesn’t oversell it; indeed, the understated way it’s written only serves to emphasise how horrific it is, both to the individual and their loved ones. From there, things escalate quickly, and our young protagonist becomes intimately aware of the brutal space pirates known as the Skinwrappers.
The Skinwrappers themselves are a nauseating and terrifying concept, and Kozeniewski uses them to great effect throughout the novella. Space pirates afflicted by various deadly diseases, they require fresh organs and other bits and pieces from other humans to survive. Just how much they need, and the brutality with which they treat their victims, is demonstrated early on in some particularly grim, yet very well-written, scenes involving desecrated bodies being flung out into space. Re-reading this set-piece, I was again struck by the subtlety that the author brings to the concept of space horror. While a lesser author might have gone into gory but ultimately extraneous detail about the effect of the Skinwrappers and then hard vacuum on a human body, instead Kozeniewski focuses on the way that bodies explode with ice crystals as the water inside them freezes; this isn’t particularly graphic, and yet it’s intensely unsettling, focusing on one of the more mundane aspects of that person’s death.
The core of the novella is fundamentally a focus on psychological horror, though there are enough lashings of frozen blood and chopped-up body parts to satisfy even the most ardent of Splatterpunk fans. Our protagonist, already dealing with the death of loved ones, is forced to hide in a tiny, cramped and intensely claustrophobic area, while simultaneously being forced to listen to the graphic and twisted tales of a group of Skinwrappers looting the ship for supplies. The tension increases, slowly but surely, as Kozeniewski piles on problem after problem for the protagonist to solve in order to try and save her life; and there’s no end of cruel twists that extend the agony of potentially being discovered and tortured to death. When the end of the novella comes, it is as grim as is to be expected, given the path the story has been taking, and yet also surprising. I certainly didn’t see it coming (perhaps a benefit of not yet having read The Hematophages), and has been perfectly judged to ensure that the reader wants to immediately jump into the full-length novel. It certainly worked on me.
The Horror elements within Skinwrappers are brilliantly done, and they’re supported by a perfectly-paced narrative that is interwoven with an extremely taut atmosphere and some excellent characterisation, especially given the obvious limitations of the size of a novella. The small cast of characters are entirely memorable, most particularly the Skinwrappers themselves; although they are a genuinely stomach-churning creation, Kozeniewski still manages to imbue them with a degree of humanity, and there were several times when I genuinely sympathised with their conditions, before of course remembering exactly what they were doing to their victims. There’s even some great original language focused on space exploration – I was particularly enamoured with inksurfers as a phrase for spacefarers.
Given all of the above, I have absolutely no hesitation in calling Skinwrapper not only a fantastic horror novella in general, but also the gold standard for the Space Horror subgenre itself. It is exactly what is needed to crack open that particular subgenre, and I would be incredibly surprised if Skinwrapper does not inspire further titles to continue the work that Kozeniewski has begun. Certainly The Hematophages has soared to the very top of my reading wishlist, and I also look forward to whatever Mr Kozeniewski writes in the future.