Sinister Grin Press
[Please note that the author sent a review copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review]
As I noted in my recent review of Stephen Kozeniewski’s novella Skinwrapper, there hasn’t been a huge amount of space-based horror fiction in recent years. That made Skinwrapper – focusing on a crew of terminally-ill space pirates who hunt and butcher their victims in order to procure the skin and organs they need to live – all the more appealing. I finished it in short order and found it to be an incredible slice of void-situated horror that will surely be seen as the gold standard for the Space Horror subgenre for a long time to come. But while Skinwrapper was a self-contained story, it also acts as a prequel to Mr Kozeniewski’s novel The Hematophages, which expands on the Skinwrappers themselves, and also launches another foray into Space Horror, with the focus this time being weird alien parasites that act as a kind of ‘space vampire’ species. That description had me intrigued for a very long time, though I was never able to afford to purchase the novel. But very recently, the author was kind enough to supply me with a review copy, and so I dived back into the universe of Skinwrappers, ‘Inksurfers’ and now space vampires.
As with Skinwrapper, the first thing that impressed me with The Hematophages is the cover art commissioned by Sinister Grin Press for the novel; created once again by illustrator Matt Davis, it is simultaneously gorgeous and deeply unsettling to look at for more than a few seconds. It reminds me of an old 1980s B-Movie, viewed through cable channel static at midnight, or a VHS tape that has been watched one too many times. A chalk-white face, side-on, stares with dead eyes at something that has a huge eyeball connected to a stalk, and a body thankfully concealed by blurred horizontal static. All of it is drenched in over-exposed red and black hues that seem to hint at concealing any number of horrors, and it sets the mood perfectly for the horrors to come.
I was quietly amused by the fact that the first horror depicted by Kozeniewski is perhaps the worst thing humanity has ever been confronted with – the lifeless husks who inhabit a corporate interview panel. Protagonist Paige Ambroziak is forced to sit through one, grating out rote answers to rote questions in the hope of securing a job with one of the megacorporations that now dominate humanity as it expands throughout the galaxy. Just when all seems hopeless, however, she’s surprised by a senior director who offers her a role in a secretive salvage mission in deep space. The catch? There’s only a few hours left before the salvage ship leaves Space Station Yloft, where Paige has lived all her life; the expertise she’ll need to supply is based on ancient and only partially-available data she’s only somewhat aware of; and the legality of the mission is distinctly dubious, meaning that there will be rival megacorporations pursing them, not to mention the ever-present threat of Skinwrapper attacks. Oh, and the ship they want to salvage might just be in the midst of something called a Fleshworld, inhabited by the titular Hematophages
So no problems there, then.
Once Paige meets some of her team-mates, unsurprisingly it becomes apparent that their corporate overlords were keeping something back from them in regards to their target. It’s an honourable and hoary trope, but Kozeniewski plays it exceedingly well, aided by some darkly humorous background material about the wrecked seedship and the nation-state that sent the vessel to the Fleshworld, long before universe-spanning megacorporations existed. In fact, the crew of the corporate vessel that Paige accompanies is one of the best parts of The Hematophages, and a large part of what made me so engaged with the novel as I raced through it. Despite there being a large number of characters introduced into the plot, they’re all three-dimensional and memorable, with their own distinct personalities, traits and character tics; even bit-part crewmembers that might only appear for a page or two, heard over a commslink, feel fully fleshed-out and not just the eponymous redshirt. Plus there are the complexities, nuances and monotony of the corporate structure which is fully replicated onto the vessel’s hierarchy in all of its dystopian glory, to the point where two characters discuss whether corporate can force them to pay for food eaten while actually on a salvaged vessel. Again, in the wrong hands this would be monotonous padding, but Kozeniewski somehow makes it interesting, engaging and – most importantly – relevant to the overarching narrative.
The Skinwrappers, who make an extended appearance early on in the story, also get some further development; in particular Nia, their leader, comes across as a multi-faceted and even somewhat sympathetic character thanks to some uncomfortable truths about the nature of what it means to be a Skinwrapper after a person’s abandonment by corporate humanity. Paige herself is a great protagonist, with the first-person narrative making her personality come through really easily and allowing the reader to engage with her emotions and thought processes; on the flip-side, of course, that also makes the horrors she faces all the more frightening and intense for the reader.
However the Skinwrappers, and the labyrinthine nature of corporate bureaucracies, are nothing compared to the true horrors that await Paige and her colleagues when they do finally reach the Fleshworld and the crashed seedship. The Fleshworld itself is a both an entirely original and also truly disgusting concept, with full marks to the twisted recesses of Mr Kozeniewski’s imagination. Imagine a planet that is essentially a ball of blood, with a thin skein of thicker blood on the surface, and in that surface lie the Hematophages, lamprey-like aliens that are blood-sucking nightmares made flesh. While at first they seem to be little more than curiosities or a mild nuisance, Kozeniewski soon makes it clear that they are anything but that. What the Hematophages do to their victims, and how Kozeniewski describes it, is the stuff of a thousand nightmares. Their malevolent intelligence, the way they move and operate, and especially the completely alien nature of their thought processes make them incredibly effective antagonists. And the ways in which they control their victims, and how the infect them, is genuinely stomach-churning and not something to read after a meal, or if one is particularly squeamish.
The characters are excellent and engaging, the Hematophages and Skinwrappers make perfect primary and secondary antagonists, and the plot itself is perfectly-paced. That’s down to Kozeniewski’s general skill as a horror writer, but also the end result of the excellent world-building he supports the plot with as it progresses. Once again there’s that original language, like ‘Inksurfing’, and also the atmosphere and general ‘feel’ of the megacorporate world. Payment wands and badges for payment, the conflict between unions and corporate management, as well as the unique fashion sense and style of each individual vessel: these all combine to create a rich and immersive experience. That in turn means that the coming horrors and atrocities, which are slowly built up to by the author, are all the more effective and chilling.
The Hematophages is – in a single word – iconic. Masterfully written and skilfully encompassing multiple subgenres – psychological horror, body horror, even elements of splatterpunk – it takes everything we fear about the effects of space travel and then blends it together with some genuinely repulsive and entirely memorable monsters. As with its prequel novella, Skinwrappers, it sets an incredibly high standard for future space horror, and with luck will inspire authors to expand on that sadly underutilised subgenre.