[Please note that the publisher provided a review copy of this title in return for an honest review]
Out of all of the titles in Demain Publishing’s Short Sharp Shocks! imprint, the cover art for Crown of Thorns grabbed my attention the quickest. Not just because of illustrator Adrian Baldwin’s consistent quality in layout and design, but also because of the image that dominated the cover. The cover art for each Short Sharp Shocks! title has an image that relates to the story or stories within: a sinister doll, a Soviet medal, a skeleton. But the image on the cover of Trevor Kennedy’s Crown of Thorns was just a humble ice-cream truck. I was genuinely confused – how could the beloved, slightly dated icon of British summers be any more threatening than overcharging for a 99 Flake? I decided to investigate forthwith, certain that there would be an entirely innocent explanation.
It turns out there wasn’t, and now I’m never going to be able to look at an ice cream truck, or hear those cheery, iconic chimes in quite the same way. Kennedy sets his story in Belfast in the 1980s, a particularly violent period even in the recent history of Northern Ireland. Young Tommy lives on a housing estate on the outskirts of Belfast, waiting out the days and weeks of a particularly boring school holiday. He misses his schoolmates, and is also worried about all of the missing children in the area, whose disappearances seem to have been accompanied by the usually-cheerful chimes and tones of an ice cream truck. Tommy doesn’t have the best home life, his father absent and his mother struggling to cope with him; their interactions are almost painful to observe, and laced with far more viciousness than the usual pre-teen conflict. There’s an underlying source of grief and anger there, one that Kennedy only reveals later in the narrative. In addition there’s the recent public and graphic suicide of an older girl he had befriended, a goth who attacked a number of people in the area and then hurled herself off a bridge.
With these things in the background, not to mention the incredibly tense and violent political atmosphere of the period, Tommy is reluctantly cajoled into going into some nearby woods with his older friend Jim. They wander through the local woods with some illicit cigarettes and alcohol, and Kennedy really brings to life the often-unequal relationship between two young adolescent boys, and the awkward attempts at machismo and one-upmanship that often dominates such friendships. You come to sympathise with Tommy, a kid who doesn’t have a huge amount going for him, and his attempts to find a little enjoyment in a fairly grim time in the city’s history. Wandering in the woods, the boys chance upon a mysterious building they haven’t seen before, and which Jim swears didn’t exist previously. But despite that, youthful arrogance enhanced by their drinking overrides any caution and they investigate. Rather than drug users or the homeless, they discover a building taken over by what appears to be a cult dedicated to their patron, a sinister being named Mr Needlesticks and portrayed – in that iconic Northern Ireland manner – as a mural.
At this point the narrative took a hard left turn from what I was expecting, which I enjoyed; I was ready for something like a by-the-numbers plot where the boys were hunted by Mr Needlesticks through the building. Instead, to my delight, Kennedy delivers a tense ending that combines the deadly threat of sectarian politics and the heavy-handed dramatics and hypocrisy of organised religion. The involvement of the IRA makes things particularly grim, and demonstrates that young boys growing up in Belfast in the 1980s were in enough potential danger without adding in any potentially supernatural force to all the semi-organised chaos in the country.
Really, the only fault I could find with Crown of Thorns was that it wasn’t anywhere near long enough. Now I often go on about wishing that Horror titles were longer so I could get more enjoyment out of them, but in this case this isn’t just feverish wishing for an expansion or even a sequel. There’s a huge amount of potential in Kennedy’s story, and it’s an excellent addition to the Short Sharp Shocks! imprint by itself, but it’s very clear to me that its full potential can only come if its expanded – at least to novella length, if not a full novel. The background of Tommy’s time in Belfast is well-developed during the story, as is the role of Loyalists vs Nationalists and the accelerant of organised religion, but the supernatural elements don’t have enough time to breathe. And that’s a real shame, because Mr Needlesticks is genuinely unsettling in his rare appearances, and there’s surely some incredibly interesting parallels to be made between sectarianism and the rise of a Satanic-style cult on the outskirts of Belfast.
Well-written, atmospheric and original in both tone and content – there should be more Horror titles set during The Troubles – Crown of Thorns is a tense and often unsettling short story that has a huge amount of potential that’s only been partially realised. If allowed to be further developed, and the supernatural elements of the plot more widely integrated, I firmly believe that Crown of Thorns could be a classic of the genre, albeit likely a somewhat controversial one given the setting and themes. Perhaps the author and Demain Publishing can discuss expanding the story into one of their novellas. Regardless, Mr Kennedy is now on my radar as a Horror author to watch, and I await with interest the next story he publishes.