Ritchie Valentine Smith
As part of #DemainDecember on this blog, I’m reviewing as many titles from Horror publisher Demain Publishing as I can in the first week of December. Because, quite frankly, nothing typifies the spirit of Christmas more to me than seven days (at least!) of high-quality short-form Horror fiction encompassing a number of different subgenres. So over the coming week, as well as any other reviews I manage to write up, I’ll be reviewing some of the Horror, Sci-Fi (and Crime) novellas recently released by Demain, as well as a number of titles in their excellent Short Sharp Shocks! imprint.
Following on from the surreal and weird The Stranger and the Ribbon, we have a title in the Short! Sharp Shocks! series that not only replicats that same bizarre feeling, but takes it a whole step further. Because whereas Tim Dry’s story was at least set in the familiar world of 1980s England, Ritchie Valentine Smith’s Monster Beach doesn’t even seem to be set on Earth – or at the very least, an Earth that we could easily recognise. That’s indicated early on by the rather large crab claw that’s bring thrust in a menacing manner out of the cover art that Adrian Baldwin has once again skilfully put together, and is reinforced by the back-cover blurb, which notes that the setting for Monster Beach actually forms part of the wider setting for his own fantasy novel. Curious as to where this might be going, and having always had a mild phobia of crabs in general, I started to read.
‘Surreal fantasy’ would certainly be the right genre to put this story into, and in hindsight it certainly makes sense that this is essentially a self-contained vignette associated with a wider piece of work. The essence of the story is the journey of five strange and mysterious people who are dropped off by boat on the titular Monster Beach and apparently tasked with traversing the beach and then delivering a mysterious cargo to a rather nebulous destination far away. I call them people but in fact ‘figures’ or ‘characters’ might be a more accurate description, as they’re all rather strange and unusual. Indeed, one of the main strengths of the story is Valentine Smith’s mastery of characterisation and quickly highlighting the rapport that exists within this group; despite the short length of the title, all five are clearly distinctive and unique individuals that I found engaging.
This disparate and tightly-knit group have apparently been charged with the task of transporting something called The Eye to something else called The Waning of the Moon. Frankly, I was as intrigued as I was confused, and I suspect that this plot would make even more sense with the context of the fantasy novel written by Valentine Smith. Yet as I said above, the characterisation helps draw you into the strange narrative, as does the weird, ethereal nature of the beach and the tense atmosphere as the group start to cross it. I would have been disappointed, given the nature of the title, if there hadn’t been any monsters in the vicinity of the beach, and fortunately they do indeed appear. Even better, although gigantic crabs with razor-sharp, limb-chopping claws do appear, there are other monsters that appear towards the end of the story – though I won’t describe them for fear of spoiling the conclusion. The fighting is tense, brutal and also disruptive in nature – there’s a fantastic and immersive sense of tension as the group watch the crab creatures lurk under the sand, their bodies casting up moving humps of sand that remind me of the foamy trails left by shark fins. The group are just as much in the dark as the reader as to when the monsters will strike, not to mention why they’re doing so; and when they do, Valentine Smith writes some energetic and deftly described fight scenes, with blades and claws clashing together with concussive force you can almost feel.
The primary source of horror comes from the tension and fear generated by being hunted by the creatures of Monster Beach, but there’s also a underlying sense of disquiet from the nature of the group’s journey and their destination. They journey is described by prophecy but the details seem vague, especially on whether all (or any) of the group will survive; and the actual, physical goal of the journey seems unclear as well, which is an additional source of tension and friction in the group. Is everything they’re doing pre-ordained and therefore unchangeable whatever they actually accomplish? Or are they breaking the prophecy in some way – and perhaps losing faith in the prophecy? Difficult questions that the author poses, with no easy answers.
Monster Beach is an enjoyable slice of surreal, weird fantasy with an underlying and integral element of horror. The mysterious group at the centre of the tale are engaging and well-rounded despite the short nature of the story, and the monsters are suitably vicious and lethal in nature. I suspect the vignette nature of the story would make more sense within the context of Valentine Smith’s fantasy novel, but it certainly works well enough as a self-contained piece of fiction. I’m curious as to what the fantasy novel looks like, and would certainly be interested in reading it – and I would suggest those who enjoyed Monster Beach might want to do the same.