The Coffin Walk
Richard Farren Barber
As part of #DemainDecember on this blog, I’m reviewing as many titles from Horror publisher Demain Publishing as I can in 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.
From the earliest titles in the Short! Sharp! Shock! imprint to the very latest – thanks to the generosity of Demain, I’m now able to review the newest tranche of titles that are about to be released. We begin with Richard Farren Barber’s The Coffin Walk, which the back-cover blurb promises to be a tale of a band of ghost-hunters being haunted by a mysterious figure trailing them during their journey, and strange sounds emanating from their recorders. It all sounded suitably mysterious and chilling, and an excellent way to start this latest set of titles, and was of course accompanied by another fantastic piece of cover art by Adrian Chamberlain. I was also intrigued to get reading because Barber had also panned the brilliant short story All Hell in The Darkest Battlefield anthology that Demain published last year, and which I reviewed a few months ago.
The core of the story is the ramble taken by a small group of ghost-hunters up a local trail in search for anything that looks supernatural in nature. In the distant past, the route was used by members of the local community taking coffins to the nearby Church for burial, hence the route’s name and the title of the short story. Just like a lot of these small groups, there’s an integral element of tension amongst the members, with pompous, arrogant Harry taking charge and bossing everyone around, and being quietly loathed in return by the rest. It comes across as all too realistic and, having been part of a few groups like that over the years, this simmering, barely-concealed group tension is a key element for a good slice of horror. After all, how well do you really know the people who share your hobby – how many facts about them despite spending endless hours undertaking a shared love of something?
As the walk begins, Barber does a great job of conveying how isolated, quiet and almost intimate these sort of journeys can be – the sounds of modern society fade away and replaced with the quiet of nature. But that also means isolation and a lack of immediate help, which is never a great combination for the characters of a horror tale – a ‘gloomy world of shadows’ as the author so succinctly puts it. There’s a sense of slowly rising tension and fear amongst members of the group, as the protagonist becomes convinced that they’re being followed by someone – or something. That’s disconcerting enough, but for me the real chills didn’t come until the voices started coming out of the Dictaphone that one of the group carries around, trying to record the silence in order to sift through it for anything after the walk. It’s a genuinely unsettling sequence, enhanced by the fragile group coherence that it shatters in an instance, the group reforming and a new dynamic coming to the fore as they all attempt to escape from the entity that is rapidly approaching them.
After that initial slow build-up of tension, like a spring being wound up, Barber suddenly unleashes it in a flurry of panicked action as the group try and flee back towards the pub they had set out from. But the mist and the darkness combines to prevent them from easily finding the way back and Barber even throws in some nice misdirection as one of the group suffers a rather grisly fate from the figure stalking them. Things become stranger and stranger as their attempts to run away are stymied at every turn, and their terror only escalates as the figure stalking them seems to almost become one of the group. There’s even a distinct sense of unfairness, in the implication that the group did nothing to provoke this supernatural assault apart from entering the Coffin Walk. The sense of atmosphere that Barber generates is second-to-none, and a large part of why this story worked so well.
I absolutely loved The Coffin Walk, and I think it’s one of the best piece of short horror fiction that I’ve read all this year. It even stands out amongst all of the high-quality pieces that Demain Publishing have put out as part of the Short! Sharp! Shocks series, and it has a sense of following in the same vein as legendary authors like M.R. James. There’s a timelessness to the tale that makes it work so well, created by Barber’s superb blending of sharply-judged narrative and chilling, understated writing, and I feel like this story deserves to be read and appreciated by anyone with a love of classic ghost stories or quiet horror in general. A fantastic first effort by the author for the imprint, and I would absolutely hope that he has another entry in the second Short! Sharp! Shocks! series when it eventually comes out.