Moonlight, Gunshot, Mallet, Flame (Short Sharp Shocks! Book 49)
I’ve come to the conclusion that Demain Publishing are an unstoppable juggernaut of genre fiction, as we’ve barely entered 2020 and they’re already publishing another tranche of titles under their iconic Short Sharp Shocks! imprint. These are the final five books in Series 1 of the imprint, though fortunately the publisher has announced that there are plans for a Series 2 in the near future. After these final five shorts have been published, Demain will be focusing on some of their other imprints, including the crime-focused Murder! Mystery! Mayhem! under which Alison Faye’s brilliant noir novella Maggie of My Heart was published recently. I’m extremely excited to see what Demain Publishing release over the rest of the year, both in terms of their imprints and also the independent releases such as Dave Jeffrey’s upcoming novella Finding Jericho, which I’ll be reviewing in the next few weeks here on the blog. So with that all coming up on the horizon, I decided to take a look at each of the final five releases in Series 1 of Short Sharp Shocks!
One of the things that impresses me the most about the Short Sharp Shock! imprint is the publisher’s obvious willingness to take chances and publish up and coming authors, allowing them a chance to flourish while supported by an excellent illustrator and editor. That policy has been reflected in previous releases and continues with this latest tranche of titles, continuing with Book 49 in the series, titled Moonlight, Gunshot, Mallet, Flame. That’s a unique and memorable title, complemented by another of Adrian Chamberlain’s striking cover designs, and all tied together by a back-cover blurb that enticingly promises a duology of tales about dangerous women facing off against the supernatural.
The first of the two stories in the collection is Moonlight, Gunshot, Mallet, Flame, and has the provocative and distinctly unsettling opening of a woman lifting the body of her nephew out of the boot of a car and taking it to a remote and isolated burial place. It’s a weighty, visceral opening, and one that naturally elicits a host of questions from the reader. In addition, Hilton certainly doesn’t shy away from some graphic details, and within the first page I was visibly wincing at what had been done to the nephew, though it never comes across as gratuitous and is entirely in line with the theme of the tale itself. As the story progresses, Hilton deftly establishes a hard noir feeling – everything is wreathed in shadows, things only revealed by a passing car’s headlights; the weight of a pistol, and the memory of blood and smashed-in teeth. It grabs your attention and refuses to let go, dragging you along in the wake of this brutal murder and cover-up. Then after the body dump comes the reversion back to normality, the killer’s day job – as a schoolteacher. The duality of the two roles is both stark and striking, and only further emphasises the graphic horror of the opening scene. Then there’s a sudden descent into something else entirely – a perfectly framed and deliciously ambiguous ending that leaves one wondering whether guilt or something more occult has caught up with our hired killer. It’s a fantastic story that caught my attention and only released me at the end, and the characters and set-up just cry out for expansion into something longer.
That story is then followed by the longer of the two stories, A Little Death, which is rather different tale to the one that preceded it. As an aside, I’ve found that this is quite often the case with these little mini-collections that are published under Short Sharp Shocks! and I have to say that I enjoy it, whether or not it’s a deliberate editorial decision. It’s a great way to highlight each author’s skill as a writer, and the way they use their imaginations to create unique takes on the horror genre. In Hilton’s case, this story opens with a witch and her familiar browsing an online dating app as her 21st birthday rapidly approaches, looking for a certain someone. This being a horror story, however, the sought-after companion is rather unlikely to have anything approaching a good time; and it would be extremely unlikely to be followed by a second date, if you see what I mean. A brief flick through the app leads to horrific consequences for one potential date, demonstrating our protagonist’s rather casual use of her supernatural powers, and a certain level of viciousness, before a mysterious and attractive stranger suddenly attracts her attention. A conversation leads to a date being arranged, and at first it appears that this is simply going to lead to a brief and distinctly bloody affair. However, Hilton throws in several unexpected twists into the story, leading to the date becoming something significantly different, and far more dangerous, than first expected. Hilton weaves a fascinating story that takes an unexpected look at prejudice from an unusual angle that I haven’t seen before, all laced with a heavy dose of irony as the situation repeatedly develops complications. There’s a rather unexpected ending that caught me unaware, yet one that still successfully delivers that noir, femme fatale theme that developed throughout the first story in the collection.
With Moonlight, Gunshot, Mallet, Flame, Alicia Hilton has succeeded in creating two memorable, gritty and quietly unsettling horror stories that both involve dangerous and formidable women involved with the occult and the supernatural. Each of them, especially the titular story, have a dark, brooding atmosphere that perfectly encapsulates that noir feeling that countless authors attempt to portray in genre fiction and yet so many fail to comprehend. They’re both deftly written, as well as featuring two well-developed and fleshed-out female protagonists that avoid the usual noir stereotypes, and Hilton also manages to pull off some twists that I definitely didn’t see coming. These are all the marks of a great author, one who has adapted perfectly to the Short, Sharp, Shocks! format; I look forward to seeing what Hilton and Demain can come up with in the future when the imprint’s next series begins. But I’ll also be keeping an eye out for Hilton’s work wherever else it’s published, as I think she’s an author to watch in the Horror genre.