Sole Survivor (Rewind or Die #6)
Murderous drop-bears. What kind of horror reader and reviewer would I be if I passed up the chance to read a novella that featured one of the most popular – and terrifying – natural history hoaxes in the history of mankind? How could I ever bear to look my children in the eye if I didn’t take the opportunity to read a story where drop-bears are unleashed on a group of unwitting reality show participants; people who believe they’re playing a game to win their fame and fortune, and are instead about to be hunted down by creatures more malicious, malevolent and cunning than even a honey badger. I would be spurned by my family for not taking such a chance – and quite rightly so. How fortunate, then, that author Zachary Ashford has able to offer me an advanced review copy of his novella Sole Survivor; it’s the sixth book in Unnerving Magazine’s rather intriguing-sounding Rewind or Die series, which is steadily being released throughout 2020 and has a host of titles I’m eager to review.
The concept of Sole Survivor, as with all good pieces of horror fiction, is narratively simple, yet rife with opportunities for terror, bloodshed and general chaos. A group of reality show contestants crash on a deserted island on their way to their actual destination; or at least that’s what they think. Because the crash was deliberate; there are cameras watching them everywhere; and there are killers lurking in the trees and foliage, human and mammal. It’s a darkly satirical scenario rich with potential, and I was eager to see what Ashford would do with it, spurred on by that fantastic piece of cover art.
Ashford gets straight into the action, with a short but shockingly vivid prologue that demonstrates the sheer power and viciousness of the drop-bears he has unleashed upon an unsuspecting humanity. These things may be related to koalas, but Ashford clearly shows that there’s nothing cute and cuddly about them; these are muscular, relentless predators with a taste for human flesh. Then we attend our reality show contestants, who we encounter mid-plane crash, parachuting onto a desert island supposedly miles away from their actual destination; it’s certainly a memorable opening to the story, and far more original than many other monster and cryptic stories. Our protagonists are an eclectic mix of idiots, airheads, arrogant buffoons and a few with their heads screwed on; while we know, as readers, that the majority aren’t going to survive through the next few chapters, Ashford still manages to imbue them with sufficient depth of personality to make them stand out, something few authors ever seem to manage.
It’s not a shock, given the back-cover blurb, to find out that the plane crash wasn’t entirely an accident and that the contestants are being constantly monitored as they begin to set up camp and squabble amongst themselves. It’s another cunning idea from Ashford, with a particularly evil twist to the reality show concept lurking in a hidden bunker; it seems like something only a few years, perhaps only months, away from being something an actual reality show will implement. But neither the contestants or the reality show producers banked on the drop-bears residing on the island, who begin to track and hunt their new human prey. And when they start hunting, it’s a short, intense and incredibly brutal experience, with Ashford’s gore-soaked descriptions making each death practically spring off the page; while it isn’t Splatterpunk in style, no details are spared, with body parts shredded and bodies gutted to an extent that even had this jaundiced horror reviewer wincing in sympathy and disgust on a regular basis. There’s something deeply sinister about the drop-bears, a level of coordination and almost deliberate malice in their ambushes that escalate them far above the usual B-movie monsters and cryptids that appear in this subgenre; it’s another point to Ashford, for creating predators that are interesting for something other than the manner in which they kill off the cast of characters.
As the contestants are gradually whittled down, we start to get a focus on a core group of survivors, all of whom come to realise that something has gone terribly wrong as their fellow competitors suddenly start disappearing and are replaced by bloodstained sand and the odd shattered limb. At this point, Ashford ramps up the tension and the terror, as survival turns into an attempt to escape the lush, beautiful deathtrap they’ve been marooned on, forced to contend with both killer mammals and a psychotic contestant-turned-murderer. It’s aided by a subtle undercurrent of grim, black humour as the survivors moan and bicker with each other even as they’re being hunted and cut into bloody chunks, which helps ensure the novella isn’t simply a two-dimensional gore-fest. The novella comes to a close with a gripping and inventive finale, which sees a battered human corpse used in a very specific manner that I’ve never come across in the Horror genre before, and plenty of scope and opportunity for a sequel.
I thoroughly enjoyed Sole Survivor, tearing through it in just over a day’s reading, carried along by the relentless, finely-judged pace and the horrifying, brutal lethality of the drop-bears that Ashford brings to life. Populated by a cast of irritating reality show stereotypes that the author takes great delight in eviscerating in a series of imaginative and gory ambushes and fight sequences, and laced with biting, satirical humour, Sole Survivor is a gorily entertaining horror novella with a memorable story that’s a perfect fit for the Rewind or Die series.