The Camp Creeper & Other Stories (Short Sharp Shocks! Book 36)
If you’ve read many of my reviews before, you’ll know that I have a particular love of the titles released by Demain Publishing, as they’re one of the best Horror publishers that I’ve come across in all my years reviewing titles in the genre. They’ve achieved that distinction through a deeply impressive process of combining high-quality writing, distinct and artfully-composed covers by Adrian Baldwin and carefully-curated content that has started to expand beyond the boundaries of Horror into Crime, Science-Fiction and even works of poetry. Whatever the publisher releases is always an absolute joy to read and review, and one of the few pieces of good news I’ve had in the past few months was the announcement that another tranche of titles were due to be released by Demain in early September. They kindly sent me a host of review copies for me to read – but before I did so, I decided to re-familiarise myself with the publisher by reviewing some of their existing titles that I hadn’t gotten around to before now. I’m still determined to work my way through the first Short Sharp Shocks! series, Demain’s premier collection of Horror chapbooks authored both by genre veterans and up-and-coming talents, before the second series is released; and decided to continue that process by reviewing The Camp Creeper & Other Stories (Short Sharp Shocks! Book 36) by Dave Jeffery. Jeffery is an absolutely first-rate horror author, and his novella A Quiet Apocalypse – published by Demain last year – is one of the finest works of post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve ever read and a classic of the genre.
As with many of the Short Sharp Shock! titles the content within The Camp Creeper & Other Stories is actually divided into three short stories, opening with the titular The Camp Creeper. In Lickey Hills Country Park in Worcestershire, troops of boys scouts gather for an annual meet, setting up tents, sitting around fires eating sausage butties, and telling the sort of wild and tall tales that inevitably come up in this sort of setting. Sitting around one of those campfires, Scout Daniel Carlson is intrigued by one particular tale related by his new friends – the Camp Creeper, a mysterious presence that lurks around the campsite every year and which no-one has seen save for one of the Scout Leaders. The only thing that is known about it is that the Scouts need to stay inside their tents once it gets dark, and never to observe the Creeper. Determined to solve the mystery that he has been presented with, despite the protests of his new friends and the stern reprimands issued by Scout Leader Ed Jansen, Daniel stays up at night and observes the Creeper as it stalks through the camp and past the tents. The young Scout refuses to be deterred, and is resolved to not only find out the secret behind the Creeper’s existence, but also what links it to Jansen; but soon, careful planning and ingenious preparation lead to a devastating revelation and a sudden and terrifying conclusion.
Guess What We’re Having For Supper? also features a troop of Scouts, but this time the six boys of Tiger Patrol have far more to worry about than something strange wandering between their tents at night. After several days of hiking, a strange mist appears and surrounds the boys and their two Scout Leaders, forcing them to make camp and wait for it to pass. But against all expectations the mist refuses to dissipate, and somehow manages to cut off all communication with the outside world – mobile phones cease to work, and the shortwave radio dies. As food supplies begin to dwindle, and the relationship between the two adults begins to descend into verbal sniping and even physical confrontations, the atmosphere becomes tenser and tenser, finally leading to the two Scout Leaders venturing into the fog to try and find supplies. The sounds of a violent confrontation with something echo through the mist and eventually one of the adults returns with much-needed food; but Jeffery throws in a horrifying twist near the end of the tale as the source of that food is revealed. The last of the stories, and by far the strongest of the trio, is Cross Your Heart which sees a group of boys return to the riverbank where one of their friends died a year before. The official story is that Richard Clay drowned in the river doing something risky despite the protests of the three older boys with him, but the truth is far darker and the reason why the three are drawn to the site twelve months later. In a genuinely harrowing story that deftly blends together the present and the past in increasingly unsettling ways, the three boys are confronted with the sins of their past as Richard Clay refuses to stay dead and buried in the depths of the river, and instead returns to haunt them with a tragic truth that strikes at the heart of the incident. While the other two stories felt like darker and more twisted versions of programmes like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? that I used to watch decades ago, in my own pre-teen years, Cross Your Heart is a different beast, one that stays with you after you’ve finished both it and the collection and refuses to stay buried, just like poor Richard Clay.
The Camp Creeper & Other Stories is another brilliant publication from Demain Publishing and a fine addition to the Short Sharp Shocks! series and also a fantastic achievement by Dave Jeffery, as he once again demonstrates why he is one of the rising stars of the Horror genre. Each story in the collection is a deft subversion of the innocence and determination of youth, taking admirable qualities like determination, trust and loyalty and then twisting them into dark, quietly horrifying reflections of themselves. Jeffery really is a fantastic writer, able to conjure up gripping plots, unsettling atmosphere and well-rounded characters even in short stories, and I eagerly look forward to his next collaboration with Demain Publishing.