The Encampment by the Gorge & Blood Memory (Short Sharp Shocks! Book 30)
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 – and as I did so, I decided that this would be the perfect time to revisit the first Short Sharp Shocks! series and review some of the titles that I wasn’t able to get to during my #DemainDecember event on the blog last year. While the first that I came to was Dave Jeffery’s creepy trio of tales The Camp Creeper & Other Stories, another one that had been on my long-list to review since last year was Zachary Ashford’s The Encampment by the Gorge & Blood Memory. Ashford came to my attention earlier this year when I read his novella Sole Survivor in the Rewind or Die series from Unnerved Magazine; it was a delightfully gory and tongue-in-cheek slice of horror fiction that saw a bunch of arrogant, egotistical reality show contestants massacred by murderous drop-bears (think a nightmarish version of a koala) in some highly imaginative and artfully described ways. I was deeply impressed by Ashford’s writing, plotting and imagination, and was therefore curious to see what he might come up with in this duology of short stories from Demain Publishing.
The collection opens with The Encampment by the Gorge, a moody and atmospheric piece that follows a quartet of construction workers who venture into the depths of a swampy area in Australia. They’re searching for the people who are harassing and sabotaging the road building work they’ve been contracted to undertake, cutting wires, killing guard dogs and even fellow workers, and as such the four men are in no mood to be friendly. But as they venture further into the swamp, it rapidly becomes obvious that they are outnumbered, outmatched, and trying to fight a presence that has far more than bows and arrows and knives at their disposal; hideous, wriggling, unnatural things lurk in the swamp to attack the men at the slightest provocation, or control butchered beasts that should clearly be dead, all while shrill, mocking calls echo back and forth. What begins as a hasty mission of vengeance, the four men eager to take their anger and simmering resentment out on their unseen foe – whether protestors, sovereign citizens or serial killers – soon descends into something incomprehensible and utterly deadly. Taking inspiration from the clashes between the Australian government, private contractors and the indigenous population to great effect, Ashford weaves an intensely atmospheric and increasingly surreal short story that plays out like a miniature version of Apocalypse Now, though one with a genuinely surprising and terrifying ending. With some deft and effective characterisation despite the tight word count, blended with some unnerving imagery that makes great use of the natural setting, The Encampment by the Gorge alone is worth the asking price for this title.
It’s then followed by Blood Memory which stays in the same location – the Australian outback – and is told from the point of view of Jones, a magazine writer following up on the disappearance of a boy suspected to have been the victim of a sudden and brutal crocodile attack. Joining a Park Ranger heading into the area to lead a search party to look for the missing child, Jones falls into conversation about the mysterious history of the area – the ominously titled Bone Mountain. There have been plenty of disappearances before this one, none of them solved by the authorities, and as Jones moves further into the region with the Park Ranger and meets the local indigenous population, as well as the terrifying crocodile population in the nearby waters, it becomes clear that there is far more to this situation than a simple missing child. Once again Ashford makes deft use of the dark, complex and racist legacy of Australian colonialism, and the abuse and racism its indigenous population faces, to develop a hard-hitting and intensely atmospheric story. Ancient folklore and talk of sorcerers and trickster spirits are blended with the poverty and racism faced by the locals in the area, and the insidious nature of the media-led campaign that continually demonises the native inhabitants, in order to create a distinct sense of unease that ferments throughout the entire story. I’ve never felt like needing a shower after reading a horror story, but Ashford has achieved that with Blood Memory, the end of the tale leaving me with a distinct sense of unease and grubbiness from the tales he conjures from the legacy of white residence on the continent, and its connections to the fearsome wildlife Australia is known for.
If Sole Survivor demonstrated Zachary Ashford’s obvious skill as a horror writer in an ever-crowded genre, then The Encampment by the Gorge & Blood Memory firmly cements that reputation and provides clear evidence that Ashford is a rising star in the genre. His deft handling of characterisation and atmosphere, alongside a carefully-considered and nuanced take on the racism and horrific abuses heaped upon the indigenous population that resulted from the history of colonialism in Australia, create two compelling and deeply memorable short stories. This is a deeply impressive duology and Ashford is a writer to watch in the horror genre, and as such I greatly look forward to whatever Ashford writes next, especially if it happens to be in conjunction with Demain Publishing.