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 – including the latest five releases in the Short Sharp Shock! series. Actually, rather intriguingly, these five books are the beginning of the second Short Sharp Shock! series, as the publisher begins to work its way from 50 to an astounding 100 titles of short, sharp and shocking horror fiction entries in the imprint. I’ve always been deeply impressed by the Short Sharp Shock! series and the many of its titles that I’ve been reviewed: not only do you have those iconic, eye-catching covers from Adrian Baldwin, but the publisher has carefully curated short stories and novelettes from the best authors in the horror genre – both veterans and up-and-coming stars – in order to give their readers some of the finest short-form fiction currently being published in the genre. As such, I was beyond eager to dive into these five new titles – and continue my reviews with Book 52 – M.I.C.H.A.E.L. by Jess Doyle.
A short novelette rather than a number of shorter stories, M.I.C.H.A.E.L is rather reminiscent of films like Memento that begin at a fixed point in the narrative and then work their way backwords, Doyle’s story begins in 1998 and then jumps back through the past, following the history of the people who come into contact with an Ouija board with a dark past. Doyle opens the narrative with a short but potent section following a grieving mother, wandering around a cemetery and grieving deeply for the son she has lost; there’s no explanation for why he burnt to death, his girlfriend unconscious in hospital the only witness and unable to explain. It’s a powerful piece of prose that deftly reveals the physicality of grief, and sets the mood for the rest of the story as time unwinds and reveals its secrets. The cocky teenager, unprepared for the power of the Ouija board, and his inexperienced girlfriend, are only the latest in a long line of victims to come into contact with the eponymous M.I.C.H.A.E.L. As Doyle whips us back through decades and then entire centuries, she entwines us in a narrative that slowly becomes more and more terrifying as the history of the board and its occult occupant is slowly revealed. Each short chapter reveals a little more about the board, and then its history, and then how it becomes linked to its occupant, even as victims are paraded before us and killed in some rather imaginative ways. It all culminates, rather cleverly, in an ending that is also a beginning; one that incorporates some unexpected themes that nonetheless give the story additional depth and emotional contours I hadn’t quite expected, even with the high quality of the writing.
Powerfully written, with a gripping and quietly terrifying atmosphere that becomes more and more unsettling as the story progresses and time unwinds, and based around an emotional core that is perfectly judged and immensely powerful, M.I.C.H.A.E.L is an incredibly impressive piece of short horror fiction, and one of the best entries in the Short Sharp Shocks! series that I’ve read so far. Doyle’s decision to start at the end of the narrative and then progress backwards is certainly a novel technique, yet it pays off handsomely in the end as it allows the reader to see the power wielded by the Ouija board, and the layer upon layer of pain, anger and grief that are wrapped up in the board and its origins. I cannot recommend this strongly enough, and very much hope to see another collaboration between Doyle and Demain Publishing before too long.