Sole Survivor II: Drop Bears on the Loose (Rewind or Die #23)
I never thought that I would be writing this particular sentence – but I am incredibly excited to see the return of a host of blood-thirsty killer koala bears. Or rather, that should be blood-thirsty killer drop bears, the mythological version of the humble koala bear; they are to koala bears what the honey badger is to the common, garden-variety badger. Rather than lazily hanging from trees, doing little but acting as inspiration for Instagram posts and cutesy birthday cards, the drop bears are far more likely to be found about three inches from your face, jugular or any other piece of flesh they want to cut, tear, bite and otherwise savage. They are highly efficient murder machines, the sort of thing that you wouldn’t want to face even in your worst nightmares; and author Zachary Ashford, the absolute madman, has decided to bring them back for a sequel to his novella Sole Survivor. Published by Unnerving as part of their new Rewind or Die series, I reviewed the original Sole Survivor last year and found it to be an absolute blast – an imaginative and gorily entertaining novella with a memorable story, fantastic fight sequences, and an undercurrent of satirical humour that meshed well with the utterly merciless and terrifying drop bears.
Sole Survivor absolutely put Ashford on my radar as a talented and imaginative horror author – an impression only confirmed by his brilliant duology The Encampment by the Gorge & Blood Memory from Demain Publishing – but I genuinely never even considered that he might pen a sequel to the novella. I absolutely adored the murderous, over the top nature of the drop bears, but had assumed it would be a one-off idea; like one of those cheap B-Movies you see on an old horror movie channel late at night when flicking through the satellite channels. But of course, what I had failed to consider is that – just like the best of those old films – there’s always room for a sequel. Which is where Sole Survivor II: Drop Bears on the Loose comes in – and as the subtitle indicates, this time the drop bears are not confined to an isolated tropical island. There’s going to be a lot more bloodshed this time before the marsupials are through with humanity – an impression that is only reinforced by the eye-catching cover art, which features the face blood-stained drop bear, mouth open to reveal row after row of razor-sharp teeth, the whole image slightly blurry as if taken a millisecond before the photographer is eviscerated by the creature. While the novella’s mere existence had been hugely unexpected, the combination of author, cover art and back-cover blurb immediately caught my imagination, especially as this seemed to be the perfect way to get back into ‘the groove’ of reviewing horror titles. I downloaded a copy as soon as I could and dived in, eager to be reacquainted with the murderous marsupials.
As with all the greatest horror films, the immediate cause of the drop bears being unleashed are the ill-considered actions of a group of animal rights activists called The Ark, who break into the compound of media tycoon Joseph Steinberg. Steinberg was the secretive genius behind the events of the original Sole Survivor, conspiring to drop a group of wannabee-celebrities onto a tropical island infested with drop bears, and filming the resultant carnage to create a huge ratings success. Wanting something bigger, better and even more spectacular than the first series, however, Steinberg began experimenting on some of the surviving drop bears, keeping the resulting animals within the gates and fences of his compound. When the activists breach the fence, looking for evidence of Steinberg’s experiments, the new and improved drop bears promptly massacre them and escape into downtown Brisbane. No longer confined to the limits of a remote island, and genetically modified by Steinberg’s pet scientists to breed faster and fight even more viciously, they soon begin to multiply and spread out into the city. As blood begins to be shed in truly titanic amounts, the apex predators will cross paths with the fanatical senior members of The Ark and their radical agenda for the drop bears; Steinberg and his right-hand man, Gus, one of the few survivors from the original Sole Survivor; and December Foss, the only member of the original group of contestants from the island to escape. Obsession, greed and vengeance will all come to the fore, as the novella barrels towards an action-packed and explosive ending that reminded me of nothing less than a Triple-A Hollywood Blockbuster
Sole Survivor II: Drop Bears on the Loose is further evidence that Ashford knows how to deliver a compelling and exciting narrative – the plot flows smoothly and swiftly, jumping between characters and situations in a decidedly slick manner as required, never slowing down or losing steam until it his that deeply satisfying conclusion. At no point was I bored, or wondering where things were going – on every page of the novella, characters and narrative meshed together deftly to drive things forward as required, keeping my attention on the plot. It’s all lubricated by an immense wave of blood, gore and severed limbs as the drop bears do their thing; the little creatures are back and as vicious as ever, but now in far greater numbers than I could even have dreamt of when reading the first novella. Not only are there more of them, but Steinberg’s genetic tinkering has made them somehow even more lethal, not to mention reproducing at a genuinely terrifying rate. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the mad media mogul has moved into genetic manipulation of drop bear-human DNA, creating several horrifying creations that are unleashed towards the end of the novella, drastically raising the stakes – and the amount of blood being spilled. It all allows Ashford to demonstrate his particularly dark and blood-tinged imagination, treating us to a series of short and delightfully macabre vignettes as the drop bears swarm the unsuspecting human population ; my particular favourite was the encounter between a pack of drop bears and a gardener and his lawn-mower.
The carnage and blood-letting is supported by a colourful cast of characters – some returning from the first novella, and some new to this second entry in the series. Our protagonist is December Foss, who at the start of the story finds herself endlessly reliving the horrors of her first encounter with the drop bears, trapped in a manipulative contract with Steinberg to endlessly tour TV studios and radio DJ shows to tell her story and promote Steinberg’s shows. But when she becomes aware that the drop bears are back in her life – and even more dangerous than before – she becomes determined to fight back and take back control of her life, even if it means fighting crazed activists and an insane media mogul. Steinberg is suave and overconfident, the perfect antagonist to unleash the chaos of the second novella, and the members of The Ark make for excellent secondary antagonists, ultimately betrayed by the very animals they are trying to save. We even see the return of Gus, Steinberg’s right-hand man and security chief, who slowly comes to the realisation that his erstwhile employer is utterly insane and needs to be stopped, regardless of the consequences. It all results in a vivid and highly entertaining group of characters, all of whom manage to hit all the tropes required of the genre without becoming bland or forgettable; that’s not an easy skill to master, and yet Ashford does it so easily it deeply impressed me. There’s even some interesting commentary interlaced with the narrative about the role of social media and the endless, panoptican-style surveillance state constructed by government and private citizens that had me thinking by the end – a surprising bonus to a story mostly focused on killer koalas.
Sole Survivor II: Drop Bears on the Loose is a blood-soaked masterpiece of the creature feature genre, a fast-paced, highly imaginative and often surprisingly thoughtful novella that grabs you and never lets you go until it has dragged you through a chaotic melee of guns, guts and killer koala bears. It’s an incredibly entertaining and energetic piece of horror fiction with a slight tongue-in-cheek manner, all of which when taken together make it clear that Ashford had a huge amount of fun writing it. That fun is readily transferred to the reader, and I will happily admit this is the most I’ve enjoyed reading horror fiction for quite some time. Taken all together, it means that Sole Survivor II: Drop Bears on the Loose is an absolute triumph by Ashford, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next…especially if the sting in the tail found in the last few pages of this novella is ever expanded upon for another sequel.