Contact! A Military Horror Anthology
Chris McInally (Ed.)
Screaming Banshee Press
I’m always on the lookout for new publishers in the Horror genre to see what they can bring to the table, and was therefore excited in 2020 to discover the intriguingly-named Screaming Banshee Press. They were kind enough to contact me to offer a review copy of their debut anthology, a zombie horror collection entitled Bloods, Brains & Bullets, and I eagerly dived into it. With some fantastic and evocative cover art by illustrator Matt James, and a short, sharp and engaging collection of undead-focused stories that often delivered unique and thought-provoking takes on the undead and the consequences for society on corpses rising from the dead, the anthology greatly impressed me. To me, this was exactly the kind of effort required to ensure the genre did not remain as stale and dead as the shuffling corpses it focuses on, and as such I looked forward to seeing what the publisher. While the whole ‘global pandemic’ thing prevented me from reviewing the publisher’s next collection – Aberrations: A Creature Feature Anthology – when it came out, it was on my (increasingly-lengthy) backlist of titles to return to and review. But of course no publisher can rest on their laurels, and Screaming Banshee Press have now released a third collection which is even more appealing to me than their initial offering: Contact! A Military Horror Anthology. Not only does the anthology contain a host of authors I love – like Willie Meikle and Lee Murray – but it also focuses on a subgenre I think deserves far more exploration. Military Horror as a subgenre is actually pretty underutilised; while the military often features in stories across the length and breadth of the horror genre, they’re usually in supporting roles at best, or simply glimpsed in the background as disposable Redshirts for various monsters to tear apart. Only rarely has the potential to be found in the concept of Military Horror actually been fully exploited: indeed, the only major example I can think of recently is the excellent Burning Sky duology Weston Ochse, which I continue to believe is the pinnacle of Military Horror fiction. As such, there’s a lot of unexplored terrain to be uncovered in the subgenre, and I was eager to see what Screaming Banshee Press had collated in this anthology
Contact! consists of nine stories, making it a nice and lean collection compared to many of the incredibly lengthy anthologies that seem to be more and more the norm in the horror genre. That was certainly a bonus for me – it’s far easier to tackle something shorter and more focused when I’m still struggling to find my reviewing stamina back. The collection opens with Softbait by Dan Rabarts, an author I haven’t come across before in the genre, but who quickly impressed with engaging prose and an eye for action. The story follows Lance Corporal Whero Maeke of the New Zealand Army as he engages in counter-guerrilla warfare against insurgents in East Timor, travelling with his squad in a Unimog jeep hunting down an insurgent patrol that had disrupted a local festival. Rabarts deftly brings to life the frustrations and stresses of being a member of a peacekeeping force in a foreign land: superior-sounding terms like ‘Independence’ and ‘Freedom Fighters’ become irrelevant when Whero is just trying to survive being shot and bombed by someone who doesn’t want him in the country, an attitude he himself supports. Instead, like many soldiers over the millennia, he tries to depersonalise the conflict – instead of hunting down locals, he’s spotlighting rabbits on his dad’s old farm. But before too long, these ‘rabbits’ are turning the tables on the New Zealanders, and Whero finds himself in the chilling, unfamiliar position of being prey hunted by something unearthly. Rabart’s tale is an excellent example of what the Military Horror subgenre can offer, and a great way to open the anthology, seamlessly merging the very human frustrations of modern peacekeeping with mythological horror borne from the peacekeeper’s interference with local customs. The collection continues with Daniele Bonfanti’s The Shattering, a longer story which takes us to a very weird and highly compelling sci-fi setting, in which a small team of mercenaries hunt down strange and terrifying creatures on an Earth that has been radically altered by the arrival of a species of psychic demons. In the near-future, climate change destroyed a previously-unknown barrier that prevented humanity from being discovered by these demons; and despite humanity’s best efforts, the demons made planetfall and began twisting and corrupting the planet. Bonfanti takes us back and forth through this timeline as the demons and their twisted, organic creations wage war on the remnants of humanity, following the mercenaries as they conduct an increasingly desperate fight. Allied to a frantic, action-packed plot and some engaging characters is Bonfanti’s vivid imagination and impressive sense of originality, creating these really bizarre, horrifying, pseudo-organic creatures that seem to be drawn from the very ground of this fantastical world, as well as a chaotic, twisted and unsettling environment affected by the presence of the demons. Deeply impressive, Bonfanti’s story develops a fascinating and highly original universe, one that I hope they return to in future stories.
We then move onto Labyrinth by William Meikle, no stranger to Military Horror courtesy of his peerless S-Squad series from Severed Press, in which a small band of sweary Scottish squaddies clash with all manner of mythological and cryptozoological creatures. And while this isn’t an S-Squad story, the protagonist is a former British Army squaddie, one of three assigned to guard the pampered, overindulged wife of a Sheik. When their charge is apparently kidnapped on a remote, deserted beach, the three bodyguards are forced to enter a cave system to try and retrieve her, only to find themselves lost in the titular labyrinth. As always with one of Meikle’s stories, we are treated to superb, evocative prose and an ingenious use of the mythological knowledge he has built up over many stories, as well as a delightful ability to invert genre tropes: I particularly appreciated the protagonist’s refusal to split up and search for their ward because that’s what they do in films. There’s some great action, bullets and grenades flying with abandon, accompanied a distinctly chilling ending that I genuinely wasn’t expecting. Bonesaw Ridge from Lucas Pederson is an atmospheric, mystery-laced story in which a group of wounded mercenaries, low on ammunition and supplies, find themselves pursued by bizarre creatures hunting them through the eponymous Bonesaw Ridge. As they attempt to survive, dealing with fear and paranoia, as well as the strange effects the wounds caused by the creatures have on them, leader Jess begins to wonder why their benefactor wanted them to conduct what was supposed to be a simple training exercise on Bonesaw Ridge. As bullets begin to run out and the body-count slowly but surely increases, we see more of the blood-soaked and horrifying creatures, terrifying things that demonstrate Pederson’s prodigious imagination, and the story ends with a rather sudden and unexpected twist. This feels like something set within a wider universe, perhaps one of Pederson’s titles (which I’ve been meaning to catch up on) and it’s made me sufficiently to seek out some of those stories in the near-future.
Alister Hodge is the author of the Plague War trilogy, which I consider to be one of the most compelling zombie apocalypse series I’ve ever read, standing head and shoulders above his innumerable competitors, and if real life ever stops being on fire I’m committed to reviewing them all. Hodge is a brilliant writer, his skill and imagination shining through in A Man of His Word, his contribution to the anthology. Taking us back to Roman times, we follow Vito, a Centurion leading a unit of Legionnaires into the depths of a distant, desert province on the fringes of the vast Roman empire. Aiming to seek out and crush a supposed rebellion led by a charismatic holy man, the Centurions are instead led into an ambush and confronted by the holy man himself. Rather than fight himself, however, the fanatic unleashes something horrifying and otherworldly in a gory and impressively-described sacrificial ceremony; faced with something far beyond his comprehension, Vito and his remaining men must trust to their blades and their comrades to come out victorious. I’ve said before that there aren’t enough horror stories set in earlier time periods, and Hodge makes full use of Roman tactics, weapons and beliefs to weave a hugely entertaining and darkly compelling story of gladius versus demonic axe. In Black Ice by R.F. Blackstone, we’re placed into the company of the Filthy Animals, another group of mercenaries; this time, they’ve been sent through a vortex portal into a strange, icy environment with orders to rescue a group of scientists and their families. However, while the core concept might be familiar, Blackstone adds an intriguing subtext as the soldiers trek towards their target, with the icy temperature and unnerving void triggering philosophical debates about where, exactly, they are located. The discussions are well-paced and engaging, and make the tale far more engaging and memorable than yet another monster hunt story would have been. As the environment becomes more and more intimidating and unsettling, horrifying and depraved things being revealed to the team, morale and psyches begin to crumble under a relentless onslaught of body horror imagery, creating a unique atmosphere I didn’t encounter elsewhere in the anthology, and forging a story that stayed with me after finishing the entire collection.
Moving towards the end of the collection, Into the Geyserland by Lee Murray makes use of the on-going global pandemic as the background to her story, with a squad of NZDF troops patrolling the perimeter of an isolated hotel being used to quarantine travellers into the country. To the squad’s dismay, one of the travellers has escaped quarantine and breached the protective fence, and they’re forced to venture out into the Whakarewarewa forest to search for him. Even before they begin the search, however, the soldiers are confronted with terrifyingly oversized Wetapunga, akin to Crickets, with an urge to maim and kill; and the sinking feeling that they’re dealing with the same kind of creatures they faced in Murray’s fantastic series of creature-feature novels from Severed Press. A simple pursuit mission rapidly evolves into another adventure for Taine McKenna and his squad, Murray using her incomparable skill as a writer and detailed knowledge of New Zealand’s fauna and mythology to create a fast-paced and thrilling slice of military horror fiction that has definitely given me a new fear of crickets and their New Zealand cousins. The penultimate tale in the collection is Dustin Dreyling’s The Bubble Bursts in which a group of soldiers (mercenaries – surprise!) breach a scientific facility that is conducting various illegal and morally shady scientific experiments and designing technology, in order to secure said technology for their own employer. After ruthlessly killing off the guards and scientists in the facility, however, the mercs are faced with a bizarre portal floating in the middle of the building, apparently a dimensional rift of sorts. As if that wasn’t bad enough, their objective is apparently inside the rift, also the home to a series of utterly bizarre and violent entities intent on gutting the mercenaries; this leads to a series of firefights and close-combat engagements as Dreyling revels in the chaos and creatively bizarro creatures he unleashes throughout the narrative. As The Apocalypse Drive, the final story in the collection demonstrates, author Justin Coates definitely knows how to grab a reader’s attention, bringing us straight into the story with the super-heavy tank Behemoth grinding its way through the post-apocalyptic ruins of Virginia in search of a gigantic monster to hunt and kill. Captain Kelly Andrada, the psychically-gifted officer commanded the Behemoth, is searching for the monster code-named Exalted Fidler; linked to it through the deaths of old comrades, she is determined to lead the crew of her tank to victory over the creature. It’s a fantastic, action-packed story that ends the anthology with a bang, full of desperate fighting as beleaguered human defenders protect the ruins of Arlington and D.C. from the squid-like invaders, while Behemoth and its column try and relieve the defenders while also aiming to kill Exalted Fiddler. It’s an incredibly engaging atmospheric and skilfully-written story with a kick-ass ending, all set in a universe that instantly grabbed me and refused to let go, and as a result Coates is now on my radar as an author to watch for military horror fiction.
With the publication of Contact! A Military Horror Anthology, publisher Screaming Banshee Press have readily demonstrated that they are a fresh new voice in the Horror genre, and not simply a one-hit wonder like many publishers that come and go. Editor Chris McInally has expertly curated a concise collection of fresh, engaging and blood-soaked stories that act as a vital contribution to the slowly-expanding Military Horror subgenre, all of which contributed something unique and memorable in their own way. While I enjoyed all of the stories, those by Coates, Hodges and Bonfanti particularly impressed me, and I look forward to exploring their own contributions to the Horror genre as a whole with great interest. I also look forward to seeing what Screaming Banshee Press come up with next – and I’m certain that whatever it is, it will leave a lasting impression on the genre.