Dan Howarth is a horror author who’s been on my radar as a reader and reviewer for quite some time now. He was one of the authors I first seriously reviewed here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer when I was able to get hold of his fantastic novelette Dulce et Decorum Est which was published by Demain Publishing as part of the first series of their excellent Short Sharp Shocks! imprint. I was seriously impressed by the story, which managed to deftly combine the coming-of-age story of a young boy on a school field trip to First World War battlefields, harassed by bullies and misunderstood by teachers, with an incredibly disturbing and atmospheric ghost story that had a brutal and unexpected ending. It’s still one of my favourite stories across the entire Short Sharp Shocks range, and I made a note to keep an eye out for anything else that Howarth had published in the future. Fast forward to early 2021, and the author was kind enough to send me a review copy of his new short story collection Dark Missives which has been published by Howarth’s new publishing company, Northern Republic. While real-life kept me from reviewing it before it came out, much to my regret, I was finally able to get some time to dig into the collection. The title intrigued me, as did the absolutely fantastic cover art by Luke Spooner of Carrion House; but what caught my eye the most was the back-cover blurb promising ‘a tour of the roads less traveled in Northern England to explore what truly lies in the shadows’. I tried to rack my brains and think of the last horror story that I’d read that had been set in the north of England, and genuinely couldn’t come up with anything. As such, I was incredibly curious to see what Howarth could do with that as a concept for the stories in the collection.
Comprised of eleven tales, the collection opens with Dustin. The titular Dustin is the mascot costume for the Nirvana Holiday Company, who employs our protagonist as a staff member at one of their holiday camps. Already lacking sleep from the shenanigans of two other staff members living in his chalet, and creeped out by the Dustin costume that also resides there, our protagonist is further worried by the spate of children going missing from the camp recently. Resentful of how his former friends are acting towards him, and also the way in which the mascot is treated better than the staff in the camp – with its own dressing room and branding – the staff member tries to get through each day as best he can, dealing with irritating children and having to perform in humiliating performances with ‘Dustin’ to entertain those same children. But when the previous staff member wearing the costume disappears and he’s forced to wear it himself, the staff member suddenly realises just what Dustin is, and what the costume is capable of doing. Short, sharp and with an unexpected and shocking ending, Dustin is not only a great start to the collection, but also a concise demonstration of Howarth’s skill as a writer. It’s followed by Anderson, a short tale set in and around an Anderson air raid shelter during the early months of the Blitz. A family living in Birkenhead flee their house and into the shelter to avoid the German air-raid taking place overhead, only to discover that something else is also taking shelter – something inhuman. It’s a fantastically atmospheric and creepy piece, narrated by a young teenager who’s been trying to warn his family about the creature, which he’s seen lurking in nearby streets and gardens. There’s an intimate air to the narrative, a family crammed up against each other inside the shelter, and an almost tactile feel to Howarth’s words as he progresses the story towards a blood-soaked ending.
Hide, Go Seek follows a little girl, Amy, who loves to do nothing else but play Hide, Go Seek with her mum and dad, delighting in being able to hide away from her parents and wait as they try and find her. It’s a delightfully innocent activity – one I’ve played with my own children countless times – and one that Howarth deftly subverts to become a harrowing game where being found means a horrifying death – or an even worse fate. Interestingly, it also features a link with the previous story, suggesting the sort of shared continuity that I find often helps to enhance stories in a single-author collection. Next up is The Silent Key, which is actually one of the more inventive horror stories I’ve read in a long while. An obsessive fan breaks into the house of the elusive lead singer of ‘90’s grunge band Elysium in a desperate bid to speak to the singer and find out why he abruptly faded from public view after a string of bizarre occurrences on tour. But obsession turns into disquiet and then outright terror when the singer reveals the real reason for his absence – and why he’s terrified to speak even a single word, instead communicating solely by pencil and paper. Howarth caught me unawares with this one, a story I thought I had a handle on; it’s one of the most memorable in the collection. Nesting Instinct is a strange tale, almost Bizarro Horror in some regards: during a walk through a park with his wife, Nick comes across a weird, gory nest in a tree that looks unlike anything a bird would make. Impulsively climbing the tree and touching the next, Nick’s hand becomes covered in a strange, black, tar-like substance. Eventually washing it off and thinking no more of it, Nick soon finds his peaceful suburban existence disrupted by his wife’s surprise pregnancy announcement, and a strange, humanoid creature that begins lurking outside in his garden at night. So begins a series of bizarre encounters with the creature as the pregnancy continues, until the birth of his son triggers a final and deeply unsettling experience involving the creature and its relationship with Nick and his son. Once again, Howarth completely threw me with his story, taking it in a direction I hadn’t seen coming at all, and tying it up with an ending that had me literally shuddering in revulsion. It’s by far the best story in the entire collection, and well-worth the price alone.
From The Ground Up follows Lauren and Kevin as they move into a new house, a damaged property that needs some care and renovation. Determined to have a decent garden, Lauren starts to mow the grass and turn the soil, only to encounter strange roots underneath the rock-solid soil. Weird, yellow roots – roots that almost seem to resist being dug out of the ground. Roots that seem to cause the soil to reform itself, and reject anything planted in the soil. Roots that burrow into the foundations of the house – and choke local wildlife to death. There’s a sinister edge to this story, as the couple become more and more obsessed with combatting the roots, tearing their relationship apart as much as the garden, until it becomes clear that while they had plans for the house and garden – the roots have plans for them as well, and the term ‘Forever Home’ has more than one meaning. Mergers and Acquisitions is a delightfully twisted and confusing story that allows Howarth to deftly play with the nature of linear time and mental degradation, following a mid-level executive as he attempts to seal a deal that will lead to his promotion to the upper echelons of his company – only to experience random jumps in time, and behaviour that he can’t explain or even begin to understand. It’s another quietly unsettling story in the collection, and one that I’d like to see expanded into something long-form as it’s an intriguing concept very well executed.
This is the only place I have ever called home has a transient as a protagonist, a man with Romani heritage who has taken the decision to unmoor himself from every day life and instead become something of a nomadic, sleeping in the back of his van and eating only what he can cook on a portable stove. It’s an interesting concept, but also a grim one, and Howarth doesn’t pull any punches in describing the difficulties that such a life brings, or the huge amount of prejudice that travellers face in British society even today, where our protagonist can’t even sleep in his van in a layby without having the police called on him. But on top of that, he’s being hunted by a strange black car, a Jaguar with tinted windows and a driver the man intensely fears and never wishes to see. Fleeing from point to point on the map, our man is forced to deal with the endless pursuit from the black car, social prejudice, as well as the byzantine politics of Romani society. Desperation mixes with heritage and ancient curses to create a complex and multi-layered tale. Then comes Expedited, a great piece of micro-fiction that follows a delivery driver as he delivers strange, high-end packages to the uber-rich. Deciding to try and steal one, convinced they contain something extremely valuable, he instead reveals a terrible secret and discovers the price of greed.
The penultimate story in the collection is The Pusher, in which a tired and cynical police detective tries to get to the bottom of a serial killer known as The Pusher, responsible for dozens of bodies being dredged from Manchester Canal. I was delighted by the combination of weirdness and mundanity – bizarre priests in cloaks inscribed with occult symbols, but also people being pushed into a canal to drown; it was a strange but highly potent blend, with some well-described characters. Of all of the stories in the collection, I think this one would work the best as a novella or even novel, especially thanks to the intriguing way that Howarth links the murders to Manchester’s relationship with the canals that criss-cross it, and philosophical concepts like Nirvana and the nature of fulfillment. The collection then ends with Collaboration, a twisted and particularly dark piece about an artist who intends to create the ultimate collaboration in the art world, something that will be so shocking, so memorable, that his reputation will be assured forever. It’s an incredibly dark piece, with a stomach-churning central conceit that completely threw me; it’s by far the darkest, and most disturbing, piece in the entire collection, and a fitting end to the collection as a whole.
Full of unsettling, atmospheric and consistently horrifying stories that are greatly enhanced by Howarth’s dark imagination and incredibly vivid, often tactile writing that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and demands your attention, Dark Missives is a truly impressive collection of horror short stories, and one that readily acts as a demonstration of just how talented Dan Howarth is as a writer. The collection readily shows that Dulce et Decorum Est was not a lucky fluke, but in fact the beginnings of an incredibly promising career for Howarth in the Horror genre. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next, and suspect that he will go very far in the genre – especially if he continues focusing on that unique brand of horror set in the north of England like The Pusher.