The Damocles Files: Ragnarok Rising
Benedict J. Jones & Anthony Watson
I’ll put my biases clearly up front and be completely honest at the start of this review – I was incredibly excited about digging into The Damocles Files: Ragnarok Rising and seeing what esteemed horror duo Benedict J. Jones and Anthony Watson had collaborated on and come up with with their latest project. Ragnarok Rising is the first full-length novel in their new Damocles Files series, set during the Second World War and following the efforts of the titular Damocles Group; a small, secretive but highly influential group within the Ministry of Information, Damocles lead a rag-tag band of academics and military personnel in a desperate struggle against the occult powers being gathered by the Third Reich – as well as an even more sinister and mysterious group with a history that stretches back thousands of years. I absolutely love occult horror titles, especially those set during the Second World War and focused on Britain rather than the United States, as is the norm in the sub-genre, and so Jones and Watson had me hooked even before I’d picked up any of the Damocles Files titles. The two authors have an exciting back catalogue, and I’ve been deeply impressed by their titles that I’ve reviewed previously, particularly those set during the same period as this new series. Watson’s Shattered was a vivid and powerful novelette set during Kristallnacht and featuring thuggish SA stormtroopers getting a bloody comeuppance for their part in the state-sponsored pogrom; and Jones’ Hell Ship was an imaginative thriller set on an abandoned, blood-soaked freighter used by Imperial Japanese forces for terrifying occult experiments.
I can’t think of two authors better suited to writing something like the Damocles Files, and that impression was affirmed when I recently reviewed their prequel novella for the series, Wings in the Darkness; I found it to be a fantastic occult and mythological action-adventure novella written by two authors at the height of their powers, and I couldn’t wait to see what their full-length novel would look like. I didn’t think it was physically possible, but when the cover art was revealed a few weeks ago, my excitement actually managed to increase: it’s an absolutely amazing piece of work, from the overall homage to the Commando magazines I used to collect in my youth, to the werewolf effortlessly eviscerating several unfortunate Wehrmacht soldiers. I’m going to be contacting the authors after this review to see if I can get a copy for my living room, because it might be my favourite ever piece of cover art in all my years of reviewing books. As such, with my expectations set to a near fever-pitch, I jumped into the novel and got reading.
The novel follows a plot that begins millennia prior to the Second World War, and then jumps forward in small, incremental arcs as the conflict progresses – an intriguing narrative structure that I’ve only rarely seen used in the Horror genre, but which Watson and Jones deploy flawlessly to ramp up the atmosphere throughout the novel. The narrative opens with a band of Nordic pagans sacrificing some unfortunate Christian Missionaries in order to imbue a set of artefacts with occult power: seven of them, all of them acting together as a key to something hugely powerful and terrifying. Before the ceremony can be completed, the pagans are interrupted by heavily-armed rivals, as well something disconcertingly labelled as a ‘corpse ship’, and the ceremony remains incomplete. Rapidly travelling through the centuries to the late 1920s, we encounter Great War veteran and psychic Richard Trevelyan attending a lecture at the offices of the Society for Psychical Research. There, he meets Professor Oliphant-Caul, lecturer in matters esoteric and the occult, and forms a friendship and professional relationship that will be central to the creation of the titular Damocles organisation, which has come into being by the beginning of the Second World War. From there, Watson and Jones take us on a thrilling, action-packed and often quietly horrifying journey through the conflict, as the men and women of Damocles struggle to hold back the malign, occult forces that the Third Reich bring to bear against the Allies, and prevent the keys from being brought together and used to unleash powers that could end the war in the Reich’s favour.
It rapidly becomes clear that Damocles are fighting a war within a war, a shadowy, intense and incredibly high-stakes conflict that threads itself in and out of key battles and strategic theatres during the Second World War. Watson and Jones propel us through a narrative comprised of a series of interconnected short stories in which Damocles operatives find themselves on the defensive against both the human forces of the Reich, and the terrifyingly inhuman forces operating in the Reich’s shadowy footprint. The two authors slowly but surely increase the tension in the novel’s atmosphere, along with the consequences for the actions and counter-actions of the Damocles Group – what begins with a young academic ambushed by Fifth Columnists and a demonic Wild Boar from the Dutch East Indies, escalates to summoning undead beings from the ground and unleashing them against Nazi occupation forces, creepy psychic twins, and even werewolves in the icy depths of Murmansk. From the icy depths of Norway to the scorching heat of the North African desert, as well as desperate battles that even manage to reach the shell-pocked ruins of Berlin, Watson and Jones present us with an incredibly impressive variety of occult creatures and forces that Damocles finds itself confronting. The imagination and variety on display is often fascinating, and makes the novel all the more enjoyable as one waits to see what the authorial duo decides to confront Damocles operatives with this time.
It’s not just the manner in which the two authors deftly switch between different theatres of war that’s impressive, or the diversity of occult forces on display which speaks to the research the duo undertook, that makes Ragnarok Rising such an remarkable feat – it’s also the subtle yet powerful display of prose found within the novel. Jones and Watson are able to shift their writing style as required to match the setting of each story – whether it’s the quiet, atmospheric horror of hunting cultists in the backwood regions of the United States, with eerie, inhuman language echoing between trees and past gutted corpses, or the rapid-fire, pulse-pounding, muscular prose needed to reflect the intense action sequences of raids against Nazi targets, machine-gun fire raking sand and soil and explosions echoing all around. We are presented with the occult equivalents of Force 10 from Navarone and Attack on the Iron Coast, highly different scenarios, often within mere pages of each other, and I absolutely loved every minute of it. Alongside that marvellously inventive and reactive prose, we have a world that Jones and Watson fill with murky, indistinct and terrifying shadows, and then populate those shadows with chilling, unsettling and often outright terrifying creatures and inhuman figures that Damocles must fend off despite limited resources. The worldbuilding is absolutely first-rate, both complex and engaging, and the duo have succeeded in creating a world that I want to see more from as the series progresses. It’s also a world populated with fascinating human characters, especially on the Damocles side; there are numerous and varied characters, some that last and some that only have a short amount of time on screen, but all memorable and three-dimensional all the same. I was especially enamoured with Miller and Essler, two burnt-out veteran agents fundamentally altered by what Damocles had requested them to do; and their shared interactions in one chapter really caught my eye and made me want to see a lot more of the duo. As an aside, the fact that two of the characters come from the Special Service Brigade – a particularly obscure formation that were the precursors to the famous Commando formations – and not the Special Air Service or another more well-known force demonstrates the authors care for their subject and the level of research put into the novel. It’s a small thing, yet means a great deal to someone like me who has read countless occult titles set during the Second World War in which the authors couldn’t seem to be bothered to do even the minimum of research.
The Damocles Files: Ragnarok Rising is a remarkable achievement by Benedict J. Jones and Anthony Watson, a novel that somehow manages to harness the energy, fast-paced action and punchy plot-lines of the old Commando and Battle comics while artfully blending it together with skilful, often sublime prose, an intense atmosphere that deftly varies between stories, and the horrifying and unsettling sense of imagination that Jones and Watson have demonstrated in their previous titles. This literary fusion creates something unique to the horror genre, a kind of title that I haven’t ever quite seen before; it takes the ‘Occult Second World War’ subgenre and inverts it, shakes it up and invests it with a sense of scale, intensity and outright horror that has never been achieved before. I would christen it as something like ‘Commando Horror’, a unique subgenre that I’m thoroughly excited to see where Jones and Watson take it with future titles in the Damocles Files series. Jones and Watson have demonstrated with Ragnarok Rising that they at the absolute peak of their careers so far, and I foresee even more epic and unsettling horror titles from them in the future.