The Damocles Files Volume II: Seeds of Destruction
Anthony Watson and Benedict J Jones
The Damocles Files series, from veteran horror authors Anthony Watson and Benedict J Jones, is my new gold standard for occult horror set during the Second World War. Together, the two authors have created a highly atmospheric, action-packed and intriguing take on the old trope of occult conflict between the Allied and Axis powers during the globe-spanning conflict that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading and reviewing over the past year. The series opened with novella Wings in the Darkness, which introduced the Damocles organization working under the auspices of the Ministry of Information, and its small band of British and European agents banding together to try and prevent the Axis powers from decisively turning the tide of the war by using occult and supernatural weapons. The first full-length novel in the series, Ragnarok Rising, followed the Damocles agents as they fought their way through occupied Europe, the Middle East and even parts of North America in their secretive, unyielding conflict against the German Reich, with Watson and Jones openly demonstrating the physical and mental cost of defeating the Nazis and their occultists. Now the second novel in the series, Seeds of Destruction, turns to the other side of the world and shows how Damocles and its American allies took the fight to Imperial Japan in a similar manner.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Damocles Files books and found myself completely and utterly invested in the worldbuilding and overarching atmosphere that Jones and Watson have created in the series so far. As such, while I have a general policy on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer of not reviewing sequels to a novel, or the next part in a series – primarily because it becomes increasingly difficult to describe what occurs in terms of the plot without comprehensively spoiling both the current title being reviewed, and the previous book it is following – I knew that I had no choice but to make an exception for Seeds of Destruction. That decision was made even easier by the incredible cover art for the novel, created by supremely talented illustrator 77 Studios and once again evoking that classic style utilised by war comics like Commando, Battle and Air Ace that I remember from my (ever-increasingly distant) childhood. The back-cover blurb for the novel intrigues the reader with descriptions of Damocles and their American counterparts waging war throughout the Pacific Theatre in an attempt to stop the Japanese government from unleashing occult weapon even more dangerous than the one their German counterparts tried to use. From occupied Shanghai to the Philippine jungle, and the mountains of North-East India to remote, isolated temple in Japan, the academics and psychics of Damocles face terrible sacrifices and bloodshed in order to try and save the world.
Intriguingly, Seeds of Destruction follows its predecessor by opening not in the 1940s, but instead thousands of years before – though this time in Cambodia and not a Nordic country. Following a trio of prehistoric hunters, we see them encounter both natural dangers like sabre-toothed cats – and entirely unnatural and inhuman dangers like eerie, bulbous flowers that spit out strange, choking dust – and the deformed humans that are the result of inhaling the dust. Our curiosity as readers piqued, Watson and Jones then promptly move forward to the 20th Century, and specifically Shanghai in late 1940, as war rages in Europe but not yet in the Pacific. It’s a febrile setting complex with emotions and heavy with atmosphere, with Japanese troops occupying the city but not yet the International Settlement and Concession filles with Western diplomats and citizens. Into this geopolitical powderkeg step a number of suspicious individuals with dubious intentions – including fraudster turned private detective turned wheeler-dealer Paul Cotton, who’s hired to find two old men – seemingly academics – in the lawless, Japanese-occupied outskirts of Shanghai. Someone wants the two men found – and more importantly the papers and books they were carrying. Cotton finds them – and with them a huge amount of trouble that blends dangers both human and inhuman as a result. From Shangahi Jones and Watson move the narrative to London to show the fallout from Cotton’s success, and from there to London to show the fallout from Cotton’s success, and then onto a variety of locales both well behind the front lines – and just as often at the forefront of the fighting. From a isolated coastwatcher slowly losing his sanity, to an ill-fated expedition into a remote and isolated section of north-east India, and remote islands in the Pacific, the story weaves and winds throughout the Pacific and Far Eastern theatres, occult and body horror blending together as the lethal concoction discovered and weaponised by the Japanese is first tested on civilians and prisoners of war, before being unleashed on the Allied forces. It all culminates in an explosive and thrilling finale, with the fate of the entire war in the hands of a few injured and desperate Damocles operatives as they enter the very gates of hell itself in an attempt to prevent the Japanese plan from dooming the entire planet.
Seeds of Destruction follows the format successfully established by the authors with Ragnarok Rising, giving us a series of extended vignettes that cross time and space across the Pacific Theatre as the conflict unfolds, characters and locations criss-crossing and plot points blending together to create a cohesive narrative. Each vignette is keenly written and thoughtfully plotted, with heaps of occult and human warfare to keep things moving along; and unlike many titles in the genre, Seeds of Destruction (once again mirroring its predecessor) doesn’t shy away from demonstrating the physical and mental cost of waging this occult conflict against the Axis powers. It is made incredibly clear that this is a game of nations and the occult, in which individual lives mean almost nothing, and can – and often must – be expended in order to prevent innumerable more lives being extinguished as a result of inaction or empathy. The two authors continue to demonstrate that one of the greatest benefits of their collaboration is the ability to generate an absolutely superb and thoroughly engaging sense of atmosphere in all of the settings found throughout the novel. To take just one example of this, in the early chapter set in Shanghai, the two authors craft an absolutely stellar replica of the tense, suspicious atmosphere to be found in that city during the Japanese occupation, but before the outbreak of hostilities with the Western powers; a deeply tense, febrile and unsettling sensation in which everyone is watched by everyone else and the potential for violence is implied in every glance and footstep. It’s an absolutely superb element of the novel and does so much to draw the reader in, whether it’s tense espionage, combat between the Allies and Imperial Japanese forces, or the agents of Damocles waging their desperate war against the occult forces unleashed during the conflict.
That brilliant sense of atmosphere meshes well with the deft characterization found throughout the novel, with the two authors managing to create surprisingly engaging and three-dimensional characters despite most only appearing for a particular vignette, and each character feels distinctive and fleshed-out even if only being found across a scant handful of pages in the novel. I was particularly fond of Edgar Case, working class man turned academic, determined to prove himself the superior of his Oxbridge colleagues in Damocles, and his burgeoning relationship with Helen Toynbee, powerful psychic and mind-reader who acts as one of Damocles most powerful secret weapons – their relationship felt like one of the most compelling in the novel, slowly evolving as time went on, and the last few chapters in the novel were genuinely touching in regards to the two of them. Sinister, duplicitous agents from Office 49 of the American Office of Strategic Services appear towards the end of the narrative, cooperating with Damocles while making it clear that they have their own agenda that only rarely brushes up against the concerns of the British organisations, and I certainly hope that Watson and Jones are already planning a spin-off involving Office 49 and its shadowy Cold War schemes. With its focus on the Pacific/Far East theatres, we also get a welcome addition to the cast of characters with Nikhil Vaswani, academic and Indian Nationalist, and recipient of frequent casual and often brutal racism at the hands of the white British superiors he is reluctantly forced to work with to investigate the Japanese plot to end the conflict in their favour. It’s good to see Jones and Watson breaking away from the trappings and tropes of the Commando comic aesthetic to demonstrate the realities of life under the British Empire for so many of its non-white subjects, particularly as Vaswani comes across as an original and engaging character that isn’t needlessly sacrificed for a cheap shock or to advance the plot.
Seeds of Destruction is another superb piece of occult military horror that results from the genius collaboration between Anthony Watson and Benedict J. Jones, and is one of those rare sequels that is not just as good as its predecessor, but actually even more impressive and engaging. The blend of action, espionage and Lovecraftian horror is as thrilling, fast-paced and action-packed as that found in Ragnarok Rising, but also feels more fluid, assured and confident than in the first novel in the series. That’s a sign, I believe, that Watson and Jones have found their pace for the series and are now able to fully deliver on the potent potential found in the premise and setting. Seeds of Destruction is one of the finest military horror novels I’ve ever read, as well as one of the best occult horror novels. In my interview with the two authors, published recently on the blog, they mentioned that they’re working on a third volume in the Damocles Files series, as well as a potential short story collection. These two titles cannot get here quickly enough, and I genuinely cannot wait to see what the duo come up with next – whatever it is, you can be sure I’ll be reading and reviewing it.