“Consistent quality and extraordinary variety”
SNAFU is the first anthology from Australian publishers Cohesion Press and is one that marks them out as an imprint to watch. Taking its name from an unofficial military acronym that you’re welcome to Google at your leisure, although be warned if you’re of a delicate disposition when it comes to colourful language, it collects sixteen stories from a mix of invited contributors and the successful writers from an open submission period.
Opening story ‘Blackwater’ by Neal F. Litherland is exactly the sort of story that springs to mind when you hear the term ‘military horror’. A Special Forces team are assigned the task of rescuing a young girl being held by a water-creature worshiping cult, but things go far from smoothly. It’s a well written start to proceedings with crisply described action scenes, a great sense of dread, and a richly evoked setting. There is some clichéd dialogue and the characters feel a little under-developed but with the pace the story moves at this is pretty forgivable. A good standard bearer for the anthology’s quality.
All fears that this may simply be a collection of stories about macho groups of soldiers getting the job done against a succession of other-worldly beings are quickly dispelled by second story ‘Little Johnny Jump-Up’ by Christine Morgan. A haunting ghost story set during the American Civil War, it serves to inform the reader that all styles and time periods of war are to be explored and that it’s not all about big explosions and heroics. There is a more serene pace to this story which enables the author to flesh out the members of the unit and show how each is affected by the appearance of little Johnny. There is a strong voice to the piece which lends an emotional resonance to the story and the setting is evoked without bogging the story down in excessive detail.
The strong start continues with Brian W. Taylor’s ‘Covert Genesis’ in which things take a turn towards the extra-terrestrial. The survivors of a downed military cargo plane encounter mind-controlling alien worms and realise they may not have had such a lucky escape after all. Another compellingly paced story with great action scenes; the only criticism here is that it felt like part of a bigger story.
Asked to name a military horror author and it’s safe to say the majority of readers would mention Jonathan Maberry’s name. His contribution here, ‘Bug Hunt’, features his character Joe Ledger from his best known series, but is self-contained enough that prior knowledge of the series isn’t required. A Special Forces team survive a helicopter crash only to come up against a pack of alien spiders. Although there are similarities in premise to the previous story it’s still very much its own tale with Maberry’s intense, pacey prose style much in evidence. The past-tense narrative viewpoint dilutes the suspense somewhat but it’s still a highly enjoyable romp of a story.
The anthology again changes gear with ‘Special Operations Interview PTO-14’ by Wayland Smith which is presented as the transcript of an interview between a Marine and a member of the Office of Strategic Services during World War Two in which they discuss an incident that may have involved the supernatural. It’s a well written example of how to use an historical record to recount a story, with the author threading just enough detail into the story to allow the reader to fill in the gaps.
SNAFU hits its peak with ‘Cold War Gothic’ by Weston Ochse, a riveting and inventive story set in San Francisco in July of 1969 as America, and the world, were watching events unfold as man first set foot on the moon. Ochse grabs the reader from the get-go with the appearance at a crime scene of the mysterious ‘Box man’ and doesn’t let go through a captivating story of nuclear scientists, secret weapons projects, and crazy Russians.
‘Making Waves’ by Curtis C. Chen manages to maintain the quality with an engaging story set within the claustrophobic confines of a nuclear submarine. A Lovecraftian tale of creatures of the deep with magic and teleportation thrown into the mix, the author creates a believable environment that makes it possible for the reader to assimilate these more outlandish elements, rather than them seem jarring. Characterisation is strong and the only criticism would be that the final section causes the story to rather peter out after the excitement of the final confrontation and seems only to be there to suggest that there are further stories to be told.
Next up is the longest story of the anthology, ‘The Fossil’ by Greig Beck, which ironically could perhaps benefit from an even greater length. Spanning a time period of many thousands of years and focusing on a trio of parties all either in possession, or in search, of the story’s McGuffin, it is not a story short on either ideas or action, but it can feel all a bit of a rush as the story jumps from point to point. It’s a very well written story, with great action and identifiable characters, and the different time periods are nicely distinguished from each other, but could have been even better given the added time to weave the narrative that a novel length would have provided.
Quality takes a dip with ‘A Tide of Flesh’ by Jeff Hewitt, a rather by-the-numbers zombie story in which the protagonist has to lead his men in the defence of their fort in a sweltering India. Uninspiring action scenes are further hampered by some clunky, phonetically-rendered dialogue that jars the reader from the story.
‘Death at 900 Meters’ by Tyson Mauermann is a really interesting story in which a routine operation takes a turn for the weird, though it is hampered somewhat by over-description. The author knows his stuff but the general reader doesn’t need to know the exact model of every weapon used, or to have every abbreviation spelt out, and it does impair the flow of the narrative.
Stories don’t get much more fun than Eric S. Brown’s ‘Holding the Line’, a short piece that fits into the world of his Bigfoot War series of novels. Knowledge of the previous instalments isn’t required as it is a self-contained snapshot of the larger war. A visceral delight.
‘Thela Hun Gingeet’ by writing duo David Benton and W.D.Gagliani confounds the expectation created by the familiar intro of a team in helicopters venturing beyond enemy lines to reveal itself as one of the most original stories on show. A creepy supernatural threat and description so rich you can practically hear the jungle around you further raise the story. The ending won’t be to every reader’s taste but as a comment on the futility of war it’s a successful one.
World War Two has been known to feature in its fair share of horror stories and ‘The Shrine’ by David W. Amendola provides a competent addition to the sub-genre. The twist here is to focus on the Austrian crew of a tank from the German 9th Panzer division fighting on the Russian front, rather than the more common viewpoint of the allied forces. The author does a great job of weaving the historical detail and the terminology into the story without any clunky info-dumps and the characters are well developed.
‘Ptearing All Before Us’ by Steve Ruthenbeck is a weird western tale that rather gives away its premise with the title but is still an entertaining story nonetheless. The author overcomes a shaky start (some grating exposition is used to set the time period) to produce a gripping narrative. The rather unlikeable protagonist, Jonathon Grant, also serves the story well, adding a complexity to the character that helps to ground the more fantastical elements of the story.
Kirsten Cross’ ‘A Time of Blood’ is the most horrific of the stories showcased here but it’s arguable that the visceral elements of its climax take away some of the power of the superbly written story up to that point. A little ambiguity may have made for a more satisfying comment on the horrors humans can visit upon each other during times of conflict.
The anthology finishes with novelette ‘Blank White Page’ from the always good James A. Moore. Another weird western tale it has the most tenuous of links to the theme in that the war in question, a small conflict between soldiers and the Indians they have been sent to drive away, is rather a sub-plot to the story. The main thrust of the tale is the arrival of Lucas Slate and his travelling companion Mister Crowley into Silver Springs, Arizona, in the search for answers to the strange affliction that seems to be affecting Slate. It is obviously a story that is part of a wider sequence, and although the story here is self-contained enough to work and Moore does an admirable job of hinting at the wider mythology of the world and prior events, it’s hard to consider the story entirely satisfying as presented here.
Editors Geoff Brown and Amanda J. Spedding deserve immense credit for both the consistent quality and extraordinary variety to the stories they have compiled around the theme of military horror. Preconceptions that the genre is all overly-macho soldiers and gun porn are emphatically disabused by a collection of writers, both new and established, wholeheartedly embracing the theme and producing short fiction of the highest quality.
Publisher: Cohesion Press
Release Date: 8 July 2014
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