Book Review: Winter Holiday by Chad A. Clark

Winter Holiday is a fast-paced, satisfying read which recalls those classic stories from horror’s heyday yet also has a modern sensibility.”

 

Dark Minds Press is a small UK outfit run by Ross Warren and Anthony Watson who have, since their inception only a few years ago, put out some excellent anthologies, collections, and novellas. Winter Holiday by Chad A. Clark is the latest in their ongoing series of stand-alone novellas (linked by the incredible artwork of Peter Frain), following on from Rich Hawkins’ Ruin and Laura Mauro’s Naming the Bones (reviewed on this very site). But can this latest entry—the shortest so far—keep the quality of its predecessors?

The premise of this slim volume is a relatively simple one. Bestselling author Peter Hamilton (not based on real science fiction author Peter F. Hamilton) sets out on his annual winter sojourn to a remote house in the mountains. Here, he will try and harness his muse to recharge his creative drive, isolated and surrounded by snow. Yet this year, he will be stalked by something which has been born unnaturally in blood and rage, a monster with only one impulse—to kill.

So far so good. It’s a deceptively simple premise. The story begins innocuously enough—following a brief prologue describing the birth of the monster—with Peter buying supplies from the nearby town. He has a number of pleasant interactions with the townsfolk, all designed to give a little back-story and exposition. And it works, very well. It comes across naturally and logical in the context of each scene. We are presented with snapshots of why Peter makes this pilgrimage every year, of his relationship with his writing and the success it’s brought. And yet none of it feels rambling or unnecessary. Interspersed with these main passages are further interludes following the monster as it violently stalks the area to which Peter is travelling (and these sections show a decision in the narrative that is masterful; more later).

Of course, it isn’t long before we get to the action of the story and after a bit of scene-setting letting Peter settle in. There is a real sense of jeopardy and tension in these moments, coupled with a deliberate tone of the uncanny. It’s this latter which gives a simple monster story a bit more depth and intrigue. And even though Clark has shown in earlier passages that the beast is unequivocally really, he still follows the logical path of examining Peter’s state of mind. The author, quite naturally, wonders on more than one occasion if he’s going insane, if the isolation has finally made him snap. This is the masterful story-choice mentioned above; delving into what would be a likely state of mind of someone in this situation, all while letting the reader know the creature exists.

Clark keeps his readers on their toes, pushing Peter—and them—through trial after trial of pain and threat. He ramps up the tension causing us to wonder where the story is going, how it might end. And throws in some hints and clues which begin to make more sense as the novella draws to its conclusion. Without spoiling it, the end is a very interesting—and almost left-field if it weren’t for the earlier signs—one which flips the tone in a hugely unexpected direction. It also leaves the story open to continue in other ways, even while finishing it in a satisfying way.

Whilst there are moments where the writing could benefit from a bit of a tighter edit, it never distracts from the story. And there are also some very nice passages and sentences, showcasing Clark’s ability to convey detailed imagery with simple, straightforward writing. Winter Holiday is a fast-paced, satisfying read which recalls those classic stories from horror’s heyday yet also has a modern sensibility. And it more than deserves to sit alongside the other novellas in Dark Minds’ range, holding its own in snowy, bloody excitement and terror. Excellent stuff, and should be on every horror fan’s shelf.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Dark Minds Press.
Paperback: (77 pps)
Release Date: 18 January 2018.

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