Book Review: Hell Ship by Benedict J. Jones

“In Hell Ship, Benedict J. Jones brings fresh eyes to a common horror scenario, and he does so with enthusiasm and a clear love for the genre.”

Benedict J. (Ben) Jones is a name familiar around the UK horror scene. His is a familiar face at conventions, in addition to having a number of short stories in various anthologies and a previous novella, Slaughter Beach. Yet he is also equally—if not better—known as a writer of gritty crime thrillers. His Charlie Bars series currently runs to one novella and a handful of shorts, plus two novels. Then there are his weird west stories. The man certainly isn’t content to rest in one genre. His latest book is a firm return to the horror genre—naturally—though it finds him mixing the historical with the horrific. So, without further delay, let us all board the Hell Ship.

They say “worse things happen at sea”; in the case of Jones’ novella, a sane person would be hard pressed to imagine much worse. Opening with a bloody and violent prologue, we are given a stark indication of the story’s intent. A group of allied sailors—mostly British—are being held captive aboard a Japanese ship, the Shinjuku Maru. Every so often, ten of them are taken from the cargo hold by their captors. It soon becomes apparent for what awful purpose. Jones shows the stark brutality of his antagonists in only a few paragraphs. Yet the carnage is not there merely for the sake of it, and neither is it over-described. Instead, he makes the violence all the more affecting by giving us some solid characterisation in the prisoners, then describing their fate in stark, sober language. We are also not entirely sure exactly why the Japanese sailors are doing what they’re doing, though it does speak to real-life historical atrocities. But Jones gives it a little genre spin by adding in a mysterious priest. It’s a great opener to the book, yet also manages to wrong-foot the reader, who might now predict non-stop blood and gore…

Instead, the next few chapters follow a new group of hapless survivors whose vessel has been torpedoed. Nine souls—though one is badly injured and lies in feverish senselessness—on a small sailing boat (a “jolly”) awaiting hopeless rescue. And this is where the novella and Jones both truly shine. Instead of manoeuvring these unfortunate people into an even more dreadful situation straight away, he takes the time to build character and relationships. It’s a smart move and handled with real depth and skill. In fact, it might be argued that more space could have been given to this, as initially, the rapid introduction of nine (or eight, really) people is a shade confusing. But this is a tiny gripe. Soon, personalities emerge, as do frictions, loyalties, and social class tensions. In particular, there are wonderful dialogues between a rather “green” officer, and a hardy, old salt-type, gruff and clearly no stranger to violence. It’s a dynamic that sets up an interesting thread later in the book. But for now, we float aimlessly with our characters, as they succumb to the hardships of being adrift with little food, water, or the comforts we take for granted. These early scenes are wonderful, recalling, in a way, Alfred Hitchcock’s excellent film Lifeboat. But of course, the horror must come…and come it does.

Nearly three weeks later, they encounter the Shinjuku Maru, as it looms at them from a bank of fog. And they make the fateful decision to go aboard, when no-one answers their hails. Again, Jones teases out his horror rather than showing it full on, at least initially. Once set up in the galley, the group decides to explore the seemingly empty ship, though they do so in twos and threes, not succumbing to horror-movie cliché. And it’s for a sensible reason; if any Japanese sailors are still aboard—hiding, waiting for some reason—better to encounter them with a companion. But they meet no-one. So, they settle into their new shelter, while trying to get the radio working and expanding their searches. Weapons are found, as is food; more importantly to some, alcohol and cigarettes are procured. And for a brief moment, there is contentment. But of course, they are not alone, and soon enough the horror begins to manifest.

Subtly at first, we are shown hints and portents; a dark muck that runs through the pipes, odd smells, feelings of dread, strange voices heard over the radio. And then more overt threats as the survivors come into contact with the monstrous, some of them even succumbing to the pervading evil. There are some nice horror images that recall, amongst other things, snippets of John Carpenter’s films, The Thing, and In the Mouth of Madness. And the biggest influence is arguably Event Horizon, though Jones makes the concept all his own. He also manages to wrong-foot the reader on several occasions while giving expected—nay, demanded—horror thrills. The previously mentioned dynamic between a working-class character and a middle- to upper-class officer goes completely against expectation. And is all the better for it, avoiding what otherwise might have been a clichéd pairing. Then there’s the way another character’s fate plays out, one who is being consumed by the evil on board. There are numerous other instances, and it’s both refreshing and a delight to read, even in the midst of growing terror. A terror that is all the more affecting because—without even being fully aware of it—we’ve come to enjoy the company of these people, to care about their predicament. This is the true strength of Hell Ship; it’s three-dimensional players, brought to life in authentic dialogue and heroic yet all-too-human action. As the story progresses and the horror mounts, we fear for the protagonists; yet we know it’s not so much a case of who will survive, but whether anyone will. And it’s the hallmark of a great read that we wish they all would, even when we know most won’t.

In Hell Ship, Benedict J. Jones brings fresh eyes to a common horror scenario, and he does so with enthusiasm and a clear love for the genre. The writing is engaging and expansive, yet clear and precise. He’s also done his research, as much of the incidental information feels authentic and accurate. If there could be any real complaint, it’s that the book could have been so much longer, but perhaps that’s simply the hallmark of all great stories; you never want them to end. And in Hell Ship, it’s a journey we’d gladly take, over and over, into whatever dread dimensions it takes us. Another excellent release from The Sinister Horror Company, and another fantastic novella from Jones.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: The Sinister Horror Company
Paperback: 100 (pps)
Release Date: 1 August 2018

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