Book Review: The Sea Was a Fair Master by Calvin Demmer

“It is a difficult craft to write a piece of flash which has a start, middle and end; one which satisfies in the way a longer piece might. For those seeking to know how it’s done, Calvin Demmer has twenty-three of them for you.”


The Sea Was a Fair Master is the first collection by South African author, Calvin Demmer. Published through the Unnerving imprint and with an introduction by the talented wordsmith Gwendolyn Kiste, it’s immediately clear he means business.

A glance at the length of the book—just eighty-three pages—reveals that this is a collection of short shorts. A collection of flash fiction, to be precise. The danger with flash fiction, of course, is that more than a story, you end up with a vignette. A glimpse into a scene within a wider tale, if you like. It is a difficult craft to write a piece of flash which has a start, middle and end; one which satisfies in the way a longer piece might. For those seeking to know how it’s done, Calvin Demmer has twenty-three of them for you in these pages.

Demmer is principally a horror writer, if you examine the body of his work in both this collection and in various publications before this. In The Sea Was a Fair Master, however, we see him veering off into elements of sci-fi, noir, even touching romance. Many of these tales are coloured with a tinge of horror, but it’s clear that he has a wide armoury of techniques, beyond scares.

‘On the Seventh Day’ starts us off in the landscape of the title—the sea. Pirates at sea, mysteriously afflicted by an unidentifiable sickness that whittles them down, one by one.

‘Restroom Finds’ throws the reader into a post-apocalyptic world with a protagonist we are immediately sympathetic too. When he discovers a child in a truck stop bathroom, his good nature compels him to do the right thing.

‘Underneath’ is a tale of a couple in a new home. When their dog dies mysteriously, it sparks suspicion and trauma in an already strained relationship. This story is one that’s big on character, big on desperation and what happens when the straw breaks the camel’s back.

‘Yara’ is about an android, staring down the end of its existence but pressing on regardless because of its need for emotional satisfaction.

‘The Peeper’ is a noir tale, that begins with a routine visit by a detective to a key witness to thank her for her help in closing a case of a peeping Tom turned violent attacker. Of course, it’s not that simple.

‘Revenge of the Myth’ is a blood and guts horror themed around Santa Claus, which then leads us into ‘The One,’ a slasher romance which leaves the reader touched and disgusted in equal measure.

‘Fear the Clowns’ is told in a carnival setting. A young man there with his sweetheart. They find themselves stuck at the top of the ferris wheel, where the reveal smacks the reader straight between the eyes, while ‘West’ is another dose of noir that specifies its own unique justice.

The titular tale, ‘The Sea Was A Fair Master’ is a poetic story that places the reader back out on the ocean. An enemy ship is sunk, the men floundering in the water. What else might be in there with them?

‘Trashcan Sam’ imagines a world in which street cleaners run their own version of the Oscars, awarded for unique—and often grisly—finds they make while on their rounds. There is a dose of humour here, alongside the grimness.

‘Blind Teddy’ finds a family about to open their Christmas gifts, including one of unknown provenance, leading the reader into ‘Voodoo Child,’ a tale about why we shouldn’t let our children learn about voodoo dolls.

‘Letting the Dead Grow’ follows Officer Wesson on Halloween as he follows up on a likely crank call. What he finds growing in the cemetery is what he least expects. ‘The Snakes or the Humans?’ is the tragic tale of a man who would do anything for his niece. This includes sating her taste for revenge on a colossal scale.

‘Not Suicide’ sees Father Morris Fitzgerald hurriedly head for the spot where his niece had committed suicide. His urge to forgive this ultimate sin is all consuming. ‘Evolution = Crime’ is a treatise on exactly what the reader might expect. Does crime pay? In this case, unquestionably yes.

‘The Guests’ finds an Australian woman regaling her guests with her travel stories. Her husband, strangely absent, had protested and wished he hadn’t.

‘Like a Spanish Guitar’ is a classic cursed object tale. It takes the classic elements of such a tale, love, the forbidden object itself, temptation and the curse itself. ‘Hangman’ features a school janitor doing his rounds. He encounters an illicit after-hours class, called ‘Extreme English’ and wishes he had not.

‘Graves’ is a tale of tragedy, of errors unforgiven and the pain which that causes. ‘Noisy Neighbours’ is a great follow on to it, with a much lighter, almost comic feel, in spite of the ghastly reveal.

‘Sea Ate Nine’ is a great story to end on, mysterious and difficult to decipher until the satisfying, bloody end.

The Sea Was a Fair Master is a strong debut collection. Multi-faceted, yet always painted in dark shades, the stories complement one another while providing enough variety to entertain throughout. The format of flash fiction means that the collection can be read in a single sitting or over a couple days, or indeed as a two to three-minute blast on the bus.


Publisher: Unnerving
Paperback: 83 (pps)
Release Date: 5 June 2018

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