Filler content with a sinister grin

These reviews appeared in Black Static #31:-


Sinister Grin is a relatively new US press dedicated to publishing “Horror that’ll carve a smile on your face…”

Okay, I can relate to that.

SACRIFICE (SG pb, 177pp, $13.99) was my introduction to the work of Wrath James White, a writer with a reputation for extreme, uncompromising horror, and on that score it certainly delivers, though at the same time revealing other facets to White’s oeuvre. It’s the story of Las Vegas Homicide Detective John Malloy, who hates the weird cases that inevitably find their way to his door, as for example the death of a man called Bruce, inexplicably attacked by his previously amiable Great Dane, then torn apart and consumed by every animal in the vicinity. Further attacks in a similar vein take place, with animals and even children turning against innocent bystanders. Concurrent with all this is an investigation into a series of child abductions, and the two cases appear to be linked, with all trails leading back to voodoo priestess Delilah.

I have mixed feelings about Sacrifice. It has a borderline pulp sensibility to it, with a fast paced plot and plenty of wet work for the dedicated gore hound, and all that works well, but the prose isn’t particularly sophisticated or vivid, falling into the competent rather than literary bracket, White mostly doing the minimum necessary to keep his story jogging along. Too much of the plot remains unsatisfactorily vague, with no real explanation for the thugs who attend Delilah and appear to be her gaolers every bit as much as security, while it’s hard to accept that parents act as those here do, or that the police don’t investigate them more thoroughly, and there are elements from a previous adventure straying into the plot, with the result that we end on something of a cliff-hanger note, one that doesn’t really satisfy.

Where the book does score is in the characterisation and the moral dilemmas that arise out of the story. There’s a striking contrast between Malloy and his partner Rafik, one afflicted with trust issues and simply using women for pleasure, remaining emotionally aloof, while the other is desperate to reconcile the often conflicting demands of his marriage and job. At the book’s heart are questions as to how much the end justifies the means. Delilah is essentially a good person, taking away the pain of suffering people, but she mostly ignores the consequences of her actions, and it’s only when she gets involved with rape survivor April that they are brought home to her and she begins to question herself. Similarly for the detectives involved in the case, there is a question mark over how far they are prepared to stray outside legal procedure to see justice done, whether civilians can be dragged into the investigation and rules flouted, and for Malloy personally there is a curse of knowledge, questions as to how much he should reveal to a colleague about her own situation, whether she is ready to learn the painful truth. Codes of conduct are of the essence, and while White doesn’t use the term evil as such, at times it seems to me that he is exploring its implications – children are both victims in this story and also mindless killers, acting in cohort with the animals when human flesh is torn apart, while the adults, although tempted, are able to resist the allure of destruction because they can make moral distinctions and show restraint. Innocence in the context of this story is not necessarily a positive attribute.

Nate Southard will be familiar to Black Static readers from his story ‘Going Home, Ugly Stick in Hand’ in #20. Short novel DOWN (SG pb, 141pp, $10.99) is set in 1992 and opens with cameo scenes of hit band The Frequency Brothers pre-concert, the author deftly introducing his cast of characters, then cuts straight to the aftermath of their private jet going down in isolated forest. With both pilots dead and some of the passengers badly wounded, things are looking grim, and they get much worse when a Sasquatch like monster turns up to attack them, trying to break into the wreckage of the plane where the survivors take refuge. But this is only the beginning, as deep in the forest something much worse is waiting, an ancient evil of which the monster is only an avatar.

There’s a lot here that seems genre standard – the interesting dramatis personae, each member of which comes with their own personal concerns and private intrigues, the monster that stalks them, the inexplicable trap in which they find themselves, and the end twist which hints that things haven’t been resolved at all, despite their vanquishing of the monster. Southard handles it all well, with finely drawn characters, who are both engaging and believable, because of their foibles as much as in spite of them – druggie Conner, feisty Dani, the control freak Potter, and all the others – so that their interaction drives the plot forward. His monster is suitably frightening when considered at the Sasquatch level, but then becomes even more sinister with the revelations of the book’s final chapters, and this is where Southard truly comes into his own, adding a novel twist to the material, one that brings to mind the work of King in novels such as The Tommyknockers and Desperation, with the suggestion of a truly alien menace, and further cranking up the tension by showing that even the good people are going to die, that doing the right thing is no guarantee of survival and our best efforts can be nullified by cruel circumstance. It’s a bitter and salutary lesson, wrapped up and sugar coated in a gripping story.


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