Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #43:-
From Welsh publisher Pendragon Press we have two very different novellas. Neil Williams’ THE DERELICT (Pendragon Press pb, 53pp, £4.99) is very much in a traditional vein, even down to the framing device for the story in which a retired sailor who lives many miles from the sea while in his cups reveals to a drinking companion the details of his last, horrendous voyage.
The schooner Albin Grau is sailing from Wismar to Hartlepool with a cargo of asphalt, when second mate Gilling spies what appears to be a derelict, the brigantine Persephone, and even though it has no sail the ship manages to keep pace with them. The captain and some crew members investigate, finding the vessel abandoned and with no explanation as to what has happened to its crew. They decide to tow the ship to a safe harbour for the salvage money, but on the first night something from the Persephone crosses over to the Albin Grau and attacks members of the crew. This is the beginning of a desperate fight for survival, one in which the innocent sailors find themselves up against a supernatural nemesis.
And yes, as the name Persephone suggests, this is a variation on Dracula’s voyage to Whitby aboard the Demeter (see The Demeter by Martin Jones, which I reviewed in #36, for a similar treatment), though I don’t recall the V word ever being mentioned, only suggestion. Originality aside, this is an entertaining read, with well-drawn characters and a convincing verisimilitude when it comes to dealing with the nautical elements, bringing to mind the work of William Hope Hodgson. Williams invests his story with a daunting sense of the vastness of the ocean and how perilous the situation of men is when afloat on it in our wooden vessels, and implicit in that vastness is also a sense of the mysterious, that it may contain wonders and perils undreamt of by we landlubbers. The fight against the vampiric menace is excellently paced, with science and superstition in conflict as well, their disbelief making the more practical members of the crew victims, while those who pay heed to the old stories are better prepared, such as the Russian Dmitry. I could wish that perhaps it had been slightly less derivative of Dracula, but a minor quibble, as this story certainly stands on its own two sea legs and rewards the reader with thrills and spills aplenty. It was a good way to pass an hour or so, an engaging and compelling story.
From a tale with a distinctly nineteenth century feel to it, to one as thoroughly modern as the latest app in Mark West’s DRIVE (Pendragon Press pb, 90pp, £4.99). On a course in the town of Gaffney, one night David Moore finds himself at a party where he meets and befriends Natasha, offering her a lift back to her flat. En route they cross paths with three skinheads in a souped up Audi who are cruising the night streets in search of trouble. David and Natasha find themselves in the thugs’ sights and must flee down empty streets and onto the motorway pursued by the vicious Mal and his two mates. It’s a deadly game of cat and mouse, one in which every avenue of escape and source of help seem closed to them, and that ends when the couple are forced to take a one way road onto an isolated farm where, realising that the game has gone on too long and become far too serious for them to be allowed to live, David and Natasha must stand and fight.
There are echoes of plenty of horror films here, such as Duel and Roadkill, but West makes the material his own, ringing numerous changes on a familiar template, while we root for the good guys and hate the bad guys. He does an excellent job of drawing his characters, especially the three skinheads, who are far more than the two-dimensional thugs typically found in such fiction, and all the more menacing for that. There are some nice touches of detail, such as the indifference to their plight of the petrol station cashier and the blasé certainty of the farmer coming to deal with trespassers on his land in the middle of the night. Parts of it seem slightly contrived, such as Natasha’s convenient loss of keys and phone, David’s phone not working, the empty police station, all of which allow for the prolongation of the main narrative line, but there’s nothing that seems too far-fetched. The final showdown at the pig farm is handled with flair, with the skinheads ready to do anything to dispose of their victims and the author offering no certainty as to how this will all turn out. Kudos also to West for avoiding the cliché of battlefield romance: David is happily married and remains so even when staring death in the face.
There’s nothing here that is going to stand the horror genre on its head, but chances are if you’ve been out walking late at night and wondered about the people in a passing car, then Drive will strike a chord. It doesn’t come with any heavy meaning or much in the way of a subtext, but it is a crowd pleaser, a horror story set in the urban landscape and tapping into our fears of what could so easily go wrong in this setting, a finely tuned tale that delivers all the thrills it says on the tin. I loved it, and I also think it would make a splendid little film.