Ginger Nuts of Horror
Charlie Foxtrot returns
I’ll be honest and say that this isn’t my first encounter with the SNAFU series of books. Way back in the mists of time, the first book popped up in my Kindle recommendations and I thought “hmmmm…interesting. Let’s have a try.” So I did and found myself not exactly falling over myself to repeat the experience. The anthology came across as being skewed towards far too much filler and not enough killer stories for my liking. So you can probably understand that I approached this seventh anthology in the series from Cohesion Press with a bit of trepidation. Unfortunately what I experienced was a serious case of déjà vu.
SNAFU: Unnatural Selection is about military vs. mutated or unnatural creatures which, to be fair, sounds like a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, this anthology doesn’t support that assertion and I was left feeling fatigued and battle weary from an onslaught of average stories that outnumbered the good. Hell, I get that a lot of people like these military horror type stories but I think I probably came to this with some preconceived notions of stories akin to Predator or Aliens; taut and terrifying tales that managed to blend different genres to great effect. Maybe I should have paid the anthology blurb a bit more attention to understand what was coming down the pipe; “Think Greg McLean’s Rogue, Lake Placid, Eight-legged Freaks, Anaconda, Meg, Prophecy, and Deep Blue Sea” is what the pitch proudly proclaims. Yeah, that’s all well and good but if what you state on the tin doesn’t really match the contents then big warning signs start flashing. I understand that these are supposed to give you an indication of what the stories are aiming for but truth be told from my perspective these cultural references are a bit like fast food, fun for a little while but ultimately unsatisfying and forgettable.
It’s even worse when the reaction that is elicited from reading the contents doesn’t match any of those examples. Whilst reading this I was thinking more along the lines of things like Sharkoctopus, Dinocroc or any of the hilariously awful films pumped out by SyFy or The Asylum. More than a few stories in here felt like they had been stitched together rather than coming across as a seamless merging of military and horror genres. Others stories were engaging and enjoyable but these were unfortunately overshadowed by ones that were memorable for all the wrong reasons. I am guessing that Editors Amanda J. Spedding and Geoff Brown were aiming for feelings of excitement and terror but for the most part I sat shouting at my Kindle, pulling faces and laughing incredulously whilst scrawling notes along the lines of “Really?” and “WTF??” Again, I understand that this is a pulp type of anthology and should be taken as a bit of fun but I just found it very samey in terms of execution and delivery. There’s only so many times you can effectively read the same scenario before your brain disengages and your left fervently praying for the end to come. I appreciate that there’s a stack of people who love this type of story and lap it up but I for one am definitely not a member of that target audience.
So, what delights actually await you between the covers? Well, first out the gates is “Here There Be Monsters” by Dave Beynon that chronicles the disastrous results of an expeditionary force that decides to head off into uncharted territory. As an opener I did enjoy this tale of torture and duress. The atmosphere that is conjured from the swamp setting and its inhabitants made me feel like this was an off world retelling of Southern Comfort. This is followed up by Justin Bell’s “Unnatural” about a Special Forces team hunting down a genetic monstrosity that escapes from transit. Seeing as the blurb told me to think of specific movies, I’d say that this opens like Super 8 and closes like Lake Placid with a middle bit that’s a standard military thriller with this group called The Shadows getting slaughtered in the hunt. I guess you can construe from this that I liked it and yeah, it’s okay but it isn’t wildly original and I have read quite a few stories of genetic monstrosities being hunted down by special ops squads.
Next up is James A Moore & Charles Rutledge’s “The Weavers in Darkness” which starts out well as a SWAT team respond to disappearances at a power station and discover that the local arthropod population is getting out of hand but suddenly veers off course into Lovecraftian realms. It’s not a bad wee tale but it just felt like a story that had been bolted together and didn’t quite gel. Still, it’s nice to see one of the lesser known deities, Atlach Nacha, making an appearance even if I did feel like I had just watched the end of The Mummy Returns. I think the best way you can describe how I was feeling three stories in was that it is okay. Not great, not bad but travelling down the median strip into average land.
Unfortunately, the next two stories in the anthology did nothing to elevate my perception. In fact they did the complete opposite and I find myself staring at the screen in dumbfounded incredulity. A quick note to you writers out there, if you are going to open and close your story with the line, “this is bullshit” and what is sandwiched between them is precisely that then you know you have problems. I really didn’t enjoy “Kill Team Kill” by Justin A. Coates at all. I’ve tried to rationalise that line in the context of soldiers having to deal with a pair of Terminator Bears but the reaction I got from this story is “yeah, you are right. This IS bullshit!” The story involves a pair of cybernetic enhanced and genetically mutated attack grizzlies that run amok from a secret government lab and are hunted down by the aforementioned soldiers. So far, so SyFy film of the week. I appreciate that you are reading this and probably thinking “that’s a bit of a strong reaction” but I just found myself getting bored real quick with what felt like 15 minutes of descriptive gun porn vs. Terminator Bears. Oh yeah and there’s a gun robot in there too just in case you thought the main plot was too normal and needed extra zing. And yeah, I know that sounds OTT and you are probably going to say suspend your disbelief and enjoy it for what it is but by this point in proceedings I didn’t feel excited, thrilled or horrified. Instead I felt bored, listless and in this particular case, laughing my ass off at the sheer WTF-ness of it all.
It was a feeling exacerbated by the next story in the anthology, “Restless” by Lee Murray. By the time I finished it I was thinking about that scene at the start of Alien where Dallas, Lambert and Kane are making their way towards the derelict. Lambert has this gut feeling that they should turn back but Kane replies “we’ve got this far. We must go on. We have to go on.” This story just didn’t float my boat. Again, I felt like I was reading the literary equivalent of one of those aforementioned SyFy movies with a soupcon of the TV programmes Ultimate Force and Primeval. Restless involves a New Zealand military officer hunting down a Peluda in the catacombs beneath a French town alongside a French special unit and a plucky scientist for support. The story is okay I suppose and should be taken as escapist fun but by this point in the proceedings I wasn’t having fun and I definitely wanted to escape. I think the point I lost it and starting shouting at my Kindle was where the scientist discovered the larval infection spread by the dragon’s quills could be contained through a spillage of a can of Coke. I appreciate that it’s down to the chemical constitutes of the said can but by that point I had pretty much given up hope in the reading department and was looking for a way out.
Thank fuck then for Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon’s collaboration, “A Hole in the World.” It is one of the few stories herein that reads like a fully rounded and complete story that hasn’t been stitched together like a surgery performed by Captain Hook. The story follows a Spetznaz squad despatched to investigate the disappearance of a scientific team near a sinkhole. I have to say, considering the underwhelming nature of what preceded this, I felt like getting up and shouting “Hallelujah!” on finishing this. It’s well structured and balanced with an engaging set of characters and nicely sets up a clash between humanity and a new species called the Tumblers that has echoes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The story just felt like the most organic and developed story contained herein but alas this feeling wasn’t sustained. The next story firmly placed the anthology back into the land of B movies with “Cargo” by B. Michael Radburn. Again, this was okay once I had disengaged my brain and read it for what it was. So, if Nazi mutant crabs appropriated by the Americans for use in the Pacific theatre in World War Two sounds appetising then you’ll find lots to enjoy. Although you may wonder why scientists would put mutant crabs with an accelerated growth cycle that responds to temperature on a boat in the middle of a tropical sea. It kind of defies logic. Maybe I didn’t disengage my brain enough.
Thankfully the next story of sorcery and sieges from Richard Lee Byers counteracts the descent into disbelief with “Vermin.” Set in the harsh and unforgiving Crusades period, this follows the attempts of a Turkish force to dislodge an occupying force of knights led by Adalric. The Turkish leader, Zeki, turns to a mysterious nomad and strikes a dark bargain in an attempt to dislodge the intruders which predictably goes a bit Pete Tong. I did like this story as it brought a welcome relief from the onslaught of guns vs. claws that makes up the majority of this anthology. Much like the contribution of Golden and Lebbon, my reading pace was not interrupted with moments of “eh?” and “what the fuck?” and I found myself thoroughly enjoying this historical romp of magic, swords and scorpions. Sadly, the next story nudged the quality-o-meter needle back to average.
Set in the unforgiving wilds of North Africa, The Valley of Death by David W. Amendola is another excursion in SyFy land. This follows the disastrous fortune of a German convoy that decides to take a detour through the titular valley. I don’t know about you but if I saw that on a map or had the locals whisper about it in hushed tones I’d find another way. Which probably wouldn’t make for that great a story as “The Detour of Inconvenience” doesn’t quite have the same ring does it? So, discounting the literal warning signs, they head off to get slaughtered by a nest of giant mosquitoes that inhabit the region that have been mutated from leaky mustard gas bombs. What can I say? It’s okay; it passed the time and fulfils the anthology concept. To be honest, as I neared the end I was pretty much numbed to reading what is ostensibly the same plot over and over and over. My perception of the anthology is that there was very little variation as to what constitutes the military and there’s an over reliance on guns vs. beasties. Surely there are different armed services beyond just soldiers and there are different time periods beyond the one historical contribution from Byers? I was just finding the reading experience to be a real slog through formulaic stories where the horror and creature aspect seemed to be an afterthought and the filler to killer quotient was very high. Things almost get back on track with Michael McBride’s “Venom” which tracks a medical response team attempting to determine what has decimated a village in Sierra Leone. It is an extremely taut and exciting tale that reminded me of that film Outbreak and had me on the edge of my seat right up until the end where it started to mutate into Congo. But that’s a small aside for a story that, like Byers and the Golden and Lebbon collaboration, flows off the page and got me smiling for all the right reasons.
So, what can I say in summation then? Overall, SNAFU: Unnatural Selection is okay but it didn’t strike me as being particularly scary which for an anthology that pitches itself as horror is a big strike. That feeling is compounded by an over reliance on modern day depictions of what constitutes the military. Reading the same formulaic stories of soldiers with guns vs. beasties gets really old really quickly and it isn’t helped by the utter ludicrousness of some of the stories here. And before you decry that statement, I’ll state that this is just one opinion. I do like action and I do like horror. Unfortunately this anthology doesn’t service both genres well and feels like military stories with the horror as an afterthought. Again, my opinion but I can’t help but think this should have been called “Ballistics, B Movies and Bombs.”