What’s in the bomb? WHAT’S IN THE BOMB???
Legends say a dead god is buried under the stone city of Ishcairn, protecting its inhabitants by dashing enemy fleets into the jagged coast of Craeburn. Adjunct professor Corrie Ecksley doesn’t believe any of that, but she knows from her work excavating nearby burial sites that the ancient Craeburn people believed it enough to name the city after their dead god, Ish.
When the ripples of a great war finally reach Craeburn’s shores, a terrifying new weapon is unleashed on the city that not even Ish can deter. A bomb that tears souls from bodies, driving anyone who witnessed the blast insane. But it is not the living that Corrie fears. Displaced spirits are hungry for a body, and care not if it already plays host to a soul.
No bullets can stop them, no walls are thick enough to keep them out.
No help is coming.
No one left but Corrie to stop the carnage, if she even can.
The man’s head snapped towards me with an inhuman quickness. He shambled closer, his eyes pinpricks of that horrible violet light that I’d seen while on the ferry. It hurt to look at, though the utter despair on the man’s face compelled me to watch as he emerged from the fog. His body was little more than a silhouette, unravelling in dark wisps of smoke with his every step. His glowing eyes were fixed on mine, pleading for help that I could not provide. They seemed to burn my vision, leaving behind smears of light, the way a flame would if one stared at it for too long. This was no man, not anymore.
Wow. Cal Black hits like a heart attack. This was my first introduction to the Canadian author’s work – previously known for her gaslamp fantasy western series Legends and Legacies – and it’s a bite-size but gloriously memorable hit of disturbing cosmic horror with excellent character work, haunting scenes and one of the most inventive horror concepts of the year.
We begin the story with little information and a tense, atmospheric set-up: archaeologist (I think?) Corrie Ecksley is travelling to the ancient city of Ishcairn, to take up her post as professor at the university. Craeburn is at war, as part of a wider regional conflict, and as Corrie arrives by boat to Ishcairn, the enemy unleashes a deadly aerial bomb. The next think Corrie knows, she is running for her life from the inhabitants of the city, who have been driven mad, their souls torn from their bodies. So begins a one-woman mission to find out what just what the enemy has done that takes her deep under the city – where legends say a dead god is buried.
What immediately struck me – and if you’re not a gamer, a thousand pardons you may skip this paragraph – is how this short but memorable novella proceeds like the opening of a horror video game. The arrival by ship; the mystery affliction of the citizens of a creepy city; the single protagonist; a terrifying journey through the deeper layers of the city attempting to solve the mystery of what the hell went wrong. It gave me strong Bioshock/Dead Space vibes (and certain cathedral/priest bits, Resident Evil 4 vibes) and this, perhaps, partly explains why I enjoyed it so much. This not a long story, and the way Black makes the most of this simple gaming premise to terrify you, introduce a bunch of lore and get some pinpoint character work in is an example of a great author at work.
What I have to empathise though is how truly terrifying this book is. The bizarre affliction of the citizens – which I won’t go into too much detail about because half the fun is working out what manner of devilry is going on – is constantly creepy, at times reminiscent of the 1970s open-mouthed wail of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and, in one particularly shiver-inducing scene, giving off vibes of the long-limbed creatures in Dead Space (gamer talk again, sorry). The fact that you can catch this affliction leads to a sinister edge of body horror, too. Then, as our protagonist Corrie descends into the catacombs of the city seeking answers, it develops the classic ominous vibes of cosmic horror, including a monstrously eery priest-gathering scene and the classic descent into the bowels of the eldritch lair:
Drawing level with the gathered holy men, I heard their voices split into discordant tones. Some had already collapsed, lying on the steps to the altar with their arms still outstretched, lips mumbling the words of their chant. To a man, their eyes had been bleached white, made all the more disconcerting by the brilliant red that rimmed them from the affliction’s bloody tears.
Sheer terror aside, this also has one of the most inventive (maybe the most?) horror ideas I’ve read this year. Black gives us clues, introducing some heavy eldritch lore, but then when she finally discovers the bomb site for the weapon that has so devastated the city and discovers the truth of its origins, the reveal is such a brilliant concept that I genuinely, not figuratively, sat back in my chair and silently applauded the author (I do this a lot with books though, we can’t all be sane).
But for all that I’ve been yammering on about the horror and the invention, another pleasing thread of the story is how the character work creeps on you amid the terror. Corrie has a husband lost, presumed dead, to the war, and for a while you think this is going to go into traditional grief territory; but Black makes a pleasingly counter-intuitive swerve on this plotline, and soon we realise that this is not the story we assumed. Corrie is, above all else, someone dedicated to the academic truth and, even more so, to saving the city, and this refusal to follow traditional character arcs gives this novella a spiky edge to it.
The end of the book is completely bonkers. I didn’t really understand it – have you ever read a cosmic horror ending that you understood, be honest – but I loved its ambition and vagueness.
Overall, this horror novella is short, sharp and so chilling your friends will store beer inside you. Cal Black writes cosmic horror like she has one day left to live, and I am foaming at my eldritch mouth at the thought of what this author has next in store, whether in the fantasy or the horror genres. One of the horror reads of the year.