Full disclosure – my wife received a complementary copy of the eBook, which I am using as the basis of this review.
SNAFU is, as the title says, a collection of horror stories with a military theme, which made a small splash when it was announced on Indiegogo.com in late 2013. It’s a professional-looking, easy-to-read book, with some nice line art inside (though not always near the stories the pieces illustrated). The real meat of any anthology, though, is the stories. Let’s take a look at them, shall we?
Blackwater, by Neal F. Litherland follows a team of private military contractors as they engage an enemy that will be familiar to fans of the Cthulhu Mythos. It’s decently written, with an introduction that efficiently establishes the requisite tension, but the quality seems to drop off as the conclusion approaches and the plot starts to rely on perhaps over-used tropes. If you’ve read Greg Stolze’s Mask of the Other, or any of the Delta Green fiction line, you’ve seen this sort of thing done before, and better.
I’d ding Christine Morgan’s Little Johnny Jump-Up for the same thing, if I weren’t won over by the atmosphere and wonderfully American Gothic language. It’s a joy to read, especially the narrator’s comments about fresh socks in wartime. It’s also a nice example of a horror story where the supernatural threat is menacing someone other than the protagonist, but is no less frightening for that.
Covert Genesis, by Brian W. Taylor reads like the introduction to a survival horror novel. The action certainly doesn’t let up much. I wasn’t sure what to make of the antagonists – they seem a little too familiar to several of the protagonists, and there’s no explanation of why there are so many of them, or why they have suddenly begun to spread so fast. It seems like there’s more of this story needing to be told before it’ll stand on its own.
Read together, Jonathan Maberry’s Bug Hunt and Wayland Smith’s Special Operations Interview PTO-14 provide a nice point/counterpoint on the subject of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. The first follows the head of a special forces team attempting to re-join his unit and recapture a bioweapon while simultaneously dealing with terrorists and something less human. The second is the transcript of a marine’s debriefing after seeing something he’d rather not have on a Pacific island in World War II.
Both are fun to read, though Bug Hunt suffers from overuse of single-sentence impact lines.
And this one.
Several together, usually.
And just when you think Maberry’s done, there’s often another.
Cold War Gothic, by Weston Ochse, reads like a Tim Powers story (viz. Declare or Three Days To Never). This, in my view, is an unadulterated Good Thing. The creepiness comes right from the first scene, and establishes that, as bad as the antagonists might be, the protagonists aren’t pure as the driven snow either. I loved the mention of details like foreign workers attempting to hide statuettes in the structure of the Transamerica Pyramid.
The trouble for me came from the inclusion of a particular creature cut straight out of Dungeons and Dragons and pasted in to the story. I had a hard time keeping myself immersed after that. I could handle the fact that there was no explanation for why most of the supernatural world seems to have aligned itself with the Soviet Union, but D&D monsters? Not so much. Still, it’s otherwise a well-crafted tale that I’d recommend as an example of how to do it right.
Curtis C. Chen’s Making Waves adds magic and slumbering things beneath the sea to World War II, and uses them to provide an alternate explanation for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also makes good use of gender and racial themes. Plus, submarines. I’m actually surprised that it’s the only submarine story in the book, given how easy it is to make that environment tense and creepy.
The Fossil, by Greig Beck… needed another pass by an editor. The story is fine, as far as it goes (although it’s much more science-fiction than horror). It’s just that it was very, very% clearly set in the United States, then clumsily re-drafted to move it to Germany. Some names were changed, but the details are all wrong. German Kriminalpolizei%% don’t use ‘Detective’ as a rank, there’s no Department of Homeland Security (and even if there was, it wouldn’t be allowing an American special forces team free reign to act the way they do), and there’s no ‘Wilson street’, complete with ‘brownstones’ anywhere near Berlin. Given that I established all of the above within a minute and a half of hitting Wikipedia’s front page, I’m a little upset that neither the author nor the editor felt it necessary to do the same. For people who aren’t as bothered by all of this as me, there’s time travelling aliens.
Tide of Flesh, by Jeff Hewitt, though, is well worth a look. It absolutely nails the right tone, language and pacing, and caps it all off with the horror of facing zombie monkeys when all your guns are single-shot flintlocks. It also doesn’t waste time trying to establish the reasons behind the events of the story, or lingering too long in dénouement.
Death at 900 Metres, by Tyson Mauermann, seems to be revisiting the same ground in modern-day Fallujah, but it turns into much more of a ‘hunters hunted’ story. Of all the stories in the book, this one gives me the greatest feeling that the author spent some time in the forces – Marine Corps gear, procedures, even slang are all described in loving detail, sometimes at the expense of overall pacing. This may sound petty, but by this point in history we’ve all seen footage of US forces in Iraq, and when a man picks up a rifle we can picture it without a description of it as “an M40A5 chambered in .308” being particularly helpful.
Holding the Line, by Eric S. Brown, is a competently-written, very short story with quite a silly premise, though the characters at least have the decency to acknowledge this to each other. That said, it plays the notion completely straight, which goes a long way towards making the situation horrifying instead of ridiculous.
David W. Amendola’s The Shrine is another story that could have come straight out of a Delta Green anthology. This time, the action is centred in the Ukraine in World War II. It reads like part of a much larger story – like one of the vignettes that make up Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, but doesn’t suffer for this. The characters, in particular, are well-written, and their sense of priorities makes them feel like an experienced unit operating in hostile territory should. What do you do when your tank platoon finds itself with a convoy of SS vehicles full of dead men on its hands? Nick their fuel, of course! After all, it’s more use to you than to them and if you don’t do it, the enemy will…
I was pleasantly surprised by Steve Ruthenbeck’s Ptearing All Before Us. I was ready to dismiss it as silly, along the same lines as Holding the Line, (the spelling of the title kind of gives the game away about the antagonist) but was sucked in by the excellent use of language, the attention given to foreshadowing and the nicely anti-heroic and unlikeable main character. There’s also a nice stinger at the end (not really a twist, as it’s winked at earlier for fans of obscure American military trivia) which establishes how truly, monumentally screwed the characters are.
A Time of Blood, by Kirsten Cross, is another high point in the collection. It’s at its best when it focuses on the evil that humans dish out to each other, and the scars it leaves on the survivors, rather than the supernatural evil that hunts them. In fact, if it had left the existence of things that go bump in the night ambiguous, it would have been hands down my favourite of the collection. As it is, it’s still an excellent read, especially for those who want real horror in their stories, not just guys in camouflage shooting monsters.
The book ends with the novella-length Blank White Page, by James A. Moore. It’s obviously part of a larger body of work (it’s billed as ‘A Jonathan Crowley Story’), which explains the fact that the two protagonists have nothing military about them, and why the military aspect of the story is definitely a subplot, rather than the main thrust of the action. It almost feels like the US Cavalry were shoehorned in as an excuse for the author to have the story included. The writing rings with enough Cormac-McCarthy-like richness to take my mind away from such concerns while I was reading it, but as it adds 80-odd pages to an already lengthy book, it might have been better served by publication elsewhere, leaving the rest of SNAFU thematically tighter.
The absolute pick of the bunch – to which I would be awarding the prize if this were a competition – is the enigmatically-named Thela Hun Gingeet, by David Benton and W.D. Gagliani. It is, by turns, gritty, tense and phantasmagorical. There’s not a single word wasted or a phrase out of place, and it completely fails to rely on any monster trope that I recognise, and I recognise a lot of them. If you want a note-perfect example of how to make all of a character’s preparation, gear and personal badassitude irrelevant, while showing how bad things can get when your own side regards you, ultimately, as completely expendable, Thela Hun Gingeet is worth the price of the whole anthology.
If I have a general comment to make about the book as a whole, it’s that I was a little disappointed at the lack of diversity of the militaries portrayed. It’s almost all present-day US forces. I suppose that’s what would be most familiar with the audience, and I’m certainly not going to fault the authors for writing what they know, but I would have liked to see some of the breadth of the world’s armies touched on. Where are the Roman legionaries being hunted by djinn in Persia? Where are the Teutonic Knights stumbling across werewolves during the Wendish crusade? Where are the Chinese PLA falling afoul of yeti, or the Conquistadores facing blood-hungry Peruvian mummies?
I guess I can look out for them if SNAFU 2: FUBAR comes around.
Wow, thanks so much for your kind words about my story - way to encourage a newbie to write more disturbingly dark stuff (and there's me thinking that my route to untold riches and success lay in Steampunk comedy writing, not horror. Who'd have thunk it?)
Thanks for your in-depth review, and kind words about my story! If there's another SNAFU, and I sure hope there is, I'll keep in mind your excellent suggestions for other settings and monsters. -J. Hewitt
No worries. It's tricky, when reviewing short fiction anthologies, to find the one or two standout things to mention about each story. I hope I didn't come across as all negative. Your research (or lived experience - like I said, it left that impression) just oozes off the page.