by John Houlihan

John Houlihan’s novella is a brilliantly compact affair. Not just in its 50 page scope, but also in sporting a narrative that’s tighter than the eldritch seals keeping numerous inter-dimensional monstrosities at bay. It’s also a studiously researched piece of Boys Own militaria and a ripping adventure to boot, albeit one that sometimes plays too heavily towards its intended audience – a fact that may well see a wider readership pulling
up short.

To employ one particularly loathsome, but useful, piece of marketing spiel, a possible ‘barrier to entry’ is the application of cod racial accents. It’s an interesting challenge for any writer attempting an assault on this particular era of historical fiction. Thankfully, Houlihan falls more on the side of Inglorious Bastards with this, and does so with enough deeper characterisation to avoid unintentional hilarity. Such deeper insight into the central British special forces team, however, is sparse, ensuring that everyone – aside from protagonist, Major Powell – takes on the meagre role of fodder for the elements and awaiting horrors. A niggling, pedantic criticism admittedly and one, it has to be stressed, that isn’t to the detriment of the story as a whole.

Returning to Powell, his transition from disbelieving hero to one convinced of the esoteric enemies rallied against his forces is well executed, but it is the occult spirit of Mister Seraph who basks in the plot’s limelight. Part Elric, part Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, he’s an attractive and subtly powerful realisation that slowly ramps up his mystical powers in a way that seduces rather than alienates the reader. He’s also a clever adjustment to the given tropes of the mythos, and one that definitely makes the story more accessible to a contemporary audience.

Aside from stalwart characterisation, there are also very few given makers that Houlihan fails to place within the parameters of a typical Lovecraftian tale. From the disturbed dreams of Powell, through references about dark and ancient tomes to the climatic showdown within a forgotten cave system inside a mountain. Everything is as it should be. But Seraph’s ability to defend himself against otherworldly forces is refreshing, as is the seemingly inconsequential discovery of a Nazi commander’s diary. In the collected extracts from this document Houlihan not only sows some particularly clever seeds to underpin the story’s conclusion, but also pens some powerful prose – a crafted exposition that overshadows an earlier piece of back story as told by a dying character. The diary, and the climatic scenes that follow, escalate the tension and bring everything to a rattling finish without avoiding any of the obligatory gruesome, alien weirdness.

In any battle against the incomprehensible forces of the Old Ones the chance of survival is slim, and I’d hate to give anything of the ending away here. Suffice to say a return of Seraph – whether that be in a prequel, sequel, or whatever – would definitely be welcome. His time on the page is way too brief, but in an edit as focused as this that’s something that simply leaves you craving more.