Sunday, January 29, 2017

Horror & History: World War II

Blue Devil Island by Stephen Mark Rainey

A Critique by Anthony Servante

Author (Amazon) Biography:

The writer is not the infamous Stephen King antihero Mort Rainey, but the far more nefarious author of the novels DARK SHADOWS: DREAMS OF THE DARK (with Elizabeth Massie), BALAK, THE LEBO COVEN, THE NIGHTMARE FRONTIER, BLUE DEVIL ISLAND, THE MONARCHS, and YOUNG BLOOD (with Mat & Myron Smith); five short story collections; and over 100 published works of short fiction.

Those with long memories may recall that I edited DEATHREALM magazine, from 1987 to 1997. In its decade-long history, DEATHREALM won a bunch of nice awards and featured hundreds of short stories, poems, and essays by authors ranging from the most established professionals to young, aspiring first-timers, many of whom proceeded to carve out names for themselves in the horror/dark fantasy field.

In 2004, I edited a new anthology for Delirium Books, titled DEATHREALMS, which features a selection of short stories from the magazine. I've edited a couple of other anthologies as well. THE SONG OF CTHULHU (Chaosium, 2001) features 20 stories of Lovecraftian horror, and in 2006, I co-edited (with James Robert Smith) a new anthology for Arkham House titled EVERMORE, which features short stories about Edgar Allan Poe.

In summer, 2008, Dark Regions Press released a new collection of my short fiction, titled OTHER GODS, featuring 16 of my tales, including one never-before-published story ("Antidotes"). In 2011, Dark Regions released another collection of my short stories, titled THE GAKI & OTHER HUNGRY SPIRITS.

I have a number of new dark and delightful tales coming down the pike, for which I'll post details when they're available.

Book (Amazon) Summary: 

Autumn 1943, the beginning of the American offensive against the Japanese in the South Pacific. Just west of the Solomon Islands lies a remote desert island called Conquest, where the U.S. Navy stations a new fighting squadron, led by Lieutenant Commander Drew McLachlan, an ace pilot and veteran of the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Blue Devils soar into combat--against known and unknown enemies. The squadron's island home may not be secure--in nearby volcanic caves, McLachlan finds evidence of habitation by unknown natives--natives that resemble no living race, that may yet exist in the mysterious subterranean catacombs. As the Solomon campaign enters into its final skirmishes, the Japanese at last turn their attention to Conquest Island. Now the Blue Devils find themselves the target of an overwhelming assault by the desperate Imperial Japanese forces--and an unknown predatory force that leaves mutilated victims as the only evidence of its presence.

The Critique:

In "Blue Devil Island", Stephen Mark Rainey re-creates the historical era of World War Two while melding the elements of a narrative horror story. To capture the essence of Historical Horror, Rainey utilizes period realism, such as language and technical savvy, and imagines an understated Lovecraftian menace into the mix. As such, the seamless story-telling enters that "imaginary time" dimension where fiction and nonfiction become one.

As our story begins, we learn that this is a "true" story that was covered up after the war, but that the narrator, one Lieutenant Commander Drew McLachlan, USN, decided needed to be told in order to recognize the heroes who died in the events leading up to the cover-up:

"I was commanding officer of the Fighting 39 from the day I oversaw its commission until its untimely disbanding, and I can state with the utmost objectivity that no other group of men could have been more professional or more spirited in their service to their country. Sadly, as is always the case in war, many wonderful young men lost their lives during that short but terrible period, and the tragedy is compounded by the fact that many of them died fighting not the Japanese, but an enemy far more insidious and unexpected." (Blue Devil Island, 1st Ed., p. 10).

We are initially introduced to the two elements of this particular field of battle in the second World War: the immediate threat of the Japanese air fighters and the "ultimate horror" on the island.

To add to the realism of the Japanese threat and the "Fighting 39", we are provided a list of The Blue Devils VF-39 roster and a map of the Solomon Islands for an authentic view of the locales where the story's events take place. This opening echoes countless World War Two novelizations

and pulp stories, which is important to keeping the realistic but fantastic nature at the forefront of the story. This is just another story of heroic pilots facing dangerous missions. The horror beyond that is that which has been described thus far as "unexpected".

Real Map of Solomon Islands (circa 1943)

Although the roster of pilots is long, it does not include the Marines stationed on Conquest Island. The rivalries and competitive nature that drives the airmen and ground troops reminds one of the competitive spirit between branches of the military, at once friendly but always on the verge of breaking into a fight. This tension not only keeps the story rooted in the daily lives of the characters but also introduces the mounting suspense of the unseen horror that haunts all their dreams. The bickering soon enters supernatural areas as we, the readers, witness the divisions between the strong-willed men and the weak-willed men. Something is influencing this tension for its own ends.

F6 F-5 Hellcat Fighters

Rainey's erudition in the area of World War II fighter aircraft is mercilessly accurate and entertainingly easy to follow. Sometimes authors, for the sake of accuracy, over-describe an engine or vehicle. Rainey does not have this handicap. His descriptions are relevant to the scene at hand, whether it's a smooth landing or a crash landing, an air fight with the enemy (whose fighters are also described right down to the silhouette of their "air-cooled" engines), or a detailed mechanical problem for the ground crew. Every detail adds to that "realism" we need to keep this story "true". For example:

"We had maintained radio silence over the last 200 miles of the flight from Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, and would continue to do so all the way down to the runway. The Marine ground support unit, having picked us up on radar, would be ready to receive us, but only after they had confirmed the authenticity of our transmitted friend-or-foe identification signal and their spotters had visually ascertained that we were not a flight of Japs winging in for a surprise attack." (Blue Devil Island, 1st Ed., p. 12).

McLachlan's account of their initial approach to the island not only informs the reader of the situation of danger, it provides a backdrop to a war in progress. When Lieutenant Colonel Dan Rooker, the commanding officer of the ground forces, meets the commander of the Fighting 39, the pilot asks, "'You were there in the dark days?' I asked, referring to the closing months of the previous year, when the Marines steadfastly kept the airfield on Guadalcanal (commonly known as 'Cactus') operational even while ground forces from both sides waged an obscenely bloody battle all around them," (Island, p. 18). With this simple question, we learn the approximation of the duration of the war for these men, the locations overseas, and the type of battles that took place ("dark", "obscenely bloody"). These are COs who have been in the thick of warfare. Forget the supernatural. This is the story of the Marines and the Blue Devils Squadron. Air battles, recons, awaiting orders for new missions. That is, until the supernatural elements nudge the narrative toward the fictional.

Inspiration for the Supernatural Element?

In typical fashion, it is a storm that portends the unreal horrors to come: "Looking up, I could see the remaining daylight disappearing behind huge, billowy clouds the color of India ink, the bases of which were low enough to smother the summit of the mountain. Somehow, the cloudburst seemed a dark omen, as if it portended a much bigger, more furious assault on us that would have devastating consequences," (Island, p. 29). Of course, Rainey is foreshadowing the horrific element lurking in that mountain. Distant drumming and hallucinatory visions bordering on dream and fearful imaginings direct the story toward the pure evil that awaits our heroes (and villains). And our author handles those duties as equally impressively as he does the realistic side of the storytelling. By the time we meet the creature that can only be described as Lovecraftian in scope and dimension, we are so entrenched in both natural and supernatural horror, that we can no longer tell one from the other. This requires exceptional skill from our storyteller and Rainey demonstrates this skill with the creation of well-crafted narrator in Lt. Drew McLachlan.

"Blue Devil Island" is how historical horror was meant to be written and read. When you learn as much about air warriors and lurking horrors amid the backdrop of World War Two, you'll wish your high school history teacher had assigned this book to round out your education. It's not too late to grab a copy today and catch up on what you've missed in those musty old history books.


Next time we'll take a look Stories From the Great War, World War I, with "Kneeling in the Silver Light", a horror anthology edited by Dean M. Drinkel.

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