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Welcome to Rick’s Read-Along. A new series presented by Horror Oasis where I visit an author’s back catalogue and encourage you, the reader, to read along with me.  I will publish my thoughts on each book every two weeks, while also announcing the next book I’ll be reading. Every author selected will be someone whose back catalogue is readily available and is somebody we feel our readers will enjoy discovering along with us. I hope that you’ll all join me in sharing your thoughts.

In this latest instalment, I have selected four horror books from the back catalogue of prolific genre author, Michael Patrick Hicks. Michael has written extensively in the horror and sci-fi genres, most notably the Salem Hawley series (including ‘The Resurrectionists’ and ‘Borne of the Deep’) and his latest horror novel, ‘Friday Night Massacre’, a grindhouse inspired splatterpunk action novel which features the President of the United States making a deal with the devil, with disastrous consequences. Michael was an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Finalist for Science Fiction in 2013 for his debut novel, ‘Convergence’ and also co-hosts the horror-centric podcast ‘Staring Into The Abyss’. Visit his website.

A warning for readers who are joining in with the read-along, some of the books selected (specifically ‘Mass Hysteria’ and ‘Friday Night Massacre’) contain scenes of extreme horror, some of which is sexual in nature. I would urge anyone who may be triggered by such content to take this into consideration before picking up these books. 

As these articles are intended to encourage people to read these books along with me there will obviously be spoilers ahead, although I will strive to keep them minor and avoid spoiling major reveals or twists along the way for those who haven’t read it yet.

Broken Shells starts on a rather downbeat note, but introduces us to an engaging and complex character in Antoine DeWitt.

Antoine is an ex-con working as an auto-mechanic who has suddenly found himself unemployed following an altercation on the job. As he makes his way forlornly home, dreading breaking the news to his wife, he ponders what he’s going to do next to support his family. Antoine DeWitt is having a very bad day that is about to get a whole lot worse.

While the intro initially paints a picture of a short-tempered, beaten down man, as the story progresses we get to see many more facets to Antoine’s character and one of ‘Broken Shells’ biggest strengths is in the strong character work on display, particularly with our unlucky protagonist. The longer we follow Antoine through the nightmares he’s about to be put through, the more we learn about his backstory and his true nature and the more we realise our initial impressions of him are not entirely correct. It fits in well to one of the books big themes, namely not taking things at face value, and one of the highlights of the book for me was the underlying social commentary beneath the more overtly outlandish and big scale creature feature action.

Speaking of action

Hicks isn’t slow in getting to that stage, but we do spend some enlightening and much-appreciated time with Antoine and his family first. Upon coming home and breaking the news of his recent firing to his wife, he finds her oddly indifferent to their newfound poverty and quickly finds that this is because she believes a recent junk mailer proclaiming them the lucky winners of a $5,000 prize is their ticket to bigger and better things. Antoine is suspicious, wondering what the catch is and clearly thinking that this is a scam but agrees to make an attempt to claim the prize regardless.

This takes Antoine to a local used car dealership where he meets affable owner Jon Dangle. The remote location and lack of customers set alarm bells off in Antoine’s head but, being out of work and with a wife and young child to feed, his desperation is also his undoing as he goes inside and seals his fate. The phoney competition turns out to be a ruse to lure desperate people in need of easy cash, with Jon kidnapping easy targets and feeding them to a race of subterranean monsters that live below the business.

So far the build-up has been excellent and the big reveal is nothing if not an unexpected turn of events. The actual logic behind what Jon is doing is a little shaky however and the less you consider it the better. Some backstory is given which explains Jon is one in a long line of family members going back generations who have kept the creatures hidden underground, feeding them victims regularly for the greater good, ensuring they stay hidden and don’t escape to wreak havoc on the world. Sounds plausible until you wonder why they are feeding the creatures people and not something a little less risky and conspicuous, or why the need for the elaborate ploy at all. Nit-picking at logic doesn’t really feel within the spirit of the book though, as we’re really here for the monsters and the mayhem, and we get both in spades with ‘Broken Shells’

Antoine figures out too late that Jon has plans other than handing over $5,000 to him, as he wakes up disorientated and alone, cocooned in a mysterious substance and being fed upon by unseen creatures. He manages to break free, only to come face to face with the monsters that have been tormenting him. Hicks has certainly crafted something unique with what he refers to as the Ba’is, their description making them sound like an unholy melding of a cockroach, Giger’s Alien, and the bugs from ‘Starship Troopers’. He also gifts them an uncanny intelligence and a physical presence that makes them a force to be reckoned with and any time Antoine comes face to face with one, you feel like that is the end of his story.

What follows is a tense and claustrophobic trek through a dark and labyrinthine series of tunnels as Antoine tries desperately to find a way back to his wife and son before falling victims to the creatures. These sections give off major ‘The Descent’ vibes, as Hicks is very talented at conveying mood and atmosphere, really selling the tight quarters and inhospitable environment. Antoine is determined to escape against overwhelming odds and as we get insight into his increasingly desperate thoughts the tension ramps up and his encounters take more and more of a toll on his body and mental state as the likelihood of escape begins to feel increasingly remote.

I won’t spoil the ending but rest assured that what started out as a low-key series of character moments, building into a tense and personal battle for survival, switches gears again in the closing chapters, offering up some grand-scale action and uber-violent set-pieces. It goes to show how well-paced the story is that it continues picking up steam throughout, culminating in a frantic and action-packed ending.

Broken Shells reads like a classic creature feature, and the story is elevated by the time spent making its lead character a complex and three-dimensional one. Some elements worked less well for me, mostly the pieces villain and his questionable motivations, but it never really distracts from the tension and the stakes once they are set, not the fun once things get crazy in the final act. Overall, it is a fun and engrossing read and delivers exactly what you want it to where it counts. 

Please join me back here in 2 weeks, when we will be reading the first book in the historic cosmic horror Salem Hawley series, ‘The Resurrectionists’. Hope to see you all then!

Richard Martin

Richard Martin

Reviewer

Richard Martin started reading horror books at a young age, starting with R L Stine’s ‘Goosebumps’ and ‘Point Horror’ series. He traumatized himself at the age of twelve when he read Stephen King’s ‘IT’, and never looked back. He is currently based in the UK, where he lives with his partner and an inappropriate amount of books. 

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