Nothing illustrates the skill and range of author William Meikle better than his latest two published titles. Not only can he write slow-paced, atmospheric and richly-detailed horror titles like the forthcoming The Green and the Black, but he can also go to the other extreme of the spectrum and deliver the fast-paced, action-packed creature-feature titles that feature the veteran special forces known as the S-Squad. I’ve been a fan of the heavily-armed, irascible and much put-upon Scottish squaddies since their first appearance in Infestation, and I enjoyed that novella so much that I’ve purchased every single other title in the on-going series published by Severed Press. I’ve followed them on adventures that have seen them go up against gigantic isopods; frozen undead Nazis possessed by forces from another dimension; and fight their way out of a research facility that was cloning pre-historic creatures that turned out to have quite the temper. Now the S-Squad are back – or perhaps that should be the Ssss-Squad, as this time in Operation: Amazon they’re heading to warmer climes in the Amazon, where they’ll come up against a race of gigantic snakes.
Once again Severed Press have delivered an impressive piece of cover art, which artfully blends together stock images to create a cover image that is not only action-packed – with a member of S-Squad tangling at very close-quarters with a particularly irritated-looking mutant snake. It’s a case of a cover exactly matching what’s inside the cover, and another great job by the publisher and whoever created the art itself. Moving into the contents of Operation: Amazon we find that the battered survivors of S-Squad have been given a small amount of Rest and Relaxation time after their last mission, and the good news only seems to continue; their CO, Captain Banks, informs the squad that they’re being given what appears to be a very easy, milk-run mission. They’re heading into the darkest, most isolated reaches of the Amazon to investigate some problems that a mining operation are having; some workers have apparently gone missing, and the owner of the operation is rich and influential enough that they’ve used pull in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to have S-Squad sent down to take a look. It sounds like an easy task after their previous missions, which have universally been horrifying, blood-soaked and piled high with corpses – both human and inhuman – but of course this is a creature-feature title from William Meikle, master of the genre, so it was never going to be that easy. Mr Meikle makes use of his deeply impressive imagination, and a very apparent love – indeed, glee – for cryptozoology and mythology, to come up with some particularly sinuous and terrifying foes for S-Squad.
The benefit of this being the fourth title in a series is that the author has had time to get used to the different characters in S-Squad, and to build up a rapport, both between the characters themselves, and the characters and the reader. As a result, the opening to the novella is particularly enjoyable, especially for a long-time reader such as myself; we find the squaddies on a boat going down the eponymous Amazon, lazily moaning about the scenery and trading quips and insults. It really rounds out the characters and makes them three-dimensional and engaging; and I must admit to being worried as to whether they’d all survive this particular adventure as I’ve become quite fond of all of them. Mr Meikle also makes the most of the change in scenery, using his skill as a writer to bring out the exotic and sumptuous scenery that the soldiers find themselves in, while also evoking an atmosphere of quiet menace and barely-submerged danger once the squad find that not all is well with the workers on the mining barge.
The plot of ‘corrupt, ignorant white overseer abusing frightened natives’ is an old genre trope, but it’s handled well here by the author, easily taking the side of the native workers and highlighting the abuses and corruption of the owners of the mining operation. After setting up the basis of the adventure – the mine owner has been kidnapped by forces unknown and taken to a mysterious temple complex – the author really ramps up the pace, and it isn’t long before it’s obvious that some unnatural beast is stalking the mining operation. In fact, the way the beast is introduced is the creepiest yet in the series, positing an intelligence and cunning not yet seen by the men of the squad. It demonstrates the author’s ability to merge his imagination with good research on local mythology to create something highly original. By this point in the story the atmosphere and tension is so thick you could probably cut it with a knife, and the temple that the squad assault is described in wonderful detail which easily gets across how ancient and unsettling it is.
One of the best things about something written by Mr Meikle – especially with these S-Squad titles – is that he’ll always introduce some new element to each story he writes, something to throw you off-balance. Here it’s a twist about a third of the way through the story that puts one of the main characters in danger. While I won’t spoil an excellent set-piece, it was so well-written, with an element of true danger as a character scrambles around the rain-slicked roof and walls of the temple, that there were moments where I genuinely believed he was about to kill off that character. In addition, there’s some additional development of the remaining members of S-Squad as the story progresses towards the final chapters, and even a scene with a local riverboat captain that has some real emotional heft to it – certainly not something I expect to encounter in this particular genre, and a sign that Meikle has mastered it. Even the antagonists are well-developed, especially considering the relatively short length of the title; they’re distinctly unsettling and gruesome in nature, particularly when certain occult elements are revealed, but the author also takes time to show a more human side to them, and which makes you question whether they’re quite the bad guys portrayed by the mine owners.
Operation: Amazon is another sure-fire hit for William Meikle, and a fourth exciting, action-packed and fast-paced chapter in the S-Squad story. Great atmosphere, some hard-hitting action scenes with enough gun fights and explosions to satisfy even the most jaded fan of the genre, and some truly epic cryptozoological creatures all combine to make this the pinnacle of the S-Squad series. It’s also an excellent place to pick up the series if you haven’t read any of the previous titles, demonstrating the character development and emotional depth that comes from being developed over time. I understand from Mr Meikle’s social media feed that he has more planned for the S-Squad – and wherever they go, you’ll be sure to find me right behind them!