When I reviewed author Anthony Watson’s Shattered recently for this blog, I was really impressed by the quality of the story, and made a note to investigate any other works written by Mr Watson. However, I was also struck by the calibre of the work done by the publisher, Demain Publishing, particularly in terms of the brilliant cover art and branding choices that they had made. Smart, slick and eye-grabbing colour usage was paired with offset monochrome pictures that matched thematically with the published story, along with a simple but easily-identifiable publisher logo. New publishers releasing quality titles seem to be a bit thin on the ground in the Horror genre recently, so I decided to take a look at what else Demain had published, particularly in the same Short Sharp Shocks! banner that Shattered had been released under.
A number of releases caught my eye, and may be the subject of future reviews, but there was one in particular that jumped out at me. Asylum of Shadows by Stephanie Ellis featured a strange-looking doll on the cover, and the title implied a focus on that stalwart of the genre, the insane asylum; the cover blurb only cemented my interest, mentioning a new hospital in the Limehouse slums of 19th Century London. A new hospital indeed, but one with a disturbing secret lurking in the shadows at the back of the building; the St. Carnifex ward, where those who have died from public hanging are watched overnight, to ensure they are not cheating death. If anything, the cover blurb could perhaps be said to give too much away about the plot of Ellis’ short story, but fortunately it cannot hold a candle to the taut, haunting prose and sanity-shredding narrative to be found within Asylum of Shadows.
As with Shattered, this can only really be a mini-review, for a full-length write-up would be at risk of comprehensively spoiling this dark gem of Gothic Horror, but suffice to say this isn’t a story to read last thing at night, or away from a goodly number of light sources. Marian, the daughter of a man dying from a diseases that destroys his mind and raises lesions on his skin is suddenly surprised by the charity of a mysterious doctor; she and her father are transported to a new hospital in the slums, where he will be cared for in his dying days and she will be put to work as a seamstress. At first the work is grim, but easy, making shrouds for the dead; but before long she is shown the other area of the hospital – St. Carnifex ward, where the recently hung must be watched to ensure they do not escape justice. From here on in, the story becomes, somehow, even darker as Marin’s other duties are revealed; watching over dead bodies to ensure they are truly dead before they are transported away. A dark, claustrophobic room, her only company dead bodies reposing on slabs, her only source of light a candle, Marian’s sanity begins to fray.
Asylum of Shadows is truly a beautiful piece of horror fiction, with Ellis fully exploiting the inherent dread and horror to be found within a slum hospital, and particularly the grim, haunting atmosphere of a room where ensuring the dead stay dead is the only, final duty. Ellis employs stark, illustrative prose to vividly convey the atmosphere of the hospital and St Carnifex ward to the reader, the wording matching the Gothic imagery of Marian and her surroundings. As her duties begin to press on her, particularly when her father becomes involved, her mental state begins to decay; Ellis deftly portrays her descent into madness, propelled by the sinister nature of the ward, and time and memory begin to blur in some deeply unsettling sequences. Asylum of Shadows is another success story, both for Stephanie Ellis and Demain Publishing, and is another high-quality entry in Demain’s Short Sharp Shocks! series,