Dog Days: Deadly Passages is part of the “Double Down” series from JournalStone Publishing, where two novellas or short novels are paired up for one good read. The concept isn’t new. Ace Books offered “Ace Doubles” featuring two SF novels at a time, and those old pulps sustained my teenage reading habit in my outdated, rural high schools. JournalStone has revived the practice and presents two horror stories in this collection, and both are outstanding.
Dog Days by Joe McKinney is the first offering. The day after Hurricane Alexis pounds the Texas Gulf Coast, 14-year-old Mark and his family find their neighborhood flooded and damaged by debris. Gulf hurricanes are a hazard of living on the coast, but this storm has dredged up something terrifying. Mutilated bodies are discovered on a shrimp boat washed inland by the storm surge. Mark’s father, a police sergeant, is one of the first on the scene. A day later, the killer has struck again.
As the police investigate the gruesome murders, Mark and his friends embark on their own journey to find the killer. Is it a supernatural being, driven by some bestial instinct to kill? Or is it something very human yet no less frightening?
The first few paragraphs of Dog Days had me hooked. Anyone who has ever huddled in their house during a catastrophic storm, hoping the roof stays put knows the feeling. When the storm is over, the world has changed and it’s a long slog to get back to some kind of normal. Everyone is stressed—families ravaged by the loss of loved ones, marriages under strain, a community trying to deal with brutal attacks from both the weather and something darker.
I was happy to see a 14-year-old character making some spectacularly 14-year-old decisions, but the tone of the character’s narration seems like an adult looking back on a past event. In a few spots the tone gets a little too adult and veers into finger-wagging and moralizing. I particularly enjoyed that the big question as to the nature of the killer was never definitively answered. The author lets us draw our own conclusion, so my imagination put in a little overtime and left plenty of chills. It’s a good read
Deadly Passage, by Sanford Allen, is, the second half of the book. This story deals with horrors on many levels. The first horror we see is a mysterious creature with a thirst for blood. The second is the spectre of slavery, and the third is the greed and cruelty of the men who trade in human lives.
George Bell, a free black man from Barbados, has taken a job on a slaving ship moving “cargo” between Africa and the Americas. He believes that if he earns enough money to buy land, he can help his lover escape slavery and live in freedom. He’s conflicted about the job, but he would do anything to remain free. After the slave ship takes on its human cargo, mysterious deaths among the slaves perplex the crew and terrify the survivors.
It seems the ship took on a passenger no one expected and when it gets hungry, it preys on slave and crew alike. The evil within the hearts of the captain and crew become as vicious as the killer that plagues the ship. As Bell discovers, the white crew would rather cling to hollow words and vicious brutality rather than listen to a black man, even though he is a free man who has proven his worth as a member of the crew. They must stand together or die.
This was a hard story to read, but it was my favorite of the two. Bell’s story arc is engrossing, and unsurprising given the circumstances. The author doesn’t shy away from the disgusting state of a slave ship or it’s inhabitants. Allen doesn’t flinch away from the very real horror of slavery and the deadly middle passage, nor does he turn away from the havoc and gore in the stowaway’s wake. His description of the squalid cargo hold is so well described that it may have you dabbing a bit of perfume on your hanky to drive away the reek.