Jack Harding's The Devil's Mountain Rife With Trepidation, Atmosphere And Mood

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During the 1980’s a wave of hyper-explicit genre fiction emerged, dubbed ‘splatterpunk’ by the horror press, that focused less on classical story spookiness than visceral expressions of extreme violence. Led by a vanguard of young, hip writers like Clive Barker, David J. Schow, Craig Spector and John Skipp, Richard Laymon and, later, Poppy. Z Brite, the loosely-defined movement instigated a polarizing split among the practitioners of literary terror. Some critical authors, most vocally notable being the late Charles Grant, lambasted the new gory aesthetic and advocated a return to more traditional forms of written fear in the vein of Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, with their focus on atmosphere, mood, setting and character rather than imitative cinema slasher-style butchery. This so-called ‘quiet horror’ gained counter-revolutionary reactive traction against splatterpunk, but the echoes of that long ago Cold War between the two stalemated factions of frightful fiction remain. Questions of how far is too far to go in terms of story violence linger, and the steady rise in popularity of ‘slow-burn’ tales--itself influenced by films such as The VVitch, Midsommar, and The Lighthouse--have led to a similar surge in more meditative depictions of the macabre.

Portsmouth, UK writer Jack Harding’s novella, The Devil’s Mountain, recently released by DarkLit Press and available for free in ebook form, is one such example of modern ‘quiet horror’. Steeped in foreboding, the plot centers on a digital-age British couple, fun lunkhead Dylan and his bratty-but-brainy girlfriend of four months, Nikki, as they visit Teufelsberg, the titular Devil’s Mountain, a remote, graffiti-tattooed Soviet Bloc-era intelligence base-turned-tourist-destination buried deep in what was once the East German forest. Much time and care is spent establishing the two protagonists and, in particular, their stark, wintry surroundings. Teulfelsberg as a structure, too, is described in vivid, Masque of the Red Death-like detail, its chilly corridors and crumbling granite glory given frigid life through Harding’s almost hypnotic prose. Alone on the base with only an hour before closing, a ticking countdown ramps up the unease the further Dylan and Nikki venture into the facility. At five o’clock the gates close, trapping anyone left inside for the night, and while Nikki assures there’s plenty of time for spelunking, once the pair become separated and Dylan sees a spectral figure among the ruins, getting out takes a back seat to simply staying alive.

The Devil’s Mountain seethes with mood. A shroud of dread is drawn over Dylan and Nikki’s early whimsical banter that only thickens as the novella progresses. If there’s any fault in the scenario it lies with the ending, specifically the fact that, given the meticulous set-up, there isn’t one in the conventional sense. Once separated, Dylan’s quest to locate his girlfriend literally screams to an abrupt halt, only for the storyline to pick up years later, leaving a purposefully-inserted black hole for readers to fall through. The intention is to allow the audience’s own anxieties to fill the gap, and to a certain extent the ploy works, yet the final result feels too jarring, too sudden, to be fully satisfying. It’s the ultimate in anti-climax, and diffuses the precisely-pieced machine Harding spent so much pain to construct; it’s horror so quiet it’s become mute, a vehicle stripped down so much that the engine refuses to turns over when readers need it to the most, and the unanswered questions and unresolved situation stifles the previously riveting tension.

That aside, The Devil’s Mountain is nonetheless an intriguing, well-crafted yarn, rife with trepidation, sparse, dark tone, a wonderfully unique setting, and stands as an example of what one can do to inspire shudders without slathering scenes in blood. For a quick shot of ominous escape during an otherwise average afternoon, a bookworm could do worse, and I therefore give The Devil’s Mountain a decent 3 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale.

3.0 / 5.0