By Ben Walker
Instantly conjuring images of weird magick thanks to its evocative title, Sam Richard’s first novella features a wicked plot involving awakening desires, Saturday morning cartoons and the power of secret knowledge.
The first chapter evokes soul-crushing despair early on, as we hear the prayers of a soul apparently desperate for repentance. In no more than two pages Richard has you by the scruff of the neck, pushing your face gradually closer to the weirdness our 12-year-old protagonist Joe encounters. Prayers are a recurring device throughout the book, their tone becoming more disillusioned as Joe’s path becomes clearer, more desperate as they realise that the power of god may not be powerful enough. Or at least, not as powerful as other forces…
Joe’s plight is an easy one to relate to; he’s a kid with overbearingly religious parents, who is trying to make sense of the world. His natural curiosity about the things he’s been denied all his life shape the events here, and lead to some heart-breaking revelations. There’s a brilliant sequence in which Joe remembers a story his brother told him when he was young, which captures not only a very genuine sibling relationship but also those typical fears which kids like to share. Those fears pale in comparison to the horrors that spill from the page later though, and the slow burn towards terror makes its sudden, traumatising appearance all the more powerful.
Sabbath… is at its most effective when it decides to criticise religion, often comparing it directly to the family function. It made me think of that classic line from James O’Barr’s The Crow, where the titular antihero suggests that children revere their mothers like a god. Here, god and his messengers are just like Joe’s strict parents, denying both knowledge and experience, forcing him to see the world through a limited lens. Satan, by comparison, seems less like an evil red bearded dude with a tail, and more like a symbol of the freedom Joe yearns for.
Interestingly, all the typical things a kid might want to do in order to rebel are revealed pretty early on, meaning that Joe’s journey towards evil isn’t cluttered with material needs or hackneyed concepts of wishes coming true. It’s darker than that, pitch black as it enters the final third, becoming relentlessly horrific and bloody from that point on. Evoking classic wish-fulfilment 80s horror like The Gate, its demons are just as weird and memorable, though even more bloodthirsty.
While its main strength lies in its character work, there’s also plenty of imagery you’ll carry with you long after the final page, and more than one moment where setups pay off so nicely you’ll be seduced into grinning. Highly recommended.
Ben Walker is a writer/reviewer from the UK, with reviews appearing on Ginger Nuts of Horror, Kendall Reviews, and in Unnerving Magazine. He also has a booktube channel, BLURB, and is easily distracted on twitter @BensNotWriting.